Should SEOs and Marketers Continue to Track and Report on Keyword Rankings? – Whiteboard Friday

Posted by randfish

Is the practice of tracking keywords truly dying? There’s been a great deal of industry discussion around the topic of late, and some key points have been made. In today’s Whiteboard Friday, Rand speaks to the biggest challenges keyword rank tracking faces today and how to solve for them.

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Video Transcription

Howdy, Moz fans, and welcome to another edition of Whiteboard Friday. This week we’re going to chat about keyword ranking reports. There have been a few articles that have come out recently on a number of big industry sites around whether SEOs should still be tracking their keyword rankings.

I want to be clear: Moz has a little bit of a vested interest here. And so the question is: Can you actually trust me, who obviously I’m a big shareholder in Moz and I’m the founder, and so I care a lot about how Moz does as a software business. We help people track rankings. Does that mean I’m biased? I’m going to do my best not to be. So rather than saying you absolutely should track rankings, I’m instead going to address what most of these articles have brought up as the problems of rank tracking and then talk about some solutions by which you can do this.

My suspicion is you should probably be rank tracking. I think that if you turn it off and you don’t do it, it’s very hard to get a lot of the value that we need as SEOs, a lot of the intelligence. It’s true there are challenges with keyword ranking reports, but not true enough to avoid doing it entirely. We still get too much value from them.

The case against — and solutions for — keyword ranking data

A. People, places, and things

So let’s start with the case against keyword ranking data. First off, “keyword ranking reports are inaccurate.” There’s personalization, localization, and device type, and that biases and has removed what is the “one true ranking.” We’ve done a bunch of analyses of these, and this is absolutely the case.

Personalization, turns out, doesn’t change ranking that much on average. For an individual it can change rankings dramatically. If they visited your website before, they could be historically biased to you. Or if they visited your competitor’s, they could be biased. Their previous search history might have biased them in a single session, those kinds of things. But with the removal of Google+ from search results, personalization is actually not as dramatically changing as it used to be. Localization, though, still huge, absolutely, and device differences, still huge.

Solution

But we can address this, and the way to do that is by tracking these things separately. So here you can see I’ve got a ranking report that shows me my mobile rankings versus my desktop rankings. I think this is absolutely essential. Especially if you’re getting a lot of traffic from both mobile and desktop search, you need to be tracking those separately. Super smart. Of course we should do that.

We can do the same thing on the local side as well. So I can say, “Here, look. This is how I rank in Seattle. Here’s how I rank in Minneapolis. Here’s how I rank in the U.S. with no geographic personalization,” if Google were to do that. Those types of rankings can also be pretty good.

It is true that local ranked tracking has gotten a little more challenging, but we’ve seen that folks like, well Moz itself, but folks like STAT (GetStat), SERPs.com, Search Metrics, they have all adjusted their rank tracking methodologies in order to have accurate local rank tracking. It’s pretty good. Same with device type, pretty darn good.

B. Keyword value estimation

Another big problem that is expressed by a number of folks here is we no longer know how much traffic an individual keyword sends. Because we don’t know how much an individual keyword sends, we can’t really say, “What’s the value of ranking for that keyword?” Therefore, why bother to even track keyword rankings?

I think this is a little bit of spurious logic. The leap there doesn’t quite make sense to me. But I will say this. If you don’t know which keywords are sending you traffic specifically, you still know which pages are receiving search traffic. That is reported. You can get it in your Google Analytics, your Omniture report, whatever you’re using, and then you can tie that back to keyword ranking reports showing which pages are receiving traffic from which keywords.

Most all of the ranked tracking platforms, Moz included, has a report that shows you something like this. It says, “Here are the keywords that we believe are likely to have sent these percentages of traffic to this page based on the keywords that you’re tracking, based on the pages that are ranking for them, and how much search traffic those pages receive.”

Solution

So let’s track that. We can look at pages receiving visits from search, and we can look at which keywords they rank for. Then we can tie those together, which gives us the ability to then make not only a report like this, but a report that estimates the value contributed by content and by pages rather than by individual keywords.

In a lot of ways, this is almost superior to our previous methodology of tracking by keyword. Keyword can still be estimated through AdWords, through paid search, but this can be estimated on a content basis, which means you get credit for how much value the page has created, based on all the search traffic that’s flowed to it, and where that’s at in your attribution lifecycle of people visiting those pages.

C. Tracking rankings and keyword relevancy

Pages often rank for keywords that they aren’t specifically targeting, because Google has gotten way better with user intent. So it can be hard or even impossible to track those rankings, because we don’t know what to look for.

Well, okay, I hear you. That is a challenge. This means basically what we have to do is broaden the set of keywords that we look at and deal with the fact that we’re going to have to do sampling. We can’t track every possible keyword, unless you have a crazy budget, in which case go talk to Rob Bucci up at STAT, and he will set you up with a huge campaign to track all your millions of keywords.

Solution

If you have a smaller budget, what you have to do is sample, and you sample by sets of keywords. Like these are my high conversion keywords — I’m going to assume I have a flower delivery business — so flower delivery and floral gifts and flower arrangements for offices. My long tail keywords, like artisan rose varieties and floral alternatives for special occasions, and my branded keywords, like Rand’s Flowers or Flowers by Rand.

I can create a bunch of different buckets like this, sample the keywords that are in them, and then I can track each of these separately. Now I can see, ah, these are sets of keywords where I’ve generally been moving up and receiving more traffic. These are sets of keywords where I’ve generally been moving down. These are sets of keywords that perform better or worse on mobile or desktop, or better or worse in these geographic areas. Right now I can really start to get true intelligence from there.

Don’t let your keyword targeting — your keyword targeting meaning what keywords you’re targeting on which pages — determine what you rank track. Don’t let it do that exclusively. Sure, go ahead and take that list and put that in there, but then also do some more expansive keyword research to find those broad sets of search terms and phrases that you should be monitoring. Now we can really solve this issue.

D. Keyword rank tracking with a purpose

This one I think is a pretty insidious problem. But for many organizations ranking reports are more of a historical artifact. We’re not tracking them for a particular reason. We’re tracking them because that’s what we’ve always tracked and/or because we think we’re supposed to track them. Those are terrible reasons to track things. You should be looking for reasons of real value and actionability. Let’s give some examples here.

Solution

What I want you to do is identify the goals of rank tracking first, like: What do I want to solve? What would I do differently based on whether this data came back to me in one way or another?

If you don’t have a great answer to that question, definitely don’t bother tracking that thing. That should be the rule of all analytics.

So if your goal is to say, “Hey, I want to be able to attribute a search traffic gain or a search traffic loss to what I’ve done on my site or what Google has changed out there,” that is crucially important. I think that’s core to SEO. If you don’t have that, I’m not sure how we can possibly do our jobs.

We attribute search traffic gains and losses by tracking broadly, a broad enough set of keywords, hopefully in enough buckets, to be able to get a good sample set; by tracking the pages that receive that traffic so we can see if a page goes way down in its search visits. We can look at, “Oh, what was that page ranking for? Oh, it was ranking for these keywords. Oh, they dropped.” Or, “No, they didn’t drop. But you know what? We looked in Google Trends, and the traffic demand for those keywords dropped,” and so we know that this is a seasonality thing, or a fluctuation in demand, or those types of things.

And we can track by geography and device, so that we can say, “Hey, we lost a bunch of traffic. Oh, we’re no longer mobile-friendly.” That is a problem. Or, “Hey, we’re tracking and, hey, we’re no longer ranking in this geography. Oh, that’s because these two competitors came in and they took over that market from us.”

We could look at would be something like identify pages that are in need of work, but they only require a small amount of work to have a big change in traffic. So we could do things like track pages that rank on page two for given keywords. If we have a bunch of those, we can say, “Hey, maybe just a few on-page tweaks, a few links to these pages, and we could move up substantially.” We had a Whiteboard Friday where we talked about how you could do that with internal linking previously and have seen some remarkable results there.

We can track keywords that rank in position four to seven on average. Those are your big wins, because if you can move up from position four, five, six, seven to one, two, three, you can double or triple your search traffic that you’re receiving from keywords like that.

You should also track long tail, untargeted keywords. If you’ve got a long tail bucket, like we’ve got up here, I can then say, “Aha, I don’t have a page that’s even targeting any of these keywords. I should make one. I could probably rank very easily because I have an authoritative website and some good content,” and that’s really all you might need.

We might look at some up-and-coming competitors. I want to track who’s in my space, who might be creeping up there. So I should track the most common domains that rank on page one or two across my keyword sets.

I can track specific competitors. I might say, “Hey, Joel’s Flower Delivery Service looks like it’s doing really well. I’m going to set them up as a competitor, and I’m going to track their rankings specifically, or I’m going to see…” You could use something like SEMrush and see specifically: What are all the keywords they rank for that you don’t rank for?

This type of data, in my view, is still tremendously important to SEO, no matter what platform you’re using. But if you’re having these problems or if these problems are being expressed to you, now you have some solutions.

I look forward to your comments. We’ll see you again next week for another edition of Whiteboard Friday. Take care.

Video transcription by Speechpad.com

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How to Use Storytelling to Spark Audience Attention

This is a from Jordie van Rijn, an Email Marketing Consultant with substantial experience in email marketing and marketing automation. He works for Email Monday. In this post, Jordie talks us through how you should use storytelling to spark audience attention. Jordie doesn’t blog for us on a regular basis but is a friend of State of Digital.

——————————————————————————————

Hate to be the one to break it to you, but the truth is, no one cares about you, or your products.

In the digital age, we’re constantly being barraged with interruptive, irrelevant marketing noise. Adding more to the mix isn’t going to help. If you really want to drive impact with your messaging, think about what people want to see. Make your content compelling, tell a great story.

Storytelling is one of the most pervasive tactics in content marketing. 57% of marketers focus on it in their strategies. And yet, 68% of marketers who have documented content strategies report that their content is only somewhat or slightly effective. Anyone can tell a story, but clearly, not everyone can tell a good one.

The Attention Acquisition Challenge

According to Nielsen, the global content marketing industry produces more than 27 million shared pieces of content per day. There’s so much to read, see, listen to and watch that “content shock” is becoming a real thing.

Despite seeing roughly 1,707 banner ads each month, consumers have learned to tune them out. Only 0.1% get clicks. Google’s algorithm adjustments and search result design changes make SEO rankings increasingly competitive. And let’s face it – people don’t like being bombarded with ads. That’s why the “Skip Ad” button on video content is such a popular feature, and services like Vevo, Spotify, Hulu and YouTube offer premium subscription options that are ad-free. Even the New York Times is reportedly developing an ad-free version.

You need to capture the attention of your audience, and attention is at a premium. It’s become so hard to obtain that many paid media vendors are billing advertisers using attention metrics. The Economist was one of the first to make the switch, but several others publishers, including The Guardian, have voiced the desire to head in that direction.

Attention scarcity is why marketers are increasingly placing focus on useful “content” that resonates, as opposed to sales-oriented advertising. Doesn’t matter if your message is going to appear on earned, owned or paid media channels – having a great story to tell, and the right place to tell it, is a big part of the solution.

The Right Message – in Context

The content you create needs to connect with the intended audience, have a clear call to action, and keep their interest. The best messaging commands attention by being entertaining, useful or informative and emotionally evocative. Tell compelling stories, and put your audience members at the center of the stories – either directly or indirectly.

That’s why the American campaign by AT&T’s #ItCanWait, for example, is so effective. There are details in the story that people can identify with, and as shameless as the ending is, it’s emotionally evocative. Have you ever checked a new message alert while driving? The campaign also offers something the audience can use. A potentially life-saving tip (don’t text and drive) that sells an app, DriveMode, which makes sure they can put that tip into action.

But would this video clip have the same effect if you saw a 30-second version of it on a TV in your kid’s favorite restaurant, half-watching, with screaming children running around? Probably not.

Delivery matters so much that people actually appreciate branded infotainment content when it’s in the right context. Indicators Affect Attention

Source: YuMe

Impax Media, for example, is using digital attention tracking technology to gather analytics and serve up branded videos to customers waiting in retail checkout lines. The company’s entire platform favors infotainment as opposed to traditional hard sell messaging. Last year they ran a pilot with approximately 1,000 screens in 20 stores across Canada. Their displays included video infotainment spots for Wrigley’s, Legos, Werther’s Original, and Mars. The success of that pilot paved the way for the company’s strong entrance into the US market this year.

The growth of a company like Impax Media can be evidence of the power of contextual infotainment – well-crafted content delivered in a setting where the consumer wants to experience it – not where it’s considered a nuisance. The company commissioned a study that found consumers actually want to see branded video content to help them pass the time at the checkout line, as shown in the graph below.

IPSOS Intercept Research

Source: Impax Media

This is the power of smart OOH (out-of-home) media placement. Today we’re trained to expect specific stimuli in different settings, and we’re 33% more alert when we leave our houses. Most people are also more active on social and other online media when on the go. Research shows that 7 in 10 people on the street are primed to make purchases, and 6 in 10 end up buying things they didn’t expect to.

Engagement That Spans Platforms and Formats

Smart marketers know that capturing audience attention with great content on the right platform also requires a cross-channel media engagement strategy. Placing carefully chosen calls to action in your content can encourage social media follows and email sign-ups, even from your offline channels.

It doesn’t matter if you’re asking people to post using a hashtag, scan a QR code or point their browsers to a simplified URL. With infotainment, the goal is not always going to be immediate sales conversions. It can be about building brand equity for engagement and loyalty over time, and that’s where tactics like social media contests and email marketing automation can make a big difference.

Savvy cross-channel messaging provides you with a large audience that’s pre-qualified to be ready and willing to consume your content. That’s a huge advantage, especially given the way we consume media today. Thanks to content shock, the culture of instant gratification, our love of hand-held touchscreens and the distractions of push notifications, we’ve learned to split our attention to the point where we’re capable of letting content wash over us.

HubSpot Research - Content

Source: HubSpot Research

Different formats, however, call for different levels of focus. According to new research from HubSpot, video is the most commanding medium, with 55% of viewers reporting that they watch it thoroughly. Oddly enough, blog posts, which make up a major focal point of most marketing plans, are only thoroughly consumed by 29% of the population. Expose people to your message on social media, however, and you’ll see those numbers spike. Social media posts get read thoroughly by another 52% of viewers.

These high “skim rates” are hardly surprising. Overall, the ways in which content can be delivered online are growing exponentially. Blogs, banner ads, video clips, podcasts, research reports, email courses, ebooks, webinars – you name it. Audiences have a world of options.

Offline growth is happening quickly, too. Print media is far from dead, and thanks to programmatic booking, killer performance metrics and new attention tracking capabilities, OOH advertising is increasingly becoming a key aspect of the savvy marketing mix.

Tell Those Stories

David Ogilvy, known as “the father of advertising,” wrote in the early 1980s that “On average, helpful information is read by 75% more people than copy which deals only with the product.”

In the digital age, it’s likely that “hard sell” marketing assets are tuned out by more than a quarter of audience members.

Today we have more control over our media experiences than ever before, and the data shows that we want content that is useful, informative, personally pertinent, contextually relevant, available on demand and beautifully crafted.

What are the best ways to get people to pay attention to your messaging? Skip the pitch and use storytelling to get them emotionally involved. Distribute your messaging in formats and contextual placements that align well with people’s lifestyles. Take smart cross-channel engagement goals into account.

Creating video clips that feel like movies, or that provide useful tips, might seem on the surface like a hopelessly indirect way to drive revenues, but infotainment commands attention beautifully and encourages viral shares. Buying rotation spots on digital video screens in public places might seem on the surface like an outdated tactic, but with the right creative, it can be exactly what people want to see in the context of what they’re doing.

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Case Study: How We Created Controversial Content That Earned Hundreds of Links

Posted by KelseyLibert

Content marketers, does the following scenario sound familiar?

You’re tasked with creating content that attracts publicity, links, and social shares. You come up with great ideas for content that you’re confident could accomplish these goals. However, any ideas that push the envelope or might offend anyone in the slightest get shot down by your boss or client. Even if a provocative idea gets approved, after feedback from higher-ups and several rounds of editing, you end up with a boring, watered-down version of what you originally envisioned.

Given the above, you’re not surprised when you achieve lackluster results. Repeat this cycle enough times, and it may lead to the false assumption that content marketing doesn’t work for the brand.

In this post, I’ll answer two questions:

  1. How can I get my boss or clients to sign off on envelope-pushing content that will attract the attention needed to achieve great results?
  2. How can we minimize the risk of backlash?

Why controversy is so powerful for content marketing

To get big results, content needs to get people talking. Often times, the best way to do this is by creating an emotional reaction in the audience. Content that deals with a controversial or polarizing topic can be a surefire way to accomplish this.

On the other hand, when you play it too safe with your content, it becomes extremely difficult to ignite the emotional response needed to drive social sharing. Ultimately, you don’t attract the attention needed to earn high-quality links.

Below is a peek at the promotions report from a recent controversial campaign that resulted in a lot of high-quality links, among other benefits.

Overcoming a client’s aversion to controversy

We understand and respect a client’s fierce dedication to protecting their brand. The thought of attaching their company to anything controversial can set off worst-case-scenario visions of an angry Internet mob and bad press (which isn’t always a terrible thing).

One such example of balancing a sensitive topic while minimizing the potential risk is a recent campaign we created for apartment listing site Abodo. Our idea was to use Twitter data to pinpoint which states and cities had the highest concentration of prejudiced and tolerant tweets. Bigotry in America is an extremely sensitive topic, yet our client was open to the idea.

Want to get a contentious idea approved by your boss or client? Here’s how we did it.

1. Your idea needs to be relevant to the brand, either directly or tangentially.

Controversy for the sake of controversy is not going to provide value to the brand or the target audience.

I asked Michael Taus, VP of Growth and Business Development at Abodo, why our campaign idea got the green light. He said Abodo’s mission is to help people find a home, not to influence political discourse. But they also believe that when you’re moving to a new community, there’s more to the decision than what your house or apartment looks like, including understanding the social and cultural tone of the location.

So while the campaign dealt with a hot topic, ultimately this information would be valuable to Abodo’s users.

2. Prove that playing it safe isn’t working.

If your “safe” content is struggling to get attention, make the case for taking a risk. Previous campaign topics for our client had been too conservative. We knew by creating something worth talking about, we’d see greater results.

3. Put safeguards in place for minimizing risk to the brand.

While we couldn’t guarantee there wouldn’t be a negative response once the campaign launched, we could guarantee that we’d do everything in our power to minimize any potential backlash. We were confident in our ability to protect our client because we’d done it so many times with other campaigns. I’ll walk you through how to do this throughout the rest of the post.

On the client’s end, they can get approval from other internal departments; for example, having the legal and PR teams review and give final approval can help mitigate the uncertainty around running a controversial campaign.

Did taking a risk pay off?

The campaign was a big success, with results including:

  • More than 620 placements (240 dofollow links and 280 co-citation links)
  • Features on high-authority sites including CNET, Slate, Business Insider, AOL, Yahoo, Mic, The Daily Beast, and Adweek
  • More than 67,000 social shares
  • A whole lot of discussion

cnet-coverage.png

Beyond these metrics, Abodo has seen additional benefits such as partnership opportunities. Since this campaign launched, they were approached by a nonprofit organization to collaborate on a similar type of piece. They hope to repeat their success by leveraging the nonprofit’s substantial audience and PR capabilities.

Essential tips for minimizing risk around contentious content

We find that good journalism practices can greatly reduce the risk of a negative response. Keep the following five things in mind when creating attention-grabbing content.

1. Presenting data vs. taking a stance: Let the data speak

Rather than presenting an opinion, just present the facts. Our clients are usually fine with controversial topics as long as we don’t take a stance on them and instead allow the data we’ve collected to tell the story for us. Facts are facts, and that’s all your content needs to offer.

If publishers want to put their own spin on the facts you present or audiences see the story the data are telling and want to respond, the conversation can be opened up and generate a lot of engagement.

For the Abodo campaign, the data we presented weren’t a direct reflection of our client but rather came from an outside source (Twitter). We packaged the campaign on a landing page on the client’s site, which includes the design assets and an objective summary of the data.

abodo-landing-page.png

The publishers then chose how to cover the data we provided, and the discussion took off from there. For example, Slate called out Louisiana’s unfortunate achievement of having the most derogatory tweets.

slate-coverage.png

2. Present more than one side of the story

How do you feel when you watch a news report or documentary that only shares one side of the story? It takes away credibility from the reporting, doesn’t it?

To keep the campaign topic from being too negative and one-sided, we looked at the most prejudiced and least prejudiced tweets. Including states and cities with the least derogatory tweets added a positive angle to the story. This made the data more objective, which improved the campaign’s credibility.

least-derogatory.png

Regional publishers showed off that their state had the nicest tweets.

idaho-article.png

And residents of these places were proud to share the news.

If your campaign topic is negative, try to show the positive side of it too. This keeps the content from being a total downer, which is important for social sharing since people usually want to pass along content that will make others feel good. Our recent study on the emotions behind viral content found that even when viral content evokes negative emotions, it’s usually not purely negative; the content also makes the audience feel a positive emotion or surprise.

Aside from objective reporting, a huge benefit to telling more than one side of the story is that you’re able to pitch the story for multiple angles, thus maximizing your potential coverage. Because of this, we ended up creating 18 visual assets for this campaign, which is far more than we typically do.

3. Don’t go in with an agenda

Be careful of twisting the data to fit your agenda. It’s okay to have a thesis when you start, but if your aim is to tell a certain story you’re apt to stick with that storyline regardless of what the data show. If your information is clearly slanted to show the story you want to tell, the audience will catch on, and you’ll get called out.

Instead of gathering research with an intent of “I’m setting out to prove XYZ,” adopt a mindset of “I wonder what the reality is.”

4. Be transparent about your methodology

You don’t want the validity of your data to become a point of contention among publishers and readers. This goes for any data-heavy campaign but especially for controversial data.

To combat any doubts around where the information came from or how the data were collected and analyzed, we publish a detailed methodology alongside all of our campaigns. For the Abodo campaign, we created a PDF document of the research methodology which we could easily share with publishers.

methodology-example.pngInclude the following in your campaign’s methodology:

  • Where and when you received your data.
  • What kind and how much data you collected. (Our methodology went on to list exactly which terms we searched for on Twitter.)
  • Any exceptions within your collection and analysis, such as omitted information.
  • A list of additional sources. (We only use reputable, new sources ideally published within the last year.)

sources-example.png

For even more transparency, make your raw data available. This gives publishers a chance to comb through the data to find additional story angles.

5. Don’t feed the trolls

This is true for any content campaign, but it’s especially important to have an error-free campaign when dealing with a sensitive topic since it may be under more scrutiny. Don’t let mistakes in the content become the real controversy.

Build multiple phases of editing into your production process to ensure you’re not releasing inaccurate or low-quality content. Keep these processes consistent by creating a set of editorial guidelines that everyone involved can follow.

We put our campaigns through fact checking and several rounds of quality assurance.

Fact checking should play a complementary role to research and involves verifying accuracy by making sure all data and assertions are true. Every point in the content should have a source that can be verified. Writers should be familiar with best practices for making their work easy to fact-check; this fact-checking guide from Poynter is a good resource.

Quality assurance looks at both the textual and design elements of a campaign to ensure a good user experience. Our QA team reviews things like grammar, clarity (Is this text clearly making a point? Is a design element confusing or hard to read?), and layout/organization.

Include other share-worthy elements

Although the controversial subject matter helped this campaign gain attention, we also incorporated other proven elements of highly shareable content:

  • Geographic angle. People wanted to see how their state or city ranked. Many took to social media to express their disappointment or pride in the results.
  • Timeliness. Bigotry is a hot-button issue in the U.S. right now amidst racial tension and a heated political situation.
  • Comparison. Rankings and comparisons stimulate discussion, especially when people have strong opinions about the rankings.
  • Surprising. The results were somewhat shocking since some cities and states which ranked “most PC” or “most prejudiced” were unexpected.

The more share-worthy elements you can tack onto your content, the greater your chances for success.

Have you seen success with controversial or polarizing content? Did you overcome a client’s objection to controversy? Be sure to share your experience in the comments.

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The Importance of Emotion in Content Marketing

Many content calendars, funnels and persona documents will cover important elements such as a user’s desires, goals, needs and background. While identifying these points is key to creating successful content, I believe content marketers are often missing an important element. How do you want your user to feel when engaging with your content?

Search trends for the term ‘regret’ in the UK, in the days following the Brexit vote.

In a previous blog post I discussed the incredible amount of time and money that is wasted because of content that is created out without a strategy. And while content is undeniably crucial for SEO, it’s blatantly obvious that too much is created without the target persona in mind.

In that blog, one of my takeaways was this:

Get to know your target personas and produce content that resonates with them.

But how do you create content that resonates?

The Science of Emotion and Sharing

To create powerful content that resonates with the user, it’s crucial to understand how emotion plays a part in how people engage with and share content. The three following studies highlight the power of emotion and why it’s integral to content marketing success.

Social Transmission, Emotion, and the Virality of Online Content

This study carried out by the Wharton Business School, looks at if the virality of content can be predicted. Over a 3 month period they identified which articles from the New York Times were shared the most via email. In order to explore the effect of emotion in the act of sharing, they looked at if the article was positive or negative, and what specific emotion (anger, sadness, joy etc.) it evoked.

The Results

They found a strong correlation between emotion and virality. Strongly emotive articles (positive or negative) were more likely to be in the list of articles that were most shared.

Overall, they found that positive content was most likely to be shared. However they also uncovered some interesting points about the relationship between positive and negative content:

  • Awe-inspiring, surprising and humorous content was more likely to be shared
  • Sad content was least viral
  • Content that evokes negative emotions such as anxiety and anger was actually the most likely to be shared.

Read the Full Study.

The Psychology of Sharing

This study was carried out by the New York Times customer insight group, and looked to find out why people share. The study involved 3 phases which involved quantitative and qualitative assessment:

  • In-person interviews
  • One-week sharing panel
  • Quantitative survey of 2,500 online sharers

The Results

The study puts forward the argument that ‘Sharing is all about relationships’ and uncovered 5 main reasons people share content:

  • To bring valuable and entertaining content to others
  • To define ourselves to others
  • To grow and nourish our relationships
  • Self-fulfilment
  • To get the word out about causes or brands

As the study involved qualitative data gathering through interviews, they also found some interesting statistics such as:

  • 73% say they process information more deeply, thoroughly and thoughtfully when they share it
  • 49% say sharing allows them to inform others of products they care about and potentially change opinions or encourage action
  • 73% share information because it helps them connect with others who share their interests

Read the Full Study.

Creating Buzz: The Neural Correlates of Effective Message Propagation

Carried out by UCLA, this study looked to understand how ideas spread and if virality can be predicted. It used brain imaging to understand what happens on a physiological level when we share content.

While undergoing fMRI scanning, students watched fictitious TV pilot episodes. They were told to imagine that they were TV studio interns and made video recordings of their reviews of each pilot show. Another group of students then watched these reviews and made their own ratings about the pilots, based on the video assessments of the interns.

The researchers were then hoping to learn which areas of the brain were activated when the interns were first watching the content that they would then pass on in their reviews.

The Results

TPJ

It turned out that the interns who were successful in persuading the producers, showed significantly increased brain activity in the temporoparietal junction (pictured above) when they first watched the pilot episodes that they would later pass on.

What the study has managed to highlight is that something happens on a physiological level when we share content.

An interesting point from the professor of psychology at UCLA, Matthew Lieberman:

“We always seem to be on the lookout for who else will find this helpful, amusing or interesting, and our brain data are showing evidence of that. At the first encounter with information, people are already using the brain network involved in thinking about how this can be interesting to other people. We’re wired to want to share information with other people.”

Read the Full Study.

That’s cool. What does it mean for my content marketing?

These studies show how emotion plays an essential part in successful content marketing. If you are a content marketer, think about how your content can provoke emotion that is likely to resonate with people.

Can you:

Surprise – Ask a provocative question, share new ideas, state a surprising fact.

Make People Happy – Positive and happy stories surrounding your services, product or target personas.

Address Fear & Anger – Is this something you want people to feel? If there is something which may make people angry then can you provide a solution to that problem?

The results from these studies can also be considered in your overall strategy. The same area of the brain that identified as active when sharing content, is also active in a process called mentalising. As I am not a scientist, I rely on Wikipedia to tell you why this is important for content marketers:

Mentalising is a form of imaginative mental activity about others or oneself, namely, perceiving and interpreting human behaviour in terms of intentional mental state (e.g. needs, desires, feelings, beliefs, goals, purposes, and reasons).

These mental states can be addressed in your content persona:

Persona TPJ

Also look to think about these mental states in your content funnel:

Content Funnel TPJ

When people are in a highly emotional state, they often turn to search engines and social networks to engage in content that either validates or alleviates these emotions. If you have content that resonates with these emotions, then it is much more likely to be engaged with and shared.

As content marketers have identified the importance of emotion in content marketing, some great tools such as Toneapi have been built. This tool analyses your content and allows you to score your content for emotion intent.

If you’re still hungry for some more content tips then why not have a look at these great articles or check out the State of Digital Content Marketing course?

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Ranking #0: SEO for Answers

Posted by Dr-Pete

It’s been over two years since Google launched Featured Snippets, and yet many search marketers still see them as little more than a novelty. If you’re not convinced by now that Featured Snippets offer a significant organic opportunity, then today is my attempt to change your mind.

If you somehow haven’t encountered a Featured Snippet searching Google over the past two years, here’s an example (from a search for “ssl”):

This is a promoted organic result, appearing above the traditional #1 ranking position. At minimum, Featured Snippets contain an extracted answer (more on that later), a display title, and a URL. They may also have an image, bulleted lists, and simple tables.

Why should you care?

We’re all busy, and Google has made so many changes in the past couple of years that it can be hard to sort out what’s really important to your customer or employer. I get it, and I’m not judging you. So, let’s get the hard question out of the way: Why are Featured Snippets important?

(1) They occupy the “#0” position

Here’s the top portion of a SERP for “hdmi cable,” a commercial query:

There are a couple of interesting things going on here. First, Featured Snippets always (for now) come before traditional organic results. This is why I have taken to calling them the “#0” ranking position. What beats #1? You can see where I’m going with this… #0. In this case, the first organic is pushed down even more, below a set of Related Questions (the “People also ask” box). So, the “#1” organic position is really third in this example.

In addition, notice that the “#0” (that’s the last time I’ll put it in quotes) position is the same URL as the #1 organic position. So, Amazon is getting two listings on this result for a single page. The Featured Snippet doesn’t always come from the #1 organic result (we’ll get to that in a minute), but if you score #0, you are always listed twice on page one of results.

(2) They’re surprisingly prevalent

In our 10,000-keyword tracking data set, Featured Snippets rolled out at approximately 2% of the queries we track. As of mid-July, they appear on roughly 11% of the keywords we monitor. We don’t have good historical data from the first few months after roll-out, but here’s a 12-month graph (July 2015 – July 2016):

Featured Snippets have more than doubled in prevalence in the past year, and they’ve increased by a factor of roughly 5X since launch. After two years, it’s clear that this is no longer a short-term or small-scale test. Google considers this experiment to be a success.

(3) They often boost CTR

When Featured Snippets launched, SEOs were naturally concerned that, by extracting and displaying answers, click-through rates to the source site would suffer. While extracting answers from sites was certainly uncharted territory for Google, and we can debate their use of our content in this form, there’s a growing body of evidence to suggest that Featured Snippets not only haven’t harmed CTR, but they actually boost it in some cases.

In August of 2015, Search Engine Land published a case study by Glenn Gabe that tracked the loss of a Featured Snippet for a client on a competitive keyword. In the two-week period following the loss, that client lost over 39K clicks. In February of 2016, HubSpot did a larger study of high-volume keywords showing that ranking #0 produced a 114% CTR boost, even when they already held the #1 organic position. While these results are anecdotal and may not apply to everyone, evidence continues to suggest that Featured Snippets can boost organic search traffic in many cases.

Where do they come from?

Featured Snippets were born out of a problem that dates back to the early days of search. Pre-Google, many search players, including Yahoo, were human-curated directories first. As content creation exploded, humans could no longer keep up, especially in anything close to real-time, and search engines turned to algorithmic approaches and machine curation.

When Google launched the Knowledge Graph, it was based entirely on human-curated data, such as Freebase and Wikidata. You can see this data in traditional “Knowledge Cards,” sometimes generically called “answer boxes.” For example, this card appears on a search for “Who is the CEO of Tesla?”:

The answer is short and factual, and there is no corresponding source link for it. This comes directly from the curated Knowledge Graph. If you run a search for “Tesla,” you can see this more easily in the Knowledge Panel on that page:

In the middle, you can see an entry for “CEO: Elon Musk.” This isn’t just a block of display text — each of these line items are factoids that exist individually as structured data in the Knowledge Graph. You can test this by running searches against other factoids, like “When was Tesla founded?”

While Google does a decent job of matching many forms of a question to answers in the Knowledge Graph, they can’t escape the limits of human curation. There are also questions that don’t easily fit the “factoid” model. For example, if you search “What is ludicrous mode Tesla?” (pardon the weird syntax), you get this Featured Snippet:

Google’s solution was obvious, if incredibly difficult — take the trillions of pages in their index and use them to generate answers in real-time. So, that’s exactly what they did. If you go to the source page on Engadget, the text in the Featured Snippet is taken directly from on-page copy (I’ve added the green highlighting):

It’s not as simple as just scraping off the first paragraph with a spatula and flipping it onto the SERP, though. Google does seem to be parsing content fairly deeply for relevance, and they’ve been improving their capabilities constantly since the launch of Featured Snippets. Consider a couple of other examples with slightly different formats. Here’s a Featured Snippet for “How much is a Tesla?”:

Note the tabular data. This data is being extracted and reformatted from a table on the target page. This isn’t structured data — it’s plain-old HTML. Google has not only parsed the table but determined that tabular data is a sensible format in response to the question. Here’s the original table:

Here’s one of my favorite examples, from a search for “how to cook bacon.” For any aspiring bacon wizards, please pay careful attention to step #4:

Note the bulleted (ordered) list. As with the table, not only has Google determined that a list is a relevant format for the answer, but they’ve created this list. Now look at the target page:

There’s no HTML ordered list (<ol></ol>) on this page. Google is taking a list-like paragraph style and converting it into a simpler list. This content is also fairly deep into a long page of text. Again, there is no structured data in play. Google is using any and all content available in the quest for answers.

How do you get one?

So, let’s get to the tactical question — how can you score a Featured Snippet? You need to know two things. First, you have to rank organically on the first page of results. Every Featured Snippet we’ve tracked also ranks on page one. Second, you need to have content that effectively targets the question.

Do you have to rank #1 to get the #0 position? No. Ranking #1 certainly doesn’t hurt, but we’ve found examples of Featured Snippet URLs from across all of page one. As of June, the graph below represents the distribution of organic rankings for all of the Featured Snippets in our tracking data set:

Just about 1/3 of Featured Snippets are pulled from the #1 position, with the bulk of the remaining coming from positions #2–#5. There are opportunties across all of page one, in theory, but searches where you rank in the top five are going to be your best targets. The team at STAT produced an in-depth white paper on Featured Snippets across a very large data set that showed a similar pattern, with about 30% of Featured Snippet URLs ranking in the #1 organic position.

If you’re not convinced yet, here’s another argument for the “Why should you care?” column. Once you’re ranking on page one, our data suggests that getting the Featured Snippet is more about relevance than ranking/authority. If you’re ranking #2–#5 it may be easier to compete for position #0 than it is for position #1. Featured Snippets are the closest thing to an SEO shortcut you’re likely to get in 2016.

The double-edged sword of Featured Snippets (for Google) is that, since the content comes from our websites, we ultimately control it. I showed in a previous post how we fixed a Featured Snippet with updated data, but let’s get to what you really want to hear — can we take a Featured Snippet from a competitor?

A while back, I did a search for “What is Page Authority?” Page Authority is a metric created by us here at Moz, and so naturally we have a vested interest in who’s ranking for that term. I came across the following Featured Snippet.

At the time, DrumbeatMarketing.net was ranking #2 and Moz was ranking #1, so we knew we had an opportunity. They were clearly doing something right, and we tried to learn from it. Their page title addressed the question directly. They jumped quickly to a concise answer, whereas we rambled a little bit. So, we rewrote the page, starting with a clear definition and question-targeted header:

This wasn’t the only change, but I think it’s important to structure your answers for brevity, or at least summarize them somewhere on the page. A general format of a quick summary at the top, followed by a deeper dive seems to be effective. Journalists sometimes call this an “inverted pyramid” structure, and it’s useful for readers as well, especially Internet readers who tend to skim articles.

In very short order, our changes had the desired impact, and we took the #0 position:

This didn’t take more authority, deep structural changes, or a long-term social media campaign. We simply wrote a better answer. I believe we also did a service to search users. This is a better page for people in a hurry and leads to a better search snippet than before. Don’t think of this as optimizing for Featured Snippets, or you’re going to over-optimize and be haunted by the Ghost of SEO Past. Think of it as being a better answer.

What should you target?

Featured Snippets can require a slightly different and broader approach to keyword research, especially since many of us don’t routinely track questions. So, what kind of questions tend to trigger Featured Snippets? It’s helpful to keep in mind the 5 Ws (Who, What, When, Where, Why) + How, but many of these questions will generate answers from the Knowledge Graph directly.

To keep things simple, ask yourself this: is the answer a matter of simple fact (or a “factoid”)? For example, a question like “How old is Beyoncé?” or “When is Labor Day?” is going to be pulled from the Knowledge Graph. While human curation can’t keep up with the pace of the web, WikiData and other sources are still impressive and cover a massive amount of territory. Typically, these questions won’t produce Featured Snippets.

What and implied-what questions

A good starting point is “What…?” questions, such as our “What is Page Authority?” experiment. This is especially effective for industry terms and other specialized knowledge that can’t be easily reduced to a dictionary definition.

Keep in mind that many Featured Snippets appear on implied “What…” questions. In other words, “What” never appears in the query. For example, here’s a Featured Snippet for “PPC”:

Google has essentially decided that this fairly ambiguous query deserves an answer to “What is PPC?” In other words, they’ve implied the “What.” This is fairly common now for industry terms and phrases that might be unfamiliar to the average searcher, and is a good starting point for your keyword research.

Keep in mind that common words will produce a dictionary entry. For example, here’s a Knowledge Card for “What is search?”:

These dictionary cards are driven by human-curated data sources and are not organic, in the typical sense of the word. Google has expanded dictionary results in the past year, so you’ll need to focus on less common terms and phrases.

Why and how questions

“Why… ?” questions are good fodder for Featured Snippets because they can’t easily be answered with factoids. They often require some explanation, such as this snippet for “Why is the sky blue?”:

Likewise, “How…?” questions often require more in-depth answers. An especially good target for Featured Snippets is “How to… ?” questions, which tend to have practical answers that can be summarized. Here’s one for “How to make tacos”:

One benefit of “Why,” “How,” and “How to” questions is that the Featured Snippet summary often just serves as a teaser to a longer answer. The summary can add credibility to your listing while still attracting clicks to in-depth content. “How… ?” may also be implied in some cases. For example, a search for “convert PDF to Word” brings up a Featured Snippet for a “How to…” page.

What content is eligible?

Once you have a question in mind, and that question/query is eligible for Featured Snippets, there’s another piece of the targeting problem: which page on your site is best equipped to answer that question? Let’s take, for example, the search “What is SEO?”. It has the following Featured Snippet from Wikipedia:

Moz ranks on page one for that search, but it still begs two questions: (1) is the ranking page the best answer to the question (in Google’s eyes), and (2) what content on the page do they see as best matching the question. Fortunately, you can use the “site:” operator along with your search term to help answer both questions. Here’s a Featured Snippet for [site:moz.com “what is seo”]:

Now, we know that, within just our own site, Google is seeing The Beginner’s Guide as the best match to the question, and we have an idea of how they’re parsing that page for an answer. If we were willing to rewrite the page just to answer this question (and that certainly involves trade-offs), we’d have a much better sense of where to start.

What about Related Questions?

Featured Snippets have a close cousin that launched more recently, known to Google as Related Questions and sometimes called the “People Also Ask” box. If I run a search for “page authority,” it returns the following set of Related Questions (nestled into the organic results):

Although Related Questions have a less dominant position in search results than Featured Snippets (they’re not generally at the top), they’re more prevalent, occurring on almost 17% of the searches in our tracking data set. These boxes can contain up to four related questions (currently), and each question expands to look something like this:

At this point, that expanded content should look familiar — it’s being generated from the index, has an organic link, and looks almost exactly like a Featured Snippet. It also has a link to a Google search for the related question. Clicking on that search brings up the following Featured Snippet:

Interestingly, and somewhat confusingly, that Featured Snippet doesn’t exactly match the snippet in the Related Questions box, even though they’re answering the same question from the same page. We’re not completely sure how Featured Snippets and Related Questions are connected, but they share a common philosophy and very likely a lot of common code. Being a better answer will help you rank for both.

What’s the long game?

If you want to know where all of this is headed in the future, you have to ask a simple question: what’s in it for Google? It’s easy to jump to conspiracy theories when Google takes our content to provide direct answers, but what do they gain? They haven’t monetized this box, and a strong, third-party answer draws attention and could detract from ad clicks. They’re keeping you on their page for another few seconds, but that’s little more than a vanity metric.

I think the answer is that this is part of a long shift toward mobile and alternative display formats. Look at the first page of a search for “what is page authority” on an Android device:

Here, the Featured Snippet dominates the page — there’s just not room for much more on a mobile screen. As technology diversifies into watches and other wearables, this problem will expand. There’s an even more difficult problem than screen space, though, and that’s when you have no screen at all.

If you do a voice search on Android for “what is page authority,” Google will read back to you the following answer:

“According to Moz, Page Authority is a score developed by Moz that predicts how well a specific page will rank on search engines.”

This is an even more truncated answer, and voice search appends the attribution (“According to Moz…”). You can still look at your phone screen, of course, but imagine if you had asked the question in your car or on Google’s new search appliance (their competitor to Amazon’s Echo). In those cases, the Featured Snippet wouldn’t just be the most prominent answer — it would be the only answer.

Google has to adapt to our changing world of devices, and often those devices requires succinct answers and aren’t well-suited to a traditional SERP. This may not be so much about profiting from direct answers for Google as it is about survival. New devices will demands new formats.

How do you track all of this?

After years of tracking rich SERP features, watching the world of organic search evolve, and preaching that evolution to our customers and industry, I’m happy to say that our Product Team has been hard at work for months building the infrastructure and UI necessary to manage the rich and complicated world of SERP features, including Featured Snippets. Spoiler alert: expect an announcement from us very soon.

Sign up for The Moz Top 10, a semimonthly mailer updating you on the top ten hottest pieces of SEO news, tips, and rad links uncovered by the Moz team. Think of it as your exclusive digest of stuff you don’t have time to hunt down but want to read!

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AdWords Extended Text Ads are already among us

Several different sources confirmed to me that the new extended format for AdWords text ads has been extensively tested in the past months and their final release to all advertisers is imminent.

Ads will pass from the current 25 characters title + 2 lines of 35 characters to 2 headlines of 30 characters each + 80 of descriptive text to better fit the overwhelming mobile queries numbers. The new Extended Text Ads should appear like these:

Quite different, isn’it? But do not panic, if you can’t see them yet in your account you can already test the new format via API or with www.karooya.com/expanded-text-ad-preview-tool

The first tests show an increased 20% CTR and in the images below you can find some more details on how to set them up.

eta-stateofdigital-headline

2 x 30 characters headlines (click to enlarge)

eta-stateofdigital- description

80 characters description (click to enlarge)

eta-stateofdigital-URL

2 x 15 characters URL paths (click to enlarge)

Source: James Svoboda at SMX Advanced Seattle

ETA were just one of several other important innovation announced by Google at GPS 2016 last May. Among the others there were:

  • the return to individual bidding adjustment for desktop, mobile and tablet (not globally available yet);
  • new local ads formats (promoted pins have already been partially released) accompanied with the announcement that in store visits tracking via machine learning will become a substantial part of local search experience (with increasing accuracy – they claim 99%);
  • an expansion of Google Dispaly Network to new “cross-exchange inventory” placements and the coming of similar audiences + demographic targeting for Search Network;
  • a free version of Google Data Studio with a 5 reports limits (now available only in the US, to be released to other markets), new functionalities for the integration between AdWords & Analytics and voice activated data mining commands in GA 360.
  • a new global AdWords redesign (which will be automatic with no manual upgrade or migration), no launch date given, but if you do not see it before Christmas shopping season, it is likely you could expect to see it later on in 2017).

Besides all these new toys coming to AdWords, if you already have Expanded Text Ads active in your account let us know what are your first impressions and data feedback.

 

 

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Taking digital offline: Lessons in SEO from the high street

Real estate in the Google search results is similar to real estate on the physical high street. It’s a place where brands are able to advertise their products and services, drawing customers in to make their final purchases.

So does this mean that what we see on the high street might reflect the changes we are starting to see in search engines too?

Recently I attended an Outreach Digital event, where Gareth Cartman spoke about how much of SEO is just understanding customer experience better. The talk used an analogy of how businesses fight Panda in real life (more about that later), but it got me thinking about how we see the tweaks Google make to their algorithm in everyday life. With thousands of updates and adaptations to the algorithm each year, the best way for an SEO to get ahead of the game is to be able to predict the next large changes and future-proof their websites.

Panda


Jumping back to Gareth’s talk at Outreach Digital, the story started with an example of real life Panda; where the quality of the experience of the user impacted their likelihood to buy.

Imagine you’ve been browsing for new shoes. When you rock up at the store of a brand you’d found online, you find that the front door is broken, there’s rubbish strewn around the shop floor, and the shop attendants look like they’ve just rolled out of bed. It wouldn’t exactly inspire faith to purchase from the store.

If you put this example, which I’m sure we’ve all experienced, into the digital world then who would buy from a seemingly poor quality site? When positioned like this, the fact you should be creating the very best content on your site to support it seems obvious.

Penguin

penguin-algorithm

Taking the other most famous Google update into a real life situation, let’s look at links and Penguin. Whilst we all see links as the way to travel from one website to another, in principle, it’s a recommendation being offered to the user. This endorsement isn’t uncommon to the behaviour we see on a daily basis on the high street.

Think about the last time you were handed a flyer on the street from ‘the best bar in town’ or ‘the greatest value’ store on the high street. Did you trust it? Ultimately, if we can see that the person is being directly paid to encourage footfall to a store, then it is in our nature to understand the value exchange here and that their recommendation may not be completely genuine.

Now picture yourself in one of your favourite stores, where the product you’re desperate for is out of stock and will take a few weeks to come in. Kindly the shop assistant may suggest popping down the road to an alternative store; “Perfect” you think as you head off to get your product from the other store, which did turn out to meet your needs. In this situation, you’ve been given a great customer experience from the initial store, despite their stock levels, and you still managed to complete the objective of your shopping trip. And now, you probably wouldn’t hesitate to recommend either of these stores to your friends.

A genuine, honest endorsement (or link) is something that users appreciate and adds value to their overall experience. This simple rule is one to be applied to your own link profile online; Add value to the users in an upfront manner and you’re more likely to avoid any form of negative impact on performance.

Pigeon

pigeon-algorithm

Pigeon was the update that took on local search, creating a better experience for users when they’re looking for a product or service close to them. This is exactly what we see when browsing a high street or a shopping centre. If you’re looking at the interactive map in a large centre and it directs you three floors away just to get a coffee, you’ll be far less impressed when you find out there was a Starbucks just behind you.

Apply this to just a chat with your friends. Being told about the most amazing restaurant they’ve eaten at recently is only interesting if you can then engage and go to that restaurant yourself. If they’re referencing a place which is in another country, or a long drive away, your interest instantly becomes much more passive, if not frustrated at not being given a recommendation of any use.

From a user experience perspective, it is a natural extension to the service of the Google High Street that you should first see the choices of the places nearby to you.

Mobile Update

mobile-optimise

When we warned of Mobilegeddon approaching, the majority of websites rushed to improve their experience when on a smaller device. Ensuring each page fit well within multiple screen sizes, and the usability of the site was not compromised. But should we have seen this coming?

To distill the mobile update down from the digital and into a trend that is seen offline, look at the way a store is organised. For those of us that maybe spend a bit too much time shopping, you’ll know that some stores are much more enjoyable to shop in than others. It’s easier to find what you’re looking for if everything is spaced apart and in a logical order. Stores with space to walk between the rails of products, where the purchase process is then one simple point are much more likely to sell their stock.

This is exactly the same as the changes people were making to their mobile sites; ensuring that what they were trying to fit within the screen was displayed in the best way possible. Guaranteeing that the purchase process was just a couple of clicks, rather than an elongated process which could put users off.

Page Speed

pagespeed

The biggest shift in high street purchasing in recent years has been the increase in the number of self service tills we’re seeing in stores. As shops trade off the face to face experience, for accelerating the purchase process (and cutting their staffing costs) it is clear that the pace at which someone can finish a transaction is important. This isn’t a great shock when you think about your own shopping trips – a massive queue is off putting, likewise for big crowds which will slow you down when you’re browsing in the store.

It is only natural then that when we are shopping online we want the same experience. If a website is slow to load and allow us to start our browsing, then it’s likely we’ll just go to the next best alternative. Seeing a whole list of similar search results means we can see that there is competition out there and options we can go to, therefore users can be pickier about the experience they have. This means that speed, amongst other things, is key to keeping users on side.

What’s next for search engines?

So can we predict the future of Google’s updates by looking at past high street customer experience trends? Probably not. This isn’t an argument for how blind we’ve been all these years to the patterns Google is following, it’s merely an acknowledgement that the emphasis Google puts upon the user experience on site is coming from empirical evidence within the high street.

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The Future of e-Commerce: What if Users Could Skip Your Site?

Posted by tallen1985

Have you taken a look at Google Shopping recently? Okay, so it isn’t quite the ecommerce monster that Amazon or eBay are, and yes, it’s only filled with sponsored posts. Playing around with it, however, proves that it provides a decent experience.

And that experience got me thinking. What if, instead of being sponsored ads, Google Shopping completely replaced organic search results for transactional queries? Would this be a better user experience? I would have a comparison of products from multiple retailers without even having to visit a website. Would this be a better experience than just “ten blue links?”

In this post I want to share why I think Google Shopping could replace organic search results in the future, and how websites can begin to prepare for this.

A closer look at Google Shopping

We’ve already seen evidence of Google trying to keep users within their search engine with local packs, flights, knowledge graphs, and instant answers. What’s to say shopping isn’t next? Google have already been using Google Shopping ads within search results for a while now, and they recently started testing Showcase Shopping ads, increasing the level of product exposure in a search result.

Check out this Google Shopping result for “red shoes” below:

On first impression, this could easily be an organic shopping result.

Google doesn’t make it crystal clear that these are paid ads, only displaying a small notification in the top right. Do users clearly understand that these products and brands are paying to appear here? As the potential customer, does it even matter, as long as I find the red shoes I’m looking for?

If this had been my search result instead of the typical organic search result, it wouldn’t have been a disappointing experience. In fact, Google would be putting me closer to my desired action of actually researching/purchasing red shoes, without me ever needing to leave Google.

Why do I think the long-term plan could be to use the layout of Google Shopping as a replacement for the current organic result? For me, the Google Shopping landing pages offer:

  • An overall better user experience than most sites — it has familiarity and loads quickly.
  • A range of products from multiple suppliers all in one place.
  • Price comparison of multiple suppliers without me having to load multiple domains.
  • Easy-to-understand faceted navigation.
  • Mobile-friendly — I don’t have to gamble on the search result I’m clicking on.

More intuitive for voice search

This plugs perfectly in with the development and improvements of voice search and the use of compound search queries, which Tom Anthony and myself discussed in Distilled’s Searchscape series.

Here’s a previous example of a compound query that Tom Anthony shared at SMX Munich:

I thought I’d test this same process out by trying to find a pair of red shoes using just voice search. The results weren’t perfect and, at this time, not a great user experience. However, compare this to Google Shopping results and you’ll see where we could be heading in the future with organic results.

Below is how the current search results look for a mobile voice search (on the left) versus search results if you click through to Google Shopping (images on the right).

“Okay Google, show me shoes”

Yup, those are definitely shoes. So far, so good for both results!

Current SERPs Shopping SERPS

“Okay Google, under £40”

Not quite under £40, but they are shoes within a reasonable price range. Google’s organic results have dropped product listings and are now showing sales pages for shoe stores.

Current SERPs Shopping SERPS

“Okay Google, in red”

Organic search now lists red shoe landing pages. However, the ads seem way off target, displaying bikes. Google Shopping, on the other hand, is getting pretty close to the product I may be looking to purchase.

Current SERPs Shopping SERPS

“Okay Google, for men”

Organic continues to show me predominantly men’s shoes page results, despite a very specific search query. Compare that to Google Shopping, which now matches the majority of my criteria except price.

Current SERPs Shopping SERPS

While the above search shows the organic SERPs aren’t producing high-quality results for conversational queries, you can be confident that these types of results will continue to improve. And when they do, the Google Shopping result will produce the best answer to the user’s query, getting them to their desired action with the fewest number of clicks.

Time and again we’ve seen Google attempt to reduce the number of steps it takes for a user to get their answer via features such as car insurance, flight comparison, and instant answers. This seems the logical next step for shopping, as well, once search results are dependable.

Will the user still have to come to my site to complete a transaction?

Initially, yes, the user will have to click through to your page in order to purchase. Currently, Google Shopping allows users to find more information about a product within Google before clicking through to a landing page to complete their purchase.

But in the long run, Google could facilitate the transaction for your business without a user ever hitting a website. We saw Google testing this within paid search back in 2015. And while at the time Google stated they have no intention of becoming a retailer (and I still believe this to be true), we certainly know that Google wants to get the user to complete their goal as quickly and easily as possible, ideally remaining within the Google eco-system.

google-buy-now-animated-1437048801.gif

Google Shopping testing instant purchase

What could this mean for webmasters?

A change such as this could be a double-edged sword for businesses. If Google decided to rank your product more prominently than competitors, its ease of use could see an uplift in sales. The downside? If Google decided to monetize this feature, they could look to take a cut from any sales, similar to Amazon and eBay.

Secondly, we would have to refine the way we measure traffic to our site (or not). It’s likely that measurement would have to be based on impressions and conversions rather than sessions. Based on the current reporting format available for Google Shopping, users may have access to clicks and click-through rate, but as no actual data is being passed to Google Analytics this would likely be reported within Google Search Console.

Of course, we’d still want ranking reports, as well. Rank tracking companies such as GetStat and SEMRush would have to adapt their products to track product listings in the same way that we’ve seen them improve tracking for local packs and structured data over the last 12 months.

How could we prepare for this?

Preparation for a world where Google looks like this falls into two buckets: what you should do if you own the physical products, and what you should do if you don’t (for example, if you’re an affiliate site).

If you own the product:

If you own the product (for example, you stock and sell TVs), then you should be looking to give Google as much information about your products as possible to ensure they have the optimal opportunity to appear within search engine results. Ensure product pages are well-optimized so Google understands the product being displayed. Most importantly, we recommend you get structured data in place (Google’s current preference is for webmasters to use JSON-LD).

There may also be immediate benefits, such as getting more rich snippets within search results and an increased opportunity of being featured in answer boxes (and leapfrogging competitors), but this will help future-proof your site.

Want to know more about JSON-LD? I recommend taking a read of the following resources:

  • Google’s introduction to structured data
  • Distilled consultant Bridget Randolph discusses how to audit for structured data opportunities
  • BuiltVisible’s guide to Microdata, JSON-LD & Schema

Additionally, we need to start looking higher up the funnel and creating content that will make users come back. I know, I hate saying it, but we have to produce great content! I’ll discuss how The Wirecutter has been approaching this in just a moment.

Further down the pipeline, if Google decided it can handle processing user transactions within Google itself, you’ll want to consider opening up your checkout as an API. This was a requirement in Google’s paid experiment and, as such, could be a necessity to appear here in the future.

If you don’t own the product & are an affiliate or review site, etc.

Ranking for both transactional and information search queries could become even more difficult. It may even become impossible to rank for very specific long-tail search terms.

The recommendations don’t differ too much from above. We should still get structured data in place to reap the rewards now and start producing great content that sits higher up the funnel.

Producing great and useful content

Will Critchlow recently introduced me to The WireCutter as one of his go-to websites. This is a site that’s taken product research to an extreme. With extremely in-depth articles about which products users should buy, they take the thought process out of “which product should I buy?” and instead, based on my needs, say, “Don’t worry about doing any more research, we’ve done it for you. Just buy this one.”

I’ve recently purchased a range of products from pens to printers based on their recommendations. They’ve created useful content — which, after numerous purchases, I now trust — and as a result encourages me to return to their site over and over again.

To finish up, I’d love to hear your thoughts:

  • How might the future of ecommerce look?
  • How have you been using voice search, particularly compound and revised queries?
  • Do you think Google Shopping replacing the current organic search layout would provide an improved user experience?

Reach out to me in the comments below or over on Twitter — @the_timallen.

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