A Vision for Brand Engagement Online, or "The Goal"

Posted by EricEnge

Today’s post focuses on a vision for your online presence. This vision outlines what it takes to be the best, both from an overall reputation and visibility standpoint, as well as an SEO point of view. The reason these are tied together is simple: Your overall online reputation and visibility is a huge factor in your SEO. Period. Let’s start by talking about why.

Core ranking signals

For purposes of this post, let’s define three cornerstone ranking signals that most everyone agrees on:

Links

Links remain a huge factor in overall ranking. Both Cyrus Shepard and Marcus Tober re-confirmed this on the Periodic Table of SEO Ranking Factors session at the SMX Advanced conference in Seattle this past June.

On-page content

On-page content remains a huge factor too, but with some subtleties now thrown in. I wrote about some of this in earlier posts I did on Moz about Term Frequency and Inverse Document Frequency. Suffice it to say that on-page content is about a lot more than pure words on the page, but also includes the supporting pages that you link to.

User engagement with your site

This is not one of the traditional SEO signals from the early days of SEO, but most advanced SEO pros that I know consider it a real factor these days. One of the most popular concepts people talk about is called pogo-sticking, which is illustrated here:

You can learn more about the pogosticking concept by visiting this Whiteboard Friday video by a rookie SEO with a last name of Fishkin.

New, lesser-known signals

OK, so these are the more obvious signals, but now let’s look more broadly at the overall web ecosystem and talk about other types of ranking signals. Be warned that some of these signals may be indirect, but that just doesn’t matter. In fact, my first example below is an indirect factor which I will use to demonstrate why whether a signal is direct or indirect is not an issue at all.

Let me illustrate with an example. Say you spend $1 billion dollars building a huge brand around a product that is massively useful to people. Included in this is a sizable $100 million dollar campaign to support a highly popular charitable foundation, and your employees regularly donate time to help out in schools across your country. In short, the great majority of people love your brand.

Do you think this will impact the way people link to your site? Of course it does. Do you think it will impact how likely people are to be satisified with quality of the pages of your site? Consider this A/B test scenario of 2 pages from different “brands” (for the one on the left, imagine the image of Coca Cola or Pepsi Cola, whichever one you prefer):

Do you think that the huge brand will get a benefit of a doubt on their page that the no-name brand does not even though the pages are identical? Of course they will. Now let’s look at some simpler scenarios that don’t involve a $1 billion investment.

1. Cover major options related to a product or service on “money pages”

Imagine that a user arrives on your auto parts site after searching on the phrase “oil filter” at Google or Bing. Chances are pretty good that they want an oil filter, but here are some other items they may also want:

  • A guide to picking the right filter for their car
  • Oil
  • An oil filter wrench
  • A drainage pan to drain the old oil into

This is just the basics, right? But, you would be surprised with how many sites don’t include links or information on directly related products on their money pages. Providing this type of smart site and page design can have a major impact on user engagement with the money pages of your site.

2. Include other related links on money pages

In the prior item we covered the user’s most directly related needs, but they may have secondary needs as well. Someone who is changing a car’s oil is either a mechanic or a do-it-yourself-er. What else might they need? How about other parts, such as windshield wipers or air filters?

These are other fairly easy maintenance steps for someone who is working on their car to complete. Presence of these supporting products could be one way to improve user engagement with your pages.

3. Offer industry-leading non-commercial content on-site

Publishing world-class content on your site is a great way to produce links to your site. Of course, if you do this on a blog on your site, it may not provide links directly to your money pages, but it will nonetheless lift overall site authority.

In addition, if someone has consumed one or more pieces of great content on your site, the chance of their engaging in a more positive manner with your site overall go way up. Why? Because you’ve earned their trust and admiration.

4. Be everywhere your audiences are with more high-quality, relevant, non-commercial content

Are there major media sites that cover your market space? Do they consider you to be an expert? Will they quote you in articles they write? Can you provide them with guest posts or let you be a guest columnist? Will they collaborate on larger content projects with you?

All of these activities put you in front of their audiences, and if those audiences overlap with yours, this provides a great way to build your overall reputation and visibility. This content that you publish, or collaborate on, that shows up on 3rd-party sites will get you mentions and links. In addition, once again, it will provide you with a boost to your branding. People are now more likely to consume your other content more readily, including on your money pages.

5. Leverage social media

The concept here shares much in common with the prior point. Social media provides opportunities to get in front of relevant audiences. Every person that’s an avid follower of yours on a social media site is more likely to show very different behavior characteristics interacting with your site than someone that does not know you well at all.

Note that links from social media sites are nofollowed, but active social media behavior can lead to people implementing “real world” links to your site that are followed, from their blogs and media web sites.

6. Be active in the offline world as well

Think your offline activity doesn’t matter online? Think again. Relationships are still most easily built face-to-face. People you meet and spend time with can well become your most loyal fans online. This is particularly important when it comes to building relationships with influential people.

One great way to do that is to go to public events related to your industry, such as conferences. Better still, obtain speaking engagements at those conferences. This can even impact people who weren’t there to hear you speak, as they become aware that you have been asked to do that. This concept can also work for a small local business. Get out in your community and engage with people at local events.

The payoff here is similar to the payoff for other items: more engaged, highly loyal fans who engage with you across the web, sending more and more positive signals, both to other people and to search engines, that you are the real deal.

7. Provide great customer service/support

Whatever your business may be, you need to take care of your customers as best you can. No one can make everyone happy, that’s unrealistic, but striving for much better than average is a really sound idea. Having satisfied customers saying nice things about you online is a big impact item in the grand scheme of things.

8. Actively build relationships with influencers too

While this post is not about the value of influencer relationships, I include this in the list for illustration purposes, for two reasons:

  1. Some opportunities are worth extra effort. Know of someone who could have a major impact on your business? Know that they will be at a public event in the near future? Book your plane tickets and get your butt out there. No guarantee that you will get the result you are looking for, or that it will happen quickly, but your chances go WAY up if you get some face time with them.
  2. Influencers are worth special attention and focus, but your relationship-building approach to the web and SEO is not only about influencers. It’s about the entire ecosystem.

It’s an integrated ecosystem

The web provides a level of integrated, real-time connectivity of a kind that the world has never seen before. This is only going to increase. Do something bad to a customer in Hong Kong? Consumers in Boston will know within 5 minutes. That’s where it’s all headed.

Google and Bing (and any future search engine that may emerge) want to measure these types of signals because they tell them how to improve the quality of the experience on their platforms. There are may ways they can perform these measurements.

One simple concept is covered by Rand in this recent Whiteboard Friday video. The discussion is about a recent patent granted to Google that shows how the company can use search queries to detect who is an authority on a topic.

The example he provides is about people who search on “email finding tool”. If Google also finds that a number of people search on “voila norbert email tool”, Google may use that as an authority signal.

Think about that for a moment. How are you going to get people to search on your brand more while putting it together with a non-branded querly like that? (OK, please leave Mechanical Turk and other services like that out of the discussion).

Now you can start to see the bigger picture. Measurements like pogosticking and this recent search behavior related patent are just the tip of the iceberg. Undoubtedly, there are many other ways that search engines can measure what people like and engage with the most.

This is all part of SEO now. UX, product breadth, problem solving, UX, engaging in social media, getting face to face, creating great content that you publish in front of other people’s audiences, and more.

For the small local business, you can still win at this game, as your focus just needs to be on doing it better than your competitors. The big brands will never be hyper-local like you are, so don’t think you can’t play the game, because you can.

Whoever you are, get ready, because this new integrated ecosystem is already upon us, and you need to be a part of it.

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I Can’t Drive 155: Meta Descriptions in 2015

Posted by Dr-Pete

For years now, we (and many others) have been recommending keeping your Meta Descriptions shorter than
about 155-160 characters. For months, people have been sending me examples of search snippets that clearly broke that rule, like this one (on a search for “hummingbird food”):

For the record, this one clocks in at 317 characters (counting spaces). So, I set out to discover if these long descriptions were exceptions to the rule, or if we need to change the rules. I collected the search snippets across the MozCast 10K, which resulted in 92,669 snippets. All of the data in this post was collected on April 13, 2015.

The Basic Data

The minimum snippet length was zero characters. There were 69 zero-length snippets, but most of these were the new generation of answer box, that appears organic but doesn’t have a snippet. To put it another way, these were misidentified as organic by my code. The other 0-length snippets were local one-boxes that appeared as organic but had no snippet, such as this one for “chichen itza”:

These zero-length snippets were removed from further analysis, but considering that they only accounted for 0.07% of the total data, they didn’t really impact the conclusions either way. The shortest legitimate, non-zero snippet was 7 characters long, on a search for “geek and sundry”, and appears to have come directly from the site’s meta description:

The maximum snippet length that day (this is a highly dynamic situation) was 372 characters. The winner appeared on a search for “benefits of apple cider vinegar”:

The average length of all of the snippets in our data set (not counting zero-length snippets) was 143.5 characters, and the median length was 152 characters. Of course, this can be misleading, since some snippets are shorter than the limit and others are being artificially truncated by Google. So, let’s dig a bit deeper.

The Bigger Picture

To get a better idea of the big picture, let’s take a look at the display length of all 92,600 snippets (with non-zero length), split into 20-character buckets (0-20, 21-40, etc.):

Most of the snippets (62.1%) cut off as expected, right in the 141-160 character bucket. Of course, some snippets were shorter than that, and didn’t need to be cut off, and some broke the rules. About 1% (1,010) of the snippets in our data set measured 200 or more characters. That’s not a huge number, but it’s enough to take seriously.

That 141-160 character bucket is dwarfing everything else, so let’s zoom in a bit on the cut-off range, and just look at snippets in the 120-200 character range (in this case, by 5-character bins):

Zooming in, the bulk of the snippets are displaying at lengths between about 146-165 characters. There are plenty of exceptions to the 155-160 character guideline, but for the most part, they do seem to be exceptions.

Finally, let’s zoom in on the rule-breakers. This is the distribution of snippets displaying 191+ characters, bucketed in 10-character bins (191-200, 201-210, etc.):

Please note that the Y-axis scale is much smaller than in the previous 2 graphs, but there is a pretty solid spread, with a decent chunk of snippets displaying more than 300 characters.

Without looking at every original meta description tag, it’s very difficult to tell exactly how many snippets have been truncated by Google, but we do have a proxy. Snippets that have been truncated end in an ellipsis (…), which rarely appears at the end of a natural description. In this data set, more than half of all snippets (52.8%) ended in an ellipsis, so we’re still seeing a lot of meta descriptions being cut off.

I should add that, unlike titles/headlines, it isn’t clear whether Google is cutting off snippets by pixel width or character count, since that cut-off is done on the server-side. In most cases, Google will cut before the end of the second line, but sometimes they cut well before this, which could suggest a character-based limit. They also cut off at whole words, which can make the numbers a bit tougher to interpret.

The Cutting Room Floor

There’s another difficulty with telling exactly how many meta descriptions Google has modified – some edits are minor, and some are major. One minor edit is when Google adds some additional information to a snippet, such as a date at the beginning. Here’s an example (from a search for “chicken pox”):

With the date (and minus the ellipsis), this snippet is 164 characters long, which suggests Google isn’t counting the added text against the length limit. What’s interesting is that the rest comes directly from the meta description on the site, except that the site’s description starts with “Chickenpox.” and Google has removed that keyword. As a human, I’d say this matches the meta description, but a bot has a very hard time telling a minor edit from a complete rewrite.

Another minor rewrite occurs in snippets that start with search result counts:

Here, we’re at 172 characters (with spaces and minus the ellipsis), and Google has even let this snippet roll over to a third line. So, again, it seems like the added information at the beginning isn’t counting against the length limit.

All told, 11.6% of the snippets in our data set had some kind of Google-generated data, so this type of minor rewrite is pretty common. Even if Google honors most of your meta description, you may see small edits.

Let’s look at our big winner, the 372-character description. Here’s what we saw in the snippet:

Jan 26, 2015 – Health• Diabetes Prevention: Multiple studies have shown a correlation between apple cider vinegar and lower blood sugar levels. … • Weight Loss: Consuming apple cider vinegar can help you feel more full, which can help you eat less. … • Lower Cholesterol: … • Detox: … • Digestive Aid: … • Itchy or Sunburned Skin: … • Energy Boost:1 more items

So, what about the meta description? Here’s what we actually see in the tag:

Were you aware of all the uses of apple cider vinegar? From cleansing to healing, to preventing diabetes, ACV is a pantry staple you need in your home.

That’s a bit more than just a couple of edits. So, what’s happening here? Well, there’s a clue on that same page, where we see yet another rule-breaking snippet:

You might be wondering why this snippet is any more interesting than the other one. If you could see the top of the SERP, you’d know why, because it looks something like this:

Google is automatically extracting list-style data from these pages to fuel the expansion of the Knowledge Graph. In one case, that data is replacing a snippet
and going directly into an answer box, but they’re performing the same translation even for some other snippets on the page.

So, does every 2nd-generation answer box yield long snippets? After 3 hours of inadvisable mySQL queries, I can tell you that the answer is a resounding “probably not”. You can have 2nd-gen answer boxes without long snippets and you can have long snippets without 2nd-gen answer boxes,
but there does appear to be a connection between long snippets and Knowledge Graph in some cases.

One interesting connection is that Google has begun bolding keywords that seem like answers to the query (and not just synonyms for the query). Below is an example from a search for “mono symptoms”. There’s an answer box for this query, but the snippet below is not from the site in the answer box:

Notice the bolded words – “fatigue”, “sore throat”, “fever”, “headache”, “rash”. These aren’t synonyms for the search phrase; these are actual symptoms of mono. This data isn’t coming from the meta description, but from a bulleted list on the target page. Again, it appears that Google is trying to use the snippet to answer a question, and has gone well beyond just matching keywords.

Just for fun, let’s look at one more, where there’s no clear connection to the Knowledge Graph. Here’s a snippet from a search for “sons of anarchy season 4”:

This page has no answer box, and the information extracted is odd at best. The snippet bears little or no resemblance to the site’s meta description. The number string at the beginning comes out of a rating widget, and some of the text isn’t even clearly available on the page. This seems to be an example of Google acknowledging IMDb as a high-authority site and desperately trying to match any text they can to the query, resulting in a Frankenstein’s snippet.

The Final Verdict

If all of this seems confusing, that’s probably because it is. Google is taking a lot more liberties with snippets these days, both to better match queries, to add details they feel are important, or to help build and support the Knowledge Graph.

So, let’s get back to the original question – is it time to revise the 155(ish) character guideline? My gut feeling is: not yet. To begin with, the vast majority of snippets are still falling in that 145-165 character range. In addition, the exceptions to the rule are not only atypical situations, but in most cases those long snippets don’t seem to represent the original meta description. In other words, even if Google does grant you extra characters, they probably won’t be the extra characters you asked for in the first place.

Many people have asked: “How do I make sure that Google shows my meta description as is?” I’m afraid the answer is: “You don’t.” If this is very important to you, I would recommend keeping your description below the 155-character limit, and making sure that it’s a good match to your target keyword concepts. I suspect Google is going to take more liberties with snippets over time, and we’re going to have to let go of our obsession with having total control over the SERPs.

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The Future of Link Building

Posted by Paddy_Moogan

Building the types of links that help grow your online business and organic search traffic is getting harder. It used to be fairly straightforward, back before Google worked out how to treat links with different levels of quality and trust. However, the fact that it’s getting harder doesn’t mean that it’s dead.

What does the future hold?

I’m going to talk about links, but the truth is, the future isn’t really about the links. It is far bigger than that.

Quick sidenote: I’m aware that doing a blog post about the future of link building the week of a likely Penguin update could leave me with egg on my face! But we’ll see what happens.

Links will always be a ranking factor in some form or another. I can see the dials being turned down or off on certain aspects of links (more on that below) but I think they will always be there. Google is always looking for more data, more signals, more indicators of whether or not a certain page is a good result for a user at a certain moment in time. They will find them too, as we can see from
patents such as this. A natural consequence is that other signals may be diluted or even replaced as Google becomes smarter and understands the web and users a lot better.

What this means for the future is that the links valued by Google will be the ones you get as a result of having a great product and great marketing. Essentially, links will be symptomatic of amazing marketing. Hat tip to
Jess Champion who I’ve borrowed this term from.

This isn’t easy, but it shouldn’t be. That’s the point.

To go a bit further, I think we also need to think about the bigger picture. In the grand scheme of things, there are so many more signals that Google can use which, as marketers, we need to understand and use to our advantage. Google is changing and we can’t bury our heads in the sand and ignore what is going on.

A quick side note on spammy links

My background is a spammy one so I can’t help but address this quickly. Spam will continue to work for short-term hits and churn and burn websites. I’ve talked before about 
my position on this so I won’t go into too much more detail here. I will say though that those people who are in the top 1% of spammers will continue to make money, but even for them, it will be hard to maintain over a long period of time.

Let’s move onto some more of the detail around my view of the future by first looking at the past and present.

What we’ve seen in the past

Google didn’t understand links.

The fundamental issue that Google had for a long, long time was that they didn’t understand enough about links. They didn’t understand things such as:

  • How much to trust a link
  • Whether a link was truly editorially given or not
  • Whether a link was paid for or not
  • If a link was genuinely high quality (PageRank isn’t perfect)
  • How relevant a link was

Whilst they still have work to do on all of these, they have gotten much better in recent years. At one time, a link was a link and it was pretty much a case of whoever had the most links, won. I think that for a long time, Google was trying very hard to understand links and find which ones were high quality, but there was so much noise that it was very difficult. I think that eventually they realised that they had to attack the problem from a different angle and 
Penguin came along. So instead of focusing on finding the “good” signals of links, they focused on finding the “bad” signals and started to take action on them. This didn’t fix everything, but it did enough to shock our industry into moving away from certain tactics and therefore, has probably helped reduce a lot of the noise that Google was seeing.

What we’re seeing right now

Google is understanding more about language.

Google is getting better at understanding everything.
Hummingbird was just the start of what Google hopes to achieve on this front and it stands to reason that the same kind of technology that helps the following query work, will also help Google understand links better.

Not many people in the search industry said much when
Google hired this guy back in 2012. We can be pretty sure that it’s partly down to his work that we’re seeing the type of understanding of language that we are. His work has only just begun, though, and I think we’ll see more queries like the one above that just shouldn’t work, but they do. I also think we’ll see more instances of Googlers not knowing why something ranks where it does.

Google is understanding more about people.

I talk about this a little more below but to quickly summarise here, Google is learning more about us all the time. It can seem creepy, but the fact is that Google wants as much data as possible from us so that they can serve more relevant search results—and advertising of course. They are understanding more that the keywords we type into Google may not actually be what we want to find, nor are those keywords enough to find what we really want. Google needs more context.

Tom Anthony has
talked about this extensively so I won’t go into loads more detail. But to bring it back to link building, it is important to be aware of this because it means that there are more and more signals that could mean the dial on links gets turned down a bit more.

Some predictions about the future

I want to make a few things more concrete about my view of the future for link building, so let’s look at a few specifics.

1. Anchor text will matter less and less

Anchor text as a ranking signal was always something that works well in theory but not in reality. Even in my early days of link building, I couldn’t understand why Google put so much weight behind this one signal. My main reason for this view was that using exact match keywords in a link was not natural for most webmasters. I’d go as far as to say the only people who used it were SEOs!

I’m don’t think we’re at a point yet where anchor text as a ranking signal is dead and it will take some more time for Google to turn down the dial. But we definitely are at a point where you can get hurt pretty badly if you have too much commercial anchor text in your link profile. It just isn’t natural.

In the future, Google won’t need this signal. They will be much better at understanding the content of a page and importantly, the context of a page.

2. Deep linking will matter less and less

I was on the fence about this one for a long time but the more I think about it, the more I can see this happening. I’ll explain my view here by using an example.

Let’s imagine you’re an eCommerce website and you sell laptops. Obviously each laptop you sell will have its own product page and if you sell different types, you’ll probably have category pages too. With a products like laptops, chances are that other retailers sell the same ones with the same specifications and probably have very similar looking pages to yours. How does Google know which one to rank better than others?

Links to these product pages can work fine but in my opinion, is a bit of a crude way of working it out. I think that Google will get better at understanding the subtle differences in queries from users which will naturally mean that deep links to these laptop pages will be one of many signals they can use.

Take these queries:


“laptop reviews”

Context: I want to buy a laptop but I don’t know which one.


“asus laptop reviews”

Context: I like the sound of Asus, I want to read more about their laptops.


“sony laptop reviews”

Context: I also like the sound of Sony, I want to read more about their laptops.


“sony vs asus laptop”

Context: I’m confused, they both sound the same so I want a direct comparison to help me decide.


“asus laptop”

Context: I want an Asus laptop.

You can see how the mindset of the user has changed over time and we can easily imagine how the search results will have changed to reflect this. Google already understand this. There are other signals coming into play here too though, what about these bits of additional information that Google can gather about us:

  • Location: I’m on a bus in London, I may not want to buy a £1,000 laptop right now but I’ll happily research them.
  • Device: I’m on my iPhone 6, I may not want to input credit card details into it and I worry that the website I’m using won’t work well on a small screen.
  • Search history: I’ve searched for laptops before and visited several retailers, but I keep going back to the same one as I’ve ordered from them before.

These are just a few that are easy for us to imagine Google using. There are loads more that Google could look at, not to mention signals from the retailers themselves such as secure websites, user feedback, 3rd party reviews, trust signals etc.

When you start adding all of these signals together, it’s pretty easy to see why links to a specific product page may not be the strongest signal for Google to use when determining rankings.

Smaller companies will be able to compete more.

One of the things I loved about SEO when I first got into it was the fact that organic search felt like a level playing field. I knew that with the right work, I could beat massive companies in the search results and not have to spend a fortune doing it. Suffice to say, things have changed quite a bit now and there are some industries where you stand pretty much zero chance of competing unless you have a very big budget to spend and a great product.

I think we will see a shift back in the other direction and smaller companies with fewer links will be able to rank for certain types of queries with a certain type of context. As explained above, context is key and allows Google to serve up search results that meet the context of the user. This means that massive brands are not always going to be the right answer for users and Google have to get better at understanding this. Whether a company is classified as a “brand” or not can be subjective. My local craft beer shop in London is the only one in the world and if you were to ask 100 people if they’d heard of it, they’d all probably say no. But it’s a brand to me because I love their products, their staff are knowledgeable and helpful, their marketing is cool and I’d always recommend them.

Sometimes, showing the website of this shop above bigger brands in search results is the right thing to do for a user. Google need lots of additional signals beyond “branding” and links in order to do this but I think they will get them.

What all of this means for us

Predicting the future is hard, knowing what to do about it is pretty hard too! But here are some things that I think we should be doing.

  1. Ask really hard questions
    Marketing is hard. If you or your client wants to compete and win customers, then you need to be prepared to ask really hard questions about the company. Here are just a few that I’ve found difficult when talking to clients:

    • Why does the company exist? (A good answer has nothing to do with making money)
    • Why do you deserve to rank well in Google?
    • What makes you different to your competitors?
    • If you disappeared from Google tomorrow, would anyone notice?
    • Why do you deserve to be linked to?
    • What value do you provide for users?

    The answers to these won’t always give you that silver bullet, but they can provoke conversations that make the client look inwardly and at why they should deserve links and customers. These questions are hard to answer, but again, that’s the point.

  2. Stop looking for scalable link building tactics

    Seriously, just stop. Anything that can be scaled tends to lose quality and anything that scales is likely to be targeted by the Google webspam team at some point. A
    recent piece of content we did at Distilled has so far generated links from over 700 root domains—we did NOT send 700 outreach emails! This piece took on a life of its own and generated those links after some promotion by us, but at no point did we worry about scaling outreach for it.

  3. Start focusing on doing marketing that users love

    I’m not talking necessarily about you doing the next
    Volvo ad or to be the next Old Spice guy. If you can then great, but these are out of reach for most of us.That doesn’t mean you can’t do marketing that people love. I often look at companies like Brewdog and Hawksmoor who do great marketing around their products but in a way that has personality and appeal. They don’t have to spend millions of dollars on celebrities or TV advertising because they have a great product and a fun marketing message. They have value to add which is the key, they don’t need to worry about link building because they get them naturally by doing cool stuff.

    Whilst I know that “doing cool stuff” isn’t particularly actionable, I still think it’s fair to say that marketing needs to be loved. In order to do marketing that people love, you need to have some fun and focus on adding value.

  4. Don’t bury your head in the sand

    The worst thing you can do is ignore the trends and changes taking place. Google is changing, user expectations and behaviours are changing, our industry is changing. As an industry, we’ve adapted very well over the last few years. We have to keep doing this if we’re going to survive.

    Going back to link building, you need to accept that this stuff is really hard and building the types of links that Google value is hard.

In summary

Links aren’t going anywhere. But the world is changing and we have to focus on what truly matters: marketing great products and building a loyal audience. 

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