Why Effective, Modern SEO Requires Technical, Creative, and Strategic Thinking – Whiteboard Friday

Posted by randfish

There’s no doubt that quite a bit has changed about SEO, and that the field is far more integrated with other aspects of online marketing than it once was. In today’s Whiteboard Friday, Rand pushes back against the idea that effective modern SEO doesn’t require any technical expertise, outlining a fantastic list of technical elements that today’s SEOs need to know about in order to be truly effective.

For reference, here’s a still of this week’s whiteboard. Click on it to open a high resolution image in a new tab!

Video transcription

Howdy, Moz fans, and welcome to another edition of Whiteboard Friday. This week I’m going to do something unusual. I don’t usually point out these inconsistencies or sort of take issue with other folks’ content on the web, because I generally find that that’s not all that valuable and useful. But I’m going to make an exception here.

There is an article by Jayson DeMers, who I think might actually be here in Seattle — maybe he and I can hang out at some point — called “Why Modern SEO Requires Almost No Technical Expertise.” It was an article that got a shocking amount of traction and attention. On Facebook, it has thousands of shares. On LinkedIn, it did really well. On Twitter, it got a bunch of attention.

Some folks in the SEO world have already pointed out some issues around this. But because of the increasing popularity of this article, and because I think there’s, like, this hopefulness from worlds outside of kind of the hardcore SEO world that are looking to this piece and going, “Look, this is great. We don’t have to be technical. We don’t have to worry about technical things in order to do SEO.”

Look, I completely get the appeal of that. I did want to point out some of the reasons why this is not so accurate. At the same time, I don’t want to rain on Jayson, because I think that it’s very possible he’s writing an article for Entrepreneur, maybe he has sort of a commitment to them. Maybe he had no idea that this article was going to spark so much attention and investment. He does make some good points. I think it’s just really the title and then some of the messages inside there that I take strong issue with, and so I wanted to bring those up.

First off, some of the good points he did bring up.

One, he wisely says, “You don’t need to know how to code or to write and read algorithms in order to do SEO.” I totally agree with that. If today you’re looking at SEO and you’re thinking, “Well, am I going to get more into this subject? Am I going to try investing in SEO? But I don’t even know HTML and CSS yet.”

Those are good skills to have, and they will help you in SEO, but you don’t need them. Jayson’s totally right. You don’t have to have them, and you can learn and pick up some of these things, and do searches, watch some Whiteboard Fridays, check out some guides, and pick up a lot of that stuff later on as you need it in your career. SEO doesn’t have that hard requirement.

And secondly, he makes an intelligent point that we’ve made many times here at Moz, which is that, broadly speaking, a better user experience is well correlated with better rankings.

You make a great website that delivers great user experience, that provides the answers to searchers’ questions and gives them extraordinarily good content, way better than what’s out there already in the search results, generally speaking you’re going to see happy searchers, and that’s going to lead to higher rankings.

But not entirely. There are a lot of other elements that go in here. So I’ll bring up some frustrating points around the piece as well.

First off, there’s no acknowledgment — and I find this a little disturbing — that the ability to read and write code, or even HTML and CSS, which I think are the basic place to start, is helpful or can take your SEO efforts to the next level. I think both of those things are true.

So being able to look at a web page, view source on it, or pull up Firebug in Firefox or something and diagnose what’s going on and then go, “Oh, that’s why Google is not able to see this content. That’s why we’re not ranking for this keyword or term, or why even when I enter this exact sentence in quotes into Google, which is on our page, this is why it’s not bringing it up. It’s because it’s loading it after the page from a remote file that Google can’t access.” These are technical things, and being able to see how that code is built, how it’s structured, and what’s going on there, very, very helpful.

Some coding knowledge also can take your SEO efforts even further. I mean, so many times, SEOs are stymied by the conversations that we have with our programmers and our developers and the technical staff on our teams. When we can have those conversations intelligently, because at least we understand the principles of how an if-then statement works, or what software engineering best practices are being used, or they can upload something into a GitHub repository, and we can take a look at it there, that kind of stuff is really helpful.

Secondly, I don’t like that the article overly reduces all of this information that we have about what we’ve learned about Google. So he mentions two sources. One is things that Google tells us, and others are SEO experiments. I think both of those are true. Although I’d add that there’s sort of a sixth sense of knowledge that we gain over time from looking at many, many search results and kind of having this feel for why things rank, and what might be wrong with a site, and getting really good at that using tools and data as well. There are people who can look at Open Site Explorer and then go, “Aha, I bet this is going to happen.” They can look, and 90% of the time they’re right.

So he boils this down to, one, write quality content, and two, reduce your bounce rate. Neither of those things are wrong. You should write quality content, although I’d argue there are lots of other forms of quality content that aren’t necessarily written — video, images and graphics, podcasts, lots of other stuff.

And secondly, that just doing those two things is not always enough. So you can see, like many, many folks look and go, “I have quality content. It has a low bounce rate. How come I don’t rank better?” Well, your competitors, they’re also going to have quality content with a low bounce rate. That’s not a very high bar.

Also, frustratingly, this really gets in my craw. I don’t think “write quality content” means anything. You tell me. When you hear that, to me that is a totally non-actionable, non-useful phrase that’s a piece of advice that is so generic as to be discardable. So I really wish that there was more substance behind that.

The article also makes, in my opinion, the totally inaccurate claim that modern SEO really is reduced to “the happier your users are when they visit your site, the higher you’re going to rank.”

Wow. Okay. Again, I think broadly these things are correlated. User happiness and rank is broadly correlated, but it’s not a one to one. This is not like a, “Oh, well, that’s a 1.0 correlation.”

I would guess that the correlation is probably closer to like the page authority range. I bet it’s like 0.35 or something correlation. If you were to actually measure this broadly across the web and say like, “Hey, were you happier with result one, two, three, four, or five,” the ordering would not be perfect at all. It probably wouldn’t even be close.

There’s a ton of reasons why sometimes someone who ranks on Page 2 or Page 3 or doesn’t rank at all for a query is doing a better piece of content than the person who does rank well or ranks on Page 1, Position 1.

Then the article suggests five and sort of a half steps to successful modern SEO, which I think is a really incomplete list. So Jayson gives us;

  • Good on-site experience
  • Writing good content
  • Getting others to acknowledge you as an authority
  • Rising in social popularity
  • Earning local relevance
  • Dealing with modern CMS systems (which he notes most modern CMS systems are SEO-friendly)

The thing is there’s nothing actually wrong with any of these. They’re all, generally speaking, correct, either directly or indirectly related to SEO. The one about local relevance, I have some issue with, because he doesn’t note that there’s a separate algorithm for sort of how local SEO is done and how Google ranks local sites in maps and in their local search results. Also not noted is that rising in social popularity won’t necessarily directly help your SEO, although it can have indirect and positive benefits.

I feel like this list is super incomplete. Okay, I brainstormed just off the top of my head in the 10 minutes before we filmed this video a list. The list was so long that, as you can see, I filled up the whole whiteboard and then didn’t have any more room. I’m not going to bother to erase and go try and be absolutely complete.

But there’s a huge, huge number of things that are important, critically important for technical SEO. If you don’t know how to do these things, you are sunk in many cases. You can’t be an effective SEO analyst, or consultant, or in-house team member, because you simply can’t diagnose the potential problems, rectify those potential problems, identify strategies that your competitors are using, be able to diagnose a traffic gain or loss. You have to have these skills in order to do that.

I’ll run through these quickly, but really the idea is just that this list is so huge and so long that I think it’s very, very, very wrong to say technical SEO is behind us. I almost feel like the opposite is true.

We have to be able to understand things like;

  • Content rendering and indexability
  • Crawl structure, internal links, JavaScript, Ajax. If something’s post-loading after the page and Google’s not able to index it, or there are links that are accessible via JavaScript or Ajax, maybe Google can’t necessarily see those or isn’t crawling them as effectively, or is crawling them, but isn’t assigning them as much link weight as they might be assigning other stuff, and you’ve made it tough to link to them externally, and so they can’t crawl it.
  • Disabling crawling and/or indexing of thin or incomplete or non-search-targeted content. We have a bunch of search results pages. Should we use rel=prev/next? Should we robots.txt those out? Should we disallow from crawling with meta robots? Should we rel=canonical them to other pages? Should we exclude them via the protocols inside Google Webmaster Tools, which is now Google Search Console?
  • Managing redirects, domain migrations, content updates. A new piece of content comes out, replacing an old piece of content, what do we do with that old piece of content? What’s the best practice? It varies by different things. We have a whole Whiteboard Friday about the different things that you could do with that. What about a big redirect or a domain migration? You buy another company and you’re redirecting their site to your site. You have to understand things about subdomain structures versus subfolders, which, again, we’ve done another Whiteboard Friday about that.
  • Proper error codes, downtime procedures, and not found pages. If your 404 pages turn out to all be 200 pages, well, now you’ve made a big error there, and Google could be crawling tons of 404 pages that they think are real pages, because you’ve made it a status code 200, or you’ve used a 404 code when you should have used a 410, which is a permanently removed, to be able to get it completely out of the indexes, as opposed to having Google revisit it and keep it in the index.

Downtime procedures. So there’s specifically a… I can’t even remember. It’s a 5xx code that you can use. Maybe it was a 503 or something that you can use that’s like, “Revisit later. We’re having some downtime right now.” Google urges you to use that specific code rather than using a 404, which tells them, “This page is now an error.”

Disney had that problem a while ago, if you guys remember, where they 404ed all their pages during an hour of downtime, and then their homepage, when you searched for Disney World, was, like, “Not found.” Oh, jeez, Disney World, not so good.

  • International and multi-language targeting issues. I won’t go into that. But you have to know the protocols there. Duplicate content, syndication, scrapers. How do we handle all that? Somebody else wants to take our content, put it on their site, what should we do? Someone’s scraping our content. What can we do? We have duplicate content on our own site. What should we do?
  • Diagnosing traffic drops via analytics and metrics. Being able to look at a rankings report, being able to look at analytics connecting those up and trying to see: Why did we go up or down? Did we have less pages being indexed, more pages being indexed, more pages getting traffic less, more keywords less?
  • Understanding advanced search parameters. Today, just today, I was checking out the related parameter in Google, which is fascinating for most sites. Well, for Moz, weirdly, related:oursite.com shows nothing. But for virtually every other sit, well, most other sites on the web, it does show some really interesting data, and you can see how Google is connecting up, essentially, intentions and topics from different sites and pages, which can be fascinating, could expose opportunities for links, could expose understanding of how they view your site versus your competition or who they think your competition is.

Then there are tons of parameters, like in URL and in anchor, and da, da, da, da. In anchor doesn’t work anymore, never mind about that one.

I have to go faster, because we’re just going to run out of these. Like, come on. Interpreting and leveraging data in Google Search Console. If you don’t know how to use that, Google could be telling you, you have all sorts of errors, and you don’t know what they are.

  • Leveraging topic modeling and extraction. Using all these cool tools that are coming out for better keyword research and better on-page targeting. I talked about a couple of those at MozCon, like MonkeyLearn. There’s the new Moz Context API, which will be coming out soon, around that. There’s the Alchemy API, which a lot of folks really like and use.
  • Identifying and extracting opportunities based on site crawls. You run a Screaming Frog crawl on your site and you’re going, “Oh, here’s all these problems and issues.” If you don’t have these technical skills, you can’t diagnose that. You can’t figure out what’s wrong. You can’t figure out what needs fixing, what needs addressing.
  • Using rich snippet format to stand out in the SERPs. This is just getting a better click-through rate, which can seriously help your site and obviously your traffic.
  • Applying Google-supported protocols like rel=canonical, meta description, rel=prev/next, hreflang, robots.txt, meta robots, x robots, NOODP, XML sitemaps, rel=nofollow. The list goes on and on and on. If you’re not technical, you don’t know what those are, you think you just need to write good content and lower your bounce rate, it’s not going to work.
  • Using APIs from services like AdWords or MozScape, or hrefs from Majestic, or SEM refs from SearchScape or Alchemy API. Those APIs can have powerful things that they can do for your site. There are some powerful problems they could help you solve if you know how to use them. It’s actually not that hard to write something, even inside a Google Doc or Excel, to pull from an API and get some data in there. There’s a bunch of good tutorials out there. Richard Baxter has one, Annie Cushing has one, I think Distilled has some. So really cool stuff there.
  • Diagnosing page load speed issues, which goes right to what Jayson was talking about. You need that fast-loading page. Well, if you don’t have any technical skills, you can’t figure out why your page might not be loading quickly.
  • Diagnosing mobile friendliness issues
  • Advising app developers on the new protocols around App deep linking, so that you can get the content from your mobile apps into the web search results on mobile devices. Awesome. Super powerful. Potentially crazy powerful, as mobile search is becoming bigger than desktop.

Okay, I’m going to take a deep breath and relax. I don’t know Jayson’s intention, and in fact, if he were in this room, he’d be like, “No, I totally agree with all those things. I wrote the article in a rush. I had no idea it was going to be big. I was just trying to make the broader points around you don’t have to be a coder in order to do SEO.” That’s completely fine.

So I’m not going to try and rain criticism down on him. But I think if you’re reading that article, or you’re seeing it in your feed, or your clients are, or your boss is, or other folks are in your world, maybe you can point them to this Whiteboard Friday and let them know, no, that’s not quite right. There’s a ton of technical SEO that is required in 2015 and will be for years to come, I think, that SEOs have to have in order to be effective at their jobs.

All right, everyone. Look forward to some great comments, and we’ll see you again next time for another edition of Whiteboard Friday. Take care.

Video transcription by Speechpad.com

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Reblogged 4 years ago from tracking.feedpress.it

Distance from Perfect

Posted by wrttnwrd

In spite of all the advice, the strategic discussions and the conference talks, we Internet marketers are still algorithmic thinkers. That’s obvious when you think of SEO.

Even when we talk about content, we’re algorithmic thinkers. Ask yourself: How many times has a client asked you, “How much content do we need?” How often do you still hear “How unique does this page need to be?”

That’s 100% algorithmic thinking: Produce a certain amount of content, move up a certain number of spaces.

But you and I know it’s complete bullshit.

I’m not suggesting you ignore the algorithm. You should definitely chase it. Understanding a little bit about what goes on in Google’s pointy little head helps. But it’s not enough.

A tale of SEO woe that makes you go “whoa”

I have this friend.

He ranked #10 for “flibbergibbet.” He wanted to rank #1.

He compared his site to the #1 site and realized the #1 site had five hundred blog posts.

“That site has five hundred blog posts,” he said, “I must have more.”

So he hired a few writers and cranked out five thousand blogs posts that melted Microsoft Word’s grammar check. He didn’t move up in the rankings. I’m shocked.

“That guy’s spamming,” he decided, “I’ll just report him to Google and hope for the best.”

What happened? Why didn’t adding five thousand blog posts work?

It’s pretty obvious: My, uh, friend added nothing but crap content to a site that was already outranked. Bulk is no longer a ranking tactic. Google’s very aware of that tactic. Lots of smart engineers have put time into updates like Panda to compensate.

He started like this:

And ended up like this:
more posts, no rankings

Alright, yeah, I was Mr. Flood The Site With Content, way back in 2003. Don’t judge me, whippersnappers.

Reality’s never that obvious. You’re scratching and clawing to move up two spots, you’ve got an overtasked IT team pushing back on changes, and you’ve got a boss who needs to know the implications of every recommendation.

Why fix duplication if rel=canonical can address it? Fixing duplication will take more time and cost more money. It’s easier to paste in one line of code. You and I know it’s better to fix the duplication. But it’s a hard sell.

Why deal with 302 versus 404 response codes and home page redirection? The basic user experience remains the same. Again, we just know that a server should return one home page without any redirects and that it should send a ‘not found’ 404 response if a page is missing. If it’s going to take 3 developer hours to reconfigure the server, though, how do we justify it? There’s no flashing sign reading “Your site has a problem!”

Why change this thing and not that thing?

At the same time, our boss/client sees that the site above theirs has five hundred blog posts and thousands of links from sites selling correspondence MBAs. So they want five thousand blog posts and cheap links as quickly as possible.

Cue crazy music.

SEO lacks clarity

SEO is, in some ways, for the insane. It’s an absurd collection of technical tweaks, content thinking, link building and other little tactics that may or may not work. A novice gets exposed to one piece of crappy information after another, with an occasional bit of useful stuff mixed in. They create sites that repel search engines and piss off users. They get more awful advice. The cycle repeats. Every time it does, best practices get more muddled.

SEO lacks clarity. We can’t easily weigh the value of one change or tactic over another. But we can look at our changes and tactics in context. When we examine the potential of several changes or tactics before we flip the switch, we get a closer balance between algorithm-thinking and actual strategy.

Distance from perfect brings clarity to tactics and strategy

At some point you have to turn that knowledge into practice. You have to take action based on recommendations, your knowledge of SEO, and business considerations.

That’s hard when we can’t even agree on subdomains vs. subfolders.

I know subfolders work better. Sorry, couldn’t resist. Let the flaming comments commence.

To get clarity, take a deep breath and ask yourself:

“All other things being equal, will this change, tactic, or strategy move my site closer to perfect than my competitors?”

Breaking it down:

“Change, tactic, or strategy”

A change takes an existing component or policy and makes it something else. Replatforming is a massive change. Adding a new page is a smaller one. Adding ALT attributes to your images is another example. Changing the way your shopping cart works is yet another.

A tactic is a specific, executable practice. In SEO, that might be fixing broken links, optimizing ALT attributes, optimizing title tags or producing a specific piece of content.

A strategy is a broader decision that’ll cause change or drive tactics. A long-term content policy is the easiest example. Shifting away from asynchronous content and moving to server-generated content is another example.

“Perfect”

No one knows exactly what Google considers “perfect,” and “perfect” can’t really exist, but you can bet a perfect web page/site would have all of the following:

  1. Completely visible content that’s perfectly relevant to the audience and query
  2. A flawless user experience
  3. Instant load time
  4. Zero duplicate content
  5. Every page easily indexed and classified
  6. No mistakes, broken links, redirects or anything else generally yucky
  7. Zero reported problems or suggestions in each search engines’ webmaster tools, sorry, “Search Consoles”
  8. Complete authority through immaculate, organically-generated links

These 8 categories (and any of the other bazillion that probably exist) give you a way to break down “perfect” and help you focus on what’s really going to move you forward. These different areas may involve different facets of your organization.

Your IT team can work on load time and creating an error-free front- and back-end. Link building requires the time and effort of content and outreach teams.

Tactics for relevant, visible content and current best practices in UX are going to be more involved, requiring research and real study of your audience.

What you need and what resources you have are going to impact which tactics are most realistic for you.

But there’s a basic rule: If a website would make Googlebot swoon and present zero obstacles to users, it’s close to perfect.

“All other things being equal”

Assume every competing website is optimized exactly as well as yours.

Now ask: Will this [tactic, change or strategy] move you closer to perfect?

That’s the “all other things being equal” rule. And it’s an incredibly powerful rubric for evaluating potential changes before you act. Pretend you’re in a tie with your competitors. Will this one thing be the tiebreaker? Will it put you ahead? Or will it cause you to fall behind?

“Closer to perfect than my competitors”

Perfect is great, but unattainable. What you really need is to be just a little perfect-er.

Chasing perfect can be dangerous. Perfect is the enemy of the good (I love that quote. Hated Voltaire. But I love that quote). If you wait for the opportunity/resources to reach perfection, you’ll never do anything. And the only way to reduce distance from perfect is to execute.

Instead of aiming for pure perfection, aim for more perfect than your competitors. Beat them feature-by-feature, tactic-by-tactic. Implement strategy that supports long-term superiority.

Don’t slack off. But set priorities and measure your effort. If fixing server response codes will take one hour and fixing duplication will take ten, fix the response codes first. Both move you closer to perfect. Fixing response codes may not move the needle as much, but it’s a lot easier to do. Then move on to fixing duplicates.

Do the 60% that gets you a 90% improvement. Then move on to the next thing and do it again. When you’re done, get to work on that last 40%. Repeat as necessary.

Take advantage of quick wins. That gives you more time to focus on your bigger solutions.

Sites that are “fine” are pretty far from perfect

Google has lots of tweaks, tools and workarounds to help us mitigate sub-optimal sites:

  • Rel=canonical lets us guide Google past duplicate content rather than fix it
  • HTML snapshots let us reveal content that’s delivered using asynchronous content and JavaScript frameworks
  • We can use rel=next and prev to guide search bots through outrageously long pagination tunnels
  • And we can use rel=nofollow to hide spammy links and banners

Easy, right? All of these solutions may reduce distance from perfect (the search engines don’t guarantee it). But they don’t reduce it as much as fixing the problems.
Just fine does not equal fixed

The next time you set up rel=canonical, ask yourself:

“All other things being equal, will using rel=canonical to make up for duplication move my site closer to perfect than my competitors?”

Answer: Not if they’re using rel=canonical, too. You’re both using imperfect solutions that force search engines to crawl every page of your site, duplicates included. If you want to pass them on your way to perfect, you need to fix the duplicate content.

When you use Angular.js to deliver regular content pages, ask yourself:

“All other things being equal, will using HTML snapshots instead of actual, visible content move my site closer to perfect than my competitors?”

Answer: No. Just no. Not in your wildest, code-addled dreams. If I’m Google, which site will I prefer? The one that renders for me the same way it renders for users? Or the one that has to deliver two separate versions of every page?

When you spill banner ads all over your site, ask yourself…

You get the idea. Nofollow is better than follow, but banner pollution is still pretty dang far from perfect.

Mitigating SEO issues with search engine-specific tools is “fine.” But it’s far, far from perfect. If search engines are forced to choose, they’ll favor the site that just works.

Not just SEO

By the way, distance from perfect absolutely applies to other channels.

I’m focusing on SEO, but think of other Internet marketing disciplines. I hear stuff like “How fast should my site be?” (Faster than it is right now.) Or “I’ve heard you shouldn’t have any content below the fold.” (Maybe in 2001.) Or “I need background video on my home page!” (Why? Do you have a reason?) Or, my favorite: “What’s a good bounce rate?” (Zero is pretty awesome.)

And Internet marketing venues are working to measure distance from perfect. Pay-per-click marketing has the quality score: A codified financial reward applied for seeking distance from perfect in as many elements as possible of your advertising program.

Social media venues are aggressively building their own forms of graphing, scoring and ranking systems designed to separate the good from the bad.

Really, all marketing includes some measure of distance from perfect. But no channel is more influenced by it than SEO. Instead of arguing one rule at a time, ask yourself and your boss or client: Will this move us closer to perfect?

Hell, you might even please a customer or two.

One last note for all of the SEOs in the crowd. Before you start pointing out edge cases, consider this: We spend our days combing Google for embarrassing rankings issues. Every now and then, we find one, point, and start yelling “SEE! SEE!!!! THE GOOGLES MADE MISTAKES!!!!” Google’s got lots of issues. Screwing up the rankings isn’t one of them.

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!

Reblogged 4 years ago from tracking.feedpress.it

Simple Steps for Conducting Creative Content Research

Posted by Hannah_Smith

Most frequently, the content we create at Distilled is designed to attract press coverage, social shares, and exposure (and links) on sites our clients’ target audience reads. That’s a tall order.

Over the years we’ve had our hits and misses, and through this we’ve recognised the value of learning about what makes a piece of content successful. Coming up with a great idea is difficult, and it can be tough to figure out where to begin. Today, rather than leaping headlong into brainstorming sessions, we start with creative content research.

What is creative content research?

Creative content research enables you to answer the questions:

“What are websites publishing, and what are people sharing?”

From this, you’ll then have a clearer view on what might be successful for your client.

A few years ago this required quite an amount of work to figure out. Today, happily, it’s much quicker and easier. In this post I’ll share the process and tools we use.

Whoa there… Why do I need to do this?

I think that the value in this sort of activity lies in a couple of directions:

a) You can learn a lot by deconstructing the success of others…

I’ve been taking stuff apart to try to figure out how it works for about as long as I can remember, so applying this process to content research felt pretty natural to me. Perhaps more importantly though, I think that deconstructing content is actually easier when it isn’t your own. You’re not involved, invested, or in love with the piece so viewing it objectively and learning from it is much easier.

b) Your research will give you a clear overview of the competitive landscape…

As soon as a company elects to start creating content, they gain a whole raft of new competitors. In addition to their commercial competitors (i.e. those who offer similar products or services), the company also gains content competitors. For example, if you’re a sports betting company and plan to create content related to the sports events that you’re offering betting markets on; then you’re competing not just with other betting companies, but every other publisher who creates content about these events. That means major news outlets, sports news site, fan sites, etc. To make matters even more complicated, it’s likely that you’ll actually be seeking coverage from those same content competitors. As such, you need to understand what’s already being created in the space before creating content of your own.

c) You’re giving yourself the data to create a more compelling pitch…

At some point you’re going to need to pitch your ideas to your client (or your boss if you’re working in-house). At Distilled, we’ve found that getting ideas signed off can be really tough. Ultimately, a great idea is worthless if we can’t persuade our client to give us the green light. This research can be used to make a more compelling case to your client and get those ideas signed off. (Incidentally, if getting ideas signed off is proving to be an issue you might find this framework for pitching creative ideas useful).

Where to start

Good ideas start with a good brief, however it can be tough to pin clients down to get answers to a long list of questions.

As a minimum you’ll need to know the following:

  • Who are they looking to target?
    • Age, sex, demographic
    • What’s their core focus? What do they care about? What problems are they looking to solve?
    • Who influences them?
    • What else are they interested in?
    • Where do they shop and which brands do they buy?
    • What do they read?
    • What do they watch on TV?
    • Where do they spend their time online?
  • Where do they want to get coverage?
    • We typically ask our clients to give us a wishlist of 10 or so sites they’d love to get coverage on
  • Which topics are they comfortable covering?
    • This question is often the toughest, particularly if a client hasn’t created content specifically for links and shares before. Often clients are uncomfortable about drifting too far away from their core business—for example, if they sell insurance, they’ll typically say that they really want to create a piece of content about insurance. Whilst this is understandable from the clients’ perspective it can severely limit their chances of success. It’s definitely worth offering up a gentle challenge at this stage—I’ll often cite Red Bull, who are a great example of a company who create content based on what their consumers love, not what they sell (i.e. Red Bull sell soft drinks, but create content about extreme sports because that’s the sort of content their audience love to consume). It’s worth planting this idea early, but don’t get dragged into a fierce debate at this stage—you’ll be able to make a far more compelling argument once you’ve done your research and are pitching concrete ideas.

Processes, useful tools and sites

Now you have your brief, it’s time to begin your research.

Given that we’re looking to uncover “what websites are publishing and what’s being shared,” It won’t surprise you to learn that I pay particular attention to pieces of content and the coverage they receive. For each piece that I think is interesting I’ll note down the following:

  • The title/headline
  • A link to the coverage (and to the original piece if applicable)
  • How many social shares the coverage earned (and the original piece earned)
  • The number of linking root domains the original piece earned
  • Some notes about the piece itself: why it’s interesting, why I think it got shares/coverage
  • Any gaps in the content, whether or not it’s been executed well
  • How we might do something similar (if applicable)

Whilst I’m doing this I’ll also make a note of specific sites I see being frequently shared (I tend to check these out separately later on), any interesting bits of research (particularly if I think there might be an opportunity to do something different with the data), interesting threads on forums etc.

When it comes to kicking off your research, you can start wherever you like, but I’d recommend that you cover off each of the areas below:

What does your target audience share?

Whilst this activity might not uncover specific pieces of successful content, it’s a great way of getting a clearer understanding of your target audience, and getting a handle on the sites they read and the topics which interest them.

  • Review social profiles / feeds
    • If the company you’re working for has a Facebook page, it shouldn’t be too difficult to find some people who’ve liked the company page and have a public profile. It’s even easier on Twitter where most profiles are public. Whilst this won’t give you quantitative data, it does put a human face to your audience data and gives you a feel for what these people care about and share. In addition to uncovering specific pieces of content, this can also provide inspiration in terms of other sites you might want to investigate further and ideas for topics you might want to explore.
  • Demographics Pro
    • This service infers demographic data from your clients’ Twitter followers. I find it particularly useful if the client doesn’t know too much about their audience. In addition to demographic data, you get a breakdown of professions, interests, brand affiliations, and the other Twitter accounts they follow and who they’re most influenced by. This is a paid-for service, but there are pay-as-you-go options in addition to pay monthly plans.

Finding successful pieces of content on specific sites

If you’ve a list of sites you know your target audience read, and/or you know your client wants to get coverage on, there are a bunch of ways you can uncover interesting content:

  • Using your link research tool of choice (e.g. Open Site Explorer, Majestic, ahrefs) you can run a domain level report to see which pages have attracted the most links. This can also be useful if you want to check out commercial competitors to see which pieces of content they’ve created have attracted the most links.
  • There are also tools which enable you to uncover the most shared content on individual sites. You can use Buzzsumo to run content analysis reports on individual domains which provide data on average social shares per post, social shares by network, and social shares by content type.
  • If you just want to see the most shared content for a given domain you can run a simple search on Buzzsumo using the domain; and there’s also the option to refine by topic. For example a search like [guardian.com big data] will return the most shared content on the Guardian related to big data. You can also run similar reports using ahrefs’ Content Explorer tool.

Both Buzzsumo and ahrefs are paid tools, but both offer free trials. If you need to explore the most shared content without using a paid tool, there are other alternatives. Check out Social Crawlytics which will crawl domains and return social share data, or alternatively, you can crawl a site (or section of a site) and then run the URLs through SharedCount‘s bulk upload feature.

Finding successful pieces of content by topic

When searching by topic, I find it best to begin with a broad search and then drill down into more specific areas. For example, if I had a client in the financial services space, I’d start out looking at a broad topic like “money” rather than shooting straight to topics like loans or credit cards.

As mentioned above, both Buzzsumo and ahrefs allow you to search for the most shared content by topic and both offer advanced search options.

Further inspiration

There are also several sites I like to look at for inspiration. Whilst these sites don’t give you a great steer on whether or not a particular piece of content was actually successful, with a little digging you can quickly find the original source and pull link and social share data:

  • Visually has a community area where users can upload creative content. You can search by topic to uncover examples.
  • TrendHunter have a searchable archive of creative ideas, they feature products, creative campaigns, marketing campaigns, advertising and more. It’s best to keep your searches broad if you’re looking at this site.
  • Check out Niice (a moodboard app) which also has a searchable archive of handpicked design inspiration.
  • Searching Pinterest can allow you to unearth some interesting bits and pieces as can Google image searches and regular Google searches around particular topics.
  • Reviewing relevant sections of discussion sites like Quora can provide insight into what people are asking about particular topics which may spark a creative idea.

Moving from data to insight

By this point you’ve (hopefully) got a long list of content examples. Whilst this is a great start, effectively what you’ve got here is just data, now you need to convert this to insight.

Remember, we’re trying to answer the questions: “What are websites publishing, and what are people sharing?”

Ordinarily as I go through the creative content research process, I start to see patterns or themes emerge. For example, across a variety of topics areas you’ll see that the most shared content tends to be news. Whilst this is good to know, it’s not necessarily something that’s going to be particularly actionable. You’ll need to dig a little deeper—what else (aside from news) is given coverage? Can you split those things into categories or themes?

This is tough to explain in the abstract, so let me give you an example. We’d identified a set of music sites (e.g. Rolling Stone, NME, CoS, Stereogum, Pitchfork) as target publishers for a client.

Here’s a summary of what I concluded following my research:

The most-shared content on these music publications is news: album launches, new singles, videos of performances etc. As such, if we can work a news hook into whatever we create, this could positively influence our chances of gaining coverage.

Aside from news, the content which gains traction tends to fall into one of the following categories:

Earlier in this post I mentioned that it can be particularly tough to create content which attracts coverage and shares if clients feel strongly that they want to do something directly related to their product or service. The example I gave at the outset was a client who sold insurance and was really keen to create something about insurance. You’re now in a great position to win an argument with data, as thanks to your research you’ll be able to cite several pieces of insurance-related content which have struggled to gain traction. But it’s not all bad news as you’ll also be able to cite other topics which are relevant to the client’s target audience and stand a better chance of gaining coverage and shares.

Avoiding the pitfalls

There are potential pitfalls when it comes to creative content research in that it’s easy to leap to erroneous conclusions. Here’s some things to watch out for:

Make sure you’re identifying outliers…

When seeking out successful pieces of content you need to be certain that what you’re looking at is actually an outlier. For example, the average post on BuzzFeed gets over 30k social shares. As such, that post you found with just 10k shares is not an outlier. It’s done significantly worse than average. It’s therefore not the best post to be holding up as a fabulous example of what to create to get shares.

Don’t get distracted by formats…

Pay more attention to the idea than the format. For example, the folks at Mashable, kindly covered an infographic about Instagram which we created for a client. However, the takeaway here is not that Instagram infographics get coverage on Mashable. Mashable didn’t cover this because we created an infographic. They covered the piece because it told a story in a compelling and unusual way.

You probably shouldn’t create a listicle…

This point is related to the point above. In my experience, unless you’re a publisher with a huge, engaged social following, that listicle of yours is unlikely to gain traction. Listicles on huge publisher sites get shares, listicles on client sites typically don’t. This is doubly important if you’re also seeking coverage, as listicles on clients sites don’t typically get links or coverage on other sites.

How we use the research to inform our ideation process

At Distilled, we typically take a creative brief and complete creative content research and then move into the ideation process. A summary of the research is included within the creative brief, and this, along with a copy of the full creative content research is shared with the team.

The research acts as inspiration and direction and is particularly useful in terms of identifying potential topics to explore but doesn’t mean team members don’t still do further research of their own.

This process by no means acts as a silver bullet, but it definitely helps us come up with ideas.


Thanks for sticking with me to the end!

I’d love to hear more about your creative content research processes and any tips you have for finding inspirational content. Do let me know via the comments.

Image credits: Research, typing, audience, inspiration, kitteh.

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Reblogged 4 years ago from tracking.feedpress.it

How Much Has Link Building Changed in Recent Years?

Posted by Paddy_Moogan

I get asked this question a lot. It’s mainly asked by people who are considering buying my link building book and want to know whether it’s still up to date. This is understandable given that the first edition was published in February 2013 and our industry has a deserved reputation for always changing.

I find myself giving the same answer, even though I’ve been asked it probably dozens of times in the last two years—”not that much”. I don’t think this is solely due to the book itself standing the test of time, although I’ll happily take a bit of credit for that 🙂 I think it’s more a sign of our industry as a whole not changing as much as we’d like to think.

I started to question myself and if I was right and honestly, it’s one of the reasons it has taken me over two years to release the second edition of the book.

So I posed this question to a group of friends not so long ago, some via email and some via a Facebook group. I was expecting to be called out by many of them because my position was that in reality, it hasn’t actually changed that much. The thing is, many of them agreed and the conversations ended with a pretty long thread with lots of insights. In this post, I’d like to share some of them, share what my position is and talk about what actually has changed.

My personal view

Link building hasn’t changed as much we think it has.

The core principles of link building haven’t changed. The signals around link building have changed, but mainly around new machine learning developments that have indirectly affected what we do. One thing that has definitely changed is the mindset of SEOs (and now clients) towards link building.

I think the last big change to link building came in April 2012 when Penguin rolled out. This genuinely did change our industry and put to bed a few techniques that should never have worked so well in the first place.

Since then, we’ve seen some things change, but the core principles haven’t changed if you want to build a business that will be around for years to come and not run the risk of being hit by a link related Google update. For me, these principles are quite simple:

  • You need to deserve links – either an asset you create or your product
  • You need to put this asset in front of a relevant audience who have the ability to share it
  • You need consistency – one new asset every year is unlikely to cut it
  • Anything that scales is at risk

For me, the move towards user data driving search results + machine learning has been the biggest change we’ve seen in recent years and it’s still going.

Let’s dive a bit deeper into all of this and I’ll talk about how this relates to link building.

The typical mindset for building links has changed

I think that most SEOs are coming round to the idea that you can’t get away with building low quality links any more, not if you want to build a sustainable, long-term business. Spammy link building still works in the short-term and I think it always will, but it’s much harder than it used to be to sustain websites that are built on spam. The approach is more “churn and burn” and spammers are happy to churn through lots of domains and just make a small profit on each one before moving onto another.

For everyone else, it’s all about the long-term and not putting client websites at risk.

This has led to many SEOs embracing different forms of link building and generally starting to use content as an asset when it comes to attracting links. A big part of me feels that it was actually Penguin in 2012 that drove the rise of content marketing amongst SEOs, but that’s a post for another day…! For today though, this goes some way towards explain the trend we see below.

Slowly but surely, I’m seeing clients come to my company already knowing that low quality link building isn’t what they want. It’s taken a few years after Penguin for it to filter down to client / business owner level, but it’s definitely happening. This is a good thing but unfortunately, the main reason for this is that most of them have been burnt in the past by SEO companies who have built low quality links without giving thought to building good quality ones too.

I have no doubt that it’s this change in mindset which has led to trends like this:

The thing is, I don’t think this was by choice.

Let’s be honest. A lot of us used the kind of link building tactics that Google no longer like because they worked. I don’t think many SEOs were under the illusion that it was genuinely high quality stuff, but it worked and it was far less risky to do than it is today. Unless you were super-spammy, the low-quality links just worked.

Fast forward to a post-Penguin world, things are far more risky. For me, it’s because of this that we see the trends like the above. As an industry, we had the easiest link building methods taken away from us and we’re left with fewer options. One of the main options is content marketing which, if you do it right, can lead to good quality links and importantly, the types of links you won’t be removing in the future. Get it wrong and you’ll lose budget and lose the trust if your boss or client in the power of content when it comes to link building.

There are still plenty of other methods to build links and sometimes we can forget this. Just look at this epic list from Jon Cooper. Even with this many tactics still available to us, it’s hard work. Way harder than it used to be.

My summary here is that as an industry, our mindset has shifted but it certainly wasn’t a voluntary shift. If the tactics that Penguin targeted still worked today, we’d still be using them.

A few other opinions…

I definitely think too many people want the next easy win. As someone surfing the edge of what Google is bringing our way, here’s my general take—SEO, in broad strokes, is changing a lot, *but* any given change is more and more niche and impacts fewer people. What we’re seeing isn’t radical, sweeping changes that impact everyone, but a sort of modularization of SEO, where we each have to be aware of what impacts our given industries, verticals, etc.”

Dr. Pete

 

I don’t feel that techniques for acquiring links have changed that much. You can either earn them through content and outreach or you can just buy them. What has changed is the awareness of “link building” outside of the SEO community. This makes link building / content marketing much harder when pitching to journalists and even more difficult when pitching to bloggers.

“Link building has to be more integrated with other channels and struggles to work in its own environment unless supported by brand, PR and social. Having other channels supporting your link development efforts also creates greater search signals and more opportunity to reach a bigger audience which will drive a greater ROI.

Carl Hendy

 

SEO has grown up in terms of more mature staff and SEOs becoming more ingrained into businesses so there is a smarter (less pressure) approach. At the same time, SEO has become more integrated into marketing and has made marketing teams and decision makers more intelligent in strategies and not pushing for the quick win. I’m also seeing that companies who used to rely on SEO and building links have gone through IPOs and the need to build 1000s of links per quarter has rightly reduced.

Danny Denhard

Signals that surround link building have changed

There is no question about this one in my mind. I actually wrote about this last year in my previous blog post where I talked about signals such as anchor text and deep links changing over time.

Many of the people I asked felt the same, here are some quotes from them, split out by the types of signal.

Domain level link metrics

I think domain level links have become increasingly important compared with page level factors, i.e. you can get a whole site ranking well off the back of one insanely strong page, even with sub-optimal PageRank flow from that page to the rest of the site.

Phil Nottingham

I’d agree with Phil here and this is what I was getting at in my previous post on how I feel “deep links” will matter less over time. It’s not just about domain level links here, it’s just as much about the additional signals available for Google to use (more on that later).

Anchor text

I’ve never liked anchor text as a link signal. I mean, who actually uses exact match commercial keywords as anchor text on the web?

SEOs. 🙂

Sure there will be natural links like this, but honestly, I struggle with the idea that it took Google so long to start turning down the dial on commercial anchor text as a ranking signal. They are starting to turn it down though, slowly but surely. Don’t get me wrong, it still matters and it still works. But like pure link spam, the barrier is a lot more lower now in terms what of constitutes too much.

Rand feels that they matter more than we’d expect and I’d mostly agree with this statement:

Exact match anchor text links still have more power than you’d expect—I think Google still hasn’t perfectly sorted what is “brand” or “branded query” from generics (i.e. they want to start ranking a new startup like meldhome.com for “Meld” if the site/brand gets popular, but they can’t quite tell the difference between that and https://moz.com/learn/seo/redirection getting a few manipulative links that say “redirect”)

Rand Fishkin

What I do struggle with though, is that Google still haven’t figured this out and that short-term, commercial anchor text spam is still so effective. Even for a short burst of time.

I don’t think link building as a concept has changed loads—but I think links as a signal have, mainly because of filters and penalties but I don’t see anywhere near the same level of impact from coverage anymore, even against 18 months ago.

Paul Rogers

New signals have been introduced

It isn’t just about established signals changing though, there are new signals too and I personally feel that this is where we’ve seen the most change in Google algorithms in recent years—going all the way back to Panda in 2011.

With Panda, we saw a new level of machine learning where it almost felt like Google had found a way of incorporating human reaction / feelings into their algorithms. They could then run this against a website and answer questions like the ones included in this post. Things such as:

  • “Would you be comfortable giving your credit card information to this site?”
  • “Does this article contain insightful analysis or interesting information that is beyond obvious?”
  • “Are the pages produced with great care and attention to detail vs. less attention to detail?”

It is a touch scary that Google was able to run machine learning against answers to questions like this and write an algorithm to predict the answers for any given page on the web. They have though and this was four years ago now.

Since then, they’ve made various moves to utilize machine learning and AI to build out new products and improve their search results. For me, this was one of the biggest and went pretty unnoticed by our industry. Well, until Hummingbird came along I feel pretty sure that we have Ray Kurzweil to thank for at least some of that.

There seems to be more weight on theme/topic related to sites, though it’s hard to tell if this is mostly link based or more user/usage data based. Google is doing a good job of ranking sites and pages that don’t earn the most links but do provide the most relevant/best answer. I have a feeling they use some combination of signals to say “people who perform searches like this seem to eventually wind up on this website—let’s rank it.” One of my favorite examples is the Audubon Society ranking for all sorts of birding-related searches with very poor keyword targeting, not great links, etc. I think user behavior patterns are stronger in the algo than they’ve ever been.

– Rand Fishkin

Leading on from what Rand has said, it’s becoming more and more common to see search results that just don’t make sense if you look at the link metrics—but are a good result.

For me, the move towards user data driving search results + machine learning advanced has been the biggest change we’ve seen in recent years and it’s still going.

Edit: since drafting this post, Tom Anthony released this excellent blog post on his views on the future of search and the shift to data-driven results. I’d recommend reading that as it approaches this whole area from a different perspective and I feel that an off-shoot of what Tom is talking about is the impact on link building.

You may be asking at this point, what does machine learning have to do with link building?

Everything. Because as strong as links are as a ranking signal, Google want more signals and user signals are far, far harder to manipulate than established link signals. Yes it can be done—I’ve seen it happen. There have even been a few public tests done. But it’s very hard to scale and I’d venture a guess that only the top 1% of spammers are capable of doing it, let alone maintaining it for a long period of time. When I think about the process for manipulation here, I actually think we go a step beyond spammers towards hackers and more cut and dry illegal activity.

For link building, this means that traditional methods of manipulating signals are going to become less and less effective as these user signals become stronger. For us as link builders, it means we can’t keep searching for that silver bullet or the next method of scaling link building just for an easy win. The fact is that scalable link building is always going to be at risk from penalization from Google—I don’t really want to live a life where I’m always worried about my clients being hit by the next update. Even if Google doesn’t catch up with a certain method, machine learning and user data mean that these methods may naturally become less effective and cost efficient over time.

There are of course other things such as social signals that have come into play. I certainly don’t feel like these are a strong ranking factor yet, but with deals like this one between Google and Twitter being signed, I wouldn’t be surprised if that ever-growing dataset is used at some point in organic results. The one advantage that Twitter has over Google is it’s breaking news freshness. Twitter is still way quicker at breaking news than Google is—140 characters in a tweet is far quicker than Google News! Google know this which is why I feel they’ve pulled this partnership back into existence after a couple of years apart.

There is another important point to remember here and it’s nicely summarised by Dr. Pete:

At the same time, as new signals are introduced, these are layers not replacements. People hear social signals or user signals or authorship and want it to be the link-killer, because they already fucked up link-building, but these are just layers on top of on-page and links and all of the other layers. As each layer is added, it can verify the layers that came before it and what you need isn’t the magic signal but a combination of signals that generally matches what Google expects to see from real, strong entities. So, links still matter, but they matter in concert with other things, which basically means it’s getting more complicated and, frankly, a bit harder. Of course, on one wants to hear that.”

– Dr. Pete

The core principles have not changed

This is the crux of everything for me. With all the changes listed above, the key is that the core principles around link building haven’t changed. I could even argue that Penguin didn’t change the core principles because the techniques that Penguin targeted should never have worked in the first place. I won’t argue this too much though because even Google advised website owners to build directory links at one time.

You need an asset

You need to give someone a reason to link to you. Many won’t do it out of the goodness of their heart! One of the most effective ways to do this is to develop a content asset and use this as your reason to make people care. Once you’ve made someone care, they’re more likely to share the content or link to it from somewhere.

You need to promote that asset to the right audience

I really dislike the stance that some marketers take when it comes to content promotion—build great content and links will come.

No. Sorry but for the vast majority of us, that’s simply not true. The exceptions are people that sky dive from space or have huge existing audiences to leverage.

You simply have to spend time promoting your content or your asset for it to get shares and links. It is hard work and sometimes you can spend a long time on it and get little return, but it’s important to keep working at until you’re at a point where you have two things:

  • A big enough audience where you can almost guarantee at least some traffic to your new content along with some shares
  • Enough strong relationships with relevant websites who you can speak to when new content is published and stand a good chance of them linking to it

Getting to this point is hard—but that’s kind of the point. There are various hacks you can use along the way but it will take time to get right.

You need consistency

Leading on from the previous point. It takes time and hard work to get links to your content—the types of links that stand the test of time and you’re not going to be removing in 12 months time anyway! This means that you need to keep pushing content out and getting better each and every time. This isn’t to say you should just churn content out for the sake of it, far from it. I am saying that with each piece of content you create, you will learn to do at least one thing better the next time. Try to give yourself the leverage to do this.

Anything scalable is at risk

Scalable link building is exactly what Google has been trying to crack down on for the last few years. Penguin was the biggest move and hit some of the most scalable tactics we had at our disposal. When you scale something, you often lose some level of quality, which is exactly what Google doesn’t want when it comes to links. If you’re still relying on tactics that could fall into the scalable category, I think you need to be very careful and just look at the trend in the types of links Google has been penalizing to understand why.

The part Google plays in this

To finish up, I want to briefly talk about the part that Google plays in all of this and shaping the future they want for the web.

I’ve always tried to steer clear of arguments involving the idea that Google is actively pushing FUD into the community. I’ve preferred to concentrate more on things I can actually influence and change with my clients rather than what Google is telling us all to do.

However, for the purposes of this post, I want to talk about it.

General paranoia has increased. My bet is there are some companies out there carrying out zero specific linkbuilding activity through worry.

Dan Barker

Dan’s point is a very fair one and just a day or two after reading this in an email, I came across a page related to a client’s target audience that said:

“We are not publishing guest posts on SITE NAME any more. All previous guest posts are now deleted. For more information, see www.mattcutts.com/blog/guest-blogging/“.

I’ve reworded this as to not reveal the name of the site, but you get the point.

This is silly. Honestly, so silly. They are a good site, publish good content, and had good editorial standards. Yet they have ignored all of their own policies, hard work, and objectives to follow a blog post from Matt. I’m 100% confident that it wasn’t sites like this one that Matt was talking about in this blog post.

This is, of course, from the publishers’ angle rather than the link builders’ angle, but it does go to show the effect that statements from Google can have. Google know this so it does make sense for them to push out messages that make their jobs easier and suit their own objectives—why wouldn’t they? In a similar way, what did they do when they were struggling to classify at scale which links are bad vs. good and they didn’t have a big enough web spam team? They got us to do it for them 🙂

I’m mostly joking here, but you see the point.

The most recent infamous mobilegeddon update, discussed here by Dr. Pete is another example of Google pushing out messages that ultimately scared a lot of people into action. Although to be fair, I think that despite the apparent small impact so far, the broad message from Google is a very serious one.

Because of this, I think we need to remember that Google does have their own agenda and many shareholders to keep happy. I’m not in the camp of believing everything that Google puts out is FUD, but I’m much more sensitive and questioning of the messages now than I’ve ever been.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your feedback and thoughts in the comments.

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Reblogged 4 years ago from tracking.feedpress.it

Death to Wishy-Washy Reports: Simple Edits to Put the Authority Back in Your Writing

Posted by Isla_McKetta

True life confession: Although I’ve worked with some of the smartest SEOs, architects, and CPAs in the business, you couldn’t always tell from their writing. Which is a problem. Because while some of them are client-facing (so the client gets to know their smarts firsthand—either in person or on the phone), some are only known by the lackluster reports they turn in.

This is a post about how anyone (whether you’re an expert in SEO, PPC, social media, or even… content marketing) can write a clearer, more persuasive report. And the lessons contained herein can help you with any form of corporate communication, whether you’re writing for a client or your boss.

Get ready to sound smarter.

Be assertive

Being assertive doesn’t mean you should stand on your desk and shout your opinions like you’re auditioning to be the next Hulk. Instead, have confidence in the data and recommendations you’re reporting and convey that confidence in your writing. Because if you’re not confident, you might not be ready to write the report. So go double-check your research and then use the following tactics to sound like the authority you are:

Ditch “I think”

I think there are a lot of things you could possibly say to show a client what they might or might not do depending on how they interpret your recommendations.

Notice how that sentence had no spine? That’s because it’s filled with empty phrases—words that do nothing for the sentence but convey how unwilling its author is to make a point.

Phrases like “I think,” “I feel,” and “might” are couching words—things you say when you’re trying to leave yourself an out, and they make you sound passive and unsure. Go through your report and check for couching words. Ask yourself if you need them (in case of actual uncertainty like “Google might…”) or if you can cut them out and strengthen your points.

Dump the passive voice

Mistakes are often made as we try to get around to a point with our writing.

One of those mistakes is in failing to use the active voice. Every sentence has an actor (subject) and an action (verb). While it’s nice to vary your sentence structure sometimes, stick to “actor commits action” when you have something important to say (especially when you have bad news to break).

Be careful with dependent clauses

If you want to sound confident and decisive, lead with an independent clause instead of a dependent one (like I did here). 

Time for a (mercifully quick) jump back to elementary school grammar. Independent clauses are the ones that can stand on their own as a complete sentence. They have a subject, verb, and usually an object. Dependent clauses don’t.

Dependent clauses are often added to an independent clause to increase the level of information in a sentence. Let’s flip that last sentence so you can watch the dependent clause move from the end to the front:

To increase the level of information in a sentence, dependent clauses are often added to an independent clause.

Dependent clauses are very useful, but some writers fall into a pattern of starting most of their sentences with them. That delay of the independent clause can make you sound like you’re hesitating to get to the point. It can also make you seem passive or like there’s something you’re trying to hide. That’s not how you want to come off in a report.

Choose a point of view (and stick to it)

Some companies prefer to write from a formal (and somewhat) distant third person perspective where “I” is never used; I prefer the more conversational first person. 

You can write your report from any point of view you want, but be careful with those pronouns.

The most common mistake I see is for the writer to get indecisive with the pronouns and start throwing around the word “we” as in “we need to fix your title tags.” Which could mean that the consultant is taking responsibility for the title tags, or it could be a general suggestion that the title tags need fixing.

Try instead, “your title tags need to be updated; we plan to start work on those during the second month of our engagement.” Still uses the word “we,” but now it’s more obvious who’s doing what (and will save you some embarrassing followup conversations).

Write for your audience

Industries with a high degree of fiduciary responsibility are often more accustomed to the use of a formal tone. Meanwhile, writers in other industries, like fashion, automotive, and anything related to the Internet, can get away with a much more casual voice. 

You may have noticed by now that I start a lot of sentences with conjunctions like “and” and “but.” I also use contractions. Both are part of a conversational tone that’s “Mozzy,” but if I was writing for a different audience, I would button the top button on my style (and maybe even add a tie).

You know your clients and their style of communication. It’s reflected in everything from their RFP to the latest call. Try to mirror their tone (unless you think they came to you for a big shakeup) and your audience will feel like you understand their culture and needs. That means your work is more likely to be accepted.

Explain things

Remember that you were hired because of your unique expertise. That means that you know things the person reading the report doesn’t.

When you’re introducing a concept your client or boss likely hasn’t encountered (or might be a little rusty on), give a short refresher to keep them engaged.

Don’t over-explain things

No one likes to feel like an idiot. Going step by step through all the things anyone could ever want to know about a concept (whether foreign or not) has the potential to not only annoy your audience, but also distract from your main point.

If you come across a concept in writing your report that requires extensive education of your reader, either create an addendum where they can read as much as they need to, or schedule a phone call, training, or other way to get them all the info they need.

Use numbers (wisely)

Ninety-nine percent of SEOs have more data than they can ever reasonably convey to the client.

That’s because clients (at least sane ones) don’t want to know what every single keyword ranked on every day last month. They want to know if their overall rankings are up or down, what that means for their business, and how to push rankings upward in general in the future.

Numbers are very useful (and can be very powerful) if you’re using graphs and tables that tell a story, but without your interpretation, they’re all kind of meaningless.

So although you have access to all the numbers in the world, the real magic of your report is in getting inside your reader’s head and figuring out what they need to understand about the numbers. Then use the analysis portion of your report to translate that data into answers.

Write fewer words

Concision is an art. Redundancy is annoying. Write as few words as you can to convey your point.

Don’t let big words interfere with meaning

An immense vocabulary can obfuscate significance.

This is true of using big words to sound smart and also if you’re spouting jargon at people who don’t understand it. You might notice from reading this post that I use very little jargon. That’s because the vocab words I learned in creative writing won’t mean anything to most of you and I can usually find a clearer way to express marketing jargon.

So if your clients (and all the people who will read the report) regularly use words like “earned media,” “freemium,” and “EPV,” you can use them too. But if you have any doubt, try to find a way to use a more accessible word or add some context so everyone can follow you.

Think about general scanability

Your clients are busy. You want them to get the most out of a report they might only ever scan. 

All the things you’ve learned about writing for the Internet apply to writing reports:

  • Short sentences (that aren’t choppy) are easier to read.
  • Keeping each paragraph to one topic with a topic sentence makes it easier to scan.
  • Using bullet points (when appropriate) will help your reader digest all that information you’ve created for them.

Help your reader out by making all your great information intelligible.

Employ an executive summary

Keep the person who signs your checks in the loop with a few words. 

To write an effective executive summary, give the highlights:

  • Why was the work undertaken?
  • What problems were found?
  • Next steps

The summary should run between a paragraph and a page (depending on how long your report is). That means you want to save all that delicious analysis you’ve slaved over for the report itself.

Use templates at your own risk

I know, a lot of the things you’re saying to one client are 90% the same as what you’re saying to the next client, and creating a template just makes your job more efficient. But if you aren’t carefully reading the resulting document, you might be making a mistake (like using the wrong client name or giving them instructions for Omniture when they use GA) that takes much longer to clean up than writing an original report would have.

Trust me, about the third time you’re reading over the same words in the same order (even if for different clients), you are too far inside the template to see the mistakes. But your client is reading this report for the first time ever and they won’t miss a thing :/. Speaking of which…

Proofreading isn’t optional

You aren’t qualified to proofread you’re [sic] own work. 

Not saying anything about your reading or grammar skills, but I’m 99% certain that you’ve spent so long staring at that report that you are beyond spotting your own typos. Find a second reader. If you’re in absolute dire straits and can’t find a buddy, read the report aloud to yourself.

Feel smarter already? I hope so. Because you’ve worked too hard to pull all that information together just to have it fall flat because of a bad report. Tell me about your report writing disasters (and things you’d like help with) in the comments.

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Reblogged 4 years ago from tracking.feedpress.it