SEO is a fast moving industry. If own a website unlikely you have time to keep up with the rapidly changing world of Google, let alone optimising your site for all search engine’s and their shifting standards. In this post I explore how you can solve Google’s algorithm for yourself rather than following the latest unreliable trend; giving you insight into how Google know more about your audience than you do.
We all have our sources which we follow, blogs which we consider to be reliable sources which help us rank higher and keep up with the changes that Google churns out.
These sources (blogs, ezines etc) tend to presume that all of their readers are up to date with the “best practices” of web design and search engine optimisation. You may know all the SEO checklists off by heart – if you are setting up a new website you will have no problem making it good and fast and adding all the features that come in and out of fashion.
Unfortunately one size fits all checklists have exactly the same problem as one size fit all SEO packages. They they don’t utilise you. As website owner your vision is the driving force. It dictates if your website gives better user satisfaction than any competition you might have.
You know where you want to be going and who you want to pick up along the way. A common issue occurs when a web design best practice contradicts an SEO best practice, after all simplicity is the ultimate sophistication and advanced SEO is far from simple.
With the right targeting you will build the right audience and with the right audience you don’t need SEO. But bring the right audience and you will find your search rankings skyrocket. This is because Google seem to know exactly how your audience engages with your website.
I do a lot of work on what we know about search engines. What has been guessed at and what is chinese whispers. I’ll try to get you questioning – how much do we really know about search? I like to be able to explain not just that something works, but how something works and why it works.
Often I find with SEO this is impossible. One self proclaimed guru blogs that something works well – for them and their clients. The post goes viral and a new “best practice” is born. A problem I have addressed in the past is we don’t even know whether Google’s algorithm is called in the same way for product searches as basic questions.
How is it that Google know so much about how your users use your website; and with so much uncertainty how can you beat your competition as the internet becomes more and more cluttered?
The following post, like all good SEO is as basic or advanced as you want to read into it
- How to Rank #1
- UX – Be the Best
- How Google Spies on us
- SEO Best Practices
- Looking to the Future
How to Rank #1
There’s a lot much involved in getting a website up to SEO scratch. It can seem that, when you have followed one of these checklists to their completion, you have done your time. You have put the hours in and should be ranking #1 for your chosen phrase.
These checklists are just the beginning – taking you to average and making the playing field level. Unless your competition is sub standard you will struggle to outrank them.
To become number one you need to stand out from your competition. Currently Google is still a insentient robot and can be tricked on some levels.
- If you can write ten thousand more words on a subject then your competition, even if it is just very well planned waffle, you can probably outrank them for a time.
- If you buy the right link profile you can probably outrank your competition for a time.
Which neatly illustrates one problem with marketing today. It is very short sighted. People are still working on risky tiered link building schemes and other “grey”(black)hat techniques, suicide sites etc. There has been a culture saying “this works for now, lets milk it dry”.
There’s a better way. People have been talking about “content being king” for a long time. In 2015 we need to start thinking outside the box and stop regurgitating old wisdom. This old wisdom has saturated the internet with content – some good and some bad.
Just as important is the context. Some content is well presented and promoted while some amazing content and tools are impossible to find. To rank in at #1 on Google in 2015 you need to be the best.
UX – Be the Best
SEO needs a new slogan, content won’t get you there on it’s own. You can write the best web page, but chances are if you are targeting a specific search term which generates traffic there will already be competition. This is not at all original – people have been saying this for quite a long time now. The important part of SEO is the optimisation.
Let’s analyse that. Search engine optimisation. It’s easy to make the mistake of thinking you are optimising for the search engine – a phrase, keyword or trend. That is why people follow checklists rather than create their own strategy.
The search engine wants to return the website which will most engage it’s user. The most relevant result which the user will be happiest with. As a result said user will keep happily using said engine as their search provider of choice.
You know your website best. You should know the search terms you are targeting, all you need now is to show the world you are the best in your niche.
You need a hook which makes you stand out from the crowd so everybody will be clicking on your website and engaging with your work instead of your competition.
Ranking in at #1 for a competitive phrase is hard. If your competition has proven to give good levels of audience satisfaction (long time spent on site with a low bounce rate) they are likely to stay at #1.
If you have your search console set up (the recently renamed webmaster tools) you will see that Google likes to test new pages at different positions for different search terms. This is presumably in order to test what pages result in the highest level of user satisfaction for any given search term.
So although for a long time, time itself has been a ranking factor (whether directly or indirectly) paradoxically freshness is also a ranking factor.
The important thing to remember is to keep your focus on the user rather than the engine, which checklists generally won’t help you with. A lot of guides out there presume that people know that on site SEO is all about the user’s experience, but it’s rarely spelled out.
SEO means optimising for the user to get to the top of a search engine. On site SEO becomes a byword for user experience when you break it down this way.
A user who owns a website and has a good experience with your site may then link to it. In a way offsite SEO was also a byword for user experience until people realised that it could be abused through deliberate or paid link building.
Utilising a hook you can encourage links to be built to your website from reliable sources within your own industry, bloggers and social media. This is both easier than complex link building and more of a legitimate way of earning links. More importantly a good hook should encourage sales, build an email list and increase your social following.
Creating your hook
At the time I wrote this I was working with a Brighton based T-Shirt printers – Twisted Rainbow. Creating a hook for them was a no brainer, and effective. Unfortunely creative differences caused the two creators of this great brand to fall out and they are now defunced.
The hook was to draw a t-shirt design, ink it, photoshop it, print it. Video the whole process and make it a minute long so nobody gets bored. Do a competition; like, subscribe, share, sign up do what you can to get people’s details for remarketing.
The prize is the very same t-shirt, fresh off the press and the knowledge this design will never be used again. You have a unique t-shirt, and they do really cool designs.
They already have a fair social following. If they didn’t they would just have had to use Facebook’s excellent audience targeting options and pay a small fee. With this marketing method again how well made the video is will dictate the success of the campaign. Their following will grow in proportion to the popularity of the video.
This creates an initial buzz. In this particular case it also gives them a subject for their first blog post on “custom t-shirt printing in Brighton” which they want to rank for, and I suggested giving a 10% discount code at the end of the video just to boost sales a bit.
If you make food, video recipes and blog as a hook. If you make jewelery video the process and create a hook like this one. This strategy works great for any high end production markets, but again thinking outside the box is how you outrank your competition on the cluttered web.
I saw a dog walking company utilise content marketing brilliantly. They did videos on how to make your own dog food and treats, blogged the recipes and are now ranking very well in their area.
Let’s discount the blogs for a second though. Is this SEO? The video is going on YouTube – a search engine for videos – so technically yes, but regardless I consider anything you do to increase your traffic to be SEO. It all benefits your engagement metrics. These metrics are all heavily debated but do correlate with high rankings.
Traditional Sales Wisdom
When a user clicks onto your website they are no longer the search engine’s user. They are your user. You want to keep them on site and engaged for as long as possible. A traditional telesales tactic is to keep clients on the phone for as long as possible, this leads to sales because eventually your client feels you have earned their custom.
Traditional sales techniques work just as well online as offline. If you can keep your users engaged for long enough through social media and email lists (this may take days, weeks or even months) you will find your sales increase.
Hypothetically if Google are able to measure this data – which I show in the next section they can – these engagement metrics could also directly help with your rankings.
When a user ends their journey by following your social media or signing up to an email list for repeat visitation it’s like a door to door salesman signing you up to a consultation.
Email marketing is one of the most effective online sales techniques and is the online version of face to face consultations. A good email campaign feels personalised even when it is sent to 10,000 users.
How Google Spies on us
As the doorway to the internet (most of our search engine of choice), Google are in a very good position profile us. If you have a Google account they are able to link the websites which you visit from Google back to you as an individual.
Why a user focused approach helps with SEO – beyond links being generated – is heavily debated. A lot of people believe that social signals are direct ranking factors for Google. There are also those who believe Google are collecting data on us through chrome, android or even just their search engine to judge how long people spend on page. There is also a belief that Google analytics or webmaster tools is used to collect information for Google’s search algorithm.
Google have created lots of free and useful tools, but why do they spend so much money on developing these tools if they get nothing back? The usual explanation is that they create free products so that they can provide better advertising for their clients.
Google have semi denied using social signals in their algorithm but recent actions (regaining access to all of twitter’s data) would imply they are measuring something from social.
Chrome has a large user base (from android if nowhere else). Google to my knowledge has never denied using Chrome – or Android – to make their search results more accurate.
If Google couldn’t measure your users’ engagement in some way they wouldn’t be the most widely used search engine.
I could only find one source which backed up this idea. An interview with three ex Google workers on the search quality team seems to confirm that Google uses Chrome to measure user engagement.
[…] it’s important to remember that Facebook is walled off but Google will know a lot about you from G+. G+ will give them long-term data for when they do start using it.
Most of all though, and perhaps one of the biggest points of the session was that Google definitely uses Chrome user data and can track every click within it.
My interpretation of the policy as a whole is that Google are able to track everything you do inside Chrome, whether they use this information yet is another question. What I find more interesting is that the previous quote does imply that Google share’s information with other search providers.
Google workers in the past have denied ever using Google analytics data as part of their algorithm, (as they have with social signals) but Google have proven to be not a reliable source in the past. This makes the fact that they haven’t denied using chrome for user data all the more likely.
Often you can tell more from what Googlers don’t say than what they do. You just need to look at some of the information that Google analytics has on people who use your website. Simply, they must be collecting user data.
Look at my website’s audience demographic in the figure below:
- My main usergroup is 25-34
- The majority of are male technophiles.
- You tend to be specially interested in search marketing and SEO
Are you a fairly young, male, technophile, interested in search marketing and SEO? Google tends to be spot on and at least one of these demographic groups should include you.
For sure they are getting a lot of very accurate, personal data from somewhere. How they use this in the future will be interesting. We are already moving towards a more personalised internet. Who knows how Google will – or already are – implementing these demographics into their algorithm.
When you pair this with the huge investment Google puts into their free products a motive for why they invest so much in free tools becomes clear. Google is a search engine first and foremost. Many would argue the best search engine – they are certainly the most used. To keep their huge user group, and reputation Google needs to keep their competitive edge.
A work in progress
In 2014 Youtube didn’t make a direct profit (Source – Wall Street Journal). What Google gains from Youtube is arguably far more valuable. Millions of people have been encouraged to sign up to Google accounts through Youtube to create content and subscribe to channels.
This helps keep Google relevant by giving them another platform to gauge what people’s interests are and send more accurate adverts to them (in the form of search, video and banner adverts). When you think about all of Google’s products and acquisitions – while they seem keen on world domination, all their products seem to compliment the main search engine in some way.
I firmly believe that ranking factors interact in ways we don’t know about, and we don’t know all the ranking factors or how important they are to the overall algorithm. If you ask most marketing consultants they will say Google has “more than 200 ranking factors”. This has been known for years in which time Google has evolved massively.
Google seems to be constantly chopping and changing their algorithm to give their users the best experience. Saying “[…]more than 200 ranking factors” is meaningless, especially considering the context of the quote – coming from so long ago.
We are looking at effects and trying to identify causes. Good marketing consultants know rather than following checklists and giving guarantees, that they should be seeing what works best for their individual client. Similar reasoning is why Google’s algorithm has been a work in progress for well over a decade.
SEO Best Practices
If you have a search consultant giving you guarantees be very wary. I have shown in a lot of my posts that rarely can we be sure which of Google’s ranking factors a best practice is influencing. All we can usually be sure of is that it has worked in certain situations in the past.
Nobody can be absolutely sure that additions to your website will help you beat your competition. When you are following your check list stop to think. Does adding this video because it is “SEO best practice” actually help your user, or does it make your website look a tacky. Is it on topic and well placed?
If so great, but don’t add bells and whistles for the sake of it. If a user lands on your website and thinks “that video looks a bit tacky” chances are you have already lost them.
There is just so much content the cluttered web that users can easily press back and be taken to a competing website which they prefer. Soon you will find your rankings suffering because somebody you thought was reliable told you to “use a video, it’s SEO best practice”.
The worst part is you probably won’t notice. Your traffic is unlikely to drop, but with time as a ranking factor when you should be experiencing growth you will be stagnating.
It’s best to be simple. Nobody minds simplicity and nearly everybody prefers a simple, easy to navigate website to a complex mess. From a pure SEO point of view we do know that Google finds easy to navigate websites easier to index.
Pagespeed is another example which really helps illustrates these issues. When Google released their page speed algorithm they said it would only affect 1% of all websites. Currently we have no reason to think that any more websites than that are affected, but pagespeed is considered a very important ranking factor.
And that’s a very good thing – if your home page takes 5 seconds to load you have a major problem. If the second button your user presses takes a further five seconds they aren’t going to be your user any more.
We live in a world of choice now – there’s nearly always at least 2 websites to answer any one question, so having a slow website is unforgivable. I say convenience is king quite a lot if you are familiar with my writings – there’s now simply too much content.
And this got me thinking, is pagespeed just pagespeed, or is compression part of Google’s algorithm? What is a slow site, one with a slow server and caching, or a fast server and no caching? One that takes .5 seconds to load or 5 seconds to load?
Going the other way, pagespeed could still directly only be a factor in 1% of website’s rankings. If you have a slow messy website you just won’t get those all important links, or user interaction and engagement.
A different checklist
All these bells and whistles slow your website down. Following your best practice checklist you add a few videos, sound bites, various plugins and images to create a multimedia website. Everybody is happy because some people like audio, some people like video, some people like text and some, images.
Now we have all these “best practice” ranking factors in competition with pagespeed – they all slow your website down even with the best, most up to date compression protocols.
So what do you do?
Unfortunately we just can’t answer these questions yet (to my knowledge) objectively. Google are just too secretive. As I mentioned in the introduction, we don’t even know if their algorithm responds to a question in the same way as a product search. I would guess not.
But you can answer these questions for yourself. You should know what your users want. If you don’t find out. Do as Google does, test, test and then test some more.
Here is some practical knowledge that can guide you along the way.
- Social shares lead to links. Follow the link to see a breakdown of all the evidence of social as a direct ranking factor and decide yourself.
- A faster website or server can never be a bad thing.
- When blogging, long posts have been found to correlate with high rankings. It is better to write in too much detail than too little if you[…]
- Give people the option to skip ahead with on page linking and plenty of subheadings – this can be the difference between a user reading your page or bouncing.
- Think about how changing your design, layout or architecture could improve on your user’s experience then perform an A/B test to be sure.
- Plan a user journey and then let a friend loose on your website. See how similar your friends journey is to your planned user journey and see if that teaches you anything useful (like where their eyes are drawn to).
- The first spot a user looks at on a page is the best place to put a phone number as long as when you add your phone number this remains the first place that a user’s eye is drawn to.
Most importantly, allow your users to do as much with one button click as possible. Integrate social media, so users can share and link to your work with just one mouse click.
If you have to use a login, allow a social login. You can and should still collect people’s emails for remarketing, which is the only possible objection to these single click logins I have ever encountered.
And the positives – I don’t know about you but I rarely sign up to a website just out of curiosity unless I know it will benefit me. But if signup only takes one mouse click curiosity usually will get the better of me. This has led me to useful tools which I would never have explored if they had a complex signup process, and keeps me engaged MUCH longer.
Making everything on your site available in a single click makes a huge difference both in SEO and user experience. Why would somebody build a link to you unless you give them a great experience, why would they recommend you to a friend or even come back themselves?
For a long time search gurus advised never make any piece of content more than two mouse clicks away from your homepage to access. This is still a good piece of advice although as websites get more complicated this is not always possible.
Looking to the future
The semantic web has landed. It has changed how we write, but what’s next? Nearly nine months ago Google commissioned an investigation into voice search. They found 55% of teens and 41% of adults
use voice search on a daily basis.
This is huge. The way we search is changing again, in the last decade we have had mobile really become a pillar of SEO. Voice is coming with the next generation you can be sure of it.
This means thinking of the questions which people might be asking, and answering them. People speak and type in different ways. We have already seen an evolution – older generations usually search with disjointed terms like “SEO Brighton“. Younger generations tend to favour more accurate long tail phrases “face to face search consultant in Brighton“.
With voice this would further evolve into “Ok Google, where can I find a face to face search consultant in Brighton?“. We are on the cusp of a big change. Google is learning, reforming itself to focus on large brands. The Twitter deal has gone down, and Google will be doing something voice focused.
It is highly likely the personalisation which we discussed earlier will become important in the future. Google will profile you if you allow them. Are they using these profiles yet? It is hard to say at this point, location affects search, as does being logged into Google+.
In the near future you can be sure we will have personalised search results similar to being logged into a Google+ account, if you let them.
Small businesses must be adaptable and ready to change quick. The early bird gets the first worm and time will probably always be a factor in SEO. I’ll say it again. Big change is a’coming and by writing your pages using the changing terms that people search you can beat larger businesses which tend to be slower to catch up.
I have done a lot of work about what we know, what we think we know and why. Looking to the future seems like the logical next step.
In the here and now it isn’t all doom and gloom. The internet is getting saturated so you have to get smarter. The internet still isn’t saturated with great content, and even great content isn’t necessarily hosted on great websites. There’s always a way in if you’re determined.
Spend time thinking up a clever hook and you will be onto a winner. That will get you a following. When you have your following create content better than everybody else and it will be read, it will be shared, you will grow and you will rank.
Just whatever you do don’t let your users hit a brick wall. Always link out to other articles so you can keep them engaged for as long as possible.
Is the correlation between engagement and rankings purely from links being built? Leave comments but I firmly believe not.
I have been searching for a place to discuss SEO theory on social media and more recently forums and am struggling to find a metaphorical home. Please leave your thoughts on anything SEO in the comments and we will start a discussion.
The revolution has already started. Black hat practices are on the out but because of all the uncertainty the word spreads slowly. We need to work together rather than see each other as competition. It is hard to find our own faults – but far easier to see others’
More on keeping your audience engaged: