Distance from Perfect

Posted by wrttnwrd

In spite of all the advice, the strategic discussions and the conference talks, we Internet marketers are still algorithmic thinkers. That’s obvious when you think of SEO.

Even when we talk about content, we’re algorithmic thinkers. Ask yourself: How many times has a client asked you, “How much content do we need?” How often do you still hear “How unique does this page need to be?”

That’s 100% algorithmic thinking: Produce a certain amount of content, move up a certain number of spaces.

But you and I know it’s complete bullshit.

I’m not suggesting you ignore the algorithm. You should definitely chase it. Understanding a little bit about what goes on in Google’s pointy little head helps. But it’s not enough.

A tale of SEO woe that makes you go “whoa”

I have this friend.

He ranked #10 for “flibbergibbet.” He wanted to rank #1.

He compared his site to the #1 site and realized the #1 site had five hundred blog posts.

“That site has five hundred blog posts,” he said, “I must have more.”

So he hired a few writers and cranked out five thousand blogs posts that melted Microsoft Word’s grammar check. He didn’t move up in the rankings. I’m shocked.

“That guy’s spamming,” he decided, “I’ll just report him to Google and hope for the best.”

What happened? Why didn’t adding five thousand blog posts work?

It’s pretty obvious: My, uh, friend added nothing but crap content to a site that was already outranked. Bulk is no longer a ranking tactic. Google’s very aware of that tactic. Lots of smart engineers have put time into updates like Panda to compensate.

He started like this:

And ended up like this:
more posts, no rankings

Alright, yeah, I was Mr. Flood The Site With Content, way back in 2003. Don’t judge me, whippersnappers.

Reality’s never that obvious. You’re scratching and clawing to move up two spots, you’ve got an overtasked IT team pushing back on changes, and you’ve got a boss who needs to know the implications of every recommendation.

Why fix duplication if rel=canonical can address it? Fixing duplication will take more time and cost more money. It’s easier to paste in one line of code. You and I know it’s better to fix the duplication. But it’s a hard sell.

Why deal with 302 versus 404 response codes and home page redirection? The basic user experience remains the same. Again, we just know that a server should return one home page without any redirects and that it should send a ‘not found’ 404 response if a page is missing. If it’s going to take 3 developer hours to reconfigure the server, though, how do we justify it? There’s no flashing sign reading “Your site has a problem!”

Why change this thing and not that thing?

At the same time, our boss/client sees that the site above theirs has five hundred blog posts and thousands of links from sites selling correspondence MBAs. So they want five thousand blog posts and cheap links as quickly as possible.

Cue crazy music.

SEO lacks clarity

SEO is, in some ways, for the insane. It’s an absurd collection of technical tweaks, content thinking, link building and other little tactics that may or may not work. A novice gets exposed to one piece of crappy information after another, with an occasional bit of useful stuff mixed in. They create sites that repel search engines and piss off users. They get more awful advice. The cycle repeats. Every time it does, best practices get more muddled.

SEO lacks clarity. We can’t easily weigh the value of one change or tactic over another. But we can look at our changes and tactics in context. When we examine the potential of several changes or tactics before we flip the switch, we get a closer balance between algorithm-thinking and actual strategy.

Distance from perfect brings clarity to tactics and strategy

At some point you have to turn that knowledge into practice. You have to take action based on recommendations, your knowledge of SEO, and business considerations.

That’s hard when we can’t even agree on subdomains vs. subfolders.

I know subfolders work better. Sorry, couldn’t resist. Let the flaming comments commence.

To get clarity, take a deep breath and ask yourself:

“All other things being equal, will this change, tactic, or strategy move my site closer to perfect than my competitors?”

Breaking it down:

“Change, tactic, or strategy”

A change takes an existing component or policy and makes it something else. Replatforming is a massive change. Adding a new page is a smaller one. Adding ALT attributes to your images is another example. Changing the way your shopping cart works is yet another.

A tactic is a specific, executable practice. In SEO, that might be fixing broken links, optimizing ALT attributes, optimizing title tags or producing a specific piece of content.

A strategy is a broader decision that’ll cause change or drive tactics. A long-term content policy is the easiest example. Shifting away from asynchronous content and moving to server-generated content is another example.

“Perfect”

No one knows exactly what Google considers “perfect,” and “perfect” can’t really exist, but you can bet a perfect web page/site would have all of the following:

  1. Completely visible content that’s perfectly relevant to the audience and query
  2. A flawless user experience
  3. Instant load time
  4. Zero duplicate content
  5. Every page easily indexed and classified
  6. No mistakes, broken links, redirects or anything else generally yucky
  7. Zero reported problems or suggestions in each search engines’ webmaster tools, sorry, “Search Consoles”
  8. Complete authority through immaculate, organically-generated links

These 8 categories (and any of the other bazillion that probably exist) give you a way to break down “perfect” and help you focus on what’s really going to move you forward. These different areas may involve different facets of your organization.

Your IT team can work on load time and creating an error-free front- and back-end. Link building requires the time and effort of content and outreach teams.

Tactics for relevant, visible content and current best practices in UX are going to be more involved, requiring research and real study of your audience.

What you need and what resources you have are going to impact which tactics are most realistic for you.

But there’s a basic rule: If a website would make Googlebot swoon and present zero obstacles to users, it’s close to perfect.

“All other things being equal”

Assume every competing website is optimized exactly as well as yours.

Now ask: Will this [tactic, change or strategy] move you closer to perfect?

That’s the “all other things being equal” rule. And it’s an incredibly powerful rubric for evaluating potential changes before you act. Pretend you’re in a tie with your competitors. Will this one thing be the tiebreaker? Will it put you ahead? Or will it cause you to fall behind?

“Closer to perfect than my competitors”

Perfect is great, but unattainable. What you really need is to be just a little perfect-er.

Chasing perfect can be dangerous. Perfect is the enemy of the good (I love that quote. Hated Voltaire. But I love that quote). If you wait for the opportunity/resources to reach perfection, you’ll never do anything. And the only way to reduce distance from perfect is to execute.

Instead of aiming for pure perfection, aim for more perfect than your competitors. Beat them feature-by-feature, tactic-by-tactic. Implement strategy that supports long-term superiority.

Don’t slack off. But set priorities and measure your effort. If fixing server response codes will take one hour and fixing duplication will take ten, fix the response codes first. Both move you closer to perfect. Fixing response codes may not move the needle as much, but it’s a lot easier to do. Then move on to fixing duplicates.

Do the 60% that gets you a 90% improvement. Then move on to the next thing and do it again. When you’re done, get to work on that last 40%. Repeat as necessary.

Take advantage of quick wins. That gives you more time to focus on your bigger solutions.

Sites that are “fine” are pretty far from perfect

Google has lots of tweaks, tools and workarounds to help us mitigate sub-optimal sites:

  • Rel=canonical lets us guide Google past duplicate content rather than fix it
  • HTML snapshots let us reveal content that’s delivered using asynchronous content and JavaScript frameworks
  • We can use rel=next and prev to guide search bots through outrageously long pagination tunnels
  • And we can use rel=nofollow to hide spammy links and banners

Easy, right? All of these solutions may reduce distance from perfect (the search engines don’t guarantee it). But they don’t reduce it as much as fixing the problems.
Just fine does not equal fixed

The next time you set up rel=canonical, ask yourself:

“All other things being equal, will using rel=canonical to make up for duplication move my site closer to perfect than my competitors?”

Answer: Not if they’re using rel=canonical, too. You’re both using imperfect solutions that force search engines to crawl every page of your site, duplicates included. If you want to pass them on your way to perfect, you need to fix the duplicate content.

When you use Angular.js to deliver regular content pages, ask yourself:

“All other things being equal, will using HTML snapshots instead of actual, visible content move my site closer to perfect than my competitors?”

Answer: No. Just no. Not in your wildest, code-addled dreams. If I’m Google, which site will I prefer? The one that renders for me the same way it renders for users? Or the one that has to deliver two separate versions of every page?

When you spill banner ads all over your site, ask yourself…

You get the idea. Nofollow is better than follow, but banner pollution is still pretty dang far from perfect.

Mitigating SEO issues with search engine-specific tools is “fine.” But it’s far, far from perfect. If search engines are forced to choose, they’ll favor the site that just works.

Not just SEO

By the way, distance from perfect absolutely applies to other channels.

I’m focusing on SEO, but think of other Internet marketing disciplines. I hear stuff like “How fast should my site be?” (Faster than it is right now.) Or “I’ve heard you shouldn’t have any content below the fold.” (Maybe in 2001.) Or “I need background video on my home page!” (Why? Do you have a reason?) Or, my favorite: “What’s a good bounce rate?” (Zero is pretty awesome.)

And Internet marketing venues are working to measure distance from perfect. Pay-per-click marketing has the quality score: A codified financial reward applied for seeking distance from perfect in as many elements as possible of your advertising program.

Social media venues are aggressively building their own forms of graphing, scoring and ranking systems designed to separate the good from the bad.

Really, all marketing includes some measure of distance from perfect. But no channel is more influenced by it than SEO. Instead of arguing one rule at a time, ask yourself and your boss or client: Will this move us closer to perfect?

Hell, you might even please a customer or two.

One last note for all of the SEOs in the crowd. Before you start pointing out edge cases, consider this: We spend our days combing Google for embarrassing rankings issues. Every now and then, we find one, point, and start yelling “SEE! SEE!!!! THE GOOGLES MADE MISTAKES!!!!” Google’s got lots of issues. Screwing up the rankings isn’t one of them.

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The Danger of Crossing Algorithms: Uncovering The Cloaked Panda Update During Penguin 3.0

Posted by GlennGabe

Penguin 3.0 was one of the most anticipated algorithm updates in recent years when it rolled out on October 17, 2014. Penguin hadn’t run for over a year at that point,
and there were many webmasters sitting in Penguin limbo waiting for recovery. They had cleaned up their link profiles, disavowed what they could, and were
simply waiting for the next update or refresh. Unfortunately, Google was wrestling with the algo internally and over twelve months passed without an
update.

So when Pierre Far finally
announced Penguin 3.0 a few days later on October 21, a few things
stood out. First, this was
not a new algorithm like Gary Illyes had explained it would be at SMX East. It was a refresh and underscored
the potential problems Google was battling with Penguin (cough, negative SEO).

Second, we were not seeing the impact that we expected. The rollout seemed to begin with a heavier international focus and the overall U.S impact has been
underwhelming to say the least. There were definitely many fresh hits globally, but there were a number of websites that should have recovered but didn’t
for some reason. And many are still waiting for recovery today.

Third, the rollout would be slow and steady and could take weeks to fully complete. That’s unusual, but makes sense given the microscope Penguin 3.0 was
under. And this third point (the extended rollout) is even more important than most people think. Many webmasters are already confused when they get hit
during an acute algorithm update (for example, when an algo update rolls out on one day). But the confusion gets exponentially worse when there is an
extended rollout.

The more time that goes by between the initial launch and the impact a website experiences, the more questions pop up. Was it Penguin 3.0 or was it
something else? Since I work heavily with algorithm updates, I’ve heard similar questions many times over the past several years. And the extended Penguin
3.0 rollout is a great example of why confusion can set in. That’s my focus today.


Penguin, Pirate, and the anomaly on October 24

With the Penguin 3.0 rollout, we also had
Pirate 2 rolling out. And yes, there are
some websites that could be impacted by both. That added a layer of complexity to the situation, but nothing like what was about to hit. You see, I picked
up a very a strange anomaly on October 24. And I clearly saw serious movement on that day (starting late in the day ET).

So, if there was a third algorithm update, then that’s
three potential algo updates rolling out at the same time. More about this soon,
but it underscores the confusion that can set in when we see extended rollouts, with a mix of confirmed and unconfirmed updates.


Penguin 3.0 tremors and analysis

Since I do a lot of Penguin work, and have researched many domains impacted by Penguin in the past, I heavily studied the Penguin 3.0 rollout. I 
published a blog post based on the first ten days of the update, which included some interesting findings for sure.

And based on the extended rollout, I definitely saw Penguin tremors beyond the initial October 17 launch. For example, check out the screenshot below of a
website seeing Penguin impact on October 17, 22, and 25.

But as mentioned earlier, something else happened on October 24 that set off sirens in my office. I started to see serious movement on sites impacted by
Panda, and not Penguin. And when I say serious movement, I’m referring to major traffic gains or losses all starting on October 24. Again, these were sites heavily dealing with Panda and had
clean link profiles. Check out the trending below from October 24 for several
sites that saw impact.


A good day for a Panda victim:



A bad day for a Panda victim:



And an incredibly frustrating day for a 9/5 recovery that went south on 10/24:

I saw this enough that I tweeted heavily about it and
included a section about Panda in my Penguin 3.0 blog post. And
that’s when something wonderful happened, and it highlights the true beauty and power of the internet.

As more people saw my tweets and read my post, I started receiving messages from other webmasters explaining that
they saw the same exact thing, and on their websites dealing with Panda and not Penguin. And not only
did they tell me about, they
showed me the impact.

I received emails containing screenshots and tweets with photos from Google Analytics and Google Webmaster Tools. It was amazing to see, and it confirmed
that we had just experienced a Panda update in the middle of a multi-week Penguin rollout. Yes, read that line again. Panda during Penguin, right when the
internet world was clearly focused on Penguin 3.0.

That was a sneaky move Google… very sneaky. 🙂

So, based on what I explained earlier about webmaster confusion and algorithms, can you tell what happened next? Yes, massive confusion ensued. We had the
trifecta of algorithm updates with Penguin, Pirate, and now Panda.


Webmaster confusion and a reminder of the algo sandwich from 2012

So, we had a major algorithm update during two other major algorithm updates (Penguin and Pirate) and webmaster confusion was hitting extremely high
levels. And I don’t blame anyone for being confused. I’m neck deep in this stuff and it confused me at first.

Was the October 24 update a Penguin tremor or was this something else? Could it be Pirate? And if it was indeed Panda, it would have been great if Google told
us it was Panda! Or did they want to throw off SEOs analyzing Penguin and Pirate? Does anyone have a padded room I can crawl into?

Once I realized this was Panda, and started to communicate the update via Twitter and my blog, I had a number of people ask me a very important question:


“Glenn, would Google really roll out two or three algorithm updates so close together, or at the same time?”

Why yes, they would. Anyone remember the algorithm sandwich from April of 2012? That’s when Google rolled out Panda on April 19, then Penguin 1.0 on April 24,
followed by Panda on April 27. Yes, we had three algorithm updates all within ten days. And let’s not forget that the Penguin update on April 24, 2012 was the
first of its kind! So yes, Google can, and will, roll out multiple major algos around the same time.

Where are we headed? It’s fascinating, but not pretty


Panda is near real-time now

When Panda 4.1 rolled out on September 23, 2014, I immediately disliked the title and version number of the update. Danny Sullivan named it 4.1, so it stuck. But for
me, that was not 4.1… not even close. It was more like 4.75. You see, there have been a number of Panda tremors and updates since P4.0 on May 20,
2014.

I saw what I was calling “tremors”
nearly weekly based on having access to a large amount of Panda data (across sites, categories, and countries).
And based on what I was seeing, I reached out to John Mueller at Google to clarify the tremors. John’s response was great and confirmed what I was seeing.
He explained that there
was not a set frequency for algorithms like Panda. Google can roll out an algorithm, analyze the
SERPs, refine the algo to get the desired results, and keep pushing it out. And that’s exactly what I was seeing (again, almost weekly since Panda 4.0).


When Panda and Penguin meet in real time…

…they will have a cup of coffee and laugh at us. 🙂 So, since Panda is near-real time, the crossing of major algorithm updates is going to happen.
And we just experienced an important one on October 24 with Penguin, Pirate, and Panda. But it could (and probably will) get more chaotic than what we have now.
We are quickly approaching a time where major algorithm updates crafted in a lab will be unleashed on the web in near-real time or in actual real time.

And if organic search traffic from Google is important to you, then pay attention. We’re about to take a quick trip into the future of Google and SEO. And
after hearing what I have to say, you might just want the past back…


Google’s brilliant object-oriented approach to fighting webspam

I have presented at the past two SES conferences about Panda, Penguin, and other miscellaneous disturbances in the force. More about those “other
disturbances” soon. In my presentation, one of my slides looks like this:

Over the past several years, Google has been using a brilliant, object-oriented approach to fighting webspam and low quality content. Webspam engineers can
craft external algorithms in a lab and then inject them into the real-time algorithm whenever they want. It’s brilliant because it isolates specific
problems, while also being extremely scalable. And by the way, it should scare the heck out of anyone breaking the rules.

For example, we have Panda, Penguin, Pirate, and Above the Fold. Each was crafted to target a specific problem and can be unleashed on the web whenever
Google wants. Sure, there are undoubtedly connections between them (either directly or indirectly), but each specific algo is its own black box. Again,
it’s object-oriented.

Now, Panda is a great example of an algorithm that has matured to where Google highly trusts it. That’s why Google announced in June of 2013 that Panda
would roll out monthly, over ten days. And that’s also why it matured even more with Panda 4.0 (and why I’ve seen tremors almost weekly.)

And then we had Gary Illyes explain that Penguin was moving along the same path. At SMX East,
Gary explained that the new Penguin algorithm (which clearly didn’t roll out on October 17) would be structured in a way where subsequent updates could be rolled out more easily.
You know, like Panda.

And by the way, what if this happens to Pirate, Above the Fold, and other algorithms that Google is crafting in its Frankenstein lab? Well my friends, then
we’ll have absolute chaos and society as we know it will crumble. OK, that’s a bit dramatic, but you get my point.

We already have massive confusion now… and a glimpse into the future reveals a continual flow of major algorithms running in real-time, each that
could pummel a site to the ground. And of course, with little or no sign of which algo actually caused the destruction. I don’t know about you, but I just
broke out in hives. 🙂


Actual example of what (near) real-time updates can do

After Panda 4.0, I saw some very strange Panda movement for sites impacted by recent updates. And it underscores the power of near-real time algo updates.
As a quick example,
temporary Panda recoveries can happen if you
don’t get out of the gray area enough. And now that we are seeing Panda tremors almost weekly, you can experience potential turbulence several times per
month.

Here is a screenshot from a site that recovered from Panda, didn’t get out of the gray area and reentered the strike zone, just five days later.

Holy cow, that was fast. I hope they didn’t plan any expensive trips in the near future. This is exactly what can happen when major algorithms roam the web
in real time. One week you’re looking good and the next week you’re in the dumps. Now, at least I knew this was Panda. The webmaster could tackle more
content problems and get out of the gray area… But the ups and downs of a Panda roller coaster ride can drive a webmaster insane. It’s one of the
reasons I recommend making
significant changes when
you’ve been hit by Panda. Get as far out of the gray area as possible.


An “automatic action viewer” in Google Webmaster Tools could help (and it’s actually being discussed internally by Google)

Based on webmaster confusion, many have asked Google to create an “automatic action viewer” in Google Webmaster Tools. It would be similar to the “manual
actions viewer,” but focused on algorithms that are demoting websites in the search results (versus penalties). Yes, there is a difference by the way.

The new viewer would help webmasters better understand the types of problems that are being impacted by algorithms like Panda, Penguin, Pirate, Above the
Fold, and others. Needless to say, this would be incredibly helpful to webmasters, business owners, and SEOs.

So, will we see that viewer any time soon? Google’s John Mueller
addressed this question during the November 3 webmaster hangout (at 38:30).

John explained they are trying to figure something out, but it’s not easy. There are so many algorithms running that they don’t want to provide feedback
that is vague or misleading. But, John did say they are discussing the automatic action viewer internally. So you never know…


A quick note about Matt Cutts

As many of you know, Matt Cutts took an extended leave this past summer (through the end of October). Well, he announced on Halloween that he is
extending his leave into 2015. I won’t go crazy here talking about his decision overall, but I will
focus on how this impacts webmasters as it relates to algorithm updates and webspam.

Matt does a lot more than just announce major algo updates… He actually gets involved when collateral damage rears its ugly head. And there’s not a
faster way to rectify a flawed algo update than to have Mr. Cutts involved. So before you dismiss Matt’s extended leave as uneventful, take a look at the
trending below:

Notice the temporary drop off a cliff, then 14 days of hell, only to see that traffic return? That’s because Matt got involved. That’s the
movie blog fiasco from early 2014 that I heavily analyzed. If
Matt was not notified of the drop via Twitter, and didn’t take action, I’m not sure the movie blogs that got hit would be around today. I told Peter from
SlashFilm that his fellow movie blog owners should all pay him a bonus this year. He’s the one that pinged Matt via Twitter and got the ball rolling.

It’s just one example of how having someone with power out front can nip potential problems in the bud. Sure, the sites experienced two weeks of utter
horror, but traffic returned once Google rectified the problem. Now that Matt isn’t actively helping or engaged, who will step up and be that guy? Will it
be John Mueller, Pierre Far, or someone else? John and Pierre are greatly helpful, but will they go to bat for a niche that just got destroyed? Will they
push changes through so sites can turn around? And even at its most basic level, will they even be aware the problem exists?

These are all great questions, and I don’t want to bog down this post (it’s already incredibly long). But don’t laugh off Matt Cutts taking an extended
leave. If he’s gone for good, you might only realize how important he was to the SEO community
after he’s gone. And hopefully it’s not because
your site just tanked as collateral damage during an algorithm update. Matt might be
running a marathon or trying on new Halloween costumes. Then where will you be?


Recommendations moving forward:

So where does this leave us? How can you prepare for the approaching storm of crossing algorithms? Below, I have provided several key bullets that I think
every webmaster should consider. I recommend taking a hard look at your site
now, before major algos are running in near-real time.

  • Truly understand the weaknesses with your website. Google will continue crafting external algos that can be injected into the real-time algorithm.
    And they will go real-time at some point. Be ready by cleaning up your site now.
  • Document all changes and fluctuations the best you can. Use annotations in Google Analytics and keep a spreadsheet updated with detailed
    information.
  • Along the same lines, download your Google Webmaster Tools data monthly (at least). After helping many companies with algorithm hits, that
    information is incredibly valuable, and can help lead you down the right recovery path.
  • Use a mix of audits and focus groups to truly understand the quality of your site. I mentioned in my post about

    aggressive advertising and Panda

    that human focus groups are worth their weight in gold (for surfacing Panda-related problems). Most business owners are too close to their own content and
    websites to accurately measure quality. Bias can be a nasty problem and can quickly lead to bamboo-overflow on a website.
  • Beyond on-site analysis, make sure you tackle your link profile as well. I recommend heavily analyzing your inbound links and weeding out unnatural
    links. And use the disavow tool for links you can’t remove. The combination of enhancing the quality of your content, boosting engagement, knocking down
    usability obstacles, and cleaning up your link profile can help you achieve long-term SEO success. Don’t tackle one quarter of your SEO problems. Address
    all of them.
  • Remove barriers that inhibit change and action. You need to move fast. You need to be decisive. And you need to remove red tape that can bog down
    the cycle of getting changes implemented. Don’t water down your efforts because there are too many chefs in the kitchen. Understand the changes that need
    to be implemented, and take action. That’s how you win SEO-wise.


Summary: Are you ready for the approaching storm?

SEO is continually moving and evolving, and it’s important that webmasters adapt quickly. Over the past few years, Google’s brilliant object-oriented
approach to fighting webspam and low quality content has yielded algorithms like Panda, Penguin, Pirate, and Above the Fold. And more are on their way. My
advice is to get your situation in order now, before crossing algorithms blend a recipe of confusion that make it exponentially harder to identify, and
then fix, problems riddling your website.

Now excuse me while I try to build a flux capacitor. 🙂

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SEO Teaching: Should SEO Be Taught at Universities?

Posted by Carla_Dawson

SEO is a concept that has been around for years and some universities have incorporated it into the curricula. A while back, I posted
this question on Moz and noticed some very strong opinions on the idea that SEO should be part of formal education. Search Engine Journal also posted an article on the idea that SEO should not be taught in universities. We (I co-wrote this post with Aleksej Heinze, who also currently teaches SEO) obviously believe SEO should be taught in higher education and got together to discuss how it benefits the SEO industry and how SEO can be incorporated in higher education. Aleksej teaches SEO in the U.K.; I teach SEO in Argentina.

Before I get started with the pros and cons, I want to share with you some opinions from people in industry on the topic of SEO in universities.


Wil Reynolds (Founder – Seer Interactive)

1. Do you believe universities or higher education institutions should equip students with the skills to meet industry needs?

Yes, people take BIG loans to go to the university in the U.S.; we should at least make sure when they graduate they have the skills that are in…demand in the workplace.

2. Are SEO skills something you believe are lacking in industry?

Not sure. “SEO skills” is a broad phrase.

3. Do you think teaching SEO in universities gives credibility to the profession?

Not really, I think the profession has credibility. Teaching SEO in universities gives a student a great platform to learn and to be prepared for one of the industries that is in desperate need of talent.


4. Do you think teaching SEO in universities benefits the industry?

Yes, but I think SEO is too narrow, according to many definitions. If you think about it, SEO is as much about technical as it is about link building [or] keyword research. To teach the broad definition of SEO you’d need a pretty multi-disciplinary group to teach it. Maybe we’d just teach it as part of a digital marketing rotation.

Stephen Lock (Head of Content & Inbound Marketing, Linkdex.com)

1. Do you believe universities or higher education institutions should equip students with the skills to meet industry needs?

Yes, it makes sense that universities, where appropriate, offer courses that are based heavily on industry demands, especially if the course/institution has been marketed as…tailored for employers.

2. Are SEO skills something you believe are lacking in industry?

They definitely are. There is a real shortage, and due to the fast-moving nature of the field, knowledge is quickly outdated, meaning even experienced practitioners aren’t always great candidates.

3. Do you think teaching SEO in universities gives credibility to the profession?

I believe it does, although it is one of those fields where it’s common for people to…come from a broad range of backgrounds. The skills required are so diverse that it’s also understandable that people who have studied one field can adapt. From experience, employers are more interested in the person, their attitude and capacity to learn. However, SEO in universities can only be a good thing for the industry.

4. Do you think teaching SEO in universities benefits the industry?

Teaching SEO, I believe, would benefit the industry, as the skills shortage is so acute and it is so common for entry-level candidates to come from many different backgrounds. My final thoughts are that SEO is so broad as a discipline that calling it just SEO may not do it justice.


What we can see from these and other opinions we received for this article is views are still mixed since SEO education is not clearly defined. Where do you start with a subject area that touches such a broad range of disciplines, including technical, content and engagement? However, the vast majority of our respondents were
positive about the need to integrate SEO in higher education!

Pros to teaching SEO in universities

Eli Overbey wrote a great article on this topic
here, but me and Aleksej took some of the ideas one step further. Basically, we identified problems in industry and how teaching SEO in universities might help the industry.

How teaching SEO in universities may benefit the industry

Industry Problem How SEO in higher education might alive the problem?
Long sales cycles – Selling SEO is a lot about educating your potential client. Today’s student is tomorrow’s potential client.

Students who learn SEO formally (and not just on the job) are likely to have a broader understanding of its benefits, and therefore, be able to “sell” it more effectively to clients.
Lack of Credibility – Most SEOs learned SEO on the job, or through reading great books like “The Art of SEO” and reading great articles on the internet. However, few formal institutions recognize it as a valid marketing technique. SEO is not taught in many marketing related programs. Creating an educational standard for SEO increases the credibility of the field. Treating the discipline as if it was law, engineering, etc., would elevate SEO to a discipline seen as requiring a significant period of study before it can be practiced.
Everyone says they know SEO. Without a recognized standard for the field of SEO, anyone and everyone can say they know SEO.
Clients with bad experiences don’t trust SEO companies.
Showing clients you have a certified person on your team may alleviate this situation.
Long recruiting cycles. Recruiters currently have to give SEO tests to verify that the job candidate in front of them really knows SEO. A certification or a degree does not guarantee you know the subject (this is true for lots of fields), but it is an excellent filter and a great starting point.
SEO is constantly changing, making it hard to keep up. Law, medicine and most other subject areas are also constantly changing, and content and concepts are updated accordingly. The same can be true for SEO in universities.
Clients challenge your techniques (ex. “Why don’t you use the keyword meta tag?” or “Why are you using parallax scrolling when it is not SEO-friendly?”)  This happens in all industries and being able to reference an independent institution and a high-quality article will probably reduce discussion time.
There is a high demand for SEO skills. Below you will find articles that mention demand for SEO skills in industry. Universities are in the business of creating professionals and satisfying workforce demands.Higher education institutions are often criticized for their lack of relevant educational courses that will equip students with the skills to meet specific industry needs.

SEO is relevant today and will be well into the foreseeable future.

Cons to teaching SEO in universities

We do see some negatives to teaching SEO in universities, but we see them more as issues to be mitigated.
John Weber did a great job identifying the difficulties in teaching SEO in his article on searchenginejournal.com. We agree with several of the points in this article. However, we see them more as issues that can be alleviated through great program development.

Obstacles  Potential Solutions
Google makes changes to its algorithm constantly. This exact topic should be brought up in the classroom. Students get that what they learn in school is somewhat “academic” and may be slightly out-of-date, but is still useful.

(On a side note, laws change all the time, yet law is taught in school.) 
SEO is complex. It requires analytical and creative skills. Case studies are a great way to teach complex concepts and creativity. Law, perhaps, is similar to SEO in that it requires analytical and creative skills to be successful, and it is taught in universities.
No one absolutely knows “the magic formula.” This exact topic should be brought up in the classroom. This is true with many professions. Medicine is not an exact science and continuously evolves. Physicians often prescribe differing treatments for the same diagnosis. 

Current flaws in academia

We also see lots of flaws within the academic world regarding SEO, specifically the fact that if the subject is taught, it is mostly taught as an extension (vocational) course or optional part of an MBA program.

Here are some universities that offer SEO:

We feel SEO should be included as part of many other degree programs.

Please note that mentioning the concept and explaining it is not the same as teaching how to do SEO. In some cases, the concept should be mentioned and included, and in other cases, SEO should be fully taught. For example at Salford Business School, students are expected to plan, execute and evaluate live SEO campaigns and report on their results. This kind of SEO learning helps in job interviews where students can show their own artefacts and discuss what they have done and learned from their practical SEO experience.The academic world
has not incorporated the subject in a holistic manner.

How could SEO be incorporated into higher education?

Degree focus SEO Concept (not to be confused with course) to be incorporated in program Comments
Master of Business Administration (MBA) How to use SEO as a business strategy for long term sustainability of business? Not many MBA courses recognize SEO as a strategic tool for developing value for their business. Hence a number of businesses are missing growth opportunities in the online world.
Advertising How to use SEO with viral marketing and word of mouth as an advertising technique?

Is Inbound Marketing an advertising technique?
Television ads are no longer as effective as those created for YouTube with viral sharing in mind.
Web design/ computer science Designing for Search Engines – Is SEO part of web design? SEO is not taught in many web design or computer science schools. This has major issues/benefits for agencies that try to turn a non-SEO-friendly website into one that can be crawled by search engines.
Marketing Organic search engine results are an important marketing channel, and this concept does not have visibility in the educational system.

Many marketing programs talk about SEO as if it is something that’s useful to someone else. We are all individual brands who can learn and use SEO (e.g., integration of keyword research allows for better digital consumer profiling and learning about the digital personas to be engaged with in marketing mix).

Public Relations (PR) Synergies of online PR with content development strategies and long-term link building Many PR ignore the benefits of SEO and miss out on the mutual benefits that an integration of SEO and online PR could provide. 
Journalism Writing text for online readability and scanability (e.g., using headings, bullet points, etc.) Many journalism courses are still based on great headlines and catchy first paragraph, but these are great techniques when combined with SEO, too. Not thinking about the online audience means you miss a lot of reach with articles that are “thrown” onto the web without much consideration.

We argue for wider adoption of SEO at university teaching because of these three reasons:

Shaping the SEO industry

Starting with understanding SEO principles at the university-level, we are shaping the digital marketing professionals of the future. Recognizing the growing range of opportunities that digital marketing creates as a consequence of good SEO practices offers an invitation to the industry for new talent. Offering SEO at universities will not stop cowboy SEO practices, but at least it will reduce the use of such practices out of incompetence.

SEO is no longer a “dark art”

By demystifying the process of SEO, companies will be more likely to employ SEO professionals by recognizing and better appreciating the value they create. SEO is no longer perceived as a “black box” or “dark art” and individuals who might be supervising others will be more able to expect higher standards and discern whether someone is using unwelcome practices.

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Good SEO practices will make our industry sustainable

By integrating SEO into wider advertising, digital marketing, journalism, web design, PR and MBA courses, we are able to create a better long-term future for SEO as a profession. Having SEO skills applies to many disciplines, and business would be prepared to pay for these skills as soon as they recognise the return on investment that good SEO can create. By teaching SEO in higher education, SEO will appear more professional, which will lead to long-term sustainability.

Is there demand in the industry for SEO skills?

Universities have often been criticized for offering courses not relevant to industry needs. Students invest in higher education to broaden their horizons, but also to obtain skills that equip them better for their chosen profession. The underlying principle is that universities have to offer “universal knowledge and skills” to improve innovation and skills of the world we live in. So if an industry demands SEO skills, then perhaps it is time for higher education to respond? Here are some articles that show workforce demand related to SEO. 

2012 – Conductor –
Demand for SEO Professionals Has Never Been Greater [Study]

2013 – Bruce Clay –
Studies Reveal SEO Analysts are in High Demand

2013 – Search Engine Land –
SEO Talent In High Demand — How To Hire An SEO

Here are some great stats from the articles above.

  • Studies show a 112 percent year-over-year increase in demand for SEO professionals, with salaries as high as $94,000, as reported by Conductor, an SEO technology company based in New York.
  • Search Engine Land surveyed the SEO industry and found that 93 percent of respondents expected their SEO business to grow by the end of 2013. It makes sense, then, that 82 percent of respondents also reported plans to hire additional SEO staff this year.
  • Digital Journal proclaimed “there is no doubt that a career in an SEO agency as an SEO professional can be an exciting and rewarding one. Stress levels would match the lows found in other online positions, while the employment opportunities in such a fast growing business are obvious … Mid-level strategist and management roles can earn from $60,000, while senior marketing directors can expect to approach six-figure sums.”

First-hand experience – Aleksej Heinze

Salford Business School is currently leading a European project, a Joint European Masters in Digital and Social Media Marketing (
JEMSS). This project aims to develop the digital marketeers of the future. JEMSS is a partnership between five European Universities and two commercial organizations, one of which is a digital marketing recruitment agency based in Manchester, the UK.

As part of this project, an extensive consultation with digital agencies and in-house teams has been conducted across five European countries. This multi-stage research project started with a brainstorming session that included ten UK-based agencies in December 2013. They were looking at the top
10 digital marketing skills for international business. The key skill identified as part of this focus group was Search Engine Optimization.

The views from the UK-based agencies were also inline with the online survey results from students and potential students regarding digital marketing courses. The list of 25 skills was developed through the initial focus group with industry practitioners. We can clearly see that SEO tops the table of skills needed when developing knowledge and skills in the area of digital marketing. This online survey was completed by 712 respondents across several countries. We were interested to look at five countries taking part in the JEMSS project: Bulgaria, Greece, Lithuania, Poland and the UK. At least 50 respondents for each of these counties were collected to have a representative sample group.

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Do people want to learn SEO?

Looking at the generic searches related to learning SEO/SEO courses in various parts of the world we see some interesting trends:

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This Google Trends screenshot shows some of the main terms related to the popularity of SEO courses. We can see there is a major difference between “SEO training” and “SEO courses.” This can mean most people are seeing SEO as a vocational skill and not an academic course. It is also interesting to note that the location for those interested in “SEO courses” tends to be in India, the U.K. and the U.S. More research should be done in to identify additional hot spots throughout the world.

First hand experience – Carla Dawson

My students are eager to learn about SEO. Many of them make comments like “Carla, we have been waiting for this class” or “This is the best class [in the] program.” In the SEO class, I notice that students pay closer attention than they do in other classes. Multiple requests have been made by my students to “offer a second course or a seminar” so they can learn more about SEO. It almost seems as if the SEO course has more value than some of the other courses. In class, I get questions like “where can we learn more about SEO?” “What sources are reliable?” etc.

Conclusion

Long gone are the days gone where
universities were run by nuns and monks and the main courses included Latin, metaphysics and theology. Most universities are becoming businesses that develop educational products, research and sell them.

If you believe that universities or higher education institutions should equip students with the skills to meet specific industry needs, then perhaps SEO or better yet “Search Marketing” is ideal for universities?

SEO touches so many fields and in our opinion it should be incorporated in various degrees not just offered as an extension course. We would love to hear the communities opinion on this topic so please comment below!

This article was co-authored with Aleksej Heinze from the University of Salford Manchester . You can find more information about Aleksej here.

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A Content Strategy Template You Can Build On

Posted by Isla_McKetta

Picture it. A room full of executives from a company you never thought you could land as a client. They’re so engaged in what they are saying that they’re leaning forward in their chairs. The CEO looks poised to ask a question but you can tell she doesn’t want to interrupt your flow.

This is the moment content strategists dream of.

But if you’re like me, it’s easy to get caught up in how new the field is and wonder, “Am I even doing this right?” There are lots of posts to help you, such as 
How to Build a Content Marketing Strategy and Content Strategy: You’re Doing it Wrong. There are also comprehensive guides to creating content strategies. There’s even an epic list of content strategy resources. And there are books (my favorite is Kristina Halvorson and Melissa Rach’s Content Strategy for the Web).

Still, sometimes you just want to peek over someone else’s shoulder at a concrete example to see if there’s anything you can learn. This can be especially true if you’re working in-house and don’t have anyone to bounce ideas off of.

So, I built a
template.

What a content strategy should look like

Content strategies take many forms, from a 50-page word document to an hour-long PowerPoint presentation. That means this template is not meant to be gospel. Instead, it introduces you to the many moving parts that make up a content strategy and gives you an example of how I, based on the years I spent consulting on content strategies for everything from stock photography to software as a service, would write it up.

Peek over my shoulder to get your next strategy started, or just to get a glimpse of how someone else approaches a strategy. Build on this template and make it your own. You’ll find that the template is written from an agency perspective (with lots of references to “the client”) but it works equally well if you are in-house and are writing for that one, all-important client—your boss.

What goes into a content strategy

The content strategy template walks you through researching and writing up the three key elements of a content strategy: what content looks like now, what it should look like, and the ecosystem in which content is created.

Content today

A strategy should provide an assessment of the client’s current content, as well as insight into their competitors’ content. That assessment may include any or all of the following:

  • Personas 
  • Stakeholder interviews 
  • Content inventory 
  • Content audit 
  • Gap analysis 
  • Competitive analysis

Content in the future

Then you want to show your client where the content should take them and how they can use various channels to get there. Some of
many places content resides are:

Onsite content 

  • Homepage
  • Landing pages 
  • Category pages 
  • Product descriptions 
  • Blog 
  • Error pages 
  • Etc.

Offsite content 

  • Emails 
  • Social media 
  • Brochures 
  • Packaging 
  • Invoices 
  • Voicemail messages 
  • Etc.

Governance (aka the content ecosystem)

Finally, you want to think about the environment in which the content gets created—the governance of content. This includes:

  • Brand, voice, and style guidelines 
  • Workflow analysis 
  • Best practices for writing on the web 
  • SEO tips 
  • Editorial calendar

See the template for more in-depth descriptions of all of these elements as well as some of my favorite tools to get them done.

Again, take these pieces and use them to create your own template. Each strategy you do will require its own tweaks, but this will give you the leg up to put your own stamp on this emerging field.

The storytelling of content strategy

My brand of content strategy, and you’ll see this reflected a little in the template, is that a content strategy is a story. For a deeper understanding of this, check out the Mozinar I gave a few weeks ago,
The Storytelling of Content Strategy.

Basically, I advocate for taking the elements of fiction and using them to get a fresh perspective on a brand’s journey toward a goal.

Here’s how the five elements of a story are also the basis of a content strategy:

1. Brands and customers are heroes

A content strategy can either be about a brand’s journey to land a customer (useful when a brand is new or has lost its way), or a content strategy can be about a customer’s journey and how the brand can help. See the webinar for an example of each.

2. Your current landscape is your ground situation

You can’t start a strategy until you know where your hero is coming from. Most of the initial research you do—from
stakeholder interviews to content inventories and audits—is to understand the starting point of your strategy. This is where the journey begins. You will be measuring all future success against the understanding you build of this landscape.

3. Goals articulate your central desire

You can’t plot a strategy if you don’t know what direction the brand wants to grow. Goals should come from the brand itself, but you might find that the brand needs a little coaching. It’s helpful if you distinguish overall business goals from content goals. They are related, but there are some goals (e.g. reducing employee turnover) that content plays a much smaller role in achieving. Setting specific goals for your content strategy also lets you get more granular about some goals in which content is the star player (e.g. increasing email open rate).

4. Competitors are antagonists

Even if you’re going to write the most TAGFEE content strategy ever, you still need to figure out where your competitors are and how you can learn from their example. And it’s important to remember that because of the way search engines work, your business competitors might be different than your SERP competitors. Ideally a content strategy will address both.

5. Plot is strategy

At this point in the story, you know who the players are, what’s working and what’s not, and have some ideas about how to move forward to achieve those goals.

When I write up a strategy, I think about them as though I were plotting a novel. Each tactic or channel is a way to move the brand closer to those goals. What obstacles might they encounter? Who are they competing with in the space? How can they master this tactic or channel? And how can content help them achieve their goals and ride happily off into the sunset?

Making a content strategy your own

Now it’s time to
download that template and see what story your content strategy is trying to tell. Once you’re confident in the strategy you’re presenting, you’ll have the complete attention of every executive in that conference room. And, with any luck, they’ll refer you to their friends. 

I want to learn from you, too. Is there anything you’d include in the template that I haven’t covered? Do you have any strategies for success in presenting content strategies or any lessons learned? Please share your ideas and stories in the comments.

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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