Building Trust – An Overlooked SEO Task

Politicians ask voters to trust them without a whit of evidence supporting their imprecations. They say just “trust me.” Today, news is constantly being declared as “fake” even when there is substantial factual basis. In our current environment where trust in media is under attack, SEOs must look for ways to instill trust in their content even before the first click.

building trustPoliticians ask voters to trust them without a whit of evidence supporting their imprecations. They say just “trust me.” Today, news is constantly being declared as “fake” even when there is substantial factual basis. In our current environment where trust in media is under attack, SEOs must look for ways to instill trust in their content even before the first click.

How can SEOs add to the credibility of the sites they work on? Here are two ways:

  • Reduce content-to-query mismatches by carefully optimizing pages for what users want.
  • For commerce sites, exploit customer ratings and reviews for validation.

Avoid Content Query Mismatches

It has always been my contention that the SEO’s job does not end at the search result. It extends beyond simply positioning the page to perform well on the search engine and only ends when the underlying business performs well.

When a searcher clicks on a search result and arrives at the page and leaves immediately because it does not answer the query, the SEO has done a poor job. The bounce is a signal that there is a mismatch between content and query. By frequently optimizing pages that do not provide an adequate answer for a searcher’s query, the SEO conditions the user to look past the site on the search result, because it won’t answer the query on the spot.

Very large sites that offer access to databases of aggregated information are my favorite example of this. They lure the user to the site through search and then require a subscription or charge a fee to obtain the information. Once the user knows that there will be a paywall or other barrier to the information, it does not matter where the site appears in the search results, the previous experience will prompt the user to simply overlook the site.

Google’s algorithm includes bounce rate as one of its vast number of ranking factors. Reducing the mismatches is in Google’s best interest, because a search engine’s very lifeblood is user confidence. The more confident the user is that the desired information will be delivered for the query, the more likely it is that the user will continue to use the search engine. It behooves the SEO to more tightly optimize pages to ensure content/query concurrence. As we move to a mobile environment, speed of access to information will become increasingly valuable.

Customer Ratings and Reviews – Your New Best Friend

A number of studies have shown that users rely heavily on ratings and reviews. When individuals do not trust the usual “trustworthy” sources, they rely more heavily on their peers for information. Neighbor-to-neighbor private social networking sites like nextdoor.com are witnesses to this phenomenon. In my area, this site is heavily used by neighbors looking for trustworthy local repair companies — plumbers, electricians, roofing, etc. The value is in the hyperlocal, validated experience information.

If you have a commerce site and have not yet implemented a system for ratings and reviews, now is the time to do it. Google has recently announced that it is closing the Google Trusted Stores program and transitioning it to Google Customer Reviews. The details are still forthcoming. By using structured data, you can already include your customers’ assessments of your merchandise in the search results. Your product pages will show up in the search result with stars that clearly indicate the number of ratings and the aggregate results. By monitoring the pages on the site that obtain the most reviews and ratings, the SEO can make sure that products top-rated by users are optimized most carefully. This improves how the content relates to the query, boosts trust even before the first click by clearly demonstrating that the product is of value, and increases the likelihood of customer purchase.

Google Finally Shuts the Door on Doorway Pages

Google seldom gives search engine marketers advance warning of algorithmic changes; however, in a rare move recently Google announced plans to penalize “doorway pages” through a ranking algorithmic adjustment. At the same time, Google clarified its quality guidelines on what constitutes a “doorway page.” Designed to increase a site’s search footprint for specific keywords, “doorway pages” are an old and discredited search marketing tactic. Google in its guidelines for Web development has routinely advised marketers to avoid using doorway page campaigns, because they yield a poor user experience. The question this recent move begs then is: Why is Google going after “doorway pages” now?

Google seldom gives search engine marketers advance warning of algorithmic changes; however, in a rare move recently Google announced plans to penalize “doorway pages” through a ranking algorithmic adjustment. At the same time Google, clarified its quality guidelines on what constitutes a “doorway page.” Designed to increase a site’s search footprint for specific keywords, “doorway pages” are an old and discredited search marketing tactic. Google in its guidelines for Web development has routinely advised marketers to avoid using doorway page campaigns, because they yield a poor user experience. The question this recent move begs then is: Why is Google going after “doorway pages” now?

Although it is Google’s long-standing profile that “doorway pages” are bad practice, and Google has had the technology to detect them for many years, the decision to go after them now is that, in my opinion, they have recently proliferated in morphed forms, particularly for local results. Google’s decision is also consistent with its attack on “thin content” sites. “Doorway pages” were the original thin content pages. In their early format, “doorway pages” were often machine-generated, with keywords plugged into very generic content. As search marketing has evolved, so, too, have “doorway pages,” and the new morphed forms provide almost as bad a user experience as the original machine-generated pages.

With the shift from desktop to mobile, users want crisper, more keenly targeted local results and do not want to be directed to a low-quality doorway page or a bridge page that forces them to make yet another click. It is particularly frustrating to the growing audience of mobile searchers to be guided by Google’s results to “doorway pages,” that provide little more information than Google’s search page. “Doorway pages” often create a carousel effect, where the user performs a search and is continuously lead to the same page, in spite of changing the query. These pages maximize the site owner’s search footprint as well as the user’s frustration. Because “doorway page” programs are often used to funnel localized traffic, they sit at the intersection of local and mobile search. This is a highly competitive space for Google.

Google has clearly indicated the type of pages it classifies as “doorway pages.” According to Google, these pages are created solely to derive traffic for specific queries. They can lead to multiple similar pages in user search results, where each result ends up taking the user to essentially the same destination. They are sometimes bridge pages that lead users to intermediate pages instead of to their final destination. They often have multiple domain names or pages targeted at specific regions or cities that funnel users to one page. These pages often look like search results pages instead of content pages, and they often function as geographic traffic funnels.

If you are not sure whether your search tactics employ “doorway pages,” now is the time to take a closer look at whether your pages fit the profile that Google indicated in its announcement. If you are not sure, my advice is quite simple—don’t fool yourself. You probably need to rethink your strategy quickly. Your very first step should be to block Googlebot from those pages and begin redirecting them to quality pages.

For some businesses and site owners whose search tactics have relied on large “doorway page” campaigns to drive traffic and manipulate the search results, this change could have a seismic impact. If your competitors have been using “doorway pages” and you have not, the change could boost your ranking performance. If this change leads to an improvement in search engine results quality, it will be a clear win for users.

Smart Data – Not Big Data

As a concerned data professional, I am already plotting an exit strategy from this Big Data hype. Because like any bubble, it will surely burst. That inevitable doomsday could be a couple of years away, but I can feel it coming. At the risk of sounding too much like Yoda the Jedi Grand Master, all hypes lead to over-investments, all over-investments lead to disappointments, and all disappointments lead to blames. Yes, in a few years, lots of blames will go around, and lots of heads will roll.

As a concerned data professional, I am already plotting an exit strategy from this Big Data hype. Because like any bubble, it will surely burst. That inevitable doomsday could be a couple of years away, but I can feel it coming. At the risk of sounding too much like Yoda the Jedi Grand Master, all hypes lead to over-investments, all over-investments lead to disappointments, and all disappointments lead to blames. Yes, in a few years, lots of blames will go around, and lots of heads will roll.

So, why would I stay on the troubled side? Well, because, for now, this Big Data thing is creating lots of opportunities, too. I am writing this on my way back from Seoul, Korea, where I presented this Big Data idea nine times in just two short weeks, trotting from large venues to small gatherings. Just a few years back, I used to have a hard time explaining what I do for living. Now, I just have to say “Hey, I do this Big Data thing,” and the doors start to open. In my experience, this is the best “Open Sesame” moment for all data specialists. But it will last only if we play it right.

Nonetheless, I also know that I will somehow continue to make living setting data strategies, fixing bad data, designing databases and leading analytical activities, even after the hype cools down. Just with a different title, under a different banner. I’ve seen buzzwords come and go, and this data business has been carried on by the people who cut through each hype (and gargantuan amount of BS along with it) and create real revenue-generating opportunities. At the end of the day (I apologize for using this cliché), it is all about the bottom line, whether it comes from a revenue increase or cost reduction. It is never about the buzzwords that may have created the business opportunities in the first place; it has always been more about the substance that turned those opportunities into money-making machines. And substance needs no fancy title or buzzwords attached to it.

Have you heard Google or Amazon calling themselves a “Big Data” companies? They are the ones with sick amounts of data, but they also know that it is not about the sheer amount of data, but it is all about the user experience. “Wannabes” who are not able to understand the core values often hang onto buzzwords and hypes. As if Big Data, Cloud Computing or coding language du jour will come and save the day. But they are just words.

Even the name “Big Data” is all wrong, as it implies that bigger is always better. The 3 Vs of Big Data—volume, velocity and variety—are also misleading. That could be a meaningful distinction for existing data players, but for decision-makers, it gives a notion that size and speed are the ultimate quest. But for the users, small is better. They don’t have time to analyze big sets of data. They need small answers in fun size packages. Plus, why is big and fast new? Since the invention of modern computers, has there been any year when the processing speed did not get faster and storage capacity did not get bigger?

Lest we forget, it is the software industry that came up with this Big Data thing. It was created as a marketing tagline. We should have read it as, “Yes, we can now process really large amounts of data, too,” not as, “Big Data will make all your dreams come true.” If you are in the business of selling toolsets, of course, that is how you present your product. If guitar companies keep emphasizing how hard it is to be a decent guitar player, would that help their businesses? It is a lot more effective to say, “Hey, this is the same guitar that your guitar hero plays!” But you don’t become Jeff Beck just because you bought a white Fender Stratocaster with a rosewood neck. The real hard work begins “after” you purchase a decent guitar. However, this obvious connection is often lost in the data business. Toolsets never provide solutions on their own. They may make your life easier, but you’d still have to formulate the question in a logical fashion, and still have to make decisions based on provided data. And harnessing meanings out of mounds of data requires training of your mind, much like the way musicians practice incessantly.

So, before business people even consider venturing into this Big Data hype, they should ask themselves “Why data?” What are burning questions that you are trying to solve with the data? If you can’t answer this simple question, then don’t jump into it. Forget about it. Don’t get into it just because everyone else seems to be getting into it. Yeah, it’s a big party, but why are you going there? Besides, if you formulate the question properly, often you will find that you don’t need Big Data all the time. If fact, Big Data can be a terrible detour if your question can be answered by “small” data. But that happens all the time, because people approach their business questions through the processes set by the toolsets. Big Data should be about the business, not about the IT or data.

Smart Data, Not Big Data
So, how do we get over this hype? All too often, perception rules, and a replacement word becomes necessary to summarize the essence of the concept for the general public. In my opinion, “Big Data” should have been “Smart Data.” Piles of unorganized dumb data aren’t worth a damn thing. Imagine a warehouse full of boxes with no labels, collecting dust since 1943. Would you be impressed with the sheer size of the warehouse? Great, the ark that Indiana Jones procured (or did he?) may be stored in there somewhere. But if no one knows where it is—or even if it can be located, if no one knows what to do with it—who cares?

Then, how do data get smarter? Smart data are bite-sized answers to questions. A thousand variables could have been considered to provide the weather forecast that calls for a “70 percent chance of scattered showers in the afternoon,” but that one line that we hear is the smart piece of data. Not the list of all the variables that went into the formula that created that answer. Emphasizing the raw data would be like giving paints and brushes to a person who wants a picture on the wall. As in, “Hey, here are all the ingredients, so why don’t you paint the picture and hang it on the wall?” Unfortunately, that is how the Big Data movement looks now. And too often, even the ingredients aren’t all that great.

I visit many companies only to find that the databases in question are just messy piles of unorganized and unstructured data. And please do not assume that such disarrays are good for my business. I’d rather spend my time harnessing meanings out of data and creating values, not taking care of someone else’s mess all the time. Really smart data are small, concise, clean and organized. Big Data should only be seen in “Behind the Scenes” types of documentaries for manias, not for everyday decision-makers.

I have been already saying that Big Data must get smaller for some time (refer to “Big Data Must Get Smaller“) and I would repeat it until it becomes a movement on its own. The Big Data movement must be about:

  1. Cutting down the noise
  2. Providing the answers

There is too much noise in the data, and cutting it out is the first step toward making the data smaller and smarter. The trouble is that the definition of “noise” is not static. Rock music that I grew up with was certainly a noise to my parents’ generation. In turn, some music that my kids listen to is pure noise to me. Likewise, “product color,” which is essential for a database designed for an inventory management system, may or may not be noise if the goal is to sell more apparel items. In such cases, more important variables could be style, brand, price range, target gender, etc., but color could be just peripheral information at best, or even noise (as in, “Uh, she isn’t going to buy just red shoes all the time?”). How do we then determine the differences? First, set the clear goals (as in, “Why are we playing with the data to begin with?”), define the goals using logical expressions, and let mathematics take care of it. Now you can drop the noise with conviction (even if it may look important to human minds).

If we continue with that mathematical path, we would reach the second part, which is “providing answers to the question.” And the smart answers are in the forms of yes/no, probability figures or some type of scores. Like in the weather forecast example, the question would be “chance of rain on a certain day” and the answer would be “70 percent.” Statistical modeling is not easy or simple, but it is the essential part of making the data smarter, as models are the most effective way to summarize complex and abundant data into compact forms (refer to “Why Model?”).

Most people do not have degrees in mathematics or statistics, but they all know what to do with a piece of information such as “70 percent chance of rain” on the day of a company outing. Some may complain that it is not a definite yes/no answer, but all would agree that providing information in this form is more humane than dumping all the raw data onto users. Sales folks are not necessarily mathematicians, but they would certainly appreciate scores attached to each lead, as in “more or less likely to close.” No, that is not a definite answer, but now sales people can start calling the leads in the order of relative importance to them.

So, all the Big Data players and data scientists must try to “humanize” the data, instead of bragging about the size of the data, making things more complex, and providing irrelevant pieces of raw data to users. Make things simpler, not more complex. Some may think that complexity is their job security, but I strongly disagree. That is a sure way to bring down this Big Data movement to the ground. We are already living in a complex world, and we certainly do not need more complications around us (more on “How to be a good data scientist” in a future article).

It’s About the Users, Too
On the flip side, the decision-makers must change their attitude about the data, as well.

1. Define the goals first: The main theme of this series has been that the Big Data movement is about the business, not IT or data. But I’ve seen too many business folks who would so willingly take a hands-off approach to data. They just fund the database; do not define clear business goals to developers; and hope to God that someday, somehow, some genius will show up and clear up the mess for them. Guess what? That cavalry is never coming if you are not even praying properly. If you do not know what problems you want to solve with data, don’t even get started; you will get to nowhere really slowly, bleeding lots of money and time along the way.

2. Take the data seriously: You don’t have to be a scientist to have a scientific mind. It is not ideal if someone blindly subscribes anything computers spew out (there are lots of inaccurate information in databases; refer to “Not All Databases Are Created Equal.”). But too many people do not take data seriously and continue to follow their gut feelings. Even if your customer profile coming out of a serious analysis does not match with your preconceived notions, do not blindly reject it; instead, treat it as a newly found gold mine. Gut feelings are even more overrated than Big Data.

3. Be logical: Illogical questions do not lead anywhere. There is no toolset that reads minds—at least not yet. Even if we get to have such amazing computers—as seen on “Star Trek” or in other science fiction movies—you would still have to ask questions in a logical fashion for them to be effective. I am not asking decision-makers to learn how to code (or be like Mr. Spock or his loyal follower, Dr. Sheldon Cooper), but to have some basic understanding of logical expressions and try to learn how analysts communicate with computers. This is not data geek vs. non-geek world anymore; we all have to be a little geekier. Knowing Boolean expressions may not be as cool as being able to throw a curve ball, but it is necessary to survive in the age of information overload.

4. Shoot for small successes: Start with a small proof of concept before fully investing in large data initiatives. Even with a small project, one gets to touch all necessary steps to finish the job. Understanding the flow of information is as important as each specific step, as most breakdowns occur in between steps, due to lack of proper connections. There was Gemini program before Apollo missions. Learn how to dock spaceships in space before plotting the chart to the moon. Often, over-investments are committed when the discussion is led by IT. Outsource even major components in the beginning, as the initial goal should be mastering the flow of things.

5. Be buyer-centric: No customer is bound by the channel of the marketer’s choice, and yet, may businesses act exactly that way. No one is an online person just because she did not refuse your email promotions yet (refer to “The Future of Online is Offline“). No buyer is just one dimensional. So get out of brand-, division-, product- or channel-centric mindsets. Even well-designed, buyer-centric marketing databases become ineffective if users are trapped in their channel- or division-centric attitudes, as in “These email promotions must flow!” or “I own this product line!” The more data we collect, the more chances marketers will gain to impress their customers and prospects. Do not waste those opportunities by imposing your own myopic views on them. Big Data movement is not there to fortify marketers’ bad habits. Thanks to the size of the data and speed of machines, we are now capable of disappointing a lot of people really fast.

What Did This Hype Change?
So, what did this Big Data hype change? First off, it changed people’s attitudes about the data. Some are no longer afraid of large amounts of information being thrown at them, and some actually started using them in their decision-making processes. Many realized that we are surrounded by numbers everywhere, not just in marketing, but also in politics, media, national security, health care and the criminal justice system.

Conversely, some people became more afraid—often with good reasons. But even more often, people react based on pure fear that their personal information is being actively exploited without their consent. While data geeks are rejoicing in the age of open source and cloud computing, many more are looking at this hype with deep suspicions, and they boldly reject storing any personal data in those obscure “clouds.” There are some people who don’t even sign up for EZ Pass and voluntarily stay on the long lane to pay tolls in the old, but untraceable way.

Nevertheless, not all is lost in this hype. The data got really big, and types of data that were previously unavailable, such as mobile and social data, became available to many marketers. Focus groups are now the size of Twitter followers of the company or a subject matter. The collection rate of POS (point of service) data has been increasingly steady, and some data players became virtuosi in using such fresh and abundant data to impress their customers (though some crossed that “creepy” line inadvertently). Different types of data are being used together now, and such merging activities will compound the predictive power even further. Analysts are dealing with less missing data, though no dataset would ever be totally complete. Developers in open source environments are now able to move really fast with new toolsets that would just run on any device. Simply, things that our forefathers of direct marketing used to take six months to complete can be done in few hours, and in the near future, maybe within a few seconds.

And that may be a good thing and a bad thing. If we do this right, without creating too many angry consumers and without burning holes in our budgets, we are currently in a position to achieve great many things in terms of predicting the future and making everyone’s lives a little more convenient. If we screw it up badly, we will end up creating lots of angry customers by abusing sensitive data and, at the same time, wasting a whole lot of investors’ money. Then this Big Data thing will go down in history as a great money-eating hype.

We should never do things just because we can; data is a powerful tool that can hurt real people. Do not even get into it if you don’t have a clear goal in terms of what to do with the data; it is not some piece of furniture that you buy just because your neighbor bought it. Living with data is a lifestyle change, and it requires a long-term commitment; it is not some fad that you try once and give up. It is a continuous loop where people’s responses to marketer’s data-based activities create even more data to be analyzed. And that is the only way it keeps getting better.

There Is No Big Data
And all that has nothing to do with “Big.” If done right, small data can do plenty. And in fact, most companies’ transaction data for the past few years would easily fit in an iPhone. It is about what to do with the data, and that goal must be set from a business point of view. This is not just a new playground for data geeks, who may care more for new hip technologies that sound cool in their little circle.

I recently went to Brazil to speak at a data conference called QIBRAS, and I was pleasantly surprised that the main theme of it was the quality of the data, not the size of the data. Well, at least somewhere in the world, people are approaching this whole thing without the “Big” hype. And if you look around, you will not find any successful data players calling this thing “Big Data.” They just deal with small and large data as part of their businesses. There is no buzzword, fanfare or a big banner there. Because when something is just part of your everyday business, you don’t even care what you call it. You just do. And to those masters of data, there is no Big Data. If Google all of a sudden starts calling itself a Big Data company, it would be so uncool, as that word would seriously limit it. Think about that.

If Your Site Is Not Mobile-Friendly—Fix It Now!

If you rely on search to assist new users in finding your site, you must now make sure that your site is mobile friendly. Here are the reasons. As Google focuses on ensuring the quality of the user’s experience and the number of mobile devices increases, the volume of search traffic going to Google from these devices will continue to grow.

If you rely on search to assist new users in finding your site, you must now make sure that your site is mobile friendly. Here are the reasons. As Google focuses on ensuring the quality of the user’s experience and the number of mobile devices increases, the volume of search traffic going to Google from these devices will continue to grow. Google does not want the user to have a poor experience with their search just because it is done on a mobile device, so Google has been testing a variety of strategies for improving the mobile users’ experience. These focus on offering mobile users results that show sites that are more easily readable and accessible on their phones. With millions of pages to choose from Google can simply select those pages that work best on mobile devices and show them to the user. If your site is not mobile-friendly, now is the time to adjust your site, or it will be demoted.

On Nov. 18, Google made it official that they are adding a “mobile-friendly” label to their mobile search results. This is to guide users toward pages that will display well on their mobile devices. If your site is not already mobile friendly, Google will in essence be steering users away from your content and towards content that displays well on their device. You can expect that this is just a first step. Google added at the end of the announcement that the search engine is experimenting with using the mobile-friendly criteria as a ranking signal. If your site is deemed unfriendly, you will be demoted.

So what makes a site “mobile-friendly” and when does Google decide? The determination will be made based on what Googlebot—Google’s crawler—finds as it follows your site. This lets Google cull out the friendly sites immediately upon the crawl. Googlebot will be looking for a list of criteria that will mark your site as friendly. These criteria include:

  1. Avoidance of the use of software that is not common on mobile devices. This includes Flash, so now is the time to trash the Flash pages, if you have not already done so.
  2. Use of text that is readable without zooming. Think of this from the user’s perspective and you will cheer.
  3. Content that automatically sizes to the screen so users doesn’t have to scroll either vertically or horizontally. (I hear another cheer from mobile users.)
  4. Links that are placed far enough apart that the correct one can be tapped easily. This eliminate a huge frustration for fumble-fingers like me who often inadvertently explore many pages.

All of these criteria are straightforward, and anyone who uses a smart phone for Internet searching will find the criteria refreshing. To assist site owners in making sure that their sites conform to the criteria, Google has provided a number of aids including a mobile-friendly testing tool and guides for how to create mobile-friendly sites. Users of Google’s Webmaster Tools will already find reports on their site’s mobile usability.

Although Google’s initial focus has been on mobile-friendly sites for smart phones, we can expect that in the near future Google will turn its attention to tablets. Users often shop from the comfort of home with their tablets. Google will look to improve the experience of “couch commerce” searchers in the future. If you have been postponing developing a mobile/tablet-friendly site, you can no longer put it off.

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.

Why Contextual Advertising Is Still Hard

Contextualized advertising is serving the right message to the right person at the right time. Standing in the way of that goal are several hurdles. Among them: user personalization, segmentation and a deluge of data

Contextualized advertising is serving the right message to the right person at the right time. Standing in the way of that goal are several hurdles. Among them: user personalization, segmentation and a deluge of data.

Mobile personalization can create additional complexities that we don’t generally see on the PC side of the world. This can be both a challenge and an opportunity, but adds some new dimensions to how we work to connect with consumers.

This difficulty in leveraging user behaviors makes micro-segmentation more difficult. This is where real value from contextualized ads is found. As close to one-to-one as you can make an ad, the more value it has for the recipient. Having segments that are too large can decrease the overall impact of the ads for a given consumer.

Advertisers can improved their segmentation by sifting through omnichannel data sets. While there’s great progress in this area, attributing online, real world and mobile actions to an end result remains elusive to some of the industry.

New Tools Making Contextual Advertising Easier
New data tools, optimization techniques and leveraging exchanges are all emerging to make contextual advertising easier.

Algorithms that can recognize and contextualize mixed data sets are paving the way for more relevant contextual ads. You can target based on location (information that’s automatically provided by a mobile device), behavior and by predetermined personalization rules. So, someone is now seen as a specific category of user based on what they do, where they are and other relevant data. Messages can be personalized based on these characteristics to get the right ad in front of the right person.

Once a user can be tied to a mobile number, this opens up a world of contextual opportunities. These IDs can be closely tied to segment and location, and passed along to real-time-bidding (RTB) exchanges. Here, brands and advertisers can serve a contextualized ad to the correct mere moments after he/she makes a trigger action. Where as before, this data would be aggregated and analyzed monthly or weekly, we are getting close to the point of real time analysis and optimization.

The Impact of Future Technology and Contextual Ads
The “Holy Grail” of contextual advertising is connecting relevant ads that are optimized for a single individual. Technology is heading in that direction.

Wearables will feed advertisers never before accessible biometrics that could indicate when someone needs a sandwich or bottle of water before the person realizes it.

Interactive TVs and cross-screen attribution will pull together all parts of a person’s day. Ambient qualities, like time of day or weather, will become data points that advertisers can assess and use to target consumers.

As these technologies, combined with faster servers, make valuable contextual advertising an everyday occurrence, we will see a shift in the advertiser/consumer relationship. It will become more symbiotic. Users will be able to decide with what and whom they want to interact. Those advertisers who can use data to provide users the greatest value will prosper. Those who can’t make sense of data will suffer as consumers take their business elsewhere with a quick click on an iPhone.

Is Your Content Fresh, Frequent and Unique?

Today, your content plays a much larger role in getting top search results than ever before; therefore, it may be time to adjust your SEO content. In September 2013, Google unveiled Hummingbird, the single largest revamp of its basic search algorithm in more than 10 years. The intent of this major change was to improve the speed and precision of the processing. It was also designed to address the changes in searcher behavior as search volumes continue to shift from desktop computers to mobile devices.

Today, your content plays a much larger role in getting top search results than ever before; therefore, it may be time to adjust your SEO content. In September 2013, Google unveiled Hummingbird, the single largest revamp of its basic search algorithm in more than 10 years. The intent of this major change was to improve the speed and precision of the processing. It was also designed to address the changes in searcher behavior as search volumes continue to shift from desktop computers to mobile devices.

Hummingbird uses signals derived from the query and the user’s behavior to assist in delivering a result that quickly and precisely answers what the user really wants to find. When users search on mobile devices, they are frequently asking specific questions in conversational language: “Where is the nearest flower shop?” or “How many miles to … ?” Hummingbird was designed to address these natural language questions and provide specific and precise answers. To be found relevant, your content must address the needs of searchers for real information.

Although Hummingbird is expected to impact 90 percent of searches, many marketers are unaware of its influence on their search traffic. No significant shifts in Web traffic were reported worldwide after its launch. This is because the impact on most well-optimized sites was negligible. This should not be interpreted as a license to maintain the status quo on your search efforts. As users become more accustomed to receiving quality results from their conversational search queries, they will expect content that is honed to specifically address the questions that they form into queries.

To meet these expectations, your content should present answers to the types of questions that might be posed in a search query. It should be rich in useful information that is presented clearly. If you expect your content to appear near the top of the search results, it must meet these three criteria: fresh, frequent and unique. Over time, we can expect to see steadily improving search results for sites that understand and actualize these content requirements.

Fresh content does not necessarily mean that all of your content must be new. If you previously developed, as part of your search program, evergreen pieces, such as “frequently asked questions” or how-to articles, you should revisit them and check how long they have been on your site. Would they benefit from an update or a revision, or just a reformatting? For Google, fresh content is better than stale content. Just as no one really wants to read the stale magazines in the doctor’s waiting room; they don’t want the digital equivalent delivered in response to their search queries. Google obliges this by screening for the newest, freshest content. Now is the time to refresh those evergreen content pieces, even if you have not seen a negative shift in your search volumes. You may be able to capture additional visitors who are seeking answers to those questions that you have cleverly addressed.

Because frequency is another criterion used to evaluate the value of your content, you should be sure to have a schedule for adding more content and for refreshing older pieces. Take a lesson from the success of blog sites. Those with frequent posts of fresh content are rewarded with more search traffic than those with just a few stale posts. Consider how you might apply the same principles to content additions to your website.

Your content must also be unique—not just an aging chestnut. Avoid stale recitations or rehashes of information. Ask yourself: “Does this provide something that is new, unique—or is it just content for the sake of content?” For search success in the future, you will need to pay close attention to your content strategy and deliver fresh, frequent and unique content.

Privacy – More or Less

As marketers, we should be gravely concerned about the questions of privacy and the ethics surrounding collection and use of what many email recipients consider private information. Please bear with me as I continue my commentary on the topic

As marketers, we should be gravely concerned about the questions of privacy and the ethics surrounding collection and use of what many email recipients consider private information. Please bear with me as I continue my commentary on the topics.

The line between business and marketing email is often blurred, and what affects one nearly always affects the other. Not surprisingly, privacy—and the lack thereof—is of heightened concern to businesses and individuals alike these days. With new and frequent discoveries concerning alleged abuse by both government and private agencies, this shows no signs of diminishing.

Google Is on the Hot Seat
It’s easy to despise Google. The company is a ridiculously successful behemoth that collects an immeasurable amount of data they then choose to use, sell, share and—seemingly arbitrarily—withhold in their quest to profit from what many recipients of email believe to be private thoughts, browsing experiences, correspondences, search phrases and more.

In two separate cases, Google’s collection and use of email data is being challenged.

In the first, a group of private email users have claimed Google illegally intercepted, read, and mined information from their private email correspondence in order to better understand the recipient’s profile and deliver targeted advertisements. (Wait. That sounds a bit like what I do as a marketer …)

In September, California Judge Judy Koh rejected Google’s bid to dismiss the case based upon their argument Gmail users had agreed to allow interception by accepting the company’s terms and privacy policies.

As the legal wrangling ensued, the lawsuit lost a bit of steam when the judge ruled these plaintiffs could not band together in a class-action suit because the proposed classes of people in the case aren’t sufficiently cohesive. Her ruling may well impact a number of other email-privacy cases in which she will be asked to rule, including lawsuits against Yahoo and LinkedIn. (In other cases, Facebook and Hulu are defending their right to monetize their members’ data.)

In a submission to the court, Google has said users of Google’s email service Gmail should have no “legitimate expectation” that their emails will remain private. A “stunning admission” of the extent to which internet users’ privacy is compromised, proclaims Consumer Watchdog (CW), a US pressure group.

This causes me to ponder: Yes, of course, Google collects more information than we do—but is it simply because they can? If we, as marketers, had the ability to collect to the same degree, would we? Is the difference between Google and my company the temperance with which the small business (compared to the conglomerate) would collect? As I said in my last blog, Spider Trainers—and other marketers—should proceed carefully, respectfully, and exercise care in not just what to collect, but how to use it. But is that a distinction without a difference to the average recipient?

Students’ Consent
In a similar lawsuit, students in California have come toe to toe with Google claiming the company’s monitoring of their Gmail violates federal and state privacy laws. This case, being heard by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, was brought by nine students whose emails were subject to Google surveillance because their accounts were provided in part by Google in their Apps for Education suite; a suite touting more than 30 million users worldwide, most of whom are students under 18.

Google admits to scanning student emails to serve students targeted advertisements even though display ads are not shown in Apps for Education. Contained in a sworn statement, Google “does scan [student] email” to “compile keywords for advertising” on Google sites.

What’s different about this case is the age of the typical recipient. FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) issued in 1974, ensures the privacy of records of students under the age of 18 and, as big as Google is, they should not be immune to legal constraints of this act. Like the previous case, the students are seeking class-action certification for the case.

This begs the question: Are marketers immune? Perhaps in our B-to-C events, we too must be mindful of the age of our audience. Certainly we know that we are collecting more than most of our recipients imagine. What preteen suspects that emails from her favorite store are actually vehicles for accumulating information about her buying behaviors in order to send her more relevant email offers?

Extending Acceptance
The pivotal topic in many of these Google and Gmail users discussions should be this: Even if the sender understood and agreed to the terms and conditions, that consent could not and should extend to the recipient who has not consented and who is probably unaware their data and profile is being assimilated from these communications. The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) is also concerned about Google’s ability to build detailed profiles of Gmail users by augmenting email-collection data with information collected by Google’s search-engine cookies, though Google denies such cross referencing occurs.

The Government
For most adults, searches are easily defined. If law enforcement suspects of us wrongdoing, they get a warrant, search our house, our car, our locker, and then seize the evidence of a crime. With an email account—be that Gmail or any other—it’s different. Emails are seized first and then searched for evidence. It’s similar in approach to the argument of the Obama administration for collecting every American’s phone records—law enforcement doesn’t know what is relevant until they have reviewed it all. In other words, it’s a fishing expedition on a grand scale.

So, it’s not just the private sector misbehaving if a federal judge has found it necessary to admonish our own justice department for requesting overly broad searches of people’s email accounts—nearly all of whom have never been accused of a crime. It’s widespread, but worse; all data collectors are at risk of being painted with the same brush. It’s coming to this: If you’re collecting data, you must be committing some sort of offense in the form of invasion of privacy, and perhaps even acting illegally. (Wow! All I wanted was to send you a personalized dog food coupon because you have three mastiffs and a poodle named Fred, Pete, George, and Ginger.)

In this case against the justice department, Judge Facciola concluded prosecutors must show probable cause for everything they seize – especially since it is possible for companies to easily search for specific emails, names, and dates of content relevant to an investigation. It’s therefore not necessary to ask for all electronically stored information in email accounts, irrespective of the relevance to the investigation.

Education
It’s going to become necessary to become educators—we marketers must educate our clients on appropriate collection and use in order to delineate what we do from what is happening with Google, NSA, Yahoo, and others. Without our input, and our self-regulation, it is quite possible that we will be spoon-fed rules of engagement—and likely that those rules will reduce future access to less than what we have now.

With the caching of images and relegation of email to specific tabs, Google is already getting in between us and our recipients by intercepting data to which we’ve already become accustomed. It’s a slippery slope to be sure, but we do have an opportunity to steer this downhill roll in a direction that will protect our ability to be good marketers in a healthy balance with the privacy of our recipients.

In Other News…
In an ongoing case, a U.S. appeals court has again rejected Google’s argument that it did not break federal wiretap laws when it collected user data from unencrypted wireless networks for its Street View program.

In the U.K., the High Court ruled Google can be sued by a group of Britons angered when using Apple’s Safari browser by the way their online habits were apparently tracked against their wishes in order to provide targeted advertising. Google asserted the case is not serious enough to fall under British jurisdiction.

Microsoft is feeling the heat after acknowledging it read an anonymous blogger’s emails in order to identify one of their employees suspected of leaking information. The FBI was involved only after the emails had been read.

Maybe I need a new blog: Privacy Erosion.

Why Customer Experience Trumps User Experience

Whenever I’m asked to explain customer experience, I’m always hard-pressed for a short, easily digested answer. It’s just so huge! What doesn’t it cover? Not much. And the real stumper: Who is responsible? Customer experience is often translated into user experience as the front-end digital experience of users. Although they’re not the same, they aren’t that different. So which comes first? Here’s how user experience can inform customer experience strategy, and vice versa.

Whenever I’m asked to explain customer experience, I’m always hard-pressed for a short, easily digested answer. It’s just so huge! What doesn’t it cover? Not much. And the real stumper: Who is responsible? Customer experience is often translated into user experience as the front-end digital experience of users.

Although they’re not the same, they aren’t that different. So which comes first? Here’s how user experience can inform customer experience strategy, and vice versa.

Our first contender: user experience
Digital experience provides some simple and convenient ways to connect with customers, gain real-time feedback and allow for innovation. Consider the following:

1. Website analytics highlight user behavior, which is usually more factual than what they tell you. Watching where users drop off, where they linger and where they act can put your entire organization on the right path.

2. Users visiting your site are there with a purpose in mind. Inviting feedback in that critical moment allows you to collect emotional and immediate responses. In the heat of a disappointing moment or the happiness of a successful mission, customers will provide real-time feedback reflecting what they REALLY feel, not just the option on the survey that best suits their reaction.

3. Customers can show you what they really want through A/B testing and experience innovations. Ever since the dawn of the digital era, we’ve been testing and experimenting. We test context and see what works better. We experiment with design and gain knowledge on what resonates with customers. It’s so much easier to do this with user experience than any other channel or touchpoint.

Remaining mindful of reactions and analytics can absolutely inform your customer experience. But what about trends? There’s an ongoing debate about how user interface design is based on current trends (as well as guessing at future ones), and therefore is always at risk of being overshadowed. Consider what happened to MySpace, Netscape and others of yesteryore. The problem, as I see it: Too often, user experience is based on what works in the moment rather than the overall mission.

Customer experience takes the lead!
Customer experience is about understanding how customers interact with your organization at any touchpoint. Here are some tips to providing the best experience possible for your customers.

1. Customer experience must be tied to brand promise. The brand promise, often touted in marketing context, is what drives the experience. If you’re promising one thing (convenience) and delivering another (pain), then customers will likely desert you.

2. Mobile, digital and all other touchpoints should reflect the overall experience. Real Simple, which promises “life made easier, everyday” prominently on its print magazine and website, created a user experience to reflect that mantra. The digital experience is one where it’s easy to find things, full of surprises and offers choices for how users can consume the content. The site even includes “Today’s Thought,” fitting right into the everyday promise.

3. Customer experience is still about trends, but anchored in mission. Yes, experience must change to reflect the times. Car culture changed casual dining forever. The digital era ushered in global shopping, education and more. Mobile and social engagement allows for convenience and immediacy not available in the past. However, reflecting just the changes in how customers interact with their environments won’t serve an organization long term. The experience must be anchored in a bigger mission. Amazon.com started off selling books, but it was never about the books. Now it touts its revolutionary e-commerce experience in commercials. Not a book in sight.

So which came first, and what are the benefits of focusing on one experience over the other?
There aren’t hard-and-fast rules around this, as we’re still learning every day. Humans are so weird. We like something on Facebook and then can’t recognize the logo again to save our lives. We swear we won’t be one of “those people” who use a text message/tweet/email over calling, then we fall in line. Life moves very quickly, so taking advantage of the pace of user experience feedback is critical.

Trends and fast-paced innovation only work, however, if the bigger picture of customer experience is in focus.

Privacy in the Age of Big Data

Consumers reveal more than ever before consciously through social media and, just as importantly, unconsciously through their behaviors. This data gives marketers great power, which they can use to design better products, hone messages and, most importantly, sell more by providing consumers what they want. That’s all good from a marketer’s perspective, but for consumers, the scope of data collection can often cross a line, becoming too intrusive or too loosely held. Marketers have to balance the opportunities of Big Data with the concerns of consumers or they risk a serious backlash.

Consumers reveal more than ever before consciously through social media and, just as importantly, unconsciously through their behaviors. This data gives marketers great power, which they can use to design better products, hone messages and, most importantly, sell more by providing consumers what they want. That’s all good from a marketer’s perspective, but for consumers, the scope of data collection can often cross a line, becoming too intrusive or too loosely held. Marketers have to balance the opportunities of Big Data with the concerns of consumers or they risk a serious backlash.

For some people, the line has already been crossed. When Edward Snowden revealed information about the government’s data collection policies, he presented it as a scandal. But, in many ways, what the NSA does differs mainly in scope from what many private marketers do. A German politician recently went to court to force T-Mobile to release the full amount of metadata that it collects from his cellphone behavior. The results highlighted just how much a company can know from this data—not just about an individual’s behavior and interests, but also about his or her friends, and whom among them are most influential. Even for marketers who strongly believe in the social utility that this enables, it highlights just how core an issue privacy has become.

So how can marketers get the most from data without alarming consumers? Transparency and value. For some consumers, there’s really no good use of personal data, so opt-outs have to be clear and easy to use. The best way to collect and use data is if the value to the consumer is so clear that he or she will opt in to a program.

One company that has framed its data collection as a service that’s worth joining is Waze, which Google recently bought for over a billion dollars. Google beat out rivals Facebook and Apple because high-quality maps are one of the most important infrastructure tools for the big mobile players. Well, before Google bought the company, CEO David Bardin said, “Waze relies on the wisdom of crowds: We haven’t spent billions of dollars a year, we’ve cooperated with millions of users. Google is the No. 1 player. But, a few years out, there’s no excuse that we wouldn’t pass them.”

Drivers sign up for the app to find out about traffic conditions ahead; inherently useful information. Once they’re logged in, they automatically send information about their speed and location to Waze. Waze invites active participation, too, encouraging users to fix map errors and report accidents, weather disruptions, police and gas stations. Users get points for using the service and more points for actively reporting issues. With 50 million users, this decentralized data entry system is incredibly efficient at producing real-time road conditions and maps. Even Google’s own map service can’t match the refresh speed of Waze maps.

Points for check-ins don’t fully explain why people are so invested in Waze. Dynamic graphics help, with charming icons and those de rigueur 3D zooming maps. Even more important than a great interface, however, is that Waze serves a real-time need while making users feel part of a community working together to solve problems. Waze is part of a broader movement to crowdsource solutions that rely on consumers or investors who believe in the mission of a company, not just its utility. People contribute to Waze because they want to help fellow travelers, as well as speed their own journeys. It’s shared self-interest.

Waze has a relatively easy task of proving the worth of a data exchange. Other companies need to work harder to show that they use data to enhance user experiences—but the extra effort is not optional.

As marketers become better at using data, they will need to prove the value of the data they use, and they need to be transparent on how they’re using it. If they don’t, marketers will have their own Snowdens to worry about.