Ever wonder how powerful some of the oldest SEO recommendations still are? With the birds and the bears (and a little caffeine) changing so much in SEO since 2011, I wanted to see first hand some of the results we can get from some moves like internal linking and title tag optimization. Using my own site as the proving ground, and moving quickly between tweaks and first results to try and exclude any other ancillary update or change, I decided to test some optimizations I still see recommended or used in the field. The set of competing pages I chose below don’t move very often, so I thought this might be a good group to experiment with.
Note: It’s important to understand that this is not a controlled test at all. Any single domain I’m competing against could be making some changes at the same time which would naturally skew my results. Let’s take this with a grain of salt and consider all of this directional. This is not advice, this is merely my experience and thoughts. If I get hammered on this in the comments, so help me…
Truthfully I think the tl;dr can be summed up pretty well in a single statement:
[rant] See, the results of these tests turned out as I (and probably most of you) expected. Virtually no gains on the thinnest of tests. There were very little surprises below. Yet, these still bring related recommendations all the time from lesser quality blogs – or worse, sometimes agencies and consultants.
Last week I walked into a pitch where the prospect showed me some of the projects his current neighborhood SEO company is working on. He candidly told me he didn’t know what the SEO company was doing for him (which is why he was entertaining new vendors). With the draft of this post in my head, he started sharing some of the recommendations he was given – some of which coincidentally are listed below. Others recommendations included press release links and quickly churned video production.
Now I’m not one to “negative sell” over a competitor (ie, downplay someone else’s service to promote my own), and I was extremely respectful to this vendor, but I left the meeting really frustrated for this business owner. It took everything I had to keep from blasting this vendor. The business owner is clearly the victim of lazy SEO. He was a great guy trying to run a business and relied on the company to be his SEO hero. I respectfully gave him my different opinion on tactics and strategies without truly speaking my mind. I’m still not sure I shouldn’t have been more truthful.
In case you’re wondering, none of the local services in my screenshots below is the vendor I’m reluctantly protecting. [/rant]
Updated 2-20-2014: Lia Barrad made a great point in the comments that I feel should be added here. Unfortunately I couldn’t persuade a client to allow me to display bigger data. As a result I was only limited to do the tests on our own site. The amount of traffic and testing options I had on this relatively small Greenlane site didn’t give me much opportunity to also show a lift/loss in traffic. I really wanted to share that as well, because I truly think qualified and converting traffic is way higher on the list of valuable SEO KPIs. Instead I was relegated to using garbage keywords like “Philadelphia SEO” that doesn’t bring much good traffic (I used to rank extremely well for the term and eventually abandoned it because it wasn’t worth the effort in my case).
Enjoy the test!
Exact Match Internal Anchor Text Optimization
Situation: On November 17 2013, using Chrome Incognito, my site ranks #11 for a geo-targeted keyword (see graphic below – in this case I don’t want to muddy this test by adding the keyword anywhere on this website except in the testing page).
Click images for larger view
The strongest page on my site is my homepage (which is currently ranking for the keyword above). It has a PA of 52.58, with 420 external links passing link equity from 51 external domains.
My second strongest page is my Outdated Content Finder tool. It got mentions in Moz, Search Engine Land, Search Engine Journal, and picked up from mentions at Mozcon. It has a page authority (PA) of 49.07, with 89 linking root domains, for a total of 100 external, equity passing links. There are already 40 outbound links from this page, with two being to external domains.
On my Outdated Content Finder page, there isn’t a reference to the homepage using any anchor text but “home” in the navigation.
Test: To see if I could pass better PageRank to my homepage, using an exact match anchor text, I implemented the following:
- Added a link onto my second most valuable website page (the OCF tool).
- Used Webmaster Tools to “Fetch As Google”, and submit to index (for faster crawling).
Expectation: In many cases, the Fetch As Google URL submission works really fast (I’ve seen it add a new URL in less than 10 minutes), but I’m not really expecting a jump in rank. I think because the sitewide navigation, where there’s a home link already embedded, this second link may not have much power.
Result: It took a few days, but there was a single-position gain on 11/18 (same as the new cache date). The bump went from position 11 to position 10. Nothing to hang my hat on normally, but for a page jump, I’m somewhat satisfied in this case.
To push the rankings a little higher, let’s try a partial-sitewide, exact anchor link to the same homepage.
Test: 11/19 – My blog has a different sidebar than my non-blog pages. With a widget in WordPress I can add a simple piece of copy with an exact anchor text link:
This isn’t a true fully-sitewide link, and is all one level deeper into the site (http://www.greenlaneseo.com/blog/) but for this experiment I think it’s good enough.
Expectation: I have a number of blogs with a wide variety of backlinks. I still believe sitewide links have power (though limited), and expect to possibly see another position bump.
Result: On 11/24 (6 days after the change), the keyword actually dropped two spots to position 12 (page 2). From what I can observe, no new sites have entered the set.
Since that sitewide link didn’t work too well, I reversed it. Actually, I updated it to push all the links into the Outdated Content Finder page. Maybe if we consolidate into my second most powerful page it might have a positive effect to the same target keyword.
Test: 11/24 – Updated the site-wide copy as follows:
Expectation: Truth is, I expected more from Test 2. With Test 2.1, I’m even less optimistic there will be a positive change. At the least, I’m expecting my target keyword to fall back to position #10.
Result: Apparently better than expected. Now appearing in position 9 for my target keyword since 11/27.
The domains in this set stayed relatively constant throughout this 10 day experiment. Again, I make no claim to this being the results everyone should expect, since we must consider competition, possible backend algorithm changes, and (especially since these are all SEO companies) possible changes by the websites themselves. But, my theories are as follows:
- Direct internal linking with specific anchor text still has a little bit of value, especially if you direct it through your best pages. A single ranking bump from second to first page may be larger if it was a result deeper in the rankings (my guess!). So, very little gain, and definitely a small recommendation, but there are much bigger SEO fish to fry than this change. If a client had to pay to have this change done, not sure I would ever put this top on the list.
- We’ve heard sitewide links may be scrutinized by Google, and it may be true after all with a direct keyword impact dampened. But, while keyword value may not pass directly, efficient PageRank still may. Some clever “PageRank sculpting” may still have minor value. Keyword, minor. Once again, recommendations for this kind of result won’t be moving higher on my list any time soon.
Title Tag Optimization
Situation: Thousands of SEOs, websites, and audit tools suggest these two best practices for title tags:
- Target keyword should be the first word
- Title tag must be under 70 characters
Personally, I’ve rejected this for the last 8 years. Here’s why – I believe Google is more sophisticated, and realizes the target keyword being first in the title isn’t always natural. In Google’s younger days, sure – it’s a signal they could code to capture, but I think it’s too limiting to be a signal today. It’s a usual SEO recommendation that surely Google knows about. Second, if a title tag is too long, it gets truncated. That’s not a great user experience, but I’ve never seen evidence of the truncated text not helping rank. I’ve only seen the opposite.
Test: To test this, I updated my title tag for my blog homepage on 11/29/2013. Target keyword is in the middle of the title tag. I intentionally caused the tag to truncate. This is a pretty terrible title, but suits the experiment:
On a side note, after creating this terrible title tag, I submitted to Fetch as Google. Within 60 seconds this title tag showed in an incognito search, despite an outdated “Nov 18, 2013″ date. That’s remarkable.
On 11/30 through 12/02, I’m ranking position 271 for my keyword. It seems pretty settled there. On 12/03, I have updated the title tag to this:
Expectation: I don’t think the ranking will move. I don’t think keyword position matters.
Result: On 12/7 my current rank for the keyword was still 271. On 1/4/2013, it flopped down to 284. No positive change.
I wholeheartedly believe the volatility of a change is different when a rank is in the hundreds, vs. in the tens. Let’s revise the same test on a keyword that is already ranking well. For the keyword Philadelphia SEO, my homepage page ranks 6. The title tag is Greenlane SEO – Search, Analytics, and Strategy Services Since 2005. A Philadelphia SEO Company.
Test: On 1/8 let’s see what happens if I change it to Philadelphia SEO Company – Greenlane SEO – Search, Analytics, and Strategy Services Since 2005.
Expectation: I don’t think the ranking will move. I don’t think keyword position matters in this case either.
Result: On 1/12 my current rank for the keyword was still 6. No positive change (but I’m reverting immediately – that’s a terrible title tag just for a supposed SEO value).
I don’t believe that a title needs to be under 70 characters for SEO value to take hold. As mentioned early in this post, a truncated title is not great from a marketing perspective. Surely there’s better things a user can see than an ellipsis in the SERP link, but when trimming to 70 characters is recommended in order to rank better, I call “shenanigans”.
Test: I’m not going to work too hard on this test because I’ve tested this before. On 1/8/2014, on a blog post called Review of Repost.us, I rank #1 for “review of repost.” The title tag is simply Review of Repost.us. I am changing the title to past 70 characters: Review of Repost.us – A Review By Bill Sebald – Is Repost.Us SEO Friendly? Let’s Find Out! Greenlane Search Marketing
Expectation: I’m expecting no drop in rank whatsoever.
Result: On 1/13/2014, no drop with new ugly truncated title tag.
As expected, tweaking the title tags with these old-school recommendations didn’t do anything. It’s not 2007 anymore.
- Changing the location of the keyword, and extending past the 70 characters, did not seem to matter.
I do hope you enjoyed the tests. As stated in the beginning of the post, this is not scientific. Take this as directional and do what you may with the information, but my recommendation for those who still solely rely on these kinds of recommendations to provide your client with SEO services, please reconsider recommending things that have a bigger impact. If you’re a business person yourself, and you get recommendations like this, please don’t drink the kool-aid.
[UPDATE - it looks like Repost.us has shut down]
I stumbled upon an interesting service I don’t think many SEOs know about – at least, not the few I’ve asked. It’s called repost.us. Looks like it’s about 2 years old.
Simple premise: Add your site to the database, and others can republish your content. They say, “It’s the wire service reinvented for the web.”
Click any image to enlarge
A user of repost.us can login, search for content, and simply copy and paste the blue embed code (with a couple checkbox options) right into their website. See below – one of my articles, straight from this blog, has been added to their database. This is how a user sees it:
Notice above, circled in red, there is an Adsense block as part of the copied code. This isn’t my Adsense code; instead it appears to be added there by the repost.us team, and does appear to wind up in your posted article. This gives repost.us a chance to monetize for the service. This also gives a publisher, who embeds Adsense, a chance to swing their publisher ID over as well. Interesting way to earn more Adsense clicks.
What About Duplicate Content?
Right. The dreaded D word. Here’s a site that took my content and reposted it:
Did you notice the attribution links (in red) at the bottom? These particular links don’t show in the source code either (but others do – read on).
<div class=”rpuArticle rpuRepost-7af546614f6b5e93c9c6053b466c1a0f-top” style=”margin:0;padding:0;”>
Let’s face it – the SEO industry has a tendency to stomp a tactic into the ground. Some of us even get lazy (pleny of this kind of junk around). Directory submissions were once wildly valuable, then SEOs started creating directories by the thousands…
</div><!– put the “tease”, “jump” or “more” break here –><hr id=”system-readmore” style=”display: none;” /><!–more–><!–break–><hr class=”at-page-break” style=”display: none;”/><div class=”rpuEmbedCode”>
<div class=”rpuArticle rpuRepostMain rpuRepost-7af546614f6b5e93c9c6053b466c1a0f-bottom” style=”display:none;”> </div>
<div style=”display: none;”><!– How to customize this embed: http://www.repost.us/article-preview/hash/4917fea1ea6f6df42de6a8f3d7cb3d4d –></div>
See the links in red above? The The Kind Of SEO I Want To Be (via http://www.greenlaneseo.com/) links? Those are the only two links that appear to link back to my original, canonical blog post. They live in the source code behind the full injected content. Sadly they are both the same shortened URLs (in this case http://s.tt/1MWo1) but they are at least 301 redirects. If you believe 301’s dampen PageRank more than straight links, despite statements from Matt Cutts, then this is probably disappointing.
In my experience, this small amount of duplicate content, with one or two links back to the original document (including 301’s), don’t seem to cause any duplicate content issues. I’ve had my content posted on Business 2 Community in full with an attribution link, and Google still seems to figure it out. My posts still wind up ranking first – even if it takes a few weeks.
Seems SEO Friendly Enough… But How Were The Results?
I emailed the team at repost.us and asked for a user count and activity. CEO John Pettitt kindly responded:
“We don’t give exact numbers but you can assume between 10K and 100K sites embed content in any given month. There are over 5000 sites contributing content. We have not quite 4 million articles in the system and we republish between 50 and 200K articles a month.
The average reposted article gets ~150 views per post, that goes up a lot for new content where it runs ~2000 and we regularly see content getting 20-50K views for an article if a bigger sites picks it up. The usage is very quality sensitive, if it’s content farm quality “seo bait” it probably won’t do well. it’s it’s original well written content it will do better.”
Pretty awesome numbers! Unfortunately, I didn’t fair so well.
After running at least 3 months, with only 6 domains republishing my articles (one apparently being repost.us itself), I received a total of 40 total impressions (disregard the chart above that suggests 21 for just for the few they show in the summary). Still, that’s 6 links I got without really doing anything but writing for my own blog.
Also, out of all the posts on my blog, there were only 6 different posts shared through the 6 different sites (I have blog posts dating back to 2007). I did see a year old post, but for the most part, all the content that got republished was newer content. I don’t know if that’s because their system chose to suppress old posts, or just a coincidence.
Finally, after spot checking the 6 sites that hosted at least one article, all but the repost.us domain were extremely poor. DA of less than 15 with virtually no external links according to Moz. Now I’m much less excited about the handful of links I received.
So it wasn’t a success for me, but in light of the numbers John (from repost.us) shared, I could very well be unlucky or simply not in line with what the user base is looking for. I write for the SEO industry. The users of this service may very well not have any interest in SEO. Or, maybe I’m just not writing interesting stuff (but I refuse to believe that!).
But I do believe in the power of reposting content. I’m not completely afraid of duplicate content over getting more eyeballs onto a piece of my content strategy. At the end of the day, republishing for eyeballs – even in traditional paper media – was a marketing goal. Again, I believe Google is good enough at sorting most light duplicate content eventually, whereas repost.us also took precautions to make sure they helped avoid adding noise to the signal and misguide the algorithm into mistaking the canonical URL. We actually just started to use repost.us for some of our clients as well, taking note of the different categories the service supports.
My only concern with the service is, based on an unfair sample of 6, there may be a lot of spammers republishing and looking to achieve an article marketing type of model (ie, post everything, monetize with ads). Could the spam links hurt? Probably not, but I would definitely keep my eyes open as an SEO.
My one sentence bottom line review: Absolutely worth a try. It could yield some great SEO and marketing results, especially when / if the service grows.
Happy Thursday everyone. A quick SEO post to bring some brevity, tips, and pop culture into your day.
Yesterday I had a client ask for some campaign items to present to the CEO. He is concerned about year over year natural search gains.
As an SEO I bet your chest just tightened up reading that. We’ve all been there. Our lot in life will put us there again. When the spotlight is put on natural search performance, it’s almost always put on you as a performer (at least semi-consciously). Maybe you feel threatened or defensive. The counter-arguments start squirting through your neocortex.
The problem is, you can’t usually get away with telling the c-suite, “you’re damn lucky I (we) were able to stop any bleeding and keep you climbing the mountain Google’s model is destined to swat you from.” As SEOs we know it’s the Pareto Principle. We know consistent top positions is vital for query revision. We know Google wants to keep the index fresh and, relatively speaking, very few brands seem to be sacred cows. I bet you’d love to say, “imagine where you’d be if I wasn’t here!” Unless you have no fear of losing your job, you probably can’t get away with that.
We need to help the c-suite. They’re never the enemy – they’re your best allies, and you are their partners. The smart ones listen and appropriately challenge you, while others may be a bit slower. They’re all regular folks with their own strengths and weaknesses. I’ve had my share of executives who just couldn’t get it – whether because they weren’t capable of seeing the big picture, or didn’t care because of the demands that were on them. Before my agency life, I had one boss who set unrealistic goals and put no resources behind his team. He convinced himself that since he was once on top, he should be natively staying on top. I quit. He lost his natural search lead, and last I heard, his company is toast (your first analogy).
If we don’t step in, the folks we consult for could take uncorrected preconceived concepts to their next jobs and cause more complications. We can be heroes, but it takes work.
What’s the ROI of SEO? Staying competitive!
Words that work
I’ve found analogies and metaphors work well in explaining the obtusity of SEO. Here’s two that have worked for me. And since I’m currently celebrating 80’s Thursday (my own personal holiday), I’ve got incredible movie posters to boot.
SEO and Pirates
“As an SEO, I can help identify the opportunity and draw a loose perimeter on the map. But I can’t necessarily tell you exactly where in the perimeter the booty is; nor can I guarantee how deep it is. But, as luck would have it, I can also help you dig. The time is all dependent on how many shovels we have in the dirt, and how hard we dig. The timing may be up to luck, but we will find the gold to offset all the effort.”
I told this to a group of interactive marketers while running the SEO department in a 200+ person agency. Clients were asking account managers for SEO help, and they were hesitant to bring us in if we couldn’t guarantee an ROI. We found ourselves pitching to our own peers. After the meeting, one person in particular scheduled a meeting with me. “It clicked,” he said. This person was an analytics and data wiz, and became a huge ally – and friend – during my years in the agency. He went on to run some major accounts (think national sport leagues), and did SEO a huge service by not only explaining it correctly, but in selling the real value through to the clients. He pre-qualified a couple opportunities for our group as well.
SEO and Racing
“To win a race, not only does the car need to consistently be upgraded (aka optimized), but many factors need to be analyzed routinely like track builds, track conditions, talent of driver and pit crew, talent of competitors.
So let’s imagine you are a team owner. You implement an expensive, cutting edge exhaust system on your best car. You notice in your trials that the car clocked better, but you still didn’t win that week’s race. Next week you install a new suspension, but again lost the race. Worse, your competition still beat you soundly without the two optimizations you have. Some of your team starts to get frustrated and confused. Theories and opinions are flying. Chaos level rising!
But you do the right thing. You keep buying, trying, testing, and removing optimizations. You watch your competitors and study their moves for inspiration, but you don’t worry. You stay on target. Suddenly, towards the middle of the season something happens. You start placing in the top 5. The points and rewards (money) you’re receiving is slowly starting to add up. Chaos level lowering!
Eventually you start winning. Your wins offset all your losses with a healthy margin of revenue leftover to enjoy. But it’s important you think about next season, and your next level of racing. New technology will arise. New track conditions, new team members for both you and your competitors, and a hundred other factors will need your monitoring. Don’t sit still just because you’re winning – if you don’t stick with it, you’re going to fall behind again. You can’t afford to do that after all your investments.”
I’ve used the racecar parallel a zillion times. I’ve used it mainly in pitch decks so I can make sure from the outset I’m explaining what the client will be in for with an engagement. Want to compete? Come with me. Not into the risk? Try paid search.
I know this post is dangerously close to “What Dom DeLuise taught me about SEO” type posts, so you’ll just have to forgive me this one time.
Also notice I didn’t use Field of Dreams “If You Build It They Will Come.” That’s a myth and a terrible movie.
What Analogies Do You Use? Share In The Comments!
We direct all our SEO prospects to our online material, which we candidly post on the website (go to our homepage and click the tour button for an example). We don’t have fancy leave-behind decks, or spend hours sweating over pitches like some agencies I’ve worked with. I’ve seen much less time (and cost) succeed with the right kind of catered communication, especially in the SEO industry alone. Our services are specific – SEO consulting with a lower emphasis on labor. In our online tour, we share our history, our beliefs, our differentiators, and our price. We have found that this helps qualify the next conversation. Some prospects read this and never return, presumably looking for another type of SEO service. While others only feel more confident about partnering with us. Through this second conversation, our conversion rate is very high.
We keep it simple, and respectful of everyone’s time. We’re all busy in business.
But our system isn’t flawless. We had a client last for only two months. We both agreed to part ways. It’s sounds funny in hindsight – how could two months determine a relationship that couldn’t be saved? From the start everything was cordial. We asked them to review our tour, and assumed they had. We had a 20 minute conversation following their internal review. We won the business without asking the right questions.
In our postmortem we realized we assumed too much. We assumed they read – and understood – our services as well as we did. 20 minutes isn’t anywhere close the the amount of time we should have spent qualifying them. We were a little too foolhardy with our gut. From the first deliverables, where we had some great ideas to really break the website out of its template, everything was rejected. We dove into their competitors to see what they were doing, and suggested rivaling big ideas. We were shot down again with concerns of time and little faith. We believed in our ideas, and fought for them. “They’re working very well for other clients, and here’s examples of them in the wild,” I shared. We were feeling pushed into old-school SEO services, something we could do, but just don’t believe in.
As the dust started to settle, it turned out when they said they wanted quick results, they meant very, very quick – what we considered unrealistic. But for a hot minute, I bent. I instructed our team to pivot and try to deliver – a poor decision, and something very out of character. Not poor because I don’t put clients first, but poor because we weren’t in any position to meet that goal with this particular website. They had a long road ahead. Luckily, a candid discussion with the company’s CEO soon followed, and it was clear we were not on the same page. My initial emotion was, “what did you guys hire us for?” But later a clearer head asked, “why didn’t we qualify them better?” We wouldn’t have believed what they wanted was realistic.
This was a valuable wake up call to help us (re)focus on the path we spent so many months creating with the launch of our business.
They were a great company with good people and cool products – we were just on completely different sides of the fence. They knew enough SEO to have their spot, and we were trying to pull them to our side of the yard; all along not seeing the giant brick wall that divided us. Could it have been saved? Yes. But I don’t think it was worth it for either party. They’re better off with a company more in sync, as are we. Both our businesses got a pretty good education outside of SEO in my opinion.
Make Sure Both Parties See The Brick Wall From The Same Vantage Point
You should be standing next to your client. Not across from them. You should be able to have open conversations. You certainly should have the grounds to disagree. If you only want to make money, being a yes-man will only get you so far.
Client: Can you get me to rank #1 for grilled cheese?
Client: Can you guarantee me a 800% ROI?
Client: Where do I sign?
Six months later when you’re making no money off the term grilled cheese, “yes” doesn’t have any power. Now you have contention, burnout, and praying your client services team has another client waiting in the wings when this current client goes supernova.
Sure, you made your money, but unless you own the company, don’t care about your reputation, and don’t have to face the clients after you sign them, you’re setting yourself up for a world of hurt.
Here’s how I might answer those questions:
Client: Can you get me to rank #1 for grilled cheese?
Bill: Probably not without a major commitment from your team, a larger budget than you have, and the ability to make changes quickly.
Client: Can you guarantee me a 800% ROI?
Bill: No, but I can make it my goal to influence Google to see you as the authority on Grilled Cheese and related cheesy sandwiches.
Client: Why should I sign you?
Bill: Because I’m not afraid to tell you how it really works in SEO, and I can teach you a lot about the additional opportunities you have in natural search based on our experiences.
I recently had a conversation with a prospect who said (paraphrasing), “I spoke with [big name SEO] who said we’d use [semi-popular blog network] for my link building if I went with them. They said it was white-hat, but it sounds like a blog network to me.”
That really depressed me. I was more than happy to inform this nice guy that the network in question was anything but white hat. Is the sale of service so important that you would intentionally mislead your prospects? Won’t that set you up for failure when you get hit with a penalty? Is the hit-and-run model the best you can scale? Is your own reputation in the SEO space not valuable? If this SEO had said, “so, yeah, we’re totally black hat… you down?” that would be respectable.
Succeeding As A Partnership
I quit consulting and agency life for a few years because I didn’t like (what I thought) was #thegame. But starting a company, and creating our own rules, built a new version of the game which I’m enjoying to death. Settling in with clients (which we call partners as an homage to a lesson learned years ago) and really respecting the values each other bring to the table has been great. Sometimes completely different business models and philosophies can work great together. Just like in love (and comic books), opposites can attract. It’s a great feeling waking up knowing you’re doing good work. When a partner will decide to leave us, I truly hope they can say, “you taught us some great stuff – I’m going to recommend you anywhere I can. Thanks for sharing your experience. We had a great adventure.”
That’s what a consultant does.
What do you want your clients’ parting statement to be?
My TL:DR tips for creating the best SEO:client relationship, and setting yourself up to do the best work of your life:
- To have good clients, you need to have your story straight.
- To make your story known, you need to have an identity. You need to have a deeper purpose than “get rich.” It’s easy to forget this purpose when running “the business end” of the business each day.
- You need to spend the time making sure the opportunity is for you. If it smells funny, try to figure out why before you take it or throw it back. If it seems great, look for a possibly brick wall that might be eluding you.
- Be specific in what you offer. Don’t choke yourself on things you don’t know or don’t think you can accurately deliver.
I’d love your comments below!
My fiancé loves shoes. Like the stereotype, she has a closet full. I don’t get it. I own three pair, and one pair are flip-flops. One afternoon she came into my office and said, “you’re the Google geek, find me these shoes.” She had a pair of Candie’s that broke right in the middle of the sole. I found out she searched for about 45 minutes looking for these shoes, to no avail – I suspect much longer than the average person.
Challenge accepted – I’m supposed to be good at this, but within 30 minutes I couldn’t find anything either. I used everything from reverse image search to the most descriptive keywords I could image. I looked in CSE’s, Pinterest, Amazon, and a few major shoe retailers. I went deep into supplemental pages of smaller retail sites (which is a very scary place).
The entire internet could not find a pair of these shoes. It’s like they never existed.
If you’re a retailer in this day and age, and you’re making your loyal customers work this hard, you’re doing something seriously wrong. Let’s review some of the areas Candie’s could improve, and maybe relate this to your own business. All along think about the post-sale customer journey as well (which is the category we fit in, where my fiancé started out with brand loyalty, and slowly lost it by the end of the event).
Doing a quick content audit
Candie’s is a brand started in the 1980’s. Kohl’s has exclusive rights to all their different product lines except shoes. Thank you Wikipedia.
A quick browse of results in Google’s blog search shows a brand that’s interested in being associated with celebrity. They pursue (and promote) famous spokeswomen. So far this doesn’t bring much topical diversity. Every headline I found features a blurb about Hayden Panettiere or Britney Spears, etc. Candie’s got a link from USA today (sort of), but the only thing the piece spoke about is how Vanessa Hudgens is the new face of Candie’s. Too bad the link only went to Kohls.com, and didn’t mention anything related to the value of the products or this could have been a much more valuable link.
Why didn’t the post say more? If what’s existing on the web is a clue, it might be because there’s no content strategy helping out the cause. For all I know, USA Today got a press release about the Vanessa Hudgens news, and with a quick Google search, couldn’t find anything else to say either. Yes – news outlets do work like that. They use Google too. Poor Candies.com got the shaft.
I checked forums and Twitter chatter (using Candie’s related keywords) – but didn’t find much. With all these endorsements I assumed there’d be more fan chatter. Do the customers really have nothing to pine about?
So let’s try Facebook. Candie’s has 669,000 likes. This looks promising. Lots of likes, and, well… little comments. One post asked the question “what do you love most about fall?” There were only 14 comments. 952 likes, but 14 comments. A low engagement rate even for a blasé, phoned-in question.
There are more celebrities on the Facebook page, and a few links, but most go to Kohl’s shopping pages or other Facebook pages. This looks like an intentional closed loop which doesn’t seem to be generating any critical mass whatsoever. I have to think those celebrities weren’t cheap, and underused.
How about Twitter? They have the obligatory Twitter account. However, tweets are quite busy being promotional like the Facebook page (not a best practice these days) with some additional use of cutesy Instagram pictures.
During our scavenger hunt, we wanted to see if their social team would handle a request:
Amy (my fiancé) even jumped in. Neither of us got a reply. It doesn’t look like they use Twitter for customer service, which is really pretty disappointing. The web – and your customers – expect this of you. It’s 2013.
If I were working with Candie’s, I’d be all over engagement and content creation. I’d want more out there than just what celebrity we have in our campaigns. I’d want people to start associating my products with quality, design, or trendsetting. I’d want to start showing off how well my shoes work with day and night outfits. I’d want a resource center for my shoppers to see how shoes look with certain styles. I’d want my shoes to rank for something more than just the product description of an ecommerce site. Hell, I’d even be pleased to see an outdated infographic at this point. I’m sure in the c-suite of Candie’s have plenty of adjectives and analogies for their shoes they toss out in the board room, as well as qualities they boast and want to represent. I certainly couldn’t figure it out from their online output.
To do more than rank for the brand name, Candie’s needs a voice. Candie’s needs topics and expertise. There’s certainly not much now to pull in any long-tail search traffic. There’s brand authority and the likelihood to rank for shoe related queries, but they just don’t have the context. Checking out a tool like BuzzSumo, it’s pretty clear there are people sharing articles they could have been writing – but haven’t tried.
Content marketing would only grow their share. It would make the consumer persona(s) much more valuable.
Old Fashioned SEO
Ok, so Candie’s doesn’t succeed on the content or social front in my opinion. How about good old traditional SEO? How are the rankings? Not good according to SEMrush. A total of 7 keywords in their database, and all brand terms (save one).
Take a look at the homepage.
Right off the bat, they hide the shoes section (took me past my 3 second “catch me” time frame), but let’s just look at the basic SEO.
Now take a look at the homepage naked (CSS off):
This could very well be the least SEO friendly homepage of a major brand I have ever seen.
In fact, the whole website is really just a couple hero graphics after another, ultimately funneling traffic back into Kohl’s. Is this mandated by the Kohl’s ecommerce agreement? Maybe, but if Wikipedia is right, that doesn’t apply to shoes – the hidden category. Once I got to http://www.candies.com/spring2012/weHeart.asp, I couldn’t even find my way back to shoes.
I found 16 title tags. All but three said nothing more than “Candie’s”. Virtually no spiderable text anywhere. This site just isn’t trying. The competitors must be loving that!
What about backlinks? 263 linking root domains, and no real footprints of SEO work here.
I’m starting to wonder if a heads-down presence is intentional. Since they’re not an ecommerce store (and divert most their retail traffic to http://www.kohls.com/feature/candies.jsp), maybe they’re afraid to rank to well, as it may take away from a shopping page. That would be “tinfoil hat” behavior in which I’ve never seen the likes before.
What about the Kohl’s site?
The landing page on the Kohl’s site isn’t much better (cached here for posterity). Look at the adorable SEO copy under the 70% graphic spots. At least the anchor text matches the destination pages’ title tags.
But I can’t wrap my head around the hero spot video. At this stage in the game, does Kohl’s really want to be doing the branding for Candie’s? Hit play, and prepare to be distracted from your purchase for 60 seconds watching behind the scenes footage of a photo shoot. Kohl’s makes no other attempt to build the brand or tie this video to products. I stick by my ecommerce rule of thumb – if the graphics/video take up 75% of your real estate, they better be prepared to drive 75% of your page sales.
With precious time to encourage the interest of a searcher, where the back button is ingrained in every shoppers brain, I would be promoting more shopping funnels. Not distractions.
What else could they do (aside from the obvious)?
If we were hired to do Candie’s SEO, while assuming probable bureaucracy and politics the brand may have with their ecommerce agreement, I would certainly work to fix the items I cried about above. That’s a no-brainer. But that would only get them to the stadium. If they wanted to compete, they’d have to keep swinging.
They need some big ideas and quick.
- What better ways can they use the celebrities? How can we see them in less phoned-in campaigns? How about bringing the controversial ads back! The web has only gotten more interactive, get creative (again).
- How can they better serve those looking for old shoes (like my fiancé)? What about a simple blog highlighting each shoe with descriptive, representational content. So when someone is searching “black Candie’s shoes with a buckles,” something from Candies.com might actually show up. If the products are out of stock or discontinued, the site could recommend alternatives.
- Nowadays you need to prove to Google that you’re an expert. Does Candie’s have any experts? Get them front and center. Let’s meet them, and learn from them. Get them writing. Do your research to learn all the questions your potential customers have, and answer the hell out of them.
- How about something playful – a contest where shoppers share their styles? Take photos of themselves in Candie’s products, and compete for a prize. Candie’s could post these photos (with links to the product pages). Think that might earn some links from proud nominees? It will, while doing an awesome job with deep linking.
This post assumes the Candie’s brand actually wants to be bigger online than they currently are. That may be erroneous. Also take into consideration, this is not an exhaustive audit by any means (I run an SEO company but Candie’s is not a client). If I’m wrong on this audit, then enjoy the lessons anyway. The truth is, from only a few hours of scanning, the opportunities for SEO leap out at you.
Amy (my fiancé) never did hear from Candie’s. She never did find a single instance of the shoe, but her diligent searching led her to discover another brand who had similar shoes. They got the sale. If this is happening on a large scale, it’s scary to think how many lost sales Candie’s has had in the last decade.
On the contextual front, SEO is more than just keyword-level stuff (where Hummingbird reminded some of us with a baseball bat). While brands may have a certain upper-hand, they still need to do search marketing. Candie’s is an example of a brand that’s getting buried for anything but their own brand terms. With great power comes great responsibility – aid your customers post-sale, and they’ll reward you. There must be other customers (in addition to my fiancé) who love Candie’s shoes. I struggle to believe all the followers they have are there for Carly Rae Jepsen pictures. In terms of topics, there’s not much to read, so they don’t have much to release virally. If I were a brand advocate, I’d be pretty hungry for something more from the website. I’d be flatly disappointed.
The truth is, Candie’s is not alone. I’ve done a lot of big brand work, and while they usually have a big backlink portfolio due to being top of mind for a lot of bloggers, there are many instances where the content output is very low. Attempts were never made to be more than a couple marketing campaigns or a logo. While Candie’s certainly works with ad agencies, a company or specialist who knows search would be an amazing addition to their arsenal.
By the way, Amy also recently found the box. For any women wondering what shoes these are, or if they were actually real (as I began to question), here you go. Dazz black, baby. I’m probably going to get in trouble for showing her shoe size.
I’ve had my share of SEO predictions fall flat on their face. But I remember distinctly sitting in the office of a VP in my former ‘big agency’ life (guessing around 2009), talking about how Google will have to move into identifying, comprehending, and processing intent, while finding new ways to judge popularity. PageRank was a great start, but it can’t scale. Our culture is completely online now – the Google algorithms, relativity speaking, can’t keep up. It’s easy to forget Google isn’t magical. They’re still a powerful but limited machine.
I would postulate on Google eventually looking at more abstract factors where good old fashioned online marketing campaigns could get recognized. Where pieces and results of campaigns become crumbs that make up influence in aggregate. Truth was, I was seeking internal support for expanding the SEO group’s output, instead of mild data crunching and producing thin, quick-and-dirty recommendations. In 2009 it seemed obvious that Google would eventually shut down “gaming the system” schemes – of which they recently did a reasonably good job (with some causalities). It seemed to me that if anyone could understand programs to scale and distort, it’s Google. It also felt like the routine tactics of SEO couldn’t last forever. It felt like time to start getting creative.
I wanted to believe in the power of marketing effecting SEO. Not just because that was my college background and interest, but because it seemed logical. Marketing has shaped our culture. Our culture is online. Thus, Google needs to continue understanding the culture’s role and response in marketing. In there lies understanding of the queries.
I didn’t (and still don’t) think all SEOs need to be marketers. Digital PR? Not all SEOs use the same side of their brain but still remain pertinent. It’s sensational to say, “the SEO industry must adapt to *THIS* or die!” Like anything in any marketing channel, that’s awfully limiting. Defining rules and standards? Not for me, I shake that kind of stuff off. No person (or concept) is going to be able to drive the SEO bus alone. The Magical Mystery Bus drives itself.
Where’s The Bus Going?
Let’s think about the clues we have at hand, which to me suggest a path towards SEO marketing.
Here’s the definition of marketing from the AMA. “Marketing is the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.”
I really wish PPC didn’t get the label of search engine marketing (SEM). It doesn’t seem to fit today. It’s like when alternative music became mainstream – it became the alternative to what? I would like to use the term search engine marketing for the concept of big ideas that Google notices, appreciates, rewards, and shares. I want to impress Google by impressing their users first. I’m not going to try to make up a new term (I have shame), but we refer to it at Greenlane as SEO marketing; a non-creative name for creative campaigns. It’s what I couldn’t convince a big agency of doing.
Here’s a couple very recent things we know:
They took away all our keyword-level data
This is a raw nerve. [not provided] is a jerk, but not that significant a change in my book. Lazy SEOs can now fully hide behind this when they tell their clients, “sorry – I can’t prove how awesome we are without keyword level data.” Or, they can promote themselves to the client when total organic data is on the rise (even if it’s branded terms from some other online marketing channel in the other side of the house, where the SEO had no influence). There’s lots of posts floating around basically admonishing you from caring about this total loss since the “representational sample” we’ve been playing with was already soiled since October 2011. On that I totally agree. When Annie Cushing called these keyword data remnants “junk data,” it’s not just because she’s proven, but because it’s common sense. I do however disagree with the posts that scold you for ever caring about keyword data in the first place. That’s got to be tweetbait!
For me, I did like the remaining organic keyword data in at least one of the ways I liked all the organic keyword data. I liked it as a unique source of inspiration and guidance. Those weird keywords you found that you wanted to immediately discount. I got into the habit of analyzing them hoping to find a wormhole to another universe. I loved the, “why the hell did Google think I was relevant to that, and why did people come to my site for it,” moments. This keyword data led to topic creations that flourished for not only my own site, but my clients as well. However, this was quite limited – it was only important for the handful of possible topics you were already somehow relevant for in Google’s eyes, not the myriad of topics you could be relevant for in the demands of searchers. You need to think the other possible topic universes are even richer in opportunity.
The keyword data was great to have, but it was a small sample of your actual opportunity. We have to adapt.
Google wants to be better an answering questions. We assume it’s more than turning Google into what Ask.com was supposed to be. Every query is a question, so Hummingbird presumably is a good old fashioned Google engine update. If Hummingbird’s value is to understand the meaning of the words, ” communicating, delivering….” for the value of “customers, clients, partners, and society at large” seems to be more important in my book. This suggests to me SEO is more about communication than ever before. Content, as a general artifact, isn’t the king it used to be. The topic that answers presumed query intent may be more valuable, and that takes some iteration to get right. That’s certainly a content marketing principal.
Why does Google care about site speed? Why do they care where ads are located? DOM, bounce, hierarchy – whether Google infers or uses GA data is debatable (either Google is lying, or they’re not). The bottom line is these are things I believe they should be looking at, but won’t make too prominent because they’re all game-able direct signals. Until they can weed out bots artificially crawling a site and leaving footprints to emulate a visitor’s “happy, successful site session,” we might as well (at the minimum) look at these items as a usability feature to improve the visitors experience aside from Google. As an SEO, we did a good job getting the traffic, but why should we stop there? Why not make sure the material the searcher receives is indeed inline with their query.
Not all direct signals are cut and dry. So maybe Google plusses don’t help you rank. They sure help you figure out what your community likes; that could help you rank.
We’ve seen Google overcome a lot of garbage the last few years. Sure, they blew up a few innocent communities bombing the bad guys, but they’re not afraid to make changes. They’re wise to pull back on things that can backfire. So with some technical site characteristics being a factor, it’s safe to think there will be more, no? Help the conversation continue by helping the site improve. In the meantime, take advantage of everything else and produce good communication that will maybe have its day in the sun when the algorithm catches up.
The Kind Of SEO I Have Become
The (re)launch of our agency came with many changes from my original launch as a sole proprietor in 2005. From a partner, to employees, to 15 clients – it all brings different responsibilities. Some Keith and I still need to learn. Case in point – this week we lost our first client. It was mutual. We weren’t on the same page, and as part of our postmortem, I see why. Where we are promoting the big picture ideas above, they were looking for the type of work I was doing in 2009 at the big agency. Strictly keyword focused stuff. I don’t want to say we evolved, because I don’t want it to downplay the significance of other SEO approaches, but we have organically morphed into something shaped by our personal 13 year SEO experience. We are looking for clients that have morphed the same way we have.
We do creative things. We consult with companies – hand in hand – to create and drag the right campaigns to the ground. It’s all very much based in SEO, but in thinking of all the strategies and projects we have going on across our portfolio, I’m pretty excited to see where SEO goes. I feel like we’re seated well. I’m banking on it, so to speak. I think this is one prediction that shows no sign of falling on its face, and something I hope all SEOs are taking a good hard look at from time to time.
The first thing I do when I wake up is grab my iPhone and delete about 40 junk emails that come in overnight. I do this while eating my Cheerios. No matter how many times I unsubscribe, the trash keeps coming.
This morning I received this subject line: “Regarding Guest Post Opportunity On Your Blog.” I’m sure you’ve all gotten these. I’m sure some of us have sent our share of these. So why did I stop to read this one? Why didn’t it get deleted with my other morning garbage? Not because it was good, but because I was drawn to it (though not for the right reasons).
I’m not against guest posting. I do, however, wince a little when I see the tactic poorly executed in 2013. This is an old tactic now, and I like to think it’s matured.
This type of prospecting email may work fine when you’re pitching a site who’s model is to publish guest posts. They’d snap up this type of opportunity faster than me with a plate of hot wings. But for my site, I don’t usually have much guest posting here. It’s not because of any reason besides pickiness. Anthony Pensabene is the only one so far, and that’s because it was unique, he knew my blog’s tone, he’s a known entity, and he’s a very clever writer.
See, I knew as much about him as he knew about me and my site.
In the case of the guest post pitch, I didn’t get the feeling this author took the time to review my site at all. The three titles he pitched didn’t really fit my style of writing or my subject matter. The truth is, I’m actually open to guest posting pitches. I would have been excited if this were a thorough pitch. I really could have taken it (or at least gotten to know the writer and worked with him in some capacity going further).
What I Would Have Changed
I would have started with some research. I would have spent some time on the Greenlane blog to see what kind of posts have been done to date. The titles sent over, while I censored them above, were akin to “top 5 ways to do something that’s been rehashed a million times in the SEO blogosphere.” I don’t really have much content like that anymore. Frankly, it’s rare when I read that kind of article now and it doesn’t come off as lazy. I would have thought up some ideas that flow with my blog. How about a take on something I’ve written about before? I’d much rather you come me with the concept of something unique, than a backlog of generic, homogenized, no-frills copy.
I would have written a better subject line. The subject was confusing. Regarding what guest post opportunity? I haven’t actually posted, tweeted, or facebooked any defined opportunity. This subject was about as spammy as it gets for me, and looks a lot like the ones I now have a habit of deleting without a thought. If it were me, I would have been more open to “An idea for a guest post,” or “Question for you.” These are subjects suggesting a visitor wants to engage with me, not pitch me. Or, just like the concept of “the neon resume gets remembered,” maybe a subject line of “Hey jerk, your opinion is wrong, and I have a counterpoint article to prove it.” I would love that. That would be speaking my language!
I get pitched all day long from vendors. I welcome an opportunity that doesn’t feel like a hard sell. I believe most business owners and webmasters agree. We want to be pitched on really awesome ideas. It makes us look better to our bosses and employees when those ideas come to life.
I would have used my real name. The author’s name in this email was different than the name he used in his Search Engine Journal example. Someone is getting duped. See, I do my homework. I suspect many others do as well. Granted, I’m in the industry so I care about things like authorship and the writer’s reputation. But if you use your real name, and have created a cache of great material, that’s a selling point. Show me what you’ve written, and show me some kind of biography. Show me that when you say you live in Montana, you don’t really live in Tibet.
I know you’re busy… That line was the closer. “Don’t worry, I’ll make it easy for you.” I bet that sounds great to a lot of busy affiliates who run thousands of sites, especially if they don’t care about what gets published on their site. But as a business owner, or even a webmaster looking out for the integrity of their site, I’d like to have some control on what I get and post. I’d rather hear, “I’d love to work on some ideas with you. I can send you over a draft.”
I would have customized the email. I can still smell the cntrl-V in this email. At least it was specifically sent to me (instead of being in the BCC field with 10,000 other recipients). Still, I’m sure this was an attempt to be scalable. All good, but again, this type of email isn’t going to win a site like mine. I have personality all over my blog, all over my Twitter, etc. If the guy wrote, “hey man, I love your band,” that would have probably worked – I’m a sucker for egobait. The truth is, a site like mine may not have a huge PageRank or DA (whatever you prefer), but I do have a big mouth. I do have followers who would have seen this post. I think I’m worth the little bit of extra attention.
Where do these opinions come from? Experience. I’ve tried – and failed – at good guest posting opportunities, and digital PR opportunities, because I was lazy. I am lazy no more.
Scalable Marketing Shouldn’t Be The Same As Lazy Marketing
Our blog isn’t like Problogger, Ezine Articles, or even Search Engine Journal or Search Engine Watch. We’re not a depository. We have our own distinct voice (hopefully). In my case, communication matters.
In my experience, most websites, media outlets, and companies want to be engaged. If you think I’m a diva, I promise that some of the big, jucier prospects are even worse. If you’re looking for quality over quantity in your links/citations/brand mentions, then you must be careful when you reach for your prospecting weapon of choice. If you’re aiming for a cat, and you pull out a machine gun, you’re only going to make a mess.
Just to get ahead of any nasty comments or tweets – I am NOT against scalable or automated link building. I’d be an awfully big hypocrite. While I’m certainly not great at it, I’m always impressed by those who do it well. By well, I mean smart. Those who can do good marketing with scalable (or automated – I’m aware they aren’t the same thing per se) techniques are brilliant. It certainly has its place. But trying to win over a guy like me, that certainly isn’t its place.
No cats were harmed in this blog post.
Let’s face it – the SEO industry has a tendency to stomp a tactic into the ground. Some of us even get lazy (pleny of this kind of junk around).
Directory submissions were once wildly valuable, then SEOs started creating directories by the thousands thanks easy-to-install directory scripts. Some SEOs / webmasters blatantly charged a fee for the “SEO value”. Additionally, cheap directory submission tools popped up like Directory Maximizer. Back then there wasn’t as much fear of Google making sweeping changes; thus, the tactic was pushed hard for years. Eventually Google sussed out the tactic – directory links aren’t even close to what they were.
Article marketing worked for a while as well. The same suit followed. Article sites and tools like Unique Article Wizard and Article Marketing Robot came and left a huge footprint. Originally some article marketing was even editorial when the webmasters scrutinized each article before publishing, but it was quickly outshadowed by services and bloggers that would take (and publish) any crap.
Next came blog networks. ALN and Build My Rank (now redirects to www.hpbacklinks.com) were among the first to get a real Penguin beat down. Spinning tools (that literally “spun” your content to look unique, but rarely made articles that users could understand) became popular as content for these blog networks. These illegible articles were pumped out by the thousands. For some SEOs this (somewhat) resembles what we think of today with the guest post tactic.
Now SEOs are waiting for the guest blogging [filter|penalty|panda|penguin] update.
Google Doesn’t Hate Guest Posting
As far as I know, Google doesn’t hate guest posting, at least according to this video 2012 video. Things may have changed, but I don’t think so.
Google has made some illogical decisions. Really, obvious mistakes. I’ve given them the benefit of the doubt and been wrong before.
Dumb Bill Sebald quotes:
“Negative SEO can’t exist. Google knows how easy it is to blast a bazillion garbage links at a website. They’ll figure out the fraud!”
“Google doesn’t need help with duplicate content. They told us so!” (Next day they came out with the canonical tag).
The truth is, at the risk of putting my foot in my mouth again, I really don’t want to jump onto the guest post scaremongering band wagon. As I said with the great Anthony Pensabene, I think we’re reading too deeply into things:
But aside from a few a lot of bad eggs, why would Google hate guest posting? This can be amazing, user-loved content!
This is what Google’s infamously vague Google Guidelines say:
Additionally, creating links that weren’t editorially placed or vouched for by the site’s owner on a page, otherwise known as unnatural links, can be considered a violation of our guidelines.
An editorial piece of text is an unpaid, opinion piece. It is a piece placed by an editor to give value to the reader. In newspapers (for example) editorials have often been the opinions of authors who may not have been associated with the publisher. Google might be powerful, but I don’t see them having the power to change a definition.
We live with a noisy web, where soundbites are everything. Tweets are our headlines. Sometimes newsreaders and social bookmark sites give us the news with a short 70 character headline. Sometimes it’s even exploitative. This leads to major misinterpretation and FUD.
What I Think Could Happen
While Google’s done a great job in the last year of pruning gamed results out of their index (I actually found it quite difficult to find some truly “bad” examples using Google), they could still possibly monitor heavier for footprints. For example, they may be able to tune up their recognition of certain footprints left in the byline. SEOs will adapt, and maybe start seeding their backlink elsewhere in the text other than the byline, and vary up their bylines more frequently, but the lazier SEOs could probably get swept up. Have you created a sea of trash guest posts? You might need to worry, but you couldn’t have thought your thin content was a long term play.
Authorship may come into play more, and either highlight good authors or flag spam authors. I just don’t think Google will be able to get too liberal here. They’re the best search engine we have, but they’re still not talented enough to truly understand the intent of any content online. They’re just not that good. They have to know that.
Famous last words.
Sites like Moz, major tech sites, recipe sharing sites, entertainment sites, countless online newspapers,etc., would likely get swept up if Google pushed this update. We’ve seen so many babies get thrown out with the bathwater just with Panda and Penguin alone. For me, I’m going to sit back, have a homebrew, and keep on recommending guest posting where it makes sense and proves out to be a real marketing opportunity.
Related: Why I Will Continue With Guest Blogging As Part Of My Strategy! SEtalks.com
Nobody loves Google+ as much as Google. So much so, they’re using Google+ Pages as the destination URLs in the packs now. Looks like you don’t even need a website anymore.
Click image to enlarge
What do you notice from this screenshot? First, I apparently need Google’s help spelling collision. Second, if you click the blue link or the Google+ page link, they both go to the same place – a very thin Google+ business listing:
Click image to enlarge
This may not have been claimed. No reviews. And Google thinks this is a better result than the other fleshed out Google+ local and direct websites? Google doesn’t even have any entities showing for this listing.
This isn’t the first time SEOs have seen this.
Local Search Is The Land Of The Lost
Google has a lot of products. I can only imagine how difficult it is to manage them all internally. I have no idea how big their local team is (likely less than the “web” team, which is already surprisingly small), or what their company goals are with this product, but this is a vital vertical to many small businesses that just doesn’t seem to have the love. This whole integration feels like web search from 2002 – very little made sense there either.
Since Google+ and Google Places merged, forming this mess called Google+ Local, every SEO has been recommending you flesh out a Google+ business page. Our recommendations were for you to flesh out your Google+ and places page, even if you’re already having trouble finding time to tend to your Facebook page. We said, “don’t complain, just do it – Google needs your information to rank you in the packs.”
From the looks of these screenshots, it doesn’t look like we were necessarily right, eh? If Google does indeed have an algorithm biased to any Google+ site, then maybe you don’t need to do the work? Read on…
Can You Understand Google’s Local Algorithm?
I don’t really try. I’m not sure Google really can understand it either. I suspect their hands are full trying to tame the jungle. For almost a decade I’ve described the “Google (web) algorithm” as a rope. A rope has hundreds of threads woven in (all algorithms working together to make the big algorithm). Google Local seems more like a bag of hair. But to be fair, Google web turned into a bag of hair in the early 2000’s as well. They’re only now starting to braid it.
With local and Google+, we have a business page, a local page, maps, and pack listings. They just all don’t tie together nearly as well as they should.
Wut Do? – Do Marketing!
SEO is still marketing. I’m frustrated to see Google+ being so awful, but I believe it will get better. I have local clients I adore, and seeing things like this makes me mental. Google doesn’t always reward content, Google doesn’t always reward your support. Google has made many local business owners I speak to feel jaded by “failed” SEO. To be honest, sometimes an SEO can’t hit a specific goal if Google simply doesn’t want it to be so. You have to give it months – sometimes years – to see. If you want the internet to work for you, you have to accept it could take a long time.
But if and when Google does shift in your favor, your customers will benefit from your hard work. When you’re doing SEO (or having a firm do it for you), make sure you’re doing marketing too.
Despite the bag of hair algorithm throwing a few freebies away to local companies who didn’t do any real marketing, there’s a lot of gold for the business owners who did find time in their busy day to keep the content river flowing through their Google+ account.
Mini Case Study
Michele H, local wedding photographer (asked to be private, apparently a competitive field).
Goal is to fill up the fall with jobs, with no expenses.
I have a friend in the local photography space. Her name is Michele. She moved to Philadelphia suburbs right before Christmas 2012 to stay with her sick mother, and wasn’t really set up financially. As a wedding photographer, she didn’t have a strong ‘word of mouth’ network in Philly, something many local services rely heavily upon.
In such a short window, I figured a social content strategy and local search was the way to go (forgoing general web SEO). I helped her get her photography service up and running with a quick, clean SEO friendly platform (simply WordPress), and pushed Google+ on her hard (as an experiment on my end). She spends most her day retouching photos, and naturally didn”t want to do any more on a computer than she had too. Still, we created a balanced plan to create engagement with only a few hours a month. This included:
- Minimum 5 shares a week on Google+
- Minimum 5 original thought pieces\
- Citation building
- Post anything created solely for the blog
- 10 interactions on relevant Google+ pages
- Always driving Google+ traffic to her blog, and blog traffic to her Google+ (create a loop)
- Respond to all comments quick and humbly
- Soft promotion of services
All the authorship stuff was also put in place. In took about 3 weeks in May to start showing her photo in the search engine result pages.
The Waiting Game
For months nothing came of it. I was rarely involved, assuming she was following the steps. I didn’t do any other SEO work for her.
The content she created sat around on Google+. She wasn’t getting into the packs, and more importantly, she wasn’t getting any pack traffic or Google+ referrals. Everything she did on Google+ she mirrored on Facebook, which was semi-active (helped mitigate any feeling of it being a huge waste of time), but let’s just keep this mini case study on Google+ and related website content.
She was a worried and a little stressed.
Then suddenly she got a few followers in April who started sharing her stuff. More saw it and circled her. In March, 29 had her in their circles. In July, two thousand. By checking out the most shared stuff in Analytics, we knew what flavor of content she needed to continue writing in (in her case it was about what wedding photographers can use to differentiate themselves, and unique wedding photo ideas). She was becoming a brand on Google+.
She started taking small jobs when weddings weren’t happening, and asked them to consider reviewing on her places page. Happily for her, they were all favorable.
She also got a few organic links and upward trending traffic to her blog (located on a folder off the root domain). Things were starting to happen slowly. 10 more visits here, 20 more visits there, with a low bounce rate. Not big numbers, but to a local wedding photographer, this was helpful. 45% of her closed leads came from this traffic from April to July.
In her vertical, her Google+ may not have been ranking well at first, but it was a vital social component and cause of the informational searches she was now receiving. Attribution reports showed some decent interplay. Impressions and actions started to go up. It’s all connected.
She had one goal: fill up the fall with wedding shoots in a new town. She succeeded last week. Added benefit: zero cost. All really minor effort leading to a big win for a minor business.
The opportunity is there for the small business of any size – the bigger you are, the more work you need to put into it. In this day of big brands getting the lionshare of the rankings and traffic, the small business can still rock in long-tail and local search. It’s not hard or expensive – just awkward and confusing… but completely valid.
Protip: Click the sleestack.
I definitely expected more from Authorship by now. For me it’s kind of a let down. So far, it’s akin to the flying cars we were expecting. We were under the impression Authorship would bring AuthorRank, and it would do all these wonderful things. But like the flying car, this was never specifically promised (that I know of).
I’m a little tired of telling clients, “put this and this on your pages, force yourself to use Google+, and get your whole content team to adopt it,” without a better reason.
“Because one day this might really matter!” doesn’t really cut it for me anymore. I’ve become skeptical since this.
Where Is AuthorRank?
While the common expectation of Authorship was that it will become a ranking factor is exciting, Google has shown us that our expectations don’t always come true, despite even obtaining patents.
Case in point: social signals. I was told by someone at Google over 4 years ago that +1 buttons were going to improve rankings. Rarely do they come out and tell you that. He was a rarely loose-lipped project manager probably in violation. By now there should be some majority proof that these buttons work, if they truly did.
Still, while exciting, it’s also scary. If I wrote the definitive post on a particular SEO strategy, and Danny Sullivan wrote a half-assed or inaccurate similar piece (not likely!), would Authorship favor him?
There’s no doubt Google is into taking Authorship further. They created triggered emails to give particular “authors” more context when needed. They added it to their rich snippet testing tool. They’ve even tried to make it happen when it wasn’t properly implemented (suggesting the developers are hard at work). It’s got to mean more than just a photo in the SERPs. Don’t get me wrong, I know the value of the rich snippets in click-throughs (I worked very closely with a usability lab in a past life), and can’t imagine a face shot would turn anyone away from an informational search. Even someone really ugly. I don’t sweat over the studies.
On their Authorship page, Google says, “Make your content feel personal.” I think that’s just a quick and safe banner. They’ve told us they may use the data they collect as a ranking factor. What are they waiting for? It’s safe to assume they’ve been collecting since well before August of 2011, when this rel=author standard was highlighted in a video. Rel=author is not a Google invention.
Maybe It’s In Play – Just Not As Expected
I was talking to my business partner Keith, and we were having the usual water cooler conversation about Authorship. Then he says, “maybe it’s more of a defensive play?”
I hadn’t heard anyone really suggest that before. We’ve been expecting it as a ranking signal. But what if rel=author went the way of the +1 as a ranking factor, and is now more of a validator of editorial, non-spammy links? After all, when’s the last time you saw spam or unnatural backlinks come from an author-verified page?
I could see Google ultimately determining that’s as far as it should go for now, with their current infrastructure. Since they’re probably wrestling with how game-able Authorship really is, I could see them defaulting on it being a signal of trust which doesn’t push rankings, instead defends the link graph. Until (or unless) spammers were to figure it out and start adopting it of course. Maybe Google is thinking most spammers are too lazy, and using this now as a pluggable cog.
I don’t have the answer, but it’s an interesting thought. Would love your thoughts. Are we looking into Authorship incorrectly?