Google+ has over 90 million users as of January 2012 according to Google+ News. Now that Google has started “Search plus Your World”, Google+ is a significant contributor to your organic search rankings. Also, the new Google search interface has separated personal from non-personal results.
Throughout my career in Search Engine Optimization (SEO), it has come to my attention that many believe SEO success begins and ends with “good SEO.” Although vague, this may have been the case in the early days of SEO. But due to Google’s algorithm evolving and advancing so quickly over past years, a successful SEO campaign not only requires white hat SEO techniques, but is also dependent upon the engagement of many other marketing teams and experts, such as the following:
- PR/Social Media
Let’s take a closer look at the roles that each of these individuals play in the execution of a successful SEO campaign, as well as the responsibilities of an SEO Expert. (more…)
There are several ways to slice this question, however we are going to focus on mid-sized businesses that are looking to get more from organic search.
The silver bullet to SEO success is … alignment.
When I say that the silver bullet to SEO success is alignment, I mean alignment of key people in your organization. There are so many times that great SEO plans do not get implemented, or take too long to implement and fizzle out because of that lack of alignment. In organizations that are larger and compartmentalized, alignment is not an easy task.
We’ll outline the typical scenario of contributing groups to a successful SEO plan implementation:
- Marketing: Marketing has the responsibility for planning, organizing and reporting on the SEO contribution to company revenue. Marketing should vet the SEO plan with their search agency. Marketing should also be the coordinator of SEO training within the organization. Bring in the resources you need to get the knowledge spread around. The SEO basics should be understood by all the contributing groups.
- Public Relations: If you have a good SEO plan, it should include public relations as part of the equation. It’s all about how the public should think of your business. Public relations is more than a link building ploy, it’s also a way to help build awareness of the terms you rank for, and to give searchers the words they need to find your website.
- IT: The IT department is responsible for ensuring the website and supporting infrastructure is online and functional. IT should also help with the site structure coding, content management system changes, cms template changes, and server side changes such as the .htaccess (for LAMP users) file updates. IT needs to be aware of the SEO basics and best practices for semantic markup in the site code.
- SME (subject matter experts): Subject matter experts can come from anywhere in the organization as long as they have useful knowledge for your clients. A good SEO plan includes great content. You can get great content ideas from your internal experts throughout your organization. All your customer facing people should help you with content ideas for the website. They will know what your customers are looking for, and they should know what the website isn’t doing well because they have to make up for the lack of the website’s content. Do you have engineers designing widgets? They should also be interviewed for content ideas.
- Executive (CEO/President): The leadership’s role is supporting the organization and planning of the marketing executives to ensure timely implementation of SEO plans. If the CEO is on board with the SEO program it will help to align all the players.
Alignment requires that you have a solid SEO plan. Your search agency should provide a comprehensive SEO plan that integrates and supports all your online marketing initiatives including your social outreach, paid media, and email marketing.
The silver bullet is not as simple as it is to write about it. It takes a lot of communication time and training within your organization, however once everyone is aligned, the implementation of the SEO plan will happen much faster.
The short answer is “it depends”. I’m sure you love that answer because it’s so reassuring and final, but seriously, there are many factors in the search environment that affect results, many of which are out of your direct control.
We’ll break this down into three sections:
- what you control
- what you influence
- and what is out of your control
Factors you control:
If you don’t have this baseline covered, you should spend most of your time here first. Change what you have control over for faster results.
SEO results can be quickly improved from on-site optimization if your brand is strong, and if you have a continual flow of fresh content.
- Offering: Your business controls your offering. Do you focus your offering on the top converting personas? Do you even have personas outlined? Get to know personas in order to optimize your offering language. Your offerings are on landing pages, ad copy, blog posts. Why should anyone care about your business? You control the message about your offering, so make sure it resonates with the right people.
- Profiles: Your social profiles, directory listings and business citations should be under your control. Make sure to claim your brand in the majors like Google Places, Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter and Google+, and don’t forget all the social content sharing sites like Flickr, Youtube, and Slideshare (to name a few).
- Content: You control your content, or you should. You need to have a blog and consistently update it. Vet the content to make sure it’s valuable to your personas just like your business offering. Why would someone care about your content? Your content should be insightful, helpful, and/or entertaining.
- Content promotion: Now that you have content, how does anyone know about it? Most of the time nobody will know until you tell someone. In order for people to find your content in search, it needs to be in the index through crawling, and given importance by links. Make sure your site is pushed to the search engines first through a submitted RSS feed to Feedburner, or through your XML sitemap submission with Google Webmaster Tools. Also, get feedback on your content through your social media profiles, and thank those that participate. Contact industry influencers with your content. The content better be helpful, entertaining or insightful, or your contacts will delete your messages!
- Usability: Can your personas complete the tasks they intended when landing on your site? What circumstances lead to barriers for completion of tasks? Is the site easy on the eyes? Does the site load fast? Usability is not necessarily going to directly impact keyword rankings. Indirectly a better user experience will entice linking which will directly improve your keyword rankings. Nobody wants to link to a site that is difficult to use, or takes forever to load, and you control this!
- Site code / structure: This ties into usability, however it mostly ties directly to providing Google a way to find your content. Make sure you have unique title tags for each page. Make sure you have semantic heading structures for your content. Make sure your internal linking structure provides keyword rich descriptions of the destination pages. Make sure you use link CSS files instead of HTML styling. These are a few of the items to be aware of when improving your site code.
This is not an exhaustive list by any means, however it should help you get started in thinking about what you can change about your online presence for the benefit of improved search visibility.
Factors you influence:
The factors you influence are worth spending time in, however don’t expect instant results. These take time to build up, and require persistence and patience.
- User participation: Getting users to create content about your business takes time to build up awareness and trust. It starts with you showing an interest in them. You’ll need to built up a base of advocates that are not afraid of public brand affection. Start small and focused in order to build momentum. Engage in two-way conversations in order to help customers. Make sure your customer experience rocks so that your customers will show you love online.
- News / media: Stay current on your industry and keep a pulse on the top news. Subscribe to industry news RSS feeds, setup Twitter lists to filter down to your news feed. Modify your Google News page to include your top keywords. By keeping your ear to the ground you’ll be able to jump at opportunities quickly. You’ll want to be able to speak out on issues, or events using press releases, blog posts, social commentary in social networks in order to help your message spread and get picked up from news outlets, and/or leading blogs. Also, make sure your SEO strategy is integrated with your PR strategy.
- Brand awareness: Typically business sites receive a plurality if not a majority of their traffic from branded terms. Many times SEO strategies revolve around getting more traffic from non-branded terms, however brand awareness campaigns can deliver huge returns if done right. Use your website analytics to gauge your brand awareness levels. If a campaign is working, you should see an increase in branded traffic to your website. Make sure to display your main website address in any of your brand awareness campaigns whether its printed, televised, or event-based. If your site address isn’t your brand, make sure you are ranking for your brand. Also, check the search engine results pages for your branded terms to make sure you dominate the space with paid media, and multiple types of content and social profiles that should be listed under your website and site links.
Factors you don’t control:
These factors are outside your sphere of influence, however they are useful when studied. You need to stay informed of the environment so you’ll know how to adapt.
- Competitors: Keep an eye on what your competitors are doing. See how they present themselves online and explore how they are executing on their online marketing campaigns. Understand their value propositions to understand how they differentiate themselves. This will help you to refine, evolve and fight. Sometimes you may lose an SEO fight, but you may also find a weakness in the competitors’ rankings that can be broken. Know your competitors’ strengths and weaknesses in order to understand your own threats and opportunities in search.
- Search algorithm changes: Stay aware of the recent changes to Google, Yahoo and Bing. If you are doing business in China, check out Baidu, and if in Russia, Yandex. Changes to search algorithms can’t be anticipated unless you’re a search engineer for a top search engine. Make sure to be aware of when search engines change their interface, how they display results, how results are ranked, and review industry commentary on the changes to get a well-rounded perspective on what the changes mean to your business.
- New technology habits by users: Do you remember how people used the Internet only 6 years ago? In March of 2005 Google had 36% market share, and Yahoo! had double the market share of Microsoft. Fastforward to 2011, and Google has eaten Yahoo!’s share, and Microsoft’s Bing is just slightly less than Yahoo!. Also, Yahoo! is using Bing’s search engine for all US searches. So, users may change which search engines they use, however Google has been the main beneficiary of the change. Also, I’d be surprised if you havn’t heard of social media. Back in 2005 social media was new, and all the rage with hype around “Web 2.0.” Look out for the next hot trends, but be a fast follower instead of an early adopter. Observe how the system is being built, and play with the tools before fully integrating into your marketing mix. Find out for yourself how the technologies work. Some things to look out for all revolve around local, social and mobile, and interfaces. Think Siri, it addresses all of these issues.
So, when you ask, “how long does SEO take to get results?” the answer “it depends” really means it depends on you. How long does it take to plan and execute? Are you targeting the right personas? Are your goals focused on revenue instead of rankings? Are you integrating SEO into your inbound marketing practices? Are you integrating your PPC campaigns with your SEO strategy? How are you measuring the success of your SEO campaigns?
To really understand how soon SEO will bring results, you need to have a site SWOT analysis, a competitive analysis, and top notch keyword research that outlines your best opportunities. Armed with the right data, you will have a much better idea of how much time will need to be invested to get results in SEO for your website.
The time for launching holiday campaigns is now—especially if you are an online business in need of improving your search ranking and lead generation before the year is out. Sure, the holidays are a great time for B2C companies to boost sales with paid ads, but sales aren’t the only things to boost. With the right strategy, your online business can boost its search engine rankings and experience a fantastic increase in lead generation. The key is to have a competitive edge by incorporating integrated marketing efforts.
During the holidays, consumers will be feverishly searching online for holiday specials, gift ideas, and almost anything holiday related. It’s important to take advantage of the increase in search volume by implementing certain holiday search terms into your SEO keyword strategy. Here are just a couple of popular holiday search terms you can use to boost your search ranking.
- gift ideas
- holiday discounts
- holiday sales
Adapt these terms to fit with your products accordingly. For example, if your site sells men’s cologne, try using the keyword phrase “gifts for men” in your SEO efforts. Apply holiday search terms to your title and description tags. You also want to take advantage of seasonal shopping holidays such as Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Search terms such as “black Friday specials” or “cyber Monday discounts” are very popular around November, so be sure to incorporate these search terms into your SEO strategies ahead of time so your content may be indexed by the holidays.
Blog about It!
Don’t stop your efforts at meta tags and descriptions. Integrate these popular holiday search terms into your content marketing strategies to gain excellent shelf space and generate more leads. Create a blog entry that encompasses a holiday key phrase. For example, if your popcorn business is in need of more search traffic, create a blog entry entitled “10 Gift Ideas Using Popcorn.” People love numbered lists because they’re easy to read and quick. Use this to your advantage and capitalize on the term “gift ideas” to make a killer blog post. People will enjoy the creative aspect of using popcorn to make a gift, and will likely be drawn to your site to see what assortments of holiday popcorn they can use. Don’t forget to include a link back to your site so that users will know exactly where to go for more information and you can get that lead.
Of course, your holiday blog entries can be much more direct in terms of promoting a product or special. If you have a Cyber Monday special that you want to promote, use your blog to do so! But as always, be sure to make the blog entry interesting for the visitor in order to see real results. Search engines like blogs because they are (or should be) constantly updated and usually spout out new information. People like them because they are useful and fun.
The holidays are not the time to shun social media. Users will be turning to social sites to see what their friends are buying or talking about. Use this to your advantage and increase your social efforts and the amount of posts that you publish. Ask questions that will help your holiday campaign as a form of informal research. Going back to the popcorn store example, (I’ve got popcorn on my mind) ask questions like “Which holiday popcorn flavor is your favorite?” or “Which popcorn do you prefer to pair with your hot chocolate? Caramel or toffee?” Etc. This is a great way to increase engagement and get customers going back to your site! If you wrote a recent blog post about the holidays, don’t forget to tweet about it or create a post that will lead visitors to your page and your site.
When it comes to planning your holiday campaigns, the possibilities are endless. Unfortunately, this blog entry cannot be. Read more about ways to amplify your holiday online marketing and learn about how pay-per-click (PPC) and email marketing can boost your sales before the year is out. With an integrated online marketing mindset, you can boost your businesses sales, lead generation and search ranking just in time for the holidays!
Search engine optimization should be integrated with all your online marketing efforts. It starts with having a great offering and communicating. Do people love your business? Is your customer experience awesome? If your business provides an awesome customer experience your business will grow by “Word of Mouth” (or WOM), and SEO will make it easy for more customers to find your business.
If someone posts your link to their Facebook page, it is a form of WOM, and doesn’t require users to search, they just click the link. However, if they want to find the same link two weeks later, they may have difficulty finding that same link in their social media profile, and will quickly turn to their favorite search engine to find the site they were interested in.
This is where SEO is incredibly important, because the user may not remember your brand name if they had only seen the brand once, but they will remember the offering, and will use search terms based on the offering.
The question then becomes “Does your site rank on page 1 for the offering terms?”
If your site doesn’t naturally rank for your business offering terms, you should consider paid search advertising with Google Adwords and Bing Adcenter. This way you can catch those users that are looking for your offering.
Your catch will only be a small percentage of the total impressions from your target search terms, however when you gain natural rankings in addition to having paid search advertising you will have increased your shelf space on the search engine results page (SERP) and gain a higher percentage of clicks from the total number of SERP impressions.
Remember, searchers are expressing intent with their keyword choices. Also, searchers use terms they know. Part of your online marketing campaign is to help prospects to remember the words they should use to find your business online.
The vocabulary of your marketing communications should reinforce terms that your site naturally ranks for, and that you are bidding on in your paid search advertising. By planting the keyword seeds in the minds of prospects through interruption marketing you prepare them to use the keyword phrases that you dominate in search.
If your branding initiatives are working, you will notice upward trending in brand-related search traffic to your site (assuming you are checking your website’s analytics reports).
SEO complements your push marketing messages by allowing those that develop interest to find your offering online and do their research. Ranking naturally in search is a sign of credibility to people that are researching your offering.
SEO is the golden thread that connects all your online marketing efforts. From public relations, social media, email marketing, display and banner ads, paid search advertising, and your website experience, all should be in concert with the purpose of gaining customers by being easy to find through search. All the marketing communications vocabulary should be customer-focused. Use the language of your customers to make it easy for more of them to find your business.
There are many technical aspects to SEO, such as semantic site code structure, information architecture, crawlability, anchor text of inbound links, unique title tags and meta descriptions; however none of these aspects make up for a poor customer experience. SEO amplifies a great customer experience. If your businesses provides a poor customer experience, SEO becomes difficult because a large part of SEO depends on WOM sharing of your links from your customers and prospects.
Considering all the above, SEO is not a stand alone marketing campaign. It is best used as a thought pattern applied to all of your online marketing activities that should keep your business focused on your customers throughout all your marketing communications.
See part one of the SEO question series: What is SEO?
– “Black hat SEO” is a practice that has been long frowned upon within in the SEO industry. Not too long ago, the New York Times revealed that JC Penney, one of the biggest retailers in the country, was caught in the middle of an extensive linking scheme, also known as a “black hat SEO” campaign.
Most people working in search engine optimization (SEO) have heard of the term “black hat SEO”. For those who have not, “black hat SEO” refers to techniques that are used to get higher search rankings in an “unethical” manner. When search engines find out about these practices, it usually comes with a severe penalty for the site itself, as well as the brand.
To summarize Google’s policies via Webmaster Central, some black hat SEO or “link scheme” techniques include:
- Links intended to manipulate PageRank
- Links to web spammers or bad neighborhoods on the web
- Excessive reciprocal links or excessive link exchanging (i.e., “If you link to me, I’ll link to you”)
- Buying or selling links that pass PageRank
These techniques are definitely frowned upon by search engines like Google, Bing, and Yahoo. The gist is that black hat SEO is basically anything you do to try and falsely manipulate a search engine in order to boost rankings.
Black Hat SEO In The News
One of the most documented black hat SEO incidents has been the recent SEO black hat article by the New York Times of JC Penney. JC Penney was in the news because of the discovery of an extensive black hat SEO campaign using links to artificially manipulate search engine rankings. To many, this was a surprise since JC Penney is such an established brand, and they are also one of Google’s larger paid advertisement clients. However, this is not the first time JC Penney has been caught breaking the rules and regulations of Google. In the past, JC Penney was caught on three prior occasions. The last was in November of 2010, but apparently Google did not “circle back” to see if they had stopped their black hat ways.
JC Penney’s latest black hat SEO campaign, which was caught and originally reported by the New York Times, extended from November 2010 through the first week of February, 2011. It is particularly interesting, because this campaign spanned through the holiday season, which is when online shopping and spending is at its peak. To quote the article:
“This striking performance lasted for months, most crucially through the holiday season, when there is a huge spike in online shopping. JC Penney even beat out the sites of manufacturers in searches for the products of those manufacturers.”
The problem for Google and the other search engines is, for the months JC Penney was conducting black hat SEO, it worked. JC Penney was number 1 in organic search results for a number of keywords, and it now turns out this was mainly because of the black hat linking scheme.
There was an estimated 2,015 pages that linked back to the JC Penney website and most of those pages had nothing to do with clothing. JC Penney had links on sites for everything from bathroom tiles and home furniture to fishing and Adobe Flash. As mentioned in the article;
“The company bested millions of sites — and not just in searches for dresses, bedding and area rugs. For months, it was consistently at or near the top in searches for “skinny jeans,” “home decor,” “comforter sets,” “furniture” and dozens of other words and phrases, from the blandly generic (“tablecloths”) to the strangely specific (“grommet top curtains”).”
The Consequences of Black Hat SEO
When approached about the black hat incident, representatives from JC Penney said they knew nothing about the linking scheme and promptly fired their SEO company. Google immediately took action to clean up all of JC Penney’s black-hat links in their algorithm. As a result of these actions taken by Google, JC Penney’s organic search rankings dropped, many substantially. Here is the example of the rankings plunge mentioned by the NYTimes article after Google took “corrective action” against JC Penney:
“But the real damage to Penney’s results began when Google started that “manual action.” The decline can be charted: On Feb. 1, the average Penney position for 59 search terms was 1.3.
On Feb. 8, when the algorithm was changing, it was 4.
By Feb. 10, it was 52.”
This unfortunate incident for JC Penney is a reminder to us all that although black hat SEO techniques work (temporarily), they are not recommended because they come with a steep price. Once found, the penalty for even being perceived as “black hat” is worse than any benefit derived from the actual black hat campaign. Damage to the JC Penney brand in the press and in the search results of Google, as well as the other search engines, was extensive.
The moral of the JC Penney black hat SEO story is… cheaters usually end up getting caught, and black hat SEO link-manipulation is considered cheating.
My last post explored the possible differences between Bing’s new algorithm and Google, affirming some commonly cited variances and discovering others that had little or no evidence. Though there were some confirmed differences between the way Bing and Google determine the rankings of natural results, they would probably have little impact on search engine optimization tactics for two reasons:
- Bing algorithm is likely to change soon, so any gains from, for example, changing URLs to include keywords could be reversed in the near future.
- Bing does not account for enough traffic to shift focus from optimizing for Google’s algorithm.
New functions like Best Match, Document Preview, and Quick Tabs provide additional spaces where sites should aim appear. Updates of old features, like Local and Shopping, mean that the some of the processes have changed from MSN and Live search. The following sections discuss new and updated features as well as the changes to online strategy that will help leverage these features.
Quick Tabs & Categorized Results
What they are: Quick Tabs (pictured to the left) are the handful of links at the top left corner of a SERP, where categorized results appear for very broad searches to break them up into more niche queries. The same longer-tail searches often appear in both places, but Quick Tabs include both these longer-tail searches and links to specific Bing services (such as Images, News, Shopping, and Videos).
Strategy: Use these spaces for discovering new keywords to target. Take note of the Quick Tabs that show up for your broadest keywords (those with the most search volume), these Bing services and deeper pages may be traffic-driving positions. For example, a Bing search for “electric wheelchairs” brings up only one Quick Tab, Videos. Assuming that 1-3% of users searching that phrase look for videos, a site that sells electric wheelchairs can gain extra visitors simply by creating a YouTube video.
What it is: When Bing has an extremely high confidence rate (for example, on a search for “Sears”), it will return one result at the top of the page with the text “Best match.” A best match also gets 8 links to deeper sites in the page and an internal search form. Local companies can get it too, but not all of them–Cavender’s, a western wear store, gets a best match, whereas Amy’s Ice Creams does not.
Strategy: Be sure your URL and Title Tags contain your company name – it is unlikely that a best match will ever return for a non-branded term like “hammers.” Include the company name in the Alt tag of the header image or logo that appears on every page. Add an internal search to your page and make sure your sub-pages are both prominently listed in the main navigation and given higher priority in your XML sitemap. Lastly, if your site is a local brick-and-mortar, ensure that Bing knows your physical address by creating a local listing (and, of course, associating your URL with this listing).
What it is: Document Previews appear when a user mouses over a listing, then mouses over the orange circle that pops up to the right of the listing. It pulls information (usually body copy) from the page to populate this window. SEO must now ensure that the information coming up in the pop up window is both informative and engaging – that is, it will both let the users know exactly what to expect (to minimize unqualified traffic) and entice users to click on the link (to draw in qualified traffic). The above example, Nike, failed to do so.
Strategy: Determine the specific content that Bing is pulling from your site to populate its Document Preview. It could be as complicated as text within a Flash file or even text within a deeper page, but is most likely from the beginning of a CSS division, or <DIV> for the coding-inclined. Bing seems to like short paragraphs and bulleted lists. Modify this text to be, again, both informative and engaging.
Instant Answers (Update)
What it is: Like Google, Bing provides very specific information on the search results for certain types of search queries (i.e., currency conversion on Google or flight information on Bing). Bing’s instant answers capabilities are vastly improved from those of MSN and Live Search, providing these types of results for a much wider range of queries.
Strategy: Although appearing in the Instant Answers could potentially drive traffic and increase brand recognition, becoming one of these partners is most likely outside of the scope of SEO and probably involves direct communication with Microsoft programmers. An e-commerce or otherwise primarily commercial site has very little chance of becoming a source of information for Instant Answers. Sites that serve as informational databases on a given topic could, however, enter some sort of partnership with Bing in which they are the sole provider of a type of data. Comstock, for example, gives Bing its quotes for stock ticker searches, American Telephone & Telegraph provides information about area codes, and FlightStats enables Bing’s instant answers for flight information.
Bing Local Listings (Update)
What it is: Also an update from an MSN and Live Search feature, Bing Local Listings change the way information about businesses are presented and improves review aggregation. Bits of reviews are categorized by keyword, as seen in the example above. For example, Bing pulls comments regarding wait times from reviews on sites like Yelp and provides aggregated ratings for wait times at restaurants. Users first fill out basic information about their business, which will be used to check whether the business is already in Bing’s database, before they add photos, videos, hours, and other information. Much like Google, users can then assign categories (up to 6) that will be used to help determine what type of business is being submitted (unlike Google, custom categories cannot be created). A snail mail piece with a verification code will be sent, and listings usually update within a few days of verification.
Strategy: The main change in strategy here is that the Webmaster Center no longer provides the link to submit a local business. That form is now at this URL. It is not linked to any of Bing’s main pages, so some users who have used this feature in the past may now have trouble finding it. Also, the new keyword categorization of portions of reviews from sites like Yelp means that the wording of reviews is very important. For example, a user mentioning a short wait time would increase the average rating for that metric on the listing pictured above. Lastly, Microsoft has initiated a partnership with Yellow Pages local listings so paid sponsors are listed above normal listings. Paid local listings link directly to the business’s page on YellowPages.com.
Bing Shopping (Update)
What it is: Bing, like Google, can return e-commerce results along with regular organic listings. The results lead to a landing page that shows various products related to a search term with pictures, descriptions, prices, and links to retailers. However, two weeks before the release of Bing (May 15, 2009), Microsoft ended its Live Search Product Upload feature. Therefore, adding products is no longer a user-end process for Bing (but it still is for Google, which uses Google Base).
Strategy: Since Microsoft has assumed the responsibility of uploading product information to its search engine, it is also no longer a free service. One must contact a Microsoft sales representative to discuss being added to this section of the site, which is apparently based on a CPC bidding model. During this process, a site owner can also decide to participate in Bing’s Cashback program. Looking at the proportion of Cashback offers to total retailers on Bing Shopping; it looks like Microsoft salespeople are enthusiastically pitching the Cashback partnership. The strategy for being listed in Bing Shopping has shifted from previously being arguably related to SEO to now PPC.
Shawn Campbell discusses landing pages for paid search campaigns. In my professional opinion, effective landing pages are one of the best ways to increase site conversion, and concordantly, the ROI of your media buy.