6 Keys to Search Success in 2014

What if someone gave you scientific data on what hundreds of sites are doing to get thousands of top keyword rankings on Google? Would you, or could you, make changes to your site to match the criteria for achieving these rankings? The data is now available. Searchmetrics has just released a new study, part of a multiyear longitudinal study on ranking factors, entitled “SEO Ranking Factors and Rank Correlations 2014—Google U.S.” In this lengthy whitepaper, there are some big takeaways and lots of guidance, which savvy search marketers will turn into action plans—or roadmaps for success, as I prefer to think of them. Here are some of the nuggets gleaned from the research:

What if someone gave you scientific data on what hundreds of sites are doing to get thousands of top keyword rankings on Google? Would you, or could you, make changes to your site to match the criteria for achieving these rankings? The data is now available. Searchmetrics has just released a new study, part of a multiyear longitudinal study on ranking factors, entitled “SEO Ranking Factors and Rank Correlations 2014—Google U.S.” In this lengthy whitepaper, there are some big takeaways and lots of guidance, which savvy search marketers will turn into action plans—or roadmaps for success, as I prefer to think of them. Here are some of the nuggets gleaned from the research:

  • SEO Success Requires Vigilance—the study reinforces that good SEO is, in fact, the culmination of hundreds of tactical efforts, all executed precisely and flawlessly. SEO is changing and evolving so that tactics that garnered top rankings just a few years ago may not be as significant today; therefore, it is important to continuously tune your program based on precise new information.
  • Basic SEO Is Not Enough—These are the stakes needed to even play at the table: robust site architecture with good internal links, short loading times and the presence of all relevant Meta tags, such as Title and Description. You cannot expect your basic optimization efforts to do all the work. They are just the foundation for search success.
  • Bring on the Content—Content must be richer and longer. Most top-ranking pages include about 900 words, 17 sentences or so of real content. This content must engage the user, contain the keywords you are targeting and be highly readable by your audience. With Google moving to a holistic approach to page relevancy, so, too, must content creators. They need to include not just the keyword target, but other semantically relevant keywords. The days are long gone where keyword stuffing and pages of weak content with the same keyword repeated over and over were successful.
  • Quality Links, Not Just Quantity—Success in Google has always required attention to the site’s linkage profile. Today, link-building should really be transformed into link-curation. The Searchmetrics report clearly emphasizes the importance of focusing on high-quality links and paying closer attention to internal linking structures. Most SEO efforts focus on external link-building and forget about removing broken, irrelevant and unnecessary links. These should be part of the basic “housekeeping” activities for the site.
  • Social Media Just Give Signals—Social media provide valuable signals for Google as to the worth of your content. The Searchmetrics study has shown that these signals are less valuable to Google in 2014 compared to 2013. The jury is still out as to exactly how they contribute, but more shares and likes impact rankings positively. Make no mistake—social media likes, pins and mentions are not magic bullets for improving rankings. Social media provide Google signals as to how valuable users find the content on your site. Your efforts should be focused on the user.
  • It Is All About the User—If you want to rank well, users must find your content interesting. The study found that URLs with top rankings had clickthrough rates (CTRs) of 32 percent and the 10th highest ranking URL had a 3 percent CTR. Users clicking through typically stay on the top-ranking pages 101 seconds and exhibit only a 37 percent bounce rate. Users stay longer on top-ranked pages—30 seconds longer than on a page in the 4th position. If your data shows that your pages have low clickthrough rates, short stays and high bounce rates, you cannot really expect top rankings. To put it bluntly, your pages are not worthy. The challenge is to use the information in the Searchmetrics study to improve your site’s performance. This means taking a long, hard look at what you are doing right and have a willingness to address issues that might be impairing your performance in search. Just remember, SEO success is hundreds of rapidly changing tactics, flawlessly executed.

Google: The Elephant for Search Marketers

Pierre Trudeau, the former Canadian Prime Minister, once remarked about the United States: “Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.” Search marketers can say the same about Google. Every move that the search giant makes has some impact on the search marketplace. Google announces major algorithm changes as “weather reports” and indicates how Google expects the change to impact sites. These changes are usually couched in terms of what type of Web spam the search giant is attempting to reduce. Although designed to weed out poor quality sites or those that are gaming the system, these changes frequently catch many unwary sites in their net. In some instances, site owners may believe that they are following the rules.

Pierre Trudeau, the former Canadian Prime Minister, once remarked about the United States: “Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.”

Search marketers can say the same about Google. Every move that the search giant makes has some impact on the search marketplace. Google announces major algorithm changes as “weather reports” and indicates how Google expects the change to impact sites. These changes are usually couched in terms of what type of Web spam the search giant is attempting to reduce. Although designed to weed out poor quality sites or those that are gaming the system, these changes frequently catch many unwary sites in their net. In some instances, site owners may believe that they are following the rules.

Few online marketers have developed disaster plans for what to do in the event that their site takes a serious tumble in the search rankings. Many marketers focus huge efforts on improving their search positions, but few plan for sudden, precipitous drops in search traffic. It is incumbent upon all online marketers to build their own disaster plans so that they do not have to react in haste.

  • Do you have a plan for what you might do if you were to lose 30 percent to 50 percent of your search traffic?
  • Do you know the impact this might have on your bottom line?
  • How would you backfill the loss?
  • What other marketing channels could you use to drive sales?
  • Would a huge drop in search traffic cripple your business?

For a pure-play e-commerce business, a serious fall-off in search traffic might spell doom.

Sites do recover, but there is no set time frame for recovery, and the recovery is usually gradual. Troubleshooting and fixing the problems is a time-consuming and costly effort, so it is important to have in place an alternative traffic plan—a search disaster plan. You may never need it, but given that you live next to an elephant with the capability of crushing you inadvertently, it is an excellent idea to have just such a plan in your back pocket.

Applying Paid Search Optimization Techniques Beyond the Search Engine Results Page

In 2010, Forrester’s The Future of Search Marketing report predicted that “search marketing will become an umbrella term that applies to using any targeted media to help an advertiser get found.” Forrester was right. It’s now clear that search isn’t limited to being a channel.

In 2010, Forrester’s The Future of Search Marketing report predicted that “search marketing will become an umbrella term that applies to using any targeted media to help an advertiser get found.” Forrester was right. It’s now clear that search isn’t limited to being a channel.

Search is the science of understanding intent and acting on it to efficiently connect people to your brand — no matter if that connection is made on a search engine, social networking site, display network, affiliate network or other emerging medium. To foster these connections, search engine marketing best practices can be extended well beyond the search engine results page.

First, I’ll consider how traditional paid search techniques can be applied to display advertising to drive new-to-file customers. Like search, biddable display provides advertisers with targeting capabilities to find the right customer at the right price. While search marketers create segmentation via keywords to find the right audience, display marketers create segmentation via data sources.

For example, during back-to-school season this past year, one of Performics’ apparel retailer clients sought to efficiently boost year-over-year daily sales though performance display. Like we do with search campaigns, we restructured the retailer’s display campaign at a more granular level (31 different ads in 2011 versus 6 ads in 2010) to support product/offer testing.

The restructure revealed deeper audience insights, helping us buy only the impressions we wanted (i.e., the right placements at the right price). We also increased relevance through site retargeting (i.e., serving display ads to people who visited the advertiser’s website but didn’t take action). These strategies resulted in a 211 percent year-over-year increase in average daily sales at a 120 percent return on investment.

Likewise, paid search techniques can be applied to social media advertising. The obvious paid search/Facebook similarities are that Facebook cost-per-click ads are bid based, keyword triggered by likes/interests in users’ profiles and optimized through copy/creative testing. The obvious paid search/Twitter similarities are that Promoted Tweets are bid based, triggered by Twitter users’ search keywords and optimized through copy testing.

There are also less obvious similarities. For example, using paid search campaign structure best practices to boost Twitter followers via Promoted Accounts, which enable advertisers to recommend their account to particular Twitter users who may be interested in following them. For an advertiser’s account to be recommended, the advertiser targets Twitter users via keywords and bids on a cost-per-follower (CPF) basis. One of Performics’ clients sought to use Promoted Accounts to increase followers at a low CPF.

Borrowing from paid search, Performics restructured and relaunched the client’s Promoted Accounts campaign. We increased the account’s size from one campaign to 11 campaigns to include more granular, demographically relevant keywords. Like in paid search, more targeted keywords caused Twitter’s algorithm to recommend our client’s account to a more relevant Twitter audience. Post-optimization, the client achieved a 1,473 percent increase in followers at a 69 percent decrease in CPF.

Search will surely continue to evolve well beyond typing keywords in a search box (think asking Siri to find you an answer or using a mobile augmented reality app to see product reviews while walking through a store). Notwithstanding this evolution, time-tested paid search optimization techniques relentlessly focused on structuring campaigns to deliver the most relevant audiences at the lowest cost will always drive performance.