Posts Tagged ‘SEO’
If your website traffic from organic search has fallen over the past year, take some small solace in knowing you’re not alone—in fact, you’re in good (if not happy) company.
According to research from BuzzFeed, “Search traffic to publishers has taken a dive in the last eight months, with traffic from Google dropping more than 30%…While Google makes up the bulk of search traffic to publishers, traffic from all search engines has dropped by 20% in the same period.” Organic search visits have fallen significantly to A-list publishers like Time, Sports Illustrated, Us Weekly and Rolling Stone.
It’s not quite clear why this is happening. BuzzFeed mentions changes in behavior, greater use of social networks for content discovery, and a 52% increase in traffic from “‘Dark social,’ that netherland of direct traffic” (i.e., unknown sources), and concludes “We can draw a lot of assumptions but few conclusions from the drop in search traffic.”
The Tutorspree blog offers another possible answer: Google is intentionally de-emphasizing organic results (free clicks) in favor of search advertising results (for which it gets paid). While there’s no before and after (which would have been very helpful) and results will vary, obviously, based on the nature of the search, this example shows how organic results can comprise only a quarter or less of total screen real estate on a commercial search, with paid results accounting 60% of the visible display, and other results like maps or images taking up the remaining screen area.
And it’s not only Google. Both Google and Bing are now displaying fewer than ten organic search results on certain queries: eight, seven, even as few as four in some cases. That means organic results which used to appear in the middle or lower half of page one in search results are now banished to page two, significantly reducing the likelihood of attracting the click.
Finally, algorithmic changes implemented by Google (and subsequently mimicked by other search engines) over the past 18 months have impacted traffic to b2c and b2b websites. Much has been written about how Panda and Penguin may negatively impact rankings of commercial websites in search results.
Given that b2b websites attract, on average, more than 40% of all traffic from organic search (and close to 90% of that from Google), the results above are clearly of great concern. But what does it mean?
Albert Einstein famously defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” What’s happening today, however, is that many b2b vendors, news publishers and other commercial website owners are doing the same things in the same way and actually getting different (worse) results—because the environment has changed.
So in order to maintain and grow website traffic, online marketing practices have to change as well. Companies need to take a broader view of their overall online visibility and embrace a web presence optimization (WPO) approach.
Why the WPO Model is Important
With potentially less future traffic available from search, given changes in both technology and user behavior, the WPO model is valuable because:
- • WPO is about total online visibility—not just search. Yes, SEO (which increases website visibility) is a key component of WPO, but it’s only one component. WPO is about creating valuable, highly relevant content and then leveraging across multiple channels. So if your prospective buyers are relying less on search but more on social media, or established industry news sources, or on expert “influencers,” or even on advertising, WPO is about making sure your brand is visible in all of those places.
- • WPO is about helping, not manipulating. Google wants (or at least claims to want) to provide searchers with the most relevant results for their queries. Searchers want to find the most relevant results. The WPO model is about creating the most relevant results for buyers looking for what you are offering, but also about being linked from, quoted in, recommended by, or sponsoring other relevant results.
- • WPO is Google-proof. Because it’s designed to help and not manipulate, the concepts of WPO should (theoretically at least) never run counter to Google algorithm changes. And if your prospective buyers are using Google less, WPO maximizes your brand’s visibility in whatever channels, media or sources they are using in its place.
How to Get Your Traffic Back
Here are a few concrete steps for using WPO principles to adapt to and counteract declining search traffic.
- • Figure out where your prospective buys are looking, and be there. Use social media and news monitoring tools to identify the online venues where your prospective buyers are hanging out, discussing your company, your industry, and your competitors.For many b2b companies, LinkedIn Groups are a rich environment for discovering and participating in these conversations. If your buyers are highly technical however, they may be more likely to hang at sites like Stack Overflow, CodeGuru or Spiceworks.
- • Experiment. Go beyond the “big three” social networks (LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter) and check out avenues for sharing like exploreB2B, Quora, Scoop.It, and for blogs specifically, Triberr.
- • In terms of generating “social shares,” either correlation doesn’t equal causation or Matt Cutts is being…at best misleading, at worst duplicitous. While social signals are a factor in search rankings, it’s much less clear how important they are.But in the end, it doesn’t matter—garnering social shares is valuable for web traffic and credibility-building regardless. What matters is knowing how to drive more traffic to your content from social networks and how to drive direct and search visits through social media optimization.
- • Use news releases for exposure, not backlinks. Until fairly recently, common SEO guidance was to “Create backlinks from (press releases) to…supporting pages on your website. Make sure the anchor text of the hyperlink is the keyword phrase you are optimizing for.” But Google now frowns on anchor text links in news releases.That doesn’t mean that news releases now have no value in driving site traffic, but it does change the strategy.First, make sure your news releases are truly newswortthy, and worth sharing. Second, optimize news releases themselves for search. Third, use news releases as part of an overall strategy to build and develop relationships with journalists, which over time can lead to citations and even backlinks which actually are valuable for driving direct and search visits to your website.
- • Use directories based on their relevance and value, but as with news releases—not just for backlinks. In early 2013, Google devalued general directory links for search rankings. That is, the old SEO strategy of improving search ranking simply by building or buying lots of links from broad-topic web directories is no longer effective. That does not mean, however, that all directories are worthless.
- • It’s still worthwhile to seek out backlinks from quality, human-edited, industry-specific online directories, such as vendor directories published by trade publications and industry associations. The two key questions to ask are 1) would your prospective buyers actually be likely to find my site and visit it from this directory? And 2), do you feel good about your company being listed in this directory (or does it feel a bit sleazy to be listed alongside online casinos, web pharmacies, miracle weight loss, make-big-money-now schemes and the like)?
- • Use guest blog posts for exposure (and if you get a backlink–that’s a bonus). Guest-posting is still a viable SEO practice, for the moment at least. But it is commonly abused through poor approaches. Best practice is to develop a relationship with the blogger before asking for the guest post opportunity; asking for the opportunity with a personal note; understanding their audience and proposing a topic that is suitable; and not requesting (or worse, requiring) any specific quid pro quo.
- • Finally, don’t over-rely on paid advertising but do make it part of your online marketing mix. Experiment with AdWords, social network advertising, Bizo, and other ad networks. Many offer pay-per-click or even pay-per-conversion options, so costs and results are controllable. While paid advertising has no effect on SEO, it does increase your brand’s online exposure and drives traffic to specific landing pages and offers.
In the end, no one knows whether the broad drop in search traffic is a temporary aberration or a long-term trend. But utilizing WPO tactics to broaden your brand’s online exposure and potential sources of web traffic is a winning strategy either way.
Anyone who’s been in the corporate world within the past decade-and-a-half has likely been exposed at some point to Who Moved My Cheese?: An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life, a slender allegory by Spencer Johnson about dealing with change, summarized by Wikipedia as a tale featuring:
“Four characters: two mice, ‘Sniff’ and ‘Scurry,’ and two littlepeople, miniature humans in essence, ‘Hem’ and ‘Haw.’ They live in a maze, a representation of one’s environment, and look for cheese, representative of happiness and success. Initially without cheese, each group, the mice and humans, paired off and traveled the lengthy corridors searching for cheese. One day both groups happen upon a cheese-filled corridor at ‘Cheese Station C.’ Content with their find, the humans establish routines around their daily intake of cheese, slowly becoming arrogant in the process.”
When the cheese eventually runs out, the mice and the miniature human characters deal with their new cheese-less situation in different ways. The mice, “Noticing the cheese supply dwindling… have mentally prepared beforehand for the arduous but inevitable task of finding more cheese.” The humans struggle more with their reality: “Angered and annoyed, Hem demands, ‘Who moved my cheese?’…Starting to realize the situation at hand, Haw thinks of a search for new cheese. But Hem is dead set in his victimized mindset and dismisses the proposal.” The point of the tale is to promote productive approaches to dealing with change.
With its Panda and Penguin algorithm updates over the past couple of years, and most notably the recent Penguin 2.0 update, Google has been busy moving the cheese for many marketers, webmasters and SEO professionals.
SEO practitioners who cling to outmoded tactics like keyword stuffing and link buying are likely to react like Hem, feeling victimized by their loss of cheese. Same goes for those SEO software and service providers still tout their ability to help create thousands of links through link exchange partners.
On the other hand, SEO pros who’ve always practiced white hat tactics are like the mice in the story; though they may still have a lot of work to do, they are well prepared to find new cheese. For the many who have seen their rankings and traffic devoured by Penguin, here are three places to look for new cheese.
Content marketing. This is where Matt Cutts officially says you should look for new SEO cheese. Produce great content, it will attract “natural” links, and your site will end up on page one of Google. The problem, of course, is that in highly competitive search term markets—like marketing automation, real estate, auto repair, social media monitoring, or SEO services—no matter how compelling or unique your content is, it’s unlikely to be seen (and therefore to attract links) if it doesn’t rank on page one of Google, and it’s unlikely to rank highly if it doesn’t have a lot of relevant, high-quality inbound links. Call this Catch-22 cheese.
The point isn’t that producing helpful content isn’t a fantastic idea, only that content marketing is not enough. In this way, Penguin seems to favor the same publications, A-list blogs, and name-brand websites that already dominate most searches.
AdWords. This is where Google would really like you to go, because it’s how the company makes money. There’s no question AdWords can be an effective component of online strategy—it’s controllable, immediate and finely measurable. But it’s also expensive. Call this gourmet cheese.
Web presence optimization. A web presence optimization (WPO) approach may be the most effective way to tame Penguin and Panda. By incorporating owned, earned and paid media, WPO optimizes your overall web presence, not just your website (though that remains the ultimate target destination). Cross-channel marketing metrics in WPO help to optimally allocate marketing and PR resources.
This is akin to the way grocery stores usually sell cheese: standard cheese varieties in the dairy aisle, exotic cheeses in the deli, organic cheese in the all-natural foods section, etc. Call this a distributed cheese strategy. Grocers do it because they sell more cheese by offering different varieties in multiple locations throughout the store than they would by stacking all of it in one area. The same approach can be effective in optimizing your company’s overall web visibility, regardless of Google’s ongoing algorithmic attacks on traditional SEO.
The old days when SEO meant writing key-stuffed copy and then begging for or buying as many links as possible, from any willing website, are long gone. That’s clearly good for searchers, as search engine results have become more relevant and useful. But it’s also good for marketers, as it forces a focus on understanding buyers and providing them with value rather than manipulative gaming of search algorithms.
In Optimize: How to Attract and Engage More Customers by Integrating SEO, Social Media, and Content Marketing, Lee Odden provides the definitive guide to SEO and its extension into social and content marketing for the new, more sophisticated world of search and web presence optimization.
Divided into three sections—Planning (tactics, audience research, content), Implementation (persona development, keyword research, content optimization, measurement) and Scale—the book provides a comprehensive roadmap for using integrated digital marketing tactics to drive business results.
Among the specific pieces of wisdom Lee shares in the book are:
- • Search is a moving target. “Search results have evolved from 10 blue links to situationally dependent mixed-media results that vary according to your geographic location, web history, social influence and social ratings…at any given time, there are from 50 to 200 different versions of Google’s core algorithm in the wild, so the notion of optimizing for a consistently predictable direct cause and effect is long gone.”
- • You need to know where you are before you can know where you’re going. “Audits are a key part of search engine optimization, allowing marketers to access the current state of the website in ways that identify any conflicts or inefficiencies for search engines.” Audits also help establish baselines—the starting points from which progress can be measured.
- • Five different types of SEO audits are vital for establishing baselines: keyword research, content audit (“a website must be the best resource for a topic, and content optimization takes inventory of all content and digital assets that could be a potential entry point vis search and recommends SEO copywriting tactics to showcase those pages as most relevant”), technical SEO audit (making sure the site is easy for search engines to crawl), link footprint and social SEO audit.
- • PR is now a vital component of SEO. “The public relations function within a company often produces nearly as much content as marketing in the form of a corporate newsroom with media coverage, press releases, images, video, case studies, white papers, and other resources…Each of those assets is an opportunity for journalists to discover the brand story through search engines or social referrals…Companies that optimize and socialize their press releases give new life and extended reach to their news by making it easy for bloggers and end consumers to find and share press release content.”
- • Content isn’t just the job of marketing and PR. It’s also crucial to optimize content produced by customer service (FAQ’s, common how-to guides), HR, and subject matter experts in field consulting, engineering and sales for search. Marketing may have to scrub and polish some of this content for public consumption, but it’s vital to tap expertise across the organization.
- • Your online competitors aren’t always your real-life competitors. “In the search and social media marketing world, the competition isn’t always who you think. Companies need to understand that online competition isn’t just made up of companies competing for market share in the business world, but also information and content published from a variety of sources that compete for search engine and social media users’ attention.” It’s not unusual for university websites, government agency sites, and reference sites like Wikipedia to “compete” with a company in search.
- • Monitor search results to spot new opportunities. “A trending story may cause news or blog results to appear high on the page, which might prompt you to comment on a high-ranking story or reach out to a journalist or blogger to offer your point of view…When you notice that the search engine tends to favor certain media, such as video, for one of your target keyword phrases, it may prompt you to focus on video content and optimization for a particular target keyword phrase.”
- • It’s vital for a business to “be seen” in different places. “48% of consumers are led to make a purchase through a combination of search and social media influences.”
- • Search visibility isn’t important only for prospective customers. “95% of journalists use search engines…89% of journalists use blogs and 65% use social networks for story research.”
- • Develop content for your prospects, not for search engines. “Write down some of the high-level characteristics of your best customers. What motivates them? What do they care about?” I would add “what keeps them awake at night?” and “what will compel them to take action” to this list. The answers to those questions will be crucial in developing your content strategy.
- • Make fact-based, data-driven decisions. “Keyword research tools are designed to override the false assumptions often provided by the two most flawed tools that you can access—your gut and your brain.” It isn’t that you aren’t smart, but rather the words used inside of your company and those that your prospective customers use to describe the same product or service are often very different.
- • Think about blog post topics from a variety of angles to keep it interesting. “Typical categories for an editorial calendar can include breaking headlines, industry news, ongoing series, feature stories, in-depth product or service reports, polls, special promotions, events, tips, lists…the important thing is to be relevant: to your customers, your brand, and to search engines and social communities.”
- • You don’t have to do it all yourself; content curation is as important as creation. “Pure creation is demanding. Pure automation doesn’t engage. Curating content can provide the best of both.”
And there’s much more, including several useful lists such as analytics tools, “20 different content types” and “sources of news to curate.”
Even in books I really find valuable, I usually find at least a few points of contention, or things the author just plain got wrong. But even though I wore out a red pen highlighting passages in this book, I didn’t find a single point where I think Lee missed the mark.
The only thing I would add is an over-arching framework to fit all of this into. “SEO, social media and content marketing” is descriptive, but a mouthful. Add PR and online advertising to the mix, and it gets really awkward without that model. Optimize fundamentally provides an excellent how-to primer for utilizing the web presence optimization framework. As Lee notes:
“If a company doesn’t see the bigger-picture synergy of how to break social media, content, and SEO efforts out of departmental silos and approach Internet marketing and public relations holistically, how can they grow and remain competitive?…Integrating social media marketing and engagement with search, content marketing, email, and other types of online marketing tactics can results in substantial benefits.” But “For many companies, it can be very difficult and complex to implement a holistic content marketing and search optimization program.”
Marketers often seek out benchmarks by which to measure the effectiveness of various marketing programs as well as their performance vs. industry competitors. In some cases, this information can be quite useful and enlightening, for example, when looking at average email open rates by industry.
In other situations, however—such as when looking at what percentage of total website traffic should be driven by organic search—the answer is a clear but not helpful “it depends.”
Looking at the same sample of 40+ b2b technology websites used in the recent b2b mobile website strategy post here, the average for the first quarter of 2012 was about 39%. But the range of results was wide, from less than a quarter of total website visits to almost two-thirds.
Even that doesn’t tell the full story. When it comes to share of traffic driven by search, few websites are “average.” Instead, most fall into either a low range (generating a quarter to just over a third of all traffic from search) or a high range (with organic search accounting for half to two-thirds of total visits).
Having an ongoing SEO program (including a blog). It’s hardly surprising, but maintaining regular SEO efforts, even if only a few hours per month, has a strong positive correlation with increased organic search results.
Virtually all of the websites in the group saw an increase in the percentage of traffic driven by search in the first quarter of 2012 vs 1Q2011, indicating that b2b tech buyers are relying more on search. But the difference in the increase between sites with active SEO programs (18% average increase) and those without (5% average growth) was significant.
Even more noteworthy, sites with active content and SEO programs increased their total website traffic, on average, by 25% in the past year. Those who neglected SEO (either never did it or did SEO only as a one-time effort at site launch) experienced an average 15% decline in overall visits.
Website age. In general, the longer a site has been active, the higher the percentage of traffic it generates from organic search. There is a limit to this of course, and it’s only a general trend; there are exceptions, including a one-year old site (with an active SEO program) in this data set that generated 65% of traffic from a search while another, much more mature site (without ongoing SEO) generated only 26% of all visits via search.
Also, the positive trust effect built up over time with the search engines can eventually be overwhelmed by the impact of brand strength. Sites with strong, established, well-known brands tend to generate a higher percentage of traffic from direct visits and a lower percentage from search, especially from non-brand search phrases.
A fourth factor is the level of PR or media relations activity undertaken by the company. An ongoing, active PR program has a number of impacts: it creates links which are valuable for non-brand organic search, and it drives referral traffic from blogs and news sites. The largest impact though seems to be on direct visits and branded search, both of which have a significant positive correlation with the regularity and frequency of PR and media relations activities.
A final factor is social sharing. Again, this has mixed results in terms of traffic proportions, as it increases referral traffic (specifically from social networking and social bookmarking sites). However, the biggest effect of social sharing appears to be on organic search traffic due to the value the search engines place on these links.
The takeaway is that a number of factors can affect the percentage of total website traffic generated by organic search, so there is no clear target. But doing the right things—ongoing SEO, blogging and PR programs, plus being active in social media—drives increased overall site traffic (and leads), which is the most important metric after all.
Sales leads generated through inbound marketing–the combination of content marketing, blogging, social media, website chat and SEM–cost 61% less than those produced through traditional demand generation techniques (e.g., online or print advertising, trade shows, telemarketing, direct mail) according to research from HubSpot.
But as compelling as those cost savings are, the arguably larger financial impact is that social and content strategies change much of what marketing does from an expense (an expenditure tied to immediate consumption) to an investment (an allocation with a long-term payback). Buying a bag of apples at the grocery store is an expense; planting an apple tree is an investment.
While some aspects of inbound marketing (SEM, email marketing, webinars) clearly remain in the expense column, three of its key components clearly should be classified as investments, as long-term appreciating assets.
Blogging: for any new business blog, traffic typically starts out modest but grows over time. One reason is that reader subscriptions (when via email or RSS feed) tend to grow over time as the blog establishes its voice and readership. But the larger factor is SEO: the longer a blog is actively contributed to, the more content there will be for search engines to index, the more links it will attract, and hence the more search-driven traffic it will enjoy.
The major search engines also seem to give blogs more respect over time. Newly-launched blogs typically generate a very small share of total traffic from organic search, but the proportion builds over time. It’s not unusual to see clear upward inflection points in search traffic after the first six and 12 months a blog is active.
Social Networking: whether on an individual or corporate account basis, a social network grows over time as credibility is established. It’s difficult to build a large social following on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, Google+ or any other such site right out of the gate. But if the user is consistent, helpful, and engaging, it’s virtually inevitable that the following will grow over time. Like a blog, each social media account is an appreciating asset.
Content Marketing: while some content is designed for short-term needs, much of it has long-term value. Blog posts, videos posted to YouTube or Vimeo, presentations on SlideShare–all can continue to attract new viewers years after they are first created. Well-written white papers can also serve as effective long-term lead-generation assets.
Inbound marketing therefore not only makes marketing more efficient, but also more strategically valuable to the organization. It’s no longer just about spending money to generate leads this month or this quarter, but about developing content and connections that increase in value and continue to pay off over the long term.