How to Use Server Log Analysis for Technical SEO

Posted by SamuelScott

It’s ten o’clock. Do you know where your logs are?

I’m introducing this guide with a pun on a common public-service announcement that has run on late-night TV news broadcasts in the United States because log analysis is something that is extremely newsworthy and important.

If your technical and on-page SEO is poor, then nothing else that you do will matter. Technical SEO is the key to helping search engines to crawl, parse, and index websites, and thereby rank them appropriately long before any marketing work begins.

The important thing to remember: Your log files contain the only data that is 100% accurate in terms of how search engines are crawling your website. By helping Google to do its job, you will set the stage for your future SEO work and make your job easier. Log analysis is one facet of technical SEO, and correcting the problems found in your logs will help to lead to higher rankings, more traffic, and more conversions and sales.

Here are just a few reasons why:

  • Too many response code errors may cause Google to reduce its crawling of your website and perhaps even your rankings.
  • You want to make sure that search engines are crawling everything, new and old, that you want to appear and rank in the SERPs (and nothing else).
  • It’s crucial to ensure that all URL redirections will pass along any incoming “link juice.”

However, log analysis is something that is unfortunately discussed all too rarely in SEO circles. So, here, I wanted to give the Moz community an introductory guide to log analytics that I hope will help. If you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments!

What is a log file?

Computer servers, operating systems, network devices, and computer applications automatically generate something called a log entry whenever they perform an action. In a SEO and digital marketing context, one type of action is whenever a page is requested by a visiting bot or human.

Server log entries are specifically programmed to be output in the Common Log Format of the W3C consortium. Here is one example from Wikipedia with my accompanying explanations:

127.0.0.1 user-identifier frank [10/Oct/2000:13:55:36 -0700] "GET /apache_pb.gif HTTP/1.0" 200 2326
  • 127.0.0.1 — The remote hostname. An IP address is shown, like in this example, whenever the DNS hostname is not available or DNSLookup is turned off.
  • user-identifier — The remote logname / RFC 1413 identity of the user. (It’s not that important.)
  • frank — The user ID of the person requesting the page. Based on what I see in my Moz profile, Moz’s log entries would probably show either “SamuelScott” or “392388” whenever I visit a page after having logged in.
  • [10/Oct/2000:13:55:36 -0700] — The date, time, and timezone of the action in question in strftime format.
  • GET /apache_pb.gif HTTP/1.0 — “GET” is one of the two commands (the other is “POST”) that can be performed. “GET” fetches a URL while “POST” is submitting something (such as a forum comment). The second part is the URL that is being accessed, and the last part is the version of HTTP that is being accessed.
  • 200 — The status code of the document that was returned.
  • 2326 — The size, in bytes, of the document that was returned.

Note: A hyphen is shown in a field when that information is unavailable.

Every single time that you — or the Googlebot — visit a page on a website, a line with this information is output, recorded, and stored by the server.

Log entries are generated continuously and anywhere from several to thousands can be created every second — depending on the level of a given server, network, or application’s activity. A collection of log entries is called a log file (or often in slang, “the log” or “the logs”), and it is displayed with the most-recent log entry at the bottom. Individual log files often contain a calendar day’s worth of log entries.

Accessing your log files

Different types of servers store and manage their log files differently. Here are the general guides to finding and managing log data on three of the most-popular types of servers:

What is log analysis?

Log analysis (or log analytics) is the process of going through log files to learn something from the data. Some common reasons include:

  • Development and quality assurance (QA) — Creating a program or application and checking for problematic bugs to make sure that it functions properly
  • Network troubleshooting — Responding to and fixing system errors in a network
  • Customer service — Determining what happened when a customer had a problem with a technical product
  • Security issues — Investigating incidents of hacking and other intrusions
  • Compliance matters — Gathering information in response to corporate or government policies
  • Technical SEO — This is my favorite! More on that in a bit.

Log analysis is rarely performed regularly. Usually, people go into log files only in response to something — a bug, a hack, a subpoena, an error, or a malfunction. It’s not something that anyone wants to do on an ongoing basis.

Why? This is a screenshot of ours of just a very small part of an original (unstructured) log file:

Ouch. If a website gets 10,000 visitors who each go to ten pages per day, then the server will create a log file every day that will consist of 100,000 log entries. No one has the time to go through all of that manually.

How to do log analysis

There are three general ways to make log analysis easier in SEO or any other context:

  • Do-it-yourself in Excel
  • Proprietary software such as Splunk or Sumo-logic
  • The ELK Stack open-source software

Tim Resnik’s Moz essay from a few years ago walks you through the process of exporting a batch of log files into Excel. This is a (relatively) quick and easy way to do simple log analysis, but the downside is that one will see only a snapshot in time and not any overall trends. To obtain the best data, it’s crucial to use either proprietary tools or the ELK Stack.

Splunk and Sumo-Logic are proprietary log analysis tools that are primarily used by enterprise companies. The ELK Stack is a free and open-source batch of three platforms (Elasticsearch, Logstash, and Kibana) that is owned by Elastic and used more often by smaller businesses. (Disclosure: We at Logz.io use the ELK Stack to monitor our own internal systems as well as for the basis of our own log management software.)

For those who are interested in using this process to do technical SEO analysis, monitor system or application performance, or for any other reason, our CEO, Tomer Levy, has written a guide to deploying the ELK Stack.

Technical SEO insights in log data

However you choose to access and understand your log data, there are many important technical SEO issues to address as needed. I’ve included screenshots of our technical SEO dashboard with our own website’s data to demonstrate what to examine in your logs.

Bot crawl volume

It’s important to know the number of requests made by Baidu, BingBot, GoogleBot, Yahoo, Yandex, and others over a given period time. If, for example, you want to get found in search in Russia but Yandex is not crawling your website, that is a problem. (You’d want to consult Yandex Webmaster and see this article on Search Engine Land.)

Response code errors

Moz has a great primer on the meanings of the different status codes. I have an alert system setup that tells me about 4XX and 5XX errors immediately because those are very significant.

Temporary redirects

Temporary 302 redirects do not pass along the “link juice” of external links from the old URL to the new one. Almost all of the time, they should be changed to permanent 301 redirects.

Crawl budget waste

Google assigns a crawl budget to each website based on numerous factors. If your crawl budget is, say, 100 pages per day (or the equivalent amount of data), then you want to be sure that all 100 are things that you want to appear in the SERPs. No matter what you write in your robots.txt file and meta-robots tags, you might still be wasting your crawl budget on advertising landing pages, internal scripts, and more. The logs will tell you — I’ve outlined two script-based examples in red above.

If you hit your crawl limit but still have new content that should be indexed to appear in search results, Google may abandon your site before finding it.

Duplicate URL crawling

The addition of URL parameters — typically used in tracking for marketing purposes — often results in search engines wasting crawl budgets by crawling different URLs with the same content. To learn how to address this issue, I recommend reading the resources on Google and Search Engine Land here, here, here, and here.

Crawl priority

Google might be ignoring (and not crawling or indexing) a crucial page or section of your website. The logs will reveal what URLs and/or directories are getting the most and least attention. If, for example, you have published an e-book that attempts to rank for targeted search queries but it sits in a directory that Google only visits once every six months, then you won’t get any organic search traffic from the e-book for up to six months.

If a part of your website is not being crawled very often — and it is updated often enough that it should be — then you might need to check your internal-linking structure and the crawl-priority settings in your XML sitemap.

Last crawl date

Have you uploaded something that you hope will be indexed quickly? The log files will tell you when Google has crawled it.

Crawl budget

One thing I personally like to check and see is Googlebot’s real-time activity on our site because the crawl budget that the search engine assigns to a website is a rough indicator — a very rough one — of how much it “likes” your site. Google ideally does not want to waste valuable crawling time on a bad website. Here, I had seen that Googlebot had made 154 requests of our new startup’s website over the prior twenty-four hours. Hopefully, that number will go up!

As I hope you can see, log analysis is critically important in technical SEO. It’s eleven o’clock — do you know where your logs are now?

Additional resources

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Simple Steps for Conducting Creative Content Research

Posted by Hannah_Smith

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

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

What is creative content research?

Creative content research enables you to answer the questions:

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

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

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

Whoa there… Why do I need to do this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where to start

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

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

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

Processes, useful tools and sites

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

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

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

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

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

What does your target audience share?

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

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

Finding successful pieces of content on specific sites

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

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

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

Finding successful pieces of content by topic

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

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

Further inspiration

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

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

Moving from data to insight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Avoiding the pitfalls

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

Make sure you’re identifying outliers…

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

Don’t get distracted by formats…

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

You probably shouldn’t create a listicle…

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

How we use the research to inform our ideation process

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

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

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


Thanks for sticking with me to the end!

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

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

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How Much Has Link Building Changed in Recent Years?

Posted by Paddy_Moogan

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

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

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

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

My personal view

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The typical mindset for building links has changed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few other opinions…

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

Dr. Pete

 

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

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

Carl Hendy

 

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

Danny Denhard

Signals that surround link building have changed

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

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

Domain level link metrics

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

Phil Nottingham

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

Anchor text

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

SEOs. 🙂

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

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

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

Rand Fishkin

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

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

Paul Rogers

New signals have been introduced

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Rand Fishkin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Dr. Pete

The core principles have not changed

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

You need an asset

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

You need to promote that asset to the right audience

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

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

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

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

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

You need consistency

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

Anything scalable is at risk

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

The part Google plays in this

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

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

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

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

Dan Barker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Moz’s 2014 Annual Report

Posted by SarahBird

Moz has a tradition of sharing its financials (check out 2012 and 2013 for funzies). It’s an important part of TAGFEE.

Why do we do it? Moz gets its strength from the community of marketers and entrepreneurs that support it. We celebrated 10 years of our community last October. In some ways, the purpose of this report is to give you an inside look into our company. It’s one of many lenses that tell the story of Moz.

Yep. I know. It’s April. I’m not proud. Better late than never, right?

I had a very long and extensive version of this post planned, something closer to last year’s extravaganza. I finally had to admit to myself that I was letting the perfect become the enemy of the good (or at least the done). There was no way I could capture an entire year’s worth of ups and downs—along with supporting data—in a single blog post.

Without further ado, here’s the meat-and-potatoes 2014 Year In Review (and here’s an infographic with more statistics for your viewing pleasure!):

Moz ended 2014 with $31.3 million in revenue. About $30 million was recurring revenue (mostly from subscriptions to Moz Pro and the API).

Here’s a breakdown of all our major revenue sources:

Compared to previous years, 2014 was a much slower growth year. We knew very early that it was going to be a tough year because we started Q1 with negative growth. We worked very hard and successfully shifted the momentum back to increasingly positive quarterly growth rates. I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished so far. We still have a long ways to go to meet our potential, but we’re on the path.

In subscription businesses, If you start the year with negative or even slow growth it is very hard to have meaningful annual growth. All things being equal, you’re better off having a bad quarter in Q4 than Q1. If you get a new customer in Q1, you usually earn revenue from that customer all year. If you get a new customer in Q4, it will barely make a dent in that year, although it should set you up nicely for the following year.

We exited 2014 on a good flight path, which bodes well for 2015. We slammed right into some nasty billing system challenges in Q1 2015, but still managed to grow revenue 6.5%. Mad props to the team for shifting momentum last year and for digging into the billing system challenges we’re experiencing now.

We were very successful in becoming more efficient and managing costs in 2014. Our Cost of Revenue (COR), the cost of producing what we sell, fell by 30% to $8.2 million. These savings drove our gross profit margin up from 63% in 2013 to 74%.

Our operating profit increased by 30%. Here’s a breakdown of our major expenses (both operating expenses and COR):

Total operating expenses (which don’t include COR) clocked in at about $29.9 million this year.

The efficiency gains positively impacted EBITDA (Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation, and Amortization) by pushing it up 50% year over year. In 2013, EBITDA was -$4.5 million. We improved it to -$2.1 million in 2014. We’re a VC-backed startup, so this was a planned loss.

One of the most dramatic indicators of our improved efficiency in 2014 is the substantial decline in our consumption of cash.

In 2014, we spent $1.5 million in cash. This was a planned burn, and is actually very impressive for a startup. In fact, we are intentionally increasing our burn, so we don’t expect EBITDA and cash burn to look as good in 2015! Hopefully, though, you will see that revenue growth rate increase.

Let’s check in on some other Moz KPIs:

At the end of 2014, we reported a little over 27,000 Pro users. When billing system issues hit in Q1 2015, we discovered some weird under- and over-reporting, so the number of subscribers was adjusted down by about ~450 after we scrubbed a bunch of inactive accounts out of the database. We expect accounts to stabilize and be more reliable now that we’ve fixed those issues.

We launched Moz Local about a year ago. I’m amazed and thrilled that we were able to end the year managing 27,000 locations for a range of customers. We just recently took our baby steps into the UK, and we’ve got a bunch of great additional features planned. What an incredible launch year!

We published over 300 posts combined on the Moz Blog and YouMoz. Nearly 20,000 people left comments. Well done, team!

Our content and social efforts are paying off with a 26% year-over-year increase in organic search traffic.

We continue to see good growth across many of our off-site communities, too:

The team grew to 149 people last year. We’re at ~37% women, which is nowhere near where I want it to be. We have a long way to go before the team reflects the diversity of the communities around us.

Our paid, paid vacation perk is very popular with Mozzers, and why wouldn’t it be? Everyone gets $3,000/year to use toward their vacations. In 2014, we spent over $420,000 to help our Mozzers take a break and get connected with matters most.

PPV.png

Also, we’re hiring! You’ll have my undying gratitude if you send me your best software engineers. Help us, help you. 😉

Last, but certainly not least, Mozzers continue to be generous (the ‘G’ in TAGFEE) and donate to the charities of their choice. In 2014, Mozzers donated $48k, and Moz added another $72k to increase the impact of their gifts. Combining those two figures, we donated $120k to causes our team members are passionate about. That’s an average of $805 per employee!

Mozzers are optimists with initiative. I think that’s why they are so generous with their time and money to folks in need. They believe the world can be a better place if we act to change it.

That’s a wrap on 2014! A year with many ups and downs. Fortunately, Mozzers don’t quit when things get hard. They embrace TAGFEE and lean into the challenge.

Revenue is growing again. We’re still operating very efficiently, and TAGFEE is strong. We’re heads-down executing on some big projects that customers have been clamoring for. Thank you for sticking with us, and for inspiring us to make marketing better every day.

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!

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​Inbound Lead Generation: eCommerce Marketing’s Missing Link

Posted by Everett

If eCommerce businesses hope to remain competitive with Amazon, eBay, big box brands, and other online retail juggernauts, they’ll need to learn how to conduct content marketing, lead generation, and contact nurturing as part of a comprehensive inbound marketing strategy.

First, I will discuss some of the ways most online retailers are approaching email from the bottom of the funnel upward, and why this needs to be turned around. Then we can explore how to go about doing this within the framework of “Inbound Marketing” for eCommerce businesses. Lastly, popular marketing automation and email marketing solutions are discussed in the context of inbound marketing for eCommerce.

Key differences between eCommerce and lead generation approaches to email

Different list growth strategies

Email acquisition sources differ greatly between lead gen. sites and online stores. The biggest driver of email acquisition for most eCommerce businesses are their shoppers, especially when the business doesn’t collect an email address for their contact database until the shopper provides it during the check-out process—possibly, not until the very end.

With most B2B/B2C lead gen. websites, the entire purpose of every landing page is to get visitors to submit a contact form or pick up the phone. Often, the price tag for their products or services is much higher than those of an eCommerce site or involves recurring payments. In other words, what they’re selling is more difficult to sell. People take longer to make those purchasing decisions. For this reason, leads—in the form of contact names and email addresses—are typically acquired and nurtured without having first become a customer.

Contacts vs. leads

Whether it is a B2B or B2C website, lead gen. contacts (called leads) are thought of as potential customers (clients, subscribers, patients) who need to be nurtured to the point of becoming “sales qualified,” meaning they’ll eventually get a sales call or email that attempts to convert them into a customer.

On the other hand, eCommerce contacts are often thought of primarily as existing customers to whom the marketing team can blast coupons and other offers by email.

Retail sites typically don’t capture leads at the top or middle of the funnel. Only once a shopper has checked out do they get added to the list. Historically, the buying cycle has been short enough that eCommerce sites could move many first-time visitors directly to customers in a single visit.
But this has changed.

Unless your brand is very strong—possibly a luxury brand or one with an offline retail presence—it is probably getting more difficult (i.e. expensive) to acquire new customers. At the same time, attrition rates are rising. Conversion optimization helps by converting more bottom of the funnel visitors. SEO helps drive more traffic into the site, but mostly for middle-of-funnel (category page) and bottom-of-funnel (product page) visitors who may not also be price/feature comparison shopping, or are unable to convert right away because of device or time limitations.

Even savvy retailers publishing content for shoppers higher up in the funnel, such as buyer guides and reviews, aren’t getting an email address and are missing a lot of opportunities because of it.

attract-convert-grow-funnel-inflow-2.jpg

Here’s a thought. If your eCommerce site has a 10 percent conversion rate, you’re doing pretty good by most standards. But what happened to the other 90 percent of those visitors? Will you have the opportunity to connect with them again? Even if you bump that up a few percentage points with retargeting, a lot of potential revenue has seeped out of your funnel without a trace.

I don’t mean to bash the eCommerce marketing community with generalizations. Most lead gen. sites aren’t doing anything spectacular either, and a lot of opportunity is missed all around.

There are many eCommerce brands doing great things marketing-wise. I’m a big fan of
Crutchfield for their educational resources targeting early-funnel traffic, and Neman Tools, Saddleback Leather and Feltraiger for the stories they tell. Amazon is hard to beat when it comes to scalability, product suggestions and user-generated reviews.

Sadly, most eCommerce sites (including many of the major household brands) still approach marketing in this way…

The ol’ bait n’ switch: promising value and delivering spam

Established eCommerce brands have gigantic mailing lists (compared with lead gen. counterparts), to whom they typically send out at least one email each week with “offers” like free shipping, $ off, buy-one-get-one, or % off their next purchase. The lists are minimally segmented, if at all. For example, there might be lists for repeat customers, best customers, unresponsive contacts, recent purchasers, shoppers with abandoned carts, purchases by category, etc.

The missing points of segmentation include which campaign resulted in the initial contact (sometimes referred to as a cohort) and—most importantly—the persona and buying cycle stage that best applies to each contact.

Online retailers often send frequent “blasts” to their entire list or to a few of the large segments mentioned above. Lack of segmentation means contacts aren’t receiving emails based on their interests, problems, or buying cycle stage, but instead, are receiving what they perceive as “generic” emails.

The result of these missing segments and the lack of overarching strategy looks something like this:

My, What a Big LIST You Have!

iStock_000017047747Medium.jpg

TIME reported in 2012 on stats from Responsys that the average online retailer sent out between five and six emails the week after Thanksgiving. Around the same time, the Wall Street Journal reported that the top 100 online retailers sent an average of 177 emails apiece to each of their contacts in 2011. Averaged out, that’s somewhere between three and four emails each week that the contact is receiving from these retailers.

The better to SPAM you with!

iStock_000016088853Medium.jpg

A 2014 whitepaper from SimpleRelevance titled
Email Fail: An In-Depth Evaluation of Top 20 Internet Retailer’s Email Personalization Capabilities (
PDF) found that, while 70 percent of marketing executives believed personalization was of “utmost importance” to their business…

“Only 17 percent of marketing leaders are going beyond basic transactional data to deliver personalized messages to consumers.”

Speaking of email overload, the same report found that some major online retailers sent ten or more emails per week!

simplerelevance-email-report-frequency.png

The result?

All too often, the eCommerce business will carry around big, dead lists of contacts who don’t even bother reading their emails anymore. They end up scrambling toward other channels to “drive more demand,” but because the real problems were never addressed, this ends up increasing new customer acquisition costs.

The cycle looks something like this:

  1. Spend a fortune driving in unqualified traffic from top-of-the-funnel channels
  2. Ignore the majority of those visitors who aren’t ready to purchase
  3. Capture email addresses only for the few visitors who made a purchase
  4. Spam the hell out of those people until they unsubscribe
  5. Spend a bunch more money trying to fill the top of the funnel with even more traffic

It’s like trying to fill your funnel with a bucket full of holes, some of them patched with band-aids.

The real problems

  1. Lack of a cohesive strategy across marketing channels
  2. Lack of a cohesive content strategy throughout all stages of the buying cycle
  3. Lack of persona, buying cycle stage, and cohort-based list segmentation to nurture contacts
  4. Lack of tracking across customer touchpoints and devices
  5. Lack of gated content that provides enough value to early-funnel visitors to get them to provide their email address

So, what’s the answer?

Inbound marketing allows online retailers to stop competing with Amazon and other “price focused” competitors with leaky funnels, and to instead focus on:

  1. Persona-based content marketing campaigns designed to acquire email addresses from high-quality leads (potential customers) by offering them the right content for each stage in their buyer’s journey
  2. A robust marketing automation system that makes true personalization scalable
  3. Automated contact nurturing emails triggered by certain events, such as viewing specific content, abandoning their shopping cart, adding items to their wish list or performing micro-conversions like downloading a look book
  4. Intelligent SMM campaigns that match visitors and customers with social accounts by email addresses, interests and demographics—as well as social monitoring
  5. Hyper-segmented email contact lists to support the marketing automation described above, as well as to provide highly-customized email and shopping experiences
  6. Cross-channel, closed loop reporting to provide a complete “omnichannel” view of online marketing efforts and how they assist offline conversions, if applicable

Each of these areas will be covered in more detail below. First, let’s take a quick step back and define what it is we’re talking about here.

Inbound marketing: a primer

A lot of people think “inbound marketing” is just a way some SEO agencies are re-cloaking themselves to avoid negative associations with search engine optimization. Others think it’s synonymous with “internet marketing.” I think it goes more like this:

Inbound marketing is to Internet marketing as SEO is to inbound marketing: One piece of a larger whole.

There are many ways to define inbound marketing. A cursory review of definitions from several trusted sources reveals some fundamental similarities :

Rand Fishkin

randfishkin.jpeg

“Inbound Marketing is the practice of earning traffic and attention for your business on the web rather than buying it or interrupting people to get it. Inbound channels include organic search, social media, community-building content, opt-in email, word of mouth, and many others. Inbound marketing is particularly powerful because it appeals to what people are looking for and what they want, rather than trying to get between them and what they’re trying to do with advertising. Inbound’s also powerful due to the flywheel-effect it creates. The more you invest in Inbound and the more success you have, the less effort required to earn additional benefit.”


Mike King

mikeking.jpeg

“Inbound Marketing is a collection of marketing activities that leverage remarkable content to penetrate earned media channels such as Organic Search, Social Media, Email, News and the Blogosphere with the goal of engaging prospects when they are specifically interested in what the brand has to offer.”

This quote is from 2012, and is still just as accurate today. It’s from an
Inbound.org comment thread where you can also see many other takes on it from the likes of Ian Lurie, Jonathon Colman, and Larry Kim.


Inflow

inflow-logo.jpeg

“Inbound Marketing is a multi-channel, buyer-centric approach to online marketing that involves attracting, engaging, nurturing and converting potential customers from wherever they are in the buying cycle.”

From Inflow’s
Inbound Services page.


Wikipedia

wikipedia.jpeg

“Inbound marketing refers to marketing activities that bring visitors in, rather than marketers having to go out to get prospects’ attention. Inbound marketing earns the attention of customers, makes the company easy to be found, and draws customers to the website by producing interesting content.”

From
Inbound Marketing – Wikipedia.


Larry-Kim.jpeg

Larry Kim

“Inbound marketing” refers to marketing activities that bring leads and customers in when they’re ready, rather than you having to go out and wave your arms to try to get people’s attention.”

Via
Marketing Land in 2013. You can also read more of Larry Kim’s interpretation, along with many others, on Inbound.org.


Hubspot

“Instead of the old outbound marketing methods of buying ads, buying email lists, and praying for leads, inbound marketing focuses on creating quality content that pulls people toward your company and product, where they naturally want to be.”

Via
Hubspot, a marketing automation platform for inbound marketing.

When everyone has their own definition of something, it helps to think about what they have in common, as opposed to how they differ. In the case of inbound, this includes concepts such as:

  • Pull (inbound) vs. push (interruption) marketing
  • “Earning” media coverage, search engine rankings, visitors and customers with outstanding content
  • Marketing across channels
  • Meeting potential customers where they are in their buyer’s journey

Running your first eCommerce inbound marketing campaign

Audience personas—priority no. 1

The magic happens when retailers begin to hyper-segment their list based on buyer personas and other relevant information (i.e. what they’ve downloaded, what they’ve purchased, if they abandoned their cart…). This all starts with audience research to develop personas. If you need more information on persona development, try these resources:

Once personas are developed, retailers should choose one on which to focus. A complete campaign strategy should be developed around this persona, with the aim of providing the “right value” to them at the “right time” in their buyer’s journey.

Ready to get started?

We’ve developed a quick-start guide in the form of a checklist for eCommerce marketers who want to get started with inbound marketing, which you can access below.

inbound ecommerce checklist

Hands-on experience running one campaign will teach you more about inbound marketing than a dozen articles. My advice: Just do one. You will make mistakes. Learn from them and get better each time.

Example inbound marketing campaign

Below is an example of how a hypothetical inbound marketing campaign might play out, assuming you have completed all of the steps in the checklist above. Imagine you handle marketing for an online retailer of high-end sporting goods.

AT Hiker Tommy campaign: From awareness to purchase

When segmenting visitors and customers for a “high-end sporting goods / camping retailer” based on the East Coast, you identified a segment of “Trail Hikers.” These are people with disposable income who care about high-quality gear, and will pay top dollar if they know it is tested and reliable. The top trail on their list of destinations is the
Appalachian Trail (AT).

Top of the Funnel: SEO & Strategic Content Marketing

at-tommy.jpg

Tommy’s first action is to do “top of the funnel” research from search engines (one reason why SEO is still so important to a complete inbound marketing strategy).

A search for “Hiking the Appalachian Trail” turns up your article titled “What NOT to Pack When Hiking the Appalachian Trail,” which lists common items that are bulky/heavy, and highlights slimmer, lighter alternatives from your online catalog.

It also highlights the difference between cheap gear and the kind that won’t let you down on your 2,181 mile journey through the wilderness of Appalachia, something you learned was important to Tommy when developing his persona. This allows you to get the company’s value proposition of “tested, high-end, quality gear only” in front of readers very early in their buyer’s journey—important if you want to differentiate your site from all of the retailers racing Amazon to the bottom of their profit margins.

So far you have yet to make “contact” with AT Hiker Tommy. The key to “acquiring” a contact before the potential customer is ready to make a purchase is to provide something of value to that specific type of person (i.e. their persona) at that specific point in time (i.e. their buying cycle stage).

In this case, we need to provide value to AT Hiker Tommy while he is getting started on his research about hiking the Appalachian Trail. He has an idea of what gear not to bring, as well as some lighter, higher-end options sold on your site. At this point, however, he is not ready to buy anything without researching the trail more. This is where retailers lose most of their potential customers. But not you. Not this time…

Middle of the funnel: Content offers, personalization, social & email nurturing

at-hiker-ebook.png

On the “What NOT to Pack When Hiking the Appalachian Trail” article (and probably several others), you have placed a call-to-action (CTA) in the form of a button that offers something like:

Download our Free 122-page Guide to Hiking the Appalachian Trail

This takes Tommy to a landing page showcasing some of the quotes from the book, and highlighting things like:

“We interviewed over 50 ‘thru-hikers’ who completed the AT and have curated and organized the best first-hand tips, along with our own significant research to develop a free eBook that should answer most of your questions about the trail.”

By entering their email address potential customers agree to allow you to send them the free PDF downloadable guide to hiking the AT, and other relevant information about hiking.

An automated email is sent with a link to the downloadable PDF guide, and several other useful content links, such as “The AT Hiker’s Guide to Gear for the Appalachian Trail”—content designed to move Tommy further toward the purchase of hiking gear.

If Tommy still has not made a purchase within the next two weeks, another automated email is sent asking for feedback about the PDF guide (providing the link again), and to again provide the link to the “AT Hiker’s Guide to Gear…” along with a compelling offer just for him, perhaps “Get 20% off your first hiking gear purchase, and a free wall map of the AT!”

Having Tommy’s email address also allows you to hyper-target him on social channels, while also leveraging his initial visit to initiate retargeting efforts.

Bottom of the funnel: Email nurturing & strategic, segmented offers

Eventually Tommy makes a purchase, and he may or may not receive further emails related to this campaign, such as post-purchase emails for reviews, up-sells and cross-sells.

Upon checkout, Tommy checked the box to opt-in to weekly promotional emails. He is now on multiple lists. Your marketing automation system will automatically update Tommy’s status from “Contact” or lead, to “Customer” and potentially remove or deactivate him from the marketing automation system database. This is accomplished either by default integration features, or with the help of integration tools like
Zapier and IFTTT.

You have now nurtured Tommy from his initial research on Google all the way to his first purchase without ever having sent a spammy newsletter email full of irrelevant coupons and other offers. However, now that he is a loyal customer, Tommy finds value in these bottom-of-funnel email offers.

And this is just the start

Every inbound marketing campaign will have its own mix of appropriate channels. This post has focused mostly on email because acquiring the initial permission to contact the person is what fuels most of the other features offered by marketing automation systems, including:

  • Personalization of offers and other content on the site.
  • Knowing exactly which visitors are interacting on social media
  • Knowing where visitors and social followers are in the buying cycle and which persona best represents them, among other things.
  • Smart forms that don’t require visitors to put in the same information twice and allow you to build out more detailed profiles of them over time.
  • Blogging platforms that tie into email and marketing automation systems
  • Analytics data that isn’t blocked by Google and is tied directly to real people.
  • Closed-loop reporting that integrates with call-tracking and Google’s Data Import tool
  • Up-sell, cross-sell, and abandoned cart reclamation features
Three more things…
  1. If you can figure out a way to get Tommy to “log in” when he comes to your site, the personalization possibilities are nearly limitless.
  2. The persona above is based on a real customer segment. I named it after my friend Tommy Bailey, who actually did write the eBook
    Guide to Hiking the Appalachian Trail, featured in the image above.
  3. This Moz post is part of an inbound marketing campaign targeting eCommerce marketers, a segment Inflow identified while building out our own personas. Our hope, and the whole point of inbound marketing, is that it provides value to you.

Current state of the inbound marketing industry

Inbound has, for the the most part, been applied to businesses in which the website objective is to generate leads for a sales team to follow-up with and close the deal. An examination of various marketing automation platforms—a key component of scalable inbound marketing programs—highlights this issue.

Popular marketing automation systems

Most of the major marketing automation systems can be be used very effectively as the backbone of an inbound marketing program for eCommerce businesses. However, only one of them (Silverpop) has made significant efforts to court the eCommerce market with content and out-of-box features. The next closest thing is Hubspot, so let’s start with those two:

Silverpop – an IBMⓇ Company

silver-pop.jpeg

Unlike the other platforms below, right out of the box Silverpop allows marketers to tap into very specific behaviors, including the items purchased or left in the cart.

You can easily segment based on metrics like the Recency, Frequency and Monetary Value (RFM) of purchases:

silverpop triggered campaigns

You can automate personalized shopping cart abandonment recovery emails:

silverpop cart abandonment recovery

You can integrate with many leading brands offering complementary services, including: couponing, CRM, analytics, email deliverability enhancement, social and most major eCommerce platforms.

What you can’t do with Silverpop is blog, find pricing info on their website, get a free trial on their website or have a modern-looking user experience. Sounds like an IBMⓇ company, doesn’t it?

HubSpot

Out of all the marketing automation platforms on this list, HubSpot is the most capable of handling “inbound marketing” campaigns from start to finish. This should come as no surprise, given the phrase is credited to
Brian Halligan, HubSpot’s co-founder and CEO.

While they don’t specifically cater to eCommerce marketing needs with the same gusto they give to lead gen. marketing, HubSpot does have
an eCommerce landing page and a demo landing page for eCommerce leads, which suggests that their own personas include eCommerce marketers. Additionally, there is some good content on their blog written specifically for eCommerce.

HubSpot has allowed some key partners to develop plug-ins that integrate with leading eCommerce platforms. This approach works well with curation, and is not dissimilar to how Google handles Android or Apple handles their approved apps.

magento and hubspot

The
Magento Connector for HubSpot, which costs $80 per month, was developed by EYEMAGiNE, a creative design firm for eCommerce websites. A similar HubSpot-approved third-party integration is on the way for Bigcommerce.

Another eCommerce integration for Hubspot is a Shopify plug-in called
HubShoply, which was developed by Groove Commerce and costs $100 per month.

You can also use HubSpot’s native integration capabilities with
Zapier to sync data between HubSpot and most major eCommerce SaaS vendors, including the ones above, as well as WooCommerce, Shopify, PayPal, Infusionsoft and more. However, the same could be said of some of the other marketing automation platforms, and using these third-party solutions can sometimes feel like fitting a square peg into a round hole.

HubSpot can and does handle inbound marketing for eCommerce websites. All of the features are there, or easy enough to integrate. But let’s put some pressure on them to up their eCommerce game even more. The least they can do is put an eCommerce link in the footer:

hubspot menus

Despite the lack of clear navigation to their eCommerce content, HubSpot seems to be paying more attention to the needs of eCommerce businesses than the rest of the platforms below.

Marketo

Nothing about Marketo’s in-house marketing strategy suggests “Ecommerce Director Bob” might be one of their personas. The description for each of
their marketing automation packages (from Spark to Enterprise) mentions that it is “for B2B” websites.

marketo screenshot

Driving Sales could apply to a retail business so I clicked on the link. Nope. Clearly, this is for lead generation.

marketo marketing automation

Passing “purchase-ready leads” over to your “sales reps” is a good example of the type of language used throughout the site.

Make no mistake, Marketo is a top-notch marketing automation platform. Powerful and clean, it’s a shame they don’t launch a full-scale eCommerce version of their core product. In the meantime, there’s the
Magento Integration for Marketo Plug-in developed by an agency out of Australia called Hoosh Marketing.

magento marketo integration

I’ve never used this integration, but it’s part of Marketo’s
LaunchPoint directory, which I imagine is vetted, and Hoosh seems like a reputable agency.

Their
pricing page is blurred and gated, which is annoying, but perhaps they’ll come on here and tell everyone how much they charge.

marketo pricing page

As with all others except Silverpop, the Marketo navigation provides no easy paths to landing pages that would appeal to “Ecommerce Director Bob.”

Pardot

This option is a
SalesForce product, so—though I’ve never had the opportunity to use it—I can imagine Pardot is heavy on B2B/Sales and very light on B2C marketing for retail sites.

The hero image on their homepage says as much.

pardot tagline

pardot marketing automationAgain, no mention of eCommerce or retail, but clear navigation to lead gen and sales.

Eloqua / OMC

eloqua-logo.jpeg

Eloqua, now part of the Oracle Marketing Cloud (OMC), has a landing page
for the retail industry, on which they proclaim:

“Retail marketers know that the path to lifelong loyalty and increased revenue goes through building and growing deep client relationships.”

Since when did retail marketers start calling customers clients?

eloqua integration

The Integration tab on OMC’s “…Retail.html” page helpfully informs eCommerce marketers that their sales teams can continue using CRM systems like SalesForce and Microsoft Dynamics but doesn’t mention anything about eCommerce platforms and other SaaS solutions for eCommerce businesses.

Others

There are many other players in this arena. Though I haven’t used them yet, three I would love to try out are
SharpSpring, Hatchbuck and Act-On. But none of them appear to be any better suited to handle the concerns of eCommerce websites.

Where there’s a gap, there’s opportunity

The purpose of the section above wasn’t to highlight deficiencies in the tools themselves, but to illustrate a gap in who they are being marketed to and developed for.

So far, most of your eCommerce competitors probably aren’t using tools like these because they are not marketed to by the platforms, and don’t know how to apply the technology to online retail in a way that would justify the expense.

The thing is, a tool is just a tool

The
key concepts behind inbound marketing apply just as much to online retail as they do to lead generation.

In order to “do inbound marketing,” a marketing automation system isn’t even strictly necessary (in theory). They just help make the activities scalable for most businesses.

They also bring a lot of different marketing activities under one roof, which saves time and allows data to be moved and utilized between channels and systems. For example, what a customer is doing on social could influence the emails they receive, or content they see on your site. Here are some potential uses for most of the platforms above:

Automated marketing uses

  • Personalized abandoned cart emails
  • Post-purchase nurturing/reorder marketing
  • Welcome campaigns for the newsletter (other free offer) signups
  • Winback campaigns
  • Lead-nurturing email campaigns for cohorts and persona-based segments

Content marketing uses

  • Optimized, strategic blogging platforms, and frameworks
  • Landing pages for pre-transactional/educational offers or contests
  • Social media reporting, monitoring, and publishing
  • Personalization of content and user experience

Reporting uses

  • Revenue reporting (by segment or marketing action)
  • Attribution reporting (by campaign or content)

Assuming you don’t have the budget for a marketing automation system, but already have a good email marketing platform, you can still get started with inbound marketing. Eventually, however, you may want to graduate to a dedicated marketing automation solution to reap the full benefits.

Email marketing platforms

Most of the marketing automation systems claim to replace your email marketing platform, while many email marketing platforms claim to be marketing automation systems. Neither statement is completely accurate.

Marketing automation systems, especially those created specifically for the type of “inbound” campaigns described above, provide a powerful suite of tools all in one place. On the other hand, dedicated email platforms tend to offer “email marketing” features that are better, and more robust, than those offered by marketing automation systems. Some of them are also considerably cheaper—such as
MailChimp—but those are often light on even the email-specific features for eCommerce.

A different type of campaign

Email “blasts” in the form of B.O.G.O., $10 off or free shipping offers can still be very successful in generating incremental revenue boosts — especially for existing customers and seasonal campaigns.

The conversion rate on a 20% off coupon sent to existing customers, for instance, would likely pulverize the conversion rate of an email going out to middle-of-funnel contacts with a link to content (at least with how CR is currently being calculated by email platforms).

Inbound marketing campaigns can also offer quick wins, but they tend to focus mostly on non-customers after the first segmentation campaign (a campaign for the purpose of segmenting your list, such as an incentivised survey). This means lower initial conversion rates, but long-term success with the growth of new customers.

Here’s a good bet if works with your budget: Rely on a marketing automation system for inbound marketing to drive new customer acquisition from initial visit to first purchase, while using a good email marketing platform to run your “promotional email” campaigns to existing customers.

If you have to choose one or the other, I’d go with a robust marketing automation system.

Some of the most popular email platforms used by eCommerce businesses, with a focus on how they handle various Inbound Marketing activities, include:

Bronto

bronto.jpeg

This platform builds in features like abandoned cart recovery, advanced email list segmentation and automated email workflows that nurture contacts over time.

They also offer a host of eCommerce-related
features that you just don’t get with marketing automation systems like Hubspot and Marketo. This includes easy integration with a variety of eCommerce platforms like ATG, Demandware, Magento, Miva Merchant, Mozu and MarketLive, not to mention apps for coupons, product recommendations, social shopping and more. Integration with enterprise eCommerce platforms is one reason why Bronto is seen over and over again when browsing the Internet Retailer Top 500 reports.

On the other hand, Bronto—like the rest of these email platforms—doesn’t have many of the features that assist with content marketing outside of emails. As an “inbound” marketing automation system, it is incomplete because it focuses almost solely on one channel: email.

Vertical Response

verticalresponse.jpeg

Another juggernaut in eCommerce email marketing platforms, Vertical Response, has even fewer inbound-related features than Bronto, though it is a good email platform with a free version that includes up to 1,000 contacts and 4,000 emails per month (i.e. 4 emails to a full list of 1,000).

Oracle Marketing Cloud (OMC)

Responsys (the email platform), like Eloqua (the marketing automation system) was gobbled up by Oracle and is now part of their “Marketing Cloud.”

It has been my experience that when a big technology firm like IBM or Oracle buys a great product, it isn’t “great” for the users. Time will tell.

Listrak

listrak.jpeg

Out of the established email platforms for eCommerce, Listrak may do the best job at positioning themselves as a full inbound marketing platform.

Listrak’s value proposition is that they’re an “Omnichannel” solution. Everything is all in one “Single, Integrated Digital Marketing Platform for Retailers.” The homepage image promises solutions for Email, Mobile, Social, Web and In-Store channels.

I haven’t had the opportunity to work with Listrak yet, but would love to hear feedback in the comments on whether they could handle the kind of persona-based content marketing and automated email nurturing campaigns described in the example campaign above.

Key takeaways

Congratulations for making this far! Here are a few things I hope you’ll take away from this post:

  • There is a lot of opportunity right now for eCommerce sites to take advantage of marketing automation systems and robust email marketing platforms as the infrastructure to run comprehensive inbound marketing campaigns.
  • There is a lot of opportunity right now for marketing automation systems to develop content and build in eCommerce-specific features to lure eCommerce marketers.
  • Inbound marketing isn’t email marketing, although email is an important piece to inbound because it allows you to begin forming lasting relationships with potential customers much earlier in the buying cycle.
  • To see the full benefits of inbound marketing, you should focus on getting the right content to the right person at the right time in their shopping journey. This necessarily involves several different channels, including search, social and email. One of the many benefits of marketing automation systems is their ability to track your efforts here across marketing channels, devices and touch-points.

Tools, resources, and further reading

There is a lot of great content on the topic of Inbound marketing, some of which has greatly informed my own understanding and approach. Here are a few resources you may find useful as well.

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!

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