The Search Marketer’s Challenge — Striking the Right Balance

Today, the digital marketer has at-hand a veritable arsenal of tools to reach potential customers. There is email, organic search, paid search, and display advertising, all on a dizzying array of platforms.

Today, the digital marketer has at-hand a veritable arsenal of tools to reach potential customers. There is email, organic search, paid search, and display advertising, all on a dizzying array of platforms.

Each platform is busily competing for the marketer’s precious dollars. In the past, organic search has been a dependable, albeit difficult to manage, source of traffic. The Merkle Q2 2019 “Digital Marketing Report” shows that overall in Q2, organic search visits declined by 6%. DuckDuckGo was the only major U.S. search engine to deliver site visit growth in Q2 2019. Organic search produced 23% of all site visits and 21% of mobile site visits in Q2 2019, a substantial share of the market. The sharp focus placed on SEO mobile is aptly placed, because phones and tablets produced 59% of organic search visits.

How are marketers to react to a declining volume of organic search visits when, for so many years, it has been on a nearly continuous rise. In the face of overall search volume declines, marketers must work harder to make sure that they are optimizing not just their organic results, but also the overall mix of platforms and media used: paid and organic search, social, and shopping.

What Are the Drivers?

The answer to what is creating the change in organic search visitors is complex, but one of the answers easily visible to mobile searchers. The small screen is now cluttered with display ads, and the user is likely to not scroll deeply into the results. Those who do and make that click into a site are seldom rewarded with an easy to navigate screen. All too often, the mobile site leaves the user wishing for a better solution.

It is vicious cycle.

A bad user experience discourages the user from making another attempt. Additionally, as users develop favorite sites, where they can dependably navigate and find what they want, they are more likely to direct navigate to them. Amazon is one of these go-to sites; therefore, I have strongly advocated developing a search strategy for Amazon.

In a nutshell, display and paid search, coupled with direct navigation, are creating the environment for decline.

What to Do!

As they say in auto parlance, your mileage may vary.

If you are doing SEO for a site that is in a market sector that does not lend itself to display or is underutilized for paid search, your experience may be different. Declining search results cannot be attributed to the structural changes noted above. A slightly deeper analysis is needed to determine if your decline is driven by SEO mistakes, algorithmic changes, or even market changes. An SEO audit will highlight both SEO mistakes and where algorithmic changes have impacted the site; however, you can easily check for market and consumer preference changes.

Try popping your “money keywords,” those which are key to your business success, into Google Trends using the drop-down to broaden the length of time out from five to 15 years (the max) and then examine the peaks. You may find that the terminology has changed and that you need to revisit your keywords, a tactical solution. If your market has changed, then the challenge shifts from tactical to strategic.

Are You in the Organic Search Game?

Successful organic SEO programs are in many ways like winning basketball teams. The players must know how to execute the fundamentals. They must be willing to make rapid changes of direction and evaluate the risk accompanying every shot taken.

the search game is like basketballSuccessful organic SEO programs are in many ways like winning basketball teams. The players must know how to execute the fundamentals. They must be willing to make rapid changes of direction and evaluate the risk accompanying every shot taken.

I refereed high school basketball for about 15 years and can assure you that the very best teams, even those with tremendous talent on the floor, don’t just roll the ball out and play. That type of game is reserved for playground pick-up games. The best teams protect the ball as they move it down the court, work the ball on the offensive end, and look for the open shot. They have scripted offenses and clear defensive schemes. Today’s game has placed a lot of emphasis on the three-point shot, but even the best three-point shooters are more likely to miss at that range than the player making an at-the-rim slam dunk.

SEOs don’t get many open rim shots, so we must constantly look for the best shot.

Game Plan

The best search teams focus on the making sure that the fundamental elements of organic search are properly executed.

  • Are all key pages optimized?
  • Is there a consistent formula for stress-free optimization?
  • Can new pages be added seamlessly?
  • Is there a clearly articulated content creation scheme?

That is the equivalent of good ball-handling. Nimble SEO teams have in place the processes that let them move the SEO ball, their site optimization, down the court without dribbling it off of their foot.

With the complexity of today’s sites, making sure that the procedures are in place to ensure consistent high-quality initial optimization is an essential and complex task. As an SEO consultant, I have encountered a number of organizations where the essential routines for optimization are not codified and the processes are ad hoc. These organizations are playing the equivalent of pick-up ball with their SEO.

Execution

Just like today’s basketball defenses, search engines have evolved from easy-to-manipulate to very complex multi-layered technologies. Every successful search marketer has to be able to evaluate the impact each new change will have on their site and then adjust.

  • Is it worth the cost and effort to make the site secure?
  • How deep should the commitment be to mobile optimization?
  • What about making improvements to site speed?

Making the decisions that go into these are analogous to working the ball on offense. Not every team can run-and-gun. Each must work to their own strengths. It is easy to be driven off-track by the newest shiny object and lose sight of the overall goal: more qualified traffic.

Post-Game Review

College basketball uses a shot clock, and teams on offense sometimes let valuable seconds on the clock tick away while they seem to aimlessly move the ball around. With no time left, they either turn the ball over or put up a bad shot. They either had no real plan or could not adjust to the defense.

Google, in particular, usually signals major changes with enough time to allow site owners to react. The search marketing team must read the defense and adjust. When a major change is hinted, you and your search team are on the clock. Plan your offense early and know that the clock is ticking. If you do, then you will get your shot off with plenty of time left on the clock.

Evaluating, revisiting and tweaking your optimization will ensure more open shots and slam dunks. Your evaluation should be holistic, the site audit process is broadly used. This will uncover weaknesses and areas that may need immediate attention. Highly specific actions should focus on areas where minimal effort will yield large gains.

Creation of optimized content and re-optimization of individual pages can be very specific and result in almost immediate traffic boosts. These are your slam dunks. They only come from using your analytical tools in concert with a well thought-out game plan.

Just like basketball, search is competitive. Don’t just roll the ball out. Build a team and a plan that makes your search team a winner.

2017 Search Trends — No. 1, Faster Sites

Before turning the last page on the 2016 calendar and welcoming in 2017, I’d like to pause for a moment and look briefly at some important trends in organic search that will strongly impact search performance in 2017. These should not be mysterious hints of things to come, but rather strong signals — claxons, if you will.

faster seoBefore turning the last page on the 2016 calendar and welcoming in 2017, I’d like to pause for a moment and look briefly at some important trends in organic search that will strongly impact search performance in 2017. These should not be mysterious hints of things to come, but rather strong signals — claxons, if you will.

Faster Site Speed Is Now an Imperative

If you have not been working on improving your site speed, by 2017 you will be left in the slow lane and passed by sites that have taken on the challenges of improving end-to-end speed.

You might ask: Why is it so important now? Google has been nudging site owners to improve their sites for several years. They have offered tools for site speed measurement and guidelines for improvement. The search giant even announced that its algorithm would give a boost to faster pages. The boost proved to be minimal; so many site owners did not see it as an imperative. Besides, in many organizations site performance improvements are seen as the province of the technical team, not marketing. Now, a slow site will inhibit your ability to successfully execute other trendy initiatives.

Mobile Is First

In 2015, more searches were done on mobile devices than on desktops.

The trend to more mobile usage has not abated. Google noted the growing use of mobile and is now working on a mobile-first approach. Because more people see pages on a mobile device, Google will be indexing and ranking based on the content of the mobile pages.

Guess what? Slow sites deliver slow mobile pages, which users rapidly abandon. Some site owners chose to address the need for a mobile site by offering stripped-down versions of their sites. With the mobile-first imperative, these sites will be judged based on the content given on the mobile version, not their “full” sites.

Several years ago, Google began advocating for using responsive design for mobile sites. As we move into the future, responsive design will simply be table stakes for mobile search performance. With mobile-first, it is more than likely that even mobile-friendly, slower performing sites will be left in the search rankings dust.

Now, with accelerated mobile pages (AMP) expanding beyond news content, fast, lean pages are leaping to the forefront. Google is even identifying them in the search results so that users can choose these fast, lean pages for themselves. The number of AMP pages is expected to continue to grow in the future.

In 2017, not having a fast, mobile site will put you behind the curve.

Secure Is Better

Google continues to push for more secure sites. It has already been announced that in 2017, users of Google Chrome will see clear designations on the browser bar whenever they are visiting insecure pages.

Google intends to essentially shame sites into moving to secure environments. Because of the encryption, secure sites tend to be slower than insecure sites.

Once again, this cries out for a need to improve site speed.

If there is a single unifying theme that should drive organic search efforts in 2017, it can be summed up in this slogan: Get fast or get left behind.

Mobile Search vs. Traditional Search: How User Behavior Differs and How to Optimize for It

Fighting for real estate atop search engine results pages (SERPs) has always been a challenge. Thanks to smartphones, it’s getting a lot tougher. Gone are the days of searching exclusively from your desktop from work or home; now, most people carry search engine access in their pockets and are using Google on their mobile browsers.

mobile search resultsFighting for real estate atop search engine results pages (SERPs) has always been a challenge. Thanks to smartphones, it’s getting a lot tougher. Gone are the days of searching exclusively from your desktop from work or home; now, most people carry search engine access in their pockets and are using Google on their mobile browsers.

Not only have smartphones taken over, but mobile search results pages are changing, too. When using Google on your smartphone, you’re far more likely to get results with locator maps, call buttons, hours of operation, reviews and more. To the Average Joe, this is incredibly convenient. But for online marketers, this is somewhat frightening. Now all those SEO experts are vying for top positions on tiny smartphone screens with significantly less real estate.

The players are changing, and so is the game.

This paradigm shift can’t be ignored. Cling to your desktop strategy, and eventually your website will be outranked by those adjusting for mobile. Adapting is the only way forward. Here, we’ll review some key differences between mobile and traditional searches and how to make the most of the changing behavior of Web users.

Differences Between Mobile and Traditional Web Searches

So, mobile search usage is picking up and showing no signs of slowing down — what does this mean to you?

First, consider the factors driving the change. We already reviewed the reduction of real estate; most desktops are hooked to 20-inch monitors, while the new iPhone 7 sports a relatively tiny 4.7-inch screen.

Then there’s the fact that most smartphones are viewed vertically, while desktop searches are viewed on horizontal monitors. Desktop users scroll and click; mobile users swipe and tap. Studies have also shown that mobile users tend to know what they want; mobile searches result in more short-term sales at local businesses than desktop searches.

Keep that in mind as we review these important differences between mobile and desktop search pages:

1. Top organic search results are pushed further down on pages.

First, the good news. If you have a coveted top organic SERP placement, you’ll still get good traffic to your website. However, Web users need more time to find these placements on mobile devices. A 2014 study by the marketing firm Mediative found that people took 87 percent longer to find the top placement for a car show when it was placed below a Google Knowledge Graph (that box containing a summary of information either on the top or the right side of SERPs).

There isn’t much you can do about this problem — at least, nothing in the short term — other than to make your content as unique and compelling as possible. Never before has standing out on SERPs been more important.

2. Getting a top-four placement is a MUST on mobile.

We capitalized “MUST” for a reason. Getting a top-four placement was important even on desktops considering just 16 percent of organic clicks went below the fourth-ranked result. But 16 percent is still a sizeable portion of traffic. For mobile searches, on the other hand, the Mediative study found more than 92 percent of clicks went to the top four organic results, leaving just 7.4 percent for everything below. Ouch.

This is a huge problem for marketers who haven’t optimized their websites and landing pages for mobile Web browsers. It’s not enough to be content with moderate search rankings on desktop searches. Those searches are shrinking. Mobile is the future.

Add More Traffic With Universal and Extended Search Optimization

If your organic search optimization plan does not include optimization for pertinent elements of both universal and extended search, you may be missing out on a surprising amount of traffic.

SEOIf your organic search optimization plan does not include optimization for pertinent elements of both universal and extended search, you may be missing out on a surprising amount of traffic.

In the beginning, organic search optimization was focused on the pursuit of top placements for your site’s pages. Search has evolved and so, too, must your optimization plan.

Today, instead of 10 blue links on a page, most contain 8.5. An array of universal and extended search elements enhance and complement the Google search results pages. The inclusion of maps, images, video results, the Knowledge Box and Twitter results enhance the user experience and speed searchers to their desired information.

A recent white paper from Searchmetrics looked at the results from approximately 500,000 general, frequently searched terms. Because Google increasingly is applying different algorithms for mobile vs. desktop searches, the results from both were analyzed. This study clearly shows that any optimization plan is incomplete, unless it includes the elements of both universal and extended search.

Universal Search — Vertical Search Integrated Into the Results Page

Universal search, launched in 2007, was Google’s integration directly into the search results of vertical search elements that had previously been developed as separate search engines. These included: shopping, news, videos, images and maps. Although showing up integrated into the search results page, these vertical silos of information can still be accessed from tabs on the Google results page.

The type of elements displayed vary depending on the keyword search. For example, a search for a “Zen frog fountain” yields a results page rich in images and shopping details. There is even a video. A search for your local hospital will yield a results page with a map and directions.

Each element in universal search has its own optimization requirements, and many organic SEO plans employ them. The SEO can clearly guide the optimization of images so that relevant product images will be included in the array of images shown for keyword searches.

For e-commerce merchants, it is quite important to optimize all of your images, because they can drive substantial amounts of traffic. Similarly, video content can be readily optimized using available guidelines.

Google’s emphasis on quality of the information and the authority of the source has driven the evolution of news optimization from press releases to publishers. Today, the news integration includes just the freshest and most authoritative sources. Because the news elements evolved from vertical search, there are a set of guidelines for optimization of news.

Not all elements are equally important for every business, but traffic can be gained by optimizing all the germane elements.

Extended Search — More Boxes and Features

Extended search is the term applied to the additions to the search results that are not based on vertical search engines. These results are algorithmically developed from a variety of internal and external sources available to Google. Extended search includes: The Knowledge Graph, the image carousel, the Twitter Cards, the direct answer/fact boxes, the related questions that are delivered along with the direct answers, and the app packs found in mobile searches.

Because the results pull information from a number of sources, they are much more difficult to optimize for. They are best viewed as the result of a broad footprint of information that will satisfy the demands of these elements.

For example, the Knowledge Graph relies on Google My Business and Wikipedia information. If your company has a complete profile on these two key sources, you will be feeding the information needed to drive the Knowledge Graph. Similarly, sites with recipes, events and reviews can use structured data to enhance the likelihood of appearing in the direct answers boxes.

As we move into the fourth quarter and plan for the next year, do be sure to review the universal search and expanded search elements that have the most traffic-driving potential for your business and strategize for how to include them in your optimization planning.

The Not-So Dog Days of Summer for the E-Commerce SEO

The retail e-commerce calendar is so compressed and focused on the October-to-December selling season that summertime is site development time. Any site enhancements, redesigns and relaunches must be completed with adequate time for testing and rollout before the critical autumn selling season.

e-commerceFor many businesses and individuals, summer is a time for vacations and refreshment while the weather is good and extended school vacations open up time for family time. In my almost 20 years of working with e-commerce sites, I have yet to find that summertime is time when the living is slow and easy. The retail e-commerce calendar is so compressed and focused on the October-to-December selling season that summertime is site development time. Any site enhancements, redesigns and relaunches must be completed with adequate time for testing and rollout before the critical autumn selling season. This usually means that August and September are very busy for organic SEOs, with clients making significant changes to their sites for the upcoming holiday season.

The amount of work that the SEO must be involved in depends largely on how extensive the changes are. For example, a reskinning of the site without any fundamental changes may require just a brief review. Implementing a new architecture or platform takes substantially more SEO time and resources. Unfortunately, it is humans who develop sites, and humans make mistakes when they rush or are distracted. I’d like to share a couple of small human errors that had big consequences. They were all created by hurrying to meet a deadline.

First, the Site Must Be Indexed

With Google’s advanced technology, site indexing is no longer the wait-and-see game it was years ago. With a combination of site maps and the tools made available to Webmasters, it is virtually impossible – unless you are on vacation and not watching the tools – to pull off the stunt a client of mine did some years ago. I was called in to help solve a problem. The problem articulated during the sales cycle was simply: “Please, SEO, answer why my lovely new site has no traffic from search?” The answer was very simple. It took me just a few minutes to figure out that in the excitement to launch the new site, someone had forgotten to remove the small line of code in the robots.txt file that warned the spider not to traverse the site while it was under development. This simple oversight was costing the company both revenue and momentum during the run-up to the selling season. Even though development and testing environments have come a long way since this incident occurred, it points up how easy it is to make a small mistake that has consequences.

Second, Get Dirty With the Code

Among my many hobbies is gardening, and I love to dig in the dirt. Organic SEO requires that you dig in the code as vigorously as you might dig in a garden. This is particularly important when a site undergoes major changes. Again, it is the little things that can create havoc. One client launched a major new section to the site and complained that in the early stages when business was up, the new section just wasn’t performing, particularly in search. Again, a quick look revealed that someone, another pesky human, had failed to implement the analytics tracking codes on the new section. After the codes were added, it quickly became obvious that the new section was, in fact, performing outstandingly well. These and many other similar incidents have made me very cautious about sites making changes during the summer. My mantra for site changes is: Review the code, watch the changes and don’t go on vacation when the site is about to launch or relaunch.

Why Brand Matters in Organic SEO

Many years ago when I was a pre-digital marketer, when we couldn’t or didn’t measure (shame on us!) the direct results of every marketing initiative, we readily used “brand exposure” as a catch-all for marketing goodness.

Content thiefMany years ago when I was a pre-digital marketer, when we couldn’t or didn’t measure (shame on us!) the direct results of every marketing initiative, we readily used “brand exposure” as a catch-all for marketing goodness.

For example, a tradeshow appearance that netted disappointing sales was deemed to have offered “good brand exposure.” As I worked my way up as a marketer, it became increasingly apparent that “good brand exposure” was the refuge of programs of dubious value and tactics that just didn’t quite work out as planned. The result was that I became a confessed doubter of the value of most branding programs.

Then, as we roared into the digital age, where the measurement and metrics for digital marketing initiatives have bloomed, I have heard fewer initiatives whitewashed as “good brand exposure.” Over time, I have rethought my personal skepticism on what is good brand exposure and consequently the value of branding.

Success in Mobile and Organic Search Requires Strong Branding

All marketers want the searcher to look for their name, their brand and their site. This is obvious, but what is not so obvious is how branding efforts now play through in organic search.

Google typically shows a company’s name as the first organic search result. The value of name recognition is evident. Searchers looking for you by name will be delivered to you.

With the shrunken screens on mobile devices and their impact on how the search results page displays, brand name recognition is ever more important. Imprinting your name, correctly spelled, is today of utmost importance. This becomes very important when there are multiple companies with similar names, all vying for that top spot in the search results.

For pure-play e-commerce vendors, whose domain is a surrogate for their brand name, domain name recognition equals brand recognition. The No. 1 spot for their domain name in the search results is essential to their success.

Seems easy, doesn’t it? Not so fast.

There is a wrinkle. Without the support of additional branding efforts, it is easy for name-confusion to replace name-recognition. Scrapers and counterfeiters operating overseas often exploit name similarity by buying domain names similar to a leading online-only merchant. Unless there is strong brand protection and support to create the overall brand personality for the business, then the searcher can be easily misled and duped into buying from a look-alike, name-almost-alike merchant.

Brand protection should be a key part of the online e-commerce search strategy. This protection may require that you purchase domain names that are not just the usual misspellings but also those that might be exploited by a scraper.

The second level of protection requires going after counterfeiters and scrapers who steal your traffic and your business.

Part of your branding efforts should focus on making sure that your potential customers will enter your name correctly in the search box. This cries for consistency across all online media platforms.

All too frequently, I have seen companies that give their social media accounts cutesy names. These efforts, while creative, do not assist in building name recognition so that your name will be accurately placed in a search box.

While you are at it, check to see what is delivered in that first search result and see if it actually reflects what a searcher might come looking for. Then, you will truly be getting “good brand exposure.”

Spring Cleaning Is Not Just for Houses, It’s for Your Website, Too

It’s been my experience that businesses hate to say goodbye to products and often keep product pages up for discontinued and no longer available products. If you don’t have in-place a regular process for handling discontinued products on the site, then you should build one. Consider this akin to cleaning out the closets.

The calendar says it’s spring and in many parts of the country, the weather is warming and the flowers are starting to bloom. In the past, homemakers would herald the change of the season by giving their homes a thorough cleaning. Walls were washed, floors scrubbed and closets cleaned out. As we have become busier, the ritual of spring cleaning has faded into a memory of things that Mom and her generation did. I would like to suggest that just like homes, sites need to be cleaned on a regular basis as part of the organic search workflow. Maybe it is time to spring clean your site? If you do not already have cleaning and pruning the site as part of your organic search workflow, I’d like to suggest that there is no time like the present to put together an action plan.

Why Bother Cleaning and Pruning Your Site?
The reasons for instituting a regular process for cleaning and sprucing up your site are legion. It is my experience that we love the new and often forget about those sections of the site that were once upon a time the bright, shiny new objects. You may have forgotten about the pages. But once they are found by the search spiders and indexed, they are part of your footprint. Pages can live in search results for years, particularly if they happen to have search-reactive content. They may still draw traffic; not huge volumes, but enough to merit your attention. If your company has changed and progressed, you may have pages that represent what you were then — five years ago — and not what you are now. You do not want to show the world an out-of-date version of your company.

Where to Begin?
A very obvious place to begin is to use Google’s Webmaster Tools to get a sense of how many pages from your site are in Google’s index. This is a first-level sanity check. Most organic search marketers use this tool to monitor the level of indexing on a regular basis, but I am suggesting that it is a good idea to take a slightly different slant on how to view the results. For example, if your site has 20 top-level category pages and 1,000 product pages, plus some essential supplemental pages about the business, it would merit further review if the tools showed 5,000 or more pages. Run a spidering tool of your own against your site and check for discrepancies. It’s been my experience that businesses hate to say goodbye to products and often keep product pages up for discontinued and no longer available products. If you don’t have in-place a regular process for handling discontinued products on the site, then you should build one. Consider this akin to cleaning out the closets.

What to Do With the Discards?
During a spring cleaning that includes cleaning out the closets, lots of discards go off to secondhand shops, charity or whatever. You can’t quite do this with your site, but you can generously share any search value with other pages on the site by redirecting with permanent 301 redirects any traffic from your discards to other still-viable pages. This signals to the search engines that you have moved the page. You know that the page has not just been moved, it has been obliterated.

When to Clean?
It may not be practical to set an arbitrary time based on the change in the seasons to give your site a regular cleaning. If your business has a new product introduction cycle, as in fashion, then the best time is when the merchandise changeover has occurred. For businesses that continuously add new products, then a regular schedule must be set to clean up the site.

Don’t just look at product pages. All too often, the supplementary materials on a site are very out of date, so they merit a review, as well. Computer storage is cheap, so we never really see the pages we should be discarding bulging from our digital closets. Unfortunately, we really don’t want our customers using search engines to find and view our out-of-date materials. So if your site has out-of-date pages, be assured that if they are indexed, they will be seen by someone. Jiffy up your organic search presence by getting rid of any out-of-date pages.

What Google’s New Results Page Means for Organic SEO

If you are a desktop user, you may have noticed the change, but you might have missed it if your searches trigger Google product listings (PLAs), for Google plans to continue displaying them in the right-hand panel. We can also expect to continue seeing ads in the Knowledge Panel area of the search page.

Did you notice that Google recently changed how ads display in the search results pages? Google has eliminated the ads that appeared along the right side of the page — the right rail.

If you rely on your mobile phone for your own searching, you might not have noticed any change, for Google has chosen not to show right-rail ads in the compressed screen of the mobile phone. The layout changes only apply to desktop searches.

If you are a desktop user, you may have noticed the change, but you might have missed it if your searches trigger Google product listings (PLAs), for Google plans to continue displaying them in the right-hand panel. We can also expect to continue seeing ads in the Knowledge Panel area of the search page.

Instead of three ads at the top of the page, before the organic search results, you can expect to see four ads, particularly for commercial queries. Combined with the three ads that appear at the bottom of the page, seven ads will be shown instead of a maximum of 11.

This change is not an unmixed good. Google does not intend to forego any ad revenue opportunities.

The Google rationale behind the change is that this change will align with how users interact with Google. Reading between the lines, this means that they are seeing huge volumes of mobile search traffic that make it harder to retain any logical reason for offering two different formats.

Their testing has shown that right rail ads are less effective than the ads that appear integrated into the top or bottom of the results page. The right-rail ads have simply become ineffective — interesting news to those who have been spending valuable ad dollars for them. It is my conjecture that users know and recognize that they are ads and, hence, avoid them unless they really answer their needs.