Search Engines

  • What is HTTP/2 and how does it benefit SEO?

    The variety and quantities of information transferred on the Internet have changed dramatically in the past decade. Content formats are larger and more complex, mobile usage has increased significantly, and there is a growing global population of Internet users on a daily basis.

    It is within this ever-changing landscape that a group of developers built SPDY (pronounced ‘speedy’, aptly enough), to build on the syntax of the original Hyper Text Transfer Protocol (HTTP).

    As the name suggests, SPDY was developed with the core aim of finding faster ways to transport content on the Internet that would reduce page load speeds. SPDY was primarily developed by a group of Google engineers and it provided the platform for HTTP/2, towards which Google has now shifted its support.

    HTTP/2, with the aid of some of those SPDY developers at Google, is an initiative driven by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) to build a more robust platform for the Internet that is in keeping with the needs of modern users. It was published in May 2015 with the aim of refreshing the HTTP protocol, which has not seen any real radical overhauls since HTTP 1.1.

    Most Internet browsers support HTTP/2, as do a growing number of servers, but according to W3Tech, only 13.7% of the world’s top 10 million sites have moved to this standard, as of May 2017.

    That number is on the rise, however, and marketers should be aware of the implications of this significant upgrade.

    What makes HTTP/2 different?

    HTTP/2 is built on top of the same syntax as HTTP 1.1, so it serves more as a refresh than a complete overhaul. That is quite a purposeful decision, as the onus is on making this a smooth transition that brings benefits for Internet browsers, servers, and end-users.

    The full technical specifications of HTTP/2 are listed here, but the big differences from HTTP 1.1 are summarized on HTTP2.github as follows:

    • HTTP/2 is binary, instead of textual
    • It is fully multiplexed, instead of ordered and blocking
    • It can therefore use one connection for parallelism
    • It uses header compression to reduce overhead
    • It allows servers to “push” responses proactively into client caches.

    At a conceptual level, this means that HTTP/2 reduces load times by improving the efficiency of communications between browsers and servers.

    Rather than a sequence of exchanges between the server side and the client side, one connection can host multiple exchanges at once and, quite importantly, the server side can proactively make responses without waiting to be called.

    Site owners can compress some of these resources to increase load speeds, but we require a fundamental change in browser-server communications to resolve these issues in the long term.

    That’s exactly where HTTP/2 comes in.

    On a practical level, these interactions between browsers and servers start to look as follows:

    HTTPS2Source: Cloudflare

    This simplified example serves an illustrative purpose, as we can see clearly how effective the HTTP/2 approach would be at a grander scale.

    It does this by both making and receiving multiple calls simultaneously through one connection, rather than making them one at a time.

    How effective is HTTP/2?

    Given the stated importance of making the Internet faster for users, we can quite readily make comparisons to see how effective HTTP/2 is.

    A HTTP Watch study compared different versions of the same page, in particular drawing a comparison between standard HTTPS and HTTP/2.

    ‘Raw’ HTTPS

    HTTPS Page Load

    HTTP/2 Page Load

    This waterfall chart shows the difference from a technical standpoint, and also the assumed benefits for a user.

    The page loads 22% faster, providing a significant improvement to the end-user’s experience.

    The comparison was made on quite a simple page, so the benefits can be extrapolated out to a wider data set containing more complex assets.

    What does it mean for SEO?

    As with so many website improvements nowadays, the SEO impact will be felt indirectly. Google does not factor HTTP/2 readiness into its algorithms, but it does reward sites that provide a slick user experience. That includes page load speed, so it is fair to say that moving to HTTP/2 will have a positive effect on a site’s SEO performance.

    Mobile has been the focal point of efforts to increase speed recently and undoubtedly, mobile performance will be improved by the shift to HTTP/2.

    Nonetheless, it is worth considering that a move to HTTP/2 has benefits across all devices and all digital channels, whereas new coding languages like AMP HTML have limited applications. The two can work very effectively in tandem, of course, but the benefits of HTTP/2 are particularly widespread and long-term.

     
     
     
     

    As such, we should view HTTP/2 as a platform for faster, more secure digital connections, which can only be a positive for SEO.

    What do marketers need to do to upgrade to HTTP/2?

    First and foremost, your website will need to be on HTTPS. In fact, this is the most laborious part of moving to HTTP/2, as once your site is secured the process is really rather simple. There are hints at the importance of this move, as HTTP/2 is often referred to as a “faster, more secure” protocol for the modern Internet.

    If your website is already secured, you may only have to update your server software to the latest version.

    In fact, you may already be on HTTP/2 without necessarily knowing the switch has happened as part of a server update. You can use SPDYCheck to verify this.

    There is a list of known HTTP/2 implementations on Github too, which is pretty exhaustive and is updated regularly.

    Look at your analytics data to see where your visitors come from, but they most likely come from HTTP/2 friendly sources such as Google Chrome, Firefox, or Microsoft Edge. Most browsers already support the new protocol, so the onus is on websites to make the switch.

    It is also worth noting that if a site is on HTTP/2 and makes a connection with a resource that is still on HTTP 1.1, they will simply communicate in the latter language.

    As such, there are no significant drawbacks to making this upgrade for site owners, but the rewards are long-lasting and will provide a better user experience. The SEO impact may be indirect, but it will still be felt as Google makes on-site engagement signals an increasingly important part of its ranking algorithms.

  • Google Doubles AdWords Budgets and Advertisers are Unhappy

    Google has made a significant change to the way AdWords budgets can be used, and the advertising community is not the least bit happy.

    Campaigns are now able to spend up to twice their average daily budget. The means on high traffic days, costs could soar as high as double the budget you have set.

    Google says this change is being made to help advertisers better reach their goals, while noting it’s balanced by days when costs are below budget.

     Follow

    Google AdWords @adwords

    To help you hit your advertising goals, your campaigns can now spend up to twice your average daily budget. https://goo.gl/MNedJN 

     

    Advertisers will not ever be charged more than their monthly limit, which is the number of days in a month multiplied by your average daily budget.

    Reactions from the Advertising Community

    This change won’t cost advertisers more money and it may even help them reach their goals more consistently.

    So why are advertisers upset?

    Many advertisers do not like the idea of spending their monthly budget earlier than usual.

    With this change, if advertisers see a few really high traffic days early in the month it’s possible they may spend through their budget well before the month is over.

    Of course, that would mean ads would no longer be shown throughout the duration of the month.

    On the other hand, if that were to happen, it means advertisers would have hit their goals. So it’s easy to see both sides of this dilemma — why Google thinks it’s a good idea but advertisers do not.

    Here’s a sample of the (safe for work) tweets that have been directed at Google AdWords since this change was announced.

    Google AdWords  @adwords

    To help you hit your advertising goals, your campaigns can now spend up to twice your average daily budget. https://goo.gl/MNedJN 

     Follow

    Michelle M @michellemsem

    Seriously?! So if you do this…I could theoretically be out of ad budget by the 15th of a month? WTAF guys? This is not helpful.

     

    Google AdWords  @adwords

    To help you hit your advertising goals, your campaigns can now spend up to twice your average daily budget. https://goo.gl/MNedJN 

     Follow

    Evan Levy @EvanLevy

    Seriously, one of the most anti-advertiser changes you've made in my career. Same day notice for implementation too? Really? 1.

    Google AdWords  @adwords

    To help you hit your advertising goals, your campaigns can now spend up to twice your average daily budget. https://goo.gl/MNedJN 

     Follow

    Julie F Bacchini @NeptuneMoon

    We set budgets for A REASON. Do not make us guess what that figure should be. And what "goals" are you referring to exactly?

    Google AdWords  @adwords

    To help you hit your advertising goals, your campaigns can now spend up to twice your average daily budget. https://goo.gl/MNedJN 

     Follow

    Tad Miller @jstatad

    It's unbelievable that this is mandatory and not an option 

     

     

    What are your feelings on this change? Let us know on our social media channels.

  • Baidu SEO: How to optimize for China’s biggest search engine

    It makes sense. Google has a worryingly large share of the search engine market, especially in Europe and the US, so why would SEOs spend additional time trying to capture traffic from the lesser-used search engines?

    However, unless you’ve been a conspiracy theory style recluse for the last two decades, you will have noticed that China is a country with a rather large amount of people, and this comes with new opportunities.

    The Chinese market represents significant opportunity across the board. Admittedly, the opportunities within ultra high growth manufacturing businesses may not be what they were a decade ago but for those willing to make the jump there is the opportunity to tap into one of the world’s largest economies.

    The problem? The Chinese search market is one of the only places in the world where Google is not King; they’re not even heir apparent (they almost totally exited China a number of years ago).

    Baidu rules the roost in China, so if you want to tap into the Chinese search market, you best get acquainted.

    First of all: Get used to the differences

    China is a very different country to those found in ‘The West’, to the point that there are a number of businesses which specialize in helping companies bridge the gap between the regions.

    Heavy state censorship is but one of the not-so-subtle differences. Much like doing business with, or living in a different country with different rules and culture, your best tactic is to accept the circumstances and adapt. For instance, Baidu’s heavy handed inclusion of their own sub products within SERPs would potentially cause conflicts with competition laws in the EU, but not in China.

    New laws in China have significantly reduced the amount of ads in Baidu’s SERPs, but there are still quite a few. Just take it for what it is and, in that most annoying recent British export: Carry on.

    The good news: there are similarities

    I’ll put my hands up and admit, I put off looking into Baidu SEO for longer than I would care to admit. My assumption (assumption being the mother of all f**k ups) was that I would literally have to learn my craft again. Nothing would be the same.

    How wrong I was. Thinking about it, I don’t know why I thought everything would be different. Binary hasn’t changed; yes, there are differences in coding languages and website platforms, but why would Baidu reinvent the wheel? Google arguably didn’t reinvent the wheel; they just added some shiny alloy rims to it.

    As such, your SEO 101 type stuff – Metadatainformation architectureCanonical URLs – all of this is still relevant. Baidu may have different weightings and slightly different rules for some aspects (meta descriptions are taken into account) but at least the fundamentals are similar.

    There are differences, so as a starter pack of sorts we have included some items for consideration when looking to conduct SEO for Baidu:

    Translator/native speaker

    This is absolutely critical. Without a professional translator or a native speaker within your SEO team you are going to find yourself struggling.

    As with Google, using an automated translation tool will result in content that is understandable, but there will inevitably be holes in it. Search engines (including Baidu) care about content and the quality of said content, so you are going to need someone who can create content to the required standard.

    Furthermore, Baidu’s Webmaster Tools are not shown in English, so hopefully it is obvious why you need a native speaker!

    Mobile

    The mobile trend does not stop with the public’s use of mobile devices, or Google’s mobile first indexing and accelerated mobile pages (AMP). In fact, mobile is even more important in China, where owning a desktop or even a laptop was never really commonplace; the mobile is most people’s first and only portal to the online world.

    As such, Baidu care deeply about mobile. They have their own version of AMP (called Mobile Instant Page – MIP) and you can bet that much like Google’s mobile first indexing, Baidu will continue to bake mobile deeper and deeper into their algorithm.

    Load speed and display on mobile devices will be crucial both now and into the future for ranking on Baidu, so make this a priority for your website.

     

    Simplified characters

    Whilst Baidu will index the more traditional Chinese characters, the search engine favors simplified Chinese characters. Don’t make Baidu work harder than it has to and use the simplified version.

    Chinese characters depicting the phrase 'simplified Chinese' in Mandarin.

    HTTPS

    In 2015 Baidu announced that HTTPS would be included as a ranking signal, and looking at the updates from Baidu in the latter half of 2016, there is a definite focus on security, especially mobile security. Look up the IceBucket and Skynet updates from Baidu in reference to their focus on mobile security.

    Inbound links

    A few years ago it was generally accepted that Baidu was some way behind Google in terms of their ability to decipher link signals. Think pre-Penguin Update style link building tactics: forget about quality, more is better (not that those tactics were ever justifiable in the long term).

    This is not the case in 2017. Baidu are clearly upping their game when it comes to link metrics. Again, look at the fantastically named ‘Green Radish’ update as an example; it is reminiscent of the Penguin update, targeting spammy link building practices.

    It stands to reason that Baidu will continue to observe Google’s updates and learn from them, subsequently implementing their own updates that focus on preventing such manipulation.

    Do not be afraid

    This may be somewhat controversial due to the fact that there are definitely differences in tactics for SEO teams targeting Google or Baidu. However, both search engines appear to be on a similar trajectory. In the end they both offer the same service: to provide the searcher with the most valuable and relevant result according to their search term.

    Yes, Google and Baidu may have different strategies when it comes to monetizing their traffic, but they still want their users to keep coming back. Both Google and Baidu are constantly improving their ability to highlight the best quality content, alongside an ever quickening shift towards mobile devicesas the most critical priority.

    As mentioned previously, I completely understand the reluctance for those ‘Google’ SEOs when it comes to embarking on the learning curve required for Baidu. Furthermore, regardless of the similarities, there will absolutely be a learning curve.

    Even though there is considerable overlap, you will have to get to grips with the prominence attached to certain elements by Baidu and therefore assess where your time is best spent. Don’t forget that you’ll need a native speaker as well!

    What is clear, though, is that Baidu’s development has been significant in recent years, providing a platform that is focused on very similar core principles to Google. If you keep these core principles in mind, rather than looking to take advantage of potential gaps in Baidu’s algorithm, you will have a far more sustainable and long term Baidu SEO strategy.

  • How to escape Google’s filter bubble

    For some people the personalization of their news apps and other content feeds online is a manual, conscious decision.

    They want to be displayed certain topics due to their interests, which is completely understandable. Cut through the noise by making sure that you get given what you want.

    For a lot of us, though, while personalization can make the considerable amount of time we spend scrolling through social feeds more entertaining, most of the automated personalization we encounter on a day-to-day basis is not necessarily requested – and is wider spread than one might initially think.

    In a Ted talk, Eli Pariser discussed what he called the ‘filter bubble’. For those who have never heard of the filter bubble, it is a similar theory to that of ‘echo chambers’. Essentially, the focus of providing and consuming content that is closely aligned to your preferences results in the creation of a bubble or chamber, restricting your view of the wider picture.

    Bubble floating against white background with the Google logo imposed on it.

    As our internet ecosystem has evolved, we have shared increasing amounts of personal data with services we use every day, from social networks to search engines. They then use this data to tailor the content they provide us with to what they think will be most appealing, engaging or relevant. Google in particular has gradually increased the extent with which it tailors results to the user with innovations like Hummingbird and RankBrain, the inclusion of social results in search, and semantic search.

    To many users this personalization of search results is helpful and convenient, but an increasing number of users are disturbed by the extent to which the sites they encounter are being shaped by forces outside of their control. If you are one of them, you may be wondering: How can you stop this from happening? How do you escape the filter bubble?

    In this article, we are going to look at ways in which you can partially escape Google’s filter bubble, as well as how SEOs can penetrate it to make sure their sites are surfaced to as wide an audience as possible.

    How do you escape Google’s filter bubble?

    Disclaimer: If you want to be completely free of Google’s filter bubble, the only real way is to stop using Google. Know this, though – the rest of your treasured social feeds and news outlets will be no different, and who would want to stop using Google?

    Do what you can to hide from the Big G

    You can always log out of Gmail, delete your search history/browser cache and use an incognito browser (to prevent a level of browser caching). Again, though, you will not be completely free.

    The filter bubble is not just specific to personal activity online; it also takes into personal factors that are not dictated by the individual such as device and location. You are also potentially not free of Google’s own internal bias, shown by their recent fine from the EU.

    The outlook appears to be pretty bleak, huh? Well not entirely. Escaping Google’s filter bubble (and to an extent, all other platforms’ bubbles) is less about attempting to erase your internet history or privacy settings, and more about simply being aware of the bubble.

    Awareness is critical

    Take it upon yourself to find different sources and take an objective view. Let’s face it: echo chambers were around long before Google and Facebook. Newspapers have spent decades reporting the news with their own bias – you only need look at the differences in how The Independent and the Daily Mailprovide commentary for the goings on in the world to see this in action.

    Depending on how conspiracy theory-led you are, you could argue that this pushing of agendas comes straight from the top at a government level. The point is that the most powerful tool for escaping Google’s filter bubble is one’s own awareness of the situation. If you are researching important information, don’t take everything as gospel and verse. Research, utilize multiple sources, and try to look at the situation objectively.

    All of us are culprits, including myself. We use a single news app because it is the easy option, thus our echo chambers are somewhat self-inflicted. That is not to say that we should necessarily start to use Ask Jeeves, Yahoo or DuckDuckGo.

    The point is that we should look deeper than the first results, and utilize alternate sources to investigate key topics.

    How can SEOs penetrate Google’s filter bubble?

    Whichever side of the fence you are when it comes to the personalization of content and its effect on our ability to have complete access to information, the Google filter bubble presents a predicament to SEOs and marketers alike.

    Compared with the deeper moral arguments surrounding the Google filter bubble, it may seem somewhat trivial to discuss how SEOs can flog more of their wares via Google. However, the filter bubble has a real impact on both consumers’ lives and companies.

    So how as SEOs do we penetrate it?

    How specific are target search terms?

    We did a test in the office here with three different individuals off two different devices each (mobile with wifi turned off, and laptop), all logged in to their Gmail accounts. We tested both broad and more specific search terms, and were not displayed different results.

    This is not to say that the filter bubble does not exist, but it did get us thinking. Pariser’s Ted talk used the example of two individuals searching for ‘Egypt’ and being returned very different results. The issue here? Egypt is an incredibly broad search term and whilst SEOs may look to target ‘broader’ search terms within their strategy, the majority will have a very different view of ‘broad’ when compared with searching for ‘Egypt’.

    We would bet that the data would show a less powerful filter as the searches become more and more specific, especially for more traditional transactional search terms harbored by SEOs.

    Penetrating the bubble

    One of the main issues of the filter bubble for SEOs is that it takes users down a self-fulfilling path: the more you engage with a certain website or topic, the more likely you are to be shown similar information. As such, penetrating the filter bubble is the number one priority.

    A constant improvement in your site’s authority will help prevent your website being shut out of people’s filter bubbles, but alternate marketing channels should also be utilized:

    Social media

    Capitalize on highly shareable content to expand your degrees of separation and drive traffic to your website. You will be competing against each social platform’s own version of the filter bubble, but this is somewhat mitigated by the ability to share content.

    Paid search and social

    If the bubbles are proving too strong to penetrate, incorporating paid search (Adwords) and social media advertising will give you a foot in the door for new prospective customers.

    Email

    Direct mail is often shunned by those of us that are dedicated to the Inbound Methodology but is another effective way of driving action from consumers. Use behavioural automation to take your campaigns to the next level and drive action.

    Trust in the process

    Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater here; what we are saying is nothing new. Trusting in the quality of your campaign and ensuring that you diversify the marketing channels that you employ should be part of the agenda regardless of filter bubbles. It might require a revisit of some of your core pillars but this is something that should be completed time to time anyway.

    Really understand your buyer personas – these are the individuals who will become customers. Dig deeper into their drivers and satisfy their queries, questions and concerns. As always, value for the user is at the forefront of what we as SEOs should be providing.

    Diversity of content and link building – again, no surprises here. Spread the net a little wider and assess how diverse the content is that you are providing. Is it too specific to a certain buyer persona and therefore somewhat neglecting other (also valuable) prospects?

    Furthermore, high quality link building can gain you exposure on relevant sites, therefore widening the net further.

    Keep people coming back

    All of the above is great for your SEO campaign but don’t neglect the need to keep people coming back. The continual improvement of your user experience and a higher percentage of returning visitors will ensure that your users are furthering their own self-fulfilling Google filter bubble prophecy.

    Combine this this with a widening diversity of content, and you put your website in a great place to mitigate the effects of the filter bubble.

  • The 15 best Google Chrome extensions for SEO

    Google Chrome has taken a dominant position as the world’s favorite desktop browser, with almost 60% market share and rising.

    Its central role among Google’s vast suite of digital software and hardware has driven this growth, but users also love how customizable the browser is.

    It can be dauntingly customizable, in fact. With tens of thousands of extensions available, finding the few that will aid you on a daily basis is an all-consuming endeavor. In one store, you can find everything from Nicholas Page (an extension that turns any page Nicholas Cage-themed) to a variety of income tax calculators.

    Somewhere in between those two extremes, there are hundreds of SEO-themed extensions, some much more useful than others.

    There is a little bit of a learning curve to using some SEO Chrome extensions, but once they become habit, they will save plenty of time in the long run.

    Therefore, within this list we have distilled this down to the 15 extensions that will simply make you more effective at the core areas of SEO.

    Chrome extensions for a quick site review

    SimilarWeb

    The SimilarWeb extension is a great place to start with a quick site analysis. It provides a broader view of a website beyond just SEO, taking into account all traffic sources. The extension does this by analyzing clickstream data from thousands of internet service providers, SimilarWeb’s own web crawlers, and their clients’ data.

    As a result of these calculations, you can get reasonably reliable stats on a brand’s audience demographics, how much they spend on paid media, and which countries their traffic comes from.

    All of these factors affect SEO, of course, so this provides invaluable insight when analyzing a brand’s digital presence. The Chrome extension is free, but a paid account does give access to a more complete data set.

    MozBar

    We couldn’t really have an SEO Chrome extensions list without including MozBar. As an all-in-one tool for a quick SEO site overview, MozBar is still the best on the market. Once a user is logged into their Moz community account (it’s free to sign up, for those that haven’t opened an account), MozBar springs into action on websites and search engine results pages.

    It contains an extensive list of analyses, covering technical SEO, on-site content, social media engagement, and backlinks. MozBar can cause sites to load a little more slowly, however, so it’s best to enable it only when you need to assess a website’s SEO metrics.

    Impactana

    Impactana is a content marketing toolbar that offers the social media analysis you would expect, displaying share counts for each page on Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, et al.

    Where it stands apart from the competition is in its use of proprietary metrics to calculate the ‘Impact’ and ‘Buzz’ of each piece of content. These metrics incorporate user engagement signals to assess not just whether content has been shared, but whether people have interacted with it too. As such, it makes for a great starting point when analyzing the effectiveness of a competitor’s content marketing campaigns.

    Chrome extensions for technical SEO

    User agent switcher

    In this mobile-first age, we need to make sure we are optimizing for a variety of screen sizes and device types. That’s pretty hard to do with just a desktop to hand, unless you have a user agent switcher downloaded.

    This extension will give you the option to view web pages as they would appear on a wide variety of devices and operating systems. It’s an essential extension for developers, but it’s very useful for anyone conducting SEO analysis too.

    Scraper

    Quite often, we need to pull elements from a range of individual pages or websites for large-scale analysis. There are a few different ways of doing this, such as using IMPORTXML code to pull structured data from websites into Google Sheets or Excel.

    The Scraper Chrome extension speeds up this process, using the XPath query language to export HTML data elements from a page, along with similar data from across the website.

    It take a little getting used to, but there is a handy step-by-step guide here. Once you get accustomed to how Scraper functions, it saves a lot of time during any technical SEO audits.

    META SEO Inspector

    If we want to understand how a search engine crawls and indexes our websites (and presumably, we all do), we need to get to grips with metadata. META SEO Inspector goes beyond the narrow, SEO-focused definition of metadata as the ‘meta’ tags defined within the HTML source code.

    The extension also facilitates analysis of XFN tags, canonical tags, and various microformats. It is also updated quite regularly to stay abreast of any amendments or additions to Google’s best practice guidelines.

    Tag Assistant

    This Chrome extension from Google isn’t the most glamorous tool on our list, but it is one of the most useful. Tag Assistant acts as a trouble-shooter, verifying the installation of Google tags such as those used for Google Analytics and Remarketing.

    The ability to record sessions and analyze the implementation of tracking tags through user journeys is perhaps Tag Assistant’s main USP. It gives the extension a lot of potential for frequent use, beyond the occasional spot checks to verify if tags are implemented correctly or not.

    Page Load Time

    As we discussed in a recent article, speed is of the utmost importance as Google continues to prepare its mobile-first index.

    Page Load Time helps SEO keep an eye on this essential ranking factor, without being obtrusive in the way that other Chrome Extensions can be. Every time a page loads, it highlights the amount of time it took in seconds.

    Users can then click on the extension’s icon to see a breakdown of the elements required to load the page’s content. For quick insights into page speed, it makes for the perfect starting point.

     

    Chrome extensions for on-site content analysis

    Page Analytics

    Many of the entries on our list focus on assessing competitors, but this Google extension allows you to view data from your Google Analytics account while you browse your website(s). Once a user is logged into GA, they can view metrics from their account in real time by opening the extension.

    The metrics available in this snapshot include bounce rate, unique page views, and average time on page. With the increasing prominence of user engagement factors in a RankBrain-driven Google search ecosystem, this extension is a very handy way to keep an eye on how each individual page is performing without visiting the Google Analytics platform.

    Keywords Everywhere

    Some things never change in SEO. We still need to understand which search queries our target audience uses, but gaining access to accurate search volumes has grown increasingly difficult. The Keywords Everywhere extension doesn’t quite solve this riddle entirely, but it goes some way towards providing a bit of clarity.

    By pulling data from Google Keyword Planner, Google Search Console, and UberSuggest, the extension displays approximate search volumes within results pages. From there, SEO professionals can start to consider for which queries they want to optimize their content.

    This extension shouldn’t be used in isolation to conduct larger keyword research tasks, but it has enough handy features to make it a worthwhile addition.

    Spark Content Optimizer

    This extension is ideal for getting different teams to incorporate SEO into their daily routines. Everyone from copywriters to developers can benefit from Spark, a Chrome add-on that scans content to assess how comprehensively it covers a topic and how well it makes use of popular search queries.

    This can be a tricky area of SEO, as we want to provide a search engine with clear signals about our content, but also need to tread carefully to avoid stuffing in keywords to the detriment of content quality. Spark provides some hints without being overbearing, making it a worthy addition to any SEO armory.

    Chrome extensions for backlink analysis

    Link Research Tools

    This toolbar from Link Research Tools overlays backlink data as users search and browse. It’s great for getting a quick look at a site’s backlink profile, although it does require a paid account to gain access to some of LRT’s more advanced features.

    Much is the same fashion as MozBar, the LRT toolbar overlays backlink data onto search engine results pages too. This is very beneficial for taking a backlink-based look at why particular sites perform well for a keyword.

    LinkMiner

    LinkMiner is probably the best Chrome extension for identifying broken links. Once activated, it will highlight the number of outbound links on any page, highlighting in green those that are active, and in red those that are broken. It makes for an easy way to share issues with the development team and get links fixed.

    Through its integration with a range of indices (including Ahrefs, Majestic, and Moz), it also creates a simple overview of the ratio of inbound to outbound links on each page.

    Majestic Backlink Analyzer

    Majestic remains one of the heavyweight SEO software packages, and this Chrome extension provides much of its functionality without having to visit a separate URL.

    The Backlink Analyzer provides insight into the quantity and quality of backlinks pointing to any page, along with their topical relevance to the source material. Majestic’s index is larger than Moz’s, so this makes it a more robust reference point when conducting backlink analysis. You will require a paid Majestic subscription to avail of these benefits, however.

    Buzzmarker

    Engaging with influencers can be a fantastic way to gain relevant, authoritative backlinks. Nonetheless, as anyone who has worked in this field will know, the pursuit of those all-important backlinks can bring with it a lot of time-intensive, manual work.

    This extension from outreach platform BuzzStream aims to simplify the outreach process. It helps with prospecting, by highlighting key social media metrics on a potential partner’s website. It also makes it easier to bookmark influencers and add them into the main BuzzStream platform.

    Once more, this will require a paid BuzzStream account, but if you already have an account, then downloading this extension should be a no-brainer.

  • Why site speed is as important as ever on the visual web

    In 2017 there has been a lot of focus around the impending mobile-first index and serving content through HTTPS. But there have also been two other important unfashionable topics lingering in the shadows: cybersecurity and site speed.

    Since 2010, Google have publicly acknowledged that they take into account page load speed and site speed, and with tools like Page Speed Insights (along with a number of other third party solutions) we’ve been able to monitor and analyse our seconds.

    However, balancing a quick page load speed and a great user experience hasn’t always been easy. As the internet has become a more and more important part of our daily lives, our online experience has evolved and we (as users) prefer much more visual content.

    Big visuals also mean big image files, video files and potentially a lot of JS and CSS to fancy up the written text. This also means that there is more to load, therefore increasing load speed.

    The reason that this is becoming more of an issue is because in 2015 mobile traffic overtook desktop traffic in a number of verticals, and mobile users browse everywhere; when they’re on the Wi-Fi at home, at work or using roaming data on the go. Users are noticing slow-loading pages; which means Google have noticed users noticing slow loading pages – and now Facebook has noticed slow-loading pages.

    Identifying site speed issues

    At the moment, with the noise surrounding mobile responsiveness and HTTPS, a lot of webmasters and development teams are being overwhelmed with changes. It’s also worth remembering that not everyone runs modern stacks or has a clean website; there are still a lot of big websites on legacy platforms.

    That being said, there are a number of checks you can carry out that could make a big difference to your page load speed by refactoring your code.

    JavaScript Libraries

    I’ve encountered a number of websites that run big JavaScript libraries that aren’t used on a lot of pages, but they still have to load on every page.

    Making excessive calls to a large amount of unnecessary JavaScript and CSS files slows down the overall page load speed.

    You could move all of these code elements towards the end of the code, meaning they are called last. This would only really impact the user if you’re using dynamic phone numbers that change an element through JavaScript, but the flicker is often only a twentieth of a second and minimal.

    Image optimization

    Images and graphics play a big role in both delivering the message of the content and improving the user experience on a website. Getting rid of images isn’t viable, but compressing their file sizes is.

    In some scenarios, the delivery of the images could also be optimized. If your images are quite far down a piece of content, utilize lazy-load solutions or even better, utilize a CDN like Cloudflare or Amazon CloudFront.

     

    System fonts

    Another (and slightly less common) solution to improving page load speed is to utilize system fonts.

    System fonts are the fonts that come pre-installed on your device. These are great options as they don’t have to be loaded, you simply call the system fonts in your CSS. That being said, choosing a system font can be tricky.

    System fonts generally fall into two categories, optimized for screen and optimized for print. The main difference between these fonts is the detail. The only other issue with choosing a system font is that they are really over-exposed.

    As every computer and device in the world (near enough) has them, they are not unique; so if typography is important to your brand, use custom fonts. But if Helvetica, Garamond or Seravek will do, use them.

    Is AMP really the solution?

    I couldn’t go through his whole article without mentioning AMP. AMP allows webmasters to create their slow, heavy pages but essentially serve their content through a new AMP page, that canonicals back to the original slow page.

    Accelerated Mobile Pages seems on the surface to be an easy solution, especially for the big content publishers. But it’s not really a solution to the problem, more papering over the cracks.

    What made these big sites slow and heavy in the first place is often tied very closely to how they generate revenue, advertising. Big banner adverts, banners spliced into content, overlays, auto play videos in the sidebars (yuck), all there to get your view and edge the website ever closer to another CPM payday.

    With AMP, you don’t get to do it to the same extent and will lose out on potential revenue and ad views. How content is formatted is also very controlled, and the fact that Google hosts the content makes it a weird position to put the content publisher in.

    Google is obviously willing publishers to utilize AMP and take advantage of the ranking benefits (AMP v non-AMP), but it still an odd situation to be in. A lot of webmasters have migrated to AMP as they manage large web properties that command a lot of traffic, but not because it is a logical business sense to do so, but because they are too afraid not to while their competitors make the move.

    AMP is the right move for a number of websites, but I would assess all options first to speed up your website before boarding the AMP ship.

    In conclusion

    Producing a modern website that works for both SEO and users is not easy. It requires a lot of careful technical planning and development to ensure it contains useful, valuable content; that it’s secure; that it works on mobile; and that it’s fast.

    Site speed can often be overlooked as a lesser priority, but it’s an extremely important part of the quartet. There are a number of free ways to test your site speed as well, and a lot of them provide good guidance on how to fix a lot of the issues.

  • Switching to HTTPS: Is it really worth it?

    Ever since Google made the announcement that HTTPS is a ranking signal, there has been a lot of discussion around whether that extra ‘s’ is really worth the hassle.

    There are clear benefits to obtaining that sought-after green padlock, but there is also a lot of nervousness around actually making the switch.

    The apprehension is understandable; as with any big change to a website, mistakes have the potential to be extremely costly – both to the user experience and to search visibility. Any risk of a drop in rankings has SEOs quivering in their boots.

    However, this is not reason enough to avoid the change. There has been an almighty push towards creating a more secure web. There is a pressure for website owners to take responsibility for the security of their sites; those who do will be duly rewarded by Google.

    What does HTTPS actually mean?

    HTTPS stands for Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure; not that this will help you understand it any more than you did a few seconds ago.

    As Google explains, HTTPS “protects the integrity and confidentiality of data between the user’s computer and site.” This involves three layers of protection: encryption (goodbye eavesdroppers), data integrity (goodbye corrupt data) and authentication (goodbye attacks).

    In short, HTTPS is essential for ensuring a safe and secure experience for users of a website. This is of paramount importance in an age where internet security is coming under increasing threats from all angles.

    Having said all that, it is worth mentioning that HTTPS does not make your site an impenetrable fortress. Even with the best security in the world, a site can still come under attack.

    That’s just an unfortunate reality of our digital age – look at the recent ransomware attacks across the globe. Nevertheless, HTTPS sure does help.

    Benefits of HTTPS

    First and foremost from an SEO perspective, Google considers site security to be a ranking signal and will favour websites with HTTPS. Although it is currently only a ‘lightweight’ ranking signal and will therefore only affect a very small number of search queries, we expect this to evolve.

    Much like the shift towards mobile-friendly websites, which started gaining momentum and then suddenly slapped us in the face with the (albeit underwhelming) #mobilegeddon and mobile-first indexing, it is only a matter of time before secure sites become more of a priority. In addition, we love the theory of marginal gains so every little helps!

    The effectiveness of a move to HTTPS will likely be determined by the type of website. For example, ecommerce sites will certainly benefit the most from a switch to HTTPS. Where payment or the exchange of sensitive data is involved, security becomes critical.

    Migrating to HTTPS may not yet be as important as high quality content or link-building prowess but it would be foolish to dismiss its importance on these grounds.

    There are further benefits, too, in the realm of user experience; visitors will be more trusting of your website and confident in its ability to provide a safe browsing experience for them. Plus, let’s not forget the peace of mind it will bring you knowing that your site is protected with that little ‘s’.

    Concerns with HTTPS

    But – and there’s always a but. Just the thought of migrating from HTTP to HTTPS is enough to strike fear into those responsible for the move. What if I accidentally block important URLs in robots.txt? What if it slows the speed of my site? What if my web applications aren’t compatible with HTTPS? What if I mess up the redirects and canonical tags? What if the rankings of my site plummet, never to return? What if my website just DISAPPEARS off the face of the digital ecosystem?

    These are (mostly) legitimate concerns but they should not stop you. Here at Yellowball, we recently decided to make the move.

    We had similar concerns, especially that we might see an initial drop in rankings and weren’t sure how long this would last. But alas, we made sure that those responsible for the move knew exactly what they were doing and we followed the best practices (getting to these shortly).

    So, did anything terrible happen? We have seen a slight drop in rankings but these are already climbing back to normal and we expect to see an overall improvement in the long run. So no, nothing bad happened and now we can all relax in the knowledge that the big move is done.

     

    HTTPS migration checklist

    Mistakes can be made during a migration, so it’s important that you do your research and ensure the process is handled correctly. If you follow this step-by-step checklist and enlist the help of someone who knows their stuff, you’ll be just fine.

    1. Obtain a security certificate (usually referred to as an SSL certificate). Ensure you choose a high-level security option: Google recommends a 2018-bit key. You can get these certificates from a certificate authority but we recommend buying one from your hosting company, as they will usually help you install it.
    2. Set up redirects to ensure that all of your old HTTP pages redirect to the new HTTPS pages. There may only be one tiny difference of an ‘s’ but this still makes the URLs completely separate. Create a URL map that lists all of the old URLs with their corresponding new ones. If you have been wanting to make any tweaks to your URL structure for a little while then now is the opportune time to do it. Be sure to use permanent 301 redirects (rather than temporary 302 redirects).
    3. Update internal links so that these all point directly to the new HTTPS pages, rather than having to redirect.
    4. Update all other resources including images, downloads and other scripts, as these will all need to point to the correct HTTPS locations too.
    5. Avoid blocking your HTTPS site from crawling using robots.txt and avoid the ‘noindex’ tag.
    6. Reindex your site via Google Search Console and submit your new sitemap. Note that you will have to create a new property, due to the different URL. You cannot just submit to the old property and expect it to work.
    7. Test all is working correctly using this SSL Server test. If there are any technical issues then get in touch with your host or a developer to resolve problems quickly.

    This is not a comprehensive list so it is worth enlisting the help of an expert. Remember that you can check the data in your Google Search Console to find out whether there are any URL or crawl errors.

    Conclusion

    All in all, it is clear to us that the benefits of migrating to HTTPS outweigh the potential pitfalls. Having a secure site will only become increasingly important and there’s every possibility that we will eventually face the HTTPS equivalent of mobilegeddon (securigeddon?).

    Having said that, there are times where making the move may not be necessary. For example, if you run a personal blog, get only a small number of website visitors and don’t expect this to increase dramatically in the new few years.

    However, if you are expecting to see a rise in traffic, or if you already see high volumes of traffic then our advice is to make the switch.

    In short, Google says so. So do it.

  • 7 things to consider when choosing an ecommerce platform

    Ecommerce has been growing steadily in popularity for the last 10 years. Online sales jumped up nearly 15% last year across the board, and they’re predicted to only increase in the future. If you’re starting a business and selling products and/or services, an ecommerce site is crucial in order to capitalize on this explosive online sales growth.

    While you could hire a web developer to get your business started, those costs can inhibit your ability to grow rapidly. Opting for an already-developed ecommerce platform saves you time as well as money.

    The double-edged sword, however, is that there are tons of options available to you—how do you know you’re choosing the right one? This article outlines some things you’ll need to consider when you’re looking for the best ecommerce platform for your business.

    1. Pricing and Payment

    The first thing you should consider when searching for an ecommerce platform is the price. Whether you’re a small business just getting started or an already established brick & mortar business moving online, you need to know exactly what you’ll be paying.

    Almost all platforms will have a monthly fee. Depending on the type of platform you get (self-hosted vs. hosted) the costs may vary. You should also consider the processing fees that will be associated with the platform. Don’t sacrifice the things you’ll definitely need for a cheaper price. Try to weigh the pros and cons of each to get the best for your budget. Below is a great chart of just a few of the top platforms from Ecommerce-Platforms:

    You should also consider how your customers will be paying. Some platforms don’t offer the ability to pay via third party vendors (such as PayPal). This could end up being a huge inconvenience for your customers – a  frustration which can lead to shopping cart abandonment. Don’t take this risk; decide which forms of payment you’ll accept first and remember this when you’re looking at the different software.

    2. Integrations

    Another factor you should consider when looking at ecommerce platforms is their integrations and plugins. Most platforms, such as Shopify, will have plenty of tools for you to run your business. Your business needs will be a determining factor when deciding on the plugins that will work best for you. When looking at the different platforms, think of what tools you’ll need or already use for your business.  Here are some of the most popular types of plugins that you should look out for:

    • Accounting plugins to help with sales, taxes, revenues, and profits
    • Email marketing tools to help you keep in contact with your customers
    • A platform that helps you reward your customers for using your products
    • Apps to help with shipping your products

    3. SEO Friendliness

    Ecommerce businesses are not exempt from working on their SEO. In fact, it can be highly beneficial to have your store rank high in search results. You want your customers to find you when they’re searching for products like yours.

    Some of the most important factors when looking for an SEO friendly platform include:

    • The ability to add a blog to your website
    • The ability to use your own domain name
    • The ability for customers to leave reviews

    You can learn more about SEO for an ecommerce website here.

    4. Mobile Friendliness

    Did you know nearly 60% of searches are done from mobile devices? Often those searches continue on to a purchase from a mobile device. This means its important to look for platforms that allow customers to easily access your website as well as make a purchase on their mobile device. Below is a great example from Shopify:

    8 ways of using collaborative tools to effectively manage remote teams

    How brands' domination of paid and organic search has changed with the evolution of search

    What does visual search mean for ecommerce in 2017?

    What will Google's expanded policy on harmful content mean for SEO companies?

    5. Customer Service

    A key aspect of any business is its customer service. As the experience provided by traditional brick-and-mortar businesses is based in a physical store, they typically have more control over how smoothly their business runs.

    Ecommerce is a whole different ballgame; software outages and server downtimes are often out of your control, and will prevent any of your customers from accessing your business. Odds are that at one point your servers will crash at the worst possible moment. This can affect both your revenue and your brand image.

    Having someone to call at any time to help you get things up and running again is a huge factor when you’re looking at ecommerce platforms. Take a look at each platform’s customer service—are they available 24/7? How are you able to reach them? How many levels of support are offered, and what does each cost? Think about these questions and make sure you ask them before you decide on your platform.

    6. Security

    No one want to enter their credit card information on a sketchy website, which is why security is becoming one of the biggest concerns among consumers. While most software today will have robust security as standard, always check to make sure your platform supports HTTPS/SSL for a safe and secure checkout for your customers.

    Also, make sure that any platform you choose is PCI (Payment Card Industry) compliant. BigCommerce explains more here, and below is a screenshot that gives you a taste of what it takes to become compliant:

    7. Scalability

    All business owners hope their business will grow in the future, but you may not know to what extent. Nonetheless, it’s important to look for a platform that will scale along with your business.

    You don’t want to pay for features and storage that you’re not using when you first start out. You also want to keep up with higher demands as your business takes off. Choose a platform that you can scale to your business size and that won’t charge you outrageous fees for doing so.

    The Takeaway

    Starting any new business is challenging, but moving away from the traditional store front to an online version can be a little daunting—especially with so many options for you to start with—which is why choosing an ecommerce platform is so difficult for many business owners. Figuring out what your store will need as you grow and keeping up with trends is a challenge, but it is well worth it in the end to create processes that work and will scale with your business. Knowing what to look for ahead of time makes choosing a platform an easier process and can help you find success!

  • 5 ways to balance technical & non-technical SEO

    In SEO’s earlier days, technical SEO was largely about coding. For a fun throwback, check out this 2008 SEL article on search-friendly code by Jonathan Hochman, an internet marketer and computer sciences grad from Yale. Technical SEO was all about how to optimize (and often, manipulate) code, metadata and link profiles to achieve better results.

    And you know what? That basic purpose of technical SEO hasn’t changed.

    As black hat tactics and manipulation became less effective and more dangerous, they fell out of favor. This gave rise to the more creative, non-technical SEO tactics designed to show search engines the value and relevance of each piece of content.

    Technical and non-technical should never be pitted against one another, as both are critical to the health of your site and the success of your campaigns. Technical SEO is the framework on which truly great content is built, ensuring that each piece is structured and optimized for search engine discoverability and human consumption.

    Here are a few tips to help you find balance between the technical and creative:

    1. Understand the role of technical SEO in your organization

    Today, in most organizations, technical SEO is a function entirely separate from development. You might still have some spillover between development and SEO in small companies or with freelancers. Typically, though, SEOs are an entity unto themselves, tasked with working alongside:

    • the uber-technical IT team, who manage the reception and storage of critical customer data.
    • web developers.
    • the non-technical SEOs (including link builders and content marketers).

    As a sort of translator between these fundamentally different teams, technical SEOs understand the needs of each. They can anticipate how a new data security policy implemented by IT might affect a forward-facing marketing campaign or activity. They know the limitations of the site and can knowledgeably consult with developers to see whether what marketing wants is possible, or offer alternatives. Most importantly, they inform each of these teams on how their activities can stay compliant with (and be optimized for) search engines.

    The second part of the technical SEO’s job is then implementation, adding the structure and optimizations to assist the engines in retrieving, indexing and ranking content.

    This is why it’s critical that a technical SEO is a part of the planning process. Too often, they’re seen as “fixers,” brought in to identify and correct problems that were perfectly preventable. Instead, SEO and content teams should be working together to establish shared goals, work as a cohesive unit, measure and analyze, and continually adapt.

    2. Balance your on-page & off-page optimization

    On-page and off-page strategies each offer very different benefits, but both impact your content performance dramatically. As you strive to find balance between the technical and non-technical, factor in your on- and off-page optimizations:

    On-page SEO:

    • Your site’s structure, hierarchy and design
    • Title tags and meta descriptions
    • Coding errors
    • Crawl- and index-ability
    • Internal linking
    • Sitemaps
    • Page content
    • Site speed
    • Mobile-friendliness

    Off-page SEO:

    • Social content and sharing
    • Influencer content
    • Articles and guest blogs
    • Inbound links

    3. Define the responsibilities of each type of SEO

    So, which tasks belong to technical SEOs, and which belong to non-technical SEOs? There are tasks that are very obviously one or the other. For example, deciding how to use subdomains and designing your site’s architecture are clearly technical tasks, while authoring engaging, optimized content is for your non-technical/creative team.

    But there are areas of overlap that can cause confusion, or get missed altogether, unless you clearly define who is responsible for which SEO tasks. This can create site issues that have a devastating impact on consumer experience — and ultimately, your sales — as a result. On average, organic search drives fully 60 percent of website traffic. Chances are, it’s your largest channel. It’s worth getting right.

    On-page and off-page, the technical and the non-technical, the scientific and the creative — each is powerful on its own, but it’s in the combined effort of both that the real magic happens. We saw a perfect example of this in the multi-faceted approach to content marketing undertaken by business products retailer Quill (disclosure: customer).

    In their pursuit of increased organic traffic and e-commerce revenue, Quill’s SEO program manager, Eugene Feygin, devised and implemented a new company-wide content strategy. Within it, he restructured the brand’s content housing, factored in external partners’ research, and developed new content agency partnerships. Quill’s website got a user experience-centric overhaul to simplify navigation and make the content journey more intuitive. Feygin deployed BrightEdge’s Data Cube tool to identify Quill’s most pressing content gaps and greatest opportunities.

    The results of this holistic approach marrying the science of content data and site structure with the creativity of ingenious promotion and partnerships was astounding.

    Quill’s balanced approach to SEO grew their organic blog traffic by 270 percent in a single year. Their page one keywords exploded by 800 percent, and they achieved 98 percent search engine indexation.

    4. Work SEO into your content workflow

    Traditionally, magazines and other publishers used an in-house style guide to make clear their content rules and expectations. These are an important tool for brands not only to create consistency in style and tone, but to ensure that each piece of content gets the same SEO treatment pre-publication and during promotion.

    How are images optimized? Which types of sources are approved as citations and for external linking, and are there any you avoid? When and how should you use H1, H2 and H3 headings? Who creates title tags, and what rules are there around those? Who are your readers, and what is their assumed level of knowledge about your topic or industry? (This can help guide keyword selection.)

    Getting all of this documented provides a quick reference baseline for your content creators. It gives your creative team a resource created with technical SEO input that guides the content creation process. When you place this optimized content into the technically sound framework managed by your technical SEO, ready to be promoted by your content marketers, it’s a truly powerful combination indeed.

    5. Balance technical & non-technical at budget time, too

    Local media forecaster Borrell expects SEO spend in the US to reach almost $80 billion by 2020. C-level decisions around budget allocation need to reflect this holistic approach to SEO as an integral component of your overall marketing strategy. Technical SEOs shouldn’t have to fight for a piece of the content marketing budget; that’s the mentality that supports silos and keeps teams competitive.

    Budgeting for SEO can be difficult, as organic doesn’t have direct media costs. The potential for high returns is there, but it takes organization-wide acceptance of a data-driven strategy to make it happen. Earlier this year, I shared a few tips to help SEOs learn to evangelize their practice to colleagues across departments and the C-suite. Doing so builds a strong case for the organization-wide implementation of and adherence to holistic SEO with the budget to make it possible.

    Finding your SEO balance and bringing it all together

    Technical and non-technical SEO tactics and strategies differ greatly; you might have entirely different teams executing each. Even so, it’s critical that they find ways to work together, as those intersections are where your greatest opportunities lie.

    In the increasingly competitive SERPs, where you’re vying for the eyes and minds of intelligent, informed consumers, the marriage of technical SEO with the art of content marketing enables the creation of the intelligent content you need to stay on top.

  • Semantic Search: What it Means for SEO in 2017

    The combination of semantics (the science of meaning in language) with search engines that process billions of queries seems a very natural one.

    Semantic search has been effective, too; by understanding the intent of a query and the context of the user, the accuracy of results on search engines like Google and Bing has increased significantly.

    Search engine results pages today look markedly different to their earlier iterations and, with improvements in local searchvoice recognition, and machine learning, they will continue to change over the next few years too.

    There is a lot of fascinating theory behind all of this, but we can sometimes focus on this to the detriment of our work today.

    Significant algorithm updates like Hummingbird, or the more recent launch of RankBrain, have a big impact on users. As marketers, we need to know exactly what this means for our strategy, our expectations, and our campaign measurement.

    As such, this article will focus on some real-world examples of semantic search and provide a practical framework to help marketers avail of the opportunities it brings.

    Semantic search in action

    Let’s start with a simple example to shed light on how semantic search works. We’ll use a common, everyday search query like [will smith]. This screenshot is what I see above the fold on desktop:

    When Google processes this query, it recognizes instantaneously that I am searching for the actor and all-round entertainer Will Smith, but also that the intent of my search is unclear. Therefore, it serves a varied array of options for me to click on. I may want to read news about the Fresh Prince, I may want to see his filmography, I may want to see if he has any new albums in the pipeline. Perhaps I want to see all three.

    As is highlighted on the right-hand side in the knowledge panel, Google can retrieve all of this information from its index of 808,000,000 Will Smith-related results, but also from its own vast database of information about noteworthy people and institutions.

    I can help Google out here by refining my search. Next, I ask [who is he married to]:

    As we can see, results are pulled to the top of the results to highlight his current and former spouse.

    This is a demonstration of conversational search in action.

    Just like a person would in a conversation, Google knows the ‘he’ in my question refers to Will Smith. I don’t need to state this again. Google also needs to know what the connection is between ‘he’ and both Jada Pinkett Smith and Sheree Zampino.

    These may seem like minor changes, but they hint at a fundamental shift in how Google works. Factor in voice search and it is easy to see how important this conversational element is.

    If we extend this out to ask about Will Smith’s music, we can start to conceptualize just how complex Google’s network of interconnected entities is:

    Asking what an artist’s best song is strays into the realm of subjectivity, so Google pulls the track listing from Will Smith’s greatest hits. Or at least, I hope that’s what’s happening here. If Google genuinely thinks ‘Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble’ is Will Smith’s best song, I’ll lose faith in them.

    In terms of natural language processing, however, this search query is now quite convoluted. In this last instance, Google has had to keep track of who we’re asking about, having deviated once already to ask who his spouse is; then pull an indirect, best-fit answer to my question about Will Smith’s best song.

    Let’s try one more, then we’ll give Google a break:

    You get the idea.

    We’ve come an awfully long way from the exact keyword matching of just a few years ago.

    Furthermore, all of this serves an important illustrative purpose and it’s one that matters for anyone that wants to rank via SEO in 2017.

    Why does it matter for brands?

    The technology that underpins the above answers is utilized for all queries, so it is very significant for brands. Just launching a page on a website and ‘optimizing it for SEO’ clearly isn’t going to cut it any more.

    Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that I run a peanut butter e-commerce site. Logic dictates that I will want to rank first in organic search for [peanut butter]. The results from my location look like this:

    We can see the same principle applied to the earlier Will Smith query, but with very different results – both in their format and their content.

    I may want to rank for [peanut butter] with my e-commerce site, but unless I have a physical store I can use to rank via local listings, the chances look slim. There are a few organic results above the fold (an anomaly these days), but only one brand that actually produces the product. There is a recipe with an accompanying image, however, and a link to more images, so perhaps these formats would be a more appropriate, achievable way to get onto page one.

    At the bottom of this search results page, Google actually provides some strong clues about what people are really looking for when they search for peanut butter:

    These related searches are more specific and give us a good idea of which topics we should cover on our site. There is a nice variety of different topics here, all of which are worthy of more investigation.

    To pick one, we’ll go with the ‘peanut butter ingredients’ route. If I search for [what is in peanut butter?], Google serves the following results:

    We can already sense some opportunities for an e-commerce site either to branch out is content strategy to answer questions, or potentially to partner with a site that already ranks well for these queries.

    The ‘People also ask’ list is a fantastic resource for users and SEO marketers, but we should be aware of just how dynamic that list is. It take on a concertina effect and expands based on our interactions with it.

    Once more, the need to approach SEO in 2017 with an open mind is evident. We can’t control how this list will function at scale; all we can do is put ourselves in the best possible position to answer common questions.

    In the screenshot below, there are two examples of how the list changes based on the questions a user clicks on. On the left-hand side, I have clicked on a protein-related question and, therefore, Google provides more protein-based questions below the original list of four. On the right-hand side, I have initially clicked on ‘Is eating peanut butter good for you?’

    The ‘People also ask’ box ends up looking completely different in these two instances, which both began with the exact same query.

    Note that a lot of similar questions are phrased slightly differently, but Google knows that the underlying meaning is essentially the same. As such, we don’t need to slavishly devote ourselves to answering the exact questions that receive the most searches in order to rank.

    This brings with it opportunities and challenges, outlined in the four-step process below.

    Four steps to rank via semantic search

    We can’t control exactly which queries we will rank for, but we can certainly increase the probability that we will improve our organic visibility if we work through these four stages.

    Research

    Google provides a lot of useful information via suggested search, ‘People Also Ask’, and related searches. You could use these to collect a list of direct questions that you can be certain people are asking, as a starting point.

    Although keyword-level search volumes are impossible to obtain with any serious degree of accuracy now, there are still some useful tools that provide insight into search trends. Google’s own keyword planner is quite limited for SEO nowadays, but you can use PPC-based insights to help shape your content strategy.

    There are also tools like Moz’s keyword planner, which are very helpful for shaping broader SEO strategies while still keeping an eye on where the search volume is.

    Personally, I find Answer the Public to be a useful guide when trying to figure out all the interrelated questions and pain points consumers have when thinking about a product or service.

    Collate a list of all the navigational, informational, and commercial queries related to your site, then sub-categorize them by their semantic links to each other.

    From here, you can start thinking about how to structure this to ensure maximum SEO visibility.

    Structure

    Site structure is a fundamental aspect of semantic search performance.

    You should think of your products or services as entities that each contain a multitude of connotations and associations. Build those connotations in vertically to cover a range of user needs, and link them to other entities horizontally in the site taxonomy. By mapping keyword groups or common questions to landing pages, you can ensure that each URL on your domain has a defined purpose.

    Changes to site structure normally require buy-in from multiple stakeholders, so I would advise visualizing your proposed site taxonomy as early as possible.

    How you present this will depend on your intended audience and how they think. For more logical thinkers, Writemaps is a great way to produce simple but effective site structure visualizations.

    If you require a more conceptual approach to emphasize semantic relationships, or even the amount of internal link value you want to send to each area of the site, you can use word cluster software like Smartdraw to get your point across.

    Implement

    The next step is to populate your site structure with content that meets user needs. This is an effective way to think about this, because consumer needs and desires remain relatively constant, and the ideal functioning of a search engine will always seek to satiate those underlying motivations. So if you can create content to cover every aspect of the typical consumer journey, you will be rewarded.

    Bear in mind what we have seen from the example above, too. Multimedia results are hugely significant, so try to include a range of assets that fit users’ (and Google’s) expectations. Most rank tracking software providers now contain products that allow us to see which types are most prevalent for different types of queries, so use these to guide your efforts.

    Measure

    Measurement has become a significant challenge, viewed through the lens of our old performance indicators like ranking positions, for example. It is very difficult to track individual ranking positions, as they are never static. Search results pages act like living organisms now, so we need to take a broader perspective on measurement.

    Track the metrics that matter most to your business, rather than just looking at rankings. The aim should always be to use SEO to affect those metrics anyway, so incorporate them within your campaign tracking.

    Moreover, the bigger ranking software companies have created their own metrics to measure SEO visibility which, when combined with what you see in your analytics dashboard, will provide a lot of insight into whether your strategy is working.

    We can’t approach measurement like we used to, but we can still tell when SEO is making a positive contribution.

  • Spotted in AdWords: Check a box and automatically create a headline test

    For several months now, Google has been encouraging advertisers to run many ad variations in their ad groups. The message is essentially, “Ditch your manual A/B testing and let our machine learning-powered systems figure out the best ad with the best mix of extensions to show for each auction scenario.”

    Now, it looks like Google is trying out a feature to make it easier for more advertisers to adopt even basic ad testing. Digital marketing strategist Conrad O’Connell spotted a new option in the old/current AdWords interface to “Create a second ad with headlines in reverse order.” Check the box, and automatically create an A/B headline test.

    View image on Twitter

    View image on Twitter

    I’m not seeing it yet in the new or old AdWords interface, but it’s an interesting idea to make at least one ad test option as easy as checking a box.

    A Google spokesperson said, “We’re always experimenting with the ways to create the best possible experience for our users but have nothing to announce at the time.”

  • Who should optimize content: SEOs or content writers?

    Content marketing and SEO are pretty closely related in the digital marketing sphere, but they can also be miles apart in execution. There are certainly some overlapping areas between the two, but is there enough to allow your SEO practitioner to also be your content marketer, or vice versa?

    In my (almost) 20  years of performing and overseeing successful digital marketing campaigns, I’ve come across a lot of “jack of all trades” types. I have argued over the years that having one person do everything isn’t a solid model for a high-performing web marketing campaign. After all, the skills required to, say, optimize a PPC campaign are vastly different from those required for organic SEO.

    Let’s get back to content and SEO. On-page optimization is a core piece of the optimization process — and that means working with content is part of an SEO’s job. But does that mean that the best person to optimize your content is the SEO specialist? Or should optimizing content be left to the writer — and if so, to what extent?

    These are questions I hope to answer here.

    Technical vs. creative

    SEO is more than the art of getting top search engine rankings. In fact, most of what comprises true SEO has very little to do with art — or even creativity, for that matter. The bulk of an SEO’s time is spent analyzing and fixing site architectural problems.

    Most websites — even those built in WordPress — come packed with layers upon layers of issues. I would guess that 50-80% of them are structural in nature, having little to do with the actual content on the page.

    But that doesn’t minimize the importance of content in regards to SEO. In fact, there’s something of a circular relationship between the two: Content has a hard time gaining traction in search if the search engines have trouble accessing or analyzing it properly, but fixing site architecture issues is rarely enough to rank well in search results. The content has to be optimized and valuable.

    It’s this interdependence between good content and sound technical SEO that can make it difficult for sites with limited budgets to succeed. If you can only pick one, where do you invest your time? Or do you do a little of both and hope for the best?

    It’s a tough call. To get results, you need a sufficient amount of both the creative and technical sides of SEO.

    The SEO’s role in content

    SEO role in content

    At this point in time, I would argue that very little of SEO is creative in any way. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t take creativity to find and implement solutions to the technical problems. I’m just saying that the only creative aspect of SEO is working keywords into the content. And I’m not convinced that should be the job of the SEO.

    When it comes to the content portion of the optimization process, the SEO should be in charge of keyword research and selection. It is not the copywriter’s job to go out and do hours worth of in-depth keyword research, or to necessarily be responsible for selecting which keywords should be targeted for any given page.

    The job of the copywriter is to integrate the keywords provided by the SEO into the content. The SEO hands the list of keywords to the copywriter, and the copywriter edits, tweaks, rewrites, and adjusts the content accordingly.

    Left to the more technically mature SEO, the optimized content would probably be weighed down by keyword usage. A good writer knows how take a list of keywords and shape them naturally into a well-rounded piece of content that covers the topic effectively.

    After the keyword research process, the primary function of the SEO in regards to content is to make sure it’s accessible. This means ensuring all pages have a title, description, and unique content — and that the search engine spiders can find it and analyze it properly.

    The writer’s role in SEO

    writer role in seo

    Today, I would argue that the content writer needs to know more about SEO than the SEO needs to know about writing content. This is because writing incredible, optimized content requires some understanding of how search engines work and what they are looking for.

    The writer should always start out focusing on the visitor. Meet their needs first and foremost. But they can’t neglect the preferences of the search engines. The content should be created to serve both simultaneously.

    Without this knowledge, the content will likely be subjected to rewrites after the SEO reviews it. Might as well save yourself the time and have your writer dig a bit into SEO so they can cover the bulk of what search engines want on the first pass. The SEO should still review and send suggestions back to the writer if necessary, and in very rare occasions they can tweak the content themselves. But this is one place where I would let the writer do the SEO’s job!

    Everyone has a role

    digital marketing roles

    Is it a good idea for your SEO to have some grasp of what makes content good? Absolutely. But very few people are both technical and creative at the same time. My recommendation would be to allow your SEO to focus on the technical and your writer on the creative. But it’s not a bad idea for any writer to have to have a technical grasp of what makes content great in the eyes of the search engines.

    No one expects the writer to be an SEO. Nor should your SEO be a writer. They each have their place. Where the two roles overlap, they should work together to create a masterful finished product.

    When you allow each person to stay focused in their primary role, you’ll get content that is search engine optimized, brings in targeted traffic, provides your visitors the information they need, and helps move them through the sales process. Keywords will be utilized, but only as required to get the job done.