All posts by Rebecca Sentance

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Facebook kills off news: Publishers panic, try to remember how to do SEO

By now you’ve no doubt heard the news that’s been shaking up the internet since late last week.

But in case you just came back online after a week-long internet blackout, here’s what’s happening: on Thursday 11th January, Facebook announced a major change to the way posts are ranked in News Feed.

In order to promote more “meaningful” interaction with friends and family, Facebook said that it would “prioritize posts from friends and family over public content … including videos and other posts from publishers or businesses”.

In general, brands have not tended to rely on Facebook for traffic since it dramatically reduced the organic reach of branded content a little over three years ago, forcing brands to pay for reach or go elsewhere for traffic. However, publishers have long been the exception to that rule, with Facebook acting as a huge – and vital – source of referral traffic to publishers’ websites.

This has led many publishers to plan their strategy and output directly around Facebook (see: the much-derided media “pivot to video”, which was driven in large part by Facebook). But Facebook’s announcement of Thursday has put paid to all of that – or at least, put a big dent in the potential traffic that publishers can earn from its platform.

Deprived of referral traffic from Facebook, will publishers be turning en masse back to SEO to restore their fortunes? Let’s look at some of the broader industry shifts underpinning this change, and what it means for the importance of search for publishers.

Trading places: Google is back on top for referral traffic

The truth is that Facebook’s referral traffic to publishers has been in decline for some time now. According to data from digital analytics company Parse.ly, the percentage of external traffic that Facebook provides to publishers decreased from 40% to 26% between January 2017 and January 2018, while Google’s rose from 34% to 44% over the same period.

This means that in a direct reversal of 2015, when Facebook rocked the industry by overtaking Google as a source of referral traffic for publishers, Google is now back in the number one spot. And this all happened before Facebook’s News Feed announcement even took place.

Publishers have also been seeing more traffic from Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) than Facebook equivalent Instant Articles, another situation that reversed itself over the last year. According to Parse.ly, publisher traffic from AMP increased from 4.72% in January 2017 to 11.78% in November 2017, while Instant Articles declined from 10.31% of publisher traffic in January down to 8.54% in November.

Facebook kills off news: Publishers panic, try to remember how to do SEO

When Facebook overtook Google for referral traffic back in 2015, this seemed to herald the dawn – or perhaps the zenith – of a new age of social sharing and publishing, in which social media was the new search.

At a Content Marketing Association Digital Breakfast in June 2016, veteran digital journalist Adam Tinworth remarked that social networks had taken over the search engine’s traditional role of “finding something to read” online. As a result, Google and other search engines moved into more of an “answer engine” role, moving away from search towards a single, definitive answer to users’ queries.

So with Google back on top for referral traffic, are we seeing a return to the status quo?

The Google-Facebook merry-go-round

In fact, Google and Facebook’s continual back-and-forth is the status quo. They have been chasing each other around in circles for years now, each taking it in turns to try their hand at the other’s specialist area.

Google experimented with social networking; Facebook became the go-to place to find content. Both launched lightning-fast takes on the mobile web – Accelerated Mobile Pages and Instant Articles – in 2015 with a global roll-out in 2016. Now, Facebook is returning to its “roots” of showing you what your family and friends are up to, while the latest updates to Google’s smart assistant indicate that Google is moving back into surfacing content.

Facebook kills off news: Publishers panic, try to remember how to do SEO

Google and Facebook: Destined to chase each other in circles for eternity
(Image by monstreh, available via CC0)

In other words, this is just the most recent step in a dance that has been going on for more than 10 years. Facebook might have ceded some ground to Google in the realm of referral traffic to publishers, partly in a bid to rid itself of the fake news scandal that has dogged it since mid to late 2016.

However, the two continue to vie for dominance in countless other areas, such as artificial intelligence, smart home hubs, digital assistants, and advertising. Facebook continues to drive its investment in online video, encroaching on Google-owned YouTube’s territory, while Google recently announced a new foray into social publishing with Google Stamp.

At the height of the fake news controversy, Google and Facebook’s names frequently appeared side-by-side, with both companies accused of peddling false information to their users and perpetrating the “filter bubble” that allows fake news to thrive.

As a result, some have speculated that Google might now follow in Facebook’s footsteps and take steps to distance itself from publishers.

However, Google is already taking action – or at least appearing to take action – against fake news on its search engine by implementing ‘fact-checking’ labels, partnering with the International Fact-Checking Network to combat misinformation, and purging questionable overseas websites that mask their country of origin from Google News.

Unless there is another significant wave of backlash over fake news to force Google’s hand, it seems likely that Google will take the “win” over Facebook and avoid jeopardizing its relationship with publishers – particularly given its recent moves to become more publisher-friendly by supporting paywalled content.

Meanwhile, publishers need to work out how to reconfigure their online strategy with Facebook much less in the picture. Will we be seeing a newfound reliance on SEO and search marketing?

Publishers: time to learn from SEO

Publishers are about to find themselves in the very same position that brand marketers found themselves at the end of 2014, when Facebook announced that it was killing off organic reach for brand Pages. Just like publisher referral traffic now, brand Page reach had been in steady decline for some time, and the Facebook announcement only confirmed what many already suspected was coming.

At the time, brands were forced to abandon a marketing model that relied on free promotion from Facebook pages with hundreds of thousands of Likes, and instead pay for advertising or go elsewhere for their traffic. Sound familiar?

The situation with publishers is therefore nothing new, but is still a huge blow for media organizations who have developed a “social-first” strategy over the years and rely on Facebook as a primary source of traffic.

Following the news that Google had overtaken Facebook as a source of referral traffic, Adam Tinworth blogged: “Business models dependent on Facebook growth are dead in the water, unless you can afford to buy that growth.

“Publishers will need a renewed focus on SEO — especially those that have been social-first.”

Writing for The Drum, founder and managing director of 93digital, Alex Price, observed that Facebook was following Google in “placing its long-term bet on quality [content]”, singling out Facebook-driven publications like 9GAG, Unilad and The Lad Bible as most likely to suffer from the change.

“If I were them, I would be thinking hard about the teams of people I employ to churn out social media content and how sustainable that now is.”

He added that publishers would need to focus on retention and repeat visits to drive long-term value, and optimize the experience of their website, particularly on mobile, in order to build a sustainable source of revenue in the post-Facebook age.

Publish quality content, increase engagement, optimize for mobile… if you’re in SEO, this list will be starting to sound very familiar. It’s a mantra that the search industry has been repeating for years.

High-quality publishers are likely doing most of these things already, so their task will be to ramp up those efforts while diversifying their sources of traffic beyond Facebook. This will stand them in good stead on the search engine results page and beyond.

For lower-quality social publishers, things might not be so easy. After all, these publications evolved specifically to cater to a social sharing environment, which will soon no longer exist.

Much like the brand Pages of yore with hugely inflated Like counts, publishers will need to figure out how to deliver a message of real value to consumers, or risk disappearing altogether.

CES 2018: Google ramps up Assistant with smart displays, native podcasts, recipes and news

Amazon Echo and its voice assistant, Alexa, might be the current market leaders in voice-activated smart technology, but recent announcements from the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show have shown that Google fully intends to challenge Amazon for that crown.

The past few days have seen some big developments – and a couple of even bigger teasers – for the future of Google’s smart assistant, the imaginatively-named Assistant.

On Tuesday, the first day of CES 2018, Google published a post to its official blog announcing partnerships with more than a dozen electronics companies to produce Google Assistant smart speakers – some with a very significant upgrade.

The blog post also highlighted the breadth and depth of “Actions”, the name given to built-in apps and integrations for the Google Assistant. At the same time, Search Console users began receiving notifications that their podcast, recipe and news content was eligible to be included in a new “Actions directory”, which is being rolled out over the next few days.

This appears to be part of an increased focus on what can be accomplished with Assistant, shifting its emphasis from finding information (Google’s long-time speciality) to carrying out tasks.

There’s a lot of news to unpack, so let’s look at what exactly these developments involve, and what they mean for SEOs and the wider industry.

SEOs using structured data are first to the Google Assistant party

While a comparatively smaller development than the flashy revelations of major electronics partnerships and smart displays, Google’s introduction of native support for podcasts, recipes and news to the Assistant is nevertheless big news for SEOs.

I owe a hat tip to Aaron Bradley of SEO Skeptic, whose post to the Semantic Search Marketing Google+ group first tipped me off to this development. In turn, he was tipped off by SEO consultant Dan Shure, who tweeted about a Google Search Console alert he’d received inviting him to “improve discovery” of his podcast in the Google Assistant:

Google is gradually rolling out a browsable directory of Actions for the Google Assistant, allowing users to more easily discover what the Assistant is capable of.

Podcasts, recipes and news will be the first wave of content added to this directory – though only content published with AMP, or marked up with structured data such as Schema.org, will be getting the nod.

This means that webmasters and SEOs who have been marking up their content with structured data are already ahead of the curve in making that content available via voice – while those who haven’t must hop on the structured data (or AMP) bandwagon if they want to be eligible.

Structured data has long been touted by its fans as a great way to get search engines to better surface content from your site, particularly in the form of things like rich snippets or Quick Answers. But it can be time-consuming to add and maintain, and the immediate benefit isn’t always so obvious.

This new use case, however, shows that there is a huge potential advantage to “future-proofing” your website by adding structured data markup. If Google continues to make Assistant a primary focus going forward, then this could be the key to content optimization and discovery in a voice-driven world.

Hey, Google – look what I can do!

As discussed, Google is clearly keen to shift the focus of its voice capabilities away from information discovery towards actions.

To this end, it’s heavily promoting “Hey, Google” as the slogan for the Google Assistant, placing it in huge letters on top of its CES installation, and creating a #HeyGoogle Twitter hashtag (complete with a unique Assistant emoji) to accompany their Assistant-related updates.

But wait, you might be thinking – isn’t “OK Google” the wake phrase for the Assistant?

Yes, Google has been a bit unclear on this point, but it seems that “Hey, Google” has been an alternative wake phrase for the Assistant for a while now. In late 2016, the website Android Police reported that the Google Home responds to both “OK Google” and “Hey, Google”, but Google voice search (e.g. on mobile) responds only to “OK Google” – making it possible to differentiate if you have multiple devices within earshot.

Now, as Google moves its focus away from search and towards actions, “OK Google” is out and “Hey, Google” is in.

Compare the messaging in Google’s tweet above with this video which introduced Google Assistant in late 2016:

While both videos show what can be done with the Assistant, the 2016 video emphasizes “finding” things, linking the Google Assistant directly and visually with the Google search bar, and positioning it as “your own personal Google” – like a search engine for your life.

By contrast, Google’s new messaging focuses on the many things the Google Assistant is capable of, emphasizing the availability of “over a million Actions”.

We in the industry have known for a while that Actions were the Google Home’s answer to Amazon Echo’s Skills, but this is their big debut to consumers, with Google writing that “Since the Assistant can do so many things, we’re introducing a new way to talk about them. We’re calling them Actions.”

This is not to say that Google has abandoned searching via Assistant, however; it made sure to develop powerful natural language search capabilities as its first order of business, with CEO Sundar Pichai demonstrating their potential at Google I/O in 2016. But now, Google is getting serious about challenging rivals Amazon, Microsoft and Apple for dominance of the smart assistant and smart device arena.

If Google continues to make either structured data markup or AMP a prerequisite for content being discoverable with Assistant, then this will mean SEOs must invest in either one or the other if they want to be competitive in this space.

Smart displays: coming soon to Google Assistant

Finally, we have the very exciting news that Google has partnered with a range of electronics manufacturers including iHome, LG, Lenovo and Sony, to produce Assistant-powered smart speakers – some of which will include a screen.

Google has put out the following video to showcase what a screen-enabled Assistant will be able to do:

This is Google’s response to the Echo Show, Amazon’s new smart speaker with an inbuilt touchscreen, which was released in the US in June 2017.

Crucially for Google, it will be able to make use of its YouTube ownership to one-up Amazon, after withdrawing YouTube support on the Echo Show and the Fire TV late last year. Google’s smart display speakers will also offer video conferencing via Google’s video calling app, Duo.

Conclusion

In short, the key takeaways from the last few days are that Google is going all-in on its bid to be Amazon’s main competitor in the smart speaker space. What this means for marketers and SEOs in the long run mostly remains to be seen, however.

In the short term, it will be interesting to see how marketers with podcasts, recipes, and news get on with Google’s new Assistant Directory. Google is keen to get their opinions as well, with John Mueller tweeting that he would “love to hear any feedback on the process”.

Have you had any Search Console notifications about content being included in the new Assistant Directory? Will you be investing in structured data or AMP, if you haven’t already, in order to be eligible for Google Assistant? Leave a comment with your thoughts on the latest developments.

Best of 2017: Our top 5 search industry articles

As we come to the end of 2017, we’ve decided to take a look back at some of our most-read articles throughout the year. For the rest of this week, we’ll be highlighting the top five most popular articles in various categories across the site.

So far this week, we’ve rounded up our top five articles on SEO and top five articles on PPC. To wrap up the week, we’re taking a look at our top five most-read articles about the search industry.

Our Industry category on Search Engine Watch covers any developments in the wider search industry, such as new search engines, the evolution of Web 3.0, or major changes to search engines like Google, Bing, Yahoo, etc. It also covers articles about strategy and how marketers should approach SEO, PPC and SEM in their day-to-day jobs: such as how to get execs excited about SEO, or how much SEO should really cost.

To the surprise of no-one, our most popular articles in this category tend to be things that Google is doing. So here is our very Google-centric list of the top 5 most popular Industry articles published in 2017.

#1: The 10 best Google Doodles of all time

Who doesn’t love a good Google Doodle? The creative and inventive Google Doodle, which we’re now accustomed to seeing on the Google homepage with regularity, actually began life in 1998 as a quirky out-of-office message to notify users that Sergey Brin and Larry Page, co-founders of Google, had gone to Burning Man festival.

Soon afterwards, Google began experimenting with Doodles to mark historical events, and the Doodle’s popularity was so great that it has become a regular fixture on Google’s homepage, with a dedicated team of around 10 staff members.

In our most-read Industry article of 2017, Clark Boyd looks back over nearly 20 years of Google Doodles to pick the 10 best Doodles of all time.

The 10 best Google Doodles of all time

#2: Google just released verified customer reviews: 3 ways to come out on top

Customer reviews are important for SEO and brand reputation, particularly in the new age of linkless link-building. But they aren’t always reliable. As such, Google’s introduction of Verified Customer Reviews, a method of leaving feedback in which you can guarantee that the reviewer is a genuine customer – was a big development.

Amanda DiSilvestro looked at how business owners can sign up for verified customer reviews, as well as three ways to make sure you come out on top.

Google just released verified customer reviews: 3 ways to come out on top

#3: A visual history of Google SERPS: 1996-2017

Over the past 20 years, Google has revolutionized how we source information, how we buy products, and how advertisers sell those products to us. And yet, one fact remains stubbornly true: the shop-front for brands on Google is still the Search Engine Results Page (SERP).

Since Google began as a college project named Backrub in 1996, those “ten blue links” which make up the Google SERP have undergone all kinds of evolutions, from the advent of local results in 2004 to the introduction of Google Suggest in 2008, to the more recent removal of the right-hand rail of search ads in 2016.

It can be easy to lose sight of just how much the SERPS have changed as a whole, over the years. This brilliant infographic by Clark Boyd, Safiya Lawrence and Chelsea Herbert looks back over how far Google has come, and considers the trends that predominantly define the SERPs today.

A visual history of Google SERPs: 1996 to 2017

#4: What do we know so far about Google’s new homepage?

And speaking of changes to Google… Without a doubt, the biggest change to come to the internet’s most popular search engine this year has been the launch of its new, feed-based mobile homepage in July.

Perhaps the most drastic update of the Google.com homepage since Google’s creation in 1996, the new homepage allows users to customize a news feed that updates based on their interests, location, and past search behaviors.

On the heels of the new homepage’s US launch, Clark Boyd looked at what we knew so far about the homepage, why Google chose to launch it when they did, and the potential new opportunities for marketers.

What do we know so far about Google’s new homepage?

#5: Google Chrome SSL certificate proposal could affect millions of websites

In another major piece of news this year, potential millions of websites that use SSL certificates issued by Symantec and affiliated resellers faced finding out that their certificates were effectively worthless as far as Google Chrome was concerned, after a member of the Chrome team published a proposal that would make them untrusted over the next 12 months.

According to the Google Chrome team, Symantec had not properly validated thousands of certificates. In fact, the Chrome team claimed that “an initial set of reportedly 127 [misissued] certificates has expanded to include at least 30,000 [misissued] certificates, issued over a period spanning several years.”

Al Roberts looked at the news for Search Engine Watch and its potential impact for website owners

Google Chrome SSL certificate proposal could affect millions of websites

And that’s it for us in 2017! We hope you enjoy revisiting the best of our published content over the past 12 months, and we’ll see you in the new year!

Best of 2017: Our top 5 articles in PPC

As we come to the end of 2017, we’ve decided to take a look back at some of our most-read articles throughout the year. For the rest of this week, we’ll be highlighting the top five most popular articles in various categories across the site.

Yesterday, we kicked things off with a look at our top 5 articles about SEO, and if you missed that one, it’s definitely worth a read. Today, we’ll be turning our attention to the other great staple of Search Engine Watch content: PPC.

We covered some fun ground with our PPC articles this year, from emoji in AdWords ad titles to the psychology of ad copy, to the impact of Google’s new ‘Ad’ label on marketers. Let’s not waste any more time – here are our top 5 articles from 2017 about PPC.

#1: Emoji appear in Google AdWords ad titles

This was an interesting one. Just a couple of weeks after we wrote about Google’s decision to bring emoji back to the SERPs, emoji were spotted in the wild in AdWords ad titles, suggesting that Google had decided to go the whole hog in embracing emoji in both organic search and paid search ads.

Sadly, the test doesn’t seem to have lasted in the case of paid search, as Google’s official stance is still that emoji are “invalid characters” – but there have also been recent reports of people being able to bid on emoji in AdWords. Either way, the combination of fun emoji news with a potential big change for search marketers makes it no surprise that this was our most-read article about PPC in 2017.

Emoji appear in Google AdWords ads titles

#2: The psychology of language for paid search

When it comes to PPC best practice, there’s a vast amount of ground you can cover, from keyword bidding to demographic targeting, AdWords reports, landing page optimization and everything in between. But how often do we talk about the actual copy of the ads that are supposed to get consumers’ attention?

According to Sophie Turton, Head of Content and PR at Bozboz, people don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. In her presentation at Brighton SEO in April 2017, she explained how search marketers can use psychology to make their paid search ads more effective. Tereza Litsa sums up the key highlights in an informative piece for Search Engine Watch.

The psychology of language for paid search

#3: 10 online marketing strategies to make you a unicorn [infographic]

It’s hard to go wrong with a good infographic, and Larry Kim of Wordstream has a great one which brings together 10 online marketing strategies to make you a unicorn – one of those magical campaigns that’s so effective, it performs in the top 1-3% of all marketing campaigns.

Sound like a dream come true? Check out Larry’s infographic, whose points he expands on in further detail in his post, and find out why you need to forget everything you know about Conversion Rate Optimization.

10 online marketing strategies to make you a unicorn [infographic]

#4: How to target high-income consumers with AdWords

There are many industries in which being able to target high net worth individuals with your paid search campaigns is extremely useful. If you think that AdWords doesn’t have this function, you might want to think again.

Wesley Parker reveals the secret behind a “deeply hidden gem within AdWords”, currently available for U.S. locations only, which allows you to target people based on their household income. With step-by-step instructions and screenshots, he explains exactly how to set this up, as well as how you can use layered targeting to pull in multiple different demographics.

How to target high-income consumers with AdWords

#5: How will Google’s new ‘Ad’ label impact marketers?

In a major development for PPC, Google began testing a new look for its ad labels in January of this year, and in late February confirmed that this would be rolled out globally.

The new white label with green text and a green outline replaced the green label that was launched in June 2016, and blends much more seamlessly with the rest of the ad placement, perhaps creating less of a contrast between organic and paid search results. Clark Boyd considered Google’s motivation for the change, and the possible impact on search marketers.

How will Google’s new ‘Ad’ label impact marketers?

Best of 2017: Our top 5 articles in SEO

As we come to the end of 2017, we’ve decided to take a look back at some of our most-read articles throughout the year. For the rest of this week, we’ll be highlighting the top five most popular articles in various categories across the site.

First up is, of course, the bread and butter of Search Engine Watch: SEO. Several of our most-read articles in SEO were list articles (hard to go wrong with a good list), and they often dealt with how to prepare for the year ahead: how to plan your strategy for 2017, tips to boost your SEO in 2017, trends to watch in 2018.

If you missed any of these excellent articles when they were published, now’s your chance to check them out. And if you’ve already read them, well, it never hurts to refresh your knowledge.

#1: Five quick tips to boost your SEO in 2017

Everyone loves quick tips for SEO, and Tereza Litsa has some great ones to get your SEO off to a strong start in the new year. These might be tips for 2017, but they stand the test of time – there’s no reason why you shouldn’t apply these to your SEO going into 2018, if you haven’t already.

Five quick tips to boost your SEO in 2017

#2: Seven SEO trends to watch in 2018

What does the year ahead hold for SEO? While it’s hard to say exactly what will unfold in 2018, based on the events of this year and the prevailing winds in the industry, we can make a pretty good guess as to what the major trends will be. Tereza Litsa outlines seven you need to watch and account for in your search strategy next year.

Seven SEO trends to watch in 2018

After you’ve clued up on the trends ahead, don’t miss our follow-up article on how to optimize for them: How to future-proof your SEO for 2018.

#3: The 15 best Google Chrome extensions for SEO

Google Chrome dominates as the world’s favorite desktop browser, and its thousands of extensions give it an almost daunting level of customization. You can do just about anything with Google Chrome extensions, including – no, especially – SEO. But which are the best extensions to use?

Clark Boyd rounds up 15 Chrome extensions to aid you in your SEO efforts, from a quick site review to on-site content analysis, technical SEO and backlink analysis.

The 15 best Google Chrome extensions for SEO

#4: Building your SEO strategy in 2017: What’s most important?

In another enduring piece about SEO strategy for 2017, Marcela de Vivo looks at the areas you should be focusing on for SEO amid hundreds of possible ranking factors and points of optimization. Again, it’s still highly relevant as we come to the end of the year and well worth a revisit. How many of these areas did you nail in 2017?

Building your SEO strategy in 2017: what’s most important?

#5: How to create SEO-friendly content

The increasing merging of content and SEO, once thought of as separate disciplines, has been one of the enduring themes of the past couple of years. By now, if your content strategy and SEO aren’t at least on the same page, if not working hand-in-glove, then you’re definitely taking the wrong approach to both.

If you need a primer or a refresher on creating the best content to rank well in search, Tereza Litsa has you covered with her guide on how to create SEO-friendly content.

How to create SEO-friendly content

Check back tomorrow for our next set of highlights – the top 5 most popular articles in PPC.

How to future-proof your SEO for 2018

We’re (frighteningly!) almost to the end of the year, and with just a couple of weeks left in December, it’s time to start preparing for what SEO might look like in 2018.

A little while ago, we highlighted our seven SEO trends for 2018 that you should be watching out for. But what practical steps should you be taking with your SEO to prepare for next year?

In this article, I’ll break down some key trends you should be preparing for in 2018, and what you can do to future-proof your SEO for the year ahead.

Let’s dive into it.

Voice search and digital assistants

As Tereza Litsa wrote in our 2018 trends article, we can expect voice search and digital assistants to reach even greater prominence in 2018.

Digital assistants in people’s smartphones have been around for a while, but their accuracy has greatly improved over the past couple of years as natural language search improves, to the point where search increasingly resembles a fluid and intuitive conversation. This is important for widespread adoption.

Add to that the fact that a new legion of smart home hubs from Google, Amazon, Apple and others is being installed in people’s homes (think how many of your consumers might be getting a 2nd generation Amazon Echo or an Echo Plus for Christmas), and it’s crucial to optimize for voice search if you want to stay competitive.

Here are some basic principles to adhere to when optimizing for voice search and digital assistants:

Optimize for natural language queries – long-tail keywords, full sentences and questions

Although keywords are still important, people are searching less with disconnected individual keywords like “Barack Obama age” and more with full questions like “How old is Barack Obama?”

To optimize for these, think about the questions you want your website to surface for, and search them to see how well you rank. Can you produce Q&A-style content that will answer these types of queries? Consider also producing content with a slightly more conversational tone that will match the way that people are phrasing their queries.

Aim for the featured snippet

Featured snippets, or Answer Boxes, have long been known as “position zero” on the SERP, but with voice search they become even more crucial. If a search result for a voice query has a featured snippet, that’s what will be read aloud to the user as the answer to their question.

Incorporating a numbered or bullet point list or table with the key points of your content can help your chances of grabbing a featured snippet, as can creating Q&A style content.

Optimize for actions and apps

People don’t just ask questions to their digital assistants; they also give them commands, like “search for [keyword] on [app]”, so think about ways to optimize for these.

If you do have an app, deep linking or app indexing will allow users to access it via search, and thus via their digital assistants. Apple has already produced SiriKit, which will enable your iOS and watchOS apps to work with Siri – an important future-proofing move for the advent of Apple’s HomePod.

For a deeper dive into voice search optimization, check out the following guides:

Linkless link-building

This one might seem like a contradiction in terms, but let me explain. Link-building is still a valuable tactic for SEO: we recently looked at a study on enterprise SEO strategy which found that small businesses are particularly likely to benefit from link-building as an SEO strategy.

But link-building for SEO also isn’t as simple as it used to be even a few years ago, with Google algorithm updates like Penguin and Fred cracking down on sites with poor link profiles, and Google issuing warnings to bloggers over freebie links.

To future-proof your SEO for 2018, therefore, you need to do two things: focus on quality, long-term link-building, and learn to appreciate the value of linkless backlinks. Here’s how.

Cultivate long-term relationships for quality backlinks

In a presentation at Brighton SEO this year, Greg Gifford espoused the value of building real-world relationships in order to score backlinks that your competitors can’t get. He was talking about local SEO, but while this might be especially true for local SEO, it’s key for SEO on a broader level as well.

The enterprise SEO study that I mentioned earlier found that PR is by far the single most effective link-building tactic for businesses of all sizes (though for small businesses, guest blogging was almost comparable). Good PR and outreach can allow you to build invaluable relationships with those quality publications that will give your site a ton of referral authority.

Even if you don’t manage to score a backlink, a mention will go a long way – read on to find out why.

Track and build linkless mentions

Search engines are increasingly able to associate mentions with brands, and use them as a trust signal to determine a site’s authority.

At SMX West 2016, Duane Forrester, former Senior Product Manager at Bing, asserted that Bing figured out how to associate mentions without a link “years ago”, and SEO experts have noticed a patent by Google which indicates Google has long been doing the same.

So along with your regular backlink monitoring, make sure you invest in a web monitoring tool that can help you track mentions of your brand, as well as focusing on PR, reputation management, brand awareness and online reviews.

For more on this, check out:

Mobile-first indexing

Google’s long-awaited mobile-first index is already being rolled out, so if you aren’t already mobile-first in your approach to SEO, you need to be in 2018.

Mobile traffic (traffic on smartphones, tablets and similar devices) has already outstripped desktop traffic and is continuing to climb, which means that it’s a fair assumption that users who reach your site will be on a mobile device, and possibly searching on the go.

Here’s how you can be prepared.

Be fast

Speed is of the essence in SEO regardless of device, but it’s even more crucial on mobile, as mobile users have been shown to be considerably less patient when waiting for sites to load. Be sure to test for issues with your mobile site speed, and be aware of the things that can bloat your site and slow it down, like images and JavaScript.

Design for context

Google has been emphasizing for some time in its search quality evaluator guidelines that mobile users approach their searches with a radically different context to desktop users.

While someone on a desktop computer is likely to be searching in a limited number of settings (in the office, at home or possibly in a café), mobile users can be absolutely anywhere.

Therefore, a truly future-proof mobile website will be able to respond to user context. This sounds futuristic, but there are already subtle ways that this can be accomplished, particularly with m-commerce websites. For more on how to achieve this, check out why mobile commerce sites should be designed for context.

Set up AMP, Instant Apps or Progressive Web Apps

Thanks to Google’s recent drive towards improving user experience on the mobile web, brands now have several options for a streamlined, hyper-fast mobile app or site. If you’re already confident that your mobile site or app provides an optimum experience, then stick with what you have; but if you’ve been looking to upgrade, consider implementing one of these options.

  • Accelerated Mobile Pages: Google’s “lightning-fast” mobile web solution has been hit and miss with SEOs since its launch in February of last year, but Google is still keen to push it and has continued to implement upgrades to make it faster and more engaging.
  • Android Instant Apps: Android Instant Apps are apps that can be shared and accessed via a link without a full download, combining some of the advantages of mobile websites with an app experience.
  • Progressive Web Apps: PWAs are an “app-like” take on the mobile web which can function offline and be pinned to a home screen, incorporating some of the advantages of apps into a mobile website.

Here are some more guides that will help you get your mobile SEO into shape:

AI and machine learning

If 2017 confirmed one thing, it’s that the old days of discrete, name-able Google algorithm updates are behind us. Google’s Gary Illyes confirmed as much in a flippant keynote at Brighton SEO in which he stated that Google makes two to three updates to its ranking algorithm per day, 95-98% of which are “not actionable for webmasters”.

The reason for this is due to Google’s increasing use of AI and machine learning in its ranking algorithms. Google’s algorithms are no longer a set of clearly-defined rules set down by humans, but a constantly learning and fluctuating entity.

This, of course, has thrown webmasters and SEOs into a spin about how, exactly, they can optimize for artificial intelligence.

We’ve addressed this in a number of recent articles on Search Engine Watch, and the overriding message is: don’t worry about “optimizing for RankBrain” or “optimizing for AI”. If you stick to fundamental SEO best practices, you’ll be fine. Gary Illyes spelled this out in his Brighton SEO keynote:

Every single update that we make is around quality of the site or general quality, perceived quality of the site, content and the links or whatever. All these are in the Webmaster Guidelines. When there’s something that is not in line with our Webmaster Guidelines, or we change an algorithm that modifies the Webmaster Guidelines, then we update the Webmaster Guidelines as well.

Basically, if you publish high quality content that is highly cited on the internet – and I’m not talking about just links, but also mentions on social networks and people talking about your branding, crap like that … Then you are doing great.

And fluctuations will always happen to your traffic. We can’t help that; it would be really weird if there wasn’t fluctuation, because that would mean we don’t change, we don’t improve our search results anymore.”

Some further reading and sage advice:

General tips for future-proofing your SEO

In this article I’ve explored how you can optimize for specific trends that will likely be prominent in 2018, but there are also general actions you can take that will future-proof your SEO regardless of what year it is, and what trends shape the industry.

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The highs and lows of enterprise SEO: Which strategies paid off best in 2017?

As we come to the end of 2017 and embark on the inevitable dozens of review articles looking back over the past year of search, it’s as good a time as any to reflect on SEO strategy.

What are the greatest challenges being faced by the industry as a whole? What have been the biggest successes? What are companies of different sizes setting as their top priorities for SEO strategy – and how well is it paying off?

To find out, link-building and content marketing agency North Star Inbound, in partnership with seoClarity and BuzzStream, set out to “take the temperature” of enterprise SEO.

They surveyed 240 SEO specialists across the USA from both in-house and agency teams, in a bid to discover how and where enterprise SEO teams are spending their budgets, their most pressing issues, their biggest stumbling blocks, their perception of their own success, and more.

The results shed an intriguing light on what different companies consider to be most important about SEO, how they go about tackling those issues, and which SEO tactics pay the greatest dividends – particularly in terms of how these findings vary across businesses of different sizes, and between in-house and agency SEOs.

So what were the key findings, and what do they mean for the way that SEO is being carried out in 2017-8?

Resources for enterprise SEO: What are they, and where are they going?

How much of a company’s budget and workforce typically gets allocated to SEO? And where do enterprise SEO teams primarily focus their time and attention?

Unsurprisingly, larger companies tend to outspend smaller firms when it comes to SEO, but the study found that companies’ SEO budgets cover the whole range – meaning there is definitely no “magic number” for SEO spend.

The good news (at least for SEOs!) is that the most popular budget was also the largest: 27% of respondents reported that they had a monthly budget of more than $20,000 for SEO. Close to a fifth of companies (19%) had between $5,000 and $10,000 to play with, while a very similar percentage (18%) were allocated less than $1,000.

Perhaps surprisingly, 11% of large companies (with 500+ employees) fell into this bracket – though of course, it’s not just about what you spend on SEO, but how you spend it.

What about people power? The study found that the most common size of SEO team is 2 to 5 members – regardless of the overall size of the company. Two fifths of respondents surveyed (42%) reported working in an SEO team of 2 to 5, while close to a third (32%) had 6 or more people in their team. Nearly a quarter of companies (23%) said that the responsibility for SEO falls on a single person.

Regardless of resources, companies seemed to broadly agree on their priorities for SEO. When asked to rank four areas of SEO in order of priority, respondents from companies of all sizes reported that their top priority was technical SEO.

Second, third and fourth priorities were – again regardless of company size – content development, traffic analysis, and link building, respectively.

But maybe enterprise SEOs should be putting more emphasis on link-building, as survey respondents overwhelmingly described it as the most difficult SEO strategy to execute. Well over half of respondents (58%) ranked it top out of a list of eight, with small companies (with 1-100 employees) feeling the pain most of all.

Why is link-building proving such a tough nut to crack? Let’s look at how enterprise SEOs are tackling link-building.

All about link-building

Well over half of survey respondents reported that link-building was their most difficult strategy to execute, although there were some noticeable variations by size. 68% of small companies rated link-building as the most challenging part of SEO, followed by 62% of medium-size companies and 42% of large companies.

But the difficulties associated with link-building aren’t preventing SEOs from investing in it. 85% of respondents, across all business sizes, reported that they will be maintaining or increasing their link-building budgets this year.

Large companies were most likely to be maintaining their link-building budgets, with 49% reporting they would be keeping their budget for link-building “about the same”, while small companies were most likely to be increasing their budget.

The highs and lows of enterprise SEO: Which strategies paid off best in 2017?

Link-building can be done in a huge number of ways, but there were clear frontrunners for the most effective strategies. SEOs from small, medium and large firms all reported that public relations is their most beneficial tactic for link-building, though for small company SEOs, guest posts came a very close second.

Other effective strategies included infographics (third-most effective for large companies of 500+ employees), local citations/directories (which came in third for small companies), and resource links (which ranked third for medium-sized companies, joint with local citations).

Paid links and comments were universally rated as the least effective strategies by all respondents, though this may also be due to a lack of employing these tactics in the first place – Google penalizes almost all types of paid links, and discourages systematic blog commenting as a method of link-building.

The highs and lows of enterprise SEO: Which strategies paid off best in 2017?

Which companies have been seeing the most success with link-building as an SEO strategy? When asked to rate their most successful strategy over the past 12 months, respondents overwhelmingly pointed to technical on-site optimization: 65% of large companies, 67% of medium-sized companies and 53% of smaller firms rated it as their most effective SEO tactic.

For small companies, blogging and link-building follow close behind, with 35% of SEOs from small firms reporting success with blogging for SEO, and 33% reporting that link-building was their most successful tactic. This was not so for large companies, for whom link-building ranked a distant 6th out of 7 SEO strategies, with just 14% saying it was their most successful strategy.

We know that small firms are more likely to have increased their budgets for link-building in the past year, so perhaps this extra resource towards link-building is making all the difference. But this is something of a chicken-and-egg style conundrum: are small companies allocating more budget towards link-building because it’s successful, or are they successful with link-building because of the extra budget?

Small companies are also more likely to be employing local-level link-building tactics such as local directories or citations. Link-building at a local level can be highly effective when carried out correctly, so perhaps this added emphasis on local SEO is making the difference for enterprise SEOs at small firms.

The highs and lows of enterprise SEO: Which strategies paid off best in 2017?

Finally, which KPIs are SEOs using to track their success with link-building? The favored metrics are Moz Domain Authority and Page Authority, together with the number of linking root domains (both used by 52% of SEOs).

The relevance of the linking page is third-most-used at 47%, while Majestic’s “Trust Flow” metric trails behind on 27%.

Agency vs in-house: Who’s winning at SEO?

Of the 240 SEO specialists surveyed for the study, two-thirds were in-house SEOs, while the remaining third worked for an agency. What differences in approach and outlook did the survey find between these two groups?

When it comes to organizational challenges, agency and in-house SEOs differ slightly on what they consider to be the most pressing issues. Agency SEOs are more likely to encounter challenges with finding SEO talent (44% reported this as their most challenging obstacle) or demonstrating ROI (41%).

For in-house SEOs, developing the right content was their most pressing obstacle (reported by 42% of respondents), while demonstrating ROI was again a key challenge, faced by close to two-fifths of in-house SEOs (37%). Agency SEOs were least likely to struggle with allocating the right resources, with only 18% reporting this as a top organizational challenge, while in-house SEOs struggled least with securing budget (21%) but were more likely to encounter challenges in allocating it (31%).

The highs and lows of enterprise SEO: Which strategies paid off best in 2017?

But the real differences came in the way that agency and in-house SEOs perceived their own success. Agency SEOs were vastly more likely to be confident about their own success: 40% of agency respondents rated themselves as “Successful – we’re absolutely crushing it” compared with just 13% of in-house SEO teams.

However, perhaps in-house SEOs are just modest, as almost half (49%) rated their SEO success as “Positive – we’re doing well enough” (versus 39% of agency SEOs).

In-house SEOs were also more likely to report being “frustrated” with their SEO outcomes (the lowest possible rating) than agencies – 8% of them gave their SEO efforts this rating, compared with only 3% of agency respondents.

The highs and lows of enterprise SEO: Which strategies paid off best in 2017?

Key takeaways

What do the findings from the study tell us about the state of enterprise SEO? While SEO will always depend somewhat on the individual circumstances of an organization, there are some broad conclusions we can draw from the data.

  • SEO as a discipline appears to be well-resourced overall, demonstrating that companies consider SEO a branch of marketing worth investing in. The challenge is therefore more often deciding how and where to allocate those resources, rather than a lack of resources.
  • Technical SEO is a top priority and a top source of success for enterprise SEOs, while companies seem less sure of where they stand with link-building. Many are putting budget into it without necessarily being satisfied with or confident in the results.
  • While some SEO mainstays (like technical on-site SEO) are effective regardless of company size, the effectiveness of SEO strategies often depends on the size of a company, with smaller companies seeing much more success with strategies like blogging than larger organizations.
  • Agency SEOs are much more likely to feel confident in their SEO success than in-house teams, in spite of reported difficulties with securing the right talent for SEO. However, both in-house and agency SEO teams face difficulties with proving the ROI of SEO, showing perhaps that this perceived success can be difficult to translate into hard numbers for the benefit of the higher-ups.
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What are sitelinks and how can I get them?

Back in 2015, we published an article entitled ‘How do I get sitelinks to appear in my site’s search results?’ which looked at how to get the hallowed set of additional links which can appear beneath your website’s SERP listing, known as ‘sitelinks’.

At the time of publication, this was all up-to-the-minute, cutting-edge information. However, since then, Google has made a change to the way that Search Console handles sitelinks, making our invaluable words of wisdom sadly outdated.

As a result, we’ve written up this refreshed and revised guide containing everything you need to know about sitelinks and how you can give yourself the best chance of getting them.

What are sitelinks?

As I hinted at in the introduction just now, sitelinks are additional links which appear beneath the main URL for a brand or publisher when you search for it on Google. They deep link to other pages within your site, and are designed by Google to “help users navigate your site”.

N.B.: These are not to be confused with sitelink extensions in Google AdWords, which are very similar but appear in AdWords ads. AdWords users have full control over whether these links appear and what they contain, unlike organic links – as we’ll cover in just a moment.

In some cases, sitelinks will also appear with a handy searchbox which lets the user search within your site directly from the SERP.

Here’s what the sitelinks for Search Engine Watch look like:

Sadly, no searchbox as of yet.

Right away you can see that these are a mixture of category pages, static pages within our site, and the odd article.

A couple of these are links we would choose to feature – the SEO and PPC categories are key sections of our site – but others are decidedly not: Online Marketing Guides, for example, is a static page from nearly two years ago which links to articles on search engines of different kinds.

The reason for this is that Google pulls in sitelinks automatically, rather than letting the publisher choose what they want to feature.

Sitelinks can be a little bit of a double-edged sword in this regard: even if you can get Google to display them, they might not necessarily be the links you would have chosen to display.

But having sitelinks appear under your search result is still a positive thing overall. Here’s why:

They give your brand more SERP real estate

You can get up to six sitelinks for your SERP listing, plus a searchbox if you can wrangle one. On desktop, this means that four or five times as much SERP space is given over to your listing, while on mobile, a sitelinked listing can take up the entire screen.What are sitelinks and how can I get them?

This has the benefit of further pushing down any irrelevant or unwanted results, news articles or social mentions for your site – as well as any competitor results that might appear – and makes users more likely to click on your website rather than another result about you.

Based on the statistic that the first three results in search account for nearly 55% of all clicks, Blogging Wizard calculated that having sitelinks could boost click-through rate for the top result by around 20%.

They give the user more options for navigating your site

Users searching for your site on Google might not necessarily want to land on your homepage. Sitelinks on the SERP provide them with a direct link to other parts of your site which might be more relevant to them, or encourage them to explore sections that they might not have known about.

If your SERP result has a quick search bar, they can use it to navigate directly to the page they’re looking for, saving them a step in the user journey.

They direct traffic to other (possibly under-served) areas of your site

Hopefully your website is laid out in a way that allows users to easily find the content or pages that you want to promote. But even then, they are unlikely to be as visible or straightforward to click through to as a link on the SERP.

Sitelinks have the benefit of distributing organic search traffic that would normally be concentrated on your homepage across other areas of your site. However, one side effect of this that is that these pages will effectively become landing pages for your site, and so you should bear in mind that a lot of people might be forming their first impression of your site from these pages.

True, anyone can click a link to a part of your site other than the homepage and land on your site that way, but these links are present on Google, and you can guarantee that a certain percentage of users are clicking them to get to your site. So make sure they look their best!

What Google changed about sitelinks

Up until October 2016, Google had one feature which allowed site owners a small modicum of control over which pages could be displayed as sitelinks for their website.

Google Search Console previously had an option to ‘demote’ sitelinks, in which site owners could specify any URL they particularly didn’t want to appear as a sitelink. Google said that while it couldn’t guarantee the page would never appear, it would “get the hint”.

But late last year, Google Webmasters made the announcement that, “after some discussion & analysis”, they would be removing the Demote Sitelinks setting in Search Console. They elaborated,

“Over the years, our algorithms have gotten much better at finding, creating, and showing relevant sitelinks, and so we feel it’s time to simplify things.”

In other words – we believe we have the ability to display the most relevant sitelinks for the user, without your input!

Google did also offer some insight into how site owners can influence the sitelinks that appear for their website, saying:

“We only show sitelinks for results when we think they’ll be useful to the user. If the structure of your site doesn’t allow our algorithms to find good sitelinks, or we don’t think that the sitelinks for your site are relevant for the user’s query, we won’t show them. […] Sitelinks have evolved into being based on traditional web ranking, so the way to influence them is the same as other web pages.”

They followed this up with a few best practice tips to help improve the quality of sitelinks for your website.

So, I know you’re dying for me to get to the good bit already: What can you do to make sitelinks, and more importantly the right sitelinks, appear for your website?

How can I get sitelinks for my website?

Overall, the best practice advice for how to get sitelinks to appear for your website boils down to having a high-quality site which Google can crawl easily. Google itself mentions in the excerpt above that the “structure of your site” needs to allow its algorithms to find good sitelinks, or it won’t display them.

Luckily, the steps you can take to improve your chances of getting sitelinks are all things that will improve your overall SEO, and make your website easier to navigate for visitors. You may find that you’re already doing several of them.

Rank #1 for your brand name in search results

This one might seem like a no-brainer to some, but the most basic prerequisite for getting sitelinks is that you be the top ranked search result when someone searches for your brand or website name. Google doesn’t award sitelinks to the second, third, fourth or other lower-down SERP rankings.

For example, if I search for Wired magazine from the UK, the UK publication – wired.co.uk – is the one that ranks top for its brand name and gets sitelinks, while its US site, wired.com, ranks lower down.

What are sitelinks and how can I get them?

If you’re struggling to rank #1 for your brand name among other websites with a similar or the same name, a rebrand to a more unique name or URL might give you a better chance of getting to the top.

Build and submit an XML sitemap

A sitemap is a lot like what it sounds like: a ‘map’ of your website which lists every page on the site, which can be designed for users or for search engines, in both cases to help them navigate the site.

In this case, we’re talking about a file hosted on your website’s server which tells search engines about the organization of your site’s content, and allow search spiders to more intelligently crawl your site.

Google Search Console Help Center has a set of instructions that you can follow on how to build and submit a sitemap. If you have a WordPress site, though, you can sit back and relax as a sitemap is already automatically generated and submitted to search engines for you.

Other steps that you can take that will allow search engines to crawl your site more quickly and accurately:

  • Make sure that your site’s structure and hierarchy are as clear and logical as possible, with your homepage as the “root” page (the starting point). For example, if you’re an online retailer selling clothing, the navigation for your site might be formatted like this:

Home > Clothing > Women’s Clothing > Accessories > Handbags

If you have any legacy structures within your site that make navigation obscure or overly complicated, now might be the time to overhaul them.

  • Use internal links with clear and informative anchor text.
  • Make sure that the pages on your site are well-linked to each other, particularly the ones you want to appear as sitelinks – Google takes the number of internal/external links into account when judging the importance of pages for sitelinks.
  • Use Fetch as Google to test whether Google can crawl and index important pages within your site.
  • Make sure that your website’s main menu only features the most important categories.
  • Use relevant and accurate meta descriptions, title tags and alt text throughout your site.
  • Avoid thin, insubstantial content, duplicate content and of course spammy-looking keyword stuffing techniques.
  • Try to improve your site speed and page load times, and make sure that your site is mobile-optimized to maximize your chances of getting sitelinks on mobile.

Whew! That was a lot of points, but as I say, the steps you can take to have the best chance of getting sitelinks are mostly just good overall SEO practices, and you should be doing most of them anyway.

Bear in mind that there’s no still guarantee sitelinks will appear after you do this, but you’ll be in a much better position to get them.

How can I get a searchbox to appear with my sitelinks?

All of this advice so far has dealt purely with how to get sitelinks to appear for your website, but as I’ve mentioned, some lucky websites are also awarded with a handy searchbox which allows users to search your site directly from the SERP.

What are sitelinks and how can I get them?

Is there anything you can do to influence whether or not this searchbox appears for your site? To an extent, yes.

While whether or not you get a sitebox at all is still at the mercy of Google, once you have one, it’s possible to configure it to use your site’s internal search engine to search your site (instead of Google, which is the default). Google Developers has a Sitelinks Searchbox page which details how you can use structured data markup to implement a searchbox that uses your website’s own search engine.

The jury’s out on whether implementing this will increase your likelihood of getting a searchbox to begin with (if you’ve got any data on this either way, it’d be interesting to know!).

But if for some reason you want to make sure that your brand’s search result doesn’t come with a searchbox attached, there’s a way to prevent that. Simply add the following meta tag to your site’s homepage:

<meta name="google" content="nositelinkssearchbox" />

So there you have it: everything you need to know about how to maximize your chances of getting sitelinks. In short, have a quality website, follow SEO best practices, and lay out the welcome mat for search spiders.

How to get the best visibility for your PPC ads in the run-up to Black Friday

In the run-up to Black Friday and the holiday shopping season, retailers are competing like crazy to attract the eyeballs of as many paying consumers as possible through paid search advertising.

But how well is it paying off? To find out, search intelligence platform Adthena has analyzed the paid search landscape in the run-up to Black Friday 2017, indexing more than 15,000 ads and 214 million impressions across 161 sellers of consumer electronics.

The study, shared exclusively with Search Engine Watch, was conducted between November 1st and 13th 2017, and sheds some light on the kinds of PPC ad subjects and messaging that are getting the best response from consumers ahead of the holidays.

iPhone dominates mobile… on mobile

In a not-so-surprising discovery, product ads containing the term “iPhone” out-performed other types of consumer goods – particularly on mobile. Paid search ads with “iPhone” pulled in 8.88% of all impressions on desktop, and gained a hefty 14.89% of all impressions on mobile.

“Phone” was the second-best-performing product ad keyword, with 4.61% of impressions on desktop and 11.55% on mobile, followed by “TV”, which pulled in 3.54% of desktop impressions and 4.22% of mobile impressions.

When it came to the messaging that performed best in Black Friday PPC ads, deal-related ad copy featuring the word “save” was the clear winner, driving close to a fifth (18.79%) of impressions on desktop, and more than a quarter (27.47%) on mobile.

“% off” was the next-best-performing deal messaging on desktop, with 10.03% of impressions, while on mobile, “discount” came in second place at 9.03%. “Sale” took 5.6% of impressions on desktop, while “% off” won third place on mobile with 3.91%.

Ashley Fletcher, Director of Product Marketing at Adthena, says that these differences in the data prove just how vital the language used in ad copy is to the overall success of a paid search ad.

“We can see in the analyzed data that phrase ‘Save’ delivered huge impression share on both desktop and mobile, in comparison to ‘Discount’ or ‘% off’,” he said. “Making this single change in an advertiser’s ad text copy can make all the difference in having a winning search strategy for this fiercely competitive time of year.

“The devil is in the detail, and marginal gains mean success.”

If you’re wondering what kind of discount is the most effective at attracting consumer attention, well, surprise surprise, it’s a big one. Offers for “70% off” gathered the most impressions PPC ad on both desktop (6.89%) and mobile (1.31%).

“30% off” was the next-most-popular discount, though it attracted less than 1% of overall impressions on both desktop (0.84%) and mobile (0.35%). In third place was “40% off”, with 0.58% of impressions on desktop, and 0.23% on mobile.

Black Friday outpaces Cyber Monday, Amazon pushes Amazon

In spite of the juggernaut rise of online shopping, Black Friday still carries more weight than its newer, online-focused sibling, Cyber Monday – even in the electronics industry. According to the data from Adthena, “Black Friday” pulled in 2.99% of all PPC ad impressions on desktop (with 2.41% on mobile), while “Cyber Monday” managed only a paltry 0.12% of all impressions on desktop (0.09% on mobile).

Meanwhile, Amazon is taking advantage of one of the biggest shopping holidays of the year to push its Prime memberships. Across 71,414 Amazon ads with a total of 78,097,823 impressions, the top two-performing phrases by an overwhelming margin were “Amazon”, which took 98.32% of impressions on desktop and 99.79% on mobile, and “Prime”, which attracted 84.71% of impressions on desktop and 97.64% on mobile.

This was bad news for ads with more generic terms like “Shop” or “Low prices”, which attracted just 10.27% of impressions on desktop and 1.79% on mobile (“Shop”) and 8.37% of impressions on desktop and 0.44% on mobile (“Low prices”), respectively.

What do the figures from the study tell us about the types of product searches and purchases that people are carrying out on desktop versus on mobile?

Although there is some variation in the messaging that seems to resonate with users on desktop compared to mobile – mobile users are keen to “Save” but evidently don’t want to “Shop” for “Low prices” – the same leaders tend to emerge across devices, which Fletcher believes demonstrates that shopper behavior is generally device-agnostic, with consumers carrying out their product searches across multiple channels.

“In many instances, mobile is driving higher impression share than desktop, such as with the top performing product ads,” he says. “This tells us that many shoppers are doing their gift browsing on mobile, but desktop still perhaps remains a key part of the path to conversion.”

What can marketers take away from these findings that will help them get the best possible visibility for their PPC ads in the run-up to Black Friday? Fletcher says that actionable insights from data are the key to success in a rapidly shifting landscape.

“Marketers must understand how campaigns are performing and adjust accordingly as quickly as possible,” he says. “Being able to monitor what their competition is doing and changing on a daily basis will have a great impact on their PPC campaigns.

“Today’s marketer wants daily insights into an auction that’s changing rapidly. If a marketer sees that a competitor is pushing 70% discounts and garnering a majority of market share, they can quickly adjust their own strategy in order to continue to remain competitive and capture the audience.”

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What do you need to know about Chinese search engine Sogou?

A few days ago, the news emerged that Chinese search engine Sogou (搜狗) is aiming to raise up to $585 million in a U.S. Initial Public Offering.

Sogou, which is owned by internet company Sohu, Inc., announced the terms for its proposed IPO on Friday.

The news has caused a stir among those keeping an eye on the Chinese tech space, as Sogou is backed by Chinese tech giant Tencent, the company behind the hugely popular messaging apps WeChat and QQ.

But for those of us who might not be up on the state of search in China, what do you need to know about Sogou, and how does its IPO play into the wider search landscape? And could there be any potential knock-on effects for the rest of the industry?

What is Sogou?

Sogou (whose name, 搜狗, literally translates as “searching dog”) is a Chinese search engine that was launched in 2004, and is currently the third-largest search engine in China.

Well, depending on who you ask. As tends to be the case with all things China, the statistics can vary from source to source.

Baidu, China’s largest search engine, is the undisputed king of search in China, but lower down the rankings things get a little murkier. In a January article, Bloomberg stated that “some surveys” have Sogou as China’s second-largest search engine, and it is often referred to as China’s second-largest mobile search engine, with 16.9% market share based on mobile queries (iResearch – Chinese-language source).

Meanwhile, statistics from China Internet Watch put Sogou’s overall share of the Chinese search market at just 3.31% as of May 2017 – fourth behind competitors Baidu, Shenma, and Haosou.

Baidu is the undisputed king of search in China

But regardless of its exact ranking, Sogou is still widely agreed to be a key contender in the contest for Chinese search dominance. Crucially, it’s backed by Tencent, the world’s fifth-largest internet company in terms of revenue, and is the default search engine for Tencent’s QQ mobile browser and on QQ.com, giving it prime access to QQ’s close to 900 million active users.

Other things to know about Sogou are that it has a web browser, launched in 2008, and is the company behind Sogou Pinyin, China’s most popular pinyin input software. (Pinyin is the official romanization system for Chinese characters).

Sogou Pinyin makes use of Sogou’s search techniques to analyze and categorize the most popular words and phrases, and could be a major advantage in Sogou’s future plans for getting the edge in search – more on that later.

So is Sogou the Bing to Baidu’s Google?

If Baidu is the top dog in Chinese search, and Sogou is a smaller contender (albeit with the backing of a huge tech company) trying to make its mark, does that make Sogou the Bing to Baidu’s Google?

Well, not exactly. As you’ll have gathered from the previous section, things are a little more complicated than that.

While the Chinese search market is as unequivocally dominated by Baidu as the western search market is by Google, there are several contenders for the number two spot. These include Shenma, a “mobile-first” search engine by the titan of Chinese ecommerce, Alibaba; and Haosou (formerly known as 360), a search engine by Chinese security company Qihoo 360.

(If you’re wondering where the heck Google itself is in all this, it holds a paltry 1.84% search market share in China, according to China Internet Watch. Google and China do not have the happiest of histories).

What do you need to know about Chinese search engine Sogou?

Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent are three of the leading internet companies in China – as well as the world – which means that the battle for search dominance for China has become a face-off between some of the biggest players in its tech industry.

This is not unlike the way in which the voice search and visual search spaces have become a battleground between major tech companies such as Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and Pinterest.

And while Qihoo 360, with an annual revenue of $1.39bn as of 2014, may not be in the same league as three of the world’s largest internet companies, it’s still a force to be reckoned with. Qihoo 360 led a group of investors which purchased most of Opera Software, the company behind the Opera browser, in 2016.

It has also entered into strategic partnerships with Sina (the company behind Chinese social media platform Sina Weibo), Google, and even Alibaba at different times, and in 2013 reportedly considered purchasing Sogou for around $1.4 billion.

So how does Sogou plan on setting itself apart against its heavyweight competitors in the Chinese search market – and can it succeed?

Artificial intelligence and natural language search

Sogou announced in August that it was planning to focus on artificial intelligence and natural language processing in its bid to build a next-generation search engine, with the aim of becoming an “innovator and pioneer in artificial intelligence in China”.

It also plans to shift its emphasis from more traditional keyword-based search to answering questions, in line with the trend towards natural language search prompted by the rise of voice search and digital assistants.

Sogou has joined major search players such as Bing, Baidu and of course Google in investing in artificial intelligence, but its small size may put it at a disadvantage. A huge search engine like Baidu, with an average of more than 583 million searches per day, has access to reams more data with which to teach its machine learning algorithms.

But Sogou has an ace up its sleeve: it is the only search engine formally allowed to access public messages on WeChat – a massive source of data that will be particularly beneficial for natural language processing.

What do you need to know about Chinese search engine Sogou?

Plus, as I touched on earlier, language is something of a specialty area for Sogou, as Sogou Pinyin gives it a huge store of language data with which to work.

Sogou also has ambitious plans to bring foreign-language results to Chinese audiences via its translation technology, which will allow consumers to search the English-speaking web using Mandarin search terms. These will be automatically translated by Sogou, and the resulting content translated back into Chinese for the user.

What this all means for the Chinese search market

Sogou has reportedly been flirting with the possibility of an IPO since 2015. So what’s significant about its timing in seeking an IPO now, and what could it mean for the wider search industry in China?

While Baidu may unquestionably be the dominant force in Chinese search, the company is not immune to scandal, and last year it was hit by a big one. A 21-year-old college student named Wei Zixi died after pursuing an unsuccessful cancer treatment at a hospital which was promoted to him on Baidu, sparking outrage over Baidu’s perceived valuing of profit over safety.

Baidu’s shares dropped almost 14% following the scandal, and regulators quickly clamped down on medical advertising in search results pages, which accounts for some 30% of Baidu’s online ad revenue.

This was by no means the first time that Baidu had come under fire for the commercialization of healthcare. Baidu’s history with dodgy medical advertising dates back as far as 2008, and includes a number of controversies in which Baidu sold off several of its health support communities to private hospitals, leading to a widespread public backlash and an apology by Baidu’s CEO.

What do you need to know about Chinese search engine Sogou?

The Baidu support forum for hemophilia, which Baidu was accused of selling off to a private hospital, sparkling public outcry and a public apology from the search engine’s CEO in January 2017.

Up until now, disaffected users haven’t had any viable alternatives for search engines to use if they want to boycott Baidu, which is increasingly gaining a reputation for being untrustworthy and profit-driven.

But search engines like Haosou and Sogou have been slowly but surely eating into Baidu’s market share, and if Sogou’s investment into AI and natural language pays off, it could shape up into a serious competitor.

How could a Sogou IPO affect search outside China?

What do these shifts in the Chinese search market mean for the world outside of China?

At the moment, unless you’re a business looking to invest in or optimize for search in China, not a whole lot. Even if you are looking for a way into the Chinese market, optimizing for Baidu is still your best bet, as Baidu is unlikely to lose its total market dominance overnight.

But these developments are worth keeping an eye on. A successful IPO for Sogou could be a big win for Tencent in the war for supremacy over rivals Baidu and Alibaba, all three of whom are global powerhouses with investments in media, entertainment, ecommerce, gaming, social networking and more.

And with a reported 731 million internet users in China, any search engine which can capture a significant portion of that market wields some serious clout.

So keep Sogou on your radar; it will be worth seeing how this one plays out.