What to watch for in 2018: Mobile SEO predictions

As we wrap up 2017 and look forward to 2018, many SEOs will speculate about what to expect in the year to come. Since my focus is mobile, I wanted to share my unique expectations for 2018 by outlining what we know and what we suspect on the mobile SEO front.

This past year brought a lot of changes to the mobile ecosystem, though we are still waiting expectantly for the launch of Google’s mobile-first index. We have been assured that it will launch sometime in 2018, and we hope this is true.

For this article, I plan to focus on a few of my key predictions for 2018: the blurring of the lines between app and web, cross-device convergence and the increased reliance on schema markup in HTML, JSON and databases. I will then tie all the trends together with unique speculation about what mobile-first indexing will actually be and what strategies you can start incorporating now to create an immediate SEO benefit.

This background information about mobile trends and the long-term expectations about mobile-first indexing should help you prioritize and plan for a more successful 2018.

Blurring of the app/web lines

The biggest trend in 2017 that will continue to grow in 2018 is a movement toward Progressive Web Apps, or PWAs. You can expect them to be an even bigger focus in 2018.

Just as a refresher, Progressive Web Apps are websites that enable an app shell and configuration file to be downloaded to a phone, which allows it to take on all the best characteristics of a native app while living on the web. Remember, “web apps” are basically just JavaScript-heavy websites that look like native apps, so making them function as a PWA just entails adding a couple of extra files and a little more functionality.

The great thing about PWAs is that they allow for an app icon, full-screen display without an address bar, speedy on- and offline functionality and push notifications. They are a good way to help companies build a bridge between the discoverability of the web and the engagement and satisfaction that users experience with apps, all while minimizing overhead. They can be used directly on the web or installed like a native app on Android devices (and iOS devices soon, too). That means there is a lot less to maintain, optimize and promote, so they are incredibly attractive to savvy companies of all sizes.

The app development trends will start to shift away from native apps and toward PWAs as more companies begin to understand the value that PWAs can provide. The Android OS now treats PWAs almost exactly like native apps, showing their resource consumption and specs in the exact same places, displaying them in the app tray, and soon, adding them to the Google Play Store. Google has also begun to transition many of their specific-interest web resources into PWAs, including Traffic, Sports, Restaurants, Weather, Google Contribute, Maps-Go and Weather PWA.

You can see this trend in action below. The first screen shows a web search result for the local weather. The next screen shows the same search result with a different presentation and the option to add it to the home screen. The third screen shows the dialogue where you accept addition of the PWA icon to your home screen. The final image shows Google’s native weather app and its weather PWA app icons side by side. The two apps do the exact same thing and have the exact same interface.

[Click to enlarge.]

PWAs are also important because they remove the need for companies to set up deep links from their websites into their apps and vice versa — a process that has proven complicated and sometimes impossible for large companies that don’t have exact parity between their app and website content. Google always prefers to recommend and reward the least error-prone options, and in our experience, deep linking the old fashioned way is very error-prone. Every time something changes in the app or content moves on the website (individual 301 redirects or a full migration), app indexing and deep linking is at risk of failing or completely breaking down.

And even when your deep links are working correctly, referral touch points and attribution can be nearly impossible to track without the assistance of third-party services. This is a stark contrast to the simplicity of linking on the web. PWAs are self-contained apps that are already indexed on the web, eliminating all that complexity.

If everything that happens in your company’s app can be achieved in a PWA, it makes sense to focus efforts on the PWA — especially if the company is struggling with deep linking. As long as your PWA is well indexed and delivering a great user experience, Android deep links will be irrelevant.

Since PWAs will be in Google Play with native apps, Android users likely won’t be able to tell the difference between a native app and a PWA. On Android, it is important to note that Google may eventually change how they treat deep links when a PWA is available. Google may begin to prefer PWA content over deep links (especially if the app is not installed), just as they have done for AMP content.

This is less of a concern for iOS, especially if deep linking is happening through iOS Universal links rather than any Firebase implementation. Since Universal Links are executed with the iOS operating system rather than the browser, it seems likely that iOS will continue to honor Universal Links into apps, even if a PWA is available.

Just remember that, in both cases, if the PWA is replacing the website, the app deep links will need to match up with the URLs used in the PWA. If the PWA is in addition to the main website, only the web URLs that are associated with app URIs will trigger the deep links.

As Google begins adding PWAs to Google Play and indexing them on the web, this could make it easier for it to add app logos to SERPs for both Android and iOS, improving the appearance, CTR and engagement of the PWA links. Regardless, there may still be a push for all app deep links to be moved into its Firebase system, to help Google improve its cross-device, cross-OS reporting and attribution. Depending on how quickly Google is able to finish launching mobile-first indexing, this is something that may be a big push for the company in the second half of 2018.

We are seeing similar changes on the app store optimization (ASO) front as well. The Google Play algorithm is historically much less sophisticated than the Google search algorithm, but recent changes to the Google Play app algorithm show a much larger focus on app performance, efficiency, engagement and reviews, and a relative decrease in the importance of app metadata. This could be considered a signal of a potential impending merge between Google Play and regular SERPs, since we know performance is an important ranking factor there. When PWAs are added to the Google Play Store, native Android apps will be competing against PWA websites in terms of performance. Conversely, this will likely mean that PWAs may also be subject to ranking fluctuations based on user reviews and star ratings.

Though it is less prominent for SEO, the same may be true in the Apple world of technology. Historically, Apple was resistant to allowing their Safari browser to support PWAs, but recent announcements make it seem as though the company’s perspective has flipped. In 2017, Apple finally made it clear that Safari would soon support the Service Worker files that make PWAs so useful, and just this month (Dec. 12, 2017), in its quest to eliminate the use of app templating services, Apple seemingly endorsed PWAs as a better option for companies with limited budgets than templated native apps!

Apple’s sudden and emphatic endorsement of PWAs is a strong indication that PWAs will be supported in the next Safari update. It may also indicate that Apple has developed a scheme to monetize PWAs. Apple could also plan on adding them to its App Store (where they can exercise more editorial control over them). This is all yet to be seen, of course, but it will be interesting.

Cross-device convergence

The next major theme to expect in 2018 is cross-device convergence. As the number and purpose of connected devices continues to expand, mindsets will also need to expand to take on a wider view of what it means to be “cross-device.” Historically, cross-device might have meant having apps and a website, or having a responsive design website that worked on all devices. But in 2018, people will start to realize that this is not enough. As the line between app and web merges on mobile, it will also merge on desktop and the Internet of Things (IoT).

As more information moves to the cloud, it will be easier to seamlessly move from one device to another, maintaining the state, history and status of the interaction on all devices simultaneously. The presentation layer will simply include hooks into a larger API. Developers will be more focused on testing data integrations of one app across many different devices, rather than testing multiple, device-specific apps on multiple devices (somewhat similar to the transition to responsive design on the web).

There is a store for Google Home and a store for Google Actions, Google’s Voice-First and Voice-Only channels, but these will probably merge into the same store — possibly when the mobile-first index fully launches, but more likely soon after. You can expect an eventual convergence of mobile and desktop app stores, operating systems and search utilities, though this won’t all be completed or even initiated in 2018. It is just the direction things are going.

We have already seen this happening in some places. The convergence between mobile and desktop is most obvious when you look at the changes that happened in Windows 10. The desktop OS incorporates an app store and looks much more like an Android phone, even including customizable widgets in the “Start” screens. Microsoft announced just this month that Service Workers, push notifications and local cache will all also be enabled by default in Microsoft’s new Edge browser, which is intended for both desktop and mobile.

PWAs and Android apps are already available in the Windows app store, which means that PWAs are already available and partially usable on desktop. In that same vein, Microsoft has now made a point of making some of the top software, like Outlook, Excel and Word, available on Android devices, without a license.

There are also indications that Google may begin to test sponsored App Pack rankings. Since App Pack rankings happen in the regular SERP rather than an app store, this could be important for desktop, too. As companies begin to realize how useful PWAs are, they will have a visual advantage over other sponsored results on both mobile and desktop.

Google and Microsoft/Windows have always been more willing to coexist without walled gardens, while Apple has always leaned toward proprietary products and access. If Safari mobile will support PWAs and Service Workers, then it may also be true for the desktop version of Safari, meaning that the line between mobile and desktop will be merging in the larger Apple universe, too. The MacOS has had its own app store for a long time, but the Apple teams, like the Android and Windows teams, have also reported that they will be merging the MacOS and iOS stores into one in 2018.

This cross-device, voice- and cloud-oriented model is already being pursued with Cortana’s integration in Windows 10, where the mobile and desktop app stores have already merged. Similarly, Siri, Safari and Spotlight work cross-device to surface apps and websites, and Google has added voice search to desktop — but they have both yet to really push the assistant to the front and center as a means of surfacing that app and web content on all devices.

There were rumors that iOS apps would also be available in the Windows app store, but that looks like it has fallen through, at least in terms of 2018 planning. Instead, Apple may have decided to extend or merge its own iOS App Store with the desktop version of the store and could also have decided to include PWAs for the desktop experience.

The last thing to watch out for in this trend is changes with Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP). AMP was designed to make webpages fast and mobile-friendly, and even though these enhanced pages can work on desktop and probably could integrate easily with voice, Google has reportedly struggled to integrate them into the mobile-first index. While it does provide a lot of advantages, AMP will probably have to make major changes or face a reckoning in 2018. There are still significant problems that need to be resolved in terms of UX and measurement.

Increased reliance on structured data markup in more places

The final thing to watch for in 2018 is Google’s push for webmasters to mark up everything with structured data, including social profiles, corporate contact information, books, events, courses and facts. Structured data, and specifically markup that is formatted in JSON-LD to provide semantic understanding, is what allows Google to understand “entities.” (The “LD” in JSON-LD stands for Linked Data.)

We know that structured data will be a big deal because it helps Google figure out what is going on without having to rely so heavily on crawling and parsing all the content on the web — which has become quite a monumental job with no end in sight. This is why Google has switched to requesting most data-rich assets in the JSON-LD format, including Google Action markup, Web-app manifests, and the files saved by Service Workers.

Last year, before Google I/O, Google made a big point of creating a structured data testing tool that gave specific implementation instructions for a variety of different kinds of markup. The kinds of schema included there, not surprisingly, are specifically good for interactions with Google Home, Google Assistant and Chromecast — things like restaurants, reservations, travel plans, music, TV, movies and recipes.

Content that is well marked up with structured data can be easily parsed and presented on non-traditional devices through voice search and interaction (like with Google Assistant, Google Home, Android Auto). This is also a big deal for non-Google products like Amazon Alexa, Siri, Fitbit (which launched its own OS-specific partner apps) and voice-enabled TV remotes.

The one thing in Google’s structured data documentation that has not gotten due attention is the database or data set markup (i.e., instructions for how to add structured data markup to your database). Databases don’t necessarily have URLs or need websites, and this is core to the theory that the mobile-first index will not require URLs for indexing and that it will rely on schemas and entity understanding.

Let’s look at an example of how markup is creating “entity” understanding. Below, you can see a search result for a specific boot. Rather than showing all the web locations where you might find that boot, Google has aggregated it into a utility that can give users a lot more information directly from the SERP.

The result shows the full name of the boot, as well as what stores have it in stock and at what prices. It also shows the star ratings for the boot and lets me toggle to different sizes and colors. If I click the tabs, I can see more details about the boot and read reviews that have been aggregated from all the places that sell it. Since this information is an aggregation of information from all over the web, it actually does not have a static URL, so Google includes a triangle “share” link so that the aggregation itself can be shared.

This sharing functionality is something that you can expect to see much more of in mobile-first indexing. It is an indication that Google views a topic as an entity and thus has stored, aggregated or assimilated information on the topic as a whole (the entity). Dynamic links are links that Google generates on the fly, for content that it understands, but that does not naturally have a URL.

It is important to remember that Google’s very first (unsuccessful) attempt to encourage app deep-linking used Dynamic Links, as part of Google Now On-Tap. Then, they were used as a unified link that united the same piece of content on the web, in an iOS app and in an Android app. They allowed one link to trigger the right experience on any device, and if the appropriate app was not installed, the link would fall back to the web version of the content. Now, Dynamic Links are still included as an important part of Google’s app indexing platform, Firebase.

In the next example below, you can see how the linked data helps support entity understanding in a search result. The query is for a popular author, so the result shows pictures and a brief biography at the very top. There are only minor differences between the Google Now result and the Google Web result — one has a dynamic share link, and the other offers the ability to “follow” the entity or concept.

In both, the result aggregates information such as quotes and movies attributed to the author, lists influences and links to a Wikipedia page. Below that, Google displays a carousel of his most popular books, with pictures of the cover and the date they came out. Below that, it shows a “People Also Searched For” carousel, which is full of authors who write in the same genre.

We believe Google is using clicks on these bottom two carousels to verify and vet the linked data that it has assimilated about this author. The more clicks a carousel item gets, the more likely it is linked to the topic of the query.

A new way to think of mobile-first indexing

Knowing these trends should help you understand how mobile-first indexing fits into the larger SEO picture. Inclusion of the word “indexing” in Google’s official title for the update is telling. It indicates that this is not just an algorithm update, but an update to the fundamental architecture and organization of the system. Remember, an “index” is just a repository of ordered information that is easy to query or search. Indexes can be created for all different kinds of information and ordered in a variety of ways: alphabetically, numerically, or in Google’s case, historically based on URLs.

Since native apps and progressive web apps don’t require different URLs to show different content, we believe the method of indexing and organizing content has to change. Forcing URLs into those new technologies has proved untenable, so Google needs a new index — and it will be one that prefers “portable” content that lives in the cloud and is well marked up with structured data. It will probably be an “entity index” based on unique “entity concepts” that include domains (with URLs), native app entities and their content, PWA entities and database entities that need no design elements at all.

Use of the phrase “mobile-first” in the name is also interesting. With both the mobile-friendly update and mobile-first indexing, Google repurposes phrases that were previously used to describe design elements — but in both, Google mainly focused on the technological back end that made the design changes possible. For the mobile-friendly update, Google did provide guidelines on how content should look on the page, but based on their testing tool, their main focus was really on the crawlability of dependent files on the site (specifically, the CSS and JavaScript).

The mobile-friendly update was an important precursor to mobile-first indexing because it gave Google what it needed to feed and train its machine learning programs about how they should ingest and interpret JavaScript. As SEOs, we all endured the mobile-friendly update, which preferred sites that qualified as such and awarded them with a mobile-friendly icon when they appeared in search results.

Similarly, the phrase “mobile-first” was originally used to describe a design principle in which responsive design website frameworks were established with the most essential elements of functionality first, and these were meant for mobile devices with the smallest screens. Only later were designers able to add in other, less necessary elements of the design and UX for larger-screened devices that had more room.

It now appears that Google has also co-opted the term “mobile-first” to mean something slightly different, with implications that are much larger than just design. Rather than focusing on mobile devices and screen sizes, Google will put the focus on content accessibility and the cloud and focus much less on the presentation.

This is an important trend because “the cloud” is where Google has been focusing most of their time and innovative energy. Content that is hosted in the cloud, without being formatted specifically for any one device, is exactly what they are after; it is the easiest for them to process with AI and the easiest for them to redisplay on any screen (or read out loud, in voice-only contexts). That is where Google Now and Google Assistant come in.

Google Now was Google’s first attempt at a predictive search engine that anticipated queries before a user even submitted them. It used all the information it knew or could detect about your habits to anticipate information you would want and displayed it in an interface to the left of the home screen on Android phones. It was also available as the Google App on iOS, but it was never as good since they weren’t able to aggregate as many personal habits and preferences from iOS users. Google Now included a voice search capability, but it just translated voice queries into text.

There are minimal differences in most search rankings when you compare regular search in Google.com and a search in Google Now. The primary differences happen when there is a PWA available (like the Weather PWA). There are also some minor variations in the “share” and “follow” functionality, which probably also hint at what to expect in mobile-first indexing. You can see the differences below.

Google Assistant is a bit more sophisticated in that it can sometimes answer simple questions directly rather than just returning a search result. It also uses passive and active signals about a user to ensure that it is giving the most accurate and useful information possible. Google Assistant is the critical element of a Google Home device, which operates primarily with voice but can cast results to connected TVs or phones if visual review is required.

Google Now and Google Assistant are obvious precursors for mobile-first indexing and give us a great deal of insight into what to expect. The two utilities are very similar and may simply be combined for mobile-first indexing. One of the strongest endorsements of this idea is that Google has recently gotten much more aggressive at pushing Android users into the Google Now/Google Assistant world. They moved the query bar from the Google Now interface (one swipe left of the main phone screen) to the standard layout (accessible on all versions of the home screen).

The new search bar just says “Google,” so most users won’t realize that they are accessing a different experience there than in the web-oriented version of Google (google.com).

Google’s most recent blog post about the mobile-first index didn’t really add anything new to the equation, so our best guess is still that the new index will probably also lean heavily on Google’s existing semantic understanding of the web (which is based on Knowledge Graph and its historical incorporation and build-up of Freebase). It will also use cards and AI, like we are used to seeing in Google Now. This concept is backed up by Google’s retirement of the term “rich snippets” and the launch of the new Rich Results Testing Tool on December 19.

The image below shows the different methods Google is using to inform the Google Assistant about an individual user’s preferences, which will help further personalize individual search results. But this data could also be aggregated — in a “Big Data” way — to determine larger patterns, needs and search trends so that it can adapt more quickly.

On the left, you can see a Google Cloud Search, which draws together information about assets on all of my devices that are logged into a Google Account. This includes emails, calendar entries, Drive documents, photos, SMS and apps. Though this has not been the focus of any Google marketing, it is part of Google’s Business GSuite package, which is turned on by default for all GSuite users.

On the right, you can see the Google My Activity tracker. This is another feature that is turned on by default. It is similar to the Cloud Search function, but instead of just being a searchable database, it organizes the information in chronological order. It breaks out my daily activity on a timeline and a map. The data includes the amount of time I spent walking and driving. It also shows the businesses that I visited and the times I was there. It also places pictures that I took on the timeline and associates them with the locations where the pictures were taken.

Elements like this are meant to help Google Assistant have a greater understanding of personal context so that it can respond when surfacing search results, either to an explicit search or to an anticipated want or need (e.g., Google Now).

In the long run, Google Assistant may be the new entry to Google search on all devices, forcing people to log in so that their state and history can be maintained across different devices, and so that a personal history and index can be developed and built out for each user. The beginning of this personal history index is already in Google Now for Android users. It uses active and passive machine learning to track and compile all of a user’s cross-device activity in Google Cloud, then translates that information into predicted needs in Google Now.

Google has already begun promoting a “one-click register and form “complete” and “one-click sign-in” that works and transfers credentials across different devices. This functionality is all currently made possible by Google’s Credential Management API, which means that it relies on a cloud-hosted shared “state” managed by coordination of local Service Workers that pass state changes to the cloud-hosted Google Account. If and when this takes off, it will be a huge boon to engagement and e-commerce conversion because it eliminates the main friction.

Conclusion

From a search prospective, data that lives in one state, regardless of the device, is great — but assimilating all the different types of potential search results into an index is hard. The new mobile-first index will mix together websites with apps, PWAs and other data sets that don’t all have URLs, so this is where structured data markup will come in.

Just as advertising systems profile individual users with device fingerprints, Google will have to organize the new index with similar unique identifiers, which will include web URLs and app URIs. But, for content that does not have an existing unique identifier, like a page deep within a PWA experience or an asset in a database, Google will allow “Dynamic Links” to stand in as their unique identifier so that they can be indexed.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

From algo to aggro: How SEOs really feel about Google algorithm updates

As SEOs working in the weeds with our clients each day, it can sometimes be hard to truly see how major Google algorithm updates affect our industry as a whole. Sure, we can perform test after test to see how our clients are affected, but what about the poor account manager or technical SEO director who has to put in the extra work and placate potentially panicked and frustrated clients? How are they personally affected?

BrightLocal (my employer) anonymously polled 650 SEO professionals recently on this very subject, asking them a host of questions about how algorithm updates impact their workload, their client relationships and their job satisfaction. Below, I’ll go over some of the startling results from our survey, “The Human Impact of Google Algorithm Updates.”

Google update? What Google update?

First, and almost most alarmingly, 36 percent of respondents couldn’t say whether their business or their clients’ businesses have ever been impacted by a Google algorithm update. This should come as a shock — although this isn’t necessarily Day 1 SEO Stuff, it’s certainly Week 1 SEO Stuff.

The high percentage shown here suggests that either Google needs to better communicate the potential effects of an algorithm change (we can dream, right?) and/or SEOs and in-house marketers need to do more to stay on top of updates and investigate whether their clients have been affected by them.

‘And how does that make you feel?’

Of the significant 44 percent who said their business or their clients’ had been affected by algorithm changes, 26 percent say they struggle to know how to react, and 25 percent get stressed when updates happen. (Note: For this question, respondents were able to select multiple answers.) However, on the flip side, an encouraging 58 percent either don’t get worried about updates or are actually excited by the challenge.

It’s perfectly natural for different types of people at different levels of experience to have differing reactions to potentially stressful situations, but 26 percent of respondents say they don’t even know how to react. This means that all the content you put out immediately after a Google update — whether to cash in on suddenly popular “what just happened to the Google algorithm” keywords or to genuinely help SEOs serve their clients better (we’re hoping it’s the latter) — isn’t reaching everyone.

At this point in the Google updates timeline, we should all, as content creators and content readers, be better versed in learning how to react after a Google update.

The penultimate straw

For many, it seems, the camel’s back can very nearly be broken by a surprise Google update. Just over a quarter of respondents said they’d considered leaving the SEO industry because of algorithm updates but ultimately decided to stick around.

It’s worth taking a step back next time an update hits. Take a look around your agency — are your SEO staff or colleagues ready to break? It takes strong leadership and a solid bedrock of skills for an SEO agency to bounce back from a big update, so make sure your best SEOs are made of the right stuff to prepare them for the worst — and, as we’ll see now, it gets bad.

How to lose clients and alienate Google

Nearly a third of respondents who said that Google updates had had an effect on business actually lost clients as a result.

But it’s not all bad news. Twenty-six percent won clients, 23 percent saw the opportunity to grow their work with existing clients, and 29 percent of respondents noticed no change after the update. So there’s quite a lot of positivity to be found here, especially considering respondents were able to choose multiple answers (which could mean that respondents both won and lost clients because of Google updates).

What this ultimately means is that what happens after a Google update is up to you. You can’t point at the above chart and say, “Well, everyone loses clients after a Google update,” because they don’t. The range of responses shows just how much is at stake when an update hits, but it also shows the huge opportunities available to those agencies that communicate with their existing clients quickly and knowledgeably, carefully managing expectations along the way, while also keeping their eye out for businesses who have taken a beating in rankings/traffic and are looking for help.

The client-agency relationship

One final point the survey touched on was the client-agency relationship and how it can be affected by Google updates. A majority agreed that updates make clients more dependent on agencies. (Who knew it? It turns out that every time Google released an algorithm update, they were doing SEOs a favor all along!)

However, with that extra dependency comes extra scrutiny, as seen by the 31 percent of respondents who feel that Google updates lead to clients distrusting agencies. The wisest SEOs in this particular situation are the ones going into client update meetings with clear, transparent overviews of what the client’s money or their time is being spent on, and simplified (but not necessarily simple) explanations of the ramifications of the Google update.

And for the 28 percent who said that Google updates make clients consider changing agency? Well, I hope you do better next time!

What is the first thing you do when an algorithm update happens?

Before I leave you to stew on all that data and start pre-packing your next Google Update Emergency Go-Bag, here are some of the qualitative responses we received to one particular question in the survey, “What is the first thing you do when an algorithm update happens?” May these serve to remind you that whatever happens, no SEO is alone:

The data-divers

“Run ranking reports on all clients.”“Review all the sites that are affected and determine what they have in common. That gives me a starting point as to what has changed.”“Determine which high-volume pages are most impacted, then review existing SEO to try to uncover anything that might be the cause of the traffic from an on-page or technical SEO perspective.”

The researchers

“Read the posts on it to find out what happened and how to react.”“Figure out how I need to change my strategy.”“The first thing I do is research to find out what has been impacted. Next, I inform my team of what to expect from incoming client calls. Following that, I write an article for our blog to include our clients in on the updates.”“Read, read, read everything I can get my hands on.”“Read and study. Then work to fix it.”“Check forums/respected sites to find out as much information as possible.”“Get educated.”“Read as much as I can on what happened/what was affected, then find what it did to my websites/keyword rankings, then rebuild and re-conquer.”“Start reading news releases and blogs from highly respected SEO professionals to try to figure out the changes.”

The vice users

“Grab an adult beverage (or two).”“Drink coffee.”“Smoke a cigarette.”“Go for a few beers.”“Take a Xanax.”

The waiters

“Wait a few weeks while watching the SERPs.”“Nothing, I wait for the algorithm to normalize. I take a look at websites that drop, and websites that increase in rankings. I then compare and contrast my clients’ sites to those. Once I have better understanding of how the algorithm affects sites, I will adjust the strategy.”“Just ignore it for a couple weeks then make adjustments.”

The communicators

“Check for confirmation of update. Assess impact. Communicate with affected clients.”“Share the news with my team and engage them in coming up with a plan.”

 The extremes

“Prepare for the s***-storm ahead.”“Freak out.”“Cry.”

The one person who was actually positive about it

“Celebrate the new consulting opportunities that will result.”

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

Embrace a product manager mindset to improve 2018 SEO KPIs

For the first half of my 20-year career, I focused primarily on technical, enterprise SEO for brands with dozens of domains and millions of pages. For the second half, I’ve been on the product side of a software-as-a-service platform designed to help large multilocation brands achieve digital success.

Living and breathing product development has been helpful in reshaping how I prioritize and execute in all areas of my life, SEO consulting included. To that end, I believe it would be helpful for SEO professionals to think more like good product managers.

Product managers and SEO experts actually have quite a lot in common. They both:

operate on the front lines of a company’s brand.create measurable outcomes.manage multiple variables: product managers need to decide what features and product updates to prioritize, and SEO experts need to prioritize hundreds of ranking factors.sometimes struggle to measure and communicate their impact to their internal clients.

All of the above issues are interrelated. Because product managers and SEO professionals operate on the front lines, they are under the microscope, needing to prove their value constantly. The good news is that both create measurable outcomes. The bad news is that because they manage several variables, product managers and SEO professionals sometimes get lost in the weeds, placing too much importance on metrics that provide little value to their business.

Greg Gifford underscored the challenge for SEOs in a recent Search Engine Land column when he wrote about the problem of marketers creating SEO reports that don’t measure valuable outcomes. Too often, monthly reports get mired in reporting SEO data that means a lot to an SEO practitioner but nothing to anyone in charge of creating customers and building a brand. The creation of irrelevant reports mirrors a misguided obsession with measuring every single ranking factor, regardless of how influential each ranking factor really is to a business.

Tasks like adding H3 tags, updating meta descriptions because they were nine characters over the recommended length or refining your fully indexed site’s sitemap.xml file might provide some incremental value to your SEO. But just because you can, should you really place a high priority on that action, especially if your resources and budget are limited?

As an antidote to obsessing over details that have little impact, I suggest embracing the ways that product managers such as Shopify Director of Product Brandon Chu approach their roles. Not long ago, Chu discussed the role of the “MVPM,” or minimum viable product manager. He cited a few points that really stand out.

First, the job of a product manager is not to deliver a perfect outcome. Obsession with perfection is distracting. An obsession with perfection mires a product manager in details that provide, at best, an incremental value relative to the effort required to manage them.

Second, product managers need to focus on the activities that provide measurable impact to a company’s most important goals. He wrote:

When your team is debating the highest leverage thing you could build next, it’s important that you can develop a model of how the product will move the dial on those metrics.

An SEO who applies Chu’s thinking might ask:

What are your business’s most important objectives for 2018?Of all the things you could do on a given day to improve your site’s SEO, which ones are going support those objectives most efficiently?Which activities are least effective relative to the effort required to manage them?

Once you’ve used the above questions to vet your most essential SEO actions, then:

Gain consensus with your stakeholders that you’ll place a higher priority on those activities.Stay disciplined and avoid getting distracted by managing outcomes that have diminished value.Focus your ROI reporting on the high-impact outcomes you agreed upon with your stakeholders.

By focusing on the most important outcomes and reporting them, you will become more valuable to your organization and improve the value of SEO as a profession. Here’s to a successful 2018!

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

Unique international trends require a unique marketing approach

It’s that time of the year! That time of year when we all agonizingly optimize for holiday shopping behavior, do our best to navigate complicated family dynamics and read countless end-of-year lists.

SEL reporter Amy Gesenhues recently summarized the annual release of Google’s “Year in Search” for 2017, and there were some interesting takeaways. (Not the least of which was that the “Malika Haqq and Ronnie Magro” query didn’t make the Top 10 Searches Overall list — admittedly, I have no idea who those people are, but their names sure are fun to say!)

Lists of this nature are intended to be simple, fun, and (to be candid) easy press hits. But there’s actually an important and applicable lesson to be distilled here, too. These “Year in Search” lists are representative of the searching populace; the lists communicate the interests of the collective audience. There certainly was no shortage of compelling stories in 2017, but the subjects included in Gesenhues’s piece are what drove the most engagement in this country.

Of course, as digital marketers, we’re obsessed with targeting and often dismiss any characteristics of the “collective audience” as irrelevant to our sophisticated efforts. But in fact, the clear message that this peek-into-the-collective communicates is the value of targeting.

Yandex, Russia’s leading search engine (and my employer), recently released its own version of the “Year in Search” — and there is very little overlap with Google’s. This may not be shocking to you, but if it’s common knowledge that the trends in one market may be vastly different than those in another, then why do so many advertisers apply the same approach across markets?

More and more American companies are expanding their target audiences to incorporate the international consumer. Of course, there are more potential customers outside of the US than within, so the allure is understandable. But each international market is unique, and your marketing strategies need to reflect the differences.

Below is Yandex’s 2017 Year in Search. Don’t forget to compare with Google’s list here!

Events

    St. Petersburg metro terrorist attackBlue Whale Game and social network death groups“Matilda” film scandalIntroduction of fines for vehicles lacking a studded-tire signAnti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) activitiesCoxsackievirus in TurkeySevere storm in MoscowRelics of St. Nicholas in MoscowRohingya persecution in MyanmarOpening of Zaryadye Park in Moscow

Men

    Dima BilanAndrey MalakhovArmen DzhigarkhanyanКirill SerebrennikovFace (Ivan Dryomin)Anatoliy PashininEmmanuel MacronYuri DudVladimir KuzminDmitry Borisov

Women

    Maria MaksakovaYuliya SamoylovaDiana ShuryginaDana BorisovaAnastasia VolochkovaAnastasia ShubskayaRavshana KurkovaNatalia ShkulevaTatiana TarasovaBrigitte Macron

Things and Phenomena

    CryptocurrencyFidget SpinneriPhone XSamsung Galaxy S8iPhone 8Yandex’s AI assistant AliceRap battlesUpdated Nokia 3310BlockchainNew 200 and 2,000 rouble notes

Sports

    Ice hockey World ChampionshipConfederations CupRussian Football ChampionshipMayweather vs. McGregor fightKontinental Hockey League ChampionshipChampions LeagueEmelianenko vs. Mitrione fightWorld Cup 2018Russia-Spain matchRussia-Portugal match

Films

    ItDespicable Me 3Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2VikingPirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No TalesThe Last WarriorThe Fate of the FuriousTransformers: The Last KnightAttractionSpider-Man: Homecoming

Foreign TV Series

    Game of ThronesGrechankaSherlockRiverdaleThe Walking DeadSupernaturalSkamTabooThe FlashTwin Peaks

Memes

    Eshkere (“Esketit”)Zhdun (“The one who waits”)Eto fiasko, bratan (“This is a fiasco, bro”)Cevapcici Na donyshke (“Just a little”) Easy-easy, real talk, think about itTak, blyat (“What the!!!”)HypeVinishko-tyan (term used for a hipster-like youth subculture)Ave Maria! Deus Vult!

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

The enterprise business of SEO: Communicating to the C-suite

Today, I want to focus on and provide insights into a common SEO challenge that is vitally important to personal and professional success: how SEOs can communicate the performance of the organic channel more effectively across their organization and in the boardroom. As competition for digital marketing budgets intensifies in 2018, it is essential that success and performance is recognized and rewarded.

As a CEO with a background in organic search, I am often asked questions like:

“What key metrics matter to the CEO?”“How best do I talk to my CMO and other members of the C-suite?”“When and how should I communicate SEO performance across the organization?”“What do I need to do to accelerate and develop my career?”

Here, I hope to share some insights and tips that will help you do just that.

SEO in the boardroom: Challenges and opportunities

Conversations at the C-level often center around the transformation of the business. Companies of every size across every industry face the constant challenges of innovating for the future and meeting the demands of tomorrow’s customers. Understanding the needs of the customer is vital for the long-term success of every business.

The organic channel is perfect for staying ahead of market trends, determining competitive pressures, identifying market opportunities and gleaning an overall better understanding of the customer.

C-suite conversations are also highly focused on performance. However, it is not about driving performance at all costs; instead, it is about driving performance in the most efficient way possible with the best gross margin possible.

When it comes to the organic channel and SEO, C-level executives appreciate the ROI of the organic channel. Organic search drives over 51 percent of traffic to websites — a percentage which has held constant for nearly four years, according to our data. This is a great starting point when building conversations with C-level executives.

The challenge that many SEOs have is twofold: getting visibility and getting buy-in through clear reporting and attribution. And you cannot get one without having the other.

Understanding the C-suite and key business metrics the matter

It is important to remember that in any organization, and across most C-suites, not every person has the same level of digital marketing acumen. Some are more technically proficient, while others may have a bias toward other disciplines that span across new business, customer success, PR, HR or recruiting. However, all C-suite members work toward common boardroom goals: results, business performance and organizational impact.

When it comes to organic search, measures of one campaign’s success do not always translate directly into what members of the C-suite view as success. To bridge this gap in communication, you should begin by establishing the importance of SEO to others in your organization. You can achieve this by identifying direct sales and revenue attributed to SEO, or you could show how organic is powering and promoting other digital marketing channels.

Your goal here is to establish that:

good SEO drives revenue.SEO is good for brand awareness and visibility.SEO helps marketers understand marketing opportunities and customer demands — search is the voice of the online customer.SEO drives the content that fuels other marketing channels and does so more efficiently.SEO can help develop messaging, define personas, map customer journeys and drive deeper engagements with your audience across all digital channels.

We know that SEO is all about targeting personas. So, when communicating with the C-suite, it’s good to understand their personas, too. This is something that many SEOs forget, but it is the most important thing they can do when looking to improve C-suite communications.

Every organization has different hierarchical structures and titles. For illustrative purposes, below are a few examples based on a generic enterprise C-level structure.

CEO

The CEO is always interested in overall performance. He or she wants to understand the contribution SEO is making to the top line of the business and whether the contributions are done in an efficient way. The CEO can make only a limited number of investments to grow the business, and they need to know that their investment in SEO will pay off. The CEO wants to see the sales numbers and see how the company stacks up against their competition.

Metrics that matter: ROI, sales, market share and Share of Voice

CMO

The CMO is interested in the overall demand generation portfolio. Organic search is particularly interesting because of its sheer size. Every CMO wants to grow traffic and revenue from organic search — and they want to know how well it converts and the role it plays (assists) alongside other marketing channels such as demand generation, event strategy, industry influencers, social and PR.

Metrics that matter: conversion rates, acquisition costs, ROI compared to other channels

CFO

The CFO, like the CEO, is interested in overall performance. However, the CFO will also be interested in budgeting and forecasting; he or she will want to determine where new investments can be made and where best to allocate SEO budgets and technology spend for the coming year.

Metrics that matter: operational costs and budget efficiency, sale forecasts and ROI

COO

The Chief Operating Officer will be interested in how SEO contributes to other aspects of the business such as recruitment, branding, sales, retention and upsells. In some businesses, the COO may also be interested in associated costs across the business (such as design) and how SEO structures, people and processes are integrated across the organization.

Metrics that matter: operational costs, compliance, contribution to cross-functional goals and objectives

Collectively, the C-suite wants to know:

the size of the competition.the value of the market.their Share of Voice in the market.the maximum possible return vs. the actual return.

Mastering communication

To evangelize and elevate the work you do in SEO, remember who you are talking to, and remember to speak their language. For example, a CMO is less interested in hearing about rank but far more interested in revenue. That may bother those of us that have worked in the SEO field for a long time, but it is not a negative — it’s an opportunity to tie your hard work to specific metrics that matter most to your boss.

CEOs are less interested in seeing keyword ranking changes and more interested in seeing share of voice, revenue from organic campaigns and your success within the competitive landscape. This offers you the chance to elevate SEO and the importance of your own role. Language is key to communication.

If you’re trying to persuade people to do something, or buy something, it seems to me you should use their language, the language they use every day, the language in which they think.

David Ogilvy

Framing what you say and what it means to the C-suite

SEO LanguageC-suite LanguageSEOThe organic channelAlgorithm updateMarket trends and risk analysisKeywordsTopics that customers are searching forRank and rank changeWhere content is performingOptimizingAttracting and converting customers onlineSERP CTRShare of Voice for an online search query

In addition, use reports and visuals that easily and clearly communicate your progress and the direct benefit to the company.

Elevate SEO by emulating Sales

SEOs have a history of making SEO esoteric and exotic, implying that there is a bit of dark magic involved. That serves neither the SEO nor the executive audience.

Take the opposite approach and emulate what Sales does:

    Build a forecast and commit to a plan. Yes, this will put more pressure on the SEO team, but it will also engage the executives, most of whom pay little attention to programs not formatted as a plan tracked with a number. Welcome quota and accountability for the plan.Increase transparency on progress. SEO usually takes longer than paid channels or even sales to bring in results, but include progress reporting at least monthly in the standard management report vehicles. Use numbers and graphs, just like Sales does.Focus on the big rocks. Sales would not share the tactical minutiae of every deal with management — and SEOs should not, either. They identify repeatable patterns and tell the executives how they will scale it out to other reps and deals.

Conclusion

Every day, I am inspired by the great work that the SEO community is doing. Keep elevating your success by building appropriate dashboards and presentations that tie SEO strategy and tactics to business objectives. This will directly help you position and promote your success. Continually engage with C-level executives, and help them understand the value of SEO and the role it is playing in company growth.

Use data, AI and deep learning to share powerful insights, tell content-rich stories and develop new skill sets that help you understand and adapt to the wider digital and marketing technology landscape.

I would highly recommend that, in 2018, you invest time in cultivating valuable meeting room traits, including confident speaking skills and effective storytelling abilities. This will allow you to engage with the leaders of your organization and help them understand the value of what you and the organic search channels must offer.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

4 things SEO professionals should do consistently

As SEO professionals, we’re expected to have a solid understanding of our trade and to be able to communicate our knowledge clearly and professionally with our clients. But I think our expectations should be set a bit higher, similar to the fiduciary responsibility that certain financial professionals are held to. This would go a long way in further improving an already amazing industry, helping us to build greater trust while better serving our clients.

Never intentionally put clients at risk

Marketing requires us to constantly evaluate risk vs. reward, and that’s especially true when it comes to search engine optimization because algorithms are constantly changing. Some of the tactics that would have been acceptable just a few years ago could get a website penalized today.

But it goes beyond algorithms changing.

I’m a proponent of white-hat SEO because it creates a sustainable foundation for success, rather than the churn-and-burn approach that is required with black-hat SEO. But every now and then, clients will insist on tactics that will eventually hurt them. In some cases, this may be because they have little to lose and much to gain; in other cases, it may be because they are simply misinformed. Either way, it’s our job as professionals to never intentionally put our clients at risk through our actions, as well as help educate them so that they don’t do something stupid on their own.

Much like the medical profession and their Hippocratic Oath, our first obligation as SEO professionals is to do no harm to our clients’ websites.

Work with absolute transparency in all matters

I was recently speaking with a potential client who was unhappy with the results from the SEO company he was working with. It didn’t take long to figure out why. When I asked what they had done for his campaign, he couldn’t answer — because they told him their techniques were proprietary.

Every truly experienced, professional SEO practitioner knows that there is no such thing as “proprietary SEO techniques” because the days of tricking the search engines are dead and gone. Modern SEO consists mostly of three components:

Technical SEO (on-site SEO).Original, high-quality content.Editorial links from relevant websites.

There are no secrets, silver bullets or magic spells, and anyone who claims otherwise is simply a con artist.

We are performing work for clients that will have a long-lasting impact on their website, so it’s their right to know exactly what we’re doing on their behalf.

Now, some people will say, “But Jeremy, if I tell them exactly what I’m doing, they might try to do it themselves!” If you fear that, then you’re simply not providing enough value in the relationship.

Clients come to us for several reasons. One is that we can see and understand things that our clients can’t. Another reason is our ability to get certain things done.

Look, I want my clients to know exactly what goes into a proper SEO campaign because once they do, they realize that they don’t have the time to do it themselves — especially when you consider that it’s not enough to simply check a box. Tasks like content development and link building require a lot of work and have to be executed with a high level of quality. Most clients are already too busy running their own business to write content or send link outreach emails, and that’s exactly why they come to us.

Speaking of transparency…

Ensure that the client owns their properties, content and data

About a year ago, a small web design agency here in Tampa closed down with little notice, and because of a mutual contact, the former owner reached out to me to help migrate their clients to their own servers.

In doing so, I stumbled upon a huge problem that I often see in our industry, and that is digital marketing agencies and web designers setting up digital assets under their own accounts rather than their clients’. Such assets include, but are not limited to:

domain registrationshosting accountsGoogle AnalyticsGoogle Search Console / Bing Webmaster Toolssocial media profilesPPC accounts

This poses a huge risk for our clients. Had this particular web designer gone out of business and simply disappeared, like many do, then his clients — dozens of small businesses — would have been forced to start their digital brands over from scratch. Some may have even been forced out of business as a result. This is a completely unacceptable practice.

Any accounts you set up for your client should be set up in their name, and they should always have full access. You can then add additional users for your team or simply log in with their credentials.

Work with specialists when necessary

One of the hallmarks of a true professional is knowing when something is outside of their expertise. When you encounter this scenario, it’s important to set ego aside and seek the assistance of a more qualified specialist.

No one is above this — in fact, I often see some of the brightest minds in our industry asking for advice from other experts who possess a different specialization.

The fact of the matter is that many of the most proficient SEO practitioners typically focus on a particular aspect of search, like Alan Bleiweiss does with forensic audits, or like Cindy Krum does with mobile SEO. By its nature, specialization in one area means weakness in other areas — and that’s OK because there are plenty of top-notch professionals in our industry we can lean on for their specific knowledge.

Obviously, that means added costs for our client in these cases, but it’s our job to convince them of the necessity in order to produce the best results possible with the least risk possible.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

The upcoming mobile app Monday: Be prepared

The season is upon us: mobile download season. Christmas falls on Monday, and if history holds true, Christmas and the day after will be the top mobile app download days of the year. With less than a week left, your app store optimization (ASO) activities should be in full swing.

Becky Peterson heads up our app store optimization at Walgreens. Becky was looking to be on the nice list, so she put together some optimization tips for new and existing apps to help you maximize the download season.

Optimization essentials

Title: Choose a title for your app that is creative but concise. If appropriate, take advantage of the character limit to include relevant keywords that describe your app’s core functionality. (Just don’t overdo it — you don’t want to appear spammy!)Icon: Create an eye-catching icon that is clean and easily recognizable. A recognizable icon can make the difference when customers are searching specifically for your app.Keywords & description: Conduct keyword research to determine the most valuable and relevant terms for your app. Utilize the keyword field in iTunes Connect, and use your keywords throughout your description and in your creative assets.Video: Create a preview video (or three for iOS!) that walks through your core features and provides visitors an overview of how to use your app. On iOS 11, your previews will autoplay in search results and on your store page; in Google Play, they will underlay the Feature Graphic. Create videos that are engaging. Test, test, test to determine which video version generates optimal downloads prior to the top download days.Screen shots: Create clean and visually appealing screen shots that capture the essence of your app and encourage visitors to continue scrolling through the gallery.

Additional tips

Take full advantage of free app store intelligence platforms, such as App Annie or Sensor Tower, or invest in an app store analytics platform that will provide you with keyword ranking, competitors, Top Chart and download data.If applicable, seasonalize or incentivize your store listing! Use your description to highlight how your app is seasonally relevant and provide offers (i.e., shopping deals, products and more), and update your creative assets to showcase a holiday theme.Respond to your app reviews. Demonstrate to your users that you appreciate their feedback and are constantly working to improve your app. Some reviewers may even choose to update their original review simply because you responded in a considerate manner. Prospective users are more inclined to download an app when it is clear the app owners take feedback seriously.

Capitalizing on the top download days of the year can be the difference between an average app and a top download. Keep your content fresh, do not over-optimize, and remember that the goal is to assist customers in finding the right app for the right purpose. Put in the effort, set download goals, and allocate plenty of time to respond to the flurry of reviews that occur soon after installation and use.

Remember to document your lessons learned once the season is over. Download season will be back before you know it, and those valuable lessons can be the difference-maker next year.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

Optimizing for Hanukkah: Sometimes it’s still strings, not things

My wife came to me with a problem. She wanted festive, whimsical, and potentially matching Hanukkah pajamas. But there weren’t enough options coming up in Google under one spelling of the holiday’s name, so she told me she was systematically going through all spellings to compile her list of shopping items.

I was pretty surprised by this — I had expected Google to be smart enough to recognize that these were alternative spellings of the same thing, especially post-Hummingbird. Clearly, this was not the case.

Some background for those who don’t know: Hanukkah is actually a transliterated word from Hebrew. Since Hebrew has its own alphabet, there are numerous spellings that one can use to reference it: Hanukkah, Chanukah, and Channukah are all acceptable spellings of the same holiday.

So, when someone searches for “Hanukkah pajamas” or “Chanukah pajamas,” Google really should be smart enough to understand that they are different spellings of the same concept and provide nearly identical results. But Google does not! I imagine this happens for other holidays and names from other cultures, and I’d be curious to know if other readers experience the same problem with those.

Why am I surprised that Google is returning different results for different spellings? Well, with the introduction of the Knowledge Graph (and Hummingbird), Google signaled a change for SEO. More than ever before, we could start thinking about search queries not merely as keyword strings, but as interrelated real-world concepts.

What do I mean by this?

When someone searches for “Abraham Lincoln,” they’re more than likely searching for the entity representing the 16th president of the United States, rather than the appearance of the words “Abraham” and “Lincoln,” or their uncle, also named Abraham Lincoln. And if they search for “Lincoln party,” Google knows we’re likely discussing political parties, rather than parties in the town of Lincoln, Mass., because this is a concept in close association with the historical entity Abraham Lincoln.

Similarly, Google is certainly capable of understanding that when we use the keyword Hanukkah, it is in reference to the holiday entity and that the various spellings are also referring to the same entity. Despite different spellings, the different searches actually mean the same thing. But alas, as demonstrated by my wife’s need to run a different search for each spelling of the holiday in order to discover all of her Hanukkah pajama options, Google wasn’t doing the best job.

So, how widespread is the Chanukah/Hanukkah/Chanukkah search problem? Here are a couple of search results for Chanukah items:

As you can see from the first screen shot, some big box retailers like Target, Macy’s and JCPenney rank on page one of Google. In screen shot two, however, they are largely absent — and sites like PajamaGram and Etsy are dominating the different spelling’s SERP.

This means that stores targeting the already small demographic of Hanukkah shoppers are actually reducing the number of potential customers by only using one spelling on their page. (Indeed, according to my keyword tool of choice, although “Hanukkah” has the highest search volume of all variants at 301,100 global monthly searches, all other spellings combined still make up a sizeable 55,500 searches — meaning that retailers optimizing for both terms could be seeing 18 percent more traffic.)

Investigating spelling variations and observations

Since I’m an ever-curious person, I wanted to investigate this phenomenon a little further.

I built a small, simple tool to show how similar the search engine results pages (SERP) for two different queries are by examining which listings appear in both SERPs. If we look at five common spellings of Hanukkah, we see the following:

Keyword 1Keyword 2SERP SimilarityChannukahChanukah90.00%ChannukahHannukah20.00%ChannukahHannukkah20.00%ChannukahHanukkah30.00%ChanukahHannukah20.00%ChanukahHannukkah20.00%ChanukahHanukkah30.00%HannukahHannukkah90.00%HannukahHanukkah80.00%HannukkahHanukkah80.00%

The tool shows something quite interesting here: Not only are the results different, but depending on spelling, the results may only be 20 percent identical, meaning eight out of 10 of the listings on page one are completely different.

I then became curious about why the terms weren’t canonicalized to each other, so I looked at Wikidata, one of the primary data sources that Google uses for its Knowledge Graph. As it turns out, there is an entity with all of the variants accounted for:

I then checked the Google Knowledge Graph Search API, and it became very clear that Google may be confused:

KeywordresultScore@idnameDescription@typeChannukah8.081924kg:/m/0vpq52Channukah LoveSong by Ju-Tang[MusicRecording, Thing]Chanukah16.334606kg:/m/06xmqp_A Rugrats Chanukah?[Thing]Hannukah11.404715kg:/m/0zvjvwtHannukahSong by Lorna[MusicRecording, Thing]Hannukkah11.599854kg:/m/06vrjy9HannukkahBook by Jennifer Blizin Gillis[Book, Thing]Hanukkah21.56493kg:/m/02873zHanukkah HarryFictional character[Thing]

The resultScore values — which, according to the API documentation, indicate “how well the entity matched the request constraints” — are very low. In this case, the entity wasn’t very well matched. This would be consistent with the varying results if it weren’t for the fact that a Knowledge Graph is being returned for all of the spelling variants with the Freebase ID /m/022w4 — different from what is returned from the Knowledge Graph API. So, in this case, it seems that the API may not be a reliable means of assessing the problem. Let’s move on to some other observations.

It is interesting to note was that when searching for Channukah, Google pushed users to Chanukah results. When searching Hannukah and Hannukkah, Google pushed users to Hanukkah results. So, Google does seem to group Hanukkah spellings together based on whether they start with an “H” or a “Ch.”

Chanukah, Hannukah, and Hanukkah were also the only variations that received the special treatment of the Hanukkah menorah graphic:

What a retailer selling Hanukkah products should do

Clearly, if we want full coverage of terms (and my wife to find your Hanukkah pajamas), we cannot rely on just optimizing for the highest search volume variation of the keyword, as Google doesn’t seem to view all variants as entirely the same. Your best bet is to include the actual string for each spelling variant somewhere on the page, rather than relying on Google to understand them as variations of the same thing.

If you’re a smaller player, it may make sense to prioritize optimizations toward one of the less popular spelling variants, as the organic competition may not be as significant. (Of course, this does not bar you from using spelling variants in addition to that for the potential of winning for multiple spellings.)

At a bare minimum, you may opt to include a spelling beginning with H- and Ch- and hope that Google will direct users to the same SERP in most cases.

Future experiment

I started an experiment to see whether the inclusion of structured data with sameAs properties may be a potential avenue for getting Google to understand a single spelling as an entity, eliminating the need to include different spelling variations. As of now, it’s a little too early to know the results of the test, and they are inconclusive, but I look forward to sharing those results in the future.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

SEO in 2018: Optimizing for voice search

Google Webmaster Trends Analyst John Mueller recently asked for feedback on why webmasters are looking for Google to separate voice search queries in Search Console. If you, like me, want to see voice searches in Google Search Console, definitely submit your feedback on Twitter as John requested.

I hear folks asking about voice search data in Search Console often. Can you elaborate on what you want to see there? What's an example of such a query that would be useful? pic.twitter.com/WOqS7aH4tP

— John ☆.o(≧▽≦)o.☆ (@JohnMu) December 7, 2017

I lived through the very beginnings of mobile SEO, where many people thought mobile search behavior would be completely different from desktop search behavior only to find that much of it is the same. So I see why Mueller and others don’t necessarily understand why Search Console users would want to see voice queries separately. Some queries are the same whether they’re typed into a computer at a desktop or spoken across the room to a Google Home.

That being said, there are some very good reasons to want voice search data. Optimizing for voice search requires some slightly different tactics from those for traditional SEO, and having insight into these queries could help you provide a better experience for those searching by voice.

Not convinced you should care about voice search? Here are three reasons I think you should:

1. More visibility on featured snippets

One of the interesting things about Google Home is that when it answers a question with information from the web, it will cite the source of the information by saying the website’s name, and it will often send a link to the searcher’s Google Home app.

Currently, Google Home and Google Assistant read snippets from sites that are ranked in “position zero” and have been granted a featured snippet. This is why more people than ever are talking about how to optimize for featured snippets. If you look at the articles published on the topic (according to what Google has indexed), you’ll see that the number of articles about how to optimize for featured snippets has grown 178 percent in the past year:

Understanding voice search queries could help us better understand the types of queries that surface featured snippets. As marketers, we could then devote time and resources to providing the best answer for the most common featured snippets in hopes of getting promoted to position zero.

This helps marketers drive credibility to their brand when Google reads their best answer to the searcher, potentially driving traffic to the site from the Google Home app.

And this helps Google because they benefit when featured snippets provide good answers and the searcher is satisfied with the Google Home results. The better the service, the more consumers will use it — and potentially buy more Google Home units or Android phones because they think the service is worthwhile.

If bad featured snippets are found because no one is trying to optimize for those queries, or no featured snippets are found and the Google Home unit must apologize for not being able to help with that query yet, Google potentially loses market share to Amazon in the smart speaker race and Apple in the personal assistant race.

So this one is a win-win, Google. You need more great responses competing for position zero, and we want to help. But first, we need to know what types of queries commonly trigger featured snippets from voice search, and that’s why we need this data in Search Console today.

2. Better way to meet consumer demand and query intent based on context

We saw two major things happen in the early days of mobile SEO when we compared desktop and mobile queries:

    Searchers often used the same keywords in mobile search that they did in desktop search; however, certain keywords were used much more often on mobile search than desktop search (and vice versa).Whole new categories of queries emerged as searchers realized that GPS and other features of mobile search could allow them to use queries that just didn’t work in desktop search.

An example of the first point is a query like “store hours,” which peaks in volume when shoppers are headed to stores:

An example of the second is “near me” queries, which have grown dramatically with mobile search and mostly occur on mobile phones:

The mode of search therefore changes search behavior as searchers understand what types of searches work well on mobile but not on desktop.

Consider this in the context of voice search. There are certain types of queries that only work on Google Home and Google Assistant. “Tell me about my day” is one. We can guess some of the others, but if we had voice search data labeled, we wouldn’t have to.

How would this be useful to marketers and site owners? Well, it’s hard to say exactly without looking at the data, but consider the context in which someone might use voice search: driving to the mall to get a present for the holidays or asking Google Home if a store down the street is still open. Does the searcher still say, “Holiday Hut store hours?” Or do they say something like, “OK Google, give me the store hours for the Holiday hut at the local mall?” Or even, “How late is Holiday Hut open?”

Google should consider all these queries synonymous in this case, but in some cases, there could be significant differences between voice search behavior and typed search behavior that will affect how a site owner optimizes a page.

Google has told us that voice searches are different, in that they’re 30 times more likely to be action queries than typed searches. In many cases, these won’t be actionable to marketers — but in some cases, they will be. And in order to properly alter our content to connect with searchers, we’ll first need to understand the differences.

In my initial look at how my own family searched on Google Home, I found significant differences between what my family asked Home and what I ask my smartphone, so there’s reason to believe that there are new query categories in voice search that would be relevant to marketers. We know that there are queries — like “Hey Google, talk to Dustin from Stranger Things” and “Buy Lacroix Sparkling Water from Target” — that are going to give completely different results in voice search on Google Home and Assistant from the results in traditional search. And these queries, like “store hours” queries, are likely to be searched much more on voice search than in traditional search.

The problem is, how do we find that “near me” of voice search if we don’t have the data?

3. Understanding extent of advertising and optimization potential for new voice-based media

The last reason to pay attention to voice search queries is probably the most important — for both marketers and Google.

Let me illustrate it in very direct terms, as it’s not just an issue that I believe marketers have in general, but one that affects me personally as well.

Recently, one of my company’s competitors released survey information that suggested people really want to buy tickets through smart speakers.

As a marketer and SEO who sells tickets, I can take this information and invest in Actions on Google Development and marketing so that our customers can say, “OK Google, talk to Vivid Seats about buying Super Bowl tickets,” and get something from Google Home other than, “I’m sorry but I don’t know how to help with that yet.” (Disclosure: Vivid Seats is my employer.)

Or maybe I could convince my company to invest resources in custom content, as Disney and Netflix have done with Google. But am I really going to do it based on this one data point? Probably not.

As with mobile search in 2005, we don’t know how many people are using voice search in Google Home and Google Assistant yet, so we can’t yet know how big the opportunity is or how fast it’s growing. Voice search is in the “innovators and early adopters” stage of the technology adoption life cycle, and any optimizations done for it are not likely to reach a mainstream audience just yet. Since we don’t have data to the contrary from Google or Amazon, we’ll have to stay with this assumption and invest at a later date, when the impact of this technology on the market will likely mean a significant return on our investment.

If we had that data from Google, I would be able to use it to make a stronger case for early adoption and investment than just using survey data alone. For example, I would be able to say to the executives, “Look how many people are searching for branded queries in voice search and getting zero results! By investing resources in creating a prototype for Google Home and Assistant search, we can satisfy navigational queries that are currently going nowhere and recoup our investment.” Instead, because we don’t have that data from Google, the business case isn’t nearly as strong.

Google has yet to monetize voice search in any meaningful way, but when advertising appears on Google Home, this type of analysis will become even more essential.

Final thoughts

Yes, we can do optimization without knowing which queries are voice search queries, as we could do mobile optimization without knowing which queries are mobile queries; yet understanding the nuances of voice search will help Google and marketers do a better job of helping searchers find exactly what they’re looking for when they’re asking for it by voice.

If you agree, please submit your feedback to John Mueller on Twitter.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

Visualizing your site structure in advance of a major change

In our last article, we looked at some interesting ways to visualize your website structure to illuminate how external links and PageRank flow through it. This time, we’re going to use the same tools, but we’re going to look instead at how a major site structure change might impact your site.

Search engine crawlers can determine which pages on your site are the most important, based, in part, on how your internal links are structured and organized. Pages that have a lot of internal links pointing to them — including links from the site’s navigation — are generally considered to be your most important pages. Though these are not always your highest-ranking pages, high internal PageRank often correlates with better search engine visibility.

Note: I use the phrase “internal PageRank,” coined by Paul Shapiro, to refer to the relative importance of each page within a single website based on that site’s internal linking structure. This term may be used interchangeably with “page weight.”

The technique I’ll outline below can be used to consider how internal PageRank will be impacted by the addition of new sections, major changes to global site navigation (as we’ll see below) and most major changes to site structure or internal linking.

Understanding how any major change to a site could potentially impact its search visibility is paramount to determining the risk vs. reward of its implementation. This is one of the techniques I’ve found most helpful in such situations, as it provides numbers we can reference to understand if (and how) page weight will be impacted by a structural adjustment.

In the example below, we’re going to assume you have access to a staging server, and that on that server you will host a copy of your site with the considered adjustments. In the absence of such a server, you can edit the spreadsheets manually to reflect the changes being considered. (However, to save time, it’s probably worth setting up a secondary hosting account for the tests and development.)

It’s worth noting that on the staging server, one need only mimic the structure and not the final design or content. Example: For a site that I’m working on, I considered removing a block of links in a drop-down from the global site navigation and replacing that block of links with a single text link. That link would go to a page containing the links that were previously in the drop-down menu.

When I implemented this site structure change on the staging server, I didn’t worry about whether any of this looked good — I simply created a new page with a big list of text links, removed all the links from the navigation drop-down, and replaced the drop-down with a single link to the new page.

I would never put this live, obviously — but my changes on the staging server mimic the site structure change being considered, giving me insight into what will happen to the internal PageRank distribution (as we’ll see below). I’ll leave it to the designers to make it look good.

For this process, we’re going to need three tools:

    Screaming Frog — The free version will do if your site is under 500 pages or you just want a rough idea of what the changes will mean.Gephi — A free, powerful data visualization tool.Google Analytics

So, let’s dive in…

Collecting your data

I don’t want to be redundant, so I’ll spare you re-reading about how to crawl and export your site data using Screaming Frog. If you missed the last piece, which explains this process in detail, you can find it here.

Once the crawl is complete and you have your site data, you need simply export the relevant data as follows:

Bulk Export > Response Codes > Success (2xx) Inlinks

You will do this for both your live site and your staging site (the one with the adjusted structure). Once you have downloaded both structures, you’ll need to format them for Gephi. All that Gephi needs to create a visualization is an understanding of your site pages (“nodes”) and the links between them (“edges”).

Note: Before we ready the data, I recommend doing a Find & Replace in the staging CSV file and replacing your staging server domain/IP with that of your actual site. This will make it easier to use and understand in future steps.

As Gephi doesn’t need a lot of the data from the Screaming Frog export, we’ll want to strip out what’s not necessary from these CSV files by doing the following:

Delete the first row containing “Success (2xx) Inlinks.”Rename the “Destination” column “Target.”Delete all other columns besides “Source” and “Target.” (Note: Before deleting it, you may want to do a quick Sort by the Type column and remove anything that isn’t labeled as “AHREF” — CSS, JS, IMG and so on — to avoid contaminating your visualization.)Save the edited file. You can name it whatever you’d like. I tend to use domain-live.csv and domain-staging.csv.

The third set of data we’ll want to have is an Export of our organic landing pages from Google Analytics. You can use different metrics, but I’ve found it extremely helpful to have a visual of which pages are most responsible for my organic traffic when considering the impact of a structural change on page weight. Essentially, if you find that a page responsible for a good deal of your traffic will suffer a reduction in internal PageRank, you will want to know this and adjust accordingly.

To get this information into the graph, simply log into Google Analytics, and in the left-hand navigation under “Behavior,” go to “Site Content” and select “Landing Pages.” In your segments at the top of the page, remove “All Users” and replace it with “Organic Traffic.” This will restrict your landing page data to only your organic visitors.

Expand the data to include as many rows as you’d like (up to 5,000) and then Export your data to a CSV, which will give you something like:

Remove the first six rows so your heading row begins with the “Landing Page” label. Then, scroll to the bottom and remove the accumulated totals (the last row below the pages), as well as the “Day Index” and “Sessions” data.

Note that you’ll need the Landing Page URLs in this spreadsheet to be in the same format as the Source URLs in your Screaming Frog CSV files. In the example shown above, the URLs in the Landing Page column are missing the protocol (https) and subdomain (www), so I would need to use a Find & Replace to add this information.

Now we’re ready to go.

Getting a visualization of your current site

The first step is getting your current site page map uploaded — that is, letting Gephi know which pages you have and what they link to.

To begin, open Gephi and go to File > Import Spreadsheet.  You’ll select the live site Screaming Frog export (in my case, yoursite-live.csv) and make sure the “As table:” drop-down is set to “Edges table.”

On the next screen, make sure you’ve checked “Create missing nodes,” which will tell Gephi to create nodes (read: pages) for the “Edges table” (read: link map) that you’ve entered. And now you’ve got your graph. Isn’t it helpful?

OK, not really — but it will be. The next step is to get that Google Analytics data in there. So let’s head over to the Data Laboratory (among the top buttons) and do that.

First, we need to export our page data. When you’re in the Data Laboratory, make sure you’re looking at the Nodes data and Export it.

When you open the CSV, it should have the following columns:

Id (which contains your page URLs)LabelTimeset

You’ll add a fourth column with the data you want to pull in from Google Analytics, which in our case will be “Sessions.” You’ll need to temporarily add a second sheet to the CSV and name it “analytics,” where you’ll copy the data from your analytics export earlier (essentially just moving it into this Workbook).

Now, what we want to do is fill the Sessions column with the actual session data from analytics. To do this, we need a formula that will look through the node Ids in sheet one and look for the corresponding landing page URL in sheet two; when it finds it, it should insert the organic traffic sessions for that page into the Sessions column where appropriate.

Probably my most-used Excel script does the trick here. In the top cell of the “Sessions” column you created, enter the following (the bolded numbers will change based on the number of rows of data you have in your analytics export).

=IFERROR(INDEX(analytics!$B$2:$B$236,MATCH(A2,analytics!$A$2:$A$236,0),1),”0″)

Once completed, you’ll want to copy the Sessions column and use the “Paste Values” command, which will switch the cells from containing a formula to containing a value.

All that’s left now is to re-import the new sheet back into Gephi. Save the spreadsheet as something like data-laboratory-export.csv (or just nodes.csv if you prefer). Using the Import feature from in the Data Laboratory, you can re-import the file, which now includes the session data.

Now, let’s switch from the Data Laboratory tab back to the Overview tab. Presently, it looks virtually identical to what it had previously — but that’s about to change. First, let’s apply some internal PageRank. Fortunately, a PageRank feature is built right into Gephi based on the calculations of the initial Google patents. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty good for giving you an idea of what your internal page weight flow is doing.

To accomplish this, simply click the “Run” button beside “PageRank” in the right-hand panel. You can leave all the defaults as they are.

The next thing you’ll want to do is color-code the nodes (which represent your site pages) based on the number of sessions and size them based on their PageRank. To do this, simply select the color palette for the nodes under the “Appearance” pane to the upper left. Select sessions from the drop-down and choose a palette you like. Once you’ve chosen your settings, click “Apply.”

Next, we’ll do the same for PageRank, except we’ll be adjusting size rather than color. Select the sizing tool, choose PageRank from the drop-down, and select the maximum and minimum sizes (this will be a relative sizing based on page weight). I generally start with 10 and 30, respectively, but you might want to play around with them. Once you’ve chosen your desired settings, click “Apply.”

The final step of the visualization is to select a layout in the bottom left panel. I like “Force Atlas” for this purpose, but feel free to try them all out. This gives us a picture that looks something like the following:

You can easily reference which pages have no organic traffic and which have the most based on their color — and by right-clicking them, you can view them directly in the Data Laboratory to get their internal PageRank. (In this instance, we can learn one of the highest traffic pages is a product page with a PageRank of 0.016629.) We can also see how our most-trafficked pages tend to be clustered towards the center, meaning they’re heavily linked within the site.

Now, let’s see what happens with the new structure. You’ll want to go through the same steps above, but with the Screaming Frog export from the staging server (in my case, domain-staging.csv). I’m not going to go make you read through all the same steps, but here’s what the final result looks like:

We can see that there are a lot more outliers in this version (pages that have generally been significantly reduced in their internal links). We can investigate which pages those are by right-clicking them and viewing them in the Data Laboratory, which will help us locate possible unexpected problems.

We also have the opportunity to see what happened to that high-traffic product page mentioned above. In this case, under the new structure, its internal PageRank shifted to 0.02171 — in other words, it got stronger.

There are two things that may have caused this internal PageRank increase: an increase in the number of links to the page, or a drop in the number of links to other pages.

At its core, a page can be considered as having 100 percent of its PageRank. Notwithstanding considerations like Google reduction in PageRank with each link or weighting by position on the page, PageRank flows to other pages via links, and that “link juice” is split among the links. So, if there are 10 links on a page, each will get 10 percent. If you drop the total number of links to five, then each will get 20 percent.

Again, this is a fairly simplified explanation, but these increases (or decreases) are what we want to measure to understand how a proposed site structure change will impact the internal PageRank of our most valuable organic pages.

Over in the Data Laboratory, we can also order pages by their PageRank and compare results (or just see how our current structure is working out).

And…

This is just the tip of the iceberg. We can substitute organic sessions for rankings in the page-based data we import (or go crazy and include both). With this data, we can judge what might happen to the PageRank of ranking (or up-and-coming) pages in a site structure shift. Or what about factoring in incoming link weight, as we did in the last article, to see how its passing is impacted?

While no tool or technique can give you 100 percent assurance that a structural change will always go as planned, this technique assists in catching many unexpected issues. (Remember: Look to those outliers!)

This exercise can also help surface unexpected opportunities by isolating pages that will gain page weight as a result of a proposed site structure change. You may wish to (re)optimize these pages before your site structure change goes live so you can improve their chances of getting a rankings boost.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.