As the year comes to a close, it seems everyone is looking back on how far we’ve come. January of 2013 is a faraway place and all of the animals Google has thrown at us since (including a Hummingbird) leave us not too worse for the ware.
So if you struggle to remember all that has been in 2013, you are in luck. Search Engine Land has compiled year end lists, stories and recaps to refresh your memory and get you poised for a great 2014.
From all of us here at SmartSearch Marketing, we wish you Happy Holidays and a successful New Year!
Are Keywords Old School?
This is a loaded question in the field of SEO. In my opinion, keywords do still matter – just not the same way they once did.
Today we live in a world of encrypted search by Google which means a huge percentage of search query data is reported as “not provided” in our analytics. While there are some workarounds to getting keyword data – the ability for webmasters to tie a specific organic search query to a website conversion has become nearly impossible.
We also live in a world where “Hummingbird” (Google’s latest and greatest algorithm) has become the next step for Google in regard to adopting semantic Web technology. This started with “Knowledge Graph”, followed by “Voice Search” and “Google Now” and now we have “Hummingbird”. Semantic technology is focused on intent rather than search terms. In essence, Google wants to understand the answers we need, not just the question we are asking. There are several examples of how this works floating around – here is just one. With Google Now, it is possible to ask “who is the President of the United States?” and you will be provided the answer “Barack Obama”. You can next ask “how tall is he?” and it will respond “six feet one inch tall”. Just as in a conversation with a human, Google understands that “he” is Barack Obama.
Once you get the answer of how tall Barack Obama is, you will also get search results as usual. If you select one of those results to learn more about Barack Obama and his height (maybe as it relates to his basketball skills) the search query that would be recorded (if Google didn’t encrypt all searches) would be “how tall is he?” This wouldn’t be the keyword phrase the page was optimized for and rightly so. The fact that this data will now end up as “not provided” is actually not that big of a deal if this is the sort of search query data webmasters would receive anyway because it is not all that useful.
Entity Search for the Semantic Web
The SEO industry should now be thinking about “Entity Search” and less about keywords as the end-all, be-all of SEO. Entity Search connects a person/place/thing to other people/places/things in the world just like connecting dots. It allows search engines to understand intent by following those lines that connect dots. The Semantic web is responsible for a lot of those connected dots by labeling each piece of information as an “entity” – this also known as structured data. By organizing information in one structured format across the Web everyone basically begins to speak the same language. What does this mean with regard to keywords? In my opinion, SEO becomes less about a specific keyword or phrase and more about themes. Many keywords can make up a topical theme. Understanding the group of keywords or phrases that fit into a topical theme allows for optimization of a page for that topic. With the addition of structured data, the page’s content is easily understood by search engines in a way that when someone searches with the intent to find information on that topical theme, it is clear that the optimized page is a good fit. (I’m not saying that this is all that you need to do to rank well. There are still MANY other factors that weigh into how search engines “rank” pages in their results.)
It’s All About Relationships
When you couple encrypted search and Hummingbird, keywords are no longer what they used to be. We can’t get keyword data by visit in analytics and even if we could, that data may not hold the same value as it once did if it was one query in a string of refined searches performed by an individual. The present environment is one that requires that SEO consider how to define the website as a group of entities. Who, What, Where, When and what is the relationship between each of the entities (and with entities outside of the website). Keywords are not the future of SEO; instead it is the relationship between words and entities that will inform intent for the search engines.
For some time now, there’s been a growing buzz in the SEO community regarding organic ranking reports. The conversation focuses on a significant short list of controversial topics including: accuracy of data, use of tools that violate terms of service to scrape data, necessity for client reporting, and the foundational question: are ranking reports essential for performance monitoring. There are strong — and relevant — opinions on both sides of the debate.
I would like to make the case that SEO experts’ time is better spent focusing on primary results metrics (such as organic traffic and conversions) and only analyzing organic rank/position as it relates to these business results.
A website can “rank” across search results for the same query, and that “rank” can change minute-to-minute, day-to-day, device-to-device. Given the complexity of the factors considered before a search engine displays results, there is no definitive way to measure rank. Variables such as personalization, localization, search history, device in use, etc., — and their impact on search results — have been documented at great length.
We know that a webpage must rank somewhere in order to drive the associated organic traffic to a website. The problem is pinpointing that somewhere and assigning a specific rank value.
I recently completed an (unscientific) experiment with a group of SEO experts, analyzing rank for a company’s high-priority phrases. During a 15-minute time period, we used Google to conduct the exact same search from various geographic locations within the U.S., on unique computers, using various browsers and Web proxies, some while logged into Google accounts and some not.
We found that the website ranked across the first page of the search results in dissimilar positions, or in some cases, did not rank on the first page at all. So, what exactly is the website’s “rank” for that phrase? Who knows!
Chasing a specific rank is really a futile exercise. Focusing on measurable and actionable metrics is not.
To “rank” in search results is to gain exposure and drive traffic to a website. You will find — when reviewing a specific page of your site in analytics — the volume of keywords from organic search that drives traffic to your webpage is much larger than specific keywords for which you have optimized the page. Actual organic search queries are likely a combination of derivatives of your targeted phrases, direct variations of targeted phrases, brand phrases, and long tail phrases.
When optimizing a page for appropriate keywords and phrases, we forever chase the exposure that is measured by increased organic traffic to that page. While we don’t get a full picture of every single keyword due to the (not provided) privacy protection, there is plenty of actionable data at the landing page level for organic traffic (some query data, engagement data, conversion data, etc.).
Rather than focusing on ranking reports, I suggest that you prove the value of your SEO program by focusing on metrics that impact business results: first traffic, followed by conversions (sales, lead generation, engagement – whatever your goals are for the page or website).
In the end, it’s a quality game. Ensuring visitor quality is why we spend so much time researching potential keywords and phrases. We need to match the intent of the search with the content of the page to turn that traffic into qualified visits and conversions.
One case for the use of ranking reports is performance monitoring and internal assessment. The ability to see a significant shift, specifically a decline, before it has time to do serious damage is a major concern. I think being proactive is an essential component of SEO success! I also believe there are effective ways to achieve this without the use of a ranking report.
Google Webmaster Tools provides alerts for any major traffic changes (if you drop out of the search results – there will be a traffic impact, even if you catch it early). Webmaster Tools also provides “average position” data that can be used to track trends with regard to “rank” if the keyword level data is a must.
Most analytics programs allow for alerts to be set to monitor specific performance metrics. In Google Analytics, you can utilize the Intelligence Events section to see both Automatic Alerts (alerts generated by Google when there is “a significant change in the traffic patterns on your site”) and Custom Alerts, which you can specify yourself. Read more from Google on this reporting:
While not as quick as a ranking report, I highly recommend performing manual spot checks to ensure not only the relative position is in line with expected results but also that the actual listing is desirable when compared to those around it.
See “Using our Services” section of Google’s Terms of Service:
“Don’t misuse our Services. For example, don’t interfere with our Services or try to access them using a method other than the interface and the instructions that we provide… We may suspend or stop providing our Services to you if you do not comply with our terms or policies or if we are investigating suspected misconduct.”
If a client, boss or manager has ever asked why their site is listed in position “x” when your ranking report shows it is ranked in position “y,” then you have likely realized that reporting rank is a futile exercise. Eventually, a manual search will display something different — and you’ll have to explain (validate) your report.
Focus on the metrics that matter most, traffic and conversions, instead of chasing that moving target called “rank.” Performance data will always tell the tale that a mere ranking report cannot.
Final note: There are a lot of areas in the digital performance realm that must evolve, not just ranking reports. In fact, the use of phrase “search engine optimization” in and of itself is very contradicting. Only the individuals at our favorite search engines can optimize them; so, at the very least, it is more accurately “website optimization.”
At present, most SEO’s wear several hats and focus more on site quality, technical performance, usability and good old-fashioned marketing… but that is an article for another day.
Whether you’ve hired a search marketing agency or are using in-house resources, how do you know if your B2B SEO expert is doing a great job? Three simple questions that all business marketers should ask about their B2B SEO program are:
How does our SEO plan differ from a consumer-oriented (B2C) SEO program?
Evaluate your expert’s understanding of your specific B2B market. Ensure that you are not getting a one-size-fits-all solution. While many fundamental elements of SEO implementation remain the same for B2B and B2C websites, make sure your SEO partner understands the ways in which you want to engage your business audience.
Specifically, do they understand your customers’ research and buying process? Ask your expert about how your SEO Plan and Keyword Map addresses searcher behavior at each phase of the buying cycle.
Is your SEO expert optimizing for the following types of search phrases:
Here is a sampling of keywords from a SEO Plan that spans all buying cycle steps for an ERP software company:
|General Market Research Terms||Product Evaluation Terms||Purchase-Ready Terms|
|ERP softwareERP software whitepaper||ERP product comparison chart||ERP software pricingERP service agreement|
While this may seem like a basic question, it is important to remain well informed as to specifically what your B2B SEO expert is doing on your behalf. Is their SEO implementation plan in line with the guidelines set forth by the search engines? Does the plan focus on the tasks which are most impactful to your business? Also known as “white hat”, strategies that do not violate these guidelines can be very effective.
Things like improving the quality of your site’s content, removing any road blocks to search engine access, ensuring appropriate page load speeds, creating compelling Title tags (note I use the word compelling – not “full of keywords”) all fall within the scope of acceptable practices. If your SEO professional is not willing to share their methodologies, that should be a major red flag.
In particular, you should ask about any link-building efforts they have underway. The search engines, especially Google, have taken steps in the last year to weed out sites that have used unfavorable methods for link-building.
I recommend that you ask your SEO expert these 4 specific link-related questions:
It is essential to know that you are in complete compliance with the search engine guidelines, specifically where links are concerned. Links should be on credible websites that are topically related to your own website.
Links should not be purchased (this is not the same as advertising on a website, which is fine as long as it is clearly defined as an advertisement). And a link from any website should provide assistance to marketing and branding efforts – not just to help boost rankings.
Search Engines take offense to anyone trying to “game the system” by violating their guidelines. Even Google had to penalize itself when a vendor violated quality guidelines to promote Google Chrome.
In order to protect your brand, reputation and organic traffic, it is imperative to have full disclosure from your SEO expert on their efforts. If they are unwilling to comply with this request, it is probably time to part ways.
It can be easy to get side tracked by ranking for your “money phrase” and lose sight of the things that directly impact the success of your SEO efforts. While rankings are the means to an end (increased rankings should lead to increased traffic), the more important factor is whether or not the organic traffic is qualified.
Are they engaging with your website? Is your lead generation improving? It is essential to keep your “eye on the ball” by clearly defining what success looks like to your B2B company.
For example, user engagement on your website is likely a Key Performance Indicator (KPI). The amount of time a user spends learning about your company can directly impact their next steps in your buying cycle.
Here are some important B2B SEO metrics to consider:
Due to the complexity of the sales process generally associated with many B2B websites, calculating ROI on a SEO program is far more difficult than with an ecommerce site with clear revenue tracking.
Businesses generally do not make “impulse buys”; therefore, they spend a lot of time understanding their needs, assessing possible solutions, and comparing options before engaging/purchasing.
By understanding the goals of your SEO program and clearly communicating what you consider to be the KPIs of your website in relation to the buying cycle of your service or product, your SEO partner should be able to demonstrate their success (or failure). If your SEO expert is a true pro, they will also constantly suggest ways to improve upon your KPIs.
If your SEO professional can answer these questions to your satisfaction, you can be comfortable that you are in good hands. You are holding them accountable, understanding their practices for SEO implementation, and ensuring they are focused on the goals and objectives of your company. I recommend that you ask these questions of your SEO expert on at least a quarterly basis to confirm that your SEO program stays on track and is successfully meeting your business goals.