Prior to Google’s implementation of the Hummingbird algorithm in the second half of 2013, search engine optimization and delivering a positive user experience with published content were distinctly different practices. Despite Google’s mission to surface high value content, its algorithms were easily manipulated with SEO tricks that didn’t necessarily deliver the information that the search engine users were looking for. At the same time, content that delivered relevant information often earned lower rankings than poorly written articles that prioritized packing in keywords over adding value.
Hand it to Google, the search engine has stayed true to its commitment to deliver improved user experiences and is now far less vulnerable to manipulative practices. Its ranking algorithm now factors a variety of signals that result from positive user experiences, including:
Links from authority sites – Content that contains valuable source material, topic-relevant information or delivers a positive user experience in general can earn links from authority sites to provide additional information or to be cited as a reference. These links carry an increasing amount of weight in the ranking algorithms due to the quasi-vetting process from originating authority sites. This is a completely different ranking methodology than the one which rewarded web pages that had thousands of spammy backlinks purchased for a few pennies each.
Social actions – When content is posted to social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, user can elect to share that material with their friends and/or followers. Sharing or liking posted content is referred to as a social action, which is an indication that the content delivers a positive user experience, whether it’s entertaining, informative or a combination of the two. Steady and/or increasing social actions with specific web pages can then boost rankings due to the implied legitimacy of independent referrals.
Active and positive comment threads – Quality content draws engagement in the form of active commentary threads. Content that is generating shares and likes will also elicit commentary, with the actions reinforcing each other when being weighed by search algorithms. While these reinforcing actions are great for SEO campaigns, they are equally capable of driving higher rankings for negative content, such as news stories.
In today’s SEO campaigns, manipulating the algorithms has become increasingly difficult. This is due in part to the growing sophistication in algorithm methodology that can detect spammy links and content. It is also due to the evolution in the way people communicate and share information on the web. The paradigm change now forces SEO and content distribution campaigns to focus on the same primary goal; delivering a positive user experience.
As the sophistication of search algorithms continues to increase, search engines are improving their understanding of what their users are looking for with their inquiries. Prior to replacing its search methodology with the Hummingbird algorithm in 2013, search results typically showed results that had a high percentage of the same keywords included in users’ inquiries. While the pages that were returned based on keyword matches generally reflected some relevance to the search, there were also results that had nothing to do with the nature of the inquiry.
Two of the primary reasons for these unrelated results were black hat techniques that were used to trick the early algorithms into granting high ratings, as well as words that were spelled the same but had different meanings, known as homonyms. An example of a homonym is the word “lead”, which can either be a noun as in the metal or a verb as in “to guide”. An inquiry such as “lead dog” could list sculptures of dogs made of the metal as well as dog teams in the Iditarod race. Refining the search to “what is a lead dog Iditarod” could still return mixed results. With the implementation of the Hummingbird algorithm, searches provided results based on the context of the inquiry, rather than trying to find pages with identical keywords.
The change to contextual search, in addition to providing a higher percentage of relevant results for all users, was also influenced by the more conversational nature of inquiries from mobile device users. When voice commands are used, it’s more natural to ask a question than limiting inquiries to a few key words. As the search phrases became longer, keyword-based algorithms struggled to return listings that answered the questions that were being posed, which required follow-on searches and lead to a less than optimal user experience.
For businesses that have not changed the foundation of their SEO initiatives to the new search methodology, previously high rankings are likely to start falling, if they haven’t already. The key to success in context-based search is to modify content so that it answers the questions posed verbally by mobile users. As a simple example, a searcher may pose the question “Where is a pizza place in Anytown?” Content that answers that question, which would earn a higher search listing, would include something like “Jack’s Pizza is located at 123 Main Street in Anytown.”
As Google and the rest of the search engines try to deliver the best user experience possible, the focus is on eliminating listings that don’t deliver the answers sought by searchers. To that end, the listings that are presented will increasingly address the full context of inquiries with the delivery of specific answers. In this environment the SEO campaigns that are modified to answer questions, rather than match keywords to searches, will deliver website and storefront visits which will drive revenues.
When was the last time you thought about making changes to your business page or assessing how your company interacts with its community on Facebook? If your business has been doing things the same way for a while on your social media pages and isn’t getting the expected results, it may be time to make some changes. Here are 5 ways to upgrade your Facebook page experience for your visitors.
Start with an objective assessment of a visitor’s experience on your page – Businesses often set up social media pages (and websites) from an internal point of view without considering the experience of first time and repeat visitors. Taking a look at your Facebook page from the viewpoint of your target market may provide insights on whether your business is delivering the experience visitors are seeking or conveying company messaging that misses the mark in the context of a social media environment.
Don’t be static – Businesses often set up their page on Facebook and then leave the same content in place for months or years. The problem that occurs in this situation is that when visitors start seeing the same thing on every visit, their motivation to come back starts to ebb. Instead, by staying current with content, such as an ongoing series of best practice tips for products, industry news and/or promotions, your Facebook page can give your audience plenty of reasons to keep returning.
Go social versus commercial – Always remember that the key word in social media is “social”. The most successful companies on Facebook have a communal voice that seeks to engage their audience with 2-way communication as opposed to blasting out advertisements.
Vary your forms of content – Support your written content with podcasts, images and video to change up the interface between your business and page visitors. Alternating mediums for your content will give your page a dynamic feel that can lead to longer stays by visitors. You can also increase engagement by posting contests and surveys.
Keep your posts to a “Twitter-like” 140 characters – Even your most loyal visitors may be perusing your information in a brisk succession, so keep your posts short enough to convey the basics of the pertinent information within a few seconds. To add value to your short posts, provide a link to longer form content to enable access for those seeking additional information.
Your business’s Facebook page may be the preferred channel for members of your target market to interface with your company. By providing a positive on-page experience with dynamic, fresh and timely information, your business can grow its number of social media followers, increase social actions and ultimately drive more sales.
Despite the fact that local listings have basically finished their move from the Yellow Pages to the web, many local businesses are still satisfied with the idea that having a website will get them in front of the maximum number of potential customers. While this mistake probably resulted in missed opportunities when searches via PC ruled the day, it is magnified today as mobile searches now outnumber those executed on PCs.
The opportunity presented by mobile device users for local businesses is highlighted in a variety of studies, particularly one between Google, Ipsos MediaCT and Purchased, which assessed smart phone behavior with over 5,000 users. That study found that 50 percent of mobile device users who search for local businesses end up visiting a physical location within one day. Another study found that 46 percent of searchers use their mobile devices exclusively when doing research on products and services. The net result for local businesses is that missing the mobile consumer could be costing a fortune in missed sales. If you haven’t optimized your site and your content for this new type of consumer, there are three steps to take now.
Answer the questions of mobile users – Mobile users typically pose their search queries as questions, and Google rewards sites that deliver the answers to those questions with higher rankings and visibility. This is a change that went into their ranking algorithm in the second half of 2013, but many local businesses still aren’t aware of it.
Offer great content – Simply composing content that has some relation to your products but focuses more on keywords that used to deliver traffic has been the target of Google algorithm changes for several years. If you’re still using keyword-loaded content on your web pages there are two distinct disadvantages; Google is not paying attention and the mobile users that find you will likely jump to sites that offer a better experience. Instead, Google now surfaces content that is proven to deliver value to searchers and your site has a much better chances of getting valuable backlinks from authority sites.
Re-build your site with responsive design architecture – Delivering a user friendly interface on mobile devices is critical in keeping these searchers on your site after they have landed. Text that is difficult to read, navigation links that are hard to find, and pictures of products that are too small on mobile viewports will typically have users headed for a sight that is mobile friendly. Re-building your site with responsive design architecture can display an optimized interface for mobile users that presents web page information that has been adjusted to the size of the screen of each mobile device.
Local businesses now have a huge opportunity to attract mobile consumers. Make these changes as soon as possible to get in on the action.
If you have noticed that web pages from your site and other online assets are starting to feel the effects of gravity, it’s possible that your SEO tactics are still targeting old search engine algorithm formulas that have changed drastically over the last 18 months. If you haven’t updated your search strategies within the last year, there are 4 steps to take now that can revive your SEO campaigns.
Creating your on and off-site content to answer questions – One of the biggest modifications in Google’s algorithm is the change from basing search results on keyword density to the surfacing of content that answers questions. The first step to take here is to learn how your audience searches for your products and/or services. Mobile searches now outnumber those that originate from PCs and are often posed as what, where, why and how questions. Content that answers those types of queries is now being rewarded with higher rankings.
Generating content that earns links – The practice of building or buying links has basically flatlined as search engines now have the capability to determine whether they occur naturally or are being set up to influence ranking algorithms. Links are as important as ever, but it’s the quality and relevance of the point of origination that matters, not the amount of backlinks. Today, earning a single link from an authority or industry-related site carries more weight than thousands of backlinks with dubious origins. Keep in mind also that these types of links offer the additional benefit of driving targeted traffic to your site, whereas fake links deliver nothing.
Pinpointing your social media efforts – Businesses originally saw social media sites as platforms to broadcast their marketing and advertising, which resulted in a dilutive “the more, the merrier” approach to developing as many diverse pages as possible. As these sites have evolved, the expectation of these communities is that businesses must engage in two-way conversations rather than just blasting out their messaging. This expectation makes it difficult to optimize a variety of different sites, so narrow your focus to the sites that fit best with your business. In most cases, the result of full engagement on a couple of sites will yield far more social actions such as “shares” than being spread too thin on too many social platforms.
$ Make your site responsive – Google has prioritized the experience of mobile users as part of its ranking formula, going as far as highlighting sites that are built with responsive design architecture with a “mobile friendly” designation when searched with a mobile device. Changing your site over to responsive design architecture will allow it to adapt the on-page information that is displayed to the size of the viewport of the mobile device. The result is text that is easier to read, simple navigation, and an interface that works efficiently on smaller screens.
If you haven’t updated your SEO practices in the last year your search rankings may be suffering. By incorporating these steps, your SEO campaigns can be revived while both the quality and the amount of the traffic to your sites increase.
When it comes to SEO initiatives, there are two schools of thought; one that understands that the web is a highly competitive arena that requires professional strategy and execution to succeed and the other that assumes that building a website and a couple of social media pages should be enough to drive a stream of consumers to a place of business. The second school of thought tends to embrace additional misconceptions that can prevent successful SEO initiatives, including:
The web is a low cost haven for business – This perception is probably based on the fact that the first steps of building a business presence on the web cost very little or can be done for free. For example, buying a URL and paying for hosting costs $25 or less. Setting up Facebook and Twitter pages is free. When these steps are perceived as the most important work that needs to be done to establish a presence on the web, the logic tends to follow that everything else shouldn't cost much more. This is one of the reasons that black hat SEO companies were so successful in selling their services. For example, buying 1,000 spammy links for $10 represented the prices that had previously been paid to get on the web, so the cost made sense to business owners.
SEO can be done on the cheap - Here’s the thing; the vast majority of consumers now search the web for things to buy. Even at the local level, the competition for the listings on search engines is fierce by necessity. For example, according a Marketing Land study, the top 5 search rankings for user inquiries get over 67 percent of the clicks. Attaining and keeping a top 5 ranking in almost any product category is only possible with the foot constantly on the SEO gas pedal, which is both labor and time intensive. Additionally, the best SEO campaigns get their results by distributing content that positions products with consumers while also building the brand of the business. Always keep in mind that SEO is a "get what you pay for" business, so getting high click through rates, professionally designed marketing pieces, and branding simply isn't going to happen for a couple hundred dollars per month.
It takes too long to get results - This is a key area of frustration for many business owners as money spent during the first few months on an SEO initiative may not deliver substantially more web traffic. The same is true with buying advertising with the rule of thumb being that consumers, on average, need to see an ad 6 times before taking some sort of action. While these practices are different in many ways, they are similar in that there will be some time that elapses between the first payment and an upswing in traffic.
The bottom line is that the web is the primary medium for consumers searching for everything from the best pizza in town to replacement parts for a vintage automobile. The competition for these consumers is intensifying, and the businesses that hire and pay for the best SEO talent available will reap the lion's share of the rewards.
In the not too distant past, the practice of search engine optimization could be summed up as an endeavor to generate as many backlinks as possible combined with the creation of content crammed with selected keywords. In this relatively simple environment, thousands of spammy backlinks could be purchased for a few dollars, a single piece of low quality but keyword-loaded content could be posted on a plurality of sites, and listings at the top of the search engine results pages (SERPs) could be realized post-haste.
From the searchers’ side of the equation, the listings that appeared at the top of the SERPs sometimes delivered information that was relevant to the search term being used while other listings linked to sites that were confusing, poorly designed, and/or had nothing to do with the intent of the search. For a search engine like Google with a stated mission to deliver the best user experience possible, listings that had achieved their rankings through manipulative practices and then delivered nothing were a complete anathema that had to be fixed.
Thousands of algorithm changes later, Google has now essentially eliminated the most popular black hat techniques and a new world of SEO exists. Here are the 4 aspects of SEO that are now required to achieve high rankings on the search engines.
$ On-site content that was created with the sole objective of high keyword ratios must be replaced – In August of 2013, Google replaced its long-standing keyword-based algorithm with a new formula that assesses the context of on-page content. As part of this change, the search engine started devaluing content with unnaturally high keyword counts and began surfacing quality content that delivers answers to search inquiries.
Consistent creation of solution-based content as the backbone of the campaign – Google’s improved capability to define and surface web pages that deliver solutions now mandates that the content that is generated as part of an SEO campaign provides answers to questions that are commonly posed regarding a business’ products and/or services. The companies that achieve the highest level of success in the new search paradigm will first understand the questions that potential customers are asking and secondly create on and off-site content that answers those questions.
Backlinks that matter – In addition to its improved capabilities in assessing content, Google’s ability to detect spammy backlinks has diminished the benefits of that practice as well. Now, the only links that matter originate from relevant sources such as authority sites and signals/actions from social networks.
A mobile-friendly website – This is another component of Google’s quest for an optimal user experience, in which the information that is presented to the viewer must be optimized for the size of the viewport. This website architecture is referred to as “responsive design”, in which on-page content is configured for easy viewing and navigation for screens ranging in size from large desktops to the smallest mobile devices.
The recent changes at Google have eliminated the instant gratification that used to be delivered via black hat techniques. SEO success is now predicated on delivering an optimal user experience, which has been the search engine’s objective all along.
A search engine optimization (SEO) strategy that isn’t in a constant state of evolution will most likely deliver results that miss objectives by a widening margin over time. Much like marketing strategies that still haven’t adapted to consumers moving online for information, research and making purchases, an SEO strategy which assumes that online consumer behavior patterns are in a constantly static state is destined to underperform while also missing out on opportunities of marketing and selling products and services through a growing number of channels.
To keep your SEO strategy on top of the changes in this dynamic environment, keep an eye on these consumer behavior trends for 2014:
- Increasing participation on special interest social media networks – Consumers are waking up to the fact that the Facebook/Twitter platforms aren’t the only games in town. While monthly user numbers are still very healthy for the big two, a growing number of social networks are being built to address specific interests. The narrowing of these sites’ focus eliminates much of the noise that is common on broader networks and allows members to interact with communities that share specific interests ranging from vintage shopping to the healthcare industry.
- Mobile everything – Estimates are that mobile device users will access the web more often than desktop users beginning in 2014, a trend that shows no signs of stopping. As consumers, mobile device users have extremely high correlations between their searches and making purchases, which is reason enough for businesses to become more mobile friendly with their sites and include mobile optimization in their SEO initiatives.
- A continued migration away from traditional media and traditional advertising – Rather than being forced to choose between the offerings that are provided by traditional media, consumers are heading to the web for a greater variety of entertainment choices. This migration is decreasing circulation/viewer/listener numbers, with a direct correlation to the decreasing effectiveness of advertising. Another challenge for traditional advertising is that TV watchers are implementing ad-skipping technologies whenever possible.
These trends can help to focus your SEO initiatives on high growth areas that can deliver solid returns. Additionally, by re-allocating marketing money away from the diminishing returns of traditional advertising, you’ll be able to strengthen your SEO efforts even more.