The Linkbait Bump: How Viral Content Creates Long-Term Lift in Organic Traffic – Whiteboard Friday

Posted by randfish

A single fantastic (or “10x”) piece of content can lift a site’s traffic curves long beyond the popularity of that one piece. In today’s Whiteboard Friday, Rand talks about why those curves settle into a “new normal,” and how you can go about creating the content that drives that change.

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

Video Transcription

Howdy, Moz fans, and welcome to another edition of Whiteboard Friday. This week we’re chatting about the linkbait bump, classic phrase in the SEO world and almost a little dated. I think today we’re talking a little bit more about viral content and how high-quality content, content that really is the cornerstone of a brand or a website’s content can be an incredible and powerful driver of traffic, not just when it initially launches but over time.

So let’s take a look.

This is a classic linkbait bump, viral content bump analytics chart. I’m seeing over here my traffic and over here the different months of the year. You know, January, February, March, like I’m under a thousand. Maybe I’m at 500 visits or something, and then I have this big piece of viral content. It performs outstandingly well from a relative standpoint for my site. It gets 10,000 or more visits, drives a ton more people to my site, and then what happens is that that traffic falls back down. But the new normal down here, new normal is higher than the old normal was. So the new normal might be at 1,000, 1,500 or 2,000 visits whereas before I was at 500.

Why does this happen?

A lot of folks see an analytics chart like this, see examples of content that’s done this for websites, and they want to know: Why does this happen and how can I replicate that effect? The reasons why are it sort of feeds back into that viral loop or the flywheel, which we’ve talked about in previous Whiteboard Fridays, where essentially you start with a piece of content. That content does well, and then you have things like more social followers on your brand’s accounts. So now next time you go to amplify content or share content socially, you’re reaching more potential people. You have a bigger audience. You have more people who share your content because they’ve seen that that content performs well for them in social. So they want to find other content from you that might help their social accounts perform well.

You see more RSS and email subscribers because people see your interesting content and go, “Hey, I want to see when these guys produce something else.” You see more branded search traffic because people are looking specifically for content from you, not necessarily just around this viral piece, although that’s often a big part of it, but around other pieces as well, especially if you do a good job of exposing them to that additional content. You get more bookmark and type in traffic, more searchers biased by personalization because they’ve already visited your site. So now when they search and they’re logged into their accounts, they’re going to see your site ranking higher than they normally would otherwise, and you get an organic SEO lift from all the links and shares and engagement.

So there’s a ton of different factors that feed into this, and you kind of want to hit all of these things. If you have a piece of content that gets a lot of shares, a lot of links, but then doesn’t promote engagement, doesn’t get more people signing up, doesn’t get more people searching for your brand or searching for that content specifically, then it’s not going to have the same impact. Your traffic might fall further and more quickly.

How do you achieve this?

How do we get content that’s going to do this? Well, we’re going to talk through a number of things that we’ve talked about previously on Whiteboard Friday. But there are some additional ones as well. This isn’t just creating good content or creating high quality content, it’s creating a particular kind of content. So for this what you want is a deep understanding, not necessarily of what your standard users or standard customers are interested in, but a deep understanding of what influencers in your niche will share and promote and why they do that.

This often means that you follow a lot of sharers and influencers in your field, and you understand, hey, they’re all sharing X piece of content. Why? Oh, because it does this, because it makes them look good, because it helps their authority in the field, because it provides a lot of value to their followers, because they know it’s going to get a lot of retweets and shares and traffic. Whatever that because is, you have to have a deep understanding of it in order to have success with viral kinds of content.

Next, you want to have empathy for users and what will give them the best possible experience. So if you know, for example, that a lot of people are coming on mobile and are going to be sharing on mobile, which is true of almost all viral content today, FYI, you need to be providing a great mobile and desktop experience. Oftentimes that mobile experience has to be different, not just responsive design, but actually a different format, a different way of being able to scroll through or watch or see or experience that content.

There are some good examples out there of content that does that. It makes a very different user experience based on the browser or the device you’re using.

You also need to be aware of what will turn them off. So promotional messages, pop-ups, trying to sell to them, oftentimes that diminishes user experience. It means that content that could have been more viral, that could have gotten more shares won’t.

Unique value and attributes that separate your content from everything else in the field. So if there’s like ABCD and whoa, what’s that? That’s very unique. That stands out from the crowd. That provides a different form of value in a different way than what everyone else is doing. That uniqueness is often a big reason why content spreads virally, why it gets more shared than just the normal stuff.

I’ve talk about this a number of times, but content that’s 10X better than what the competition provides. So unique value from the competition, but also quality that is not just a step up, but 10X better, massively, massively better than what else you can get out there. That makes it unique enough. That makes it stand out from the crowd, and that’s a very hard thing to do, but that’s why this is so rare and so valuable.

This is a critical one, and I think one that, I’ll just say, many organizations fail at. That is the freedom and support to fail many times, to try to create these types of effects, to have this impact many times before you hit on a success. A lot of managers and clients and teams and execs just don’t give marketing teams and content teams the freedom to say, “Yeah, you know what? You spent a month and developer resources and designer resources and spent some money to go do some research and contracted with this third party, and it wasn’t a hit. It didn’t work. We didn’t get the viral content bump. It just kind of did okay. You know what? We believe in you. You’ve got a lot of chances. You should try this another 9 or 10 times before we throw it out. We really want to have a success here.”

That is something that very few teams invest in. The powerful thing is because so few people are willing to invest that way, the ones that do, the ones that believe in this, the ones that invest long term, the ones that are willing to take those failures are going to have a much better shot at success, and they can stand out from the crowd. They can get these bumps. It’s powerful.

Not a requirement, but it really, really helps to have a strong engaged community, either on your site and around your brand, or at least in your niche and your topic area that will help, that wants to see you, your brand, your content succeed. If you’re in a space that has no community, I would work on building one, even if it’s very small. We’re not talking about building a community of thousands or tens of thousands. A community of 100 people, a community of 50 people even can be powerful enough to help content get that catalyst, that first bump that’ll boost it into viral potential.

Then finally, for this type of content, you need to have a logical and not overly promotional match between your brand and the content itself. You can see many sites in what I call sketchy niches. So like a criminal law site or a casino site or a pharmaceutical site that’s offering like an interactive musical experience widget, and you’re like, “Why in the world is this brand promoting this content? Why did they even make it? How does that match up with what they do? Oh, it’s clearly just intentionally promotional.”

Look, many of these brands go out there and they say, “Hey, the average web user doesn’t know and doesn’t care.” I agree. But the average web user is not an influencer. Influencers know. Well, they’re very, very suspicious of why content is being produced and promoted, and they’re very skeptical of promoting content that they don’t think is altruistic. So this kills a lot of content for brands that try and invest in it when there’s no match. So I think you really need that.

Now, when you do these linkbait bump kinds of things, I would strongly recommend that you follow up, that you consider the quality of the content that you’re producing. Thereafter, that you invest in reproducing these resources, keeping those resources updated, and that you don’t simply give up on content production after this. However, if you’re a small business site, a small or medium business, you might think about only doing one or two of these a year. If you are a heavy content player, you’re doing a lot of content marketing, content marketing is how you’re investing in web traffic, I’d probably be considering these weekly or monthly at the least.

All right, everyone. Look forward to your experiences with the linkbait bump, and I will see you again next week for another edition of Whiteboard Friday. Take care.

Video transcription by Speechpad.com

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Your Daily SEO Fix: Week 5

Posted by Trevor-Klein

We’ve arrived, folks! This is the last installment of our short (< 2-minute) video tutorials that help you all get the most out of Moz’s tools. If you haven’t been following along, these are each designed to solve a use case that we regularly hear about from Moz community members.

Here’s a quick recap of the previous round-ups in case you missed them:

  • Week 1: Reclaim links using Open Site Explorer, build links using Fresh Web Explorer, and find the best time to tweet using Followerwonk.
  • Week 2: Analyze SERPs using new MozBar features, boost your rankings through on-page optimization, check your anchor text using Open Site Explorer, do keyword research with OSE and the keyword difficulty tool, and discover keyword opportunities in Moz Analytics.
  • Week 3: Compare link metrics in Open Site Explorer, find tweet topics with Followerwonk, create custom reports in Moz Analytics, use Spam Score to identify high-risk links, and get link building opportunities delivered to your inbox.
  • Week 4: Use Fresh Web Explorer to build links, analyze rank progress for a given keyword, use the MozBar to analyze your competitors’ site markup, use the Top Pages report to find content ideas, and find on-site errors with Crawl Test.

We’ve got five new fixes for you in this edition:

  • How to Use the Full SERP Report
  • How to Find Fresh Links and Manage Your Brand Online Using Open Site Explorer
  • How to Build Your Link Profile with Link Intersect
  • How to Find Local Citations Using the MozBar
  • Bloopers: How to Screw Up While Filming a Daily SEO Fix

Hope you enjoy them!


Fix 1: How to Use the Full SERP Report

Moz’s Full SERP Report is a detailed report that shows the top ten ranking URLs for a specific keyword and presents the potential ranking signals in an easy-to-view format. In this Daily SEO Fix, Meredith breaks down the report so you can see all the sections and how each are used.

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Fix 2: How to Find Fresh Links and Manage Your Brand Online Using Open Site Explorer

The Just-Discovered Links report in Open Site Explorer helps you discover recently created links within an hour of them being published. In this fix, Nick shows you how to use the report to view who is linking to you, how they’re doing it, and what they are saying, so you can capitalize on link opportunities while they’re still fresh and join the conversation about your brand.


Fix 3: How to Build Your Link Profile with Link Intersect

The quantity and (more importantly) quality of backlinks to your website make up your link profile, one of the most important elements in SEO and an incredibly important factor in search engine rankings. In this Daily SEO Fix, Tori shows you how to use Moz’s Link Intersect tool to analyze the competitions’ backlinks. Plus, learn how to find opportunities to build links and strengthen your own link profile.


Fix 4: How to Find Local Citations Using the MozBar

Citations are mentions of your business and address on webpages other than your own such as an online yellow pages directory or a local business association page. They are a key component in search engine ranking algorithms so building consistent and accurate citations for your local business(s) is a key Local SEO tactic. In today’s Daily SEO Fix, Tori shows you how to use MozBar to find local citations around the web


Bloopers: How to Screw Up While Filming a Daily SEO Fix

We had a lot of fun filming this series, and there were plenty of laughs along the way. Like these ones. =)


Looking for more?

We’ve got more videos in the previous four weeks’ round-ups!

Your Daily SEO Fix: Week 1

Your Daily SEO Fix: Week 2

Your Daily SEO Fix: Week 3

Your Daily SEO Fix: Week 4


Don’t have a Pro subscription? No problem. Everything we cover in these Daily SEO Fix videos is available with a free 30-day trial.

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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The Colossus Update: Waking The Giant

Posted by Dr-Pete

Yesterday morning, we woke up to a historically massive temperature spike on MozCast, after an unusually quiet weekend. The 10-day weather looked like this:

That’s 101.8°F, one of the hottest verified days on record, second only to a series of unconfirmed spikes in June of 2013. For reference, the first Penguin update clocked in at 93.1°.

Unfortunately, trying to determine how the algorithm changed from looking at individual keywords (even thousands of them) is more art than science, and even the art is more often Ms. Johnson’s Kindergarten class than Picasso. Sometimes, though, we catch a break and spot something.

The First Clue: HTTPS

When you watch enough SERPs, you start to realize that change is normal. So, the trick is to find the queries that changed a lot on the day in question but are historically quiet. Looking at a few of these, I noticed some apparent shake-ups in HTTP vs. HTTPS (secure) URLs. So, the question becomes: are these anecdotes, or do they represent a pattern?

I dove in and looked at how many URLs for our 10,000 page-1 SERPs were HTTPS over the past few days, and I saw this:

On the morning of June 17, HTTPS URLs on page 1 jumped from 16.9% to 18.4% (a 9.9% day-over-day increase), after trending up for a few days. This represents the total real-estate occupied by HTTPS URLs, but how did rankings fare? Here are the average rankings across all HTTPS results:

HTTPS URLs also seem to have gotten a rankings boost – dropping (with “dropping” being a positive thing) from an average of 2.96 to 2.79 in the space of 24 hours.

Seems pretty convincing, right? Here’s the problem: rankings don’t just change because Google changes the algorithm. We are, collectively, changing the web every minute of the day. Often, those changes are just background noise (and there’s a lot of noise), but sometimes a giant awakens.

The Second Clue: Wikipedia

Anecdotally, I noticed that some Wikipedia URLs seemed to be flipping from HTTP to HTTPS. I ran a quick count, and this wasn’t just a fluke. It turns out that Wikipedia started switching their entire site to HTTPS around June 12 (hat tip to Jan Dunlop). This change is expected to take a couple of weeks.

It’s just one site, though, right? Well, historically, this one site is the #1 largest land-holder across the SERP real-estate we track, with over 5% of the total page-1 URLs in our tracking data (5.19% as of June 17). Wikipedia is a giant, and its movements can shake the entire web.

So, how do we tease this apart? If Wikipedia’s URLs had simply flipped from HTTP to HTTPS, we should see a pretty standard pattern of shake-up. Those URLs would look to have changed, but the SERPS around them would be quiet. So, I ran an analysis of what the temperature would’ve been if we ignored the protocol (treating HTTP/HTTPS as the same). While slightly lower, that temperature was still a scorching 96.6°F.

Is it possible that Wikipedia moving to HTTPS also made the site eligible for a rankings boost from previous algorithm updates, thus disrupting page 1 without any code changes on Google’s end? Yes, it is possible – even a relatively small rankings boost for Wikipedia from the original HTTPS algorithm update could have a broad impact.

The Third Clue: Google?

So far, Google has only said that this was not a Panda update. There have been rumors that the HTTPS update would get a boost, as recently as SMX Advanced earlier this month, but no timeline was given for when that might happen.

Is it possible that Wikipedia’s publicly announced switch finally gave Google the confidence to boost the HTTPS signal? Again, yes, it’s possible, but we can only speculate at this point.

My gut feeling is that this was more than just a waking giant, even as powerful of a SERP force as Wikipedia has become. We should know more as their HTTPS roll-out continues and their index settles down. In the meantime, I think we can expect Google to become increasingly serious about HTTPS, even if what we saw yesterday turns out not to have been an algorithm update.

In the meantime, I’m going to melodramatically name this “The Colossus Update” because, well, it sounds cool. If this indeed was an algorithm update, I’m sure Google would prefer something sensible, like “HTTPS Update 2” or “Securageddon” (sorry, Gary).

Update from Google: Gary Illyes said that he’s not aware of an HTTPS update (via Twitter):

No comment on other updates, or the potential impact of a Wikipedia change. I feel strongly that there is an HTTPS connection in the data, but as I said – that doesn’t necessarily mean the algorithm changed.

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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Your Daily SEO Fix: Week 4

Posted by Trevor-Klein

This week, we’ve got the fourth (and second-to-last) installment of our short (< 2-minute) video tutorials that help you all get the most out of Moz’s tools. They’re each designed to solve a use case that we regularly hear about from Moz community members.

Here’s a quick recap of the previous round-ups in case you missed them:

  • Week 1: Reclaim links using Open Site Explorer, build links using Fresh Web Explorer, and find the best time to tweet using Followerwonk.
  • Week 2: Analyze SERPs using new MozBar features, boost your rankings through on-page optimization, check your anchor text using Open Site Explorer, do keyword research with OSE and the keyword difficulty tool, and discover keyword opportunities in Moz Analytics.
  • Week 3: Compare link metrics in Open Site Explorer, find tweet topics with Followerwonk, create custom reports in Moz Analytics, use Spam Score to identify high-risk links, and get link building opportunities delivered to your inbox.

In this installment, we’ve got five brand new tutorials:

  • How to Use Fresh Web Explorer to Build Links
  • How to Analyze Rank Progress for a Given Keyword
  • How to Use the MozBar to Analyze Your Competitors’ Site Markup
  • How to Use the Top Pages Report to Find Content Ideas
  • How to Find On-Site Errors with Crawl Test

Hope you enjoy them!

Fix 1: How to Use Fresh Web Explorer to Build Links

If you have unique data or a particularly excellent resource on your site, that content can be a great link magnet. In this Daily SEO Fix, Felicia shows you how to set up alerts in Fresh Web Explorer to track mentions of relevant keyword phrases, find link opportunities, and build links to your content.

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Fix 2: How to Analyze Rank Progress for a Given Keyword

Moz’s Rank Tracker tool retrieves search engine rankings for pages and keywords, storing them for easy comparison later. In this fix, James shows you how to use this helpful tool to track keywords, save time, and improve your rankings.


Fix 3: How to Use the MozBar to Analyze Your Competitors’ Site Markup

Schema markup helps search engines better identify what your (and your competitors’) website pages are all about and as a result can lead to a boost to rankings. In this Daily SEO Fix, Jordan shows you how to use the MozBar to analyze the schema markup of the competition and optimize your own site and pages for rich snippets.


Fix 4: How to Use the Top Pages Report to Find Content Ideas

With Moz’s Top Pages report in Open Site Explorer, you can see the pages on your site (and the competitions’ sites!) that are top performers. In this fix, Nick shows you how to use the report to analyze your competitors’ content marketing efforts and to inform your own.


Fix 5: How to Find On-Site Errors with Crawl Test

Identifying and understanding any potential errors on your site is crucial to the life of any SEO. In this Daily SEO Fix Sean shows you how to use the Crawl Test tool in Moz Analytics to pull reports and identify any errors on your site.


Looking for more?

We’ve got more videos in the previous three weeks’ round-ups!

Your Daily SEO Fix: Week 1

Your Daily SEO Fix: Week 2

Your Daily SEO Fix: Week 3


Don’t have a Pro subscription? No problem. Everything we cover in these Daily SEO Fix videos is available with a free 30-day trial.

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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Your Daily SEO Fix: Week 3

Posted by Trevor-Klein

Welcome to the third installment of our short (< 2-minute) video tutorials that help you all get the most out of Moz’s tools. Each tutorial is designed to solve a use case that we regularly hear about from Moz community members—a need or problem for which you all could use a solution.

If you missed the previous roundups, you can find ’em here:

  • Week 1: Reclaim links using Open Site Explorer, build links using Fresh Web Explorer, and find the best time to tweet using Followerwonk.
  • Week 2: Analyze SERPs using new MozBar features, boost your rankings through on-page optimization, check your anchor text using Open Site Explorer, do keyword research with OSE and the keyword difficulty tool, and discover keyword opportunities in Moz Analytics.

Today, we’ve got a brand-new roundup of the most recent videos:

  • How to Compare Link Metrics in Open Site Explorer
  • How to Find Tweet Topics with Followerwonk
  • How to Create Custom Reports in Moz Analytics
  • How to Use Spam Score to Identify High-Risk Links
  • How to Get Link Building Opportunities Delivered to Your Inbox

Hope you enjoy them!

Fix 1: How to Compare Link Metrics in Open Site Explorer

Not all links are created equal. In this Daily SEO Fix, Chiaryn shows you how to use Open Site Explorer to analyze and compare link metrics for up to five URLs to see which are strongest.

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Fix 2: How to Find Tweet Topics with Followerwonk

Understanding what works best for your competitors on Twitter is a great place to start when forming your own Twitter strategy. In this fix, Ellie explains how to identify strong-performing tweets from your competitors and how to use those tweets to shape your own voice and plan.


Fix 3: How to Create Custom Reports in Moz Analytics

In this Daily SEO Fix, Kevin shows you how to create a custom report in Moz Analytics and schedule it to be delivered to your inbox on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis.


Fix 4: How to Use Spam Score to Identify High-Risk Links

Almost every site has a few bad links pointing to it, but lots of highly risky links can have a negative impact on your search engine rankings. In this fix, Tori shows you how to use Moz’s Spam Score metric to identify spammy links.


Fix 5: How to Get Link Building Opportunities Delivered to Your Inbox

Building high-quality links is one of the most important aspects of SEO. In this Daily SEO Fix, Erin shows you how to use Moz Analytics to set up a weekly custom report that will notify you of pages on the web that mention your site but do not include a link, so you can use this info to build more links.


Looking for more?

We’ve got more videos in the previous two weeks’ round-ups!

Your Daily SEO Fix: Week 1

Your Daily SEO Fix: Week 2


Don’t have a Pro subscription? No problem. Everything we cover in these Daily SEO Fix videos is available with a free 30-day trial.

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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Moz’s 2014 Annual Report

Posted by SarahBird

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s check in on some other Moz KPIs:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Moving 5 Domains to 1: An SEO Case Study

Posted by Dr-Pete

People often ask me if they should change domain names, and I always shudder just a little. Changing domains is a huge, risky undertaking, and too many people rush into it seeing only the imaginary upside. The success of the change also depends wildly on the details, and it’s not the kind of question anyone should be asking casually on social media.

Recently, I decided that it was time to find a new permanent home for my personal and professional blogs, which had gradually spread out over 5 domains. I also felt my main domain was no longer relevant to my current situation, and it was time for a change. So, ultimately I ended up with a scenario that looked like this:

The top three sites were active, with UserEffect.com being my former consulting site and blog (and relatively well-trafficked). The bottom two sites were both inactive and were both essentially gag sites. My one-pager, AreYouARealDoctor.com, did previously rank well for “are you a real doctor”, so I wanted to try to recapture that.

I started migrating the 5 sites in mid-January, and I’ve been tracking the results. I thought it would be useful to see how this kind of change plays out, in all of the gory details. As it turns out, nothing is ever quite “textbook” when it comes to technical SEO.

Why Change Domains at All?

The rationale for picking a new domain could fill a month’s worth of posts, but I want to make one critical point – changing domains should be about your business goals first, and SEO second. I did not change domains to try to rank better for “Dr. Pete” – that’s a crap shoot at best. I changed domains because my old consulting brand (“User Effect”) no longer represented the kind of work I do and I’m much more known by my personal brand.

That business case was strong enough that I was willing to accept some losses. We went through a similar transition here
from SEOmoz.org to Moz.com. That was a difficult transition that cost us some SEO ground, especially short-term, but our core rationale was grounded in the business and where it’s headed. Don’t let an SEO pipe dream lead you into a risky decision.

Why did I pick a .co domain? I did it for the usual reason – the .com was taken. For a project of this type, where revenue wasn’t on the line, I didn’t have any particular concerns about .co. The evidence on how top-level domains (TLDs) impact ranking is tough to tease apart (so many other factors correlate with .com’s), and Google’s attitude tends to change over time, especially if new TLDs are abused. Anecdotally, though, I’ve seen plenty of .co’s rank, and I wasn’t concerned.

Step 1 – The Boring Stuff

It is absolutely shocking how many people build a new site, slap up some 301s, pull the switch, and hope for the best. It’s less shocking how many of those people end up in Q&A a week later, desperate and bleeding money.


Planning is hard work, and it’s boring – get over it.

You need to be intimately familiar with every page on your existing site(s), and, ideally, you should make a list. Not only do you have to plan for what will happen to each of these pages, but you’ll need that list to make sure everything works smoothly later.

In my case, I decided it might be time to do some housekeeping – the User Effect blog had hundreds of posts, many outdated and quite a few just not very good. So, I started with the easy data – recent traffic. I’m sure you’ve seen this Google Analytics report (Behavior > Site Content > All Pages):

Since I wanted to focus on recent activity, and none of the sites had much new content, I restricted myself to a 3-month window (Q4 of 2014). Of course, I looked much deeper than the top 10, but the principle was simple – I wanted to make sure the data matched my intuition and that I wasn’t cutting off anything important. This helped me prioritize the list.

Of course, from an SEO standpoint, I also didn’t want to lose content that had limited traffic but solid inbound links. So, I checked my “Top Pages” report in
Open Site Explorer:

Since the bulk of my main site was a blog, the top trafficked and top linked-to pages fortunately correlated pretty well. Again, this is only a way to prioritize. If you’re dealing with sites with thousands of pages, you need to work methodically through the site architecture.

I’m going to say something that makes some SEOs itchy – it’s ok not to move some pages to the new site. It’s even ok to let some pages 404. In Q4, UserEffect.com had traffic to 237 URLs. The top 10 pages accounted for 91.9% of that traffic. I strongly believe that moving domains is a good time to refocus a site and concentrate your visitors and link equity on your best content. More is not better in 2015.

Letting go of some pages also means that you’re not 301-redirecting a massive number of old URLs to a new home-page. This can look like a low-quality attempt to consolidate link-equity, and at large scale it can raise red flags with Google. Content worth keeping should exist on the new site, and your 301s should have well-matched targets.

In one case, I had a blog post that had a decent trickle of traffic due to ranking for “50,000 push-ups,” but the post itself was weak and the bounce rate was very high:

The post was basically just a placeholder announcing that I’d be attempting this challenge, but I never recapped anything after finishing it. So, in this case,
I rewrote the post.

Of course, this process was repeated across the 3 active sites. The 2 inactive sites only constituted a handful of total pages. In the case of AreYouARealDoctor.com, I decided to turn the previous one-pager
into a new page on the new site. That way, I had a very well-matched target for the 301-redirect, instead of simply mapping the old site to my new home-page.

I’m trying to prove a point – this is the amount of work I did for a handful of sites that were mostly inactive and producing no current business value. I don’t need consulting gigs and these sites produce no direct revenue, and yet I still considered this process worth the effort.

Step 2 – The Big Day

Eventually, you’re going to have to make the move, and in most cases, I prefer ripping off the bandage. Of course, doing something all at once doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be careful.

The biggest problem I see with domain switches (even if they’re 1-to-1) is that people rely on data that can take weeks to evaluate, like rankings and traffic, or directly checking Google’s index. By then, a lot of damage is already done. Here are some ways to find out quickly if you’ve got problems…

(1) Manually Check Pages

Remember that list you were supposed to make? It’s time to check it, or at least spot-check it. Someone needs to physically go to a browser and make sure that each major section of the site and each important individual page is resolving properly. It doesn’t matter how confident your IT department/guy/gal is – things go wrong.

(2) Manually Check Headers

Just because a page resolves, it doesn’t mean that your 301-redirects are working properly, or that you’re not firing some kind of 17-step redirect chain. Check your headers. There are tons of free tools, but lately I’m fond of
URI Valet. Guess what – I screwed up my primary 301-redirects. One of my registrar transfers wasn’t working, so I had to have a setting changed by customer service, and I inadvertently ended up with 302s (Pro tip: Don’t change registrars and domains in one step):

Don’t think that because you’re an “expert”, your plan is foolproof. Mistakes happen, and because I caught this one I was able to correct it fairly quickly.

(3) Submit Your New Site

You don’t need to submit your site to Google in 2015, but now that Google Webmaster Tools allows it, why not do it? The primary argument I hear is “well, it’s not necessary.” True, but direct submission has one advantage – it’s fast.

To be precise, Google Webmaster Tools separates the process into “Fetch” and “Submit to index” (you’ll find this under “Crawl” > “Fetch as Google”). Fetching will quickly tell you if Google can resolve a URL and retrieve the page contents, which alone is pretty useful. Once a page is fetched, you can submit it, and you should see something like this:

This isn’t really about getting indexed – it’s about getting nearly instantaneous feedback. If Google has any major problems with crawling your site, you’ll know quickly, at least at the macro level.

(4) Submit New XML Sitemaps

Finally, submit a new set of XML sitemaps in Google Webmaster Tools, and preferably tiered sitemaps. While it’s a few years old now, Rob Ousbey has a great post on the subject of
XML sitemap structure. The basic idea is that, if you divide your sitemap into logical sections, it’s going to be much easier to diagnosis what kinds of pages Google is indexing and where you’re running into trouble.

A couple of pro tips on sitemaps – first, keep your old sitemaps active temporarily. This is counterintuitive to some people, but unless Google can crawl your old URLs, they won’t see and process the 301-redirects and other signals. Let the old accounts stay open for a couple of months, and don’t cut off access to the domains you’re moving.

Second (I learned this one the hard way), make sure that your Google Webmaster Tools site verification still works. If you use file uploads or meta tags and don’t move those files/tags to the new site, GWT verification will fail and you won’t have access to your old accounts. I’d recommend using a more domain-independent solution, like verifying with Google Analytics. If you lose verification, don’t panic – your data won’t be instantly lost.

Step 3 – The Waiting Game

Once you’ve made the switch, the waiting begins, and this is where many people start to panic. Even executed perfectly, it can take Google weeks or even months to process all of your 301-redirects and reevaluate a new domain’s capacity to rank. You have to expect short term fluctuations in ranking and traffic.

During this period, you’ll want to watch a few things – your traffic, your rankings, your indexed pages (via GWT and the site: operator), and your errors (such as unexpected 404s). Traffic will recover the fastest, since direct traffic is immediately carried through redirects, but ranking and indexation will lag, and errors may take time to appear.

(1) Monitor Traffic

I’m hoping you know how to check your traffic, but actually trying to determine what your new levels should be and comparing any two days can be easier said than done. If you launch on a Friday, and then Saturday your traffic goes down on the new site, that’s hardly cause for panic – your traffic probably
always goes down on Saturday.

In this case, I redirected the individual sites over about a week, but I’m going to focus on UserEffect.com, as that was the major traffic generator. That site was redirected, in full on January 21st, and the Google Analytics data for January for the old site looked like this:

So far, so good – traffic bottomed out almost immediately. Of course, losing traffic is easy – the real question is what’s going on with the new domain. Here’s the graph for January for DrPete.co:

This one’s a bit trickier – the first spike, on January 16th, is when I redirected the first domain. The second spike, on January 22nd, is when I redirected UserEffect.com. Both spikes are meaningless – I announced these re-launches on social media and got a short-term traffic burst. What we really want to know is where traffic is leveling out.

Of course, there isn’t a lot of history here, but a typical day for UserEffect.com in January was about 1,000 pageviews. The traffic to DrPete.co after it leveled out was about half that (500 pageviews). It’s not a complete crisis, but we’re definitely looking at a short-term loss.

Obviously, I’m simplifying the process here – for a large, ecommerce site you’d want to track a wide range of metrics, including conversion metrics. Hopefully, though, this illustrates the core approach. So, what am I missing out on? In this day of [not provided], tracking down a loss can be tricky. Let’s look for clues in our other three areas…

(2) Monitor Indexation

You can get a broad sense of your indexed pages from Google Webmaster Tools, but this data often lags real-time and isn’t very granular. Despite its shortcomings, I still prefer
the site: operator. Generally, I monitor a domain daily – any one measurement has a lot of noise, but what you’re looking for is the trend over time. Here’s the indexed page count for DrPete.co:

The first set of pages was indexed fairly quickly, and then the second set started being indexed soon after UserEffect.com was redirected. All in all, we’re seeing a fairly steady upward trend, and that’s what we’re hoping to see. The number is also in the ballpark of sanity (compared to the actual page count) and roughly matched GWT data once it started being reported.

So, what happened to UserEffect.com’s index after the switch?

The timeframe here is shorter, since UserEffect.com was redirected last, but we see a gradual decline in indexation, as expected. Note that the index size plateaus around 60 pages – about 1/4 of the original size. This isn’t abnormal – low-traffic and unlinked pages (or those with deep links) are going to take a while to clear out. This is a long-term process. Don’t panic over the absolute numbers – what you want here is a downward trend on the old domain accompanied by a roughly equal upward trend on the new domain.

The fact that UserEffect.com didn’t bottom out is definitely worth monitoring, but this timespan is too short for the plateau to be a major concern. The next step would be to dig into these specific pages and look for a pattern.

(3) Monitor Rankings

The old domain is dropping out of the index, and the new domain is taking its place, but we still don’t know why the new site is taking a traffic hit. It’s time to dig into our core keyword rankings.

Historically, UserEffect.com had ranked well for keywords related to “split test calculator” (near #1) and “usability checklist” (in the top 3). While [not provided] makes keyword-level traffic analysis tricky, we also know that the split-test calculator is one of the top trafficked pages on the site, so let’s dig into that one. Here’s the ranking data from Moz Analytics for “split test calculator”:

The new site took over the #1 position from the old site at first, but then quickly dropped down to the #3/#4 ranking. That may not sound like a lot, but given this general keyword category was one of the site’s top traffic drivers, the CTR drop from #1 to #3/#4 could definitely be causing problems.

When you have a specific keyword you can diagnose, it’s worth taking a look at the live SERP, just to get some context. The day after relaunch, I captured this result for “dr. pete”:

Here, the new domain is ranking, but it’s showing the old title tag. This may not be cause for alarm – weird things often happen in the very short term – but in this case we know that I accidentally set up a 302-redirect. There’s some reason to believe that Google didn’t pass full link equity during that period when 301s weren’t implemented.

Let’s look at a domain where the 301s behaved properly. Before the site was inactive, AreYouARealDoctor.com ranked #1 for “are you a real doctor”. Since there was an inactive period, and I dropped the exact-match domain, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a corresponding ranking drop.

In reality, the new site was ranking #1 for “are you a real doctor” within 2 weeks of 301-redirecting the old domain. The graph is just a horizontal line at #1, so I’m not going to bother you with it, but here’s a current screenshot (incognito):

Early on, I also spot-checked this result, and it wasn’t showing the strange title tag crossover that UserEffect.com pages exhibited. So, it’s very likely that the 302-redirects caused some problems.

Of course, these are just a couple of keywords, but I hope it provides a starting point for you to understand how to methodically approach this problem. There’s no use crying over spilled milk, and I’m not going to fire myself, so let’s move on to checking any other errors that I might have missed.

(4) Check Errors (404s, etc.)

A good first stop for unexpected errors is the “Crawl Errors” report in Google Webmaster Tools (Crawl > Crawl Errors). This is going to take some digging, especially if you’ve deliberately 404’ed some content. Over the couple of weeks after re-launch, I spotted the following problems:

The old site had a “/blog” directory, but the new site put the blog right on the home-page and had no corresponding directory. Doh. Hey, do as I say, not as I do, ok? Obviously, this was a big blunder, as the old blog home-page was well-trafficked.

The other two errors here are smaller but easy to correct. MinimalTalent.com had a “/free” directory that housed downloads (mostly PDFs). I missed it, since my other sites used a different format. Luckily, this was easy to remap.

The last error is a weird looking URL, and there are other similar URLs in the 404 list. This is where site knowledge is critical. I custom-designed a URL shortener for UserEffect.com and, in some cases, people linked to those URLs. Since those URLs didn’t exist in the site architecture, I missed them. This is where digging deep into historical traffic reports and your top-linked pages is critical. In this case, the fix isn’t easy, and I have to decide whether the loss is worth the time.

What About the New EMD?

My goal here wasn’t to rank better for “Dr. Pete,” and finally unseat Dr. Pete’s Marinades, Dr. Pete the Sodastream flavor (yes, it’s hilarious – you can stop sending me your grocery store photos), and 172 dentists. Ok, it mostly wasn’t my goal. Of course, you might be wondering how switching to an EMD worked out.

In the short term, I’m afraid the answer is “not very well.” I didn’t track ranking for “Dr. Pete” and related phrases very often before the switch, but it appears that ranking actually fell in the short-term. Current estimates have me sitting around page 4, even though my combined link profile suggests a much stronger position. Here’s a look at the ranking history for “dr pete” since relaunch (from Moz Analytics):

There was an initial drop, after which the site evened out a bit. This less-than-impressive plateau could be due to the bad 302s during transition. It could be Google evaluating a new EMD and multiple redirects to that EMD. It could be that the prevalence of natural anchor text with “Dr. Pete” pointing to my site suddenly looked unnatural when my domain name switched to DrPete.co. It could just be that this is going to take time to shake out.

If there’s a lesson here (and, admittedly, it’s too soon to tell), it’s that you shouldn’t rush to buy an EMD in 2015 in the wild hope of instantly ranking for that target phrase. There are so many factors involved in ranking for even a moderately competitive term, and your domain is just one small part of the mix.

So, What Did We Learn?

I hope you learned that I should’ve taken my own advice and planned a bit more carefully. I admit that this was a side project and it didn’t get the attention it deserved. The problem is that, even when real money is at stake, people rush these things and hope for the best. There’s a real cheerleading mentality when it comes to change – people want to take action and only see the upside.

Ultimately, in a corporate or agency environment, you can’t be the one sour note among the cheering. You’ll be ignored, and possibly even fired. That’s not fair, but it’s reality. What you need to do is make sure the work gets done right and people go into the process with eyes wide open. There’s no room for shortcuts when you’re moving to a new domain.

That said, a domain change isn’t a death sentence, either. Done right, and with sensible goals in mind – balancing not just SEO but broader marketing and business objectives – a domain migration can be successful, even across multiple sites.

To sum up: Plan, plan, plan, monitor, monitor, monitor, and try not to panic.

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