Thursday, April 27, 2017

What will the future of Google search results pages look like?

Recently, we took a nostalgic, infographic-based look back at the history of Google search results pages.

In the past 20 years, Google has gone from a university project called Backrub to a global powerhouse that continues to shape how we search for, and discover, new information.

And yet, these are still early days for Google. In fact, the rate of change is only increasing, with driverless cars and augmented reality on the horizon.

Some of Google’s core business focuses, like hyperlocal targeting and personalization, remain largely untapped opportunities and, with heightening competition from Apple, Amazon, and Facebook, the pace of progress will continue to accelerate.

In 2017 alone, for example, we are about to see an ad-blocker built into Chrome, a mobile-first index, and the increased uptake of voice search.

Google defines itself as “machine-learning first” in its approach, so we are entering an era of unprecedented – and mildly unpredictable – possibilities. If Google can integrate its Assistant software into our everyday lives, the humble search results page as we know it may soon be a thing of the past.

In our latest infographic, we have looked into a future where context will define the form and content of the search results pages we see.

You can view a high-resolution version of the image by clicking on the image below.

 

Infographic created by Clark Boyd, VP Strategy at Croud, and graphic designer Chelsea Herbert. Click here to read the blog post by Croud on The Future of Google Search Results Pages.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

How to identify and fix indexation bloat issues

Indexation bloat is when a website has pages within a search engine “index” and can cause issues if not monitored and policed properly.

It is an extremely common SEO problem and affects all websites, ranging from small WordPress blogs to big Hybris and Magento ecommerce websites.

The more serious cases of indexation bloat usually occur on ecommerce websites, as they tend to utilize user-friendly facetted navigations and filter lists, allowing users to quickly identify the products that they want.

I’ve seen examples first hand of simple Demandware and Open Cart websites with only a few hundred products having millions of URLs appear in Google’s index because of the product filters generating URLs.

Why is indexation bloat a problem?

It’s a known fact that when Google and the other search engines crawl your website, they don’t crawl your website in its entirety. Allowing and asking them to crawl unnecessary URLs wastes this resource.

If search engines aren’t regularly crawling your “money” pages and are instead getting stuck down other rabbit holes without picking up on updates, this could impact your organic performance.

Bloat can also lead to duplicate content issues. While internal website content duplication isn’t as serious an issue as external duplication, it could dilute an individual page’s prominence and relevancy for search terms if the page itself as the search engines aren’t sure which URL to rank for the terms.

Identifying index bloat issues

One early indicator of index bloat is the number of pages appearing within search engine results.

It’s important to note here that the number of pages typically identified using the site: operator within Google and Bing search often show different numbers to what you see in Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools — this isn’t something to worry about.

Website monitoring

While there are ways to resolve index bloat, the best way, in my experience, to deal with it is to prevent it from happening at all.

By checking Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools on a monthly basis, specifically at crawl data, you can record what is and isn’t regular behavior for your website.

Abnormal increases, or spikes in the “Pages crawled per day” and “Kilobytes downloaded per day” can be indicators that Google is accessing more URLs than it has been.

Likewise conducting a site: search within Google and Bing will let you see how many URLs they have in the index, and you’ll know roughly how many pages your website has.

How can I fix indexation bloat?

Identifying that you have an index bloat issue is only step one, now you have to establish what is causing the bloat.

These are some of the most common causes of indexation bloat, but it’s also not uncommon to have more than one of these causes.

  • Domain URLs being served through both http and https protocols
  • Printable versions of pages causing a duplicate URL
  • Parameter URLs caused by internal search
  • Parameter URLs caused by product filters
  • Pagination
  • Blog taxonomies
  • Session IDs in URLs
  • Injection of spam pages following a hack
  • Old URLs not redirected properly following a migration
  • Trailing slashes at the end of URLs causing duplication
  • UTM source

Fixing with meta robots

A page level meta robots tag is my preferred method of dealing with index bloat and is particularly useful if implemented from a server level across multiple pages at once.

Page level meta robots also take precedence over pagination and canonicalization directives, as well as the robots.txt file (unless blocked in the robots.txt file).

These are also effective at removing URLs containing parameters caused by product filters, faceted navigations and internal search functions. Blocking these in the robots.txt file isn’t always best as it can cause some issues between what different Google user agents can see, which can negatively impact paid search campaigns.

Best practice would be to use “noindex,follow” — this way any backlinks pointing to the page will still pass equity onto the domain.

Robots.txt File

Blocking URL parameters in the robots.txt file is both a great preventative and reactive measure, but it isn’t an absolute solution.

All a Robots.txt file does is direct search engines not to crawl a page, but Google can still index the page if the page is being linked to internally or from external sites. If you know where these internal links are, add a rel=”nofollow” to them.

Canonical tags

Self-referencing canonicalization is typically best practice, apart from on bloated URLs. Ecommerce platforms, like Open Cart, can create multiple URLs for the same product and category.

Adding a canonical tag to the headers of the unnecessary product and category URLs pointing to the “main” one will help search engines understand which version of the page should be indexed.

However, the canonical directive is only a directive, and can be ignored by search engines.

Pagination

Pagination issues can arise from blog post and blog category pages, product category pages, internal search results pages; basically any element of a website that has multiple pages.

Because these pages will contain the same meta information, search engines can confuse the relationship between them and could decide it’s duplicate content.

Using rel=”next” and rel=”prev” pagination markup will help the search engines understand the relationship between these pages and, along with configuration in Google Search Console, decide which ones need indexing.

Using Google Search Console’s URL parameter tool

The URL parameter tool can be used to tell Google what specific parameters do to content on a page (i.e. sort, narrow, filter). Like other methods previously mentioned, you need to make sure you’re not accidentally requesting Google to not index URLs that you want in the index, and not to specify a parameters behaviour incorrectly.

Google classifies your parameters into two categories; active and passive. An active parameter is something that impacts content on a page, so a product filter and a passive parameter is something like a session ID or a UTM source.

This should only really be used as a last resort and used correctly in conjunction with other methods, otherwise this could negatively impact the domain’s organic search performance.

Before using this tool, be sure to read Google’s official documentation and guidance.

The URL removal tool

Depending on the authority of your domain, Google could take a while to recognize and filter out the URLs you want removing. After you have implemented something to tell Google not to index the URL again (a page level meta robots tag), you can request that Google removes the URL from index via Google Search Console.

This is only a temporary measure as it will only hide the URL for 90 days from Google search results, but it doesn’t affect Google crawling and indexing the URL.

This is good to use if you don’t want users being able to find certain pages, but each URL has to be submitted individually so this isn’t a great solution if you have severe index bloat.

Index bloat resulting from a hack

Now, obviously if your website has been hacked, index bloat is definitely not going to be a priority concern. But the bloat from a hack can cause issues for the domain.

The below screenshot is of a Swiss (.ch) domain that operates within Europe, weeks after a hack:

The website itself only has around 50 pages, but as you can see Google is currently indexing 112,000.

This means that, among other things, those 50 pages of product and product information pages are now lost among thousands of hacked URLs, so any updates to these pages may take weeks to get noticed – especially if your website doesn’t command a large crawl budget.

Another indicator of this can be a sudden increase in search visibility (for irrelevant terms):

I’ve worked on websites previously where this has been the first indicator. Whilst running a routine monthly check in Google Search Console, a website that dealt in christening gowns had started ranking for “cheap NFL jerseys” and other American sportswear terms.

These visibility spikes are often short-lived, but can destroy the trust between Google and your domain for a long time, so a lot can be said for investing in cyber security beyond https.

Conclusion

Reducing index bloat doesn’t happen overnight, so it’s important to remain patient.

It’s also important to put in place a process or framework, and giving ownership of said process to someone to conduct on a regular basis.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Actions for Google Home: Time for brands to get creative

Google’s Home device was launched in November 2016 in the US, and as recently as April 6 2017 in the UK.

As a direct rival to Amazon’s Echo in the battle to gain control of the intelligent digital assistant market, Home has made great strides already. Some sources estimate that Google may already have an installed base one-third the size of Amazon’s Echo, which launched in late 2014.

Ultimately, the more effective and useful hardware will gain the public’s vote. What makes the hardware useful will be the software that powers it – and more specifically, the functionality that it provides.

Google has increased the number of Actions available via Home, and third parties are encouraged to get involved and develop novel uses for Google’s voice-enabled assistant.

It feels as though we are at something of an inflection point for this technology.

As such, it seems timely to take stock of where are, showcase some innovative uses of Actions, and also look at how marketers can start to profit from this largely untapped opportunity.

Google ‘Actions’ = Amazon ‘Skills’

Google Home is powered by Google Assistant, which has recently been rolled out across all Android devices. Assistant responds to voice commands, and can perform an increasing number of actions.

Actions are Google’s equivalent of Amazon’s ‘skills’ on Alexa; the full list of Actions can be accessed and enabled from the Google Home app.

Amazon has undoubtedly stolen a march in this regard, with over 10,000 skills already available. Most observers estimate there to be between 100 and 130 Actions available on Home.

A further 20 Actions were added last week by Google – but we are really just starting to scratch the surface of what this technology can achieve.

Google has opened this up to third-parties and has also provided a comprehensive guide to help developers get up and running.

The aim here is to move from a fairly one-dimensional interaction where a user voices a command and Google’s Assistant responds, to a fluid and ongoing conversation. The more interactions a user has with a digital assistant, the more intelligent the latter will become.

Actions: The fun and the functional

We can broadly separate the list of actions into two categories: the fun and the functional.

Some of the more frivolous features of digital assistants do serve to humanize them somewhat, but their use rarely extends beyond the gimmick phase. Just say “Ok Google, let’s play a game”, and the assistant will tell a joke, make animal noises, or speculate on what lies in your future.

On the side of the functional is an integration with If This Then That, which opens up a potentially limitless list of possibilities.

If This Then That integrates with over 100 web services, so there is plenty of room for experimentation here.

There are also a number of integrations with Google products like Chromecast and YouTube, along with third-party tie-ins with Spotify and Uber, for example.

One new – and innovative – use of Google Actions was released by Airbnb last week. The Airbnb Concierge Action serves as an information repository that is unique to each property.

The host can leave tips or prompts with the Assistant, which will then be relaid on to the guest when the correct voice command is made. Guests can also leave recommendations on local restaurants, for example, for the benefit of future visitors.

Marketers should pay attention to this. This is a clear example of a brand understanding that a new medium brings with it new possibilities.

Simply transposing an already existing product onto this new medium would be significantly less effective; we need to view digital assistants through an entirely different lens if we are to avail of their potential.

We have also seen a novel – if slightly mischievous – use (or abuse, depending on your perspective) of Google Home by Burger King this month. Burger King used a television ad slot to interact with Home and ask about one of its burgers, triggering the digital assistant to list the ingredients in a Whopper.

Although Google have moved swiftly to prevent this happening again, brands are clearly seeing Home as an opportunity to experiment and generate some publicity.

Digital assistants provide fertile ground for brands, as they create a new platform to connect with existing or potential customers. Moreover, with only 100 or so Actions available, there is ample room to engage with this now before the market inevitably becomes saturated.

For marketers interested in playing nicely with Google on this, you can sign up here to be informed of any partnership opportunities.

Monetizing voice-enabled assistants

This task is rather straightforward for Amazon, in the short term at least. Users can interact with Alexa to purchase from a selection of millions of items and have them delivered to their door by Amazon.

For Google, it is more complex. Their money-spinning AdWords business has depended on text-based search and a visual response. That input-output relationship is thrown off entirely by a voice-enabled digital assistant.

However, the smart money is on Google to find a way to integrate paid placements into their Home product, even if it takes some trial and error to find a solution that does not diminish the user experience.

During Alphabet’s (Google’s parent company) fourth-quarter earnings call in 2016, Google CEO Sundar Pichai informed investors, “[Home] is the core area where we’ve invested in for the very long term.”

The significance of those words cannot be understated. Google is, like any privately-held company, under pressure from its shareholders to deliver ever greater profits.

Selling hardware alone is unlikely to bring the profits Google needs to keep growing from its already dominant position, so there are clearly plans to monetize their Assistant in an ongoing capacity.

That level of fierce competition will bring advantages for consumers, as the products will improve and prices may even drop.

The advantages for marketers are potentially even greater, should they be willing to take some risks and work to get the most out of this still nascent technology.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Top Tips on Voice Search: Artificial Intelligence, Location and SEO

By 2020 it is projected there will be nearly 21 billion internet-connected devices, or “things” in the world.

The explosive ubiquity of this mobile-connected technology has led people to depend on these devices more regularly, with 94 percent of smartphone users claiming that they carry their phones with them frequently and 82 percent reporting that they never, or rarely, turn their phones off.

These numbers fall in line with a trend that is longer-standing, with Morgan Stanley reporting as early as 2011 that 91 percent of mobile users have some kind of mobile device within arm’s reach 100 percent of the time.

Corresponding with this increase in mobile device usage is the rise of what is called “voice search,” as well as the increasing prevalence of devices that contain “personal assistant” software like Alexa and Siri. People have become increasingly accustomed to the idea of speaking directly with computer devices and accessing information on the internet wherever and whenever they might need it. Naturally, like mobile usage in general, these emergent technologies have begun to influence search, and the impact will likely become even more apparent as usage grows.

Much in the way mobile devices have disrupted search by bringing on-the-go, local queries and results into the equation, voice search is introducing new methods of query and different results-experiences for users. Now, when a person activates voice search, particularly on personal assistant devices, most personal assistant technology will only deliver what is considered the best answer, essentially reducing the SERP to one result. That means that brands either occupy the first position, or, as far as voice search is concerned, they do not receive any attention at all.

Of course, the single-result SERP isn’t uniformly true for voice search. For voice-activated technologies connected to visual displays like smartphones and laptops, there is a greater possibility for more results. Even so, brands still need to remain focused on appearing in the top results. When someone uses voice search because they are on-the-go or they need an immediate answer, they don’t intend to scroll through pages. Rather, they’re looking for Google rich answers, such as a Quick Answer (which provides a high-quality, immediate answer to a query), Rich Card (information-rich content previews), or other top-featured results.

Google’s new Rich Cards

Over the past few years, we have seen the transformative impact of mobile on search and consumer behavior, including the shift towards the mobile-first algorithm. Voice search is the next major trend that brands will need to focus on to ensure they remain competitive. The more we understand about voice search and personal assistant devices, the easier it will be to optimize for them and ensure that your brand is represented across devices.

The role of personal assistants

As devices with artificially intelligent personal assistance software have become increasingly mainstream, so too has the use of voice search.

According to Google’s Gary Illyes, the number of voice queries in 2015 doubled from the number in 2014. Developers are now beginning to understand there are particular types of search queries people are more fond of using voice for, rather than text. For example “when is my meeting?” Users are 30 times more likely to use voice for these types of queries, rather than text.

These personal assistants, which have been put forth by several different brands, have empowered customers to remain even more connected to the internet at all times, even when engaging in hands-on activities like cooking or driving. Customers can ask about the cook time for chicken, for example, while in the middle of preparing the meat without having to remove themselves from their original task.

Mary Meeker’s Internet Trends Report looked at the reasons why customers use voice search, as well as which device settings are the most popular. The report indicated that the usefulness of voice search when a user’s hands or vision were otherwise occupied was the top reason that people enjoyed the technology, followed by a desire for faster results and difficulty typing on certain devices.

Where do users access voice search? It turns out that, more often than not, consumers are opting to use voice-activated devices is at home, followed by the car and on-the-go.

These personal assistants, along with voice search in general, are creating an increasingly connected world where customers expect search to be ever-present and capable of addressing their needs immediately.

 

How Artificial Intelligence powers voice search

Artificial intelligence powers personal assistance capabilities for mobile users. AI helps voice search and the associated algorithms to better understand and account for user intent. This intelligence, using semantics, search history, user proclivities and other factors, is able to process and understand the likely context of queries and provide results accordingly.

Natural language triggers, such as “who,” “what,” “where,” “when,” “why,” and “how,” for example, make it easier for AI to understand the user’s place on the customer journey and the likely goal of the search. Voice-activated devices can then direct users to where they most likely want to be on the web.

AI is essentially able to sift through voice search queries and identify the most important information, as well as the understand the intent regardless of an array of speech errors. For example, a query that changes direction mid-sentence, such as “How was the… what was the score to the White Sox game last night?” will be correctly answered. This enhances the conversational capabilities of the voice search, understanding the reason behind a query even if it is not asked in a precise way.

Voice search in practice

Voice search makes it even easier for customers to ask hyperlocal queries, which is significant in the context of a mobile-rich environment. Consider how users execute search queries differently when speaking to mobile devices rather than exploring the web via a desktop computer.

Voice searches tend to contain slightly different words, such as “close” or “nearby”, which are not commonly used on desktop computers. Why? Because people tend to use mobile devices to access personal assistance software, and mobile devices are most often employed to find businesses or other locations while on-the-go. The aforementioned language triggers, “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” and “why,” are also common, setting the context for the query and what the user likely wants to find.

These queries are also most likely to contain longtail keywords, conversational phrasing, and complete sentences. All of these factors impact how brands should optimize their content to maximize its appearance in voice search.

Voice searches have also become increasingly complex. For example, users might ask, “Find a French restaurant near me” and then follow up with, “Call the first one.” The voice search algorithm is able to interpret the second query as related to the first and act appropriately. The ability of the voice search algorithm to understand the related context of these queries enhances user experiences and maintains the conversational tone.

Voice search and local search: How the SEO marketer can succeed

Knowing that voice search is an emergent technology that will impact marketing at large is one thing. Understanding how to take advantage of that fact is another. For that reason, marketers should develop an array of best practices to ensure success in the wake of this incoming trend. Here are some tips to get you started:

Tip 1. Use keyword and intent analysis to better understand the context of the queries. For marketers to be able to accurately create and optimize content for voice search, they need to know the replies that users expect when they make a particular voice search query. Then, tailor the content to meet the needs of the users. Remember to consider synonyms and alternate means of phrasing the same query, such as “How do I get to the store?” versus “Give me directions to the store.”

Tip 2. Incorporate important location keywords into the content that could impact voice search. For example, Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39, or Golden Gate Park might all be landmarks that people use to find a suitable restaurant in San Francisco. Incorporating these terms into your content will boost your hyperlocal presence and make it easier for you to rank for voice search.

Tip 3. Use markup to ensure that your content is ready to be displayed by Google rich results. Rich answer boxes, such as Google Quick Answers and the Local Three Pack, play a big role in providing rapid answers to user queries on-the-go. Making sure that all your content is marked up with schema will help ensure that your content is prepared to be displayed in any rich boxes that become available.

Tip 4. Make sure that each physical business location has its own site and that each site is individually optimized. This means you need to do more than just translate keywords to other languages or optimize all sites for the same terms. You need to optimize each site for the context and desires of their specific targeted audience. Learn what interests customers in that particular area through targeted keyword and intent research and make sure that each site is ready to compete within its own local sector.

Tip 5. Since a large part of succeeding with voice search is having a strong local presence, paid search and organic search teams can work together to maximize the brand’s presence. Research valuable keywords for the organization, intent, and how the brand ranks. Identifying the opportunities where having a paid ad would be the most beneficial and where organic search will be able to establish the brand can help organizations maximize their resources.

Tip 6. Do not neglect your apps. Remember that apps dominate a significant portion of the mobile experience. In fact, an estimated 90 percent of mobile minutes are spent on apps. Your data from your research about local search and natural language voice search will help you construct your app to maximize the user experience. Use deep linking within your app to ensure that customers who engage with you through voice search are able to find the content that originally interested them.

Source: Smart Insights

Voice search continues to become a dominant force in the world of digital marketing. Businesses need to be prepared to respond and keep their brands recognizable as people become more accustomed to immediate answers wherever they might be.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Four most interesting search marketing news stories of the week

We’re back with our weekly round-up of the most interesting search marketing news stories from around the web.

I hope you all enjoyed last Friday’s Easter search trivia quiz, and if you haven’t had a chance to test your knowledge yet, be sure to have a go and share your score with us on social media!

This week: a look at the newly-relaunched Google Earth and what it could mean for marketers, and a study has shown that 45% of marketers say their biggest difficulty with Schema.org markup is proving its value.

Plus, Google’s new “suggested clip” feature in search results shows how far its ability to search within videos has improved, and a new menu of Partner-only Features on Google’s Developer Blog hints at some exciting things to come.

Relaunched Google Earth introduces 3D local maps, visual storytelling opportunities

Google has just unveiled a stunning relaunch of Google Earth, with a wealth of new features and information to explore. On Search Engine Watch this week, Clark Boyd gave us a tour of the new Earth, including a look at how marketers can take advantage of the visual storytelling opportunities it presents, and what it means for local search, where “near me” searches will activate a 3D local map featuring business names, photographs and contact details.

45% of marketers have difficulty showing the value of Schema markup

A recent survey carried out by Schema App, a provider of tools to help marketers use Schema markup, has provided some insight into the difficulties that marketers encounter when using Schema markup.

Schema markup is often touted as a killer search tactic which is nevertheless seeing very little uptake among website owners. It can vastly improve the look of websites on the SERP with the addition of rich data, and it is integral to a number of Google features like featured snippets.

But according to Schema App’s survey, 45% of marketers say they have difficulty in “showing the value of doing Schema markup – reporting the impact and results”. Forty-two percent struggle with maintaining the ‘health’ of their markup when Google makes changes, while 40% cited difficulties in developing a strategy around what to mark up with Schema.

Meanwhile, nearly a quarter of respondents (24%) said they had difficulty understanding Schema markup vocabulary at all.

Google shows “suggested clip” feature in search results

Google is continually improving its ability to search within a video, and to surface a particular search result within the content of a video. In a previous search news roundup we reported on the fact that Google’s machine learning technology can now recognize objects within videos, as demonstrated at Google’s Next Cloud conference in early March.

Then this week, Ryan Rodden of Witblade reported that Google is now showing suggested video clips in search results for particular queries:

Image: Witblade

The suggested clip appeared in a query for “blur out text in imovie”, highlighting a suggested clip of 25 seconds in the middle of a how-to video. While it’s unknown how accurate this result was for the query, it shows that Google is making bold inroads into searching within video and is treating video like other kinds of content to be crawled, indexed and presented as a Featured Snippet.

Given the huge rise, and popularity, of video of all forms in marketing, social media and publishing at the moment, it’s a smart move and something we can probably expect to see more of in future.

Google adds extensive new menu of Partner-only Features

Google’s Partner-only Features are a forum for it to debut certain search features to a select group of approved and certified providers, before they are rolled out on a wider scale. Aaron Bradley noted in the Semantic Search Marketing Google+ group this week that Google has just added a huge new menu in the Partner-only Features section of its documentation.

The new menu features eight sub-sections including “Carousels”, “Indexing API”, “Jobs” and “Live coverage”.

All of the links currently lead to a 404 error, but it could be an interesting insight into what’s to come from Google.