8 Ways Content Marketers Can Hack Facebook Multi-Product Ads

Posted by Alan_Coleman

The trick most content marketers are missing

Creating great content is the first half of success in content marketing. Getting quality content read by, and amplified to, a relevant audience is the oft overlooked second half of success. Facebook can be a content marketer’s best friend for this challenge. For reach, relevance and amplification potential, Facebook is unrivaled.

  1. Reach: 1 in 6 mobile minutes on planet earth is somebody reading something on Facebook.
  2. Relevance: Facebook is a lean mean interest and demo targeting machine. There is no online or offline media that owns as much juicy interest and demographic information on its audience and certainly no media has allowed advertisers to utilise this information as effectively as Facebook has.
  3. Amplification: Facebook is literally built to encourage sharing. Here’s the first 10 words from their mission statement: “Facebook’s mission is to give people the power to share…”, Enough said!

Because of these three digital marketing truths, if a content marketer gets their paid promotion* right on Facebook, the battle for eyeballs and amplification is already won.

For this reason it’s crucial that content marketers keep a close eye on Facebook advertising innovations and seek out ways to use them in new and creative ways.

In this post I will share with you eight ways we’ve hacked a new Facebook ad format to deliver content marketing success.

Multi-Product Ads (MPAs)

In 2014, Facebook unveiled multi-product ads (MPAs) for US advertisers, we got them in Europe earlier this year. They allow retailers to show multiple products in a carousel-type ad unit.

They look like this:

If the user clicks on the featured product, they are guided directly to the landing page for that specific product, from where they can make a purchase.

You could say MPAs are Facebook’s answer to Google Shopping.

Facebook’s mistake is a content marketer’s gain

I believe Facebook has misunderstood how people want to use their social network and the transaction-focused format is OK at best for selling products. People aren’t really on Facebook to hit the “buy now” button. I’m a daily Facebook user and I can’t recall a time this year where I have gone directly from Facebook to an e-commerce website and transacted. Can you remember a recent time when you did?

So, this isn’t an innovation that removes a layer of friction from something that we are all doing online already (as the most effective innovations do). Instead, it’s a bit of a “hit and hope” that, by providing this functionality, Facebook would encourage people to try to buy online in a way they never have before.

The Wolfgang crew felt the MPA format would be much more useful to marketers and users if they were leveraging Facebook for the behaviour we all demonstrate on the platform every day, guiding users to relevant content. We attempted to see if Facebook Ads Manager would accept MPAs promoting content rather than products. We plugged in the images, copy and landing pages, hit “place order”, and lo and behold the ads became active. We’re happy to say that the engagement rates, and more importantly the amplification rates, are fantastic!

Multi-Content Ads

We’ve re-invented the MPA format for multi-advertisers in multi-ways, eight ways to be exact! Here’s eight MPA Hacks that have worked well for us. All eight hacks use the MPA format to promote content rather than promote products.

Hack #1: Multi-Package Ads

Our first variation wasn’t a million miles away from multi-product ads; we were promoting the various packages offered by a travel operator.

By looking at the number of likes, comments, and shares (in blue below the ads) you can see the ads were a hit with Facebook users and they earned lots of free engagement and amplification.

NB: If you have selected “clicks to website” as your advertising objective, all those likes, comments and shares are free!

Independent Travel Multi Product Ad

The ad sparked plenty of conversation amongst Facebook friends in the comments section.

Comments on a Facebook MPA

Hack #2: Multi-Offer Ads

Everybody knows the Internet loves a bargain. So we decided to try another variation moving away from specific packages, focusing instead on deals for a different travel operator.

Here’s how the ads looked:

These ads got valuable amplification beyond the share. In the comments section, you can see people tagging specific friends. This led to the MPAs receiving further amplification, and a very targeted and personalised form of amplification to boot.

Abbey Travel Facebook Ad Comments

Word of mouth referrals have been a trader’s best friend since the stone age. These “personalised” word of mouth referrals en masse are a powerful marketing proposition. It’s worth mentioning again that those engagements are free!

Hack #3: Multi-Locations Ads

Putting the Lo in SOLOMO.

This multi-product feed ad was hacked to promote numerous locations of a waterpark. “Where to go?” is among the first questions somebody asks when researching a holiday. In creating this top of funnel content, we can communicate with our target audience at the very beginning of their research process. A simple truth of digital marketing is: the more interactions you have with your target market on their journey to purchase, the more likely they are to seal the deal with you when it comes time to hit the “buy now” button. Starting your relationship early gives you an advantage over those competitors who are hanging around the bottom of the purchase funnel hoping to make a quick and easy conversion.

Abbey Travel SplashWorld Facebook MPA

What was surprising here, was that because we expected to reach people at the very beginning of their research journey, we expected the booking enquiries to be some time away. What actually happened was these ads sparked an enquiry frenzy as Facebook users could see other people enquiring and the holidays selling out in real time.

Abbey Travel comments and replies

In fact nearly all of the 35 comments on this ad were booking enquiries. This means what we were measuring as an “engagement” was actually a cold hard “conversion”! You don’t need me to tell you a booking enquiry is far closer to the money than a Facebook like.

The three examples outlined so far are for travel companies. Travel is a great fit for Facebook as it sits naturally in the Facebook feed, my Facebook feed is full of envy-inducing friends’ holiday pictures right now. Another interesting reason why travel is a great fit for Facebook ads is because typically there are multiple parties to a travel purchase. What happened here is the comments section actually became a very visible and measurable forum for discussion between friends and family before becoming a stampede inducing medium of enquiry.

So, stepping outside of the travel industry, how do other industries fare with hacked MPAs?

Hack #3a: Multi-Location Ads (combined with location targeting)

Location, location, location. For a property listings website, we applied location targeting and repeated our Multi-Location Ad format to advertise properties for sale to people in and around that location.

Hack #4: Multi-Big Content Ad

“The future of big content is multi platform”

– Cyrus Shepard

The same property website had produced a report and an accompanying infographic to provide their audience with unique and up-to-the-minute market information via their blog. We used the MPA format to promote the report, the infographic and the search rentals page of the website. This brought their big content piece to a larger audience via a new platform.

Rental Report Multi Product Ad

Hack #5: Multi-Episode Ad

This MPA hack was for an online TV player. As you can see we advertised the most recent episodes of a TV show set in a fictional Dublin police station, Red Rock.

Engagement was high, opinion was divided.

TV3s Red Rock viewer feedback

LOL.

Hack #6: Multi-People Ads

In the cosmetic surgery world, past patients’ stories are valuable marketing material. Particularly when the past patients are celebrities. We recycled some previously published stories from celebrity patients using multi-people ads and targeted them to a very specific audience.

Avoca Clinic Multi People Ads

Hack #7: Multi-UGC Ads

Have you witnessed the power of user generated content (UGC) in your marketing yet? We’ve found interaction rates with authentic UGC images can be up to 10 fold of those of the usual stylised images. In order to encourage further UGC, we posted a number of customer’s images in our Multi-UGC Ads.

The CTR on the above ads was 6% (2% is the average CTR for Facebook News feed ads according to our study). Strong CTRs earn you more traffic for your budget. Facebook’s relevancy score lowers your CPC as your CTR increases.

When it comes to the conversion, UGC is a power player, we’ve learned that “customers attracting new customers” is a powerful acquisition tool.

Hack #8: Target past customers for amplification

“Who will support and amplify this content and why?”

– Rand Fishkin

Your happy customers Rand, that’s the who and the why! Check out these Multi-Package Ads targeted to past customers via custom audiences. The Camino walkers have already told all their friends about their great trip, now allow them to share their great experiences on Facebook and connect the tour operator with their Facebook friends via a valuable word of mouth referral. Just look at the ratio of share:likes and shares:comments. Astonishingly sharable ads!

Camino Ways Mulit Product Ads

Targeting past converters in an intelligent manner is a super smart way to find an audience ready to share your content.

How will hacking Multi-Product Ads work for you?

People don’t share ads, but they do share great content. So why not hack MPAs to promote your content and reap the rewards of the world’s greatest content sharing machine: Facebook.

MPAs allow you to tell a richer story by allowing you to promote multiple pieces of content simultaneously. So consider which pieces of content you have that will work well as “content bundles” and who the relevant audience for each “content bundle” is.

As Hack #8 above illustrates, the big wins come when you match a smart use of the format with the clever and relevant targeting Facebook allows. We’re massive fans of custom audiences so if you aren’t sure where to start, I’d suggest starting there.

So ponder your upcoming content pieces, consider your older content you’d like to breathe some new life into and perhaps you could become a Facebook Ads Hacker.

I’d love to hear about your ideas for turning Multi-Product Ads into Multi-Content Ads in the comments section below.

We could even take the conversation offline at Mozcon!

Happy hacking.


*Yes I did say paid promotion, it’s no secret that Facebook’s organic reach continues to dwindle. The cold commercial reality is you need to pay to play on FB. The good news is that if you select ‘website clicks’ as your objective you only pay for website traffic and engagement while amplification by likes, comments, and shares are free! Those website clicks you pay for are typically substantially cheaper than Adwords, Taboola, Outbrain, Twitter or LinkedIn. How does it compare to display? It doesn’t. Paying for clicks is always preferable to paying for impressions. If you are spending money on display advertising I’d urge you to fling a few spondoolas towards Facebook ads and compare results. You will be pleasantly surprised.

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The Importance of Being Different: Creating a Competitive Advantage With Your USP

Posted by TrentonGreener

“The one who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd. Those who walk alone are likely to find themselves in places no one has ever been before.”

While this quote has been credited to everyone from Francis Phillip Wernig, under the pseudonym Alan Ashley-Pitt, to Einstein himself, the powerful message does not lose its substance no matter whom you choose to credit. There is a very important yet often overlooked effect of not heeding this warning. One which can be applied to all aspects of life. From love and happiness, to business and marketing, copying what your competitors are doing and failing to forge your own path can be a detrimental mistake.

While as marketers we are all acutely aware of the importance of differentiation, we’ve been trained for the majority of our lives to seek out the norm.

We spend the majority of our adolescent lives trying desperately not to be different. No one has ever been picked on for being too normal or not being different enough. We would beg our parents to buy us the same clothes little Jimmy or little Jamie wore. We’d want the same backpack and the same bike everyone else had. With the rise of the cell phone and later the smartphone, on hands and knees, we begged and pleaded for our parents to buy us the Razr, the StarTAC (bonus points if you didn’t have to Google that one), and later the iPhone. Did we truly want these things? Yes, but not just because they were cutting edge and nifty. We desired them because the people around us had them. We didn’t want to be the last to get these devices. We didn’t want to be different.

Thankfully, as we mature we begin to realize the fallacy that is trying to be normal. We start to become individuals and learn to appreciate that being different is often seen as beautiful. However, while we begin to celebrate being different on a personal level, it does not always translate into our business or professional lives.

We unconsciously and naturally seek out the normal, and if we want to be different—truly different in a way that creates an advantage—we have to work for it.

The truth of the matter is, anyone can be different. In fact, we all are very different. Even identical twins with the same DNA will often have starkly different personalities. As a business, the real challenge lies in being different in a way that is relevant, valuable to your audience, and creates an advantage.

“Strong products and services are highly differentiated from all other products and services. It’s that simple. It’s that difficult.” – Austin McGhie, Brand Is a Four Letter Word

Let’s explore the example of Revel Hotel & Casino. Revel is a 70-story luxury casino in Atlantic City that was built in 2012. There is simply not another casino of the same class in Atlantic City, but there might be a reason for this. Even if you’re not familiar with the city, a quick jump onto Atlantic City’s tourism website reveals that of the five hero banners that rotate, not one specifically mentions gambling, but three reference the boardwalk. This is further illustrated when exploring their internal linking structure. The beaches, boardwalk, and shopping all appear before a single mention of casinos. There simply isn’t as much of a market for high-end gamblers in the Atlantic City area; in the states Las Vegas serves that role. So while Revel has a unique advantage, their ability to attract customers to their resort has not resulted in profitable earnings reports. In Q2 2012, Revel had a gross operating loss of $35.177M, and in Q3 2012 that increased to $36.838M.

So you need to create a unique selling proposition (also known as unique selling point and commonly referred to as a USP), and your USP needs to be valuable to your audience and create a competitive advantage. Sounds easy enough, right? Now for the kicker. That advantage needs to be as sustainable as physically possible over the long term.

“How long will it take our competitors to duplicate our advantage?”

You really need to explore this question and the possible solutions your competitors could utilize to play catch-up or duplicate what you’ve done. Look no further than Google vs Bing to see this in action. No company out there is going to just give up because your USP is so much better; most will pivot or adapt in some way.

Let’s look at a Seattle-area coffee company of which you may or may not be familiar. Starbucks has tried quite a few times over the years to level-up their tea game with limited success, but the markets that Starbucks has really struggled to break into are the pastry, breads, dessert, and food markets.

Other stores had more success in these markets, and they thought that high-quality teas and bakery items were the USPs that differentiated them from the Big Bad Wolf that is Starbucks. And while they were right to think that their brick house would save them from the Big Bad Wolf for some time, this fable doesn’t end with the Big Bad Wolf in a boiling pot.

Never underestimate your competitor’s ability to be agile, specifically when overcoming a competitive disadvantage.

If your competitor can’t beat you by making a better product or service internally, they can always choose to buy someone who can.

After months of courting, on June 4th, 2012 Starbucks announced that they had come to an agreement to purchase La Boulange in order to “elevate core food offerings and build a premium, artisanal bakery brand.” If you’re a small-to-medium sized coffee shop and/or bakery that even indirectly competed with Starbucks, a new challenger approaches. And while those tea shops momentarily felt safe within the brick walls that guarded their USP, on the final day of that same year, the Big Bad Wolf huffed and puffed and blew a stack of cash all over Teavana. Making Teavana a wholly-owned subsidiary of Starbucks for the low, low price of $620M.

Sarcasm aside, this does a great job of illustrating the ability of companies—especially those with deep pockets—to be agile, and demonstrates that they often have an uncanny ability to overcome your company’s competitive advantage. In seven months, Starbucks went from a minor player in these markets to having all the tools they need to dominate tea and pastries. Have you tried their raspberry pound cake? It’s phenomenal.

Why does this matter to me?

Ok, we get it. We need to be different, and in a way that is relevant, valuable, defensible, and sustainable. But I’m not the CEO, or even the CMO. I cannot effect change on a company level; why does this matter to me?

I’m a firm believer that you effect change no matter what the name plate on your desk may say. Sure, you may not be able to call an all-staff meeting today and completely change the direction of your company tomorrow, but you can effect change on the parts of the business you do touch. No matter your title or area of responsibility, you need to know your company’s, client’s, or even a specific piece of content’s USP, and you need to ensure it is applied liberally to all areas of your work.

Look at this example SERP for “Mechanics”:

While yes, this search is very likely to be local-sensitive, that doesn’t mean you can’t stand out. Every single AdWords result, save one, has only the word “Mechanics” in the headline. (While the top of page ad is pulling description line 1 into the heading, the actual headline is still only “Mechanic.”) But even the one headline that is different doesn’t do a great job of illustrating the company’s USP. Mechanics at home? Whose home? Mine or theirs? I’m a huge fan of Steve Krug’s “Don’t Make Me Think,” and in this scenario there are too many questions I need answered before I’m willing to click through. “Mechanics; We Come To You” or even “Traveling Mechanics” illustrates this point much more clearly, and still fits within the 25-character limit for the headline.

If you’re an AdWords user, no matter how big or small your monthly spend may be, take a look at your top 10-15 keywords by volume and evaluate how well you’re differentiating yourself from the other brands in your industry. Test ad copy that draws attention to your USP and reap the rewards.

Now while this is simply an AdWords text ad example, the same concept can be applied universally across all of marketing.

Title tags & meta descriptions

As we alluded to above, not only do companies have USPs, but individual pieces of content can, and should, have their own USP. Use your title tag and meta description to illustrate what differentiates your piece of content from the competition and do so in a way that attracts the searcher’s click. Use your USP to your advantage. If you have already established a strong brand within a specific niche, great! Now use it to your advantage. Though it’s much more likely that you are competing against a strong brand, and in these scenarios ask yourself, “What makes our content different from theirs?” The answer you come up with is your content’s USP. Call attention to that in your title tag and meta description, and watch the CTR climb.

I encourage you to hop into your own site’s analytics and look at your top 10-15 organic landing pages and see how well you differentiate yourself. Even if you’re hesitant to negatively affect your inbound gold mines by changing the title tags, run a test and change up your meta description to draw attention to your USP. In an hour’s work, you just may make the change that pushes you a little further up those SERPs.

Branding

Let’s break outside the world of digital marketing and look at the world of branding. Tom’s Shoes competes against some heavy hitters in Nike, Adidas, Reebok, and Puma just to name a few. While Tom’s can’t hope to compete against the marketing budgets of these companies in a fair fight, they instead chose to take what makes them different, their USP, and disseminate it every chance they get. They have labeled themselves “The One for One” company. It’s in their homepage’s title tag, in every piece of marketing they put out, and it smacks you in the face when you land on their site. They even use the call-to-action “Get Good Karma” throughout their site.

Now as many of us may know, partially because of the scandal it created in late 2013, Tom’s is not actually a non-profit organization. No matter how you feel about the matter, this marketing strategy has created a positive effect on their bottom line. Fast Company conservatively estimated their revenues in 2013 at $250M, with many estimates being closer to the $300M mark. Not too bad of a slice of the pie when competing against the powerhouses Tom’s does.

Wherever you stand on this issue, Tom’s Shoes has done a phenomenal job of differentiating their brand from the big hitters in their industry.

Know your USP and disseminate it every chance you get.

This is worth repeating. Know your USP and disseminate it every chance you get, whether that be in title tags, ad copy, on-page copy, branding, or any other segment of your marketing campaigns. Online or offline, be different. And remember the quote that we started with, “The one who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd. Those who walk alone are likely to find themselves in places no one has ever been before.”

The amount of marketing knowledge that can be taken from this one simple statement is astounding. Heed the words, stand out from the crowd, and you will have success.

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Moving 5 Domains to 1: An SEO Case Study

Posted by Dr-Pete

People often ask me if they should change domain names, and I always shudder just a little. Changing domains is a huge, risky undertaking, and too many people rush into it seeing only the imaginary upside. The success of the change also depends wildly on the details, and it’s not the kind of question anyone should be asking casually on social media.

Recently, I decided that it was time to find a new permanent home for my personal and professional blogs, which had gradually spread out over 5 domains. I also felt my main domain was no longer relevant to my current situation, and it was time for a change. So, ultimately I ended up with a scenario that looked like this:

The top three sites were active, with UserEffect.com being my former consulting site and blog (and relatively well-trafficked). The bottom two sites were both inactive and were both essentially gag sites. My one-pager, AreYouARealDoctor.com, did previously rank well for “are you a real doctor”, so I wanted to try to recapture that.

I started migrating the 5 sites in mid-January, and I’ve been tracking the results. I thought it would be useful to see how this kind of change plays out, in all of the gory details. As it turns out, nothing is ever quite “textbook” when it comes to technical SEO.

Why Change Domains at All?

The rationale for picking a new domain could fill a month’s worth of posts, but I want to make one critical point – changing domains should be about your business goals first, and SEO second. I did not change domains to try to rank better for “Dr. Pete” – that’s a crap shoot at best. I changed domains because my old consulting brand (“User Effect”) no longer represented the kind of work I do and I’m much more known by my personal brand.

That business case was strong enough that I was willing to accept some losses. We went through a similar transition here
from SEOmoz.org to Moz.com. That was a difficult transition that cost us some SEO ground, especially short-term, but our core rationale was grounded in the business and where it’s headed. Don’t let an SEO pipe dream lead you into a risky decision.

Why did I pick a .co domain? I did it for the usual reason – the .com was taken. For a project of this type, where revenue wasn’t on the line, I didn’t have any particular concerns about .co. The evidence on how top-level domains (TLDs) impact ranking is tough to tease apart (so many other factors correlate with .com’s), and Google’s attitude tends to change over time, especially if new TLDs are abused. Anecdotally, though, I’ve seen plenty of .co’s rank, and I wasn’t concerned.

Step 1 – The Boring Stuff

It is absolutely shocking how many people build a new site, slap up some 301s, pull the switch, and hope for the best. It’s less shocking how many of those people end up in Q&A a week later, desperate and bleeding money.


Planning is hard work, and it’s boring – get over it.

You need to be intimately familiar with every page on your existing site(s), and, ideally, you should make a list. Not only do you have to plan for what will happen to each of these pages, but you’ll need that list to make sure everything works smoothly later.

In my case, I decided it might be time to do some housekeeping – the User Effect blog had hundreds of posts, many outdated and quite a few just not very good. So, I started with the easy data – recent traffic. I’m sure you’ve seen this Google Analytics report (Behavior > Site Content > All Pages):

Since I wanted to focus on recent activity, and none of the sites had much new content, I restricted myself to a 3-month window (Q4 of 2014). Of course, I looked much deeper than the top 10, but the principle was simple – I wanted to make sure the data matched my intuition and that I wasn’t cutting off anything important. This helped me prioritize the list.

Of course, from an SEO standpoint, I also didn’t want to lose content that had limited traffic but solid inbound links. So, I checked my “Top Pages” report in
Open Site Explorer:

Since the bulk of my main site was a blog, the top trafficked and top linked-to pages fortunately correlated pretty well. Again, this is only a way to prioritize. If you’re dealing with sites with thousands of pages, you need to work methodically through the site architecture.

I’m going to say something that makes some SEOs itchy – it’s ok not to move some pages to the new site. It’s even ok to let some pages 404. In Q4, UserEffect.com had traffic to 237 URLs. The top 10 pages accounted for 91.9% of that traffic. I strongly believe that moving domains is a good time to refocus a site and concentrate your visitors and link equity on your best content. More is not better in 2015.

Letting go of some pages also means that you’re not 301-redirecting a massive number of old URLs to a new home-page. This can look like a low-quality attempt to consolidate link-equity, and at large scale it can raise red flags with Google. Content worth keeping should exist on the new site, and your 301s should have well-matched targets.

In one case, I had a blog post that had a decent trickle of traffic due to ranking for “50,000 push-ups,” but the post itself was weak and the bounce rate was very high:

The post was basically just a placeholder announcing that I’d be attempting this challenge, but I never recapped anything after finishing it. So, in this case,
I rewrote the post.

Of course, this process was repeated across the 3 active sites. The 2 inactive sites only constituted a handful of total pages. In the case of AreYouARealDoctor.com, I decided to turn the previous one-pager
into a new page on the new site. That way, I had a very well-matched target for the 301-redirect, instead of simply mapping the old site to my new home-page.

I’m trying to prove a point – this is the amount of work I did for a handful of sites that were mostly inactive and producing no current business value. I don’t need consulting gigs and these sites produce no direct revenue, and yet I still considered this process worth the effort.

Step 2 – The Big Day

Eventually, you’re going to have to make the move, and in most cases, I prefer ripping off the bandage. Of course, doing something all at once doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be careful.

The biggest problem I see with domain switches (even if they’re 1-to-1) is that people rely on data that can take weeks to evaluate, like rankings and traffic, or directly checking Google’s index. By then, a lot of damage is already done. Here are some ways to find out quickly if you’ve got problems…

(1) Manually Check Pages

Remember that list you were supposed to make? It’s time to check it, or at least spot-check it. Someone needs to physically go to a browser and make sure that each major section of the site and each important individual page is resolving properly. It doesn’t matter how confident your IT department/guy/gal is – things go wrong.

(2) Manually Check Headers

Just because a page resolves, it doesn’t mean that your 301-redirects are working properly, or that you’re not firing some kind of 17-step redirect chain. Check your headers. There are tons of free tools, but lately I’m fond of
URI Valet. Guess what – I screwed up my primary 301-redirects. One of my registrar transfers wasn’t working, so I had to have a setting changed by customer service, and I inadvertently ended up with 302s (Pro tip: Don’t change registrars and domains in one step):

Don’t think that because you’re an “expert”, your plan is foolproof. Mistakes happen, and because I caught this one I was able to correct it fairly quickly.

(3) Submit Your New Site

You don’t need to submit your site to Google in 2015, but now that Google Webmaster Tools allows it, why not do it? The primary argument I hear is “well, it’s not necessary.” True, but direct submission has one advantage – it’s fast.

To be precise, Google Webmaster Tools separates the process into “Fetch” and “Submit to index” (you’ll find this under “Crawl” > “Fetch as Google”). Fetching will quickly tell you if Google can resolve a URL and retrieve the page contents, which alone is pretty useful. Once a page is fetched, you can submit it, and you should see something like this:

This isn’t really about getting indexed – it’s about getting nearly instantaneous feedback. If Google has any major problems with crawling your site, you’ll know quickly, at least at the macro level.

(4) Submit New XML Sitemaps

Finally, submit a new set of XML sitemaps in Google Webmaster Tools, and preferably tiered sitemaps. While it’s a few years old now, Rob Ousbey has a great post on the subject of
XML sitemap structure. The basic idea is that, if you divide your sitemap into logical sections, it’s going to be much easier to diagnosis what kinds of pages Google is indexing and where you’re running into trouble.

A couple of pro tips on sitemaps – first, keep your old sitemaps active temporarily. This is counterintuitive to some people, but unless Google can crawl your old URLs, they won’t see and process the 301-redirects and other signals. Let the old accounts stay open for a couple of months, and don’t cut off access to the domains you’re moving.

Second (I learned this one the hard way), make sure that your Google Webmaster Tools site verification still works. If you use file uploads or meta tags and don’t move those files/tags to the new site, GWT verification will fail and you won’t have access to your old accounts. I’d recommend using a more domain-independent solution, like verifying with Google Analytics. If you lose verification, don’t panic – your data won’t be instantly lost.

Step 3 – The Waiting Game

Once you’ve made the switch, the waiting begins, and this is where many people start to panic. Even executed perfectly, it can take Google weeks or even months to process all of your 301-redirects and reevaluate a new domain’s capacity to rank. You have to expect short term fluctuations in ranking and traffic.

During this period, you’ll want to watch a few things – your traffic, your rankings, your indexed pages (via GWT and the site: operator), and your errors (such as unexpected 404s). Traffic will recover the fastest, since direct traffic is immediately carried through redirects, but ranking and indexation will lag, and errors may take time to appear.

(1) Monitor Traffic

I’m hoping you know how to check your traffic, but actually trying to determine what your new levels should be and comparing any two days can be easier said than done. If you launch on a Friday, and then Saturday your traffic goes down on the new site, that’s hardly cause for panic – your traffic probably
always goes down on Saturday.

In this case, I redirected the individual sites over about a week, but I’m going to focus on UserEffect.com, as that was the major traffic generator. That site was redirected, in full on January 21st, and the Google Analytics data for January for the old site looked like this:

So far, so good – traffic bottomed out almost immediately. Of course, losing traffic is easy – the real question is what’s going on with the new domain. Here’s the graph for January for DrPete.co:

This one’s a bit trickier – the first spike, on January 16th, is when I redirected the first domain. The second spike, on January 22nd, is when I redirected UserEffect.com. Both spikes are meaningless – I announced these re-launches on social media and got a short-term traffic burst. What we really want to know is where traffic is leveling out.

Of course, there isn’t a lot of history here, but a typical day for UserEffect.com in January was about 1,000 pageviews. The traffic to DrPete.co after it leveled out was about half that (500 pageviews). It’s not a complete crisis, but we’re definitely looking at a short-term loss.

Obviously, I’m simplifying the process here – for a large, ecommerce site you’d want to track a wide range of metrics, including conversion metrics. Hopefully, though, this illustrates the core approach. So, what am I missing out on? In this day of [not provided], tracking down a loss can be tricky. Let’s look for clues in our other three areas…

(2) Monitor Indexation

You can get a broad sense of your indexed pages from Google Webmaster Tools, but this data often lags real-time and isn’t very granular. Despite its shortcomings, I still prefer
the site: operator. Generally, I monitor a domain daily – any one measurement has a lot of noise, but what you’re looking for is the trend over time. Here’s the indexed page count for DrPete.co:

The first set of pages was indexed fairly quickly, and then the second set started being indexed soon after UserEffect.com was redirected. All in all, we’re seeing a fairly steady upward trend, and that’s what we’re hoping to see. The number is also in the ballpark of sanity (compared to the actual page count) and roughly matched GWT data once it started being reported.

So, what happened to UserEffect.com’s index after the switch?

The timeframe here is shorter, since UserEffect.com was redirected last, but we see a gradual decline in indexation, as expected. Note that the index size plateaus around 60 pages – about 1/4 of the original size. This isn’t abnormal – low-traffic and unlinked pages (or those with deep links) are going to take a while to clear out. This is a long-term process. Don’t panic over the absolute numbers – what you want here is a downward trend on the old domain accompanied by a roughly equal upward trend on the new domain.

The fact that UserEffect.com didn’t bottom out is definitely worth monitoring, but this timespan is too short for the plateau to be a major concern. The next step would be to dig into these specific pages and look for a pattern.

(3) Monitor Rankings

The old domain is dropping out of the index, and the new domain is taking its place, but we still don’t know why the new site is taking a traffic hit. It’s time to dig into our core keyword rankings.

Historically, UserEffect.com had ranked well for keywords related to “split test calculator” (near #1) and “usability checklist” (in the top 3). While [not provided] makes keyword-level traffic analysis tricky, we also know that the split-test calculator is one of the top trafficked pages on the site, so let’s dig into that one. Here’s the ranking data from Moz Analytics for “split test calculator”:

The new site took over the #1 position from the old site at first, but then quickly dropped down to the #3/#4 ranking. That may not sound like a lot, but given this general keyword category was one of the site’s top traffic drivers, the CTR drop from #1 to #3/#4 could definitely be causing problems.

When you have a specific keyword you can diagnose, it’s worth taking a look at the live SERP, just to get some context. The day after relaunch, I captured this result for “dr. pete”:

Here, the new domain is ranking, but it’s showing the old title tag. This may not be cause for alarm – weird things often happen in the very short term – but in this case we know that I accidentally set up a 302-redirect. There’s some reason to believe that Google didn’t pass full link equity during that period when 301s weren’t implemented.

Let’s look at a domain where the 301s behaved properly. Before the site was inactive, AreYouARealDoctor.com ranked #1 for “are you a real doctor”. Since there was an inactive period, and I dropped the exact-match domain, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a corresponding ranking drop.

In reality, the new site was ranking #1 for “are you a real doctor” within 2 weeks of 301-redirecting the old domain. The graph is just a horizontal line at #1, so I’m not going to bother you with it, but here’s a current screenshot (incognito):

Early on, I also spot-checked this result, and it wasn’t showing the strange title tag crossover that UserEffect.com pages exhibited. So, it’s very likely that the 302-redirects caused some problems.

Of course, these are just a couple of keywords, but I hope it provides a starting point for you to understand how to methodically approach this problem. There’s no use crying over spilled milk, and I’m not going to fire myself, so let’s move on to checking any other errors that I might have missed.

(4) Check Errors (404s, etc.)

A good first stop for unexpected errors is the “Crawl Errors” report in Google Webmaster Tools (Crawl > Crawl Errors). This is going to take some digging, especially if you’ve deliberately 404’ed some content. Over the couple of weeks after re-launch, I spotted the following problems:

The old site had a “/blog” directory, but the new site put the blog right on the home-page and had no corresponding directory. Doh. Hey, do as I say, not as I do, ok? Obviously, this was a big blunder, as the old blog home-page was well-trafficked.

The other two errors here are smaller but easy to correct. MinimalTalent.com had a “/free” directory that housed downloads (mostly PDFs). I missed it, since my other sites used a different format. Luckily, this was easy to remap.

The last error is a weird looking URL, and there are other similar URLs in the 404 list. This is where site knowledge is critical. I custom-designed a URL shortener for UserEffect.com and, in some cases, people linked to those URLs. Since those URLs didn’t exist in the site architecture, I missed them. This is where digging deep into historical traffic reports and your top-linked pages is critical. In this case, the fix isn’t easy, and I have to decide whether the loss is worth the time.

What About the New EMD?

My goal here wasn’t to rank better for “Dr. Pete,” and finally unseat Dr. Pete’s Marinades, Dr. Pete the Sodastream flavor (yes, it’s hilarious – you can stop sending me your grocery store photos), and 172 dentists. Ok, it mostly wasn’t my goal. Of course, you might be wondering how switching to an EMD worked out.

In the short term, I’m afraid the answer is “not very well.” I didn’t track ranking for “Dr. Pete” and related phrases very often before the switch, but it appears that ranking actually fell in the short-term. Current estimates have me sitting around page 4, even though my combined link profile suggests a much stronger position. Here’s a look at the ranking history for “dr pete” since relaunch (from Moz Analytics):

There was an initial drop, after which the site evened out a bit. This less-than-impressive plateau could be due to the bad 302s during transition. It could be Google evaluating a new EMD and multiple redirects to that EMD. It could be that the prevalence of natural anchor text with “Dr. Pete” pointing to my site suddenly looked unnatural when my domain name switched to DrPete.co. It could just be that this is going to take time to shake out.

If there’s a lesson here (and, admittedly, it’s too soon to tell), it’s that you shouldn’t rush to buy an EMD in 2015 in the wild hope of instantly ranking for that target phrase. There are so many factors involved in ranking for even a moderately competitive term, and your domain is just one small part of the mix.

So, What Did We Learn?

I hope you learned that I should’ve taken my own advice and planned a bit more carefully. I admit that this was a side project and it didn’t get the attention it deserved. The problem is that, even when real money is at stake, people rush these things and hope for the best. There’s a real cheerleading mentality when it comes to change – people want to take action and only see the upside.

Ultimately, in a corporate or agency environment, you can’t be the one sour note among the cheering. You’ll be ignored, and possibly even fired. That’s not fair, but it’s reality. What you need to do is make sure the work gets done right and people go into the process with eyes wide open. There’s no room for shortcuts when you’re moving to a new domain.

That said, a domain change isn’t a death sentence, either. Done right, and with sensible goals in mind – balancing not just SEO but broader marketing and business objectives – a domain migration can be successful, even across multiple sites.

To sum up: Plan, plan, plan, monitor, monitor, monitor, and try not to panic.

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How We Fixed the Internet (Ok, an Answer Box)

Posted by Dr-Pete

Last year, Google expanded the Knowledge Graph to use data extracted (*cough* scraped) from the index to create answer boxes. Back in October, I wrote about a failed experiment. One of my posts, an odd dive
into Google’s revenue, was being answer-fied for the query “How much does Google make?”:

Objectively speaking, even I could concede that this wasn’t a very good answer in 2014. I posted it on Twitter, and
David Iwanow asked the inevitable question:

Enthusiasm may have gotten the best of us, a few more people got involved (like my former Moz colleague
Ruth Burr Reedy), and suddenly we were going to fix this once and for all:

There Was Just One Problem

I updated the post, carefully rewriting the first paragraph to reflect the new reality of Google’s revenue. I did my best to make the change user-friendly, adding valuable information but not disrupting the original post. I did, however, completely replace the old text that Google was scraping.

Within less than a day, Google had re-cached the content, and I just had to wait to see the new answer box. So, I waited, and waited… and waited. Two months later, still no change. Some days, the SERP showed no answer box at all (although I’ve since found these answer boxes are very dynamic), and I was starting to wonder if it was all a mistake.

Then, Something Happened

Last week, months after I had given up, I went to double-check this query for entirely different reasons, and I saw the following:

Google had finally updated the answer box with the new text, and they had even pulled an image from the post. It was a strange choice of images, but in fairness, it was a strange post.

Interestingly, Google also added the publication date of the post, perhaps recognizing that outdated answers aren’t always useful. Unfortunately, this doesn’t reflect the timing of the new content, but that’s understandable – Google doesn’t have easy access to that data.

It’s interesting to note that sometimes Google shows the image, and sometimes they don’t. This seems to be independent of whether the SERP is personalized or incognito. Here’s a capture of the image-free version, along with the #1 organic ranking:

You’ll notice that the #1 result is also my Moz post, and that result has an expanded meta description. So, the same URL is essentially double-dipping this SERP. This isn’t always the case – answers can be extracted from URLs that appear lower on page 1 (although almost always page 1, in my experience). Anecdotally, it’s also not always the case that these organic result ends up getting an expanded meta description.

However, it definitely seems that some of the quality signals driving organic ranking and expanded meta descriptions are also helping Google determine whether a query deserves a direct answer. Put simply, it’s not an accident that this post was chosen to answer this question.

What Does This Mean for You?

Let’s start with the obvious – Yes, the v2 answer boxes (driven by the index, not Freebase/WikiData)
can be updated. However, the update cycle is independent of the index’s refresh cycle. In other words, just because a post is re-cached, it doesn’t mean the answer box will update. Presumably, Google is creating a second Knowledge Graph, based on the index, and this data is only periodically updated.

It’s also entirely possible that updating could cause you to lose an answer box, if the new data weren’t a strong match to the question or the quality of the content came into question. Here’s an interesting question – on a query where a competitor has an answer box, could you change your own content enough to either replace them or knock out the answer box altogether? We are currently testing this question, but it may be a few more months before we have any answers.

Another question is what triggers this style of answer box in the first place? Eric Enge has an
in-depth look at 850,000 queries that’s well worth your time, and in many cases Google is still triggering on obvious questions (“how”, “what”, “where”, etc.). Nouns that could be interpreted as ambiguous also can trigger the new answer boxes. For example, a search for “ruby” is interpreted by Google as roughly meaning “What is Ruby?”:

This answer box also triggers “Related topics” that use content pulled from other sites but drive users to more Google searches. The small, gray links are the source sites. The much more visible, blue links are more Google searches.

Note that these also have to be questions (explicit or implied) that Google can’t answer with their curated Knowledge Graph (based on sources like Freebase and WikiData). So, for example, the question “When is Mother’s Day?” triggers an older-style answer:

Sites offering this data aren’t going to have a chance to get attribution, because Google essentially already owns the answer to this question as part of their core Knowledge Graph.

Do You Want to Be An Answer?

This is where things get tricky. At this point, we have no clear data on how these answer boxes impact CTR, and it’s likely that the impact depends a great deal on the context. I think we’re facing a certain degree of inevitability – if Google is going to list an answer, better it’s your answer then someone else’s, IMO. On the other hand, what if that answer is so complete that it renders your URL irrelevant? Consider, for example, the SERP for “how to make grilled cheese”:

Sorry, Food Network, but making a grilled cheese sandwich isn’t really that hard, and this answer box doesn’t leave much to the imagination. As these answers get more and more thorough, expect CTRs to fall.

For now, I’d argue that it’s better to have your link in the box than someone else’s, but that’s cold comfort in many cases. These new answer boxes represent what I feel is a dramatic shift in the relationship between Google and webmasters, and they may be tipping the balance. For now, we can’t do much but wait, see, and experiment.

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