A year in review: Search Engine Land’s top 10 columns of 2016

Expanded text ads. Mobile-first index. Accelerated Mobile Pages. Possum. These are just a few of the many words and phrases we search marketers became intimately familiar with over the course of the past year.

Both within the search industry and outside of it, 2016 was a year marked by change — and no change got more attention from our columnists than Google’s decision to eliminate the right rail ads from its desktop search results. Readers were clearly eager to learn as much as possible about how these changes would impact their campaigns, as two of our top 10 columns were focused on this topic.

The local search community also dealt with some major changes, as the Possum update caused a huge shake-up within local search results. Local search expert Joy Hawkins wrote the definitive article on this unannounced Google update, which impacted up to 64 percent of local SERPs. Her excellent coverage of this development earned her the top spot in 2016.

After the emotional roller coaster that was 2016, many people are ready for this year to be over. But for those of you brave enough to want to relive it, here are Search Engine Land’s top 10 columns of the year:

    Everything you need to know about Google’s ‘Possum’ algorithm update by Joy Hawkins, published on 9/21/2016
    Social activity: Facebook 2,931, Google+ 492, LinkedIn 17987 essential Google Analytics reports every marketer must know by Khalid Saleh, published on 5/30/2016
    Social activity: Facebook 1,727, Google+ 0, LinkedIn 2863How To Get Started With Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) by Paul Shapiro, published on 2/24/2016
    Social activity: Facebook 632, Google+ 194, LinkedIn 524Top 9 reasons Google suspends local listings by Joy Hawkins, published on 4/21/2016
    Social activity: Facebook 855, Google+ 0, LinkedIn 794How To Localize Google Search Results by Clay Cazier, published on 1/13/2016
    Social activity: Facebook 622, Google+ 0, LinkedIn 393Google’s New SERP Layout: The Biggest Winners & Losers by Larry Kim, published on 2/24/2016
    Social activity: Facebook 751, Google+ 196, LinkedIn 1234Infographic: 11 amazing hacks that will boost your organic click-through rates by Larry Kim, published on 10/5/2016
    Social activity: Facebook 1086, Google+ 0, LinkedIn 821Test Your Knowledge Of SEO by Eric Enge, published on 1/5/2016
    Social activity: Facebook 900, Google+ 189, LinkedIn 594HTTP to HTTPS: An SEO’s guide to securing a website by Patrick Stox, published on 4/14/2016
    Social activity: Facebook 962, Google+ 219, LinkedIn 619Google’s Take On The Recent Changes To The Results Page by Matt Lawson, published on 3/2/2016
    Social activity: Facebook 627, Google+ 168, LinkedIn 944

Methodology: Columns published in 2016 are ranked in order of page views measured by Google Analytics. Data includes all columns published through November 30, 2016. Social data provided by SharedCount.

Ranking First Is Good, But First With Prerender Is Better

So you thought ranking #1 for a search was as good as you could get, right? How about ranking #1 with a strong indicator that your position there is pretty solid? A new browser optimization in search results might be giving us that clue.

Starting around August 26th, our in-house analytics system at Groupon started reporting a big increase in homepage views.

It’s rare for a search marketing team to complain about too much traffic, but all this new traffic was coming only from the Chrome browser, arriving only at our homepage, and much of it was bouncing, it was killing our revenue-per-session metrics, and all of it was from SEO (Organic Search).

And this “Chrome Home” traffic, as we called it, kept growing and growing — until, by September 25th, we had tens of thousands of additional Chrome requests per day, at a time when other browsers were showing relatively no growth at all. And we saw this in every country around the world that we checked all starting about the same time.

What we learned is that Chrome prerender kicked into high gear for us in September as Google search results pages added prerender tags on searches for Groupon.

Let’s Define Prerender

So, what is prerender, and how does it work? Allow me to illustrate by using an example.

If you search for Groupon, Google knows there is a very high likelihood you will click on the Groupon homepage in the search results. This also applies to lots of other highly predictive searches: [cnn], [nytimes], etc.

In these cases, Chrome will fetch the homepage even before you click on anything in the results. If you do and then click on this prerendered result, Chrome will request the page again — presumably with many static items already cached, providing a faster render time for users.

By now, half of readers will have already gone to check their site metrics to look at their Chrome homepage traffic.

Those that use Google Analytics won’t see anything out of the ordinary. Google Analytics doesn’t record a visit due to prerender, which is generally a good thing because it’s not really a visit. (I don’t have data on other analytics packages, but please leave comments if you’ve seen this in your analytics package.)

Google Head Performance Engineer Steve Souders explains what he calls “prebrowsing” in the October 2013 video below. It is also referred to as prerender. In the video, you’ll learn about various tags that tell a browser to pre-fetch DNS, pre-fetch resources, etc. It’s a great resource for understanding how you can make your website faster.

Souders explains the best time to prefetch things is when there is a strong ability to predict what the user will do next.

Certainly, Google can predict when you might be very likely to click on the first search result. And now, if you go to Google and search [groupon], you will see in the source code of the search results page this prerender tag:

<link href=”http://www.groupon.com/” rel=”prerender“>

It doesn’t mean Google does this for the #1 result on every search. Pity the Wham-O corporation which ranks #1 for searches on “frisbee” but does not have the click-through rate necessary to elicit a prerender tag for its homepage on that search — if, indeed, that is how Google is conditioning this.

The Chrome browser has been executing prerender instructions since version 22, and IE since version 11. (There are a number of pre-rendering instructions worth checking out to make your site faster.) But it wasn’t until Google started issuing prerender commands in the search results that we really noticed this in our logs.

When Did This Start?

When this started may vary from search to search. Wham-O may have to wait a long time to get this for frisbee (quick experiment: everyone reading this article, search frisbee and click wham-o and then see if they start getting prerender).

We started seeing it for the search [groupon] in late August and ramping up through about September 25th.

Although we have only seen this in our data from Google SERPs, the video above from Souders states that this could also happen as users start typing into the omnibar (aka address bar) in Chrome if there is a strong prediction about what site you will go to. So, if you go to nytimes.com a lot, by the time you type “ny” in your omnibar, it may already be fetching the New York Times homepage.

And now, SEOs have a new challenge. Ranking #1 is good, but ranking #1 with prerender is even better. Not only will users have a faster experience, but it might be a signal that your hold on the #1 position is strong.

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

7 Quick Local Hits To Optimize For Black Friday & Cyber Mondays This Season

Is your local business ready for Black Friday and the Cyber Mondays after?

The biggest shopping days of the year are coming up fast, but there are still things you can do to prepare and pump up your sales further. Here are a few Local SEO quick-hitters that can improve your performance in 2014.

Everyone is aware of Black Friday — the day after Thanksgiving when tons of consumers go straight to their local stores to start shopping for the holiday season.

The Monday after Thanksgiving has become one of the biggest online shopping days of the year — now known as Cyber Monday. Each Cyber Monday for the last four years has averaged an 18.25% increase over the year before.

One could say that there are multiple “Cyber Mondays,” in fact, because each of the Mondays following the one after Thanksgiving tends to trend even higher through sometime in the middle of December.

Cyber Mondays tell us something important beyond those being major sales days online — consumers are also performing research to find gifts in local stores and sources for holiday decorations, food, catering and more.

So, stepping up your SEO game can still pay off this season. I’ve written tips before on optimizing for the holiday season, and, I’ve now updated and added some new tips for 2014.

Holiday 2014 Tips

Some of these are quick-hitters, so even if everything isn’t perfect in your company’s Local SEO game, you can still get more juice out of this season if you can push a few more levers.

1. Listings Audit

Do a quick audit of your listings in online directories and correct any information that’s off. Business listings in online directories are one major source of Citations for Local SEO — Citations are mentions of a business’s name, location and contact information which Google uses as a measure of prominence.

If your Citations out there have incorrect address info, nonstandard or incorrect name spellings, variant phone numbers, etcetera, then, you’re missing out on some of the ranking potential of your listing in local search. Correcting this stuff can give your listing an abrupt injection of ability to rank higher!

There are various ways to detect these rogue listings, but one recently-developed method that impresses me has been developed by fellow Search Engine Land columnist Andrew Shotland.

Download Andrew’s N.A.P. Hunter (“N.A.P.” stands for “Name, Address & Phone Number” — the basic building blocks of Citations) extension for the Google Chrome browser, and you’ll have a bit of Andrew’s brain in a box, helping you hunt down the things you may need to clean up.

2. Directory Listings

Obtain more directory listings. Pump up your local ranking potential more by insuring your listing is in more directories — this gets you more Citations which will augment your ability to rank well.

Many local businesses have a very haphazard footprint in directories, so, if you’re one of those, see if you can expand to get more. In some cases, this can be accomplished pretty rapidly, while in other cases, the online directory publishing cycles may take a little longer. And then you also have to wait for Google and Bing to factor it in once they see the new information appearing.

Even so, as soon as you appear in other directories, you will get the immediate benefit of getting more potential referrals from consumers who may be using those directories!

To expedite this, use a company like Universal Business Listing (disclosure: I’m on the board of advisors for UBL, so I think they’re nifty!), Neustar Localeze, Moz Local, or Advice Interactive’s Local Site Submit.

3. Category Check

Add/change categories. Check the existing categories your business is listed under in online directories — many businesses neglect to check this, and may be incorrectly categorized or may have neglected to be included in all the categories they could be.

Either situation reduces their potential exposure to motivated buyers! Also, check out what I’ve written before about how optimizing your categories could double your traffic!

4. Advertising

Consider advertising in online yellow pages. According to some statistics, online business directories of many types have seen an upswing in their traffic this year, perhaps due to the Pigeon Update to Google’s algorithms which seemed to raise directories in search results for many keyword combinations.

As I wrote in Post-Pigeon Best Practice: How To Optimize For Internet Yellow Pages, advertising could raise your visibility on many of these pages now that they are appearing prominently in local search — which might even have some effect upon SEO for your site.

5. Product/Service Listings

List products/services on your website. So many small business websites I examine are little more than a few pages with the business name, logo, photo, basic description and “Contact Us” information.

If you’re in this boat, add pages to the site for “Products” and/or “Services”, and list out as many of the main things you sell along with brief descriptions of them, or why coming to you for them is better than going to the competition.

In this way, you’ll introduce all of these valuable keywords in association with your business, enabling your site and content to appear much more frequently and prominently when local consumers search for those things.

Also, don’t forget to mention the major brand names you may carry, and also mention on your homepage the names of each of the cities around your business from which customers could reasonably drive.

6. Customer Reviews

Add customer reviews and endorsements onto your own site! This could provide a quick “stealth optimization” tactic to put you ahead of the competition over the holidays, because most local sites have not adopted this advantage. There are three ways that this can work, if it’s done right.

    When you add testimonials to your site, customers may become more inclined to choose you over the competition.The crowd-sourced text content in their reviews can expand the keyword phrases and relevancy signals associated with your company site, allowing it to appear more prominently in more search results important to your business.Sometimes, if marked up with structured data for reviews, this will add positively to the ratings score that Google displays about your company, and, under some circumstance, it has resulted in the addition of the rating stars to companies’ own sites, raising their visibility sharply in search results (which can also increase their click-through rates, thus indirectly improving their rankings).

One excellent system that helps streamline the addition of properly-formatted endorsements to your site is GetFiveStars, developed by local search experts Mike Blumenthal and Don Campbell.

7. Meta Description Tags

Update your Meta Tag Description text to include seasonal messages and discount details!

Offering attractive discounts on some popular items or services can attract consumers to your store where they are likely to buy more of everything else — offering Black Friday deals is one of the central strategies that pays off for stores. But, it can also pay off through the rest of the holiday season as well.

Changing your Meta Tags to highlight a brief discount offer is a very quick way to perform some holiday advertising.

Craft them carefully, though — the Meta Descriptions must still clearly convey what the page is about while including an offer blurb.

Example offer blurbs: “FREE SHIPPING!,” “25% Off Widgets!,” “BOGO Shirts & Ties!,” “Free Widget with purchases greater than $100!”

Small Tweaks Bring Holiday Cheer

It’s very easy to feel overwhelmed with all the many things you need to do or could do in optimizing your website for local search, but it’s important to remember that just doing a few modest tweaks can actually translate into a positive impact.

So, incorporate one or more of these quick hits into your mix this holiday season, and may it bring you a lot of holiday cheer!

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

The Search Engine We REALLY Want To See Google (or Microsoft) Build

When you sit down and think about it, search engines today have not changed all that dramatically in terms of depth-of-insight compared to their early days. Google recently added the Knowledge Graph for a subset of queries; but at its core, the level of insight available to the searcher remains primarily the Web links on the SERP.

Yet, Google is looking to change that. With the addition of the Knowledge Graph, Google has announced its intention to evolve from a ‘search engine’ to a ‘knowledge engine.’ Matt Cutts said as much at an industry conference late last year, explaining Google is so committed to this evolution they renamed Google’s ‘Search Quality’ team the ‘Knowledge Team.’

Although they have taken some steps forward, there are definitely elements holding them back from stepping fully into becoming a true knowledge engine. For the sake of clarity, we’ve grouped our view of the primary challenges into two categories:

Business: Business issues sometimes get in the way of knowledge dispersion, and this is no exception. Google must be able to strike deals with knowledge owners to include their data in search results. As the on-again off-again marriage with Twitter shows, it can be a messy business.Technical: There are technical challenges in becoming a Knowledge Engine. When it comes to things like extracting insight from social data, sentiment analysis is hard. Machines must be able to understand context and meaning from small bits of data like a 140 character tweet, parse the nearly infinite ways people have in talking about things, and present it all in a comprehensible way. While the technology has made steps forward in this regard, it is still imperfect.

Thinking Beyond The Present-Day Google

The thing about using a product for a long period of time is that it can sometimes be hard for users to conceptualize what life might be like if constraints holding it back from evolving were lifted. For many, online search has always been a page of links, more recently evolving to include the Knowledge Graph; but with years of use, we have been conditioned to think about search within the confines of its limitations.

Here at Conductor, we thought it would be fun to set aside those limitations and think about what online search could be. In doing so, we set aside both the business limitations and those technical limitations we thought would be theoretically solvable in the near to mid-term that currently prevent it from becoming a true knowledge engine.

Our Four Categories Of Google Search Changes

We used the Google SERP for the movie ‘Wreck It Ralph’ as a starting point for our newly designed search results page, both because it has a Knowledge Graph entry and because it is a query that is timely.
The changes we made fall into one of four categories:

Social Sentiment: We’ll dive into more details on the specifics below, but one key aspect we added to the SERP was deep insight into what and how people are talking about the query. We created a mechanism for searchers to get both a broad view of social sentiment, and a more detailed view of actual commentary on the query.Social Discussions: We also added a section that highlights the most talked-about links relevant to the query and a view of what people across all major social networks are saying about it.Email Search Integration: Google has previously demonstrated a willingness to add email to their search results, and we thought if they were going to evolve into a knowledge, rather than search engine it makes sense to include email as one data source. Users who prefer not to include it, could, of course, easily turn it off.User Interface: While the focus of our thought experiment was geared more toward re-imagining Google without the limitations described above, than a complete visual redesign that would be better left to professional design firms, we made some user interface adjustments such as moving Knowledge Graph elements from the right column to the top.

(click to enlarge)

Social Sentiment Meter

One of the key improvements in our new SERP is the addition of social sentiment insight into the query. For example, in this case, we want to see on the SERP itself what people thought of the movie. We want to know more than just ‘like-dislike’, we want insight into the wide range of responses people might have to a movie such as ‘Loved-it,’ ‘Hated-it,’ ‘Laughed,’ ‘Cried,’ etc. (the categories would be dynamic based on the query type). And, we want the analysis to be platform agnostic, mined from all social networks such as Twitter, Facebook, Google +, and even LinkedIn when applicable to the query.

Social Share On The URL Level

We also want to know what is being said on the social networks about the links on the search page. For example, in the callout below, clicking on the tweets icon under Disney’s trailer site will show the most popular tweets that include that URL.

Social Conversations Featuring External Data Sources

The social conversations section of the SERP will give us the most-talked-about conversations about the query in question. Google could leverage the major social networks, but also other sources such as Reddit, Quora and others.

In an example that leverages an outside data partner, the “Most Talked About Links” could be the links from a reliable data source such as bitly’s realtime project that aggregates the most-talked-about links about the search term.

The Future of Search Might Be Closer Than We Think

Now, we know not every innovation will work out for every query type. But hopefully, this article will spark some thinking around what online search could be if many of the business and technical hurdles are overcome.

(It may not be as far off as we might imagine. Technology is making progress and many business issues are surmountable, given the right motivation. There was a time when nobody believed Steve Jobs could get the music industry to shift to selling their music electronically.)

This may be the tip of the iceberg of what Google could be as they evolve into a knowledge engine and if they are successful in not just thinking outside the box, but throwing the box out entirely.

Imagine if we thought about the search results with no restriction on data partnerships. What would transactional query SERPs look like? How about navigational? Taking it a step further (while it’s understandable that, at the end of the day, Google is a business, and they are interested in emphasizing their own properties when possible), what if they treated all data sources in the SERPs — whether social networks, shopping sources, etc. — as equals and just asked ‘what is uncompromisingly the best experience for the user?’ How would the SERPs change?

Why Not Bing?

A final thought.

Until now, we have been mostly talking about how Google could take some mighty steps forward to evolve more fully into a knowledge engine. But, a Slate article on Microsoft’s recent ‘Scroogled’ campaign makes some cogent points about why Bing has been stuck at 16% market share, making little headway against the incumbent Google:

“The problem with Microsoft’s online service offerings isn’t that their TV campaigns are lame. It’s not even that the products are bad. But they’re not wildly better than Google’s search and email and so forth. Most people are just incredibly lazy. It’s easy to forget, but it took Google Search and Gmail a remarkably long time to rise to dominance during a period when they wiped the floor with the competition on the merits. Now, Google has that change-aversion and laziness working in its favor. To beat them, you have to crush them on quality. And Microsoft’s not doing that. No ad campaign can overcome the basic reality of human inertia.”

And John Gruber’s comments on this over on Daring Fireball:

“That’s the core problem with a lot of Microsoft’s products, like Windows Phone and Surface. They’re good products, but there’s no holy sh%$! in them. When you’re an upstart in any market, you need a disruptive product. That’s what happened with the iPhone and iPad for Apple, and with web search and Gmail for Google.”

If Microsoft is, indeed, serious about giving searchers a reason to shift to Bing maybe they should be the one to craft their own data partnerships, make headway on the tech limitations, build their own true knowledge engine and create their own holy sh&*! moment. They are up against a competitor whose brand has become a verb for searching the Web; so, the argument that they will need just such a motivator to induce switch would seem to have merit.

Dreams Are The Starting Point For Innovation

At the end of the day, it’s easy to play armchair Product Manager. And, I know that ultimately, Google, Microsoft and any potential data partners are businesses with an end goal of revenue growth and shareholders to satisfy; but, a guy can dream.  🙂

Let us know in the comments what you think of some of the changes we proposed, awesome data partnerships you would love to see Google or Microsoft forge, or other ways you’d like to see them evolve toward becoming a Knowledge Engine.

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

7 Do's & Don’ts For Working With A Technical SEO During A Redesign

In the past few months, I’ve been the technical SEO consultant to 6 companies who have been in the process of redesigning their websites. The companies range in size from a one-person show to a world-reknowned Boston hospital, and everything in between. All of the companies were smart enough to know they needed expert SEO eyes as they developed their new websites—which is more than I can say for most companies who embark on a website redesign. Typically, we get the dreaded “my search engine traffic has tanked since our new site went live” call.

It’s been interesting working with many different companies, website developers and agencies throughout the process. I’ve seen quite a range of SEO knowledge amongst those I’ve dealt with – from the one developer who had accumulated lots of old (and bad) SEO information and basically held the site hostage by refusing to implement 301-redirects, to the highly professional agency who has intelligent SEOs in-house.

In all cases, I pointed out potential spider traps in early prototypes, wireframes and backend content delivery systems while providing recommendations on how to avert these. It saves so much time and money to spot these possible SEO snafus at this very early stage rather than waiting until the CMS and information architecture are set in stone.

In light of these experiences, I’ve accumulated some DOs and DON’Ts related to the process of working with a technical SEO consultant when you’re in the midst of a website redesign.

DO bring on a technical SEO consultant at the very beginning

Let me repeat…the very beginning. I would go so far as to say that you may want to have your SEO consultant in on the choosing of the design agency. Most developers and designers talk the talk that they are well-versed in SEO, but very few actually walk the walk.

DO provide your SEO consultant with complete access

This includes access to everything and anything that’s going on within the development process, even if you think he or she wouldn’t need it. You and your developers never know what little things an experienced SEO might spot – it could be the difference between a whole section of your website dominating the search results or being completely invisible.

DO allow your SEO consultant to speak directly with the developers

Your SEO knows how to speak geek just like your developer. Let them geek it up and hash out the technical details that will provide you with a completely crawlable website, rather than having your marketing team try to translate.

DO hire a technical SEO consultant even if your agency has SEO expertise

It never hurts to have another pair of SEO eyes on your project. All SEO’s work differently and one may have some ideas on things you can do based on prior experience that the other does not. While one company I was consulting with had most of the SEO tactics down pat, there were still some advanced areas I was able to help with, which should make a huge difference to search engine traffic when implemented on the new site. Think of it this way: if you’re paying 5 or 6 figures to develop your new site, what’s a few thousand for an SEO consultant in the greater scheme of things?

DON’T show your SEO the new wireframes  too late

Don’t expect show them the prototypes for the first time and tell them that they need to be locked down and approved that very day. If you followed the DO’s above, this should not happen, but sometimes people get so wrapped up in the creative process that they forget they hired an SEO to review these things and that they actually might have some important recommendations. The suspicious side of me suspects that some designers purposely try to keep the SEO out because they’re afraid that their creativity will be stifled. Be wary if your development team tells you that your SEO doesn’t need to review any particular piece of the pie.

DON’T forget that your technical SEO consultant is only making recommendations

In most cases, there can be many different ways to create a crawler-friendly website that brings in tons of targeted traffic. If you simply cannot implement some of the workarounds recommended by your SEO, ask them for alternative ways of covering the same ground. They will tell you if something absolutely, positively has to be done in a specific manner—but there’s rarely anything set in stone that way when it comes to SEO (other than perhaps 301-redirects.)

DON’T be afraid to launch a new website if you’ve covered all your bases

There’s no reason to worry about lost rankings and search engine traffic if you plan ahead. If you’ve taken the right steps in hiring an SEO, implemented the SEO’s recommendations and keeping them consistently in the loop, everything should go off without a hitch as far as search engines are concerned.

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

Using Analytics To Measure SEO Success

I’ve previously discussed why rankings are a poor measure of success, but only touched upon how to instead use web analytics to measure SEO success. My hope is that once you have a good grasp of what to review and how to use that info, you’ll be more inclined to wean yourself (and your clients) off rankings reports once and for all!

For purposes of this article, let’s assume that you’ve already optimized your website for a number of keyword phrases across a variety of pages within your website. Let’s also assume that you’ve kept a list of those phrases handy, as you’ll need to refer back to them. In addition, let’s assume you’re using Google Analytics since more companies appear to be moving in that direction.

While heavy-duty analytics programs can be quite daunting at first because there’s so much data provided, for SEO purposes you can concentrate on just a few key areas when starting out. The place to start is the “traffic sources” section—more specifically, the “search engines” and the “keywords” sub-sections.

Clicking on the search engines sub-section will show you all the search engines that brought visitors to your website. If you’re running AdWords campaigns, be sure to click the “non-paid” link so that you can differentiate your organic traffic from your paid (you will have had to previously linked your Adwords account with your Analytics account in order for this to work). If you’ve done a decent job with your SEO, you’ll likely see most of the search engine traffic comes from Google, then Yahoo, then MSN with a bunch of smaller search engines trailing behind.

You can see how you’re doing with your keywords in all the search engines as a whole by then clicking the “dimension” dropdown box, and setting it for “keywords.”

This will show you all the keyword phrases that drove traffic to your website. As above, if you’re also doing paid search campaigns, be sure to click the tab that says “non-paid” so that you’re only looking at organic traffic.  Depending on how many keywords are showing up, you may want to change your settings to show you 100 rows at a time (or more) so that you can have a good snapshot. By default, you’ll see the keyword phrases that have brought the most traffic at the top.

Are you seeing the keyword phrases (or some variation) for which you originally optimized? If they are not readily apparent, scroll down to the bottom and put an exact phrase or a word from one of your optimized phrases into the “find keyword: containing” box. Searchers use a variety of phrases at the search engines so you’re likely to see numerous related phrases that go beyond the exact ones for which you optimized. This is a good thing, and something that you don’t get from ranking reports.

For example, when reviewing the keyword phrases driving traffic to one of our clients’ websites, I found over 100 variations of one phrase for which we optimized, and they were all highly relevant to what the client offers.

Next, you’ll want to see which pages of your site are bringing keyword traffic and whether they are the specific ones for which you optimized. To view this, click on the “content overview” section and then on the right hand side of the page, under “landing page optimization” click on “entrance keywords.”  This allows you to view specific stats for each page of your site.

The first screen is the entrance keywords for the page that receives the most pageviews (typically your home page), but you can click to other pages via the drop down box that says “content.”

If you don’t immediately see a page for which you are interested in viewing entrance keywords, you can type a word that you know is in the URL of that page in the search box that’s contained in the content dropdown. So if you’re looking for a page that has a file name of /green-widgets.php you can type just “green” or “widgets” into the search box and you’ll see all pages that have that word in the file name.

Now you should be able to see all the entrance keywords for that page. Are they ones (or variations of) those for which you optimized?  If so, then your SEO is taking hold! If not, you’ll want to determine why. Perhaps it’s just too soon after your SEO work was completed. Perhaps they’re highly competitive phrases which will need more anchor text links pointing in.

Rankings don’t always equal traffic, and vice-versa

Something interesting that I’ve noticed a lot lately is that while my optimized pages are getting good search engine traffic for their optimized keywords, they may not show up in Google when I do a spot check of rankings. This is especially true of newly optimized pages. It seems that this could very well be personalized search in action. While I might not see the pages ranking in Google, others obviously are as the web analytics don’t lie. Had I been relying on rankings reports to measure our success, I would be thinking that not much was happening yet.

Of course, the best indicator of SEO success is conversions. Those can be measured via your analytics as well, so you’ll want to be sure to have all your forms’ thank you pages set up as conversion goals. That way, when you’re viewing the “traffic sources -> keyword” data, you can also click the “goal conversion” tab and learn very easily which phrases convert for you.

For those keyword phases that you find convert very well, you can work on additional optimization efforts to gain even more traffic. For phrases that don’t convert well, you may want to think about why they’re not converting. It’s possible that they’re simply too general, and thus you’re pulling in people who are just in the research phase, or it might be that they don’t accurately describe what you offer on your website.

Don’t forget about old-fashioned conversions!

In addition to using your web analytics, don’t forget to take note of any increases in emails and phone calls. That’s the best way to know if your SEO campaign is going as planned. Our clients typically call us up very happy within the first month or two to let us know that their phone has been unusually busy all of a sudden. This usually makes them happier than any ranking reports we used to send!

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

Why Usability and SEO Go Hand-in-hand

Many years ago, when Danny Sullivan was still part of Search Engine Watch and the Search Engine strategies conferences, a few of us approached him on having a session on usability. Surprisingly, he dismissed the suggestion saying that while usability was a great topic, it wasn’t really a search marketing issue.

Thankfully, Danny did eventually see the connection between SEO and usability as evidenced by SMX East and West sessions covering the topic. There have been numerous articles by Shari Thurow, Kim Krause Berg and others here at Search Engine Land that provide lots of usability details. I’m not well-versed in all aspects of usability like Shari and Kim are, but I have understood how much it is intertwined with organic SEO for a long time. I’ve believed in the connection so strongly that I’ve been providing our SEO clients with Kim’s usability reports since 2004. They always add value as well as corroborate the SEO recommendations we make.

Search engines want to provide the best pages to searchers

Usability and SEO going hand-in-hand makes total sense when you think about it. What makes a website better for your site visitors should also make a site better for SEO because the search engines want to find the pages that are the best for their visitors-the searchers. Search engines aren’t looking for the pages with the most keyword density or the most toolbar PageRank or the most anything else. Search engines are looking for the best, most relevant pages that most meet the user’s search query.

Check out usability.gov

To illustrate just how much usability and SEO go hand-in-hand, visit the usability.gov website, which is an official U.S. Government website providing a free step-by-step usability guide for anyone designing or redesigning their website. I love this site because it’s very simple to use and practices what it preaches. It also provides a lot of the same advice I’ve been providing to SEO clients for many years, only I was providing it as a way to increase their targeted search engine traffic.

Search engines love organized sites (so do users!)

I love the way usability.gov starts with four main topics (or categories).

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As one would expect, these 4 categories are part of the main navigation so that the user can click to any of those topics from any other page of the site. They are telling their users that these are the most important pages of this site, which is why they are linking to them from every other page.

Their sub-section on defining the site architecture provides a great tutorial on how to organize a site. And it’s almost exactly the advice we provide to SEO clients. The search engines understand that the most important (and general) information of your site should be the most easily accessible at the top-level of your navigation, and that the more detailed (and specific) info should be accessible by drilling further into the website.

Search engines (and users) need to know what each page is about

I also love how usability.gov places a paragraph “blurb” of content at the top of nearly every main page that describes exactly what it is all about. After that blurb, they provide 5 or 6 main points that they cover briefly with a few sub-topic bullet points, and then link to a deeper page for more specific info on each.

This too is something we’ve been recommending for SEO purposes for ages as it enables you to naturally use your most important keyword phrases for that page within the copy. On high-level pages you use your more general keywords phrases in the top paragraph blurb and your more specific keyword phrases in the sub-sections below that link to individual product or service pages.

Where have you heard these before?

Along those lines, usability.gov’s writing for the web section also provides great advice that most SEOs would agree with and recommend. “Put in many headings,” “write useful headings,” “put what users need most first”–now where have we heard these before? Yep, nearly every SEO writing tutorial out there! Once again, what’s good for your users is good for the search engines. Search engines know that important info is often contained in headings and they know that what comes near the beginning of a page is typically going to be what users need. Thus they weight these factors accordingly.

It’s all about target audience

The learning about your users section of usability.gov is very similar to the advice we provide in SEO about discovering who your target audience is. After all, how can you research the keywords they might be typing into search engines if you don’t know much (if anything) about them?

All in all, just about every page on the usability.gov website has solid advice that also jibes with creating a great site for SEO purposes. I highly recommend anyone designing websites or performing any SEO tasks read the information it provides and figure out how to work the advice into your SEO strategies. Your clients will love that you are helping them to make a better site overall, while also bringing more targeted traffic to it. Not only that, but since the site will now be so targeted to its users, it’s more likely they’ll take the action you desire, which will result in more leads, conversions and sales!

Jill Whalen, CEO and founder of High Rankings, a search marketing firm outside of Boston, and co-founder of SEMNE, a New England search marketing networking organization, has been performing SEO since 1995. Jill is the host of the High Rankings Advisor search engine marketing newsletter. The 100% Organic column appears Thursdays at Search Engine Land.

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

SEO For Big Brands

For the 13+ years that our SEO company has been in the biz, we’ve consulted with businesses of varying sizes and types. From one-person professional practices–to huge, globally branded corporations–and just about everything in between. While SEO best practices are nearly the same for most websites, there are different tactics and strategies you need to keep in mind when SEOing big brand sites.

Historically, big brands have not put much thought into SEO, as it never seemed necessary. Typically, as long they were found in Google for their brand names, they (and their C-level execs) were happy. However, the level-playing field of the Internet and seeing what smaller companies are able to do with SEO have caused many big brands to start taking notice. The problem is that SEOing a big brand site is not the same thing as optimizing an ecommerce site.

Getting over some SEO hurdles

One of the main hurdles is trying to figure out which keywords these large companies (who often don’t sell directly to consumers) should target in their SEO campaigns. Obviously, they need to rank for their brand name, but typically that will happen without flexing any SEO muscle. But what about specific, generic products for which the brand may be known? For example, a search for the generic keyword “butter” does not bring up the Land O’Lakes website even though they are the brand that many think of when they think of butter. Instead Google shows a bunch of small companies/restaurants with the word butter in their name, as well as some informational sites about butter. Even a search for “dairy products” does not bring up Land O’Lakes.

Does it matter?

Since Land O’Lakes isn’t selling butter or dairy products on their website, this may not matter. However, if their branding goal is for the LO’L name to be synonymous with butter and/or dairy products, then yeah, it does matter. Let’s say that they were running cross-media campaigns like TV, radio, magazine and newspaper ads with the goal of branding LO’L = Butter into people’s minds. In that situation, they would also want to integrate a search marketing campaign accordingly — both paid and organic.

While typically with SEO we recommend against optimizing for a one-word general keyword such as “butter,” in the case of LO’L, it should be obtainable. This is because big brand websites tend to have scads of natural links pointing to them, as well as a lot of trust equity built into their domain. In addition, they have the resources to create something worth linking to, if necessary. So for big brands, the usual SEO rules of thumb, don’t always apply.

Beyond using SEO to aid in the branding of specific keywords or phrases into the minds of consumers, many manufacturers these days are attempting to gain back their competitive advantage and un-level the SEO playing field by optimizing for their products and models. This task is often surprisingly more difficult than the butter branding exercise previously mentioned, because there aren’t many (if any) websites that have put much thought into optimizing for words like butter; but there can be fierce competition for specific models and types of products.

Letting ego get in the way

While searches at Google using brand names (e.g. Sony) usually return the manufacturer first in the results, and so do searches with “sub-brands” (e.g. Sony Bravia) more specific product searches, (e.g. Sony Bravia KDL-V40XBR1) often return product reviews, comparison shopping sites and ecommerce sites where you can actually purchase the product.

From a consumer point of view, Google’s got it right. If someone is searching for a specific product by its make and model, they probably have already spec’d it out and don’t need to read the manufacturer details. It makes sense that they’re either ready to buy or might be seeking out a review. This doesn’t mean that brand manufacturers shouldn’t optimize for their specific product names, but they need to understand that their website may not be the ideal one to be found under those circumstances. While that’s okay, it doesn’t usually sit well with the competitive company presidents and CEOs!

General keywords and determining intent

Where it gets even dicier is for extremely general keywords such as “TV.” While a manufacturer can make a good case for showing up in the search results for their specific product makes and models, should they expect to also show up for very general words? Surely they would love to, but the problem is that general words mean different things to different people. One person typing TV into Google might be looking for TV show listings, and another for the history of television. Sure, some are probably looking to buy a TV, but it’s difficult for search engines to determine the intent of the search (although they do have their ways, such as through previous searches that were made by the user).

The same thing goes for a generic word like “soda.” Would you expect Coke and Pepsi to be #1 and #2 for that word? They’re not. Neither brands were in the top 100 for that word. On the other hand, a search for “cola”–which is more specific to what Coke and Pepsi offer–does show both brands on the first page of the Google results, with Coke at #2 and #3 and Pepsi at #9. Coke was using their full company name, Coca-Cola, in their title tag, while Pepsi’s simply said “Pepsi”-a missed opportunity perhaps? (As an aside, at the time I checked, Google was actually showing more than 10 results, with some additional ones stuck in the middle of the search results displaying info for “Cost of Living Allowance.”)

Use your SEO resources wisely

It’s clear that big brands should be doing some form of SEO, but they need to be sure to research where their best opportunities lie. It’s critical for their SEO team to work closely with their brand and communications managers so that they can optimize accordingly and not waste time and resources on keyword phrases that are simply ego-driven or not actually relevant to who they are and what they offer.

Jill Whalen, CEO and founder of High Rankings, a search marketing firm outside of Boston, and co-founder of SEMNE, a New England search marketing networking organization, has been performing SEO since 1995. Jill is the host of the High Rankings Advisor search engine marketing newsletter. The 100% Organic column appears Thursdays at Search Engine Land.

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

In House: New Column From Search Engine Land

Our newest Search Engine Land column, In House, launches today. In House takes an insider’s look at the life of search marketers who work for large or multi-national organizations. Columnists write about technical challenges as well as the cultural, organizational, budgeting and other issues that arise while working within a large company. Unlike other Search Engine Land columns, the In House column has no fixed schedule and can appear multiple times each week at Search Engine Land.

In today’s debut article, Simon Heseltine weighs the pros and cons of bringing search marketing in house—what are the challenges? What are some of the hidden costs and requirements? Read on in When To Bring Search Marketing In-House.

Search Illustrated: New Column From Search Engine Land

Our newest Search Engine Land column, Search Illustrated, launches today. Search Illustrated differs from our other columns in that it uses graphics to illustrate complex topics in search marketing by breaking them down into easily understood pictures and diagrams.

Today’s debut features a graphic with a visual depiction of Google PageRank Explained.