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

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

[ccw-atrib-link]

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

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

[ccw-atrib-link]

How to Combat 5 of the SEO World’s Most Infuriating Problems – Whiteboard Friday

Posted by randfish

These days, most of us have learned that spammy techniques aren’t the way to go, and we have a solid sense for the things we should be doing to rank higher, and ahead of our often spammier competitors. Sometimes, maddeningly, it just doesn’t work. In today’s Whiteboard Friday, Rand talks about five things that can infuriate SEOs with the best of intentions, why those problems exist, and what we can do about them.

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

What SEO problems make you angry?

Howdy, Moz fans, and welcome to another edition of Whiteboard Friday. This week we’re chatting about some of the most infuriating things in the SEO world, specifically five problems that I think plague a lot of folks and some of the ways that we can combat and address those.

I’m going to start with one of the things that really infuriates a lot of new folks to the field, especially folks who are building new and emerging sites and are doing SEO on them. You have all of these best practices list. You might look at a web developer’s cheat sheet or sort of a guide to on-page and on-site SEO. You go, “Hey, I’m doing it. I’ve got my clean URLs, my good, unique content, my solid keyword targeting, schema markup, useful internal links, my XML sitemap, and my fast load speed. I’m mobile friendly, and I don’t have manipulative links.”

Great. “Where are my results? What benefit am I getting from doing all these things, because I don’t see one?” I took a site that was not particularly SEO friendly, maybe it’s a new site, one I just launched or an emerging site, one that’s sort of slowly growing but not yet a power player. I do all this right stuff, and I don’t get SEO results.

This makes a lot of people stop investing in SEO, stop believing in SEO, and stop wanting to do it. I can understand where you’re coming from. The challenge is not one of you’ve done something wrong. It’s that this stuff, all of these things that you do right, especially things that you do right on your own site or from a best practices perspective, they don’t increase rankings. They don’t. That’s not what they’re designed to do.

1) Following best practices often does nothing for new and emerging sites

This stuff, all of these best practices are designed to protect you from potential problems. They’re designed to make sure that your site is properly optimized so that you can perform to the highest degree that you are able. But this is not actually rank boosting stuff unfortunately. That is very frustrating for many folks. So following a best practices list, the idea is not, “Hey, I’m going to grow my rankings by doing this.”

On the flip side, many folks do these things on larger, more well-established sites, sites that have a lot of ranking signals already in place. They’re bigger brands, they have lots of links to them, and they have lots of users and usage engagement signals. You fix this stuff. You fix stuff that’s already broken, and boom, rankings pop up. Things are going well, and more of your pages are indexed. You’re getting more search traffic, and it feels great. This is a challenge, on our part, of understanding what this stuff does, not a challenge on the search engine’s part of not ranking us properly for having done all of these right things.

2) My competition seems to be ranking on the back of spammy or manipulative links

What’s going on? I thought Google had introduced all these algorithms to kind of shut this stuff down. This seems very frustrating. How are they pulling this off? I look at their link profile, and I see a bunch of the directories, Web 2.0 sites — I love that the spam world decided that that’s Web 2.0 sites — article sites, private blog networks, and do follow blogs.

You look at this stuff and you go, “What is this junk? It’s terrible. Why isn’t Google penalizing them for this?” The answer, the right way to think about this and to come at this is: Are these really the reason that they rank? I think we need to ask ourselves that question.

One thing that we don’t know, that we can never know, is: Have these links been disavowed by our competitor here?

I’ve got my HulksIncredibleStore.com and their evil competitor Hulk-tastrophe.com. Hulk-tastrophe has got all of these terrible links, but maybe they disavowed those links and you would have no idea. Maybe they didn’t build those links. Perhaps those links came in from some other place. They are not responsible. Google is not treating them as responsible for it. They’re not actually what’s helping them.

If they are helping, and it’s possible they are, there are still instances where we’ve seen spam propping up sites. No doubt about it.

I think the next logical question is: Are you willing to loose your site or brand? What we don’t see anymore is we almost never see sites like this, who are ranking on the back of these things and have generally less legitimate and good links, ranking for two or three or four years. You can see it for a few months, maybe even a year, but this stuff is getting hit hard and getting hit frequently. So unless you’re willing to loose your site, pursuing their links is probably not a strategy.

Then what other signals, that you might not be considering potentially links, but also non-linking signals, could be helping them rank? I think a lot of us get blinded in the SEO world by link signals, and we forget to look at things like: Do they have a phenomenal user experience? Are they growing their brand? Are they doing offline kinds of things that are influencing online? Are they gaining engagement from other channels that’s then influencing their SEO? Do they have things coming in that I can’t see? If you don’t ask those questions, you can’t really learn from your competitors, and you just feel the frustration.

3) I have no visibility or understanding of why my rankings go up vs down

On my HulksIncredibleStore.com, I’ve got my infinite stretch shorts, which I don’t know why he never wears — he should really buy those — my soothing herbal tea, and my anger management books. I look at my rankings and they kind of jump up all the time, jump all over the place all the time. Actually, this is pretty normal. I think we’ve done some analyses here, and the average page one search results shift is 1.5 or 2 position changes daily. That’s sort of the MozCast dataset, if I’m recalling correctly. That means that, over the course of a week, it’s not uncommon or unnatural for you to be bouncing around four, five, or six positions up, down, and those kind of things.

I think we should understand what can be behind these things. That’s a very simple list. You made changes, Google made changes, your competitors made changes, or searcher behavior has changed in terms of volume, in terms of what they were engaging with, what they’re clicking on, what their intent behind searches are. Maybe there was just a new movie that came out and in one of the scenes Hulk talks about soothing herbal tea. So now people are searching for very different things than they were before. They want to see the scene. They’re looking for the YouTube video clip and those kind of things. Suddenly Hulk’s soothing herbal tea is no longer directing as well to your site.

So changes like these things can happen. We can’t understand all of them. I think what’s up to us to determine is the degree of analysis and action that’s actually going to provide a return on investment. Looking at these day over day or week over week and throwing up our hands and getting frustrated probably provides very little return on investment. Looking over the long term and saying, “Hey, over the last 6 months, we can observe 26 weeks of ranking change data, and we can see that in aggregate we are now ranking higher and for more keywords than we were previously, and so we’re going to continue pursuing this strategy. This is the set of keywords that we’ve fallen most on, and here are the factors that we’ve identified that are consistent across that group.” I think looking at rankings in aggregate can give us some real positive ROI. Looking at one or two, one week or the next week probably very little ROI.

4) I cannot influence or affect change in my organization because I cannot accurately quantify, predict, or control SEO

That’s true, especially with things like keyword not provided and certainly with the inaccuracy of data that’s provided to us through Google’s Keyword Planner inside of AdWords, for example, and the fact that no one can really control SEO, not fully anyway.

You get up in front of your team, your board, your manager, your client and you say, “Hey, if we don’t do these things, traffic will suffer,” and they go, “Well, you can’t be sure about that, and you can’t perfectly predict it. Last time you told us something, something else happened. So because the data is imperfect, we’d rather spend money on channels that we can perfectly predict, that we can very effectively quantify, and that we can very effectively control.” That is understandable. I think that businesses have a lot of risk aversion naturally, and so wanting to spend time and energy and effort in areas that you can control feels a lot safer.

Some ways to get around this are, first off, know your audience. If you know who you’re talking to in the room, you can often determine the things that will move the needle for them. For example, I find that many managers, many boards, many executives are much more influenced by competitive pressures than they are by, “We won’t do as well as we did before, or we’re loosing out on this potential opportunity.” Saying that is less powerful than saying, “This competitor, who I know we care about and we track ourselves against, is capturing this traffic and here’s how they’re doing it.”

Show multiple scenarios. Many of the SEO presentations that I see and have seen and still see from consultants and from in-house folks come with kind of a single, “Hey, here’s what we predict will happen if we do this or what we predict will happen if we don’t do this.” You’ve got to show multiple scenarios, especially when you know you have error bars because you can’t accurately quantify and predict. You need to show ranges.

So instead of this, I want to see: What happens if we do it a little bit? What happens if we really overinvest? What happens if Google makes a much bigger change on this particular factor than we expect or our competitors do a much bigger investment than we expect? How might those change the numbers?

Then I really do like bringing case studies, especially if you’re a consultant, but even in-house there are so many case studies in SEO on the Web today, you can almost always find someone who’s analogous or nearly analogous and show some of their data, some of the results that they’ve seen. Places like SEMrush, a tool that offers competitive intelligence around rankings, can be great for that. You can show, hey, this media site in our sector made these changes. Look at the delta of keywords they were ranking for versus R over the next six months. Correlation is not causation, but that can be a powerful influencer showing those kind of things.

Then last, but not least, any time you’re going to get up like this and present to a group around these topics, if you very possibly can, try to talk one-on-one with the participants before the meeting actually happens. I have found it almost universally the case that when you get into a group setting, if you haven’t had the discussions beforehand about like, “What are your concerns? What do you think is not valid about this data? Hey, I want to run this by you and get your thoughts before we go to the meeting.” If you don’t do that ahead of time, people can gang up and pile on. One person says, “Hey, I don’t think this is right,” and everybody in the room kind of looks around and goes, “Yeah, I also don’t think that’s right.” Then it just turns into warfare and conflict that you don’t want or need. If you address those things beforehand, then you can include the data, the presentations, and the “I don’t know the answer to this and I know this is important to so and so” in that presentation or in that discussion. It can be hugely helpful. Big difference between winning and losing with that.

5) Google is biasing to big brands. It feels hopeless to compete against them

A lot of people are feeling this hopelessness, hopelessness in SEO about competing against them. I get that pain. In fact, I’ve felt that very strongly for a long time in the SEO world, and I think the trend has only increased. This comes from all sorts of stuff. Brands now have the little dropdown next to their search result listing. There are these brand and entity connections. As Google is using answers and knowledge graph more and more, it’s feeling like those entities are having a bigger influence on where things rank and where they’re visible and where they’re pulling from.

User and usage behavior signals on the rise means that big brands, who have more of those signals, tend to perform better. Brands in the knowledge graph, brands growing links without any effort, they’re just growing links because they’re brands and people point to them naturally. Well, that is all really tough and can be very frustrating.

I think you have a few choices on the table. First off, you can choose to compete with brands where they can’t or won’t. So this is areas like we’re going after these keywords that we know these big brands are not chasing. We’re going after social channels or people on social media that we know big brands aren’t. We’re going after user generated content because they have all these corporate requirements and they won’t invest in that stuff. We’re going after content that they refuse to pursue for one reason or another. That can be very effective.

You better be building, growing, and leveraging your competitive advantage. Whenever you build an organization, you’ve got to say, “Hey, here’s who is out there. This is why we are uniquely better or a uniquely better choice for this set of customers than these other ones.” If you can leverage that, you can generally find opportunities to compete and even to win against big brands. But those things have to become obvious, they have to become well-known, and you need to essentially build some of your brand around those advantages, or they’re not going to give you help in search. That includes media, that includes content, that includes any sort of press and PR you’re doing. That includes how you do your own messaging, all of these things.

(C) You can choose to serve a market or a customer that they don’t or won’t. That can be a powerful way to go about search, because usually search is bifurcated by the customer type. There will be slightly different forms of search queries that are entered by different kinds of customers, and you can pursue one of those that isn’t pursued by the competition.

Last, but not least, I think for everyone in SEO we all realize we’re going to have to become brands ourselves. That means building the signals that are typically associated with brands — authority, recognition from an industry, recognition from a customer set, awareness of our brand even before a search has happened. I talked about this in a previous Whiteboard Friday, but I think because of these things, SEO is becoming a channel that you benefit from as you grow your brand rather than the channel you use to initially build your brand.

All right, everyone. Hope these have been helpful in combating some of these infuriating, frustrating problems and that we’ll see some great comments from you guys. I hope to participate in those as well, and we’ll catch you again next week for another edition of Whiteboard Friday. Take care.

Video transcription by Speechpad.com

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

[ccw-atrib-link]

The Massive Ranking Factor Too Many SEOs are Ignoring – Whiteboard Friday

Posted by randfish

Despite Google’s ambiguity about how it’s used in the algorithm, we’ve seen evidence time and again that there’s a giant ranking factor that SEOs just aren’t optimizing for. In today’s very special Whitebeard Friday, Rand (or Randa Claus) shows us how to fill in this important gap in our work.

For reference, here’s a still of this week’s whiteboard!

Video transcription

Ho, ho, ho. Howdy, Moz boys and girls, and welcome to another special Christmas edition of Whitebeard Friday. I’m your host Randa Claus. (pause) I just can’t keep making fun of Santa like this. It’s just terrible.

I am very thrilled to have all of you with us for the holidays and for this special edition of Whitebeard Friday. We actually have some really important, juicy, meaty SEO material. Hopefully, my beard won’t get too much in the way of that. I feel like I have the same mustache. It’s just whiter this week.

I want to talk about this big ranking factor that a lot of SEO practitioners and experts are almost ignoring. By ignoring, I don’t mean to say we don’t know it exists. We just aren’t optimizing it yet.

That factor is engagement. I’m not just talking about onsite engagement. I’m talking about overall web engagement with your site and your brand. That can manifest in a bunch of different ways. A branded search is certainly one manifestation of that. Direct navigation, so lots of people going directly to your website, lots of people typing in searches for clearly your brand. They want to go just to your website. Time on site and browse rate, we’ve seen a bunch of elements around this. Pogo-sticking, which we’ve talked about on Whiteboard Friday previously. Traffic referrals, meaning traffic you’re sending out to the rest of the web. Google can see this. They have Chrome. They have Android. They have Google Analytics. They have all sorts of plugins. They have the web’s biggest advertising network. They can see all of this stuff. Then, finally, amplification in the forms of press and PR and word of mouth, kind of the non-link forms of amplification, which could even encompass social media.

So what is our evidence that these things are real factors in the search ranking algorithms? Well, unfortunately, unlike the early days of links when this was more directly observable and when the search engines were a little more open about this, they’ve been pretty quiet about engagement. They all talk about it in a broad sense, but they don’t specifically say, “Oh, yes, we specifically use time on site and browse rate.” In fact, they’re very nuanced around this.

The only thing that I’ve heard engineers or search engine folks say is, “Yes, we do use pogo-sticking, and yes, we will look at some forms of amplification and some things around brand,” which you could interpret to mean maybe branded search and some things around brand that could be interpreted as direct navigation. But they are not specific about this.

However, we’ve seen tons of experiments and lots of information that suggest that even if these aren’t exactly what they’re using, they’re using stuff like it. When you see experiments that show, hey, despite the fact that site speed is a very small factor, we reduced the page load time and saw all these wonderful things happen around search. What’s going on there? It’s some form of engagement. It’s something they’re measuring around that, that’s not just site speed, but engagement overall. That increases as you bring page load speed down.

So what’s the problem here? Why is it that SEOs, many of us at least, are not optimizing for this yet? Well, the answers are oftentimes we don’t have the authority. If you go to someone, you pitch an SEO project internally at your company, you’re the person who runs SEO, and they’re like, “No, you take care of our crawlability. You take care of our links. You’re not responsible for how much traffic we send out or the time on site and browse rate or amplification and press.” Those are all different departments, and it’s very tough to get that synchronization between them.

We may not have access to the tools or the data that we need to measure this stuff and then to show improvements. That’s very tough and hard too.

Then the inputs around a lot of this stuff are not direct. Let’s go back to links as an example. If you know that links are the big ranking factor for you, you can show, “Hey, we got this many links. Here’s how it changed our ranking position. We need more. Here’s how we go about getting them.” Plan, execution, analysis, it’s simple. It’s direct. It may not be easy, but it is observable.

This is often indirect. There are so many things that impact this stuff that’s indirect, and that’s really tough and frustrating.

As solutions, it’s going to be our job to do what early SEOs had to do — socialize. We have to go out to the industry, to our colleagues, to our clients if we’re consultants, to other web professionals across all the forms of marketing, and we have to socialize the fact that engagement is a major input into SEO, just like SEOs did starting in about 1999/2000, where we had to explain, “Look, this is how links work. Links are important. It’s not just about getting listed in the directory. It’s not just about keywords anymore. It’s not just about meta tags anymore. Links really matter here. I can show you Google’s PageRank paper here. I can show you all these patent applications here. I can show you the impact of links.”

We have to do that again with engagement. That’s going to be tough. That’s going to be an uphill battle, but I believe it’s something we’re already starting. A lot of industry leaders have done this ahead of this Whiteboard Friday for sure.

Second off, we’ve got to utilize the tools that we do have available to be able to get some of this data, and there are some. While I am no big fan of Google Webmaster Tools — I think a lot of the data in there is inaccurate — we can look at trending numbers around things like branded search, and we can do that through Google Analytics. So Google Analytics, yes, keyword not provided is 90% of your referrals. That’s okay. Take the sample 10% and show over time whether you’re getting a bigger and bigger proportion and bigger and bigger quantities of branded search. That’s a directional input that you can use to say, “Look, our brand is growing in search. There it is.”

You can do user testing around search results. This is something I see very few folks doing. We often do usability and user testing on our websites, but we don’t do them in the search results. If you ask a group of five users, “Hey, go perform this search. Take a look at these 10 results. Tell me which one you would choose and why. Now tell me your second choice and why. Now tell me your third choice and why,” you will get to things like time on site. You’ll get to things around pogo-sticking. You’ll get to those engagement metrics that happen in the search results.

Then, of course, you can use, if you’re a Moz subscriber, Fresh Web Explorer or something like mention.net or Talkwalker or Trackur or something to get these amplification numbers and data that you might not be able to get from raw links themselves. This is gettable data, just in different ways than we’re used to.

Finally, we actually are going to have to change what we’re comfortable with. We’re going to have to get comfortable in a world where the ranking factors are indirectly influenceable, not directly influenceable. That’s weird for us, because we’ve always said, “Okay, algorithm has all these factors. I can influence these ones. That’s the ones I need to work on. I’m going to go to work.”

Now we have to go, “Wait a minute, wait a minute. In order to influence traffic referrals, I’m going to have to do things around my content, things around how I earn traffic, and then, boy, I don’t know if that’ll have a direct impact on my rankings.” You don’t. This is a world of indirect inputs. This thing, this tactic I’m going to pursue is going to lead to this thing, which I hope is going to lead to engagement, which I hope is going to lead to rankings.

That’s frustrating. It’s harder to sell. It’s harder to invest in, but, oh man, the ROI is there. If you can do it, if you can earn that buy-in, you can make these investments, and then through experimentation, you can learn what works for you and where you need to move the needle. This is going to be weird because it’s a world where our tactics are correlated, but they aren’t explicitly causal into the ways that we influence the rankings. It’s a whole new world, but it’s about to be a new year, and I think it’s a great time for us to invest in engagement.

With that, happy holidays, whatever holidays you celebrate. Happy new year if you celebrate the new year. I’m looking forward to seeing lots of you here on Whiteboard Friday in 2015. Take care.

Video transcription by Speechpad.com

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

[ccw-atrib-link]