It’s been a crazy four years since I attended my first SMX Advanced, in Seattle. While some things remain constant, so much has evolved in the land of SEO, SEM, social media, attribution, and mobile.
With so much rich, jam-packed information that you would come to expect from an event like this, drilling down to just five key takeaways was a toughie but necessary in order to reflect on learnings and most importantly apply them. So without further ado, here are my top highlights from SMX Advanced 2015:
1. Top the SERP with Rich Answers
For a long time, video has been one of my favorite ways to easily break into Page 1 in the Search Engine Results Page (SERP). Now, Rich Answers provide another great option to help dominate those first page results.
Eric Enge conducted a study of almost 900,000 different queries and found that around 20% of the time, Google served up a Rich Answer. Rich Answers are the answer boxes that appear at the very top of the page (yes, even above sites like Wikipedia) when a commonly asked question is searched on. It can display in a variety of ways, including tables, tabs, lists, charts, even drop down menus. Having a rich answer result allows your site to leap over all other results and significantly increase traffic to your page, even if you have a domain with lower authority.
So how do you get a Rich Answer? Rich Answers require you having a dedicated page on your website that provides a simple, clear answer to a question. Your content should not just focus on a keyword or phrase, but the context of it.
For a strong chance of generating a Rich Answer in Google, Eric recommends:
- Identifying a simple question that people are commonly searching for
- Providing a direct answer on a dedicated page on your website
- Offering value added information to accompany your answer
Eric managed to get a Rich Answer result in the SERP within 3 days of publishing it. As part of the content, he shared the page on Google+ and submitted the URL through Google Search Console (aka Webmaster Tools).
2. Test the Things that Matter
Testing is such a broad topic that sometimes it can be difficult to know where to focus. With many years of experience under his belt, Ryan Hutchings shared an extremely practical framework when it comes to testing the things that are going to make a difference. When you are looking to make improvements, you test things that fit within the equation (see above).
Since you will rarely be able to influence a person’s motivation (4m), Ryan recommends that you focus your tests around the following, in priority order:
- Reducing Friction (f) – e.g. reducing options
- Improving clarity of your Value Proposition (3v)
- Reducing anxiety (2a) – e.g. badges, certifications, customer testimonials
- Increasing incentive (i) – e.g. discount, gift, prize
3. Use Gap Analysis to Manage SEO Expectations
I’ve used gap analysis for a lot of things, but for some reason SEO has rarely been one of them. Jessica Bowman shared a wonderful way to use gap analysis that can be used to simply communicate SEO objectives, priorities and progress to management. It is particularly useful if management feels that SEO progress is taking longer than expected and are asking, “What happened?”.
The key areas of assessment should cover:
- SEO Tactics and Strategies: Where the key pillars are Crawling and Indexing, Content, Internal Links, External Links and Mentions, User Experience
- SEO Operations: Where the key pillars are SEO Team, Non-SEO Teams, Processes, Metrics
Pillar by pillar, you list out your SEO initiatives and tactics (a spreadsheet often works best for this) and apply a score between 1-10 for each pillar, focusing on:
- SEO need (the level of importance a change is for SEO success)
- Whether this need is on the company’s roadmap, or not
- What the actual situation is
You then roll up these tactical scores and apply to the framework in order to illustrate the gaps at a higher level.
4. Remember that SEO is About Context, Not just Keywords
In today’s ever-evolving SEO landscape, focusing just on traditional ranking factors will only get you so far. Throughout the conference many presenters reminded us that ranking today is not just about keywords but about consumer intent, and in order to get pages to rank at the top of the results pages and stay there, you have to provide helpful, human answers to queries being made.
Marcus Tober emphasized the importance of connected topics that make users happy. In order to win in SEO you have to become an authority on a topic and get the UX right first, before even thinking about link building.
The ultimate SEO utopia is having your brand becoming synonymous with a search topic. Rand Fishkin shared an example of Zillow showing up as a suggestion for real-estate searches because as a brand, it has become so tightly connected to this industry.
5. Marketers Continue to Struggle with Attribution
Four years ago, no-one had an easy answer for attribution; not even close. In 2015, the attribution question continues to be a painful one. Although 88% of marketers believe that attribution is important, 66% of us still use a single touch (first or last touch) attribution model – Jeremy Hull. What makes it hard is that tracking cookies break when measuring cross-device – not so good when users own an average of 2-3 devices, and climbing with wearable technology.
Google’s big focus of late has been around satisfying micro-moments of truth. Micro-moments are fragmented events that happen throughout the day that all contribute towards a person making a purchase decision. Google wants to build a great platform for every moment of commercial intent across the web, mobile and apps. If this is the case, then accurate attribution tracking has to be a big priority for Google.
Google Estimated Total Conversions is a column feature in AdWords that is intended to provide insights into how ads influence conversions cross-device online, in-store or over the phone. However, it does require use of the AdWords conversion tracking tool and enough conversion volume in order to generate an “estimate” – a word that many search marketers have taken issue with. We are told that Estimated Conversions are based on very conservative estimates with a 95% confidence level. Jerry Dischler (VP Product Management, at Google) went so far to say that he trusted it 100%.
Jerry confirmed that Google are focusing more on solving the attribution question – looking at both offline conversions (in particular, store visits and store transactions) and cross-device conversions. Offline visibility will be particularly important in the consumer space since recent research findings show that search is driving more conversions in-store than online.
From the February pre-announcement to the official April 21st launch, all talk has been around Google’s Mobile-Friendly update. However, the full impact of the update is still yet to be realized for many sites – according to Google, the rollout could take weeks.
There are now more mobile devices than there are people on earth
With more people using mobile to find, view and interact with website information, it makes sense for Google to favor mobile-friendly sites when conducting searches on mobile devices. In 2015, you would expect most – if not all – websites to be responsive to the device that people are accessing them from. Though scarily, a recent study conducted by Portent suggested otherwise, with 10,000 out of 25,000 top sites failing the mobile test.
One small step towards mobile-friendliness
Google’s move towards rewarding mobile-friendly sites in the search engine results is a positive first step in pushing more sites towards creating a better mobile site experience for their users, even if it is in the most basic form – text big enough to read, links far enough apart, content fitted to screen, mobile viewport set…
The fact of the matter is, having a mobile-friendly site goes way beyond a Google algorithm update and the simple ability to see information on a smaller screen. It’s about providing users with the best possible experience wherever, whenever, and however they need to access information, taking into account the context and intent-mindset that person is in.
A bigger mobile disruption
In today’s multi-screen, multi-device, omni-channel environment, the days of linear customer journeys are but a distant memory. The Zero Moment of Truth has progressed towards micro-moments of high intent and high engagement – many of which happen in spare moments, such as waiting in line and commuting. In these “I-want-to-know, I-want-to-go, I-want-to-buy” moments, we reach for our phone. On average, users check their phones 150 times per day. Companies need to be present during these micro-moments even for a chance to be within the consideration set.
The journey often continues either on mobile, desktop, laptop or tablet – most people have 2-3 devices that they move between. Google’s John Venverloh reported that 52% of online customer journeys take over 19 days; and that’s just for consumer purchases. Complex business purchases can take several months, or years.
As digital marketers, understanding our customer’s voice, behavior and idiosyncrasies become even more important as we look to develop real-time experiences built around micro-moments of truth. And when we consider mobile within this context, it becomes part of a much bigger digital strategy and experience. It’s more than just a standalone channel. It is way beyond an algorithm update.
If you’ve been tasked with improving the organic visibility of your website in the search engine results, one of the first places to start would be an SEO audit of your website.
Here are 5 key steps that can help support an SEO website audit. Whilst this is not intended to be an all-encompassing audit list, it does provide some basic check points that can help you begin gathering key website insights. Also included are some examples of free SEO tools you can utilize along the way.
1. Understand how your site is currently being found
As a first step, it is good to understand how many pages are being indexed and how your website is being found by users today. In particular:
- How many pages have been indexed? Is the homepage the first result returned? (Use site: search)
- Out of all site traffic, how much organic traffic is being driven to your site from search engines (volume and percentage)?
- What search terms are people coming into your site from? How much is branded vs. non-branded? For non-branded traffic, what kinds of non-branded words are bringing users in?
2. See how you stack up against the competition
It is always important to understand who your key competitors are and get a general feel as to their SEO savviness so that you know what you are up against. As a quick gauge, it is helpful to gather some key quantitative competitive comparison points, which may include things like:
- Domain Authority
- Domain Age
- Social Shares
3. Check your basic HTML code
Next, spend some time objectively looking at your site, and for a moment remove personal opinions around things like colors, fonts, images, etc. Instead, take a look at things such as:
URL Structure – Simply take a look at your browser URL address bar and drill down several pages. Are URLs clean, descriptive and keyword focused? Are they close to the domain root? Are multiple words separated by hyphens?
Title Tags – Look at the title that appears on your browser tab, or open source code of a few key pages and search for <title>. Are Title Tags keyword focused? Does it include your company name? Are they within the character limit?
Header Tags – Open the source code of a few key pages and search for “<h1>”. Are H1 tags present and keyword focused?
Meta Description – Open the source code of a few key pages and search for “description”. Are unique meta descriptions present on pages? Are they catchy, provide a call-to-action or next step, and within 155 characters?
Image File Names and Alt Text – Open the source code of a few key pages and search for “.jpg” and “alt=”. Are file names and alt tags present and keyword focused?
4. Check your content
Take a look at how content is structured on your site, the kinds of themes and topics being covered and the recency of information being presented to users. In particular:
- Are key product/service areas split out by preferred landing pages?
- Is there onsite search capability?
- How about sitemaps? Have these been submitted through Webmaster Tools? Are they listed in the robots.txt file?
- Does the content look recent? (EG: When was the last blog post? When was that hero content asset created or last updated?)
- Is the content relevant? Is the topic interesting?
- Is the amount of content substantial or shallow?
- Can content be easily shared?
- Are there ads that appear above the fold? If so, what’s the ratio of ads to content?
- How are users navigating through content? Are users bouncing off key pages as soon as they arrive?
5. Understand the state of your external links
Links from sites outside of your own are super important so it is good to understand both the quantity and quality of these links, including things such as:
- How many links do you have coming in to your site?
- What kinds of sites are these links coming in from? What is their domain authority? What’s the mix between .com, .edu, .gov, .org? How many are directories?
- What anchor text is being used to link to your site? Is it keyword focused? Is there anchor text variation?
Free SEO Audit Tools
And finally, here are a few handy tools to help with your SEO audit:
- Google Analytics (make sure your site is set up)
- Google Webmaster Tools (make sure your site is set up)
- Moz Open Site Explorer
- Domain Age Checker
- Webpage Test
In 2014, we made trillions of searches and Google (with all of their paydays, pigeons, penguins, pandas, and pirates) ended up making 13 algorithm updates this year alone, which surprisingly clocks in at a much lower count compared to years past.
So with the new year rolling in, what were the key lessons I learned in 2014?
1. SEO is part of a much bigger story
I’ve been in the SEO space for around seven years now yet I continue to learn something new everyday when it comes to the latest techniques, tactics and ongoing Google updates. But despite all of the changes that are happening with SEO, the fundamentals (just like marketing) remain the same: it’s about creating relevant, valuable content for your audience and demonstrating this relevance to the search engines.
So this past year in particular, I’ve learned that while staying up to date is important, what’s more important is to understand how SEO integrates with the entire marketing mix (beyond PPC and social media), particularly when it comes to content marketing. And perhaps even more important is helping your organization understand how to apply SEO across all work, since SEO cannot succeed if it operates within a silo (and vice versa).
2. Accurately predicting organic website traffic is not as straightforward as it used to be
Although estimating organic traffic has always involved a certain degree of finger in air estimation, applying one average percentage, depending on rank, often got you close enough. But as time go by, it has become even more challenging to closely predict, as CTR becomes increasingly affected by so many more factors, including:
- Local/national/international results
- Desktop vs.mobile searches
- Branded vs. unbranded searches
- Short vs. mid vs. long-tail searches
- Searches based on different stages of intent
- Impact of PPC ads on CTR
This is why I jumped with joy when I came across a wonderful organic CTR estimation tool towards the end of this year. It was developed from a study by Advanced Web Ranking which looked at the impact of blended search results on organic CTR in 2014. I see this getting a lot of use in 2015.
3. Failures provide the lessons that will set you on a better path
The world of digital and search marketing is so fast-moving that change is the only constant. In order for us to grow within our profession, we must find ways to live outside of our comfort zone, and gain experiences that extend beyond our search marketing bubble in order to remain innovative in our thinking.
As part of this process, things can’t always be plain sailing. It is important for us to make mistakes, learn from them, never give up, and with this be prepared to take the risk of uncertainty. What 2014 taught me was that sometimes it is ok to get things wrong and learn from it, rather than to be complacent and always wonder, “what if”. And for those people who do you wrong, karma will always get them in the end.
Often, the hardest part about SEO is not your SEO skill set, but more the ability to apply and integrate SEO techniques into your every day marketing approach. Take content marketing as an example. “Content is king”, a commonly used (and often abused) expression, has helped to fuel a content marketing explosion, with varying degrees of quality when it comes to output. But with so much content being created, are you doing enough to ensure your content can be found?
Content audits are wonderful for showing and understanding where your content pieces fit within the buyer journey, and for identifying content gaps and opportunities. Often these audits are applied to Email nurture streams, to tell a cohesive story that helps to move prospects through the funnel. But if it isn’t taking SEO into account, particularly for those mass of unknown people who are yet to become prospects, there’s a good chance that it isn’t working as hard as it could be for you.
This is where a combined search and content mapping model can be handy. Taking a common marketing funnel approach (Learn/Research/Buy/Use) you can not only start to map out where content fits within the buyer journey, but also the types of searches that you need to consider and optimize content development for, in order for your content to get found.
The key components of the model include:
Search: Trigger Keywords
Trigger keywords provide insight into searcher intent. These are words that searchers use to narrow down their search when they have an idea of the kind of information they are looking for. Trigger words really help to provide clues to their intent, so we can better match up content that is relevant to them.
Search: Assist Keywords
Assist keywords also provide clues, but these clues are more implied through the kinds of search a person makes, as opposed to specific triggers. For example, a general category keyword search (EG: car, camera, laptop) indicates more of a discovery/educational need; versus a brand search (EG: Ford, Nikon, Apple) which can indicate more of a research need; versus a model/nomenclature search (EG: Ford Focus, Nikon Coolpix, MacBook Air) which indicates more of a purchasing need.
Within this model, it starts to become clear as to how different content types align with search and the overall buyer journey. As you start to map content out, don’t forget about content that helps to support existing customers since these customers are much easier to resell to compared to acquiring new ones.
Within this, you can also start to consider specific vehicles for delivery of content. For example, YouTube is a great video vehicle for early education (learn phase). However, as people start to move more towards buying and using, videos housed on a company website can often work better due to the increased level of content control and fewer “dancing cat” distractions.