Tag Archives: Industry


Targeting generational buzzwords like “Millennials” means targeting no-one

If I were to tell you that marketers were using astrological signs as a way to understand/target specific groups of people, you’d tell me that’s a ridiculous strategy.

“Astrology is fake,” you’d say, and given the precision of modern marketing tools, using the stars to analyze customers or understand population segments would not only be lazy, but the chances of it working would be random at best. Yet, this is happening daily.

How? For example, thinking that millennials, a 75.4 million cohort of people in the United States alone, share a universal set of attributes.

Speaking in absolutes about a demographic that makes up ~20% of the total population of the United States with nearly no shared characteristics completely ignores the nuance, depth and uniqueness of humanity, and our diverse wants, needs and desires. We are complex creatures!

Common sense would indicate that drawing conclusions about such a loosely defined group of folks is at best “pushing it,” and at worst completely ludicrous. There’s simply no way to make an accurate, universally applicable statement about that many people, defined solely by a 20+ year age range based on the year they were born.

There’s no rigorous methodology behind generational branding

Even if I wanted to take generational branding seriously, it’s in my opinion not good social science. “Baby Boomers” (18 year cohort) are defined as people born between 1946 – 1964, and an age range between 51 and 70.

Millennials” (a 23 year cohort) are people born between 1981-2004, giving an age range of 12-35. Gen Z (no defined cohort yet) have birth years that range from the mid-1990s to 2000s, and, so far there is little consensus about ending birth years.

The ranges are not only inconsistent, but the fact that not everyone can even agree on these unstandardized, randomly assigned dates says it all. It’s all highly questionable, even for a softer science like sociology.

A ~20 year ago cohort is too large to mean anything when our experiences of media, culture, etc. have fragmented

Social trends now move so quickly that single moments of significance are less defining, even if at the time they were seemingly important. The 3-TV-channel world where we all watched the same things has been dead for decades and yet we still apply concepts that were created then.

Everyone’s experience of the world from a media perspective alone is so unique we can’t underestimate the number of niche communities that now exist that have less to do with age and more to do with personality. The world and the people in it are becoming more, not less, complex and we need updated thinking if we hope to understand it and market to it.

Psychographics show far more in common than year born / demographic breakdown by year born. If you can target, not just arbitrary ranges as defined by buzzwords, but by people who live in a specific area, are married and are interested in weightlifting and organic food you would have to be willfully ignorant or lazy to think stepping back and targeting everyone is a good idea.

With the depth we have available for ad targeting in tools like Google AdWords and Facebook ads, it’s inexcusable to not take the time to target the right message to the right users. The sophistication of our marketing capabilities means we’re doing our shareholders and customers a disservice not to go deeper.

Sample AdWords ad targeting capabilities mean reaching specific and precise segments relevant to us:

Sample Facebook ad targeting capabilities reach specific social communities that care about our brand:

Targeting generational buzzwords like “Millennials” means targeting no-one

As for marketing to specific age ranges? Of course there are product categories with immutable segments for a certain demographic. But buzzwords like “Baby Boomer” aren’t required to market to these groups effectively.

Additionally, you want to be more specific than a 20 year cohort to accomplish this in a meaningful way. For example, a 34 year old millennial living in a city has little in common with a 20-something millennial just finishing college in a small town – yet generational buzzwords lump them together.

In Google Analytics, we break out age ranges in smaller, more manageable chunks, so you can analyze college-age students in a specific area which would be far more instructive.

Targeting generational buzzwords like “Millennials” means targeting no-one

To some, the word millennials has become just a blanket term for young people. This almost comical story of an iconic American brand grasping for relevancy shows what may be a typical situation in boardrooms, where a group of executives clearly feels behind the times.

So it seems like an easy solution to just use broad strokes like buzzwords. A brief quote from this story illustrates:

The other challenge is that many people who work at American Express aren’t all that millennially minded themselves. If you visit Amex’s headquarters in Lower Manhattan, you’ll find squared-jawed men in bespoke suits and fashion model-glamorous women, but not a lot of young people in the uppermost ranks … In one Amex brainstorming session, according to an executive I spoke with, participants spent 10 minutes trying to figure out what FOMO meant before turning to Google. They discovered it stands for “fear of missing out.” It is unclear if the group recognized the irony.

I don’t think this habit of over-generalization comes from a desire to marginalize millennials, but I do believe it’s a broader way people use to try and make sense of a technology-driven world.

In most analyses of millennials, the way technology shapes and controls their environment is key to understanding whatever point is being made about them. This categorization provides a way to add a human layer to the discussion around those who have been born into a world where technology and the internet automate our existence.

Why waste time with generational buzzwords when we have so many better groups to analyze/target/study instead?

For example, with recommended actions: 

  • Users who responded to holiday ads last year that become recurring customers over the next year (run more of those specific ads next season, replicate for your other product categories and double the budget if the numbers were previously great!).
  • The specific location with the highest average purchase order or customer loyalty for a national restaurant chain (or better yet, the top 5%). What went right here? What are the common traits among customers here and how can we attract more of them to our other locations?
  • For a pharmaceutical company with a new arthritis drug, targeting people ages of between 30 and 60, the average onset of RA According to the Arthritis Foundation (this is a specific, actionable age segment, not the nebulous “baby boomer” and is immutable range, no buzzword required).
  • All your site visitors who added something to their shopping cart but don’t complete checkout. For sure these include people of all ages; likely optimizations don’t even require demographic data.
  • Users who follow your brand on social channels (aka your influencers) – what can you learn about this very specific group that is unique to your brand. Incredibly useful to understand these folk and their nuances so you can best nurture those relationships.
  • The top 20% of your customers by annual spending or product category. How can you grow these really valuable segments?

The above list is just to get you thinking, but to me it’s so exciting what’s now possible that to keep doing what was always done is doing our work and sector a huge disservice.

Or, you could just ignore all of this and just make stereotypical ads for millennials without actually getting to know them, so that you too can repeat Pepsi’s gaffe and become a global embarrassment.


A visual guide to Pinterest advertising

Pinterest has slowly been building itself up as an advertising alternative to Google and Facebook over the past 12 months.

The company’s focus has historically been on building an engaged user base through its intuitive, visual interface.

As a social network, it has always offered something a little different.

However, advertisers have been skeptical about whether Pinterest could ‘monetize’ this model, due to the nature of engagements users have and also the demographics that typically spend time on the site.

Those concerns have not been allayed altogether, but Pinterest has made some fascinating moves of late. They have launched a paid search partnership with Kenshoo, completely upgraded their visual search capabilities, and expanded their reach by adding a new Google Chrome extension.

By combining an engaged user base with advertising that doesn’t disrupt their experience, Pinterest may have a formula that works in an age of ad blockers and decreased consumer attention spans. Their stated aim has been to own the ‘discovery’ phase of the purchase journey, suggesting products to users before they know exactly what they are looking for.

Google has clearly taken notice, too. The search giant’s recent product launches, such as its ‘similar items’ feature and the recent announcement of Google Lens, demonstrate Google’s strategy to stymie Pinterest’s growth. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, after all.

That said, Pinterest remains a relative unknown in the advertising space. Many advertisers would no doubt welcome a third, genuine alternative for their digital ad dollars, a fact that will likely benefit Amazon as well as Pinterest. But before taking the plunge and launching a paid campaign, there are some things we need to know.

As such, it seems timely to take a step back and assess what really differentiates Pinterest from the competition, what options are open to marketers, and what you need to know before getting started with Pinterest advertising.

Since this is Pinterest we’re talking about, we thought a visual guide would be most fitting. 

(You can view a high-resolution PDF by clicking on the image below).

Enjoyed this? Check out some of our other recent visual guides and infographics:

Infographic created by Clark Boyd, VP Strategy at Croud, and graphic designer Chelsea Herbert.

Is Google Making a Play for the Recruitment Industry?

Google is poised to disrupt an industry with some of the most lucrative content in the search results: job listings.

The post Is Google Making a Play for the Recruitment Industry? appeared first on Search Engine Journal.

How marketers can position their company to grow with Generation Z

Generation Z, the current 13-17-year-olds, have been mobile since middle school.

Compared to millennials, who were mobile pioneers, Gen Z teens are mobile natives, according to Think with Google. This group is one of the only groups affected by advertising on the basis of whether the product is “cool” or not.

Getting their first phone is a major milestone for Gen Z-ers, and video rules their viewing habits – with a total of more than three hours a day spent watching online videos. They are mobile shoppers, and it is very important for them to stay connected via texting and messaging apps.

So what does this mean for marketers preparing for growth? Well, a lot of it is obvious, but getting there is the tough part.

Gen Z marketing: A few statistics according to Think with Google

  • Gen Z represents more than a quarter of the U.S. population (26 percent) with an annual purchasing power of $44 billion.
  • Getting a phone is no. 3 in importance for teens, behind graduating school and getting a license, and teens say they connect with people more via text than face-to-face interaction.
  • 38 percent preferred to interact via text versus just 15 percent in person.
  • Teens even text those they are in the same room as – three in 10 teens say they text people they are spending time with in person.
  • More than 50 percent of teens said their social media followers are important to them, giving them social currency. This is important to note for advertising to teens. Their peers influence gen Z-ers – if their friends are talking about a product, they endorse it more than others.
  • Teens are on screens a majority of the time, which isn’t surprising since most teens had a smartphone by age 12. Compare that to current 18 to 24-year-olds, who had their first smartphone at age 16, and 25 to 34-year-olds at the age of 20.

How Gen Z spends its time

As for apps and platforms, Gen Z uses Snapchat and Instagram the most. Facebook is still consumed daily, but that’s what it is used for – consuming, not sharing. Snapchat is seen as a fun way to interact with friends and peers without their thoughts being shared or permanent.

Connecting offline, teens find sports teams as the best way to connect in the real world, or IRL (in real life). Game consoles and television also play a big role in a teen’s day-to-day life.

Gen Z teens are switching from texting to mobile messaging apps and spend most of their time using those messaging apps, watching videos online and social networking.

Advertising to Generation Z

Sixty-eight percent of teens make purchases online. They also react more positively to ads aimed at them, with teens their age doing things they do. Gen Z doesn’t go to a store unless they know the brick and mortar store has what they want. For most teens, the top three aspects that make something cool are:

  1. If friends are talking about it
  2. If they see an ad about it
  3. If it’s something personalized to them

In order to reach Gen Z teens, companies need to be mobile friendly, personalize their message to teens, use photos, reach them through social media and be philanthropic.

Teens are on their phones more than they are not, so it is correct to assume if they are your target audience, you want to market your brand on mobile. This is the perfect start to implementing other things we’ve learned about Gen Z. Smartphones are No. 1 for use, followed by tablets, laptops, TVs and gaming consoles.

Gen Z-ers spend most of their time watching videos, listening to music and messaging on their mobile devices. Not surprisingly, targeting Gen Z’s video usage, music and social networking apps is the best way to get through to them.

Use advertising with imagery

So, we’ve found the way to get to Gen Z-ers; now let’s talk about how to implement it.

Teens react positively to advertising they can connect with personally – imagery of teens like them doing things they do will get their attention. (However, beware of cheesy stock images which looked too staged, as these will appear inauthentic and could have the exact opposite effect).

Teens want things that are cool or make them unique – how is your brand going to do that?

Not all social media is created equal

Knowing how teens use each social media channel is important. Facebook is more for consumption than sharing – so don’t rely on teens using Facebook to boast about your product, but you can reach them via targeted ads as they scroll. Snapchat is most popular among this age group.

Gen Z likes the idea of sharing their day and ideas via a disappearing photo or video – it’s short-lived, not permanent, and they like that. With social networks being a common ground for haunting any person with mistakes and leading to easy bullying, it’s easy to see why an app that provides communication that doesn’t stick around is popular these days. Snapchat ads and the “Discovery” section for brands are a great place to find your target teen audience.

Instagram’s rates for shopping and targeting audiences are increasing. The app has seen growth in reported conversions for sponsored ads and even those brands which are followed organically. Instagram is another forum to easily target the Gen Z population – again, use photos they can relate to featuring kids their age.

Be philanthropic

Teens also find companies using their brand to make a difference as important. If companies have a good online profile and if their friends are talking about it, the “cool” factor for teens will increase.

Teens want the brands they associate with to make them feel good – companies with great philanthropic efforts are important to Gen Z-ers.

The takeaway

Gen Z has been mobile since a very young age and understands the online platform more than any other generation. They want things fast and easy—shopping from the comfort of their home rather than visiting brick and mortar stores—truly making them the most mobile generation.

How are you planning to scale your business to accommodate Gen Z? Is this something you are already preparing for in your overall marketing strategy? Let us know your thoughts and your experiences in the comment section below.

Amanda DiSilvestro is a writer for NoRiskSEO, a full service SEO agency, and a contributor to SEW. You can connect with Amanda on Twitter and LinkedIn

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

Customer reviews play an important role in the success or failure of a business.

Just think, before you try out a new product or service, don’t you usually go online to read the reviews and see what kind of experiences other customers have had? In addition to boosting your online reputation, reviews can also be used to boost your visibility and authority online.

Google has always been a great place to look for reviews; their trusted stores feature contains a lot of helpful insights and information about a wide variety of popular businesses.

That being said, they recently decided to do away with trusted stores in favor of a new type of review: verified customer reviews. Now it’s up to businesses to learn the difference between the two as well as how to optimize this new feature in their favor.

Below I’ll explain more about what verified reviews are as well as suggest some ways businesses can use them to come out on top of the competition.

What is a verified customer review?

A verified customer review is a review a customer can leave after making a purchase from a company’s website. It differs from a typical Google review in that in order to leave one, a customer MUST make an online purchase, so the business being reviewed is required to have an online store.

Traditional Google reviews could be left about anything (an online purchase, an in-store purchase, a customer service experience, etc.) and they could also essentially be written by anyone, even though Google discourages fake reviews.

There is no way to verify that the person leaving the review actually made a purchase. These types of reviews are not going away, but because of their flaws it was necessary for Google to introduce a more reliable way to leave feedback.

Image via thesearchmarketingshop.com

Verified reviews stand out in the way they are obtained; after a customer makes an online purchase, they’ll be sent an email with a link asking them to leave a review. If they haven’t made a purchase, they won’t receive an email and they won’t be able leave feedback.

This is great for other customers who now have a trustworthy way to determine whether a business is worth pursuing; they don’t have to try and guess if a review is authentic or not.

That being said, it’s going to require some extra work on the part of entrepreneurs. You have to set up verified reviews, and then it will take some time to build up a positive reputation.

Thankfully there are some things you can do to enhance your chances of coming out on top.

How to sign up for verified customer reviews

The following steps come straight from the Google Blog and explain exactly how you can enable customer reviews.

  • Sign in to your Merchant Center account (or sign up if you do not have an account).
  • Select “Merchant Center programs” from the dropdown in the upper right-hand corner.
  • Click “Get Started” in the Google Customer Reviews card and accept the Program Agreement.
  • Add the survey opt-in code to your website.
  • Optional: Add the badge code to your site wherever you want. This will make the badge appear on your site, allowing you to display your seller rating and show customers that you’re integrated with Google Customer Reviews.

Image via Google

The key here is to remember that you have to opt-in for this feature; you won’t automatically start receiving verified reviews. Thankfully, it’s free, and if you follow the few simple steps listed above, you’re bound to start getting reviews in no time.

That being said, because verified reviews are a relatively new feature, not much is known on exactly how to best optimize them in your favor. The essence of them is that they’re left by true online customers, so we’re going to focus on how you can collect as many positive reviews as possible.

1. Offer an incentive

Unfortunately it’s often the customers who have bad experiences who are most likely to leave a review; most people can’t be bothered to take the time to write about a positive experience.

This may change if you offer some kind of incentive for leaving a review (you can’t specify that it has to be a positive one, but most likely it will be if you run an incentive program).

Include information about the incentive in your company newsletter, post about it on social media, and advertise it on your website.

You can offer something like free shipping or a percentage off their next purchase for taking the time to leave a verified review; people love free stuff, and it might just be enough to encourage them to take the extra few minutes to follow the link and leave the review. It never hurts to ask!

2. Follow up the link with a personal email

Google is already making it incredibly easy to leave a review by automatically emailing a link to customers, but there’s no reason why you can’t take it a step further and follow up their email with your own. Just because Google is asking them to leave a review doesn’t mean they’re going to do it.

Customers will appreciate a more personalized email from you explaining why reviews are important to small businesses and how much you would appreciate them reviewing the product they just purchased, as well as your business overall.

If you don’t want to send an email you can also follow up with a phone call if you have that information. It’s much easier to say no to a computer than it is to a human, and many people are receptive to the idea of helping a small business succeed.

Throw in an incentive for leaving a review and you’re golden!

3. Respond to both positive and negative reviews

It’s not enough to just ask people to leave a review; you also need to respond after they’ve done so. If they leave a positive review, reach out and thank them for taking the time to do so.

If they leave a negative one, it’s even more imperative that you respond and try to rectify the situation. Find out exactly what they’re unhappy about and try to make it right.

Even if you can’t satisfy that particular customer, other patrons will see that you’ve taken the time to address the concern and try to fix the issue and they’ll appreciate that. One or two bad reviews don’t necessarily have to ruin your reputation as long as you handle them appropriately.

For more out-of-the-box ideas on obtaining good customer reviews, check out this article from HigherVisibility.

Regardless of how you get them, reviews are essential for business success and we recommend that you take the extra time to cultivate relationships with your customers so that they’re motivated to leave positive feedback.

Now that verified customer reviews have been introduced, we foresee Google reviews holding even more weight with customers, so it’s important that you collect positive ones for your business.

Have you opted in to verified customer reviews yet? Do you have any ideas on how you can use them to come out on top?  Comment in the section below!


Amanda DiSilvestro is a writer for HigherVisibility, a full service SEO agency, and a contributor to SEW. You can connect with Amanda on Twitter and LinkedIn.

5 most interesting search marketing news stories of the week

Welcome to our weekly round-up of all the latest news and research from the world of search marketing and beyond.

Google has been busy this week, performing several interesting tests including two fairly major ones concerning hotel reviews and job listings.

Meanwhile, Bing makes its homepage a little more interactive, and Google has announced that Similar Audiences will be available for Search and Shopping in AdWords. Finally, one Googler put a persistent SEO myth about 404 pages to bed once and for all.

Google is testing a new UI for hotel reviews

Toronto SEO specialist Sergey Alakov discovered the test last week, exploring its implications in a post on his personal blog. The test shows a new review carousel that amalgamates reviews from third-party sources like Expedia and booking.com.

There are a few changes to the review system too, with Google now displaying average scores for Room, Locations, and Services & Facilities. Clicking through to the reviews section also shows an average score for different types of traveler – like Couples, Families, and Solo.

Image courtesy of Sergey Alakov

…alongside a new Job Portal to help users find job listings

SEO and Moz-affiliate Dan Shure broke the test via Twitter last Friday with a screenshot of a Knowledge Panel-esque feature for active job listings. Clicking through results in an expanded results page which allows segmentation by industry, title, type, location, company type and employer.

Speculators were quick to spell doom for the recruitment industry, with one contributor linking to a Google Hire page.

Image courtesy of @dan_shure

Bing is sharing the story behind its homepage photos

Bing’s homepage has sought to differentiate itself from the stoic simplicity of Google with high-res, eye-catching background images.

An article from Search Engine Land noted that Bing homepage now displays the source of these images, and offers the option to download and share it via social media.

Google announces a new audience solution for Search and Shopping

In a Google+ post, the Google AdWords account revealed that their Similar Audiences feature would now be available for Search and Shopping. Here’s the full text of the post:

Remarketing lists for search ads (RLSA) (https://goo.gl/J6csaJ) help you reconnect with people who’ve been to your site, but engaging both new and loyal customers is just as important to your business. Starting today, we’re rolling out similar audiences for Search and Shopping along with Customer Match for Shopping to help you use your own data to reach the right customer with the right message: https://goo.gl/sa2VMK

Google confirmed you won’t be demoted for linking to a 404 page

There has been some speculation over the impact of linking to 404 pages, which provide a potentially negative experience for users. SEOs have asked: does Google care?

Well, in response to a tweet from SEMPost writer Jennifer Slegg, Gary Illyes (@methode) confirmed that Google doesn’t take it into account:

Not much room for ambiguity there.

The 4 scariest online marketing disasters and how to avoid them

My favorite funny anecdote is that one day an online marketer wakes up in horror from the nightmare that he has lost all his passwords.

I actually get that nightmare too, but mine is worse. It’s that all my passwords have been stolen.

As marketers, CEOs and managers we deal with too many fears daily: We have too many disasters to avoid. No wonder we get frequent nightmares.

Let this article serve as a checklist to help you avoid some of the most unfortunate and embarrassing online marketing disasters (and hopefully give you more nights of good sleep).

1. Keep an eye on your domain renewal date

Life gets in the way: Either you get too busy with personal stuff or you lose an employee who used to be responsible for your domain renewals. Or maybe your card expires and your registrar’s notifications go straight into your spam box.

Many things can happen preventing you from renewing your domains, and one day you may discover that your most important domain belongs to someone else.

It’s a total nightmare that has happened more than you think – and to a few really huge brands!

As a business owner, keep a close eye on your domain expiration dates and possibly renew them for many years ahead (the maximum amount of time you are allowed to hold a domain is 10 years) or set up an auto renewal. While neither of the above methods will guarantee your domains are safe forever, these will at least increase your odds of keeping them for as long as you need them.

There are also new registrars that provide enhanced security, keeping your domains safer. For example, LCN gives you an option to receive text messages seven days before expiry. And Godaddy gives you almost 20 days after expiry to allow you to get those domains back.

2. Keep an eye on your rankings

Another unfortunate thing that may happen to your business is the loss of your Google rankings. Now, it used to be easier to spot. A manual penalty would hit (and you’ll be notified via a helpful message inside your Webmaster Tools account) or a Penguin update would be announced and you suddenly see 50%-90% of your Google traffic gone.

Inside Google Analytics, you could even identify which phrases exactly were hit (oh how I miss those good old times when we didn’t know what “non-provided” meant!). It would be hard to miss such a drastic change.

Now those easy days are over. Google updates are no longer announced. Even if you keep track of the news and you hear webmasters talking about some mysterious traffic fluctuations, you might not even notice any changes in your analytics graph.

These days, Google is trickier. In many cases the loss of traffic is very gradual, so one day you log in to your Google Analytics account and suddenly notice the unfortunate trend: You have been losing traffic for months!

The solution is to monitor your rankings on a continuous basis using a tool which notifies you of both positive and negative trends – even mild ones.

I am using Serpstat to monitor my rankings, mainly because they have many useful tools under one roof, so I can use the same login to run a quick competition research, check my rankings or even do a quick SEO diagnostic.


3. Keep an eye on your downtime

The simplest way to lose an online customer is to send him/her to your site only to be greeted with a broken page. All the websites go down at some point, including the biggest ones like Twitter, Google and Facebook, etc.

But how often is your site down? Most of best-known hosting providers have awful uptime statistics. If your site is hosted by one of them, it may be down more often than is excusable.

These downtimes are especially unfortunate (and frequent) when it’s a busy season and you are supposed to be making money instead of fixing your website. Make sure your site is ready for a holiday season ahead of time.

A great free way to keep an eye on your site downtime is to set up custom alerts inside Google Analytics. You can receive email alerts and text messages (the latter is for the United States only) whenever Google Analytics is not able to record any visits. You can also copy your dev team into each alert.

Google Analytics

4. Keep an eye on your brand name mentions

Online reputation management is not only about keeping your brand navigational search results nice and clean of various rip-off reports and negative reviews. It’s also about monitoring your brand mentions and addressing any negative sentiment as it comes.

In many cases a very pissed-off customer can be turned into a brand advocate if their concerns are addressed in real time. People are usually amazed to receive a public Twitter apology and are willing to give the company a second chance.

Twitter apology

I use Tweetdeck to spot my brand mentions as they happen. Tweetdeck delivers them right to my desktop, allowing me to skip those that don’t need a reply and quickly engage with those that require my attention.

I also use Cyfe to collect and archive Twitter mentions around the multiple brands I monitor, including my competitors. Cyfe allows you to monitor an unlimited number of Twitter search results – which is handy when you own several brands.


Are there business disasters you have successfully avoided? Please share your stories!

Should Google be more transparent with its updates?

It might seem hard to recall now, but there was a time when Google would regularly announce updates to its ranking algorithms, confirming what they were and how they would affect websites.

During these halcyon days, information about Google ranking updates was generally delivered via Google engineer and head of Google’s Webspam Team Matt Cutts, who was to many marketers the public face of Google.

As someone who was involved in helping to write the search algorithms himself, Matt Cutts was an authoritative voice about Google updates, and could be depended on to provide announcements about major algorithm changes.

Since Cutts’ departure from Google, however, things have become a lot more murky. Other Google spokespeople such as Gary Illyes and John Mueller have been less forthcoming in confirming the details of algorithm updates, and the way that Google makes updates has become less clearly defined, with regular tweaks being made to the core algorithm instead of being deployed as one big update.

Occasionally Google will go on record about an upcoming major change like penalties for intrusive interstitials or a mobile-first search index, but this has become the exception rather than the rule. A glance down Moz’s Google Algorithm Change History shows this trend in action, with most recent updates referred to as “Unnamed major update” or “Unconfirmed”.

The world of SEO has adapted to the new status quo, with industry blogs fervently hunting for scraps of information divulged at conferences or on social media, and speculating what they might mean for webmasters and marketers.

But does it have to be this way? Should we be taking Google’s obscurity surrounding its updates for granted – or, given the massive influence that Google holds over so many businesses and websites, are we owed a better level of transparency from Google?

A “post-update” world

At last month’s SMX West search marketing conference, the topic of ‘Solving SEO Issues in Google’s Post-Update World’ was a key focus.

But even before SMX West took place, the issue of Google’s lack of transparency around updates had been brought front and centre with Fred, an unnamed and all but unconfirmed ranking update from Google which shook the SEO world in early March.

Fred had an impact on hundreds of websites which saw a sudden, massive drop in their organic search rankings, leaving website owners and SEOs scrambling to identify the cause of the change.

But Google consistently refused to go on record about the algorithm update and what was causing it. It only gained the name ‘Fred’ thanks to a flippant comment made by Google’s Gary Illyes that “From now on every update, unless otherwise stated, shall be called Fred”.

When pressed about Fred during a Google AMA session at SMX West, Illyes replied that the details about what Fred targeted could be found “in the webmaster guidelines”, but declined to give more specifics.

After the Fred update hit, reports surfaced that the algorithm change seemed to be targeting websites with poor link profiles, or those that were ad-heavy with low-value content.

Evidently, the websites affected were engaging in poor SEO practices, and it can be argued that sites who do this shouldn’t be surprised when they are hit with a ranking penalty by Google.

However, if Google wants to clean up the web by rewarding good practices and punishing bad ones – as its actions would suggest – then wouldn’t it be more beneficial to confirm why websites are being penalised, so that their owners can take steps to improve? After all, what’s the point of a punishment if you don’t know what you’re being punished for?

On the other hand, you could argue that if Google specified which practices webmasters were being punished for, this would only help bad actors to avoid getting caught, not provide an incentive to improve.

The pros and cons of Google transparency

In the wake of Google Fred, I asked the Search Engine Watch audience on Twitter whether they thought that Google owed it to its users to be more transparent.

Several people weighed in with strong arguments on both sides. Those who agreed that Google should be more transparent thought that Google owed it to SEOs to let them know how to improve websites.

Additionally, if Google expects website owners to make their sites more user-friendly, then maybe Google should be informing them what it thinks the user wants.

We’ve already seen how this can work in practice, with Google’s mobile-friendly ranking signal giving webmasters an incentive to improve their mobile experience for users.

Others argued that with so many bad actors and black hat SEOs already trying to abuse the system, complete Google transparency would lead to chaos, with people gaming the system left, right and center.

One Twitter user made an interesting point that Google might not necessarily want to help SEOs. At the end of the day, all SEOs are trying to game the system to some extent. Search engine optimization is a game of finding the right combination of factors that will allow a website to rank highly.

Some play by the rules and others cheat, but at the end of the day, there is an element of manipulation to it.

We have a tendency to assume that Google and SEOs – at least of the white hat variety – are on the same side, working to achieve the same goal of surfacing the most relevant, high quality content for users. By that logic, Google should help good SEOs to do their job well by disclosing details of algorithm updates.

But if Google and search specialists aren’t really on the same side, then what obligation does Google have to them?

Is obsessing about updates missing the point?

Maybe all of this debate about algorithm transparency is missing the point. If we agree that website owners should be giving users the best experience possible, then perhaps they should be concentrating on that rather than on the “game” of trying to rank highly in Google.

Michael Bertini, Online Marketing Consultant and Search Strategist at iQuanti and a long-time consultant on all things search, believes that website owners should do exactly that.

“In all my years doing this with both black hat and white hat methods, the best thing anyone could ever do is to do things for the end-user, and not for Google.

“Have you ever Google searched something in the morning and then by noon, it’s dropped a position?  This happens all the time. Granted it mostly happens on page three and above, but every once in a while we do see it on page one.

“What I tell my team and clients is this: if Google makes a change in the algorithm or you notice a drop in your rankings or even in increase in your rankings – don’t take this as permanent.”

Bertini also believes that anyone who is not actively engaging in bad SEO practices should have nothing to fear from a Google algorithm update.

“So long as you’re not keyword stuffing, buying links, building links from private networks,  purchasing social followers or shares, running traffic bots, or any other tactics that could come off as trying to trick Google… you should be fine.

“Those who have to worry about algorithmic updates are usually those who are always looking for a way to manipulate Google and the rankings.”

How well do you know Search Engine Watch? The SEW Friday quiz

How well do you know Search Engine Watch?

Following the success of our previous Easter trivia quiz, we decided to mix it up again this Friday with another quiz – this time testing how well you’ve been paying attention to the content we’ve been publishing on Search Engine Watch this week.

All of our questions (bar one, for fun!) are drawn from the past week’s worth of content, including last week’s search news roundup. So brush up and give it your best shot!


What will the future of Google search results pages look like?

Recently, we took a nostalgic, infographic-based look back at the history of Google search results pages.

In the past 20 years, Google has gone from a university project called Backrub to a global powerhouse that continues to shape how we search for, and discover, new information.

And yet, these are still early days for Google. In fact, the rate of change is only increasing, with driverless cars and augmented reality on the horizon.

Some of Google’s core business focuses, like hyperlocal targeting and personalization, remain largely untapped opportunities and, with heightening competition from Apple, Amazon, and Facebook, the pace of progress will continue to accelerate.

In 2017 alone, for example, we are about to see an ad-blocker built into Chrome, a mobile-first index, and the increased uptake of voice search.

Google defines itself as “machine-learning first” in its approach, so we are entering an era of unprecedented – and mildly unpredictable – possibilities. If Google can integrate its Assistant software into our everyday lives, the humble search results page as we know it may soon be a thing of the past.

In our latest infographic, we have looked into a future where context will define the form and content of the search results pages we see.

You can view a high-resolution version of the image by clicking on the image below.


Infographic created by Clark Boyd, VP Strategy at Croud, and graphic designer Chelsea Herbert. Click here to read the blog post by Croud on The Future of Google Search Results Pages.