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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Why Good Unique Content Needs to Die – Whiteboard Friday

Posted by randfish

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

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

Video transcription

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

The content quality scale

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

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

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

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

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

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

What changed?

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

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

How do we create “10x” content?

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

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

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

Then I’m going to ask myself these questions;

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

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

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

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

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

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

Video transcription by Speechpad.com

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I Can’t Drive 155: Meta Descriptions in 2015

Posted by Dr-Pete

For years now, we (and many others) have been recommending keeping your Meta Descriptions shorter than
about 155-160 characters. For months, people have been sending me examples of search snippets that clearly broke that rule, like this one (on a search for “hummingbird food”):

For the record, this one clocks in at 317 characters (counting spaces). So, I set out to discover if these long descriptions were exceptions to the rule, or if we need to change the rules. I collected the search snippets across the MozCast 10K, which resulted in 92,669 snippets. All of the data in this post was collected on April 13, 2015.

The Basic Data

The minimum snippet length was zero characters. There were 69 zero-length snippets, but most of these were the new generation of answer box, that appears organic but doesn’t have a snippet. To put it another way, these were misidentified as organic by my code. The other 0-length snippets were local one-boxes that appeared as organic but had no snippet, such as this one for “chichen itza”:

These zero-length snippets were removed from further analysis, but considering that they only accounted for 0.07% of the total data, they didn’t really impact the conclusions either way. The shortest legitimate, non-zero snippet was 7 characters long, on a search for “geek and sundry”, and appears to have come directly from the site’s meta description:

The maximum snippet length that day (this is a highly dynamic situation) was 372 characters. The winner appeared on a search for “benefits of apple cider vinegar”:

The average length of all of the snippets in our data set (not counting zero-length snippets) was 143.5 characters, and the median length was 152 characters. Of course, this can be misleading, since some snippets are shorter than the limit and others are being artificially truncated by Google. So, let’s dig a bit deeper.

The Bigger Picture

To get a better idea of the big picture, let’s take a look at the display length of all 92,600 snippets (with non-zero length), split into 20-character buckets (0-20, 21-40, etc.):

Most of the snippets (62.1%) cut off as expected, right in the 141-160 character bucket. Of course, some snippets were shorter than that, and didn’t need to be cut off, and some broke the rules. About 1% (1,010) of the snippets in our data set measured 200 or more characters. That’s not a huge number, but it’s enough to take seriously.

That 141-160 character bucket is dwarfing everything else, so let’s zoom in a bit on the cut-off range, and just look at snippets in the 120-200 character range (in this case, by 5-character bins):

Zooming in, the bulk of the snippets are displaying at lengths between about 146-165 characters. There are plenty of exceptions to the 155-160 character guideline, but for the most part, they do seem to be exceptions.

Finally, let’s zoom in on the rule-breakers. This is the distribution of snippets displaying 191+ characters, bucketed in 10-character bins (191-200, 201-210, etc.):

Please note that the Y-axis scale is much smaller than in the previous 2 graphs, but there is a pretty solid spread, with a decent chunk of snippets displaying more than 300 characters.

Without looking at every original meta description tag, it’s very difficult to tell exactly how many snippets have been truncated by Google, but we do have a proxy. Snippets that have been truncated end in an ellipsis (…), which rarely appears at the end of a natural description. In this data set, more than half of all snippets (52.8%) ended in an ellipsis, so we’re still seeing a lot of meta descriptions being cut off.

I should add that, unlike titles/headlines, it isn’t clear whether Google is cutting off snippets by pixel width or character count, since that cut-off is done on the server-side. In most cases, Google will cut before the end of the second line, but sometimes they cut well before this, which could suggest a character-based limit. They also cut off at whole words, which can make the numbers a bit tougher to interpret.

The Cutting Room Floor

There’s another difficulty with telling exactly how many meta descriptions Google has modified – some edits are minor, and some are major. One minor edit is when Google adds some additional information to a snippet, such as a date at the beginning. Here’s an example (from a search for “chicken pox”):

With the date (and minus the ellipsis), this snippet is 164 characters long, which suggests Google isn’t counting the added text against the length limit. What’s interesting is that the rest comes directly from the meta description on the site, except that the site’s description starts with “Chickenpox.” and Google has removed that keyword. As a human, I’d say this matches the meta description, but a bot has a very hard time telling a minor edit from a complete rewrite.

Another minor rewrite occurs in snippets that start with search result counts:

Here, we’re at 172 characters (with spaces and minus the ellipsis), and Google has even let this snippet roll over to a third line. So, again, it seems like the added information at the beginning isn’t counting against the length limit.

All told, 11.6% of the snippets in our data set had some kind of Google-generated data, so this type of minor rewrite is pretty common. Even if Google honors most of your meta description, you may see small edits.

Let’s look at our big winner, the 372-character description. Here’s what we saw in the snippet:

Jan 26, 2015 – Health• Diabetes Prevention: Multiple studies have shown a correlation between apple cider vinegar and lower blood sugar levels. … • Weight Loss: Consuming apple cider vinegar can help you feel more full, which can help you eat less. … • Lower Cholesterol: … • Detox: … • Digestive Aid: … • Itchy or Sunburned Skin: … • Energy Boost:1 more items

So, what about the meta description? Here’s what we actually see in the tag:

Were you aware of all the uses of apple cider vinegar? From cleansing to healing, to preventing diabetes, ACV is a pantry staple you need in your home.

That’s a bit more than just a couple of edits. So, what’s happening here? Well, there’s a clue on that same page, where we see yet another rule-breaking snippet:

You might be wondering why this snippet is any more interesting than the other one. If you could see the top of the SERP, you’d know why, because it looks something like this:

Google is automatically extracting list-style data from these pages to fuel the expansion of the Knowledge Graph. In one case, that data is replacing a snippet
and going directly into an answer box, but they’re performing the same translation even for some other snippets on the page.

So, does every 2nd-generation answer box yield long snippets? After 3 hours of inadvisable mySQL queries, I can tell you that the answer is a resounding “probably not”. You can have 2nd-gen answer boxes without long snippets and you can have long snippets without 2nd-gen answer boxes,
but there does appear to be a connection between long snippets and Knowledge Graph in some cases.

One interesting connection is that Google has begun bolding keywords that seem like answers to the query (and not just synonyms for the query). Below is an example from a search for “mono symptoms”. There’s an answer box for this query, but the snippet below is not from the site in the answer box:

Notice the bolded words – “fatigue”, “sore throat”, “fever”, “headache”, “rash”. These aren’t synonyms for the search phrase; these are actual symptoms of mono. This data isn’t coming from the meta description, but from a bulleted list on the target page. Again, it appears that Google is trying to use the snippet to answer a question, and has gone well beyond just matching keywords.

Just for fun, let’s look at one more, where there’s no clear connection to the Knowledge Graph. Here’s a snippet from a search for “sons of anarchy season 4”:

This page has no answer box, and the information extracted is odd at best. The snippet bears little or no resemblance to the site’s meta description. The number string at the beginning comes out of a rating widget, and some of the text isn’t even clearly available on the page. This seems to be an example of Google acknowledging IMDb as a high-authority site and desperately trying to match any text they can to the query, resulting in a Frankenstein’s snippet.

The Final Verdict

If all of this seems confusing, that’s probably because it is. Google is taking a lot more liberties with snippets these days, both to better match queries, to add details they feel are important, or to help build and support the Knowledge Graph.

So, let’s get back to the original question – is it time to revise the 155(ish) character guideline? My gut feeling is: not yet. To begin with, the vast majority of snippets are still falling in that 145-165 character range. In addition, the exceptions to the rule are not only atypical situations, but in most cases those long snippets don’t seem to represent the original meta description. In other words, even if Google does grant you extra characters, they probably won’t be the extra characters you asked for in the first place.

Many people have asked: “How do I make sure that Google shows my meta description as is?” I’m afraid the answer is: “You don’t.” If this is very important to you, I would recommend keeping your description below the 155-character limit, and making sure that it’s a good match to your target keyword concepts. I suspect Google is going to take more liberties with snippets over time, and we’re going to have to let go of our obsession with having total control over the SERPs.

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Local Centroids are Now Individual Users: How Can We Optimize for Their Searches?

Posted by MiriamEllis

“Google is getting better at detecting location at a more granular level—even on the desktop.
The user is the new centroid.” – 
David Mihm

The history of the centroid

The above quote succinctly summarizes the current state of affairs for local business owners and their customers. The concept of a centroid—
a central point of relevance—is almost as old as local search. In 2008, people like Mike Blumenthal and Google Maps Manager Carter Maslan were sharing statistics like this:

“…research indicates that up to 80% of the variation in rank can be explained by distance from the centroid on certain searches.”

At that time, businesses located near town hall or a similar central hub appeared to be experiencing a ranking advantage.

Fast forward to 2013, and Mike weighed in again with 
an updated definition of “industry centroids”

“If you read their (Google’s) patents, they actually deal with the center of the industries … as defining the center of the search. So if all the lawyers are on the corner of Main and State, that typically defines the center of the search, rather than the center of the city… it isn’t even the centroid of the city that matters. It matters that you are near where the other people in your industry are.”

In other words, Google’s perception of a centralized location for auto dealerships could be completely different than that for medical practices, and that
neither might be located anywhere near the city center.

While the concepts of city and industry centroids may still play a part in some searches,
local search results in 2015 clearly indicate Google’s shift toward deeming the physical location of the desktop or mobile user a powerful factor in determining relevance. The relationship between where your customer is when he performs a search and where your business is physically located has never been more important.

Moreover, in this new, user-centric environment, Google has moved beyond simply detecting cities to detecting neighborhoods and even streets. What this means for local business owners is that
your hyperlocal information has become a powerful component of your business data. This post will teach you how to better serve your most local customers.

Seeing the centroid in action

If you do business in a small town with few competitors, ranking for your product/service + city terms is likely to cover most of your bases. The user-as-centroid phenomenon is most applicable in mid-to-large sized towns and cities with reasonable competition. I’ll be using two districts in San Francisco—Bernal Heights and North Beach—in these illustrations and we’ll be going on a hunt for pizza.

On a desktop, searching for “pizza north beach san francisco” or setting my location to this neighborhood and city while searching for the product, Google will show me something like this:

Performing this same search, but with “bernal heights” substituted, Google shows me pizzerias in a completely different part of the city:

local result bernal heights pizza san francisco

And, when I move over to my mobile device, Google narrows the initial results down to
just three enviable players in each district. These simple illustrations demonstrate Google’s increasing sensitivity to serving me nearby businesses offering what I want.

The physical address of your business is the most important factor in serving the user as centroid. This isn’t something you can control, but there are things you
can do to market your business as being highly relevant to your hyperlocal geography.

Specialized content for the user-centroid

We’ll break this down into four common business models to help get you thinking about planning content that serves your most local customers.

1. Single-location business

Make the shift toward viewing your business not just as “Tony’s Pizza in San Francisco”, but as “Tony’s Pizza
in North Beach, San Francisco”. Consider:

  • Improving core pages of your website or creating new pages to include references to the proud part you play in the neighborhood scene. Talk about the history of your area and where you fit into that.
  • Interview locals and ask them to share their memories about the neighborhood and what they like about living there.
  • Showcase your participation in local events.
  • Plan an event, contest or special for customers in your district.
  • Take pictures, label them with hyperlocal terms, post them on your site and share them socially.
  • Blog about local happenings that are relevant to you and your customers, such as a street market where you buy the tomatoes that top your pizzas or a local award you’ve won.
  • Depending on your industry, there will be opportunities for hyperlocal content specific to your business. For example, a restaurant can make sure its menu is in crawlable text and can name some favorite dishes after the neighborhood—The Bernal Heights Special. Meanwhile, a spa in North Beach can create a hyperlocal name for a service—The North Beach Organic Spa Package. Not only does this show district pride, but customers may mention these products and services by name in their reviews, reinforcing your local connection.

2. Multi-location business within a single city

All that applies to the single location applies to you, too, but you’ve got to find a way to scale building out content for each neighborhood.

  • If your resources are strong, build a local landing page for each of your locations, including basic optimization for the neighborhood name. Meanwhile, create blog categories for each neighborhood and rotate your efforts on a week by week basis. First week, blog about neighborhood A, next week, find something interesting to write about concerning neighborhood B. Over time, you’ll have developed a nice body of content proving your involvement in each district.
  • If you’re short on resources, you’ll still want to build out a basic landing page for each of your stores in your city and make the very best effort you can to showcase your neighborhood pride on these pages.

3. Multiple businesses, multiple cities

Again, scaling this is going to be key and how much you can do will depend upon your resources.

  • The minimum requirement will be a landing page on the site for each physical location, with basic optimization for your neighborhood terms.
  • Beyond this, you’ll be making a decision about how much hyperlocal content you can add to the site/blog for each district, or whether time can be utilized more effectively via off-site social outreach. If you’ve got lots of neighborhoods to cover in lots of different cities, designating a social representative for each store and giving him the keys to your profiles (after a training session in company policies) may make the most sense.

4. Service area businesses (SABs)

Very often, service area businesses are left out in the cold with various local developments, but in my own limited testing, Google is applying at least some hyperlocal care to these business models. I can search for a neighborhood plumber, just as I would a pizza:

local results plumber bernal heights san francisco

To be painstakingly honest, plumbers are going to have to be pretty ingenious to come up with a ton of engaging industry/neighborhood content and may be confined mainly to creating some decent service area landing pages that share a bit about their work in various neighborhoods. Other business models, like contractors, home staging firms and caterers should find it quite easy to talk about district architecture, curb appeal and events on a hyperlocal front.

While your SAB is still unlikely to beat out a competitor with a physical location in a given neighborhood, you still have a chance to associate your business with that area of your town with well-planned content.


Need creative inspiration for the writing projects ahead?
Don’t miss this awesome wildcard search tip Mary Bowling shared at LocalUp. Add an underscore or asterisk to your search terms and just look at the good stuff Google will suggest to you:

wildcard search content ideas

Does Tony’s patio make his business one of
Bernal Heights’ dog-friendly restaurants or does his rooftop view make his restaurant the most picturesque lunch spot in the district? If so, he’s got two new topics to write about, either on his basic landing pages or his blog.

Hop over to 
Whitespark’s favorite takeaways from Mike Ramsey’s LocalUp presentation, too.

Citations and reviews with the user centroid in mind

Here are the basics about citations, broken into the same four business models:

1. Single-location business

You get just one citation on each platform, unless you have multiple departments or practitioners. That means one Google+ Local page, one Yelp profile, one Best of the Web listing. etc. You do not get one citation for your city and another for your neighborhood. Very simple.

2. Multi-location business within a single city

As with the single location business, you are entitled to just one set of citations per physical location. That means one Google+ Local listing for your North Beach pizza place and another for your restaurant in Bernal Heights.

A regular FAQ here in the Moz Q&A Forum relates to how Google will differentiate between two businesses located in the same city. Here are some tips:

  • Google no longer supports the use of modifiers in the business name field, so you can no longer be Tony’s Pizza – Bernal Heights, unless your restaurant is actually named this. You can only be Tony’s Pizza.
  • Facebook’s policies are different than Google’s. To my understanding, Facebook won’t permit you to build more than one Facebook Place for the identical brand name. Thus, to comply with their guidelines, you must differentiate by using those neighborhood names or other modifiers. Given that this same rule applies to all of your competitors, this should not be seen as a danger to your NAP consistency, because apparently, no multi-location business creating Facebook Places will have 100% consistent NAP. The playing field is, then, even.
  • The correct place to differentiate your businesses on all other platforms is in the address field. Google will understand that one of your branches is on A St. and the other is on B St. and will choose which one they feel is most relevant to the user.
  • Google is not a fan of call centers. Unless it’s absolutely impossible to do so, use a unique local phone number for each physical location to prevent mix-ups on Google’s part, and use this number consistently across all web-based mentions of the business.
  • Though you can’t put your neighborhood name in the title, you can definitely include it in the business description field most citation platforms provide.
  • Link your citations to their respective local landing pages on your website, not to your homepage.

3. Multiple businesses, multiple cities

Everything in business model #2 applies to you as well. You are allowed one set of citations for each of your physical locations, and while you can’t modify your Google+ Local business name, you can mention your neighborhood in the description. Promote each location equally in all you do and then rely on Google to separate your locations for various users based on your addresses and phone numbers.

4. SABs

You are exactly like business model #1 when it comes to citations, with the exception of needing to abide by Google’s rules about hiding your address if you don’t serve customers at your place of business. Don’t build out additional citations for neighborhoods you serve, other cities you serve or various service offerings. Just create one citation set. You should be fine mentioning some neighborhoods in your citation descriptions, but don’t go overboard on this.

When it comes to review management, you’ll be managing unique sets of reviews for each of your physical locations. One method for preventing business owner burnout is to manage each location in rotation. One week, tend to owner responses for Business A. Do Business B the following week. In week three, ask for some reviews for Business A and do the same for B in week four. Vary the tasks and take your time unless faced with a sudden reputation crisis.

You can take some additional steps to “hyperlocalize” your review profiles:

  • Write about your neighborhood in the business description on your profile.
  • You can’t compel random customers to mention your neighborhood, but you can certainly do so from time to time when your write responses. “We’ve just installed the first soda fountain Bernal Heights has seen since 1959. Come have a cool drink on us this summer.”
  • Offer a neighborhood special to people who bring in a piece of mail with their address on it. Prepare a little handout for all-comers, highlighting a couple of review profiles where you’d love to hear how they liked the Bernal Heights special. Or, gather email addresses if possible and follow up via email shortly after the time of service.
  • If your business model is one that permits you to name your goods or service packages, don’t forget the tip mentioned earlier about thinking hyperlocal when brainstorming names. Pretty cool if you can get your customers talking about how your “North Beach Artichoke Pizza” is the best pie in town!

Investigate your social-hyperlocal opportunties

I still consider website-based content publication to be more than half the battle in ranking locally, but sometimes, real-time social outreach can accomplish things static articles or scheduled blog posts can’t. The amount of effort you invest in social outreach should be based on your resources and an assessment of how naturally your industry lends itself to socialization. Fire insurance salesmen are going to find it harder to light up their neighborhood community than yoga studios will. Consider your options:

Remember that you are investigating each opportunity to see how it stacks up not just to promoting your location in your city, but in your neighborhood.

Who are the people in your neighborhood?

Remember that Sesame Street jingle? It hails from a time when urban dwellers strongly identified with a certain district of hometown. People were “from the neighborhood.” If my grandfather was a Mission District fella, maybe yours was from Chinatown. Now, we’re shifting in fascinating directions. Even as we’ve settled into telecommuting to jobs in distant states or countries, Amazon is offering one hour home delivery to our neighbors in Manhattan. Doctors are making house calls again! Any day now, I’m expecting a milkman to start making his rounds around here. Commerce has stretched to span the globe and now it’s zooming in to meet the needs of the family next door.

If the big guys are setting their sights on near-instant services within your community, take note.
You live in that community. You talk, face-to-face, with your neighbors every day and know the flavor of the local scene better than any remote competitor can right now.

Now is the time to reinvigorate that old neighborhood pride in the way you’re visualizing your business, marketing it and personally communicating to customers that you’re right there for them.

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Reblogged 4 years ago from tracking.feedpress.it