All posts by Clark Boyd

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How does Bing’s voice search compare to Google’s?

Google remains the dominant player in search marketing, but the industry is changing very rapidly and the old certainties may erode. Does voice search provide a platform for Microsoft to compete?

A study earlier this year revealed that Microsoft’s speech recognition technology demonstrated only a 5.1 percent word error rate in Switchboard, a conversational speech recognition task. This shows impressive development and shows that Microsoft is more than competitive in this domain, but it is only part of the picture.

Speech recognition and voice recognition are significantly different. The former extracts words and comprehends what is said; the latter also understand who said it. We could frame this as content and context.

Context will be the defining factor in who becomes the dominant player in voice search, with an increasing amount of internet-enabled devices providing the opportunity for a seamless, conversational experience.

No doubt, search is at the very heart of this battle.

Bing has positioned itself as simply a more effective search engine, with campaigns like Bing It On aimed at showing users the quality of its results compared to those of Google.

Occasionally we see stories of impressive user growth for Bing, but never quite enough to suggest a significant threat to Google’s totemic stature. Latest estimates from Smart Insights put Google’s global share of the search market at 77%, with Bing on about 8%.

The signs so far suggest that Google will remain the dominant search player in the West, but the sands are shifting and it is increasingly difficult to predict where the industry will go. With a newly-announced partnership with Amazon’s Alexa, Microsoft is clearly not going to give up the fight.

So, if search is the glue that holds this together, what is Microsoft’s strategy to compete with Google? We know Microsoft’s speech recognition technology is effective, but how do its voice search capabilities stack up?

Microsoft voice search: the key details

Microsoft’s digital assistant, Cortana, is embedded into Windows-enabled devices and into Microsoft’s Edge internet browser. That provides access to over half a billion users, once we factor in Microsoft’s Xbox gaming consoles.

Cortana has a multitude of uses. It helps users navigate the Windows interface and can respond to a multitude of wider queries, powered by Microsoft’s Bing search engine, for example.

Of course, mobile is a core focus and therefore Cortana is available via a range of Microsoft mobile hardware and software.

Like other digital assistants, Cortana is always ready to answer queries on a Windows device. It now prompts users to test its broadening functionalities by pushing notifications like “Ask me to remind you to buy eggs next time you’re at the supermarket” or “Would you like to know which song is playing?”

It can be a bit creepy and intrusive, but for the most part users will only really notice Cortana when they need to use it. The list of prompts is quite formulaic and Cortana simply searches a query on Bing when it can’t understand what the user wants.

How does Bing’s voice search compare to Google’s?

All of this functionality is at its best when a user is logged in across a range of Microsoft devices, however. The same is true of any digital assistant, but the the respective cases of Apple and Google this is simply more likely to occur.

This means that Cortana misses out on vital context, not through any technological shortcoming, but rather through the lack of mass adoption of Microsoft’s hardware.

On the software front, Microsoft fares better. There are now over 100 million monthly users of Cortana via Windows 10, and the latest edition of the Edge browser continues to bring voice search to the fore.

This is still not quite enough to make a significant dent in Google’s lead, however. One of the most searched-for technology-based phrases on Bing is [google], after all.

Microsoft’s voice search strategy

The challenge for Microsoft has always been to gain enough of the valuable mobile software market to compete with Apple and Google.

Where Apple controls a very profitable section of both the hardware and software ecosystems, Google has historically focused on its Android OS as a Trojan horse to ensure continued use of its products on a wide range of devices.

With Google Home, the Google Pixel smartphone, and Google’s soon-to-be-completed purchase of Taiwanese smartphone company HTC, the focus has shifted to hardware as the Internet of Things comes of age.

Microsoft’s Invoke smart speaker ensures it has a seat at the table, but it is the partnership with Amazon’s highly successful Echo speakers that should increase usage numbers for Cortana.

How does Bing’s voice search compare to Google’s?

Microsoft has always fared well in the enterprise market (albeit under increasing competition from Apple and Google here, too), but the personal smartphone market has been harder to break.

Further integrations with popular platforms such as Spotify, to go along with Microsoft’s ownership of Skype, could start to position Cortana as an appealing alternative to the walled garden approach of Apple.

How does Microsoft voice search differ from Google voice search?

Although both function in similar ways, there are some core areas of differentiation:

  • Speech recognition: Cortana does this fantastically well and, although Google Assistant is still very accurate, small margins do matter in this arena. Although only a sample size of one, I can also attest that Cortana comprehends my Irish brogue much more accurately than Google Assistant.
  • Business task management: Cortana can be a huge timesaver with commands like “Pull up the latest version of my task tracker.” With full access to the Windows OS, it can locate documents quite easily and reduce time spent on laborious document searching.
  • Context: When a user is logged in across Windows products, Cortana can serve accurate contextual results. See below for an example of the same phrase searched by voice on a Windows laptop using Cortana and Google:

How does Bing’s voice search compare to Google’s?

The differences are slight, but telling. Cortana knows that I am currently in Spain (I am using a Windows laptop), and therefore provides the kick-off in my local time. Google is not privy to this information and serves the result in Eastern Time, as my account is based in the US.

When results default to Bing, it all gets a little hairier.

I follow up by asking who will be in the starting lineup and receive a bizarre result about the USA soccer team, a news story about a Leeds starting lineup from three years ago, and some news about the Leeds music festival.

How does Bing’s voice search compare to Google’s?

Google does a better job of this, but both lack the immediacy that integration with a social media feed would provide:
How does Bing’s voice search compare to Google’s?

This same pattern plays out across a wide range of travel, weather, and commercial queries. When Cortana can pull an immediate answer, it does so very capably; when it resorts to providing a list of search results from Bing, the quality varies. Google therefore represents a much more consistent, reliable option.

The new partnership with Amazon may open a range of avenues for Microsoft to reach a wider audience, which will only help to refine these recommendations. For the moment, Google’s superior search experience remains its trump card in the battle for digital assistant supremacy.

In summary

How does Bing’s voice search compare to Google’s?

Image created by Clark Boyd

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What is Google Stamp and what will it mean for marketers?

Google is set to launch a competitor to Snapchat Discover, known as Google Stamp. This new product will bring with it a host of opportunities for publishers and advertisers alike, but it brings with it some challenges too.

What do marketers need to know about this new service, and how successful will it be?

Early in August, news leaked via the Wall Street Journal that Google has been preparing a direct rival to one of Snapchat’s most popular and profitable features, Discover. This new product will be integrated with Google’s core services, and will be known as Google Stamp.

The name Stamp is a portmanteau created by uniting the abbreviation ‘St’ from the word ‘stories’ and the acronym AMP, from the Google-led Accelerated Mobile Pages initiative.  That quite succinctly sums up the purpose of Stamp: it will be a publishing platform that allow brands to tell stories in a new fashion, optimized for mobile.

It seems that after a reported bid of $30 billion dollars to buy Snapchat was rejected in 2016, Google has decided instead to mimic some of the functionality that has made Snapchat such a hit with younger audiences. This will be a further blow to Snap, after Facebook copied so many of their features to launch Instagram Stories last year – followed by additional imitators in Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp.

Although a firm launch date is still unknown, there has been plenty of noise around this latest Google product.

So, what do we know about Google Stamp so far?

The core platform is expected to function in a very similar manner to Snapchat Discover. Users will be able to swipe between different pieces of content and there will be a healthy mix of video, images, and text to keep readers engaged.

What is Google Stamp and what will it mean for marketers?

Of course, the Google ecosystem is very different to the social networks it will be competing with in this space. Users come to Google to make a search, with a topic or product in mind. That is a different mindset altogether to that of a user browsing a social network, a fact that Google is painfully aware of and it is a gap they have tried to bridge many times.

Google has made a play to take some of the ‘discovery phase’ market recently, through its new homepage experience and the use of visual search technology in Google Lens.

This is seen as a significant growth opportunity in the industry. If tech companies can start suggesting relevant products to consumers before the consumer even knows what they want, they can open up a range of new revenue streams.

What is Google Stamp and what will it mean for marketers?

Source: Pinterest

Advances in machine learning technologies and predictive analytics mean that this is now possible, and there is an ongoing battle between Google, Pinterest, Amazon, and many others to claim this fertile ground.

All of these technological developments open up novel ways of communicating with audiences, particularly when it comes to storytelling. This has never truly been Google’s home turf, however, and it will need to give significant backing to Stamp if it is to convince users to change their long-held behaviors.

It is therefore anticipated that Stamp articles will feature just below the search bar within the Google interface. Giving Stamp this level of prominence will bring publishers’ stories to the attention of billions of daily users.

If we factor in the full suite of software and hardware that Google owns, it is easy to see the scale that Stamp could have. All of this is integrated through Google’s sophisticated DoubleClick technology solutions, so there is reason to believe that Google could finally start to crack the content syndication market.

Who will be able to publish Stamp stories?

Some large publishers, including Time Inc. and CNN, have been approached as potential launch partners for Stamp. However, it will be interesting to see how quickly this is opened up to the next tier of content creators.

The exclusivity of Snapchat Discover in its early days was cited as a reason for a damaging exodus to Instagram from a range of content creators. Publishers wanted to get involved and had a message to communicate, but Snapchat was slow to open up access to the platform.

The relationship between large publishers and the AMP project has at times been fractious, with the main bone of contention being that these pages are hard to monetize. Advertising revenues are as important to publishers as they are to Google, of course, so this is a course that all involved would like to see corrected.

Stamp gives us clear insight into how Google would like to do this. In essence, Stamp allows for a much more customer-centric form of adverting than we have traditionally seen from the search giant. By inserting native ads within content, Google would be making a significant shift from its AdWords marketing model.

From a business perspective, all of this ties in with the recent updates to Google’s AdSense products. The investment in improving AdSense will see display ads appear in much more relevant contexts and they will be less disruptive to the user experience. Once more, we see customer-centricity come to the fore.

What is Google Stamp and what will it mean for marketers?

What will Google Stamp mean for advertisers?

Advertising via Google Stamp will mean engaging with and understanding a new form of storytelling. Advertisers should therefore no longer see this just as a traditional media buy, as there will need to be close collaboration between content creators and content promoters to ensure that ads are contextual.

Of course, this will be similar to launching a campaign on Instagram or Snapchat, but it will be interesting to see where responsibility for Google Stamp media buys sits, purely by dint of this being Google rather than a social network. The same teams who handle AdWords campaigns would need to integrate new skillsets to make the most of this opportunity.

The ability to think creatively and forge connections with consumers continues to grow in importance, rather than interrupting their experiences. Combined with the targeting technologies and data at Google’s disposal, this will be a potent mix for those that are equipped to take advantage. Advertisers expect good returns from Google campaigns and will still get them, but they will need to approach campaigns differently.

Some unanswered questions

Of course, much is still unknown about Google Stamp. We know it will be very similar to Snapchat Discover and we suspect it will be given a prime position just below the Google search bar. However, the following questions remain unanswered for the moment:

  • How frequently will Google Stamp be featured in search results?
  • Will Stamp be a fixed feature of Google’s new homepage experience?
  • Which types of queries will trigger Stamp results?
  • What options will be open to advertisers? Will Google introduce innovative new formats to maximize Stamp’s potential?
  • How will Google rank Stamp posts?
  • Will publishers create different content for Stamp, or just re-use Instagram or Snapchat assets?
  • Will users migrate over to Google to use what seems likely to be a very similar product to Snapchat Discover?

We expect all of these questions to be answered in due course, although Google is still reticent on a firm release date for this ambitious venture.

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Should You Publish Content on a Company Blog or Medium? by @clarkboyd

Where should you publish – on Medium or a company blog? Learn the pros and cons of each here.

The post Should You Publish Content on a Company Blog or Medium? by @clarkboyd appeared first on Search Engine Journal.

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Google Search Console: What the latest updates mean for marketers

Google Search Console has long been a go-to platform for SEOs on a daily basis.

It provides invaluable insight into how people are finding our websites, but also allows us to monitor and resolve any issues Google is having in accessing our content.

Originally known as Google Webmaster Tools, Search Console has benefited from some significant upgrades over the past decade. That said, it is still far from perfect and few would argue that it provides a complete package in its current guise. A raft of industry updates, particularly those affecting mobile rankings, has left Search Console’s list of features in need of an overhaul.

Therefore, Google’s recent announcement of some ongoing and upcoming changes to the platform was very warmly received by the SEO community. These changes go beyond the cosmetic and should help site owners both identify and rectify issues that are affecting their performance. There have also been some tantalizing glimpses of exciting features that may debut before the end of the year.

So, what has changed?

Google categorizes the initial Search Console changes into the following groups: Insights, Workflow, and Feedback Loops.

Within the Insights category, Google’s new feature aims to identify common “root-cause” issues that are hampering the crawling and indexation of pages on a website. These will then be consolidated into tasks, allowing users to monitor progress and see whether any fixes they submit have been recognized by Google.

This should be hugely beneficial for site owners and developers as it will accelerate their progress in fixing the big ticket items in the platform.

On a broader level, this is in line with Google’s drive to use machine learning technologies to automate some laborious tasks and streamline the amount of time people need to spend to get the most out of their products.

The second area of development is Organizational Workflow which, although not the most glamorous part of an SEO’s work, should bring some benefits that make all of our lives a little easier.

As part of the Search Console update, users will now be able to share ticket items with various team members within the platform. Given how many people are typically involved in identifying and rectifying technical SEO issues, often based in different teams or even territories, this change should have a direct and positive impact on SEO work streams.

Historically, these workflows have existed in other software packages in parallel to what occurs directly within Search Console, so bringing everything within the platform is a logical progression.

The third announcement pertains to Feedback Loops and aims to tackle a longstanding frustration with Search Console. It can be difficult to get everyone on board with making technical fixes, but the time lag we experience in verifying whether the change was effective makes this all the more difficult. If the change does not work, it takes days to realize this and we have to go back to the drawing board.

Google Search Console: What the latest updates mean for marketers

This lag is caused by the fact that Google has historically needed to re-crawl a site before any updates to the source code are taken into account. Though this will remain true in terms of affecting performance, site owners will at least be able to see an instant preview of whether their changes will work or not.

Feedback is also provided on the proposed code changes, so developers can iterate very quickly and adjust the details until the issue is resolved.

All of the above upgrades will help bring SEO to the center of business discussions and allow teams to work together quickly to improve organic search performance.

In addition to these confirmed changes, Google has also announced some interesting BETA features that will be rolled out to a wider audience if they are received positively.

New BETA features

Google has announced two features that will be tested within a small set of users: Index Coverage report and AMP fixing flow.

The screenshot below shows how the Index Coverage report will look and demonstrates Google’s dedication to providing a more intuitive interface in Search Console.

Google Search Console: What the latest updates mean for marketers

As Google summarized in their announcement of this new report:

“The new Index Coverage report shows the count of indexed pages, information about why some pages could not be indexed, along with example pages and tips on how to fix indexing issues. It also enables a simple sitemap submission flow, and the capability to filter all Index Coverage data to any of the submitted sitemaps.”

Once more, we see the objective of going beyond simply displaying information to go to a deeper level and explain why these issues occur. The final, most challenging step, is to automate the prescription of advice to resolve the issues.

Other platforms have stepped into this arena in the past, with mixed success. SEO is dependent on so many other contingent factors that hard and fast rules tend not to be applicable in most circumstances. Automated advice can therefore either be too vague to be of any direct use, or it can provide specific advice that is inapplicable to the site in question.

Technical SEO is more receptive to black and white rules than other industry disciplines, however, so there is cause for optimism with this new Google update.

The second BETA feature is the AMP fixing flow. AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages) is Google’s open source initiative to improve mobile page loading speeds by using a stripped-back version of HTML code.

With the weight of one of the world’s biggest companies behind it, AMP has taken hold with an increasing number of industries and looks set to widen its reach soon within both ecommerce and news publishers.

Google has bet on AMP to see off threats from the likes of Facebook and Snapchat, so it stands to reason that they want to help webmasters get the most out of its features. Any new coding initiative will bring with it a new set of challenges too, and some developers will find a few kinks as they translate their content to AMP HTML.

The AMP fixing flow will look similar to the screenshot below and will allow users to identify and tackle any anomalies in their code, before receiving instant verification from Google on whether the proposed fix is sufficient.

Google Search Console: What the latest updates mean for marketers

What’s next?

The one aspect of Search Console that all marketers would love to see upgraded is the lag in data processing time. As it stands, the data is typically 48 hours behind, leading to some agonizing waits as marketers hope to analyze performance on a search query level. Compared to the real-time data in many other platforms, including Google Analytics and AdWords, Search Console requires two days to source and process its data from a variety of sources.

That may change someday, however. As reported on SE Roundtable, Google’s John Mueller has stated that they are investigating ways to speed up the data processing. Although Mueller added, “Across the board, we probably at least have a one-day delay in there to make sure that we can process all of the data on time”, this still hints at a very positive development for SEO.

With so many changes focused on speed and efficiency, a significant decrease in the data lag time on Search Console would cap this round of upgrades off very nicely.

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What does Web 3.0 mean for search?

The signs of fundamental change are all around us.

Digital assistants reside within our living rooms, we consume Internet-based services everywhere, and we are creating data every second of the day.

A sense pervades of being constantly connected through devices that communicate with each other. The experience of using the Internet is therefore markedly different to what it was 10 years ago.

What we don’t quite have is a universally accepted label for this era of digital development.

The phrase “Web 3.0” was first coined back in 2006. Viewed by some industry insiders back then as an “unobtainable dream“, the idea of Web 3.0 has remained elusive.

However, as technology catches up and the tech giants figure out ways to make sense of the reams of unstructured data we create every second, the dream seems much more obtainable than ever before. In fact, many argue it is already a reality.

So what exactly is Web 3.0? What makes it so different from Web 2.0? And what do marketers need to do today to prepare for this revolution?

What is Web 3.0?

This is a more contentious question than it might at first seem. Many opinions exist on the topic, but the general consensus is that Web 3.0 ushers in an entirely new way of creating websites, of interacting with them, and of utilizing the data that these interactions generate.

Techopedia’s definition contains a clear depiction of how big this change is:

“Web 3.0 will be a complete reinvention of the web, something that Web 2.0 was not. Web 2.0 was simply an evolution from the original Web.”

Web 1.0 was essentially a repository of information that people could read passively, without being able to shape the information or add their own. The move to Web 2.0 was given concrete shape in everyday aspects of online life, such as submitting product reviews on Amazon or launching a personal blog. People were to become very active participants online, whether on social media or on reputable news sites.

An overhaul in how the Web functions is necessary, if we look at the raw statistics. Global Internet traffic has passed one zettabyte (that’s one trillion gigabytes); over 4 billion people will have Internet access by 2020; over 60,000 searches are performed on Google every second.

All that data creates possibilities, albeit only if we are equipped to harness them. We imagine hyper-personalized, fluid, targeted online interactions between brands and consumers, but bringing this idea to fruition is a very complex logistical task.

By converting unstructured data into structured data (simple updates like Schema.org have helped with this), and by ensuring all databases communicate with each other in the same language, lots of new opportunities arise.

What does Web 3.0 mean for search?

Put succinctly, Web 3.0 will allow us to make sense of all the data that digital devices create.

It can be seen as a Web that thinks for itself, rather than just following commands.

This is built on a decentralized, secure platform that allows much more privacy for consumers than they currently have.

It is easy to spot some threads within this narrative: the use of artificial intelligence, the potential for a blockchain-based solution for storing and sharing data, and the evolution of the semantic web to provide personalized experiences.

We can summarize our definition by identifying five key factors that set Web 3.0 apart from its earlier incarnation:

Artificial intelligence

AI will be used in every walk of life to carry out computational tasks humans are incapable of completing. It will also make decisions for us, whether in driverless cars or in our digital marketing strategies.

Virtual & augmented reality 

Brands are tapping into the possibilities these technologies bring, providing an entirely new way of connecting that goes far beyond what a static screen can provide.

The semantic web

By finally understanding the data each individual creates, technology companies can gain insight into context. This has been a significant push for Google for some time, particularly with the respective launches of Hummingbird and RankBrain. The aim is to go beyond the dictionary definition of each word and comprehend what consumers are using phrases to mean at that particular moment.

Internet of things 

A true defining feature of Web 3.0 is the proliferation of Internet of Things (IoT) ‘smart’ devices. Examples such as Amazon Echo are well-known, but there are plans to add Internet connectivity to every aspect of our lives.

Seamless connectivity

Until now, data has been stored in various formats and communication between data sets can be challenging. Web 3.0 really comes into its own when data exchanges are seamless and ubiquitous.

This is achieved when Internet-connected devices are omnipresent, from the home to the workplace and everywhere in between; but those devices need to be able to communicate with each other. When that happens, the digital assistant in your car can ask the fridge if you’re out of milk and if so, to order some from Amazon.

How will Web 3.0 change online interactions?

The way we source information and find products is still far from frictionless. For example, consider the planning of an upcoming holiday. We could buy a package deal and that would remove a lot of the administrative tasks, but it would be far from a tailored product.

In reality, most of us will search for deals on flights, research hotels, read travel guides, and talk to people who have been to the destination before via social media.

What does Web 3.0 mean for search?

That is a vast improvement on the holiday-booking process pre-Internet. However, Web 3.0 will take this much further.

Instead of conducting multiple searches in different places, one prompt would be sufficient to pull together all the relevant information. To take our holiday example, we could say to an Internet connected device, “I’m looking for a holiday in Italy later this year with the family, what are my options?” The digital assistant will then dip into its vast interconnected list of databases to retrieve relevant information and organize it, based on your query and provide the best options in one interface.

Everything from flights to meals to cultural attractions will be pulled together into a truly personalized list of recommendations.

How will Web 3.0 affect search marketing?

The example above provides a clear indication of how much things are changing. Optimizing title tags for a higher click-through rate won’t really cut it when an AI-powered digital assistant is bypassing these signals to identify the right content to answer a query.

Search marketers’ focus should shift towards understanding the different preferences of their user base and creating multimedia content that responds to this. As people become more comfortable with using voice-based digital assistants, we can expect search trends to move away from the likes of [italy holidays 2017] and towards more specific, long-tail queries.

Searcher behaviors are deeply entrenched and slow to change, but they do change. Recent research from Google showed the drop-off in “near me” queries as users come to expect that results will be local, without adding a geo-modifier.

What does Web 3.0 mean for search?

Added to August’s news that Microsoft’s speech recognition system has reached a new accuracy milestone, we get a sense that these long-heralded changes are finally coming to pass. Voice search is on the rise, mobile device usage shows no use of relenting, and search engines are using this data to create better interactions.

Search marketers need to keep up. The first step is to ensure that all content is clearly labeled for search engines. Microdata can be used to achieve this and Schema.org mark-up remains just as vital as it has been for the past few years.

The core objective when we create new content should be to facilitate its serving to users, no matter where they are or which device they are using. Keyword targeting still matters, but we need to maintain a more nuanced idea of what our consumers really mean.

Google’s Quick Answers initiative is a particularly telling development in this sense. On the face of it, it seems a rather innocuous and helpful change, but at a deeper level it tells us a lot more. We are moving away from screen-based interfaces that provide lots of choices; consumers want the right answer to their query.

Performance measurement will continue to change, of course. The idea of tracking keyword level ranking positions remains attractive, but its use as an accurate barometer of how a site is performing has waned significantly. SEO goals should be much more closely aligned to business objectives, which can only be a healthy development.

We are moving into an age of flux, where the comforting-but-illusory constants of old are replaced by shifting and slippery notions of ‘meaning’ and context’. Those that are ready to adapt soonest will profit most.

Web 3.0: What do search marketers need to know?

  • Web 3.0 will change how people search, how search engines process their queries, and how results are displayed. These changes have been in process for years now, but they are starting to have tangible impacts on how we find information online.
  • This is driven by improvements in how search engines understand the meaning of queries by harnessing huge amounts of unstructured data and transforming it into something structured and significant.
  • Web 3.0 will also bring with it a new way of creating digital assets. The old ideas of creating a static website will be replaced by hyper-personalized experiences that vary in their messaging and their media formats.
  • AI-powered digital assistants are starting to usher in new behaviors. What search marketers should focus on is creating the right digital assets for their consumers and ensuring that any search engine can locate and serve this content as seamlessly as possible.
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Google Analytics: Misunderstandings that hold marketers back

Google Analytics (GA) has done more than any other platform to bring the practice of data analytics to the center of organizations.

By offering a free-to-use, intuitive solution to businesses of any size, it has offered the promise of full transparency into customer behavior.

Moreover, as part of the broader marketing analytics movement, it has helped shape the language we use daily. Our handy guide explains some of the most frequently heard, but at time confusing, terms GA has brought into everyday parlance in the marketing world.

Pitch decks and strategy sessions abound with references to “data-driven decisions” nowadays, which is a healthy trend for businesses overall. Beyond the buzzword status this phrase has attained, it is true that businesses that integrate analytics into the decision-making process simply get better results.

Google reports that business leaders are more than twice as likely to act on insights taken from analytics:

As Google continues to improve its offering, with Optimize and Data Studio available to everyone, and an ever more impressive list of paid products via the Analytics 360 suite, marketers need to understand the data in front of them.

Unfortunately, there are some common misunderstandings of how Google collects, configures, processes, and reports data.

The below are some of the commonly misunderstood metrics and features within the core Google Analytics interface.

By avoiding these pitfalls, you will enable better decisions based on data you can trust.

Bounce rate

What is it?

Bounce rate is a simple, useful metric that is triggered when a user has a single-page session on a website. That is to say, they entered on one URL and left the site from the same URL, without interacting with that page or visiting any others on the site.

It is calculated as a percentage, by dividing the aggregate number of single-page sessions by the total number of entries to that page. Bounce rate can also be shown on a site-wide level to give an overview of how well content is performing.

As such, it makes for a handy heuristic when we want to glean some quick insights into whether our customers like a page or not. The assumption is that a high bounce rate is reflective of a poorly performing page, as its contents have evidently not encouraged a reader to explore the site further.

Google Analytics: Misunderstandings that hold marketers back

Why is it misunderstood?

Bounce rate is at times both misunderstood and misinterpreted.

A ‘bounce’ occurs when a user views one page on a site and a single request is sent to the Analytics server. Therefore, we can say that Google uses the quantity of engagement hits to classify a bounced session. One request = bounced; more than one request to the server = not bounced.

This can be problematic, given that any interaction will preclude that session from counting as a bounce. Some pages contain auto-play videos, for example. If the start of a video is tracked as an event, this will trigger an engagement hit. Even if the user exits the page immediately, they will still not be counted as a bounced visit.

Equally, a user may visit the page, find the exact information they wanted (a phone number or address, for example), and then carry out their next engagement with the brand offline. Their session could be timed out (this happens by default after 30 minutes on GA and then restarts), before they engage further with the site. In either example, this will be counted as a bounced visit.

That has an impact on the Average Time on Page calculations, of course. A bounced visit has a duration of zero, as Google calculates this based on the time between visiting one page and the next – meaning that single-page visits, and the last page in any given session, will have zero Time on Page.

Advances in user-based tracking (as opposed to cookie-based) and integration with offline data sources provide cause for optimism; but for now, most businesses using GA will see a bounce rate metric that is not wholly accurate.

All of this should start to reveal why and how bounce rate can be misinterpreted.

First of all, a high bounce rate not always a problem. Often, users find what they want by viewing one page and this could actually be a sign of a high-performing page. This occurs when people want very specific information, but can also occur when they visit a site to read a blog post.

Moreover, a very low bounce rate does not necessarily mean a page is performing well. It may suggest that users have to dig deeper to get the information they want, or that they quickly skim the page and move on to other content.

With the growing impact of RankBrain, SEOs will understandably view bounce rate as a potential ranking factor. However, it has to be placed in a much wider context before we can assume it has a positive or negative impact on rankings.

How can marketers avoid this?

Marketers should never view bounce rate as a measure of page quality in isolation. There really is no such thing as a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ bounce rate in a universal sense, but when combined with other metrics we can get a clearer sense of whether a page is doing its job well.

Tools like Scroll Depth are great for this, as they allow us to see in more detail how a consumer has interacted with our content.  

We can also make use of Google Tag Manager to adapt the parameters for bounce rate and state, for example, that any user that spends longer than 30 seconds on the page should be discounted as a bounce. This is useful for publishers who tend to receive a lot of traffic from people who read one post and then go elsewhere.

This is commonly known as ‘adjusted bounce rate’ and it helps marketers get a more accurate view of content interactions. Glenn Gabe wrote a tutorial for Search Engine Watch on how to implement this: How to implement Adjusted Bounce Rate (ABR) via Google Tag Manager.

Bounce rate can be a very useful metric, but it needs a bit of tweaking for each site before it is truly fit for purpose.

Channel groupings

What is it?

Channels are sources of traffic and they reflect the ways that users find your website. As a result, this is one of the first areas marketers will check in their GA dashboard to evaluate the performance of their different activities.

There are many ways that people can find websites, so we tend to group these channels together to provide a simpler overview of traffic.

Google provides default channel groupings out of the box, which will typically look as follows:

Google Analytics: Misunderstandings that hold marketers back

You can find this by navigating this path: Admin > Channel Settings > Channel Grouping.

Anything that sits outside of these sources will fall into the disconcertingly vague ‘(Other)’ bucket.

From Google’s perspective, this is a reasonably accurate portrayal of the state of affairs for most websites. However, this is applied with broad brush strokes out of necessity and it shapes how marketers interpret very valuable data.

Why is it misunderstood?

Default channel groupings are often misunderstood in the sense that they are taken as the best solution without conducting further investigation.

Vague classifications like ‘Social’ and ‘Referral’ ignore the varying purposes of the media that fall under these umbrellas. In the case of the former, we would at the very least want to split out our paid and organic social media efforts and treat them separately.

We want channel groupings to provide a general overview, but perhaps it needn’t be quite so general.

Leaving these groupings as they are has a significant impact, particularly when it comes to the eternal riddle of channel attribution. If we want to understand which channels have contributed to conversions, we need to have our channels correctly defined as a basic starting point.

How can marketers avoid this?

Make use of custom channel groupings that accurately reflect your marketing activities and the experience your consumers will have with your brand online. It is often helpful to group campaigns by their purpose; prospecting and remarketing, for example.

Custom channel groupings are a great option because they alter the display of data, rather than how it is filtered. You can modify the default channel groupings if you feel confident about the changes you plan to make, but this will permanently affect how data is processed in your account. Always add a new view to test these updates before committing them to your main account dashboard.

For most, custom channel groupings will be more than sufficient.

Through the use of regular expressions (known commonly as regex), marketers can set up new rules. Regex is not a particularly complex language to learn and follows a clear logic, but it does take a little bit of getting used to. You can find a great introductory guide to regex expressions here. These rules will allow you to create new channels or alter the pre-defined groupings Google provides.  

Your new channel groupings will be applied to historical data, so you can easily assess the difference they make. These alterations will prove especially invaluable when you compare attribution models within GA.

Custom Segments

What are they?

The array of segmentation options available is undoubtedly one of Google Analytics’ most powerful advantages. Customer segments allow us to view very specific behavioral patterns across demographics, territories and devices, among many others. We can also import segments created by other users, so there is a truly vast selection of options at our disposal.

By clicking on ‘+ New Segment’ within your GA reports, you will be taken to the Segment Builder interface:

Google Analytics: Misunderstandings that hold marketers back

Google provides a very handy preview tool that shows us what percentage of our audience is included under the terms we are in the process of defining. This will always begin at 100% and decrease as our rules start to hone in on particular metrics and/or dimensions:

Google Analytics: Misunderstandings that hold marketers back

This is where it starts to get tricky, as the segment builder can start to produce unexpected results. A seemingly sound set of rules can return a preview of 0% of total users, much to the marketer’s chagrin.

Why are they misunderstood?

The underlying logic in how Google processes and interprets data can be complex, even inconsistent at times.

When we set up a set of rules, they will be treated sequentially. A session will need to pass the first condition in order to reach the second round, and so on. We therefore need to consider very carefully how we want our experiments to run if we want them to be sound.

To take a working example, if I want to see how many sessions have included a visit to my homepage and to my blog, I can set up an advanced condition to cover this. I filter by sessions and include a condition for Page exactly matching the blog URL and Page exactly matching the homepage:

Google Analytics: Misunderstandings that hold marketers back

This creates what seems like a valid segment in the preview.

Logically, I should be able to take this up one level to see what proportion of users meet these conditions. Within the GA hierarchy, users are a superset of sessions, which are in turn a superset of hits.

However, this is not how things play out in reality. Just by switching the filter from ‘Sessions’ to ‘Users’, the segment is rendered invalid:

Google Analytics: Misunderstandings that hold marketers back

Why does this occur?

Google uses a different logic to calculate each, which can of course be quite confusing.

In the former example, Google’s logic allowed room for interpretation, so the AND condition loosely meant that a session could include visits to each page at different times. As such, some sessions meet the requisite conditions.

In the latter example, the AND rule means that a user must meet both conditions simultaneously to be included. This is impossible, as they cannot be on two pages at once.

We can still arrive at the same results, but we cannot do so using the AND condition. By removing the second condition and adding a new filter in its place, we can see the same results for Users that we received for Sessions:

Google Analytics: Misunderstandings that hold marketers back

In other words, we need to be very specific about what exactly we mean if we want accurate results from segments created for users, but not quite so explicit with sessions.

It is better to err on the safe side overall, as the logic employed for Users was rolled out more recently and it is here to stay. The complexity is multiplied when a segment contains filters for users and for sessions, so it is essential to maintain some consistency in how you set these up.

Google Analytics: Misunderstandings that hold marketers back

How can marketers avoid this?

By understanding the hierarchy of User – Session – Hit, we can start to unpick Google’s inner workings. If we can grasp this idea, it is possible to debug custom segments that don’t work as expected.

The same idea applies to metrics and dimensions too, where some pairings logically cannot be met within the same segment. Google provides a very comprehensive view of which pairings will and will not work together which is worth checking out.

Although it does involve quite a bit of trial and error at first, custom segments are worth the effort and remain one of the most powerful tools at the analyst’s disposal.

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The best SEO influencers and resources to follow

More than any other digital marketing discipline, SEO is a game of opinions. There is no one-size-fits-all strategy that guarantees success, and that leaves plenty of room for healthy debate.

Given how profitable SEO can be when done well, the industry has spawned a vast array of influencers, dispensing morsels of invaluable insight that businesses can apply to their own strategies. A few of these influencers have even gained something close to celebrity status.

It’s been a tough few months for the industry in that sense, with luminaries like Rand Fishkin, Danny Sullivan and Matt McGee announcing their respective departures from the scene in the near future.

These are all respected figures with a wealth of experience who essentially put SEO on the map. In their wake, there is a need for a new wave of dedicated SEO experts to conduct and share their findings with the wider community. Fortunately, there are plenty of worthy candidates.

Unfortunately, there is also a lot of bad advice out there. SEO provokes conjecture along with healthy debate, and following the wrong advice can have a negative impact on any business.

However, help is at hand. The below is a list of experts and resources that continually provide excellent, reliable, actionable SEO advice.

Backlinko

As the name suggests with minimal subtlety, the site is mainly about link building. This is an essential area of SEO, but yet also the one of the most difficult to master. With Google’s Penguin algorithm now functioning in real time, all SEOs need to make sure their link earning practices are squeaky clean.

Backlinko helps to bridge this gap by providing convincing evidence of the areas that drive performance, backed up by case studies and in-depth research.

The blog also contains exhaustive, permanent resources on non-link building topics, including YouTube ranking factors and a very long list of 201 SEO tips.

Backlinko provides a lesson for all SEO and content marketers. The site’s principal author, Brian Dean, posts as frequently as he has something substantial and of lasting value to share. This flies in the face of the received wisdom that content publication should have a regular cadence, but it seems to work.

For anyone looking to go beyond the usual SEO soundbites and find out what really works, this is an excellent place to start.

SEO by the Sea

SEO by the Sea is a niche blog, focusing on analysis of newly granted patents for companies like Google. It makes for a much more entertaining read than one might expect, with rare insights into the workings of the world’s foremost tech companies.

The site is run by Bill Slawski and provides more substantial information than most other SEO-focused blogs out there. Of course, not all of the patents reviewed see the light of day in product form, so we need to approach them with a modicum of caution. However, as a resource for understanding the technology and methodology behind retrieving and ranking search results, SEO by the Sea is unparalleled.

In combination with the corroborating evidence we can find on sites like Backlinko, this site helps provide a rounded view of how a search engine really works.

The best SEO influencers and resources to follow

Lisa Myers

Lisa Myers is the founder of UK-based agency Verve Search, and is also a regular on the SEO conference scene. She has presented at a wide range of events; most of the presentations can be found here.

Lisa’s presentations have covered some fascinating topics, including the need for SEOs to inject some emotion into their content to cut through with audiences. Many of the decks are focused on how to attract authoritative backlinks through content, which is undoubtedly one of the most challenging and unpredictable areas of our work. Her most recent talk from MozCon 2017 is definitely worth reading for anyone that works in content marketing or influencer engagement.

Lisa Myers is also the founder of Women in Search, another great resource if you are looking for some SEO influencers to follow.

Dr Pete

Dr Pete is the resident marketing scientist at Moz and he has for some time been a reputable authority on the inner workings of search engines.

Recently, he has focused on understanding Google’s ‘featured snippets’, which are another huge opportunity for SEOs, but not one that we can distil to an exact, simple formula. This guide is about as comprehensive a resource on the subject as one could hope for, and following the steps it outlines can help SEOs improve the likelihood they will show up in those coveted featured snippets positions.

The best SEO influencers and resources to follow

You can also follow Dr Pete on Twitter, where he is typically very responsive to any specific questions from the SEO community.

Barry Schwartz

Barry Schwartz is an industry veteran and is one of the most reliable authorities on Google updates. He runs the excellent Search Engine Roundtable, which is just about the best site out there for any breaking SEO news. Posts are short and to the point, containing the essential information as it becomes available. The sources for their news stories typically work in the engineering teams at Google, so it as about as reliable as we could expect to find.  

This means that posts are typically quite short and to the point, containing the essential information we need to know. Search Engine Roundtable is therefore a little different to most other SEO blogs, choosing to report on very specific pieces of Google information, rather than in-depth studies. As a result, it’s a site that most SEOs should visit quite frequently to keep abreast of the latest news as it breaks.

Stone Temple Research

Stone Temple is an SEO agency and, like most SEO agencies, they have a blog. What makes theirs stand out from the crowd is their dedication to spending a huge amount of time preparing rigorous studies that tell us something new.

The recent study on how Google might rank videos differently on YouTube versus traditional search is essential reading for anyone in the industry. Past studies have investigated Google’s indexation of Twitter posts over time and the effectiveness of the various digital assistants.

Stone Temple keep a clear focus on content quality, backing everything up with a coherent methodology and a transparent view on their findings. As such, posts are relatively infrequent, but they are typically worth the wait.

Webmaster Central

So, there are lots of different guides and resources out there, but sometimes SEO questions don’t fit so neatly within these categories. Chances are, however obscure your SEO question is, someone has asked it already on Webmaster Central.

This Google help forum provides an opportunity for search professionals to ask and answer detailed questions. Everything from disavow files to international SEO is covered in a huge amount of depth, so this site is worth benchmarking in case you run into any obstacles. In all likelihood, someone else will already have encountered (and overcome) the same hurdle on Webmaster Central.

Marketing Experiments

This is not strictly an SEO resource, but it is worth adding to an SEO reading list nonetheless. Marketing Experiments contains a trove of case studies, mainly focused on Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO) tests. User engagement factors are increasingly important for SEO rankings, so this is not an area of marketing that we can ignore. With the advent and subsequent growth of RankBrain, the worlds of SEO and CRO have converged almost entirely now.

The best SEO influencers and resources to follow

Image via Pixabay

Marketing Experiments hosts a lengthy list of use cases that can provide invaluable data to shape our own hypotheses when it comes to testing landing page variations. The Unbounce blog is also a good place to stay up to speed with the latest in CRO.

Inbound.org

You can bring all of this together, and add a lot more influencers to your own list, by signing up to Inbound.org. Inbound curates a personalized list for marketers based on their areas of interest, with options including PPC, SEO, Social Media, and Data Science.

Inbound highlights trending topics in organic search, but it also serves as a marketing community and forum for people to share ideas. There are always new voices in the SEO industry; this is a great place to hear them first.

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The 15 best Google Chrome extensions for SEO

Google Chrome has taken a dominant position as the world’s favorite desktop browser, with almost 60% market share and rising.

Its central role among Google’s vast suite of digital software and hardware has driven this growth, but users also love how customizable the browser is.

It can be dauntingly customizable, in fact. With tens of thousands of extensions available, finding the few that will aid you on a daily basis is an all-consuming endeavor. In one store, you can find everything from Nicholas Page (an extension that turns any page Nicholas Cage-themed) to a variety of income tax calculators.

Somewhere in between those two extremes, there are hundreds of SEO-themed extensions, some much more useful than others.

There is a little bit of a learning curve to using some SEO Chrome extensions, but once they become habit, they will save plenty of time in the long run.

Therefore, within this list we have distilled this down to the 15 extensions that will simply make you more effective at the core areas of SEO.

Chrome extensions for a quick site review

SimilarWeb

The SimilarWeb extension is a great place to start with a quick site analysis. It provides a broader view of a website beyond just SEO, taking into account all traffic sources. The extension does this by analyzing clickstream data from thousands of internet service providers, SimilarWeb’s own web crawlers, and their clients’ data.

As a result of these calculations, you can get reasonably reliable stats on a brand’s audience demographics, how much they spend on paid media, and which countries their traffic comes from.

All of these factors affect SEO, of course, so this provides invaluable insight when analyzing a brand’s digital presence. The Chrome extension is free, but a paid account does give access to a more complete data set.

MozBar

We couldn’t really have an SEO Chrome extensions list without including MozBar. As an all-in-one tool for a quick SEO site overview, MozBar is still the best on the market. Once a user is logged into their Moz community account (it’s free to sign up, for those that haven’t opened an account), MozBar springs into action on websites and search engine results pages.

It contains an extensive list of analyses, covering technical SEO, on-site content, social media engagement, and backlinks. MozBar can cause sites to load a little more slowly, however, so it’s best to enable it only when you need to assess a website’s SEO metrics.

The 15 best Google Chrome extensions for SEO

Impactana

Impactana is a content marketing toolbar that offers the social media analysis you would expect, displaying share counts for each page on Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, et al.

Where it stands apart from the competition is in its use of proprietary metrics to calculate the ‘Impact’ and ‘Buzz’ of each piece of content. These metrics incorporate user engagement signals to assess not just whether content has been shared, but whether people have interacted with it too. As such, it makes for a great starting point when analyzing the effectiveness of a competitor’s content marketing campaigns.

The 15 best Google Chrome extensions for SEO

Chrome extensions for technical SEO

User agent switcher

In this mobile-first age, we need to make sure we are optimizing for a variety of screen sizes and device types. That’s pretty hard to do with just a desktop to hand, unless you have a user agent switcher downloaded.

This extension will give you the option to view web pages as they would appear on a wide variety of devices and operating systems. It’s an essential extension for developers, but it’s very useful for anyone conducting SEO analysis too.

Scraper

Quite often, we need to pull elements from a range of individual pages or websites for large-scale analysis. There are a few different ways of doing this, such as using IMPORTXML code to pull structured data from websites into Google Sheets or Excel.

The Scraper Chrome extension speeds up this process, using the XPath query language to export HTML data elements from a page, along with similar data from across the website.

It take a little getting used to, but there is a handy step-by-step guide here. Once you get accustomed to how Scraper functions, it saves a lot of time during any technical SEO audits.

The 15 best Google Chrome extensions for SEO

META SEO Inspector

If we want to understand how a search engine crawls and indexes our websites (and presumably, we all do), we need to get to grips with metadata. META SEO Inspector goes beyond the narrow, SEO-focused definition of metadata as the ‘meta’ tags defined within the HTML source code.

The extension also facilitates analysis of XFN tags, canonical tags, and various microformats. It is also updated quite regularly to stay abreast of any amendments or additions to Google’s best practice guidelines.

The 15 best Google Chrome extensions for SEO

Tag Assistant

This Chrome extension from Google isn’t the most glamorous tool on our list, but it is one of the most useful. Tag Assistant acts as a trouble-shooter, verifying the installation of Google tags such as those used for Google Analytics and Remarketing.

The ability to record sessions and analyze the implementation of tracking tags through user journeys is perhaps Tag Assistant’s main USP. It gives the extension a lot of potential for frequent use, beyond the occasional spot checks to verify if tags are implemented correctly or not.

The 15 best Google Chrome extensions for SEO

Page Load Time

As we discussed in a recent article, speed is of the utmost importance as Google continues to prepare its mobile-first index.

Page Load Time helps SEO keep an eye on this essential ranking factor, without being obtrusive in the way that other Chrome Extensions can be. Every time a page loads, it highlights the amount of time it took in seconds.

Users can then click on the extension’s icon to see a breakdown of the elements required to load the page’s content. For quick insights into page speed, it makes for the perfect starting point.

The 15 best Google Chrome extensions for SEO

Chrome extensions for on-site content analysis

Page Analytics

Many of the entries on our list focus on assessing competitors, but this Google extension allows you to view data from your Google Analytics account while you browse your website(s). Once a user is logged into GA, they can view metrics from their account in real time by opening the extension.

The metrics available in this snapshot include bounce rate, unique page views, and average time on page. With the increasing prominence of user engagement factors in a RankBrain-driven Google search ecosystem, this extension is a very handy way to keep an eye on how each individual page is performing without visiting the Google Analytics platform.

The 15 best Google Chrome extensions for SEO

Keywords Everywhere

Some things never change in SEO. We still need to understand which search queries our target audience uses, but gaining access to accurate search volumes has grown increasingly difficult. The Keywords Everywhere extension doesn’t quite solve this riddle entirely, but it goes some way towards providing a bit of clarity.

By pulling data from Google Keyword Planner, Google Search Console, and UberSuggest, the extension displays approximate search volumes within results pages. From there, SEO professionals can start to consider for which queries they want to optimize their content.

This extension shouldn’t be used in isolation to conduct larger keyword research tasks, but it has enough handy features to make it a worthwhile addition.

The 15 best Google Chrome extensions for SEO

Spark Content Optimizer

This extension is ideal for getting different teams to incorporate SEO into their daily routines. Everyone from copywriters to developers can benefit from Spark, a Chrome add-on that scans content to assess how comprehensively it covers a topic and how well it makes use of popular search queries.

This can be a tricky area of SEO, as we want to provide a search engine with clear signals about our content, but also need to tread carefully to avoid stuffing in keywords to the detriment of content quality. Spark provides some hints without being overbearing, making it a worthy addition to any SEO armory.

The 15 best Google Chrome extensions for SEO

Chrome extensions for backlink analysis

Link Research Tools

This toolbar from Link Research Tools overlays backlink data as users search and browse. It’s great for getting a quick look at a site’s backlink profile, although it does require a paid account to gain access to some of LRT’s more advanced features.

Much is the same fashion as MozBar, the LRT toolbar overlays backlink data onto search engine results pages too. This is very beneficial for taking a backlink-based look at why particular sites perform well for a keyword.

The 15 best Google Chrome extensions for SEO

LinkMiner

LinkMiner is probably the best Chrome extension for identifying broken links. Once activated, it will highlight the number of outbound links on any page, highlighting in green those that are active, and in red those that are broken. It makes for an easy way to share issues with the development team and get links fixed.

Through its integration with a range of indices (including Ahrefs, Majestic, and Moz), it also creates a simple overview of the ratio of inbound to outbound links on each page.

Majestic Backlink Analyzer

Majestic remains one of the heavyweight SEO software packages, and this Chrome extension provides much of its functionality without having to visit a separate URL.

The Backlink Analyzer provides insight into the quantity and quality of backlinks pointing to any page, along with their topical relevance to the source material. Majestic’s index is larger than Moz’s, so this makes it a more robust reference point when conducting backlink analysis. You will require a paid Majestic subscription to avail of these benefits, however.

The 15 best Google Chrome extensions for SEO

Buzzmarker

Engaging with influencers can be a fantastic way to gain relevant, authoritative backlinks. Nonetheless, as anyone who has worked in this field will know, the pursuit of those all-important backlinks can bring with it a lot of time-intensive, manual work.

This extension from outreach platform BuzzStream aims to simplify the outreach process. It helps with prospecting, by highlighting key social media metrics on a potential partner’s website. It also makes it easier to bookmark influencers and add them into the main BuzzStream platform.

Once more, this will require a paid BuzzStream account, but if you already have an account, then downloading this extension should be a no-brainer.

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10 Tips to Make Your PDFs SEO Friendly by @clarkboyd

Optimizing your PDFs for search requires special tactics. Here are 10 ways to help your PDFs gain more traffic.

The post 10 Tips to Make Your PDFs SEO Friendly by @clarkboyd appeared first on Search Engine Journal.

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Mobile SEO: The 3 areas that really matter for SEO performance

With the upcoming launch of Google’s mobile-first index, digital marketers are preparing for a proliferation of “micro-moments”.

There has been a lot of noise around this seemingly seismic shift, but this trend was set in motion years ago and we have plenty of data to hand on what makes or breaks a mobile SEO campaign.

Undoubtedly, mobile SEO is distinct from its desktop counterpart in significant – sometimes very subtle – ways. As mobile usage continues to grow, user behaviors and expectations change too. Simply resizing the desktop site for a smaller screen won’t do.

Moreover, the evidence that the desktop and mobile algorithms must function based on different factors is right in front of us.

We can see from these screenshots of mobile results (above) and desktop results (below) for the query [credit card], taken from a collocated laptop and smartphone, that there are many differences across the two devices:

Mobile SEO: The 3 areas that really matter for SEO performance

Looking at this from the cold austerity of a rank tracking dashboard might not highlight just how different these experiences are. The order of the listings is very similar across devices, but they way a user experiences and interacts with them will vary.

This example is purposefully taken from a finance search query, less prone to location-based variations that we would see for a term like [coffee shop near me]. And yet, the mobile results page contains enough embellishments to distinguish it from the desktop version.

Rather than try to break down Google’s algorithms into the comforting-but-illusory format of a list of ranking factors, we should focus our efforts on what actually helps websites get more mobile traffic.

Based on experience of what a successful mobile SEO campaign entails in 2017, we can distil this into three categories: Context; Speed and Accessibility; and User Engagement Signals.

Within this article, we will first assess the reasons that mobile SEO stands apart, before delving into some practical tips in each category that can help all marketers drive improved performance via organic search.

1. Context

Smartphones contain an array of sensors that allow them to understand our environment. Everything from an accelerometer to a magnetometer to a proximity sensor is contained within the average mobile device nowadays.

Mobile phones create a huge amount of data and smartphone companies aren’t afraid to capture and use it. We shouldn’t be surprised; even our vacuum cleaners are mapping out our homes, hoovering up data along with dust.

The below is a very much redacted list of factors Google uses to shape mobile search results (taken from a patent approved way back in 2013):

  • Current time,
  • Current date,
  • Current day of the week,
  • Current month,
  • Current season,
  • A current, future, and/or past weather forecast at or near a location of a previous event in which a user and/or a user’s friends participated,
  • Information on user’s calendar, such as information regarding events or statuses of a user or a user’s friends,
  • Information accessible via a user’s social networking account,
  • Noise level or any recognizable sounds detected by the mobile platform and/or a monitoring device,
  • Health statistics or characterizations of a user’s current health

Even without reviewing the unabridged Ulysses-length list, we can get a clear sense of what’s going on here. Tech companies know a lot more about us than ever before, and they get a lot of this information from our phones.

Changes to how Google designates the centroid for a search have made a difference, too. The user’s phone now acts as the centroid, fundamentally shifting the notion of local search to a hyper-personalized level.

This applies to the local listings within Google Maps, but can also affect the content shown in ‘traditional’ SEO listings.

Combined with advances in semantic search, it is now essential for marketers to understand a user’s context if we are to satisfy their search query.

In spite of the absence of clear rules to follow across the board, there are still some practical ways that we can use context to improve SEO performance.

  • Split out search volume by device type. This will help you understand which queries tend to occur predominantly on either mobile or desktop. Knowing this will allow you to create content that caters for the preferred user experience. Desktop content is typically one-third longer than mobile content, for example.
  • Download a user agent switcher to view your content as it looks on a variety of different devices. You can get the extension for Chrome here, or for Firefox here. If you need to get really specific about the phone dimensions or location, try Mobile Phone Emulator.
  • Create content that responds to user needs, rather than just matching their search query. That may mean using image-heavy content, for example, rather than sticking with strictly text-based pages. Tracking universal search results will allow you to pinpoint these queries.
  • Track ranking performance across devices, territories, and media formats. This will give a truer picture of how frequently your domain is showing up in search results. You can achieve this through Google’s Search Console and Data Studio, combined with your rank tracking software.

2. Speed & Accessibility

SEO isn’t just about having the most relevant, thorough answer anymore. You also need to be the quickest site to provide it, or run the risk that users will simply go elsewhere.

Mobile SEO: The 3 areas that really matter for SEO performance

Source: Google

This is more important than ever, with Google’s quick answers pulling responses into the search results pages directly, and its Android Instant Apps project allowing consumers to use an app without installing it.

Google has given significant backing to its Accelerated Mobile Pages initiative too, and the evidence so far suggests it is paying off. AMP pages were introduced in early 2016 and run on a stripped-back version of HTML that very significantly decreases page load times. They also use a lot less data to load, so the benefits for users on the go are plentiful. A recent survey corroborated this, with over 60% of respondents saying that they would seek out AMP results due to the faster, lighter experience they provide.

AMP pages were initially seen as a boon for publishers (about 70% of Google News stories are AMP-enabled now), but retailers like eBay have started to adopt this standard too. In fact, publishers have had challenges in monetizing these light-touch formats, while ecommerce sites look likely to be the long-term beneficiaries. With AdWords and AdSense support for AMP continuing to increase, there is really no option other than to get on board with AMP if you want to maximize your content’s mobile opportunity.

Add in Facebook’s Instant Articles or Twitter Moments and the picture is clear: speed is of the essence.

This is not just a matter of removing assets to strip down individual pages, however. Websites are more than just the sum of their parts, so we need to ensure that our site structure is sound and, of course, that our content is accessible by Google, Facebook, Apple, et al.

  • Mercifully, Google has upgraded the Mobile Site Testing Tool, which now generates reports with recommendations you can send to your development team.
  • Remove any interstitial pages that stand between a user and access to the page they want to see. Google’s position on this has grown more severe over time; from mildly humorous posts through to an algorithmic penalty to dissuade sites from using interstitials in early 2017.
  • Android Instant Apps is a clear indication of the direction the industry is going in. People don’t want to install and load separate apps; this initiative allows them to enjoy the benefits of apps without the drawbacks they typically bring. It is open to all developers now, so it is worth getting started if you haven’t done so already.
  • The AMP Project website contains a host of useful tutorials that will get developers up to speed in no time. There are also plug-ins available for content management systems like WordPress, so you don’t even necessarily need to know AMP code in order to use it.
  • Use AMP for AdWords landing pages. Google provides plenty of handy advice on this and it is essential to adopt this practice early.
  • Google lists its mobile SEO best practices, in a rare example of olive branch extension to organic search marketers. However, these are quite basic tips that will get your site indexed. They won’t make a huge difference is such a competitive market.
  • Consider what you are willing to sacrifice in the name of faster loading times. AMP HTML provides a great solution, but there is a further temptation to minimize JavaScript to improve loading times further. This can come at the cost of user experience, so be sure to weigh up the pros and cons of removing each element before you do so.
  • Don’t just think of accessibility in technical terms. Your content needs to be accessible for the right audience once it loads; tools like Readable.io can help ensure that you are writing with an appropriate level of complexity.

3. User engagement signals

The shift to mobile devices has caused Google to change the methodology behind how it indexes and ranks websites. This has proven to be a much more complex task than many expected. As a result, Google has delayed the launch of the mobile-first index and is now prepared to launch on a website-by-website basis.

Google’s Gary Ilyes said of the mobile-first index at SMX West earlier this year:

“Mobile sites don’t have a lot of the metadata that desktop sites have. We’re aiming for a quality-neutral launch. We don’t want users to experience a loss in quality of search results. We need to replace the signals that are missing in the mobile web.”

This is a significant statement for SEO practitioners. Google wants a quality-neutral launch, but it has to do so by replacing some signals it has traditionally used to rank results. No wonder the mobile-first index is taking some time to get right.

Aside from the reduction in the quantity of metadata that mobile sites have versus desktop sites, we also need to bear in mind that links become less important on mobile. People share content via messaging apps much more frequently, which poses a problem for a search engine that has typically relied on links to navigate the web.

Other reinforcement signals for Google’s algorithms are harder to pin down in the mobile age too. One of Google’s most celebrated engineers, Jeff Dean, said in an interview with Fortune last year:

“If a user looks at a search result and likes it or doesn’t like it, that’s not that obvious.”

The advent of RankBrain in late 2015 was driven by a desire to do exactly this; to understand whether a user is satisfied with search results or not. Google now assesses whether a user stays on a website (known as a ‘long click’) or if they return to the search results page to find a more suitable result (a ‘short click’). A high click-through rate alone won’t suffice – we need to focus on what users do once they’ve landed on the site.

A SearchMetrics study last year summed this up quite nicely:

“User experience factors that improve mobile sites are related to better SEO rankings; external links continue to decline in importance.”

Links do still matter on mobile, of course; just not to the same extent. That’s a good thing – links can be manipulated (even bought), but it’s harder to falsify user engagement factors over a long period of time.

This leads us to a few valuable points to bear in mind when optimizing for user satisfaction:

  • Data analysis should be the cornerstone of your SEO efforts. Assess how customers access your site, what they do when they get there, and where the primary exit points are. This should all be built into your analytics dashboard to give you real-time access to invaluable user information. You can be pretty sure that Google is utilizing similar metrics to see if your site satisfies a user’s request.
  • Look at how your landing pages have performed since the launch of RankBrain to see if there are any correlations between user engagement metrics (such as time on page, bounce rate, and so on) and your SEO rankings. Often, you will notice that your best performing pages from a UX perspective have seen a  notable SEO boost too.
  • Links still matter. We should just think of them differently. Consider whether the links you attract will actually drive qualified traffic to your site, rather than just adding to antiquated metrics like external link volume.
  • Encompass UX and CRO within your SEO campaigns. Without improving your site experience, any SEO rankings improvements you achieve may lack staying power.