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.

How independent reviews influence Google’s trust in your brand

Search Engine Land columnist Kevin Lee recently wrote a post about the prevalence of fake reviews, how they are damaging consumer trust and why it’s a bad move with permanent repercussions to attempt to use them yourself.

The reason for this growing problem is that online reviews have tremendous influence over the purchasing decisions of consumers, as well as the performance of brands in the search engines. Luckily, many major review sites — including Google, Amazon and Yelp — are taking steps to combat the issue.

With all of this in mind, now is a good time to address how to approach online reviews in an ethical way that will produce long-lasting, positive results for brand perception and search engine traffic.

Google associates trust with ratings and reviews

It’s important to establish the relationship between user reviews and SEO performance before moving forward. Understanding that relationship will inform how to best approach and build a strategy for earning reviews.

A recent study affirmed the strong correlation between ratings and search engine performance for local businesses. The study was conducted by LocalSEO Guide and worked in cooperation with the University Of California, Irvine as well as PlacesScout. It analyzed the correlation between over 200 potential search engine factors and rankings for over 100,000 local businesses.

Specifically, the study found that if a keyword is found in reviews of your business, or if your location is mentioned in a review, those enhance your rankings in the search results.

Do reviews enhance your performance in general search results, outside of local search?

That is a bit more contentious. Google itself has stated that star ratings in AdWords enhance click-through by up to 17 percent, and a study by BrightLocal has found that organic listings with 4- and 5-star ratings (in the form of rich snippets) enjoy a slightly higher click-through rate than listings with no stars. While there’s never been a formal confirmation, there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that higher click-through rates (CTR) may indirectly enhance your rankings in the search results.

Even if reviews don’t directly impact search rankings, the fact that they enhance click-through rates may potentially affect your rankings in an indirect fashion. And increased CTR is a benefit in itself!

User-generated content and reviews also heavily influence consumer decisions. A study by TurnTo found that user-generated content influenced buyers’ decisions more than any other factor looked at in the study, including search engines themselves.

The fastest way to success

Google has made it easy for you to get your customers to review you, and this is the very first thing you should start with.

Find your PlaceID using the lookup tool that Google has provided here. Put your business name in the “Enter a location” search bar. Click on your business name when it appears, then your PlaceID will pop up underneath your business name.

Copy the PlaceID and paste it to the end of this URL: https://search.google.com/local/writereview?placeid=

For example, the Macy’s location listed above would have the following review URL:

https://search.google.com/local/writereview?placeid=ChIJ3xjWra5ZwokRrwJ0KZ4yKNs

Now, try that URL in your browser with your business’s PlaceID to test whether it works or not. It should take you to a search result for your business with a “Rate and review” pop-up window.

Share this URL with your customers after transactions to pick up reviews on your Google My Business account.

While the Google My Business reviews are likely to have the largest impact on search engine rankings, they are not the only reviews Google takes into consideration, and it is in your best interest to pick up reviews from third-party sites as well. Third-party review sites can help you pick up more reviews more quickly, and they add diversity to your review profile, which enhances your legitimacy. This, in turn, imbues the reviews with greater authority.

In addition to boosting the authority and diversity of your reviews, third-party review sites help in a few other ways. Many are designed to make it simple to request reviews from your customers in an organized way. (Though be advised that some, like Yelp, discourage review solicitation.)

6 more tactics for picking up reviews

If you want to take things further, listed below are a few more tactics for you to consider working into your review strategy:

    Identify any industry-specific review sites: Reviews from industry-specific sites (think Avvo for lawyers or ZocDoc for doctors) can be huge, especially if you know that your potential customers are using these sites. It’s important to identify which vertical review sites may be relevant to you and to devise a strategy for earning positive reviews on these sites.Seek reviews from product bloggers: While blogger reviews are an entirely different ballgame from user reviews, they are equally important. Links from trusted bloggers are a strong signal that can positively affect your search engine rankings, and if the bloggers have audiences who trust the reviewer’s opinion, their reviews can earn you referral traffic with conversion rates not achievable from most sources. Just be sure that the blogger discloses any financial arrangement you might have with them.Respond to your reviewers: So long as you handle it tactfully, responding to reviewers (including and perhaps especially negative ones) can have a tremendously positive impact on brand perception, as it shows that you care about your customers. The important thing to remember about responding to reviews is that your response is not only for the customer but also for anybody else who sees the interaction. How you treat that review is how they will expect to be treated.Contact your happiest customers: It goes without saying that the happiest customers are the ones most likely to leave a positive review. Tactfully encouraging these customers to leave reviews is an important move if you want people to perceive you in a positive light. (Just be sure that you understand each site’s review solicitation guidelines.)Use social media for customer support: While social media shouldn’t replace a customer support team, many consumers see social media as a place to solve any problem they are having with their product. Many also use social media as a place to complain, often without even trying to contact your business. Be prepared for this, and respond to any mentions of your brand on social media with an offer to help. Don’t make the mistake of asking them to talk to you and take the conversation offline. Keep it online and portray yourself in the best way possible.Ask the right questions: Whatever media you are using to encourage your customers to leave a review, it’s important to make sure you are asking the right questions. Asking them simply to let people know if they liked the product typically isn’t the way to go, since it leads to very generic reviews. Ask more specific, pointed questions about how the product helped them solve a particular problem. These are the kind of stories that encourage people to purchase a product.

Conclusion

Online reviews play an incredibly important part in a buyer’s journey, from interest to purchase. They have a heavy influence on rankings in local search results and play an important part in more traditional search engine performance as well.

Brick-and-mortar businesses should use thank-you emails and other customer communications to point consumers to their Google My Business pages. Take advantage of third-party review sites to easily encourage reviews. Reach out to your customers and online influencers to improve coverage of your products.

Do not neglect these efforts. User reviews influence modern purchasers heavily. If your product is strong, your efforts will pay dividends.

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.

3 inconsistencies in Yelp’s review solicitation crackdown

Last month, Yelp doubled down on its war on review solicitation. Yelp has long given mixed signals about whether you can ask customers for reviews on their platform, but they seem to now be unifying their message against review solicitation.

In November, they began sending messages like this to businesses and agencies:

Disclosure: We (Go Fish Digital) received the email above. However, they must not have really done a lot of research to compile this list, as we do help clients with reputation management, but we do not solicit Yelp reviews on their behalf. We don’t do any review solicitation.

This new crackdown is a little disturbing, and in many ways, quite misleading. Here are three ways in which I view this all as quite hypocritical.

1. They LITERALLY told us review solicitation was OK

I once emailed Yelp support and asked them directly if review solicitation was OK. The wording on their website was ambiguous, so I wanted a clear answer to the question.

I had just returned a rental car, and the rental car company (a household name brand) sent me an email asking for a review on Yelp. I screen-shotted the text of the email and sent it to support asking if this was acceptable. Below is a screen shot of their response, which I wrote about this last year in my post, “5 Yelp Facts Business Owners Should Know (But Most Don’t).”

You can see in the response that they discouraged it, but it wasn’t against their rules. But now, Yelp is saying that they’ll suppress you in their search results, and potentially add a consumer warning if they find you are systematically asking for reviews.

Interesting change of position, eh?

2.  They apparently speak for the whole internet

Much (but not all) of the communication talks about prohibiting requesting reviews from customers. And they aren’t just saying, “Don’t request Yelp reviews.” They are saying, “Don’t request reviews, period.”

From their site:

Asking for reviews at all, even if the business breaks norms and attempts to ask more than just their happy customers, can create a bias away from organically motivated reviews. And when some businesses ask for reviews and others don’t, it becomes difficult for users to compare reviews across businesses. Not only does solicitation lead to bias, it’s a bad experience for customers, too.

If there were only one review site in all of the land, I could see how a blanket declaration against review solicitation would be OK. But I think we could all rattle off at least five or 10 more review sites that exist besides Yelp. And most of them have not taken a hard stand against asking customers for reviews.

As a small business owner, I’d be very frustrated. Yelp is basically telling you how to run your business. In reality, reviews are just the “word of mouth” for the internet. Can you imagine an authority figure saying, “You can’t ask customers to tell their friends about your small business. You might bias the word of mouth.” It sounds ridiculous because it is.

3.  They misinterpreted (or misrepresented?) a study about reviews to justify their crackdown

Hat tip to my Go Fish Digital co-founder, Dan Hinckley, for catching Yelp red-handed with this one.

On July 31, 2017, Vince Sollitto, the senior vice president of corporate communications and public affairs at Yelp, published a post on the Yelp blog titled, “Why Yelp Doesn’t Condone Review Solicitation.” It is a short post that includes this:

Part of what makes content high quality is a lack of bias. That’s why Yelp’s automated software does not recommend reviews it believes to have been solicited by businesses, since solicitation leads to bias.

That “leads to bias” phrase links to a research study by researchers at Northwestern University on review solicitation, “Understanding and Overcoming Biases in Customer Reviews,” and it appears that Yelp is using this study to justify its position.

But here’s the thing: While the study did indeed find that solicited reviews tend to be higher than those of “self-motivated web reviewers,” the researchers actually concluded that this is because the latter group is biased. The study highlights that, over time, there is a naturally occurring negative bias if reviews are not solicited. (The study notes that their data supports the findings of two other studies on reviews that show the same thing.)

In other words, if a business doesn’t solicit reviews, their rating will trend downwards — even if they “provide great customer service to anyone that walks in the door,” as Yelp recommends. Existing reviews bias users toward what they should write in their own review; so, if you start with a couple bad reviews, improving your customer service may not ever be enough to improve your star rating. The study found that “even the decision of a user to submit a review can be influenced by the current state of the reviews.”

On the flip side, the study found that reviews solicited over email do not have the same negative bias that occurs over time when reviews are left to be posted naturally. The average star rating of reviews solicited via email remained consistent over time. They say:

The plot suggests that email reviews are stable over time (i.e., the 20th email review for a product is, on average, equal to the 1st email review for that product), while web reviews display a downward temporal trend.

In the study’s conclusion, it literally says businesses should solicit reviews, as it will lead to a larger, more representative population of reviewers:

Furthermore, the introduction of email prompts does not disturb in any way the existing reviewing population while it incentivizes an entirely new segment of the population to submit a review. We think that this finding should provide motivation to retailers to send email prompts to their verified buyers. The reviews overall will become more representative (since a larger segment of the population will be reviewing), more credible (since the new segment of the population that starts reviewing are all verified buyers) and the ratings overall will increase (since the email ratings are on average higher than web ratings).

A swing and a miss

Yelp has a long list of things not to do, but I think the main one they actually care about is, “Don’t run surveys that ask for reviews from customers reporting positive experiences.”

This is a common practice, and I think this is what they are trying to avoid. But instead of just pinpointing this, they are throwing the baby out with the bathwater by discouraging all review solicitation. This is in contrast to the study they cited, which literally says review solicitation brings about a more accurate rating.

Why does this matter?

Look, I rely on Yelp as a consumer, and we help brands navigate its confusing web of rules, filters and users. I actually like the product and think that it does a lot of things well.

However, I think Yelp really falls short in how they deal with businesses — from aggressive salespeople using high-pressure sales techniques to confusing and contradictory communication. After all, their revenue comes from these businesses’ advertising dollars, so you’d think they’d place a high priority on each touch point with their paying customers.

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.