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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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.

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How to Rid Your Website of Six Common Google Analytics Headaches

Posted by amandaecking

I’ve been in and out of Google Analytics (GA) for the past five or so years agency-side. I’ve seen three different code libraries, dozens of new different features and reports roll out, IP addresses stop being reported, and keywords not-so-subtly phased out of the free platform.

Analytics has been a focus of mine for the past year or so—mainly, making sure clients get their data right. Right now, our new focus is closed loop tracking, but that’s a topic for another day. If you’re using Google Analytics, and only Google Analytics for the majority of your website stats, or it’s your primary vehicle for analysis, you need to make sure it’s accurate.

Not having data pulling in or reporting properly is like building a house on a shaky foundation: It doesn’t end well. Usually there are tears.

For some reason, a lot of people, including many of my clients, assume everything is tracking properly in Google Analytics… because Google. But it’s not Google who sets up your analytics. People do that. And people are prone to make mistakes.

I’m going to go through six scenarios where issues are commonly encountered with Google Analytics.

I’ll outline the remedy for each issue, and in the process, show you how to move forward with a diagnosis or resolution.

1. Self-referrals

This is probably one of the areas we’re all familiar with. If you’re seeing a lot of traffic from your own domain, there’s likely a problem somewhere—or you need to extend the default session length in Google Analytics. (For example, if you have a lot of long videos or music clips and don’t use event tracking; a website like TEDx or SoundCloud would be a good equivalent.)

Typically one of the first things I’ll do to help diagnose the problem is include an advanced filter to show the full referrer string. You do this by creating a filter, as shown below:

Filter Type: Custom filter > Advanced
Field A: Hostname
Extract A: (.*)
Field B: Request URI
Extract B: (.*)
Output To: Request URI
Constructor: $A1$B1

You’ll then start seeing the subdomains pulling in. Experience has shown me that if you have a separate subdomain hosted in another location (say, if you work with a separate company and they host and run your mobile site or your shopping cart), it gets treated by Google Analytics as a separate domain. Thus, you ‘ll need to implement cross domain tracking. This way, you can narrow down whether or not it’s one particular subdomain that’s creating the self-referrals.

In this example below, we can see all the revenue is being reported to the booking engine (which ended up being cross domain issues) and their own site is the fourth largest traffic source:

I’ll also a good idea to check the browser and device reports to start narrowing down whether the issue is specific to a particular element. If it’s not, keep digging. Look at pages pulling the self-referrals and go through the code with a fine-tooth comb, drilling down as much as you can.

2. Unusually low bounce rate

If you have a crazy-low bounce rate, it could be too good to be true. Unfortunately. An unusually low bounce rate could (and probably does) mean that at least on some pages of your website have the same Google Analytics tracking code installed twice.

Take a look at your source code, or use Google Tag Assistant (though it does have known bugs) to see if you’ve got GA tracking code installed twice.

While I tell clients having Google Analytics installed on the same page can lead to double the pageviews, I’ve not actually encountered that—I usually just say it to scare them into removing the duplicate implementation more quickly. Don’t tell on me.

3. Iframes anywhere

I’ve heard directly from Google engineers and Google Analytics evangelists that Google Analytics does not play well with iframes, and that it will never will play nice with this dinosaur technology.

If you track the iframe, you inflate your pageviews, plus you still aren’t tracking everything with 100% clarity.

If you don’t track across iframes, you lose the source/medium attribution and everything becomes a self-referral.

Damned if you do; damned if you don’t.

My advice: Stop using iframes. They’re Netscape-era technology anyway, with rainbow marquees and Comic Sans on top. Interestingly, and unfortunately, a number of booking engines (for hotels) and third-party carts (for ecommerce) still use iframes.

If you have any clients in those verticals, or if you’re in the vertical yourself, check with your provider to see if they use iframes. Or you can check for yourself, by right-clicking as close as you can to the actual booking element:

iframe-booking.png

There is no neat and tidy way to address iframes with Google Analytics, and usually iframes are not the only complicated element of setup you’ll encounter. I spent eight months dealing with a website on a subfolder, which used iframes and had a cross domain booking system, and the best visibility I was able to get was about 80% on a good day.

Typically, I’d approach diagnosing iframes (if, for some reason, I had absolutely no access to viewing a website or talking to the techs) similarly to diagnosing self-referrals, as self-referrals are one of the biggest symptoms of iframe use.

4. Massive traffic jumps

Massive jumps in traffic don’t typically just happen. (Unless, maybe, you’re Geraldine.) There’s always an explanation—a new campaign launched, you just turned on paid ads for the first time, you’re using content amplification platforms, you’re getting a ton of referrals from that recent press in The New York Times. And if you think it just happened, it’s probably a technical glitch.

I’ve seen everything from inflated pageviews result from including tracking on iframes and unnecessary implementation of virtual pageviews, to not realizing the tracking code was installed on other microsites for the same property. Oops.

Usually I’ve seen this happen when the tracking code was somewhere it shouldn’t be, so if you’re investigating a situation of this nature, first confirm the Google Analytics code is only in the places it needs to be.Tools like Google Tag Assistant and Screaming Frog can be your BFFs in helping you figure this out.

Also, I suggest bribing the IT department with sugar (or booze) to see if they’ve changed anything lately.

5. Cross-domain tracking

I wish cross-domain tracking with Google Analytics out of the box didn’t require any additional setup. But it does.

If you don’t have it set up properly, things break down quickly, and can be quite difficult to untangle.

The older the GA library you’re using, the harder it is. The easiest setup, by far, is Google Tag Manager with Universal Analytics. Hard-coded universal analytics is a bit more difficult because you have to implement autoLink manually and decorate forms, if you’re using them (and you probably are). Beyond that, rather than try and deal with it, I say update your Google Analytics code. Then we can talk.

Where I’ve seen the most murkiness with tracking is when parts of cross domain tracking are implemented, but not all. For some reason, if allowLinker isn’t included, or you forget to decorate all the forms, the cookies aren’t passed between domains.

The absolute first place I would start with this would be confirming the cookies are all passing properly at all the right points, forms, links, and smoke signals. I’ll usually use a combination of the Real Time report in Google Analytics, Google Tag Assistant, and GA debug to start testing this. Any debug tool you use will mean you’re playing in the console, so get friendly with it.

6. Internal use of UTM strings

I’ve saved the best for last. Internal use of campaign tagging. We may think, oh, I use Google to tag my campaigns externally, and we’ve got this new promotion on site which we’re using a banner ad for. That’s a campaign. Why don’t I tag it with a UTM string?

Step away from the keyboard now. Please.

When you tag internal links with UTM strings, you override the original source/medium. So that visitor who came in through your paid ad and then who clicks on the campaign banner has now been manually tagged. You lose the ability to track that they came through on the ad the moment they click on the tagged internal link. Their source and medium is now your internal campaign, not that paid ad you’re spending gobs of money on and have to justify to your manager. See the problem?

I’ve seen at least three pretty spectacular instances of this in the past year, and a number of smaller instances of it. Annie Cushing also talks about the evils of internal UTM tags and the odd prevalence of it. (Oh, and if you haven’t explored her blog, and the amazing spreadsheets she shares, please do.)

One clothing company I worked with tagged all of their homepage offers with UTM strings, which resulted in the loss of visibility for one-third of their audience: One million visits over the course of a year, and $2.1 million in lost revenue.

Let me say that again. One million visits, and $2.1 million. That couldn’t be attributed to an external source/campaign/spend.

Another client I audited included campaign tagging on nearly every navigational element on their website. It still gives me nightmares.

If you want to see if you have any internal UTM strings, head straight to the Campaigns report in Acquisition in Google Analytics, and look for anything like “home” or “navigation” or any language you may use internally to refer to your website structure.

And if you want to see how users are moving through your website, go to the Flow reports. Or if you really, really, really want to know how many people click on that sidebar link, use event tracking. But please, for the love of all things holy (and to keep us analytics lovers from throwing our computers across the room), stop using UTM tagging on your internal links.

Now breathe and smile

Odds are, your Google Analytics setup is fine. If you are seeing any of these issues, though, you have somewhere to start in diagnosing and addressing the data.

We’ve looked at six of the most common points of friction I’ve encountered with Google Analytics and how to start investigating them: self-referrals, bounce rate, iframes, traffic jumps, cross domain tracking and internal campaign tagging.

What common data integrity issues have you encountered with Google Analytics? What are your favorite tools to investigate?

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Why Good Unique Content Needs to Die – Whiteboard Friday

Posted by randfish

We all know by now that not just any old content is going to help us rank in competitive SERPs. We often hear people talking about how it takes “good, unique content.” That’s the wrong bar. In today’s Whiteboard Friday, Rand talks about where we should be aiming, and how to get there.

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 we’re going to chat about something that I really have a problem with in the SEO world, and that is the phrase “good, unique content.” I’ll tell you why this troubles me so much. It’s because I get so many emails, I hear so many times at conferences and events with people I meet, with folks I talk to in the industry saying, “Hey, we created some good, unique content, but we don’t seem to be performing well in search.” My answer back to that is always that is not the bar for entry into SEO. That is not the bar for ranking.

The content quality scale

So I made this content quality scale to help illustrate what I’m talking about here. You can see that it starts all the way up at 10x, and down here I’ve got Panda Invasion. So quality, like Google Panda is coming for your site, it’s going to knock you out of the rankings. It’s going to penalize you, like your content is thin and largely useless.

Then you go up a little bit, and it’s like, well four out of five searchers find it pretty bad. They clicked the Back button. Maybe one out of five is thinking, “Well, this is all right. This solves my most basic problems.”

Then you get one level higher than that, and you have good, unique content, which I think many folks think of as where they need to get to. It’s essentially, hey, it’s useful enough. It answers the searcher’s query. It’s unique from any other content on the Web. If you read it, you wouldn’t vomit. It’s good enough, right? Good, unique content.

Problem is almost everyone can get here. They really can. It’s not a high bar, a high barrier to entry to say you need good, unique content. In fact, it can scale. So what I see lots of folks doing is they look at a search result or a set of search results in their industry. Say you’re in travel and vacations, and you look at these different countries and you’re going to look at the hotels or recommendations in those countries and then see all the articles there. You go, “Yeah, you know what, I think we could do something as good as what’s up there or almost.” Well, okay, that puts you in the range. That’s good, unique content.

But in my opinion, the minimum bar today for modern SEO is a step higher, and that is as good as the best in the search results on the search results page. If you can’t consistently say, “We’re the best result that a searcher could find in the search results,” well then, guess what? You’re not going to have an opportunity to rank. It’s much, much harder to get into those top 10 positions, page 1, page 2 positions than it was in the past because there are so many ranking signals that so many of these websites have already built up over the last 5, 10, 15 years that you need to go above and beyond.

Really, where I want folks to go and where I always expect content from Moz to go is here, and that is 10x, 10 times better than anything I can find in the search results today. If I don’t think I can do that, then I’m not going to try and rank for those keywords. I’m just not going to pursue it. I’m going to pursue content in areas where I believe I can create something 10 times better than the best result out there.

What changed?

Why is this? What changed? Well, a bunch of things actually.

  • User experience became a much bigger element in the ranking algorithms, and that’s direct influences, things that we’ve talked about here on Whiteboard Friday before like pogo-sticking, and lots of indirect ones like the links that you earn based on the user experience that you provide and Google rendering pages, Google caring about load speed and device rendering, mobile friendliness, all these kinds of things.
  • Earning links overtook link building. It used to be you put out a page and you built a bunch of links to it. Now that doesn’t so much work anymore because Google is very picky about the links that it’s going to consider. If you can’t earn links naturally, not only can you not get links fast enough and not get good ones, but you also are probably earning links that Google doesn’t even want to count or may even penalize you for. It’s nearly impossible to earn links with just good, unique content. If there’s something better out there on page one of the search results, why would they even bother to link to you? Someone’s going to do a search, and they’re going to find something else to link to, something better.
  • Third, the rise of content marketing over the last five, six years has meant that there’s just a lot more competition. This field is a lot more crowded than it used to be, with many people trying to get to a higher and higher quality bar.
  • Finally, as a result of many of these things, user expectations have gone crazy. Users expect pages to load insanely fast, even on mobile devices, even when their connection’s slow. They expect it to look great. They expect to be provided with an answer almost instantaneously. The quality of results that Google has delivered and the quality of experience that sites like Facebook, which everyone is familiar with, are delivering means that our brains have rewired themselves to expect very fast, very high quality results consistently.

How do we create “10x” content?

So, because of all these changes, we need a process. We need a process to choose, to figure out how we can get to 10x content, not good, unique content, 10x content. A process that I often like to use — this probably is not the only one, but you’re welcome to use it if you find it valuable — is to go, “All right, you know what? I’m going to perform some of these search queries.”

By the way, I would probably perform the search query in two places. One is in Google and their search results, and the other is actually in BuzzSumo, which I think is a great tool for this, where I can see the content that has been most shared. So if you haven’t already, check out BuzzSumo.com.

I might search for something like Costa Rica ecolodges, which I might be considering a Costa Rica vacation at some point in the future. I look at these top ranking results, probably the whole top 10 as well as the most shared content on social media.

Then I’m going to ask myself these questions;

  • What questions are being asked and answered by these search results?
  • What sort of user experience is provided? I look at this in terms of speed, in terms of mobile friendliness, in terms of rendering, in terms of layout and design quality, in terms of what’s required from the user to be able to get the information? Is it all right there, or do I need to click? Am I having trouble finding things?
  • What’s the detail and thoroughness of the information that’s actually provided? Is it lacking? Is it great?
  • What about use of visuals? Visual content can often take best in class all the way up to 10x if it’s done right. So I might check out the use of visuals.
  • The quality of the writing.
  • I’m going to look at information and data elements. Where are they pulling from? What are their sources? What’s the quality of that stuff? What types of information is there? What types of information is missing?

In fact, I like to ask, “What’s missing?” a lot.

From this, I can determine like, hey, here are the strengths and weaknesses of who’s getting all of the social shares and who’s ranking well, and here’s the delta between me and them today. This is the way that I can be 10 times better than the best results in there.

If you use this process or a process like this and you do this type of content auditing and you achieve this level of content quality, you have a real shot at rankings. One of the secret reasons for that is that the effort axis that I have here, like I go to Fiverr, I get Panda invasion. I make the intern write it. This is going to take a weekend to build versus there’s no way to scale this content.

This is a super power. When your competitors or other folks in the field look and say, “Hey, there’s no way that we can scale content quality like this. It’s just too much effort. We can’t keep producing it at this level,” well, now you have a competitive advantage. You have something that puts you in a category by yourself and that’s very hard for competitors to catch up to. It’s a huge advantage in search, in social, on the Web as a whole.

All right everyone, hope you’ve enjoyed this edition of Whiteboard Friday, and we’ll see you again next week. Take care.

Video transcription by Speechpad.com

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The Incredible Shrinking SERP – 2015 Edition

Posted by Dr-Pete

In the beginning, there were 10 results, and it was good. Then, came expanded site-links and Google’s 
7-result SERP. Around the middle of 2014, we started to hear reports of SERPs with odd numbers of organic results – 9, 8, 6, 5, and even 4 page-1 results. At first, these were sporadic and hard to replicate, but they quietly expanded. This is a recent 4-result SERP for “autism speaks”:

By some counts, there are as many as 16 non-paid links on this page (not counting images), but by traditional SEO standards, there are only 4 true organic positions for which you can compete. So, what’s going on here? Is it just random, or is there a method to Google’s madness?

It’s all in the news

For a couple of months, I just assumed these strange result counts were some kind of glitch. Then I noticed an unusual pattern. Last October, Google rolled out the 
“In The News” Update. This update expanded news results to many new sources, but it also seemed to change the pattern of when news results appear. This is 28 days of data from MozCast’s Feature Graph (10K queries):

The presence of News results seemed to be cyclical, dipping early in the week and peaking later in the week. I don’t follow News results closely, so it was just a curiosity at first, until I saw another bit of data. This is the average page-1 result count for that same period:

While the scale of the change was much smaller (please note that both graphs have a restricted Y-axis to make the effect more visible), the opposing shapes of the curves seemed like more than a coincidence. As News results increased, the average page-1 organic result count decreased.

It’s a vertical, vertical world

Spot-checking various SERPs, I was able to confirm this effect. If page 1 had a News box, then the organic result count would be decreased by one (to either 9 results or 6, depending on the starting point). Here’s a sample SERP (I’ve removed snippets to simplify the image) for “samsung galaxy tab”:

This is a basic 10-result SERP, but when a News box comes into play, we’re only left with 9 organic results. This raised the question – were other verticals having a similar impact? Digging deeper, I found that, in addition to News results, Image results and In-depth Articles also occupied one organic position. Remember the example at the top of the post? It’s a brand query, resulting in a 7-result SERP, but it also has News results, Image results, and In-depth Articles. If we do the math: 7 – 1 – 1 – 1 = 4 results. It’s not random at all.

In the interest of being more methodical, what if we looked at the average page-1 organic result across every combination of verticals in our data set? We’ll stick with a starting point of 10 results, to keep the data clean. Here’s a table with the average counts by vertical combination:

I’ve taken the average out to two decimal places just to be more transparent, but what we’re seeing here is little more than a tiny bit of measurement error. Generally speaking, each instance of a vertical result type (as a whole, not individual links within these verticals) costs a 10-result SERP one organic ranking position. It’s worth nothing that SERPs with all 3 verticals are pretty rare, but when they occur, each of those 3 verticals costs one position and one opportunity for you to rank on page 1.

It’s always something

So, do the same rules apply to 7-result SERPs? Well, Google isn’t a big fan of making my life easy, so it turns out this gets a bit more complicated. When 7-result SERPs originally launched, our data showed that they almost always came with expanded sitelinks in the #1 organic position. By “expanded sitelinks”, I mean something like the following:

Sitelinks usually appear for queries that either have a strong brand connotation or at least a dominant interpretation. While we typically use 6-packs of expanded sitelinks as an example, actual counts can vary from 1 to 6. Originally, the presence of any sitelinks yielded a 7-result SERP. Now, it’s gotten a bit more complicated, as shown by the table below:

Since each row of sitelinks can contain up to 2 links, the general logic seems to be that 1 row of sitelinks equates to 1 additional organic result. If you have 3 rows of sitelinks, then Google will remove 3 organic results from page 1.

Google’s logic here seems to revolve around the actual display of information and length of the page. As they add some elements, they’re going to subtract others. Since the physical display length of of most elements can vary quite a bit, the rules right now are pretty simplistic, but the core logic seems to be based on constraining the total number of results displayed on page 1.

It’s time to rethink organic

All of this raises a difficult question – what is an organic result? As SEOs, we typically don’t think of vertical results as “organic” by our fairly narrow definition, but they’re much more organic than paid results or even Knowledge Graph. What’s more, Google is starting to blur the lines with verticals.

For example, in the past couple of weeks, Google has redesigned the look of In-depth Articles twice. You might think “So what? It’s just a design change,” but take a closer look. At the end of March, Googled removed the “In-depth articles” header. Here’s an example of the new design (for the query “jobs”):

While the thumbnail images and horizontal dividers still set these results apart somewhat, Google’s intent seems to be to make them appear more organic. Keep in mind, too, that other, organic results use thumbnails as well (including videos and recipes).

Then, just a couple of weeks later (our systems detected this on the morning of April 8th), Google went much farther, removing the thumbnails and even the byline. Here’s part of a screenshot for “Putin”:

Can you spot the true organic results here? They’re the first two – the rest of this screenshot is In-depth Articles. The only real clue, beside the count and source-code markers, is the horizontal divider on either end of the 3-pack. On mobile, even the dividers are gone, as every result is treated like a “card” (see below).

As an SEO, I’m still inclined to call these results “vertical” for two reasons: (1) historical precedent, and (2) these results play by different ranking rules. I think reason #2 is the more important one – In-depth Articles are currently dominated by a core set of big publishers, and the algorithm differs quite a bit from regular, organic results.

It’s only the beginning…

You wanna get really crazy? Let’s look at an entire SERP for “polar” on an Android device (Moto G). This result also includes In-depth Articles (warning: scrolling ahead):

Let’s do the math. For starters, it’s a branded result with expanded sitelinks, so we should have a 7-result page. Remember that those last 3 results are In-depth Articles, so we’ll subtract 1, leaving us with what should be 6 results. See the “app pack” in the middle? That’s an Android-specific vertical, and instead of counting the pack as just 1 result, Google is counting each link as a result. So, we’re only left with 3 traditional organic results on this SERP, despite it being packed with information.

I strongly suspect this trend will continue, and it will probably expand. The definition of “organic” is blurring, and I think that all of these vertical results represent SEO opportunities that can’t be ignored. If we’re stuck in the mindset of only one “true” organic, then our opportunities are going to keep shrinking every day.

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Grow Your Own SEOs: Professional Development for Digital Marketers

Posted by RuthBurrReedy

Finding your next SEO hire is hard, but it’s only half the battle. Growing a team isn’t just about hiring—it’s about making your whole team, newbies and experts alike, better marketers.

It’s almost impossible to build a one-size-fits-all training program for digital marketers, since the tasks involved will depend a lot on the role. Even “SEO” can mean a lot of different things. Your role might be highly technical, highly creative, or a mix of both. Tactics like local SEO or conversion rate optimization might be a huge part of an SEO’s job or might be handled by another person entirely. Sometimes an SEO role includes elements like social media or paid search. The skills you teach your trainees will depend on what you need them to do, and more specifically, what you need them to do right now.

Whatever the specifics of the marketing role,
you need to make sure you’re providing a growth plan for your digital marketers (this goes for your more experienced team members, as well as your newbies). A professional growth plan helps you and your team members:

  • Track whether or not they’re making progress in their roles. Taking on a new skill set can be daunting. Having a growth plan can alleviate some of the stress less-experienced employees may feel when learning a new skill, and makes sure more experienced employees aren’t stagnating. 
  • Spot problem areas. Everyone’s talents are different, but you don’t want someone to miss out on growth opportunities because they’re such a superstar in one area and are neglecting everything else. 
  • Have conversations around promotions and raises. Consistently tracking people’s development across a variety of skill sets allows you to compare where someone is now to where they were when you hired them; it also gives you a framework to discuss what additional steps might be needed before a promotion or raise is in order, and help them develop a plan to get there. 
  • Advance their careers. One of your duties as their manager is to make sure you’re giving them what they need to continue on their career path. A professional development plan should be managed with career goals in mind. 
  • Increase employee retention. Smart people like to learn and grow, and if you’re not providing them ways to do so, they’re not going to stick around.

We have technical/on-page SEOs, content marketers, local SEOs and marketing copywriters all working together on the same team at BigWing. We wanted to create a framework for professional development that we could apply to the whole team, so we identified a set of areas that any digital marketer should be growing in, regardless of their focus. This growth plan is part of everyone’s mid-year and year-end reviews.

Here’s what it looks like:

Growth areas for digital marketers

Want your own copy of the Professional Advancement Sheet? Get it here!

Tactical -> strategic

At the beginner level, team members are still learning the basic concepts and tasks associated with their role, and how those translate to the client metrics they’re being measured on. It takes time to encounter and fix enough different kinds of things to know “in x situation, look at a, b and c and then try y or z.”

As someone grows in their role, they will learn more advanced tactics. They should also be more and more able to use critical thinking to figure out how to solve problems and tackle longer-term client goals and projects.
At the senior level, an SEO should be building long-term strategies and be comfortable with unusual campaigns and one-off projects.

Small clients -> big clients

There are plenty of small brochure websites in the world, and these sites are a great testing ground for the fundamentals of SEO: they may still have weird jacked-up problems (so many websites do), but they are a manageable size and don’t usually have the potential for esoteric technical issues that large, complex sites do. Once someone has a handle on SEO, you can start assigning bigger and badder sites and projects (with plenty of mentoring from more experienced team members—more on that later).

We thought about making this one “Easy clients -> difficult clients,” because there’s another dimension to this line of progress: increasingly complex client relationships. Clients with very large or complicated websites (or clients with more than one website) are likely to have higher budgets, bigger internal staff, and more stakeholders. As the number of people involved increases, so does the potential for friction, so a senior-level SEO should be able to handle those complex relationships with aplomb.

Learning -> teaching

At the beginner level, people are learning digital marketing in general and learning about our specific internal processes. As they gain experience, they become a resource for team members still in the “learning” phase, and at the senior level they should be a go-to for tough questions and expert opinions.

Even a beginner digital marketer may have other things to teach the team; skills learned from previous careers, hobbies or side gigs can be valuable additions. For example, we had a brand-new team member with a lot of experience in photography, a valuable skill for content marketers; she was able to start teaching her teammates more about taking good photos while still learning other content marketing fundamentals herself.

learning

I love this stock picture because the chalkboard just says “learning.” Photo via
Pixabay.

Since managers can’t be everywhere at once, more experienced employees must take an active role in teaching.
It’s not enough that they be experts (which is why this scale doesn’t go from “Learning” to “Mastering”); they have to be able to impart that expertise to others. Teaching is more than just being available when people have questions, too: senior team members are expected to be proactive about taking the time to show junior team members the ropes.

Prescribed -> creative

The ability to move from executing a set series of tasks to creating creative, heavily client-focused digital marketing campaigns is, in my opinion,
one of the best predictors of long-term SEO success. When someone is just starting out in SEO, it’s appropriate to have a fairly standard set of tasks they’re carrying out. For a lot of those small sites that SEO trainees start on, that set of SEO fundamentals goes a long way. The challenge comes when the basics aren’t enough.

Creative SEO comes from being able to look at a client’s business, not just their website, and tailor a strategy to their specific needs. Creative SEOs are looking for unique solutions to the unique problems that arise from that particular client’s combination of business model, target market, history and revenue goals. Creativity can also be put to work internally, in the form of suggested process improvements and new revenue-driving projects.

General -> T-shaped

The concept of the T-shaped marketer has been around for a few years (if you’re not familiar with the idea, you can read up on it on
Rand’s blog or the Distilled blog). Basically, it means that in addition to deep knowledge whatever area(s) of inbound marketing we specialize in, digital marketers should also work to develop basic knowledge of a broad set of marketing disciplines, in order to understand more about the craft of marketing as a whole.

t-shaped marketer

Source:
The T-Shaped Marketer

A digital marketer who’s just starting out will naturally be focusing more on the broad part of their T, getting their head around the basic concepts and techniques that make up the digital marketing skill set. Eventually most people naturally find a few specialty areas that they’re really passionate about. Encouraging employees to build deep expertise ultimately results in a whole team full of subject matter experts in a whole team’s worth of subjects.

Beginner -> expert

This one is pretty self-explanatory. The important thing to note is that expertise isn’t something that just happens to you after you do something a lot (although that’s definitely part of it).
Honing expertise means actively pursuing new learning opportunities and testing new ideas and tactics, and we look for the pursuit of expertise as part of evaluating someone’s professional growth.

Observing -> leading

Anyone who is working in inbound marketing should be consistently observing the industry—they should be following search engine news, reading blog posts from industry experts, and attending events and webinars to learn more about their craft. It’s a must-do at all levels, and even someone who’s still learning the ropes can be keeping an eye on industry buzz and sharing items of interest with their co-workers.

Not everyone is crazy about the phrase “thought leadership.” When you’re a digital marketing agency, though,
your people are your product—their depth of knowledge and quality of work is a big part of what you’re selling. As your team gains experience and confidence, it’s appropriate to expect them to start participating more in the digital marketing space, both online and in person. This participation could look like: 

  • Pitching and speaking at marketing conferences 
  • Contributing to blogs, whether on your site or in other marketing communities 
  • Organizing local tech meetups 
  • Regularly participating in online events like #seochat

…or a variety of other activities, depending on the individual’s talents and interests. Not only does this kind of thought-leadership activity promote your agency brand, it also helps your employees build their personal brands—and don’t forget, a professional development plan needs to be as much about helping your people grow in their careers as it is about growing the skill sets you need.

Low output -> high output

I love the idea of meticulous, hand-crafted SEO, but let’s be real: life at an agency means getting stuff done. When people are learning to do stuff, it takes them longer to do (which is BY FAR MY LEAST FAVORITE PART OF LEARNING TO DO THINGS, I HATE IT SO MUCH), so expectations of the number of clients/volume of work they can handle should scale appropriately. It’s okay for people to work at their own pace and in their own way, but at some point you need to be able to rely on your team to turn things around quickly, handle urgent requests, and consistently hit deadlines, or you’re going to lose customers.

You may notice that some of these growth areas overlap, and that’s okay—the idea is to create a nuanced approach that captures all the different ways a digital marketer can move toward excellence.

Like with all other aspects of a performance review, it’s important to be as specific as possible when discussing a professional growth plan. If there’s an area a member of your team needs to make more progress in, don’t just say e.g. “You need to be more strategic.” Come up with specific projects and milestones for your marketer to hit so you’re both clear on when they’re growing and what they need to do to get to the next level.

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