Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Google AdWords: The Beginner’s Guide

Google AdWords is a staple platform for the vast majority of digital marketing strategies. However, marketers need to get things right from the outset to avoid costly inefficiencies.

This guide will provide everything you need to know to get an AdWords account up and running, and set for success. 

The digital marketing industry has grown in tandem with Google AdWords, to the extent that the two are linked inextricably.

Of every dollar spent on digital advertising in the US 42 cents goes to Google, and the search giant brought in 96% of its revenues in 2016 from pay-per-click (PPC) advertising.

It is easy to see why the format has such enduring appeal. Any business can get started and making money on AdWords in a few simple steps, with Google providing plentiful support along the way.

The business model is beautifully crafted to fulfill a marketer’s needs; you only pay when a user takes out your desired action (normally a click, a call, or a purchase), so the return on investment is clear and controlled.

Moreover, consumers are explicitly stating their intent when they search. If I owned a sleepwear store, for example, (and it’ll always be the dream), I would love to be front and center when my target audience searches for [buy lounging pants online]. AdWords allows us to do just that.

There’s more to AdWords’ lure than that, of course. Google processes well over 1 trillion searches per year, all of which are saleable assets to data-hungry brands and marketers.

Factor in the increasingly granular audience targeting and remarketing options Google can offer and the potency of this offering becomes very clear.

Although Google didn’t invent pay-per-click advertising, they certainly refined it and developed the proposition into a sophisticated, multi-billion dollar industry.

Its slick interface (recently upgraded to make it even more user-friendly) can get brands spending very quickly, but there is a subtle blend of art and science behind a successful PPC campaign.

Adwords

Getting the basics right from day one can be the difference between an underwhelming PPC account and a very profitable one.

This guide is written with that aim in mind; to get beginners up and running on AdWords through a combination of definitions, tips, and best practices.

Although AdWords offers options for Display, Shopping, App, and Video campaigns, we will narrow our focus to AdWords Search campaigns within this article.

Search Network

Quick Links:

Stage 1: Keyword and audience research

The first stage of setting up an AdWords campaign is to understand the level of consumer demand for your brand and products. We can approach this by defining which business objectives we wish to deliver on by using paid search marketing to provide some structure to the process.

AdWords can be expensive, so consider where it fits in alongside your other marketing efforts. PPC and SEO are typically included within the same keyword strategy, given the obvious interplay between the two on search results pages. Often, PPC can cover gaps in SEO visibility or help to strengthen good SEO performance by doubling a brand’s presence for high-priority keywords.

This will become a more significant factor at the later stages of AdWords account setup, but it is a good idea to start thinking about how PPC fits alongside other marketing channels as early as possible.

Furthermore, there is a lot of work that can be done outside of the AdWords interface to get your PPC campaign off to a great start.

Google Keyword Planner is a useful tool, no doubt, but it is not the only resource we should look to for audience research. Before delving into the AdWords interface, marketers should:

  • Survey current customers: Find out what customers see as the brand’s unique proposition and what keeps them coming back to purchase.
  • Speak to the customer service team: Customer service teams hold invaluable data on the most frequent areas of strengths and weakness cited by consumers about the business. Use this information either to accentuate positives or counteract negative perceptions.
  • Strategize with other departments: Brainstorm some ideas about the brand, its products, and what exactly the company is hoping to achieve by using AdWords. Every department can score the proposed keyword categories by their level of importance to their business function, which helps to create a wider view on the PPC strategy beyond the digital marketing team.
  • Research the competition: Third party tools can give a really good sense of how your competitors are approaching paid search. This will help you to understand the landscape and also gain some tips on which keywords might be valuable additions to your list.

This will naturally lead to some core product names and concepts, which can be used to generate a keyword list and to shape ad copy tests at a later stage.

From here, we can enter the Google ecosystem and plug in our keywords to see the search volumes and projected costs for our campaigns. The AdWords keyword planner will reveal how frequently a keyword is searched and how much it typically costs when a user clicks on a paid listing.

Google will also automatically suggest a variety of relevant, popular keywords that are semantically linked to your seed list of terms.

AdWords Keyword Planner

It can be easy to get carried away, but stay focused on the essential volume drivers for your business. The account can always be expanded later, so start with a smaller set of keywords to get a sense of the market and familiarize yourself with AdWords.

We are fortunate to have both the technology and the data at our disposal today to go deeper than just bidding on keywords. Another level of segmentation can be added by including audience data on consumer demographics, interests, past website behavior, or location.

These will be explored later; for now, we have our initial list of keywords that we know our brand wants to advertise for.

Stage 2: Keyword match types

Of course, people don’t always search for the same products in exactly the same way. An identical search intent (to get more information or to buy something, for example) can be expressed using myriad terminologies.

Someone hoping to purchase lounging pants from a sleepwear store may search [buy lounging pants online], but they could also type or say [where can i buy lounging pants nearby], or simply [lounging pants].

If my objective is to sell more of this product, I don’t want to restrict my visibility to just a few of these variations. I want to match my brand to this purchase intent in as many relevant situations as possible.

That’s where keyword match types come in. Match types can both restrict visibility and allow Google’s technology to make decisions on our behalf about which keywords are relevant enough to display our ad.

Broad match

This match type, as the name suggests, allows most room for interpretation. I can tell Google that I want to bid on, and have my ads shown for, any search queries related to lounging pants and it will do so for terms as varied as [red mens pants for lounging] and [tartan lounging pants store near me]. My ad could also show for synonyms of my defined terms and for different combinations that include both of the specified words.

Phrase match

Phrase match provides more control for the advertiser. This time if I say I want to bid on “lounging pants” (phrase match keywords are always written within quotation marks), my ad can show up when these two words appear in this order, but they can be accompanied by other modifiers. For example, [lounging pants for women] or [stripy lounging pants] would be valid within this match type.

Exact match

Exact match is something of a misnomer. It lets advertisers specify the exact terms they want to be displayed against, but it is not 100% accurate. Google made some controversial changes earlier this year to the format, meaning that keyword targets set as exact match can show up against close variants of the defined term.

To go back to our imaginary sleepwear store, if I set [lounging pants nyc] (exact match phrases are always written between square brackets) as my target, I could have an ad served against [lounging pants in nyc] or even [nyc lounging pants]. That can be problematic, of course, and there is a script to make exact match, well, exact, here.

To get our account up and running Google’s out-of-the-box solution is fine, but inspect your search query reports to see how exact this match type has been.

For more on the differences between broad match, exact match and phrase match keywords, check out Amanda DiSilvestro’s guide to common PPC keyword mistakes.

Negatives

Negatives are an essential part of keyword setup. Negative matches allow us to specify any queries or modifiers that we categorically do not want to show against. For example, I may not want to display an ad for any lounging pants terms that include “used” or “second hand”, for obvious reasons.

I also may not sell certain brands, colors, or styles, so I can add these to my negatives list and upload them to AdWords. This brings an essential element of control for brands, as most companies have a clear idea both of how they do and do not want to be perceived by customers.

A combination of the above is usually best and the optimal balance between them can be found through testing and optimisation. Exact match is great for targeting, but it restricts reach. Broad match will get impressions, but they won’t always be the ones you want.

Tweaking the negatives list and shifting the focus on a keyword level between exact, phrase, and broad will yield good results to advertisers that pay close attention and are prepared to change tack.

Stage 3: Creating PPC ads

Now that we have defined the keywords we want to target and the match type variations we plan to utilize, we can start to create our ad copy. This is a really crucial element of AdWords setup and the right ad copy can significantly improve the click-through rate (CTR) your ads receive.

Even with the right targeting and the right bid strategy, there is no guarantee of traffic. Always consider why a prospect would stop and choose your brand over everything else calling for their attention on a search results page.

Google introduced a new standard for PPC ads, known as Expanded Text Ads (ETA), last year. As the name implies, these provide more scope for advertisers to communicate with their audience and they are designed with mobile devices in mind.

ETAs

Expanded Text Ads are comprised of the following elements:

  • Headline: Two 30 character headline fields, which can appear side by side or on separate lines, depending on the size of a user’s screen.
  • Description: One 80 character field, within which you should try to highlight the core reasons prospects should engage with your ad over others.
  • Destination URL: This is the landing page users will be sent through to, so it is worth spending time testing different landing pages to see which perform best for specific queries. The destination URL will be tied directly to your Quality Score, which we will get to in the next section.

These fields will be displayed as follows within the AdWords interface:

ETA in interface

A best practice in this area is to create 2 or 3 ad copy variations and test the effectiveness of each in a controlled environment.

Google has also created a helpful walk-through to help users navigate the platform as they create their ads:

Ad extensions

Advertisers have access to a wide variety of extensions, allowing them to highlight offers, benefits, or unique selling points to their intended audience. These also bring the advantage of taking up more space on search results pages, which can have a positive effect on click-through rate.

As we can see in the example below for the query [car insurance], advertisers are making the most of these new formats to take up as much valuable real estate as possible.

Car Insurance PPC

We won’t go into detail on ad extensions within this guide, but it is worth knowing that some appear automatically while others require input from advertisers before they show. You can read more here about the list of possible extensions.

Stage 4: Setting up ad groups and campaigns

We are now ready to start categorizing our keywords and ads into ad groups.

This can be achieved by separating out your products and services and creating an ad group for each. If we go back to our sleepwear example, we can illustrate a clear and logical approach for achieving this.

Ad GroupEach of these ad groups will have 2-3 ad copy variations, which can be updated on an ongoing basis as performance data arrives in the account. Each keyword, of course, can be set to the match types outlined above.

After I have tested out this product, I may decide to branch out into the pajama market. This is where we need to introduce the concept of campaigns, which sit at a level above both keywords and ad groups.

AdWords Campaigns

In a nutshell: keywords make up ad groups, and ad groups make up campaigns.

There is no obvious reward for starting with a huge array of ad groups; in fact, this lessens your level of control over performance. When getting set up, it is best to begin with a smaller sub-set of core products as this will help performance and allow you to learn from the data much faster.

Some marketers even prefer to isolate keywords into their own ad groups, if they are particularly profitable. This strategy brings a lot more control, but it is labor-intensive and restricts the amount of data that can be used for optimization within the ad group.

Stage 5: The fundamentals of AdWords bidding

The AdWords auction dictates how much you pay for each action and in which position your ad will show for the selected keywords.

First of all, it is important to know that AdWords operates as a sealed, second-price auction. This is explained clearly by Cornell University:

“The auction is a sealed-bid auction because advertisers do not know what other advertisers are bidding. The highest bidder wins the auction and gets their advertisement placed on specific pages for specific users, but pays the price of the second highest bidder plus $0.01. The $0.01 is to differentiate the highest bidder from the second highest bidder and to allow the highest advertiser to outbid the next highest bid.  This type of auction awards the advertiser with the highest bid but sells the advertisement slot to the highest advertiser at the price of the second highest bid.”

Therefore, what you bid is not always what you pay. A second consideration is that budgets are set as a daily limit; however, Google has recently decided to allow accounts to spend up to double this amount each day as long as they are still hitting their campaign targets.

This is evened out over the course of a month, and Google will never charge advertisers more than 30.4 (the average number of days in a month) times their daily budget. So if your account spends double the daily limit on a frequent basis early in the month, you could max out the budget rather quickly.

Luckily, there is a very helpful script that will allow you to keep some control over this.

Now, when it comes to bidding, we can split out the two main options as automated or manual.

Automated Bidding

Google uses a range of advanced machine learning technologies and rule-based automation to deliver maximum value to advertisers in its auctions. We can therefore tell Google what our objective is, how much we are willing to pay to achieve it, and let the algorithms do the bidding on our behalf.

automated

That makes automated bidding sound appealing, but there are enough cautionary tales in the industry to suggest it must be approached with some reservation.

Ceding control to Google altogether can lead to very costly campaigns and, while setting a sensible ceiling on maximum bids can help, automated bidding can still lead to inefficient spend. Machine learning systems feed off data and learn from feedback, which means budget can be spent in a wide range of areas to gain this knowledge.

Manual bidding

For a beginner, manual bidding is a great way to start. This option provides control, quick feedback, and the ability to adjust bids quickly based on performance. Although it gets more difficult to stick with manual bidding as an account increases in size and complexity, nascent accounts with a small set of ad groups will benefit from this approach.

Google has also added the option to adjust bids based on a user’s device type. This welcome feature means marketers can increase their bids for specific queries on a mobile device, for example, if they know that this device type typically converts better than desktop. This is reflective of user behavior, as people tend to use their mobile and desktop for different purposes.

Quality score

Quality Score is a fundamental aspect of Google AdWords bidding, as it will dictate how much a brand pays for clicks. The intention behind Quality Score is simple: Google wants to ensure that relevant ads show against its searches and also wants to deter low-quality websites from manipulating the system to gain high ranking positions.

AdWords depends on its high quantity of searches, after all, so Google needs to ensure users have a positive searching experience or they may take their business elsewhere.

The exact formula behind Quality Score is not publicly known, but we can make some safe assumptions. The score is on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being given to irrelevant ads and landing pages, and 10 awarded to brands that match the user’s intent with a relevant ad and a great landing page experience.

Quality Score is calculated at a keyword level, so you could even see different scores within the same ad group. Again, there is plenty of room for experimentation and it is worth the work, as a high Quality Score can make your budget go a lot further.

Wordstream created a helpful image to illustrate how this works:

Wordstream

Ad Rank is explained in more detail here, but suffice to say this metric determines which position your ads will appear in on search results pages.

Google recently added a long-awaited feature that allows advertisers to view historical Quality Score, which now allows us to view any positive or negative trends over time. There is plenty more information on Historical Quality Score in this thorough guide.

Stage 6: Reviewing and optimizing performance

To get the best possible results from Google AdWords, marketers need to keep a close eye on their performance and be prepared to make adjustments. There are four metrics in particular to keep abreast of, which can be segmented by dimensions such as device type, demographic factors, or location.

Click-through rate (CTR): Clicks/Impressions

Conversion rate (CVR): Conversions/Clicks

Cost-per-click (CPC): Spend/Clicks

Cost-per-acquisition (CPA): Spend/Conversions

The steps outlined above will get your AdWords campaign up and running with the right foundations in place. There is a huge amount more to this platform and advertisers are rewarded for investing the time in more advanced features.

However, this all starts with the basics and as long as marketers monitor performance and are open to new strategies, the more complex pieces will naturally fall into place over time.

Monday, October 16, 2017

How businesses can optimize for Google’s new Question & Answer feature

Back in August, Google introduced a new feature called Questions & Answers, or Q&A, in Google Maps. 

This feature allows you and other people to ask and answer questions about your business.

Like reviews and other user-generated content, this update could have an impact on your business’ reputation, so it’s important that you take an active role in managing your Q&As.

Here’s what you need to know to make the most of this feature.

What does Google’s Q&A feature mean for businesses?

Google’s Q&A feature lets anyone ask questions about your business. These questions show up on your Google Maps page. You can answer these questions yourself, or other people can answer them. As the business owner, you can also preemptively ask and answer questions that you think might be useful to customers.

Examples of what the Q&A section looks like in Google Maps. Source: onlineownership.com

The new Q&A feature is undoubtedly handy for customers – who hasn’t wished they could ask questions about a business or venue before actually going there?

For business owners, though, keeping up with Q&As means adding one more thing to the to-do list. There’s no way to opt out of questions and answers if you have a Google My Business listing.

While you could choose to ignore the feature, that’s not a good idea – it’s best to represent your own business online whenever you can, instead of letting others do it for you.

Will this feature be good for your business? Maybe. Like reviews, Google’s Q&As have the potential to build your reputation online. A variety of questions and thorough, high-quality answers on your page can boost your business’ professionalism and trustworthiness in the eyes of customers.

But it remains to be seen whether this will actually bring more customers to you, or just prevent you from falling behind your competitors who make good use of Q&As.

There are some potential downsides to this feature. Like any other crowd-sourced information, Google’s Q&As are vulnerable to spamming and abuse. You obviously don’t want spam on any page associated with your business, even if it’s not your fault it’s there.

And if your competitors have a mean streak, it’s not out of the question that they might try to sabotage your business by planting false or harmful information in your Q&As.  

Another, more subtle downside of the feature is that it could decrease traffic to your website. If customers can get all the information they need straight from Google, they might not bother clicking through to your site. Time will tell whether this will become an issue for businesses.

The good news? You’ve still got plenty of time to optimize for Google’s Q&As. The feature isn’t even available on all devices yet. When it launched in August, it was available for Android devices only. It now shows up on iOS devices as well, but still isn’t available for desktop users.

Start working on your Q&As now, and you’ll be ahead of all your competitors who wait to start using the feature.

How can you optimize for Google’s Q&As?

1. Commit to tackling this new challenge

You can’t avoid or opt out of the Q&A feature, so you might as well take a hands-on approach to it. If you don’t manage your Q&As, somebody else will.  

2. Come up with a list of questions and answers

If customers haven’t asked many questions about your business yet, beat them to the punch. Write up a list of questions and post helpful, relevant answers to those questions yourself. Make sure you’re signed into your Google My Business account when you do this, so that Google will mark your answers as being from the business owner.

Posting your own Q&As lets you establish official answers to frequently asked questions before anyone else has the chance to provide potentially incorrect information.

3. Don’t be afraid to get specific

If there’s something you want people to know about your business or services, go ahead and include it in Q&A form. For instance, if your restaurant can modify any order to be vegan, that would be a good thing to include in your Q&As, even if it’s not a frequently asked question.

As long as everything you post is relevant and potentially helpful to someone, there’s generally no harm in providing a lot of information.

4. Put yourself in the customer’s shoes

As you write your Q&As, aim for helpfulness and clarity. Think about what questions you might have if you were a customer who’d never been to your business before. Phrase your questions and answers in plain English, and avoid any technical jargon that casual visitors might not be familiar with.

5. Don’t post anything spammy or unhelpful

This probably goes without saying, but keep all your questions and answers professional, helpful, and to-the-point. The Q&A feature is not a promotional tool for businesses – it’s designed to help customers. Don’t stuff your questions or answers with keywords, and don’t post Q&As that are just thinly veiled advertisements for your business.

6. Stay on top of your Q&A section

As long as you’re logged into the Google Maps app, you’ll get a push notification whenever someone asks a question about your business. Answer these questions as soon as possible. Don’t put them off, or someone else will probably answer them for you.

If you provide quick, complete, and helpful answers, other people will be less likely to chime in with less accurate or helpful information.

The Google Maps app sends you push notifications when someone asks a question about your business. Source: Search Engine Land

The Q&A feature uses an upvoting system, which makes it especially important to get your answers in quickly. Earlier answers will have more time to collect upvotes, meaning they’ll be more likely to be displayed.

7. Report any malicious content in your Q&A section

Unfortunately, you can’t hide spam, irrelevant questions and answers, or malicious postings in your Q&A yourself. The best thing to do is to report this content to Google immediately. Keep a close eye on your questions and answers so you can catch and address any problems right away.

One tip for preventing Q&A mischief: never answer a question with just a “yes” or “no.” Users can edit the questions they asked after the fact, making it look like you said “yes” or “no” to a completely different question. Provide a complete, detailed answer to prevent this from happening.

The takeaway

Google’s new Q&A feature is still in the process of rolling out for all devices, and its full effect has yet to be seen. For now, the best thing to do is to be proactive.

Take the initiative in asking and answering frequently asked questions about your business, and monitor your Q&A section to make sure it’s up-to-date and full of helpful information.

What do you think of Google’s Q&A feature? Has it helped your business? Share your thoughts in the comments!

 

Amanda DiSilvestro is a writer for AgencyAnalyticsan all-in-one reporting platform for agencies. You can connect with Amanda on Twitter and LinkedIn, or check out her content services at amandadisilvestro.com.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Seven SEO trends to watch in 2018

As we reach the fourth quarter of 2017, it’s time to start thinking about the year ahead and what to expect from SEO in 2018.

There are number of search industry trends that we’ve seen the very beginnings of this year and last, which will come into greater prominence in 2018.

Here are seven you should be keeping an eye on in order to stay ahead of the curve.

Voice search and digital assistants 

Voice search technology presents a big opportunity for changing the way we communicate and process information. The rise of digital assistants has presented a growing market that can change the way search queries are performed. According to Google, 1 out of 5 searches already come from voice queries.

This changes the search market and we’re expecting to see an even bigger shift towards voice search in 2018. When it comes to setting up an SEO strategy, the rise of voice search brings out the need to focus on more long-tail search keywords and a natural language that matches the user’s conversational tone.

As accuracy improves in digital assistants, there will be more people using voice search from their mobile devices, seeking for quick and relevant answers. It becomes important to research the voice user intent will provide more accurate results, helping the algorithms provide the best answer.

Moreover, voice search is expected to grow even more with its integration in smart home hubs, helping companies access new data, while users enjoy a seamless experience through everyday devices. As digital assistants go beyond smartphone devices, there is a great opportunity both for SEO and content, taking advantage of a growing market that connects the brand with a user in a unique but still relevant and useful way.

Link building

Link building is not expected to disappear in 2018, but it will be more important than ever to create a strategy that seeks out quality links. There’s no need to aim for new links if they don’t add value and help you build an authority in your target niche.

This doesn’t always mean that the best backlinks come from the most popular sites, but it’s still crucial to seek coverage from sites that are relevant to your industry. Referral traffic can still contribute to your site’s organic search rankings, while it is also useful to start thinking of link building as a long-term process.

A successful SEO strategy in 2018 will move towards relationship building, helping a brand develop powerful contacts and links that will be beneficial in a longer term.

A challenge for 2018 will be dealing with guest blogs and how to involve them as an integral part of a link building strategy without hurting a brand’s reputation. Back in May Google warned publishers who rely too much on guest posting for link building that there will be a closer look at guest blogs in an attempt to control spammy and questionable links.

This brings out the need for a more diversified link building strategy, aiming for a complete backlink profile, rather than single links that can bring successful results.

User experience 

User experience for SEO will become even more important in 2018. Google has made it clear that the focus is on the user and this should make more sites deliver a smooth UX for their visitors.

A good user experience increases the chances of people engaging with the pages that they visit. This helps search engines discover which pages are more useful for people, favoring them over others.

The first step is to monitor a site’s speed, its readability and its navigation structure to examine how these can be improved through the right changes. A closer look at your visitors’ browsing habits can offer helpful insights. For example, if the visits coming directly from search last just 30 seconds, then this probably means that the content or the user experience is hurting your site’s conversions.

Moreover, as more people consume content from their mobile devices, there is a growing need to provide an excellent user experience across all devices.

As SEO heads towards more relevant and personalized experiences, UX will be key to maintaining search traffic by creating an engaged audience. It’s not enough anymore to see a rise in search traffic if it’s not converting or bringing the desired engagement to create a loyal audience.

Featured snippets and Quick Answers 

The popularity of featured snippets has increased the competition among companies trying to appear in “position 0” in the SERP. Gaining a featured snippet in search requires catering to a specific combination of factors, which has opened up SEO beyond the traditional race to the top of Google.

According to Stone Temple Consulting, almost 30% of the test Google search queries show Featured Snippets. This brings out the need for a strategy on how to optimize a site’s content to meet Google’s standards for Featured Snippets.

Lists, tables and graphs tend to be popular, while it’s also useful to create content in a Q&A format, making it easier for Google to extract the right content to show up as a featured snippet.

An interesting angle to focus on during the next year is the optimization of featured snippets for voice search. The combination of two growing trends in the search market can create a great opportunity for more companies to show up at the top of the SERPs. This will involve considering the changes in the search queries, focusing more on longer keywords and natural language.

A similar way to reach the top of the SERPs is to create content that serves as a Quick Answer. Google’s Answer Box is an enhanced type of featured snippet that aims to answer a question in a more appealing way.

It usually follows a “how” or “what” structure and is Google’s attempt to use search intent to organize the search results in a more useful way. It has been observed that the results that show up in an Answer Box can see a CTR of 32.3%.

This will bring out the need for more companies to learn more about search intent and how they can optimize their content to show up in an Answer Box. Thus, a carefully crafted Answer Box strategy can increase both a site’s authority, but also a brand’s conversion.

Mobile-first index

2018 is more than likely to be the year that brands realize the potential of putting mobile first, rather than catering to mobile as an afterthought. This is particularly true if Google decides to make 2018 the year it finally deploys its mobile-first index.

But even if it doesn’t, brands and businesses need to put mobile first anyway: a recent study by BrightEdge found that, 57% of web traffic comes from mobile devices. More than this, there is a significant difference between the way that keywords rank on mobile and the way they rank on desktop – so mobile-first content is needed in order to have the best chance of being visible in mobile search.

As mobile searches are all about context, brands should provide the best possible results for every question, while local SEO is going to become even more popular. Mobile users will seek for more content while they are on the go, which means that brands will face a big opportunity of marketing their business at a local context.

Mobile optimization for local users, along with the rise of voice search, can provide an excellent way to create a successful SEO strategy in 2018 by facilitating the search experience through personalized and relevant answers.

Site speed is critical for search engines and your page’s performance at the SERPs and Accelerated Mobile Pages can make a page load up to four times faster than a standard mobile page. According to Chartbeat, AMP load in a second and they also see a 35% improvement in engagement time.

Google’s focus on AMP makes more publishers consider their use, currently counting more than 2 billion Accelerated Mobile Pages.

The demand is expected to grow in 2018, helping companies improve their engagement and the overall user experience through fast and responsive mobile pages. Brands that want to keep up with the changes in mobile search has to keep up with the trend and experiment whether they need AMP or any other fixes to improve their site speed.

The rise of visual search

Visual search is an exciting area and the combination of technological innovation and user experience can take searching to the next level.

As the internet becomes more visually-focused, there is a great opportunity to explore the power of visual search. Major tech companies including Bing, Pinterest and Google have already invested in developing powerful visual search engines in a bid to capitalize on this new trend.

An SEO strategy in 2018 needs to consider the way we consume visual content and how search engines now go beyond text to explore the changing habits of search. Rich visuals now become more engaging and the use of neuroscience and innovation bring out an interesting and competitive market.

As the competition increases, more companies seem to acknowledge the potential of a successful visual search, while brands need to focus even more on optimizing their visual content for SEO purposes.

AI and machine learning

Artificial intelligence and machine learning are already changing the way that search results are ranked. Machine learning can also facilitate the way searches take place, helping users find contextualized results.

This will lead to a more personalized experience, while the rise of voice search and digital assistants can offer the ideal ground to develop artificial intelligence and reward successful SEO strategies that keep up with the trends.

Google’s RankBrain, or else Google’s deep learning algorithm, is also expected to affect the search landscape. Catering to RankBrain often seems like an intimidating prospect to SEOs, and the term “Artificial Intelligence Optimization” has been bandied about a fair amount.

But as Dan Taylor explained in a comprehensive look at RankBrain and SEO, there is no set way to optimize for RankBrain, although certain search practices are now more relevant than ever.

We can expect more changes to come in 2018 where AI and machine learning are concerned, and Google’s determination to develop in this area indicate that there are many more innovations on the horizon.

Improving SEO in 2018

As it seems, 2018 will be an interesting year for SEO. Traditional SEO techniques are still effective, but a number of trends are in the works that could significantly alter the practice of optimizing for search.

What is useful to understand while we proceed towards is 2018 is that SEO is already changing, and the ranking in the first organic spot is not the ultimate goal anymore. As search engines evolve, there are multiple opportunities to increase your search traffic without necessarily focusing on organic SERPs.

The rise of featured snippets, PPC, voice search and local SEO can often yield better results than an organic ranking. That’s why it’s useful to keep up with the latest trends and discover how your brand can maintain a successful SEO strategy for the year ahead by blending established and growing trends.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Share17 Chicago: The key themes and trends

Digital marketers gathered in Chicago last week for Share17, an event hosted by SEO and content marketing platform BrightEdge.

Share17 provided a welcome opportunity to take stock of where the industry stands, discuss common challenges marketers are facing, and consider the upcoming trends we should all aim to capitalize on.

The agenda for the day reflected this, through a combination of guest speakers, customer panels, and plenty of revelations about search marketing trends. The below is a recap of the key themes and SEO tips we took away from the event.

The convergence of SEO and content marketing

The key theme for the day was the convergence of SEO and content marketing, although there were also discussions on how SEO impacts all areas of modern businesses.

97% of BrightEdge customers state that SEO and content marketing are either merging or have already done so. As a result, the focus shifts to the more pragmatic matters of how this plays out at companies both large and small. At a conceptual level, there is widespread understanding of the interplay between the disciplines, but at a practical level there is still some work to do.

Although content marketing has grown to become a $75 billion industry, each piece of content needs a lot of help if it is to cut through in such a crowded market. In fact, research from BrightEdge revealed:

  • 50% of B2B content draws some engagement from its intended audience. The other 50% receives no visits or shares.
  • The picture is bleaker still for B2C content, with only 20% engaging consumers. The vast majority of B2C content is simply never seen.

SEO can help here, of course, but it is clear that something is amiss at a broader scale. The content marketing industry has not aligned demand with supply if so much of its output fails to resonate with even a small audience.

Scott Mowery from Cleveland Clinic had some tips to help ensure that content is created with conviction. Without that dedication of attention and resources, it is highly likely that the audience will not engage when so many other options are available.

Scott used the acronym C.O.P.E. (Create Once, Promote Everywhere) to distil his team’s philosophy, and it is one that is reaping dividends so far.

The core idea here is to make sure that there is a clear purpose behind every piece of content created and that it is of the highest possible quality. Then it can be repurposed for different media formats and delivered to an audience through a focused amplification plan. With a projected 110 million visits in 2017, this plan seems to be working for Cleveland Clinic.

SEO is very closely aligned to business strategy

Throughout the day, there were nods to the prominent position SEO has assumed within businesses due to its ties with content marketing. This is due to the fact that content sits at the center of marketing plans, while marketing channels are ways of promoting this message and directing traffic towards content.

SEO is a fusion of medium and message, as it is simply impossible to rank in competitive industries without creating something of value that appeals to an audience.

Working in SEO in 2017 therefore requires a broad range of skill sets, from the technical through to the strategic and the interpersonal. Frankly, SEO fails if it exists in a vacuum and it requires input from across departments to reach its full potential.

Guest speaker John Hall had an interesting take on what this means for the career prospects of SEOs. He said that he sees more SEO professionals take up senior leadership positions than ever before, based on their ability to view business problems from a range of angles.

The changing nature of SEO has made it hard to pin down with concrete definitions, but that fluidity also creates marketers that are adept at managing the complexities of the modern business landscape.

SEO professionals need to have influence, both internally and externally, to get this message across.

John Hall shared some fascinating insights into the psychology of influencing people, whether within a company or when communicating with customers. His presentation revealed the importance of making a genuine emotional connection with people to stay top of mind in the long term. That brings with it a certain vulnerability, but it is imperative if we are to gain the trust of our audience.

John Hall

Some of this may feel very intuitive, so it is therefore worth asking why we fail to make these connections more frequently. A narrow focus on gaining short-term ROI restricts the potential for brands to make emotional connections over time, but the most profitable brands achieve exactly this aim.

Such campaigns have typically been the domain of brand marketers but as media spend continues to move online, there should be a seat at the table for SEO too.

Consumers are in control

In the age of cord-cutters and ad blockers, the message for brands is clear: consumers are in control. 28% of US Internet users used ad blockers this year, as the digital advertising industry struggles to balance monetization with user experience.

This dynamic is playing out with particular significance on mobile devices, where consumer expectations continue to heighten. BrightEdge research found that 79% of results for the same query differ across mobile and desktop devices.

Concurrently, the growth in queries containing the phrase ‘near me’ is slowing. This is driven by implicit intent; users are coming to expect that Google knows where they are and will tailor the results accordingly without direction.

From Google’s perspective, the core focus now is on speed. To keep consumers in the Google search ecosystem on mobile, it is essential to provide an app-like experience via search results pages.

We have seen this recently with developments like AMP and app indexation, but there is still a sense that marketers need to place more emphasis on providing a faster digital experience. 82% of smartphone users consult their phones while in a store deciding what to buy, so every second of extra load time can be costly.

In fact, as Eugene Feygin from Quill.com discussed, Amazon has calculated that an extra second of load time across their site would result in $1.6 billion in lost revenue per annum.

load speed

This creates a multitude of moments of need or want throughout each day, with the average user now spending 2 hours per day on a mobile device. The approach of applying broad demographic groups or personas is no longer fit for purpose if we want to put consumers first.

A more accurate and profitable approach understands the importance of being in the right place when people need information. That consumer journey will differ by brand and by industry; the companies that prosper over the next few years will comprehend this and plan their content marketing accordingly.

Share17This provides a robust structure to an SEO campaign, driven by genuine consumer demand. That structure needs to be populated with content that connects, however, and this is where we should recall the lessons learned from John Hall’s presentation. It is only by investing ourselves in our content that we will provide something of value that stands out in such a competitive landscape.

Throughout the day, there was a sense of this being an exciting moment for the SEO industry, but also one that requires a strategic mindset to comprehend and capitalize on so many diverse areas of activity.

Scott Mowery from Cleveland Clinic shared a helpful mantra that his team goes by to keep efforts focused in what is an increasingly complex market. If an initiative is not digital, mobile and measurable, don’t do it.

This seems an apt summary of the core themes from Share17 in Chicago, and sage advice for all search marketers.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

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

The HTTP/2 protocol was published in 2015 with the aim of creating a faster, more secure Internet. Adoption has been gradual and is ongoing, but there are clear benefits for marketers who make the upgrade. So what exactly is HTTP/2 and how does it affect 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

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.