Stop Ghost Spam in Google Analytics with One Filter

Posted by CarloSeo

The spam in Google Analytics (GA) is becoming a serious issue. Due to a deluge of referral spam from social buttons, adult sites, and many, many other sources, people are starting to become overwhelmed by all the filters they are setting up to manage the useless data they are receiving.

The good news is, there is no need to panic. In this post, I’m going to focus on the most common mistakes people make when fighting spam in GA, and explain an efficient way to prevent it.

But first, let’s make sure we understand how spam works. A couple of months ago, Jared Gardner wrote an excellent article explaining what referral spam is, including its intended purpose. He also pointed out some great examples of referral spam.

Types of spam

The spam in Google Analytics can be categorized by two types: ghosts and crawlers.

Ghosts

The vast majority of spam is this type. They are called ghosts because they never access your site. It is important to keep this in mind, as it’s key to creating a more efficient solution for managing spam.

As unusual as it sounds, this type of spam doesn’t have any interaction with your site at all. You may wonder how that is possible since one of the main purposes of GA is to track visits to our sites.

They do it by using the Measurement Protocol, which allows people to send data directly to Google Analytics’ servers. Using this method, and probably randomly generated tracking codes (UA-XXXXX-1) as well, the spammers leave a “visit” with fake data, without even knowing who they are hitting.

Crawlers

This type of spam, the opposite to ghost spam, does access your site. As the name implies, these spam bots crawl your pages, ignoring rules like those found in robots.txt that are supposed to stop them from reading your site. When they exit your site, they leave a record on your reports that appears similar to a legitimate visit.

Crawlers are harder to identify because they know their targets and use real data. But it is also true that new ones seldom appear. So if you detect a referral in your analytics that looks suspicious, researching it on Google or checking it against this list might help you answer the question of whether or not it is spammy.

Most common mistakes made when dealing with spam in GA

I’ve been following this issue closely for the last few months. According to the comments people have made on my articles and conversations I’ve found in discussion forums, there are primarily three mistakes people make when dealing with spam in Google Analytics.

Mistake #1. Blocking ghost spam from the .htaccess file

One of the biggest mistakes people make is trying to block Ghost Spam from the .htaccess file.

For those who are not familiar with this file, one of its main functions is to allow/block access to your site. Now we know that ghosts never reach your site, so adding them here won’t have any effect and will only add useless lines to your .htaccess file.

Ghost spam usually shows up for a few days and then disappears. As a result, sometimes people think that they successfully blocked it from here when really it’s just a coincidence of timing.

Then when the spammers later return, they get worried because the solution is not working anymore, and they think the spammer somehow bypassed the barriers they set up.

The truth is, the .htaccess file can only effectively block crawlers such as buttons-for-website.com and a few others since these access your site. Most of the spam can’t be blocked using this method, so there is no other option than using filters to exclude them.

Mistake #2. Using the referral exclusion list to stop spam

Another error is trying to use the referral exclusion list to stop the spam. The name may confuse you, but this list is not intended to exclude referrals in the way we want to for the spam. It has other purposes.

For example, when a customer buys something, sometimes they get redirected to a third-party page for payment. After making a payment, they’re redirected back to you website, and GA records that as a new referral. It is appropriate to use referral exclusion list to prevent this from happening.

If you try to use the referral exclusion list to manage spam, however, the referral part will be stripped since there is no preexisting record. As a result, a direct visit will be recorded, and you will have a bigger problem than the one you started with since. You will still have spam, and direct visits are harder to track.

Mistake #3. Worrying that bounce rate changes will affect rankings

When people see that the bounce rate changes drastically because of the spam, they start worrying about the impact that it will have on their rankings in the SERPs.

bounce.png

This is another mistake commonly made. With or without spam, Google doesn’t take into consideration Google Analytics metrics as a ranking factor. Here is an explanation about this from Matt Cutts, the former head of Google’s web spam team.

And if you think about it, Cutts’ explanation makes sense; because although many people have GA, not everyone uses it.

Assuming your site has been hacked

Another common concern when people see strange landing pages coming from spam on their reports is that they have been hacked.

landing page

The page that the spam shows on the reports doesn’t exist, and if you try to open it, you will get a 404 page. Your site hasn’t been compromised.

But you have to make sure the page doesn’t exist. Because there are cases (not spam) where some sites have a security breach and get injected with pages full of bad keywords to defame the website.

What should you worry about?

Now that we’ve discarded security issues and their effects on rankings, the only thing left to worry about is your data. The fake trail that the spam leaves behind pollutes your reports.

It might have greater or lesser impact depending on your site traffic, but everyone is susceptible to the spam.

Small and midsize sites are the most easily impacted – not only because a big part of their traffic can be spam, but also because usually these sites are self-managed and sometimes don’t have the support of an analyst or a webmaster.

Big sites with a lot of traffic can also be impacted by spam, and although the impact can be insignificant, invalid traffic means inaccurate reports no matter the size of the website. As an analyst, you should be able to explain what’s going on in even in the most granular reports.

You only need one filter to deal with ghost spam

Usually it is recommended to add the referral to an exclusion filter after it is spotted. Although this is useful for a quick action against the spam, it has three big disadvantages.

  • Making filters every week for every new spam detected is tedious and time-consuming, especially if you manage many sites. Plus, by the time you apply the filter, and it starts working, you already have some affected data.
  • Some of the spammers use direct visits along with the referrals.
  • These direct hits won’t be stopped by the filter so even if you are excluding the referral you will sill be receiving invalid traffic, which explains why some people have seen an unusual spike in direct traffic.

Luckily, there is a good way to prevent all these problems. Most of the spam (ghost) works by hitting GA’s random tracking-IDs, meaning the offender doesn’t really know who is the target, and for that reason either the hostname is not set or it uses a fake one. (See report below)

Ghost-Spam.png

You can see that they use some weird names or don’t even bother to set one. Although there are some known names in the list, these can be easily added by the spammer.

On the other hand, valid traffic will always use a real hostname. In most of the cases, this will be the domain. But it also can also result from paid services, translation services, or any other place where you’ve inserted GA tracking code.

Valid-Referral.png

Based on this, we can make a filter that will include only hits that use real hostnames. This will automatically exclude all hits from ghost spam, whether it shows up as a referral, keyword, or pageview; or even as a direct visit.

To create this filter, you will need to find the report of hostnames. Here’s how:

  1. Go to the Reporting tab in GA
  2. Click on Audience in the lefthand panel
  3. Expand Technology and select Network
  4. At the top of the report, click on Hostname

Valid-list

You will see a list of all hostnames, including the ones that the spam uses. Make a list of all the valid hostnames you find, as follows:

  • yourmaindomain.com
  • blog.yourmaindomain.com
  • es.yourmaindomain.com
  • payingservice.com
  • translatetool.com
  • anotheruseddomain.com

For small to medium sites, this list of hostnames will likely consist of the main domain and a couple of subdomains. After you are sure you got all of them, create a regular expression similar to this one:

yourmaindomain\.com|anotheruseddomain\.com|payingservice\.com|translatetool\.com

You don’t need to put all of your subdomains in the regular expression. The main domain will match all of them. If you don’t have a view set up without filters, create one now.

Then create a Custom Filter.

Make sure you select INCLUDE, then select “Hostname” on the filter field, and copy your expression into the Filter Pattern box.

filter

You might want to verify the filter before saving to check that everything is okay. Once you’re ready, set it to save, and apply the filter to all the views you want (except the view without filters).

This single filter will get rid of future occurrences of ghost spam that use invalid hostnames, and it doesn’t require much maintenance. But it’s important that every time you add your tracking code to any service, you add it to the end of the filter.

Now you should only need to take care of the crawler spam. Since crawlers access your site, you can block them by adding these lines to the .htaccess file:

## STOP REFERRER SPAM 
RewriteCond %{HTTP_REFERER} semalt\.com [NC,OR] 
RewriteCond %{HTTP_REFERER} buttons-for-website\.com [NC] 
RewriteRule .* - [F]

It is important to note that this file is very sensitive, and misplacing a single character it it can bring down your entire site. Therefore, make sure you create a backup copy of your .htaccess file prior to editing it.

If you don’t feel comfortable messing around with your .htaccess file, you can alternatively make an expression with all the crawlers, then and add it to an exclude filter by Campaign Source.

Implement these combined solutions, and you will worry much less about spam contaminating your analytics data. This will have the added benefit of freeing up more time for you to spend actually analyze your valid data.

After stopping spam, you can also get clean reports from the historical data by using the same expressions in an Advance Segment to exclude all the spam.

Bonus resources to help you manage spam

If you still need more information to help you understand and deal with the spam on your GA reports, you can read my main article on the subject here: http://www.ohow.co/what-is-referrer-spam-how-stop-it-guide/.

Additional information on how to stop spam can be found at these URLs:

In closing, I am eager to hear your ideas on this serious issue. Please share them in the comments below.

(Editor’s Note: All images featured in this post were created by the author.)

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Reblogged 4 years ago from tracking.feedpress.it

Why Effective, Modern SEO Requires Technical, Creative, and Strategic Thinking – Whiteboard Friday

Posted by randfish

There’s no doubt that quite a bit has changed about SEO, and that the field is far more integrated with other aspects of online marketing than it once was. In today’s Whiteboard Friday, Rand pushes back against the idea that effective modern SEO doesn’t require any technical expertise, outlining a fantastic list of technical elements that today’s SEOs need to know about in order to be truly effective.

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

Video transcription

Howdy, Moz fans, and welcome to another edition of Whiteboard Friday. This week I’m going to do something unusual. I don’t usually point out these inconsistencies or sort of take issue with other folks’ content on the web, because I generally find that that’s not all that valuable and useful. But I’m going to make an exception here.

There is an article by Jayson DeMers, who I think might actually be here in Seattle — maybe he and I can hang out at some point — called “Why Modern SEO Requires Almost No Technical Expertise.” It was an article that got a shocking amount of traction and attention. On Facebook, it has thousands of shares. On LinkedIn, it did really well. On Twitter, it got a bunch of attention.

Some folks in the SEO world have already pointed out some issues around this. But because of the increasing popularity of this article, and because I think there’s, like, this hopefulness from worlds outside of kind of the hardcore SEO world that are looking to this piece and going, “Look, this is great. We don’t have to be technical. We don’t have to worry about technical things in order to do SEO.”

Look, I completely get the appeal of that. I did want to point out some of the reasons why this is not so accurate. At the same time, I don’t want to rain on Jayson, because I think that it’s very possible he’s writing an article for Entrepreneur, maybe he has sort of a commitment to them. Maybe he had no idea that this article was going to spark so much attention and investment. He does make some good points. I think it’s just really the title and then some of the messages inside there that I take strong issue with, and so I wanted to bring those up.

First off, some of the good points he did bring up.

One, he wisely says, “You don’t need to know how to code or to write and read algorithms in order to do SEO.” I totally agree with that. If today you’re looking at SEO and you’re thinking, “Well, am I going to get more into this subject? Am I going to try investing in SEO? But I don’t even know HTML and CSS yet.”

Those are good skills to have, and they will help you in SEO, but you don’t need them. Jayson’s totally right. You don’t have to have them, and you can learn and pick up some of these things, and do searches, watch some Whiteboard Fridays, check out some guides, and pick up a lot of that stuff later on as you need it in your career. SEO doesn’t have that hard requirement.

And secondly, he makes an intelligent point that we’ve made many times here at Moz, which is that, broadly speaking, a better user experience is well correlated with better rankings.

You make a great website that delivers great user experience, that provides the answers to searchers’ questions and gives them extraordinarily good content, way better than what’s out there already in the search results, generally speaking you’re going to see happy searchers, and that’s going to lead to higher rankings.

But not entirely. There are a lot of other elements that go in here. So I’ll bring up some frustrating points around the piece as well.

First off, there’s no acknowledgment — and I find this a little disturbing — that the ability to read and write code, or even HTML and CSS, which I think are the basic place to start, is helpful or can take your SEO efforts to the next level. I think both of those things are true.

So being able to look at a web page, view source on it, or pull up Firebug in Firefox or something and diagnose what’s going on and then go, “Oh, that’s why Google is not able to see this content. That’s why we’re not ranking for this keyword or term, or why even when I enter this exact sentence in quotes into Google, which is on our page, this is why it’s not bringing it up. It’s because it’s loading it after the page from a remote file that Google can’t access.” These are technical things, and being able to see how that code is built, how it’s structured, and what’s going on there, very, very helpful.

Some coding knowledge also can take your SEO efforts even further. I mean, so many times, SEOs are stymied by the conversations that we have with our programmers and our developers and the technical staff on our teams. When we can have those conversations intelligently, because at least we understand the principles of how an if-then statement works, or what software engineering best practices are being used, or they can upload something into a GitHub repository, and we can take a look at it there, that kind of stuff is really helpful.

Secondly, I don’t like that the article overly reduces all of this information that we have about what we’ve learned about Google. So he mentions two sources. One is things that Google tells us, and others are SEO experiments. I think both of those are true. Although I’d add that there’s sort of a sixth sense of knowledge that we gain over time from looking at many, many search results and kind of having this feel for why things rank, and what might be wrong with a site, and getting really good at that using tools and data as well. There are people who can look at Open Site Explorer and then go, “Aha, I bet this is going to happen.” They can look, and 90% of the time they’re right.

So he boils this down to, one, write quality content, and two, reduce your bounce rate. Neither of those things are wrong. You should write quality content, although I’d argue there are lots of other forms of quality content that aren’t necessarily written — video, images and graphics, podcasts, lots of other stuff.

And secondly, that just doing those two things is not always enough. So you can see, like many, many folks look and go, “I have quality content. It has a low bounce rate. How come I don’t rank better?” Well, your competitors, they’re also going to have quality content with a low bounce rate. That’s not a very high bar.

Also, frustratingly, this really gets in my craw. I don’t think “write quality content” means anything. You tell me. When you hear that, to me that is a totally non-actionable, non-useful phrase that’s a piece of advice that is so generic as to be discardable. So I really wish that there was more substance behind that.

The article also makes, in my opinion, the totally inaccurate claim that modern SEO really is reduced to “the happier your users are when they visit your site, the higher you’re going to rank.”

Wow. Okay. Again, I think broadly these things are correlated. User happiness and rank is broadly correlated, but it’s not a one to one. This is not like a, “Oh, well, that’s a 1.0 correlation.”

I would guess that the correlation is probably closer to like the page authority range. I bet it’s like 0.35 or something correlation. If you were to actually measure this broadly across the web and say like, “Hey, were you happier with result one, two, three, four, or five,” the ordering would not be perfect at all. It probably wouldn’t even be close.

There’s a ton of reasons why sometimes someone who ranks on Page 2 or Page 3 or doesn’t rank at all for a query is doing a better piece of content than the person who does rank well or ranks on Page 1, Position 1.

Then the article suggests five and sort of a half steps to successful modern SEO, which I think is a really incomplete list. So Jayson gives us;

  • Good on-site experience
  • Writing good content
  • Getting others to acknowledge you as an authority
  • Rising in social popularity
  • Earning local relevance
  • Dealing with modern CMS systems (which he notes most modern CMS systems are SEO-friendly)

The thing is there’s nothing actually wrong with any of these. They’re all, generally speaking, correct, either directly or indirectly related to SEO. The one about local relevance, I have some issue with, because he doesn’t note that there’s a separate algorithm for sort of how local SEO is done and how Google ranks local sites in maps and in their local search results. Also not noted is that rising in social popularity won’t necessarily directly help your SEO, although it can have indirect and positive benefits.

I feel like this list is super incomplete. Okay, I brainstormed just off the top of my head in the 10 minutes before we filmed this video a list. The list was so long that, as you can see, I filled up the whole whiteboard and then didn’t have any more room. I’m not going to bother to erase and go try and be absolutely complete.

But there’s a huge, huge number of things that are important, critically important for technical SEO. If you don’t know how to do these things, you are sunk in many cases. You can’t be an effective SEO analyst, or consultant, or in-house team member, because you simply can’t diagnose the potential problems, rectify those potential problems, identify strategies that your competitors are using, be able to diagnose a traffic gain or loss. You have to have these skills in order to do that.

I’ll run through these quickly, but really the idea is just that this list is so huge and so long that I think it’s very, very, very wrong to say technical SEO is behind us. I almost feel like the opposite is true.

We have to be able to understand things like;

  • Content rendering and indexability
  • Crawl structure, internal links, JavaScript, Ajax. If something’s post-loading after the page and Google’s not able to index it, or there are links that are accessible via JavaScript or Ajax, maybe Google can’t necessarily see those or isn’t crawling them as effectively, or is crawling them, but isn’t assigning them as much link weight as they might be assigning other stuff, and you’ve made it tough to link to them externally, and so they can’t crawl it.
  • Disabling crawling and/or indexing of thin or incomplete or non-search-targeted content. We have a bunch of search results pages. Should we use rel=prev/next? Should we robots.txt those out? Should we disallow from crawling with meta robots? Should we rel=canonical them to other pages? Should we exclude them via the protocols inside Google Webmaster Tools, which is now Google Search Console?
  • Managing redirects, domain migrations, content updates. A new piece of content comes out, replacing an old piece of content, what do we do with that old piece of content? What’s the best practice? It varies by different things. We have a whole Whiteboard Friday about the different things that you could do with that. What about a big redirect or a domain migration? You buy another company and you’re redirecting their site to your site. You have to understand things about subdomain structures versus subfolders, which, again, we’ve done another Whiteboard Friday about that.
  • Proper error codes, downtime procedures, and not found pages. If your 404 pages turn out to all be 200 pages, well, now you’ve made a big error there, and Google could be crawling tons of 404 pages that they think are real pages, because you’ve made it a status code 200, or you’ve used a 404 code when you should have used a 410, which is a permanently removed, to be able to get it completely out of the indexes, as opposed to having Google revisit it and keep it in the index.

Downtime procedures. So there’s specifically a… I can’t even remember. It’s a 5xx code that you can use. Maybe it was a 503 or something that you can use that’s like, “Revisit later. We’re having some downtime right now.” Google urges you to use that specific code rather than using a 404, which tells them, “This page is now an error.”

Disney had that problem a while ago, if you guys remember, where they 404ed all their pages during an hour of downtime, and then their homepage, when you searched for Disney World, was, like, “Not found.” Oh, jeez, Disney World, not so good.

  • International and multi-language targeting issues. I won’t go into that. But you have to know the protocols there. Duplicate content, syndication, scrapers. How do we handle all that? Somebody else wants to take our content, put it on their site, what should we do? Someone’s scraping our content. What can we do? We have duplicate content on our own site. What should we do?
  • Diagnosing traffic drops via analytics and metrics. Being able to look at a rankings report, being able to look at analytics connecting those up and trying to see: Why did we go up or down? Did we have less pages being indexed, more pages being indexed, more pages getting traffic less, more keywords less?
  • Understanding advanced search parameters. Today, just today, I was checking out the related parameter in Google, which is fascinating for most sites. Well, for Moz, weirdly, related:oursite.com shows nothing. But for virtually every other sit, well, most other sites on the web, it does show some really interesting data, and you can see how Google is connecting up, essentially, intentions and topics from different sites and pages, which can be fascinating, could expose opportunities for links, could expose understanding of how they view your site versus your competition or who they think your competition is.

Then there are tons of parameters, like in URL and in anchor, and da, da, da, da. In anchor doesn’t work anymore, never mind about that one.

I have to go faster, because we’re just going to run out of these. Like, come on. Interpreting and leveraging data in Google Search Console. If you don’t know how to use that, Google could be telling you, you have all sorts of errors, and you don’t know what they are.

  • Leveraging topic modeling and extraction. Using all these cool tools that are coming out for better keyword research and better on-page targeting. I talked about a couple of those at MozCon, like MonkeyLearn. There’s the new Moz Context API, which will be coming out soon, around that. There’s the Alchemy API, which a lot of folks really like and use.
  • Identifying and extracting opportunities based on site crawls. You run a Screaming Frog crawl on your site and you’re going, “Oh, here’s all these problems and issues.” If you don’t have these technical skills, you can’t diagnose that. You can’t figure out what’s wrong. You can’t figure out what needs fixing, what needs addressing.
  • Using rich snippet format to stand out in the SERPs. This is just getting a better click-through rate, which can seriously help your site and obviously your traffic.
  • Applying Google-supported protocols like rel=canonical, meta description, rel=prev/next, hreflang, robots.txt, meta robots, x robots, NOODP, XML sitemaps, rel=nofollow. The list goes on and on and on. If you’re not technical, you don’t know what those are, you think you just need to write good content and lower your bounce rate, it’s not going to work.
  • Using APIs from services like AdWords or MozScape, or hrefs from Majestic, or SEM refs from SearchScape or Alchemy API. Those APIs can have powerful things that they can do for your site. There are some powerful problems they could help you solve if you know how to use them. It’s actually not that hard to write something, even inside a Google Doc or Excel, to pull from an API and get some data in there. There’s a bunch of good tutorials out there. Richard Baxter has one, Annie Cushing has one, I think Distilled has some. So really cool stuff there.
  • Diagnosing page load speed issues, which goes right to what Jayson was talking about. You need that fast-loading page. Well, if you don’t have any technical skills, you can’t figure out why your page might not be loading quickly.
  • Diagnosing mobile friendliness issues
  • Advising app developers on the new protocols around App deep linking, so that you can get the content from your mobile apps into the web search results on mobile devices. Awesome. Super powerful. Potentially crazy powerful, as mobile search is becoming bigger than desktop.

Okay, I’m going to take a deep breath and relax. I don’t know Jayson’s intention, and in fact, if he were in this room, he’d be like, “No, I totally agree with all those things. I wrote the article in a rush. I had no idea it was going to be big. I was just trying to make the broader points around you don’t have to be a coder in order to do SEO.” That’s completely fine.

So I’m not going to try and rain criticism down on him. But I think if you’re reading that article, or you’re seeing it in your feed, or your clients are, or your boss is, or other folks are in your world, maybe you can point them to this Whiteboard Friday and let them know, no, that’s not quite right. There’s a ton of technical SEO that is required in 2015 and will be for years to come, I think, that SEOs have to have in order to be effective at their jobs.

All right, everyone. Look forward to some great comments, and we’ll see you again next time for another edition of Whiteboard Friday. Take care.

Video transcription by Speechpad.com

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Reblogged 4 years ago from tracking.feedpress.it

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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Reblogged 4 years ago from tracking.feedpress.it

An Open-Source Tool for Checking rel-alternate-hreflang Annotations

Posted by Tom-Anthony

In the Distilled R&D department we have been ramping up the amount of automated monitoring and analysis we do, with an internal system monitoring our client’s sites both directly and via various data sources to ensure they remain healthy and we are alerted to any problems that may arise.

Recently we started work to add in functionality for including the rel-alternate-hreflang annotations in this system. In this blog post I’m going to share an open-source Python library we’ve just started work on for the purpose, which makes it easy to read the hreflang entries from a page and identify errors with them.

If you’re not a Python aficionado then don’t despair, as I have also built a ready-to-go tool for you to use, which will quickly do some checks on the hreflang entries for any URL you specify. 🙂

Google’s Search Console (formerly Webmaster Tools) does have some basic rel-alternate-hreflang checking built in, but it is limited in how you can use it and you are restricted to using it for verified sites.

rel-alternate-hreflang checklist

Before we introduce the code, I wanted to quickly review a list of five easy and common mistakes that we will want to check for when looking at rel-alternate-hreflang annotations:

  • return tag errors – Every alternate language/locale URL of a page should, itself, include a link back to the first page. This makes sense but I’ve seen people make mistakes with it fairly often.
  • indirect / broken links – Links to alternate language/region versions of the page should no go via redirects, and should not link to missing or broken pages.
  • multiple entries – There should never be multiple entries for a single language/region combo.
  • multiple defaults – You should never have more than one x-default entry.
  • conflicting modes – rel-alternate-hreflang entries can be implemented via inline HTML, XML sitemaps, or HTTP headers. For any one set of pages only one implementation mode should be used.

So now imagine that we want to simply automate these checks quickly and simply…

Introducing: polly – the hreflang checker library

polly is the name for the library we have developed to help us solve this problem, and we are releasing it as open source so the SEO community can use it freely to build upon. We only started work on it last week, but we plan to continue developing it, and will also accept contributions to the code from the community, so we expect its feature set to grow rapidly.

If you are not comfortable tinkering with Python, then feel free to skip down to the next section of the post, where there is a tool that is built with polly which you can use right away.

Still here? Ok, great. You can install polly easily via pip:

pip install polly

You can then create a PollyPage() object which will do all our work and store the data simply by instantiating the class with the desired URL:

my_page = PollyPage("http://www.facebook.com/")

You can quickly see the hreflang entries on the page by running:

print my_page.alternate_urls_map

You can list all the hreflang values encountered on a page, and which countries and languages they cover:

print my_page.hreflang_values
print my_page.languages
print my_page.regions

You can also check various aspects of a page, see whether the pages it includes in its rel-alternate-hreflang entries point back, or whether there are entries that do not see retrievable (due to 404 or 500 etc. errors):

print my_page.is_default
print my_page.no_return_tag_pages()
print my_page.non_retrievable_pages()

Get more instructions and grab the code at the polly github page. Hit me up in the comments with any questions.

Free tool: hreflang.ninja

I have put together a very simple tool that uses polly to run some of the checks we highlighted above as being common mistakes with rel-alternate-hreflang, which you can visit right now and start using:

http://hreflang.ninja

Simply enter a URL and hit enter, and you should see something like:

Example output from the ninja!

The tool shows you the rel-alternate-hreflang entries found on the page, the language and region of those entries, the alternate URLs, and any errors identified with the entry. It is perfect for doing quick’n’dirty checks of a URL to identify any errors.

As we add additional functionality to polly we will be updating hreflang.ninja as well, so please tweet me with feature ideas or suggestions.

To-do list!

This is the first release of polly and currently we only handle annotations that are in the HTML of the page, not those in the XML sitemap or HTTP headers. However, we are going to be updating polly (and hreflang.ninja) over the coming weeks, so watch this space! 🙂

Resources

Here are a few links you may find helpful for hreflang:

Got suggestions?

With the increasing number of SEO directives and annotations available, and the ever-changing guidelines around how to deploy them, it is important to automate whatever areas possible. Hopefully polly is helpful to the community in this regard, and we want to here what ideas you have for making these tools more useful – here in the comments or via Twitter.

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Reblogged 4 years ago from tracking.feedpress.it

A Vision for Brand Engagement Online, or "The Goal"

Posted by EricEnge

Today’s post focuses on a vision for your online presence. This vision outlines what it takes to be the best, both from an overall reputation and visibility standpoint, as well as an SEO point of view. The reason these are tied together is simple: Your overall online reputation and visibility is a huge factor in your SEO. Period. Let’s start by talking about why.

Core ranking signals

For purposes of this post, let’s define three cornerstone ranking signals that most everyone agrees on:

Links

Links remain a huge factor in overall ranking. Both Cyrus Shepard and Marcus Tober re-confirmed this on the Periodic Table of SEO Ranking Factors session at the SMX Advanced conference in Seattle this past June.

On-page content

On-page content remains a huge factor too, but with some subtleties now thrown in. I wrote about some of this in earlier posts I did on Moz about Term Frequency and Inverse Document Frequency. Suffice it to say that on-page content is about a lot more than pure words on the page, but also includes the supporting pages that you link to.

User engagement with your site

This is not one of the traditional SEO signals from the early days of SEO, but most advanced SEO pros that I know consider it a real factor these days. One of the most popular concepts people talk about is called pogo-sticking, which is illustrated here:

You can learn more about the pogosticking concept by visiting this Whiteboard Friday video by a rookie SEO with a last name of Fishkin.

New, lesser-known signals

OK, so these are the more obvious signals, but now let’s look more broadly at the overall web ecosystem and talk about other types of ranking signals. Be warned that some of these signals may be indirect, but that just doesn’t matter. In fact, my first example below is an indirect factor which I will use to demonstrate why whether a signal is direct or indirect is not an issue at all.

Let me illustrate with an example. Say you spend $1 billion dollars building a huge brand around a product that is massively useful to people. Included in this is a sizable $100 million dollar campaign to support a highly popular charitable foundation, and your employees regularly donate time to help out in schools across your country. In short, the great majority of people love your brand.

Do you think this will impact the way people link to your site? Of course it does. Do you think it will impact how likely people are to be satisified with quality of the pages of your site? Consider this A/B test scenario of 2 pages from different “brands” (for the one on the left, imagine the image of Coca Cola or Pepsi Cola, whichever one you prefer):

Do you think that the huge brand will get a benefit of a doubt on their page that the no-name brand does not even though the pages are identical? Of course they will. Now let’s look at some simpler scenarios that don’t involve a $1 billion investment.

1. Cover major options related to a product or service on “money pages”

Imagine that a user arrives on your auto parts site after searching on the phrase “oil filter” at Google or Bing. Chances are pretty good that they want an oil filter, but here are some other items they may also want:

  • A guide to picking the right filter for their car
  • Oil
  • An oil filter wrench
  • A drainage pan to drain the old oil into

This is just the basics, right? But, you would be surprised with how many sites don’t include links or information on directly related products on their money pages. Providing this type of smart site and page design can have a major impact on user engagement with the money pages of your site.

2. Include other related links on money pages

In the prior item we covered the user’s most directly related needs, but they may have secondary needs as well. Someone who is changing a car’s oil is either a mechanic or a do-it-yourself-er. What else might they need? How about other parts, such as windshield wipers or air filters?

These are other fairly easy maintenance steps for someone who is working on their car to complete. Presence of these supporting products could be one way to improve user engagement with your pages.

3. Offer industry-leading non-commercial content on-site

Publishing world-class content on your site is a great way to produce links to your site. Of course, if you do this on a blog on your site, it may not provide links directly to your money pages, but it will nonetheless lift overall site authority.

In addition, if someone has consumed one or more pieces of great content on your site, the chance of their engaging in a more positive manner with your site overall go way up. Why? Because you’ve earned their trust and admiration.

4. Be everywhere your audiences are with more high-quality, relevant, non-commercial content

Are there major media sites that cover your market space? Do they consider you to be an expert? Will they quote you in articles they write? Can you provide them with guest posts or let you be a guest columnist? Will they collaborate on larger content projects with you?

All of these activities put you in front of their audiences, and if those audiences overlap with yours, this provides a great way to build your overall reputation and visibility. This content that you publish, or collaborate on, that shows up on 3rd-party sites will get you mentions and links. In addition, once again, it will provide you with a boost to your branding. People are now more likely to consume your other content more readily, including on your money pages.

5. Leverage social media

The concept here shares much in common with the prior point. Social media provides opportunities to get in front of relevant audiences. Every person that’s an avid follower of yours on a social media site is more likely to show very different behavior characteristics interacting with your site than someone that does not know you well at all.

Note that links from social media sites are nofollowed, but active social media behavior can lead to people implementing “real world” links to your site that are followed, from their blogs and media web sites.

6. Be active in the offline world as well

Think your offline activity doesn’t matter online? Think again. Relationships are still most easily built face-to-face. People you meet and spend time with can well become your most loyal fans online. This is particularly important when it comes to building relationships with influential people.

One great way to do that is to go to public events related to your industry, such as conferences. Better still, obtain speaking engagements at those conferences. This can even impact people who weren’t there to hear you speak, as they become aware that you have been asked to do that. This concept can also work for a small local business. Get out in your community and engage with people at local events.

The payoff here is similar to the payoff for other items: more engaged, highly loyal fans who engage with you across the web, sending more and more positive signals, both to other people and to search engines, that you are the real deal.

7. Provide great customer service/support

Whatever your business may be, you need to take care of your customers as best you can. No one can make everyone happy, that’s unrealistic, but striving for much better than average is a really sound idea. Having satisfied customers saying nice things about you online is a big impact item in the grand scheme of things.

8. Actively build relationships with influencers too

While this post is not about the value of influencer relationships, I include this in the list for illustration purposes, for two reasons:

  1. Some opportunities are worth extra effort. Know of someone who could have a major impact on your business? Know that they will be at a public event in the near future? Book your plane tickets and get your butt out there. No guarantee that you will get the result you are looking for, or that it will happen quickly, but your chances go WAY up if you get some face time with them.
  2. Influencers are worth special attention and focus, but your relationship-building approach to the web and SEO is not only about influencers. It’s about the entire ecosystem.

It’s an integrated ecosystem

The web provides a level of integrated, real-time connectivity of a kind that the world has never seen before. This is only going to increase. Do something bad to a customer in Hong Kong? Consumers in Boston will know within 5 minutes. That’s where it’s all headed.

Google and Bing (and any future search engine that may emerge) want to measure these types of signals because they tell them how to improve the quality of the experience on their platforms. There are may ways they can perform these measurements.

One simple concept is covered by Rand in this recent Whiteboard Friday video. The discussion is about a recent patent granted to Google that shows how the company can use search queries to detect who is an authority on a topic.

The example he provides is about people who search on “email finding tool”. If Google also finds that a number of people search on “voila norbert email tool”, Google may use that as an authority signal.

Think about that for a moment. How are you going to get people to search on your brand more while putting it together with a non-branded querly like that? (OK, please leave Mechanical Turk and other services like that out of the discussion).

Now you can start to see the bigger picture. Measurements like pogosticking and this recent search behavior related patent are just the tip of the iceberg. Undoubtedly, there are many other ways that search engines can measure what people like and engage with the most.

This is all part of SEO now. UX, product breadth, problem solving, UX, engaging in social media, getting face to face, creating great content that you publish in front of other people’s audiences, and more.

For the small local business, you can still win at this game, as your focus just needs to be on doing it better than your competitors. The big brands will never be hyper-local like you are, so don’t think you can’t play the game, because you can.

Whoever you are, get ready, because this new integrated ecosystem is already upon us, and you need to be a part of it.

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!

Reblogged 4 years ago from tracking.feedpress.it

The Meta Referrer Tag: An Advancement for SEO and the Internet

Posted by Cyrus-Shepard

The movement to make the Internet more secure through HTTPS brings several useful advancements for webmasters. In addition to security improvements, HTTPS promises future technological advances and potential SEO benefits for marketers.

HTTPS in search results is rising. Recent MozCast data from Dr. Pete shows nearly 20% of first page Google results are now HTTPS.

Sadly, HTTPS also has its downsides.

Marketers run into their first challenge when they switch regular HTTP sites over to HTTPS. Technically challenging, the switch typically involves routing your site through a series of 301 redirects. Historically, these types of redirects are associated with a loss of link equity (thought to be around 15%) which can lead to a loss in rankings. This can offset any SEO advantage that Google claims switching.

Ross Hudgens perfectly summed it up in this tweet:

Many SEOs have anecdotally shared stories of HTTPS sites performing well in Google search results (and our soon-to-be-published Ranking Factors data seems to support this.) However, the short term effect of a large migration can be hard to take. When Moz recently switched to HTTPS to provide better security to our logged-in users, we saw an 8-9% dip in our organic search traffic.

Problem number two is the subject of this post. It involves the loss of referral data. Typically, when one site sends traffic to another, information is sent that identifies the originating site as the source of traffic. This invaluable data allows people to see where their traffic is coming from, and helps spread the flow of information across the web.

SEOs have long used referrer data for a number of beneficial purposes. Oftentimes, people will link back or check out the site sending traffic when they see the referrer in their analytics data. Spammers know this works, as evidenced by the recent increase in referrer spam:

This process stops when traffic flows from an HTTPS site to a non-secure HTTP site. In this case, no referrer data is sent. Webmasters can’t know where their traffic is coming from.

Here’s how referral data to my personal site looked when Moz switched to HTTPS. I lost all visibility into where my traffic came from.

Its (not provided) all over again!

Enter the meta referrer tag

While we can’t solve the ranking challenges imposed by switching a site to HTTPS, we can solve the loss of referral data, and it’s actually super-simple.

Almost completely unknown to most marketers, the relatively new meta referrer tag (it’s actually been around for a few years) was designed to help out in these situations.

Better yet, the tag allows you to control how your referrer information is passed.

The meta referrer tag works with most browsers to pass referrer information in a manner defined by the user. Traffic remains encrypted and all the benefits of using HTTPS remain in place, but now you can pass referrer data to all websites, even those that use HTTP.

How to use the meta referrer tag

What follows are extremely simplified instructions for using the meta referrer tag. For more in-depth understanding, we highly recommend referring to the W3C working draft of the spec.

The meta referrer tag is placed in the <head> section of your HTML, and references one of five states, which control how browsers send referrer information from your site. The five states are:

  1. None: Never pass referral data
    <meta name="referrer" content="none">
    
  2. None When Downgrade: Sends referrer information to secure HTTPS sites, but not insecure HTTP sites
    <meta name="referrer" content="none-when-downgrade">
    
  3. Origin Only: Sends the scheme, host, and port (basically, the subdomain) stripped of the full URL as a referrer, i.e. https://moz.com/example.html would simply send https://moz.com
    <meta name="referrer" content="origin">
    

  4. Origin When Cross-Origin: Sends the full URL as the referrer when the target has the same scheme, host, and port (i.e. subdomain) regardless if it’s HTTP or HTTPS, while sending origin-only referral information to external sites. (note: There is a typo in the official spec. Future versions should be “origin-when-cross-origin”)
    <meta name="referrer" content="origin-when-crossorigin">
    
  5. Unsafe URL: Always passes the URL string as a referrer. Note if you have any sensitive information contained in your URL, this isn’t the safest option. By default, URL fragments, username, and password are automatically stripped out.
    <meta name="referrer" content="unsafe-url">
    

The meta referrer tag in action

By clicking the link below, you can get a sense of how the meta referrer tag works.

Check Referrer

Boom!

We’ve set the meta referrer tag for Moz to “origin”, which means when we link out to another site, we pass our scheme, host, and port. The end result is you see http://moz.com as the referrer, stripped of the full URL path (/meta-referrer-tag).

My personal site typically receives several visits per day from Moz. Here’s what my analytics data looked like before and after we implemented the meta referrer tag.

For simplicity and security, most sites may want to implement the “origin” state, but there are drawbacks.

One negative side effect was that as soon as we implemented the meta referrer tag, our AdRoll analytics, which we use for retargeting, stopped working. It turns out that AdRoll uses our referrer information for analytics, but the meta referrer tag “origin” state meant that the only URL they ever saw reported was https://moz.com.

Conclusion

We love the meta referrer tag because it keeps information flowing on the Internet. It’s the way the web is supposed to work!

It helps marketers and webmasters see exactly where their traffic is coming from. It encourages engagement, communication, and even linking, which can lead to improvements in SEO.

Useful links:

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!

Reblogged 4 years ago from tracking.feedpress.it

Becoming Better SEO Scientists – Whiteboard Friday

Posted by MarkTraphagen

Editor’s note: Today we’re featuring back-to-back episodes of Whiteboard Friday from our friends at Stone Temple Consulting. Make sure to also check out the second episode, “UX, Content Quality, and SEO” from Eric Enge.

Like many other areas of marketing, SEO incorporates elements of science. It becomes problematic for everyone, though, when theories that haven’t been the subject of real scientific rigor are passed off as proven facts. In today’s Whiteboard Friday, Stone Temple Consulting’s Mark Traphagen is here to teach us a thing or two about the scientific method and how it can be applied to our day-to-day work.

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, Mozzers. Mark Traphagen from Stone Temple Consulting here today to share with you how to become a better SEO scientist. We know that SEO is a science in a lot of ways, and everything I’m going to say today applies not only to SEO, but testing things like your AdWords, how does that work, quality scores. There’s a lot of different applications you can make in marketing, but we’ll focus on the SEO world because that’s where we do a lot of testing. What I want to talk to you about today is how that really is a science and how we need to bring better science in it to get better results.

The reason is in astrophysics, things like that we know there’s something that they’re talking about these days called dark matter, and dark matter is something that we know it’s there. It’s pretty much accepted that it’s there. We can’t see it. We can’t measure it directly. We don’t even know what it is. We can’t even imagine what it is yet, and yet we know it’s there because we see its effect on things like gravity and mass. Its effects are everywhere. And that’s a lot like search engines, isn’t it? It’s like Google or Bing. We see the effects, but we don’t see inside the machine. We don’t know exactly what’s happening in there.

An artist’s depiction of how search engines work.

So what do we do? We do experiments. We do tests to try to figure that out, to see the effects, and from the effects outside we can make better guesses about what’s going on inside and do a better job of giving those search engines what they need to connect us with our customers and prospects. That’s the goal in the end.

Now, the problem is there’s a lot of testing going on out there, a lot of experiments that maybe aren’t being run very well. They’re not being run according to scientific principles that have been proven over centuries to get the best possible results.

Basic data science in 10 steps

So today I want to give you just very quickly 10 basic things that a real scientist goes through on their way to trying to give you better data. Let’s see what we can do with those in our SEO testing in the future.

So let’s start with number one. You’ve got to start with a hypothesis. Your hypothesis is the question that you want to solve. You always start with that, a good question in mind, and it’s got to be relatively narrow. You’ve got to narrow it down to something very specific. Something like how does time on page effect rankings, that’s pretty narrow. That’s very specific. That’s a good question. Might be able to test that. But something like how do social signals effect rankings, that’s too broad. You’ve got to narrow it down. Get it down to one simple question.

Then you choose a variable that you’re going to test. Out of all the things that you could do, that you could play with or you could tweak, you should choose one thing or at least a very few things that you’re going to tweak and say, “When we tweak this, when we change this, when we do this one thing, what happens? Does it change anything out there in the world that we are looking at?” That’s the variable.

The next step is to set a sample group. Where are you going to gather the data from? Where is it going to come from? That’s the world that you’re working in here. Out of all the possible data that’s out there, where are you going to gather your data and how much? That’s the small circle within the big circle. Now even though it’s smaller, you’re probably not going to get all the data in the world. You’re not going to scrape every search ranking that’s possible or visit every URL.

You’ve got to ask yourself, “Is it large enough that we’re at least going to get some validity?” If I wanted to find out what is the typical person in Seattle and I might walk through just one part of the Moz offices here, I’d get some kind of view. But is that a typical, average person from Seattle? I’ve been around here at Moz. Probably not. But this was large enough.

Also, it should be randomized as much as possible. Again, going back to that example, if I just stayed here within the walls of Moz and do research about Mozzers, I’d learn a lot about what Mozzers do, what Mozzers think, how they behave. But that may or may not be applicable to the larger world outside, so you randomized.

We want to control. So we’ve got our sample group. If possible, it’s always good to have another sample group that you don’t do anything to. You do not manipulate the variable in that group. Now, why do you have that? You have that so that you can say, to some extent, if we saw a change when we manipulated our variable and we did not see it in the control group, the same thing didn’t happen, more likely it’s not just part of the natural things that happen in the world or in the search engine.

If possible, even better you want to make that what scientists call double blind, which means that even you the experimenter don’t know who that control group is out of all the SERPs that you’re looking at or whatever it is. As careful as you might be and honest as you might be, you can end up manipulating the results if you know who is who within the test group? It’s not going to apply to every test that we do in SEO, but a good thing to have in mind as you work on that.

Next, very quickly, duration. How long does it have to be? Is there sufficient time? If you’re just testing like if I share a URL to Google +, how quickly does it get indexed in the SERPs, you might only need a day on that because typically it takes less than a day in that case. But if you’re looking at seasonality effects, you might need to go over several years to get a good test on that.

Let’s move to the second group here. The sixth thing keep a clean lab. Now what that means is try as much as possible to keep anything that might be dirtying your results, any kind of variables creeping in that you didn’t want to have in the test. Hard to do, especially in what we’re testing, but do the best you can to keep out the dirt.

Manipulate only one variable. Out of all the things that you could tweak or change choose one thing or a very small set of things. That will give more accuracy to your test. The more variables that you change, the more other effects and inner effects that are going to happen that you may not be accounting for and are going to muddy your results.

Make sure you have statistical validity when you go to analyze those results. Now that’s beyond the scope of this little talk, but you can read up on that. Or even better, if you are able to, hire somebody or work with somebody who is a trained data scientist or has training in statistics so they can look at your evaluation and say the correlations or whatever you’re seeing, “Does it have a statistical significance?” Very important.

Transparency. As much as possible, share with the world your data set, your full results, your methodology. What did you do? How did you set up the study? That’s going to be important to our last step here, which is replication and falsification, one of the most important parts of any scientific process.

So what you want to invite is, hey we did this study. We did this test. Here’s what we found. Here’s how we did it. Here’s the data. If other people ask the same question again and run the same kind of test, do they get the same results? Somebody runs it again, do they get the same results? Even better, if you have some people out there who say, “I don’t think you’re right about that because I think you missed this, and I’m going to throw this in and see what happens,” aha they falsify. That might make you feel like you failed, but it’s success because in the end what are we after? We’re after the truth about what really works.

Think about your next test, your next experiment that you do. How can you apply these 10 principles to do better testing, get better results, and have better marketing? Thanks.

Video transcription by Speechpad.com

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