Google’s Evil Plan

January 27 2013 // Technology // 79 Comments

Google's evil plan is simple and not so evil.

Don't Be Evil

Soon LOLcat

Any successful company is going to draw criticism. Google probably gets more of it than others because of their 'Don't Be Evil' motto. Algorithm changes shuffle branded sites higher and people shout 'evil!' Google begins to disintermediate certain verticals and people shout 'evil!'

Most of the posts about Google's evil ways focus around these two themes. So much time and energy is spent raging against changes that are simply a reflection of us - the user. When we collectively stop shopping at branded stores over smaller boutiques then we'll see that reflected in our search results.

And the last time I checked no one was mourning the demise of the milk man or shedding tears over Tower Records or Blockbuster. It sucks if you're the business getting disintermediated but do you really want to go to another website to get the current weather?

Evil? It's not Google, it's you.

Google's Evil Plan

Instead of talking about all of these natural business moves and conjuring up some nefarious plot, I want to talk about Google's real strategy. Here's the truth. Here's Google's plan.

Get people to use the Internet more.

That's it. The more time people spend on the Internet the more time they'll engage in revenue generating activities such as viewing and clicking display ads and performing searches.

The way Google executes on this strategy is to improve speed and accessibility to the Internet. Google wants to shorten the distance between any activity and the Internet. Lets look at some of Google's initiatives with this in mind.

Chrome

Speed Racer Car #5

Firefox was doing a bang up job of breaking Internet Explorer's browser monopoly. Chrome certainly hastened IE's decline and helped secure more search volume. Yet Chrome developers have long said that their goal isn't market share but to make the browsing experience faster.

In a very nearsighted way, making browsers faster is the goal. Yet, the faster the web experience, the more page views people rack up and the more searches they'll perform.

Chrome is about reducing the friction of browsing the Internet.

SPDY

60s Spiderman Flying Car

Google can only do so much with Chrome to speed up the web. Enter SPDY, an open networking protocol, which looks to be the basis for HTTP 2.0.

Its goal is to reduce the latency of web pages.

That's technical speak for making the web faster. This is what users want. This is what makes users happy. Milliseconds matter when it comes to user satisfaction. And satisfying the user is great for business.

Android

Android Robot

Similar to Chrome, Google saw that users would increasingly access the Internet via phones. They learned from their web browser experience and decided to jump into the vertical early and it's paid off. Google now commands nearly 54% of the smartphone market.

Android doesn't have to make money directly. It provides unfettered access to revenue generating activities and allows Google to push the industry forward in terms of speed.

Motorola Mobility

Motorola Mobility

Not content to simply push the envelope with software, Google decided to grab Motorola Mobility and improve on hardware too. The rumors around the Google X phone are increasing.

Long battery life and wireless charging are two of the more tantalizing possibilities  These are clearly features that would greatly benefit users but ... they also ensure that you'll nearly always be able to connect to the Internet. See how that works?

Google Now

Psychic Search?

Not using the Internet enough? Google Now can help change that by automagically serving up useful cards based on your search history and behavior. Don't get me wrong. I like Google Now and find it to be more and more valuable as they add more functionality.

But it's no mystery that predictive search is also about stimulating more Internet activity.

Google Fiber

Google Fiber

Many seem to think Google is crazy to pursue fiber. It's massive. It's expensive. But it's also exactly in line with their goal of increasing Internet usage. In fact, they're pretty clear in the messaging on the Google Fiber page.

Google Fiber starts with a connection speed 100 times faster than today's broadband. Instant downloads. Crystal clear high definition TV. And endless possibilities. It's not cable. And it's not just Internet. It's Google Fiber.

It's not that Google would control the transmission (though that's a nice side benefit), it's that the friction to using the Internet would be nearly zero.

Google WiFi

 

WiFi Logo

Google already provides free WiFi in Mountain View, wanted to do it in San Francisco as far back as 2005 until it was torpedoed by politics and paranoia. Now Google provides free WiFi in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York. In addition, Google has been futzing with white space and a super-dense LTE network.

Can it be any more clear? Google wants ubiquitous Internet access.

Google Drive

cloud

I often see people argue that the cloud is Google's big picture strategy. I think that's still missing the point. The cloud is a means to an end.

Giving people the ability to access files from anywhere simply keeps them online longer. You don't have the browser off working on your document, instead your online editing and saving your document. You're searching for those documents.

You're just a browser tab away from areas of the Internet where Google makes money. In short, Google Drive shortens the distance between work and activities that produce revenue for Google.

Chromebook

Chromebook

Taken to the extreme, Chromebook is essentially a computer that runs off the Internet and cloud. Everything is done online.

A new type of computer designed to help you get things done faster and easier.

Faster. There's that word again. And easier is just a friendly way of saying 'reduce friction'. At $199 and $249 Google is hoping that this new type of computer will start to find a market. This strikes me as the ultimate lock-in.

Google+

Aldous Huxley

So what about Google+? At first blush, it doesn't seem to fit.

I still believe a substantial reason for building Google+ was to develop better social signals and increase search personalization. However, I think the time spent in places where Google couldn't reach (aka Facebook) was troubling.

Google needed to break the stranglehold Facebook had on social attention. They've certainly made inroads there and that's really all they needed to do to ensure attention didn't pool and persist in a Google dead zone.

Self Driving Cars

Google Self Driving Car

I'm shocked that people don't see the brilliance of a self-driving car. The average commute time in the US is 25 minutes (pdf). So that's nearly an hour each day that people can't be actively on the Internet. Yet, they obviously want to be.

If you play Ingress (like I do) you can see where XM (roughly phone usage) is highest. It's super high in parks and doctor's offices and movie theaters. But it's also concentrated at intersections. A red light and we're diving for our phones.

Now imagine a self-driving car and how much more time you'd have to ... be on the Internet. I'm just talking about commuting which is less than 20% of the driving done in this country!

A self driving car unlocks a vast amount of time that could be spent on the Internet.

Google Glass

Google Glass Skydive

I know the latest big thing is Sergey on the Subway but to me his skydive was more transformative. The message? Even if you're falling out of the sky you can still use the Internet.

Google Glass could be the ultimate way to keep you connected to the Internet.

Perhaps we'll reach a point where much of our consciousness is actually online. Why waste your time remembering useless things when you can simply retrieve them from your personal cloud? Sometimes the future in Charles Stross' Accelerando seems almost inevitable.

Mind you, at times I feel the urge to live in a cabin in the woods but it's usually quickly followed with a caveat of 'with good satellite coverage or Internet access.'

Google TV

Google TV Logo

I think YouTube was initially thought to be the future of TV. The problem is that we're very entrenched in traditional TV and inertia (and a lack of proper execution by Google TV) has allowed traditional TV to catch up.

This is the one place where Google is behind. Maybe Google TV picks up steam, or Google Fiber is the wedge into homes or Google acquires someone big like TiVo or Netflix.

Twitter is also both a major rival and potential acquisition target because of their position as the glue between screens.

Share of Time

Salvador Dali Dripping Clocks

I'm surprised that no one has compared Google's strategy to Coke's now abandoned 'share of stomach' strategy. Google wants people to spend more of their time on the Internet. Think about that.

Once again it comes down to the 'Don't Be Evil' motto. Coke didn't care if they were creating a health epidemic as they rang up profits. Google, on the other hand, believes their services can improve our lives.

That kind of belief is what the tin foil hat conspiracy folks should really be worried about. It's not any small tactical gaffe that could be chalked up in the evil column. It's that Google believes they're doing good. I sort of think so too.

TL;DR

Google's strategy is to get people to use the Internet more. The more time people spend on the Internet the more time they'll engage in revenue generating activities. As such, nearly every Google effort is focused on increasing Internet speed and access with the goal to shorten the distance between any activity and the Internet.

New Ways To Track Keyword Rank

January 13 2013 // Analytics + SEO // 83 Comments

Tracking keyword rank is as old as the SEO industry itself. But how you do (and use) it is changing. Are you keeping up?

This post covers how I create and use rank indexes and introduces a new and improved way to track rank in Google Analytics.

Rankaggedon

In December of 2012 both Raven and Ahrefs made the decision to shut down their rank tracking features because they violated Google's Terms of Service. The reaction from the SEO industry was predictable.

WTF LOLcat

The debate about why Google began to enforce the TOS (I think it has to do with the FTC investigation) and the moaning about how unfair it is doesn't interest me. Both SEOmoz and Authority Labs still offer this service and the way many use rank needs to change anyway.

Every obstacle is an opportunity. Trite but true.

Is Rank Important?

To be honest, I don't use rank that much in my work. This has to do with a combination of the clients I choose to work with and my philosophy that increasing productive traffic is the true goal.

Yet, you'd have to be soft in the head not to understand that securing a higher rank does produce more traffic. Being on the first page matters. Getting in the top three results can produce significant traffic. Securing the first position is often a huge boon to a business. Duh!

But rank is the extrinsic measurement of your activities. It's a Google grade. Rank isn't the goal but the result.

Unfortunately, too many get obsessed with rank for a specific keyword and spend way too much time trying to move it just one position up by any means necessary. They want to figure out what the teacher is going to ask instead of just knowing the material cold.

Rank Indexes

So how do I use rank? I create rank indexes.

A rank index is the aggregate rank of a basket of keywords that represent a type of query class that have an impact on your bottom line. For an eCommerce client you might have a rank index for products and for categories. I often create a rank index for each modifier class I identify for a client.

Usually a rank index will contain between 100 and 200 keywords that represent that query class. The goal is to ensure that those keywords reflect the general movement of that class and that changes in rank overall will translate into productive traffic. There's no sense in measuring something that doesn't move your business.

If that rank index moves down (lower is better) then you know your efforts are making a difference.

Executives Love Indexes

Business Cat

A rank index is also a great way to report to C Level executives. These folks understand index funds from an investment perspective. They get this approach and you can steer them away from peppering you with 'I did this search today and we're number 4 and I want to be number 1' emails.

It becomes not about any one term but the aggregate rank of that index. That's a better conversation to have in my opinion. A rank index keeps the conversation on how to move the business forward instead of moving a specific keyword up. 

Getting Rank Index Data

If you're using SEOmoz you export the entire keyword ranking history to CSV.

SEOmoz Export Full Keyword History to CSV

After a bit of easy clean up you should have something that looks like this in Excel.

SEOmoz Keyword History Raw Data

At this point I simply copy and paste this data into my prior framework. I've already configured the data ranges in that framework to be inclusive (i.e. - 50,000 rows) so I know that I can just refresh my pivot table and everything else will automagically update.

If you're using Authority Labs you'll want to export a specific date and simply perform the export each week.

Authority Labs Keyword Ranking Export

There's a bit more clean up for Authority Labs data but in no time you get a clean four column list.

Authority Labs Keyword Data

Unlike the SEOmoz data where you replace the entire data in your framework, you simply append this to the bottom of your data. Once again, you know the pivot table will update because the data range has been configured to be quite large.

Creating The Rank Index Pivot Table

You can review my blow by blow of how to create a pivot table (though I'm not using a new version of Excel so it all looks different anyway.) It's actually a lot easier now than it was previously which is something of a miracle for Microsoft in my view.

Keyword Rank Index Pivot Table

You'll use the keyword as your row label, date as the column label and the Average of rank as the values. It's important to use a label so you can create different indexes for different query classes. Even if you only have one index, use a label so you can use it as a filter and get rid of the pesky blank column created by the empty cells in your data range.

You may notice that there are a lot of 100s and that is by design.

Keyword Rank Index Pivot Table Options

All those non-ranked terms need to be counted somehow right? I chose to use 100 because it was easy and because Authority Labs reports up to (and sometimes beyond) that number.

Turning Rank Data Into A Rank Index

Now that you have all the rank data it's time to create the rank index and associated metrics.

Keyword Rank Index Calculated Data

Below the pivot table it's easy to use a simple AVERAGE function as well as various COUNTIF functions to create these data points. Then you can create pretty dashboard reports.

Keyword Rank Index Reports

Average Rank is the one I usually focus on but the others are sometimes useful as well and certainly help clients better understand the situation. A small caveat about the Average Rank. Because you're tracking non-ranking terms and assigning them a high rank (100) the average rank looks a bit goofy and the movement within that graph can sometimes be quite small. Because of this you may wind up using the Average of Ranking Terms as your presentation graph.

Average of Ranking Terms Graph

I don't care much about any individual term as long as the index itself is going in the right direction.

Projecting Traffic

I can always look at the details if I want and I've also created a separate tab which includes the expected traffic based on the query volume and rank for each term.

Rank Index Traffic Projections

This simply requires you to capture the keyword volume (via Google Adwords), use a click distribution table of your choosing and then do a VLOOKUP.

IFERROR(([Google Adwords Keyword Volume])*(VLOOKUP([Weekly Rank],[SERP Click Distribution Table]),2,0)),0)

You'll need to divide by 4 to get the weekly volume but at that point you can match that up to real traffic in Google Analytics by creating a regex based advanced segment using the keywords in that index.

Of course, you have to adjust for (not provided) and the iOS attribution issue so this is very far from perfect. And that's what got me really thinking about whether rank and rank indexes could be relied on as a stable indicator.

What is Rank?

What Is Love Night at the Roxbury

The rise in (not provided) and the discrepancies often seen between reported rank volume and the traffic that shows up point to the increase in personalization. SERPs are no longer as uniform as they once were and personalization is only going to increase over time.

So you might have a 'neutral' rank of 2 but your 'real' rank (including context and personalization) might be more like a 4 or 5.

That's why Google Analytics rank tracking seems so attractive, because you can get real world ranking data based on user visits. But that method is limited and makes reporting a huge pain in the ass. The data is there but you can't easily turn it into information ... until now.

Improved Google Analytics Rank Tracking

I got to talking to Justin Cutroni (a really nice and smart guy) about the difficulties around tracking rank in Google Analytics. I showed him how I use rank indexes to better manage SEO efforts and over the course of a conversation (and a number of QA iterations) he figured out a way to deliver keyword rank the way I wanted in Google Analytics.

Keyword Rank Tracking In Google Analytics with Events

Using Events and the value attached to it, we've been able to create real keyword rank tracking in Google Analytics.

The Avg. Value is calculated by dividing the Event Value by Total Events. You could change this calculation once you do the export to be Event Value by Unique Events if you're concerned about those users who might refresh the landing page and trigger another Event. I haven't deployed this on a large site yet to know whether this is a real concern or not. Even if it is, you can always change it in the export.

Keyword Rank Tracking Data via Analytics Events

So you can just make Avg. Value a calculated field and then continue to tweak the exported data so that it's in a pivot table friendly format. That means adding a date column, retaining the Event Action column but renaming it keyword, adding a Tag column, and retaining the Avg. Value column.

You essentially want it to mimic the four column exports from other providers. I suppose you could keep a bunch of this stuff in there and not use it in the pivot table too. I just like it to be clean.

Event Based Rank Tracking Code

Start tracking rank this way on any Google Analytics enabled site by dropping the following code into your header.

Google Analytics Rank Tracking Code

To make it easier, the code can be found and copied at jsFiddle. Get it now!

Just like the old method of tracking rank in Google Analytics, this method relies on finding the cd parameter (which is the actual rank of that clicked result) in the referring URL. This time we're using Event Tracking to record rank and putting it in a field which treats it as a value.

The code has also been written in a way to ensure it does not impact your bounce rate. So there's no downside to implementation. You will find the data under the Content > Events section of Google Analytics.

Where To Find Average Rank in Google Analytics

Just click on Content, Top Events and then RankTracker and you'll find keyword ranking data ready for your review.

Google Analytics Rank Indexes

I've been working at applying my index approach using this new Event based Google Analytics rank tracking data. The first thing you'll need to do is create an advanced segment for each index. You do this by creating a regex of the keywords in that index.

Rank Index Regex Advanced Segement

Sometimes you might not get a click on a term that is ranked 20th and certainly not those that are ranked 50th. That's a constraint of this method but you can still populate an entire list of keywords in that index by doing a simple VLOOKUP.

IFERROR(VLOOKUP(A1,'Export Event Data'!$A$1:$E$5000,5,FALSE),100)

The idea is to find the keyword in your export data and report the rank for that keyword. If the keyword isn't found, return a value of 100 (or any value you choose). From there it's just about configuring the data so you can create the pivot table and downstream reports.

Caveats

You Raise a Valid Point Ice Cream

This new way of tracking is different and has some limitations. So lets deal with those head on instead of creating a grumble-fest.

The coverage isn't as high as I'd like because of (not provided) and the fact that the cd parameter is still only delivered in about half of the referrers from Google. I'm trying to find out why this is the case and hope that Google decides to deliver the cd parameter in all referrers.

Full coverage would certainly increase the adoption of rank tracking in Google Analytics and reduce those seeking third party scraped solutions, something Google really doesn't like. It's in their self-interest to increase the cd parameter coverage.

As an aside, you can get some insight into the rank of (not provided) terms and match those to landing pages, which could be pretty useful.

Rank of Not Provided Terms by Landing Page

The other limitation is that you only get the rank for those queries that received clicks. So if you're building a rank index of terms you want to rank for but aren't and track it over time it becomes slightly less useful. Though as I've shown above you can track the average of ranking terms and of the index as a whole at the same time.

One of the better techniques is to find terms that rank at 11 to 13 and push them up to the front page, usually with some simple on-page optimization. (Yes, seriously, it's way more effective than you read about.) So this type of tracking might miss a few of these since few people get to page 2 of results. Then again, if you see a rank of 11 for a term with this tracking that's an even higher signal that getting that content to the front page could be valuable.

Finally, the data configuration is, admittedly, a bit more difficult so you're working a tad harder to get this data. But on the other hand you're seeing ranking data from real users. This could get really interesting as you apply geographic based advanced segments. Larger organizations with multiple locations might be able to determine which geographies they rank well in versus those where they're struggling.

And not Or

At this point I can't say that I'd scrap traditional rank tracking techniques altogether, though I'm sure Google would like me to say as much. Instead, I think you should use the new Google Analytics Event Based Rank Tracking in conjunction with other ranking tools.

First off, it's free. So there's no reason not to start using it. Second, you get to see real world rank, which while limited in scope can be used to compare against neutral rank offerings. Lastly, if you're trying to future proof your efforts you need to be prepared for the potential end to traditional ranking tools or such high variation in personalization to make them unreliable.

Did I mention this new rank tracking method is free?

I'm looking forward to putting this into practice and comparing one tracking method to the other. Then we'll see the potential variance between personalized ranking versus anonymized ranking.

TL;DR

The closure of recent third-party rank tracking services is an opportunity to think about rank in a different way. Using a rank index can help keep you focused on moving the business forward instead of a specific keyword. To future proof your efforts you should implement improved Google Analytics rank tracking for free.

2013 Internet, SEO and Technology Predictions

December 31 2012 // Advertising + Marketing + SEO + Social Media + Technology // 15 Comments

I've made predictions for the past four years (2009, 2010, 2011, 2012) and think I've done pretty well as a prognosticator.

I'm sometimes off by a year or two and many of my predictions are wrong where my predictions were more like personal wishes. But it's interesting to put a stake in the ground so you can look back later.

2013 Predictions

2013 Predictions Crystal Ball

Mobile Payment Adoption Soars

If you follow my Marketing Biz column you know I'm following the mobile payments space closely. Research seems to indicate that adoption of mobile payments will take some time in the US based on current attitudes.

I believe smartphone penetration and the acceptance of other similar payments such as app store purchases and Amazon Video on Demand will smooth the way for accelerated mobile payment adoption. Who wins in this space? I'm still betting on Google Wallet.

Infographics Jump The Shark

Frankly, I think this has already happened but perhaps it's just me. So I'm going to say I'm the canary in the coal mine and in 2013 everyone else will get sick and tired of the glut of bad Infographics.

Foursquare Goes Big

The quirky gamification location startup that was all about badges and mayorships is growing up into a mature local search portal. I expect to see Foursquare connect more dots in 2013, making Yelp very nervous and pissing off Facebook who will break their partnership when they figure out that Foursquare is eating their local lunch.

Predictive Search Arrives

Google Now is a monster. The ability to access your location and search history, combined with personal preferences allows Google to predict your information needs. Anyone thinking about local optimization should be watching this very closely.

Meme Comments

A new form of comments and micro-blogging will emerge where the entire conversation is meme based. Similar to BuzzFeed's reactions, users will be able to access a database of meme images, perhaps powered by Know Your Meme, to respond and converse.

Search Personalization Skyrockets

Despite the clamor from filter bubble and privacy hawks, Google will continue to increase search personalization in 2013. They'll do this through context, search history, connected accounts (Gmail field trial) and Google+.

The end result will be an ever decreasing uniformity in search results and potential false positives in many rank tracking products.

Curation Marketing

Not content with the seemingly endless debate of SEO versus Inbound Marketing versus Content Marketing versus Growth Hacking we'll soon have another buzzword entering the fray.

Curation marketing will become increasingly popular as a way to establish expertise and authority. Like all things, only a few will do it the right way and the rest will be akin to scraped content.

Twitter Rakes It In 

I've been hard on Twitter in the past and for good reason. But in 2013 Twitter will finally become a massive money maker as it becomes the connection in our new multi-screen world. As I wrote recently, Twitter will win the fight for social brand advertising dollars.

De-pagination

After spending years and literally hundreds of blog posts about the proper way to paginate we'll see a trend toward de-paginating in the SEO community. The change will be brought on by the advent of new interfaces and capabilities. (Blog post forthcoming.)

Analytics 3.0 Emerges

Pulling information out of big data will be a trend in 2013. But I'm even more intrigued by Google's Universal Analytics and location analytics services like Placed. Marketers are soon going to have a far more complete picture of user behavior, Minority Report be damned!

Ingress Becomes Important

I'm a bit addicted to Ingress. At first you think this is just a clever way for Google to further increase their advantage on local mapping. And it is.

But XM is essentially a map Android usage. You see a some in houses, large clusters at transit stops, movie theaters and doctor's offices, essentially anywhere there are lines. You also see it congregate at intersections and a smattering of it on highways.

Ingress shows our current usage patterns and gives Google more evidence that self-driving cars could increase Internet usage, which is Google's primary goal these days.

Digital Content Monetization

For years we've been producing more and more digital content. Yet, we still only have a few scant ways to monetize all of it and they're rather inefficient when you think about it. Someone (perhaps even me) will launch a new way to monetize digital content.

I Will Interview Matt Cutts

No, I don't have this lined up. No, I'm not sure I'll be able to swing it. No, I'm not sure the Google PR folks would even allow it. But ... I have an idea. So stay tuned.

Reclaiming Lost iOS Search Traffic

December 19 2012 // Analytics + SEO // 27 Comments

Have you noticed that direct traffic year over year is through the roof? Maybe you scratched your head, wrinkled your brow and chalked it up to better brand recognition. In reality, no such thing happened. What is happening is search traffic from iOS is being attributed to direct traffic instead.

Your organic search numbers are being mugged.

[Update] Frank Zimper notes that this problem also exists for those running Android 4.0 and higher. I've confirmed this via the same process you'll read below. The only saving grace is that Android is usually a smaller traffic driver and the version migration is far more gradual. Yet, it'll clearly continue to syphon search traffic off over time unless Google addresses this problem.

iOS 6 Search Theft

Stolen Search Traffic LOLcat

The reason these visits are being mis-attributed is a decision by Apple to move Safari search to secure (SSL) in iOS 6. The result of this decision is that the referrer isn't passed. In the absence of a referrer Google Analytics defaults those visits to (none) which shows up in direct traffic.

The web browser on iOS 6 switched to use SSL by default and our web servers don’t yet take that fact into account. Searching still works fine, but in some situations the HTTP referer header isn’t passed on to the destination page. We’re investigating different options to address this issue.

As Google investigates different options to address this we're left dealing with a serious data problem. Personally, I think Google Analytics should have a message within the interface that warns people of this issue until it's fixed.

RKG did a nice job of tracking this and showing how to estimate the hidden search traffic. But for some reason this issue doesn't seem to be getting as much traction as it should so I wanted to demonstrate the problem and show exactly how you can fight back. Because it's tough enough being an SEO.

Organic Search Traffic Graph 2012

At a glance it looks like this has been a decent year for this client. But it's actually better than it looks in October and November. Follow along to see just how much better.

Create iOS Advanced Segments

The first step is to create two Advanced Segments, one for iOS and one for iOS 6.

iOS Advanced Segment in Google Analytics

In May the labeling of Apple Operating Systems changed from specific devices to iOS. So include all four so you can see your iOS traffic for the entire year.

iOS 6 Advanced Segment in Google Analytics

The iOS 6 segment is straightforward and will only be used to demonstrate and prove the problem. Also, if you want to perform this analysis on multiple analytics properties be sure to save these segments to any profile.

The Scene Of The Crime

Once you have your advanced segments you want to apply them as you look at direct traffic by month.

Search Theft Underway

This plainly shows that direct traffic suddenly jumped from traditional levels upon the release of iOS 6 in late September.

Reclaiming Stolen Search Traffic

Every SEO should be reclaiming this stolen traffic to ensure they (and their clients) are seeing the real picture. Here's my simple method of figuring out how much you should take back.

Three Month iOS Direct Search Ratio

I've taken a three month slice of iOS traffic composed of April, May and June. From there I'm looking to see direct traffic as a percentage of the sum of direct and organic. The reason I'm not doing direct as a percentage of the total is to reduce any noise from referral spikes, paid search campaigns or other channel specific fluctuations.

In this instance direct comprises 10.5%. If you want to go the extra mile and quell the OCD demons in your head (or is that just me) you can do this for every month to ensure you've got the right percentage. I did and am confident that the percentage for this site is 10.5%.

Be aware, it will be different for each site.

Next I look at November and perform the same calculation just to confirm that it's out of whack. At 46.6% it's clearly departed from the established baseline.

November Direct and Search Traffic for iOS

I simply apply the proper direct traffic percentage (10.5% in this case) to the sum of direct and organic traffic. That's the real amount of direct traffic. I then subtract that from the reported direct traffic to find the lost search traffic number.

The equation is none-((organic+none)*percentage). In this case I just reclaimed 79,080 search visits!

Better SEO Results

Get the credit you deserve and apply those stolen search visits to organic traffic.

November Search Lift from iOS Search

A very quick calculation shows that reclaiming iOS search traffic produced a 4.6% bump in organic traffic for this client. That's the best 32 minutes I've spent in a long time. Now it's your turn.

TL;DR

Changes in how Safari searches are passed to Google Analytics is causing organic searches to be listed under direct traffic. Give clients the real picture and get the credit you deserve by properly attributing iOS traffic.

Twitter Will Win The Social Brand Advertising War

November 26 2012 // Advertising + Social Media // 42 Comments

Twitter will steal Facebook's bacon and become the most powerful brand advertising platform on the planet.

That's saying a lot since I previously called Twitter the Underpants Gnomes of the Internet. But Twitter has changed and is no longer simply an altruistic agent of social change with revenue as a side gig. In 2013, Twitter means business.

That's Entertainment

That's Entertainment

Those who have been on Twitter the longest probably still think of Twitter as an information source. You may remember back in 2009 when people began talking about how Twitter was their replacement for RSS feeds.

I was not one of those people. Don't get me wrong, I found some value out of Twitter from an information perspective (and still do), but the signal to noise ratio was never that good.

But here's what I've realized. Twitter is not about information anymore. It's meta-entertainment.

Mark Cuban recently called Facebook a time waster, an alternative to boredom that looked far more like TV than a Google search. I think he's right and his description applies to both Facebook and Twitter.

Supporting the idea of social media as entertainment is a March of 2012 The Hollywood Reporter study.

Nine of 10 respondents view social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook as a new form of entertainment, and more than half say social media sites are important tastemakers in determining what to watch and buy. Perhaps more surprising, 80 percent of television viewers visit Facebook while they watch.

Of course I have to believe these numbers might be a bit over-inflated based on who commissioned the study, but the general thesis resonates and seems solid.

Mobile Is Where It's At

Twitter was mobile before it was sexy to be mobile. Mind you, it wasn't really Twitter who figured out mobile. They had a robust community of third-party developers who led them to that conclusion over the course of many years. With all that data staring them in the face they moved quickly to double down on mobile. And it's paid off.

Oh, did you notice the hashtag in that Tweet? Hello McFly!

Multi-Screen Viewing

Twitter's lead in mobile has allowed them to capture the multi-screen viewing market. Make no mistake, this is the future of content consumption. Twitter understands that they can play a huge part, perhaps the connective tissue, between TV and other screens.

Multi-Screen Viewing

These are not this or that experiences but this and that experiences. Twitter is adding value to mass media content.

Pew found that 52% of adult cell phone owners use their phones while watching television. That's the popular stat but it gets even more interesting if you look at just smartphone users.

Fully 74% of smartphone owners reported using their devices in one way or another while watching television in the preceding 30 days, compared with 27% of non-smartphone owners.

Of course, smartphones comprise the majority of phones (and rising), making this even more important. Yet, an April 2012 Forrester report shows that smartphones are already being displaced in many ways by tablets.

Tablets are displacing PCs and smartphones as the “couch computer” of choice: 85% of US tablet owners use their tablets while watching TV, and according to Nielsen, 30% of total tablet time is spent while watching TV.

The real takeaway here isn't which screen is winning but that we're entering a multi-screen viewing environment. Twitter, not Facebook, seems best positioned to capitalize on this new reality.

Owning The Hashtag

 

Twitter Hashtags

The hashtag is Twitter's secret weapon.

While anyone can use a hashtag most consumers see it as synonymous with Twitter. I have to say I wasn't a huge fan of the hashtag at first. Or, rather, I didn't like the way many abused it, using more hashtags than normal words in a Tweet. (I still think that's moronic.)

But hashtags are clearly a great way to aggregate content on a topic or event. Just watch a stream of Tweets from a conference and you'll begin to understand the value of hashtags.

What's more, when you're attending a multi-track conference you often use the stream of Tweets from the sessions you don't attend as a comparison and cheat sheet. It's not unusual to hear someone complain that they were in the wrong session based on a comparison of Tweet streams.

Yet, I was still annoyed by hashtags until I read a piece by Denton Gentry on the use of hashtags to improve communication. Sure hashtags were great functionally but Denton made me realize that they were also ways to add expression.

Why does this matter in this context? The hashtag became entertainment. Hashtag memes were born and those brands who understood how to tap into this dynamic could create entertainment.

Collaborative Entertainment

We Are The Entertainment

The hashtag and Twitter's short form anti-conversation content has created an opportunity for collaborative entertainment. It's not about conversations it's about the ever-changing aggregate of opinion, insight and snark.

I was recently down in Los Angeles on business and happened to be in the airport during the second Presidential debate. How did I wind up 'watching' it? On Twitter using the #debate stream. It was actually quite easy, interesting and fun to follow the debate this way.

I wasn't going to wade into the mess of politics with my own Tweets but it was an entertaining way to view the debate and how others were interpreting it.

Pages vs Hashtags

Since the introduction of the Open Graph I really thought that Facebook wanted to kill Pages. In the last few years Facebook has made it more and more difficult for brands and businesses to make Pages worthwhile.

Yes, yes, I know you have a client or a case study that shows they're killing it on Facebook but from the reduced functionality and reach I think most are swimming upstream on Pages.

I actually think it's a smart idea to get rid of Pages but that's a post for another day. The problem is Facebook has no alternative place to aggregate brand conversations. Unfortunately, Facebook doesn't support the hashtag.

Facebook conversations are with brands. Twitter conversations are about brands.

This is really the functional difference between the two platforms right now. Many still cling to the notion that people want to have conversations with brands. I simply don't think that's true. Conversations with brands are not social. Yet that's the implicit goal of Facebook Pages.

Conversely you need not follow a brand on Twitter to view that stream of hashtag content. I can tune in when I want and it doesn't even need to be explicitly brand centric. Examples are littered over our television screens. Think of the hashtags on Survivor (#rewardchallenge and #immunitychallenge) or The Soup (#satanstoaster) to name just a few.

The hashtag is both a connection and platform for multi-screen collaborative entertainment.

User Centric Engagement

You don't have to follow CBS or Survivor. You tune in when you want to tune in. Think about how scary and powerful that is!

The brand account could still be a valuable part of the ecosystem but it wouldn't need to be the center of the brand experience. That might allow accounts to add value instead of incessantly trying to collect followers and figure out ways to break through the noise or crack the EdgeRank algorithm.

In fact, brands can participate in the hashtag stream along with everyone else, supplying 'official' announcements or insider content when appropriate. The role of an official account is to egg on your fans to provide that meta-entertainment.

Sure, the number of fans or followers seems comforting but we've all seen how little engagement results from these massive numbers. In the end it comes down not to who you follow but what content you're engaging in.

Viewers Like You 

Red View-Master

Imagine knowing which hashtag streams a user has viewed! How valuable would that information be? How easy would it be to advertise to lapsed viewers? Or to understand the other programming or products you might be losing out to based on viewing behavior. This isn't about the brands I say I like but the ones I'm actively consuming.

The hand-wringing over active users as defined as those who Tweet or how many people they follow may be completely specious. The pure 'lurker' may be just as valuable, particularly for brand advertisers. I'd be far more interested to know about interaction based how many hashtag streams users viewed and the dwell time on those streams.

And there's a really interesting opportunity to map hashtags to brands and categories, not to mention crawling the public social graph of accounts to develop demographic data. It would become relatively easy to match advertisers to users who frequently view a variety of hashtag streams.

The discussion around viewers makes me think about traditional TV advertising. Twitter seems to think so too if comments by Joel Lunenfeld at IAB MIXX are any indication.

A campaign on Twitter, he said, is “the ultimate complement to a TV buy.”

Can they make it any more clear?

Beyond Text

Twitter Gets Visual

Twitter is doing a lot to make the experience more visual which is critical not just to keep up with competitors but to get mainstream adoption. And the new email Tweet feature continues to push them to a broader audience.

Again, I think Twitter is being relatively transparent in how they're approaching this issue.

People tell incredible stories on Twitter through photos and videos. When you search for a person, an event or a hashtag, you can now see a grid of the most relevant media above the stream of Tweets.

You can also see media instantly in your search results stream on iPhone and Android. Photos and article summaries automatically show previews to give you a bird’s eye view on what’s happening.

This makes Twitter far more visual, compelling and ... entertaining. The need for a consistent experience is also the reason why Twitter pulled back on the third-party apps and ecosystem as a whole.

You need a reliable, safe and consistent platform when securing major brand advertisers.

Context Matters

Facebook has a lot of advantages in being able to capture attention and profile interests. But there's a fundamental problem with Facebook. It's far more about navel gazing than anything else. The context is still largely personal.

Facebook aggregates your social graph while Twitter aggregates everything around a specific topic.

Even when someone shares something on Facebook it's as much about who shared it with you as what is shared. You're connected with the person not the content. Twitter is the other way around, with content coming first and people reduced to a filter.

Twitter Hashtag Filter

Both platforms deliver a type of social voyeurism as entertainment, but the context is different.

Checking out the photos from a friend's marathon run is not the most effective time or place to advertise running shoes. Sure the topic is right but the context is all wrong. I'm not looking at the marathon photos with shopping in mind. Heck I could hate running. Instead, I'm doing so because I want to keep up with my friend.

The person is important, the content isn't. That's not an optimal environment for advertising, even for intent generation.

Twitter Advertising

Twitter has been busy building out different advertising opportunities culminating recently in interest targeting. I'm not sure how this will all work for small businesses, but I don't think anyone has fully solved that one yet.

However, I believe Twitter is laying the groundwork to catch traditional offline brand advertising dollars moving online. Twitter is creating a comfortable and recognizable entertainment platform that allows advertisers to connect and extend traditional channels.

Not only will brands and businesses want to advertise against these new forms of meta-entertainment, but they'll seek out ways to create their own. There's been a lot of talk about content marketing lately but what I see is the dawn of content advertising.

TL;DR

Twitter has quickly evolved into a collaborative entertainment platform that serves as the glue of multi-screen viewing. Their focus on mobile, visual makeover and tacit ownership of the hashtag puts Twitter and not Facebook in a position to capture the lion's share of brand advertising dollars moving online.

Keyword Match Ratio

October 27 2012 // Analytics + SEO // 35 Comments

That awkward moment when you realize you've been staring at interesting data for years without knowing it.

That Awkward Moment When ...

Every day you're probably using Google Keyword Tool query volume in your SEO research. Of course you have to be careful to use the correct match type, right? You don't want to make the mistake of promising broad match level volume to a client.

Recently I began to wonder about the differences in match type volume. Because they are substantial.

Keyword Match Ratio

What am I talking about? The keyword match ratio is the broad match volume of a keyword divided by the exact match volume of a keyword.

Keyword Match Ratio Examples

I know these are completely different keywords but the difference is pretty astounding. This metric should be meaningful. It's not some end-all-to-be-all metric, but I believe the keyword match ratio is useful.

Here's how I've been looking at and using the keyword match ratio.

Determining Intent

One of the main ways I've been using this new metric is in determining intent. Or, more specifically, is the intent uniform or fractured?

A low keyword match ratio indicates a more uniform syntax which often maps to uniform intent. In other words, there aren't as many keyword variations of that term or topic. Uniform intent is great from a search perspective because you can more easily deliver a relevant and valuable experience for that traffic.

A high keyword match ratio indicates a less uniform syntax which may indicate fractured intent. That means there might be a lot of ways to talk about that topic or could point to a whole modifier class. Fractured intent is more difficult to satisfy since users may come with different expectations of value.

Unfortunately, determining intent got more difficult when Google reduced the level of category detail during the merge of Google Trends and Google Insights for Search.

Google Trends Category Data Limitation

You can still see that there's potential fractured intent here but the old version would have presented the various percentage breakdowns for each category which was quite useful. Keyword match ratio provides a new way to validate whether you should be concerned about fractured intent.

Identifying Content Opportunities

The other way I've been using the keyword match ratio is to identify areas ripe for content creation. In this case, a high keyword match ratio indicates a potential for different modifiers and phrases for that keyword.

Hardwood Floors Keyword Match Ratio and Content Ideas

The term 'hardwood floors' has a pretty high keyword match ratio and even the suggested ad groups provide ample content ideas. Go a step further and use related searches and Google Autocomplete suggestions to get more ideas that match query syntax.

Hardwood Floors Related Searches

Hardwood Floors Google Autocomplete Suggestions

Look at all those content opportunities! Follow high keyword match ratios to uncover content ideas and opportunities.

Benchmarking

While I can usually just tell whether a keyword match ratio is high or low, or simply compare it to other keywords in a list, I wondered if I could create a benchmark. Enter Dr. Pete, who was kind enough to share the 1,000 keywords that comprise MozCast. (Thank you.)

The first thing I did was see how the keyword match ratio changed with query length.

keyword match ration by query word count

As you might expect, the ratio declines as the number of words in the query increase. I like when things make sense! What this allows me to do is identify specific keywords that are materially outside of the norm.

What about the 2 word query with a ratio of 226.3 or the 2 word query with a ratio of 2.2. The ratio tells you something about the behavior of that keyword. It's your job to figure out what it is.

Competition

My next idea was to map the ratio to keyword difficulty. I experimented with using the competition number via the Google Keyword Tool as a proxy but the numbers were all over the place.

So ... I generated the keyword difficulty for 92% of the list five painstaking keywords at a time via the SEOmoz Keyword Difficulty Tool. (There's a 300 a day limit so I didn't quite get through the entire list.)

Keyword Match Ratio by Keyword Difficulty Graph

There might be a trend there but it was difficult to tell with all the noise. So I rounded keyword difficulty into deciles.

Keyword Match Ratio by Keyword Difficulty Trable

No terms fit into the 0, 10 or 100 deciles so I removed those rows from the table. What's left does seem to indicate a rising keyword match ratio with increased keyword difficulty. That's interesting and makes a bit of sense too. Competitive terms often have more volume and likely have a greater number of variants.

Putting It All Together

The question is how you can use all of this information together? To be honest, I haven't come up with the perfect formula but I find it interesting to take terms and see where they fall against these benchmarks.

Swedish Fish

What about the term 'swedish fish'? This 2 word keyword has a keyword match ratio of 3.3, well below the 2 word benchmark. In addition, with a 41% keyword difficulty it falls into the 40 bucket, which again puts it below the standard keyword match ratio for that difficulty.

That tells me the intent behind the term 'swedish fish' is uniform and it might be an area where a well optimized piece of content could rank well. Yum!

A term with a low keyword match ratio and low competition is a great SEO opportunity.

The syntax and intent are clear and you can provide relevant and useful content to fill that need. Of course, all of this has to produce productive traffic. We're not doing SEO just for gold stars and pats on the back, right?

Solar Panels

What about a term like 'solar panels'? It has a keyword match ratio of 13.5, above the 2 word benchmark. With a keyword difficulty of 70% it also scores slightly over the average.

That tells me optimizing for 'solar panels' is going to be a hot mess. Instead, I'd want to look for phrases and modifiers that might be more attractive instead, with the long-term goal of building up to this head term.

Locate the specific intents and keywords that contribute to a high keyword match ratio and produce relevant content that satisfies and engages.

Context, Brains and Disclaimers

A couple of things you should know about the keyword match ratio. You need to use it in conjunction with other tools, in particular your brain. Context is important and different verticals and modifiers will have different keyword match ratio patterns.

So while I provide the benchmarks above you should be thinking about how the ratio fits into the keyword universe for your site, or for that particular modifier. If you were a coupon site you might want to see which store + coupons terms had the highest and lowest keyword match ratio.

There's also the possibility that the set of data I used for the benchmark isn't representative. However, I think Dr. Pete has done a pretty good job here and while some of the terms are strange and mundane that's not a bad reflection of reality.

You'll also note that I'm not doing any heavy duty statistical analysis here. While I understand and enjoy those endeavors I think pattern recognition can take you pretty far pretty quickly. Maybe someone else can pick up this thread and create something more statistically valid.

In the interim, I'm using the keyword match ratio as an SEO hack to help me find potential diamonds in the rough and areas for content creation.

TL;DR

The keyword match ratio measures the ratio of broad match volume and exact match volume. This metric is not fool proof. You need to use your brain when looking at it. But if you've got a good head on your shoulders the keyword match ratio can help you determine intent and sniff out content opportunities.

Reading May Influence AuthorRank

September 25 2012 // SEO // 50 Comments

Yesterday a friend sent me an interesting screen capture of an Authorship search result. I'm not sure this result is here to stay but over the course of the next day I figured out how to replicate it and learned a lot along the way.

Here's what I found out.

Authorship Bounce 

The instructions to trigger this Authorship result were to search for a specific term, click through on the first result, stay on that destination page for five or ten minutes and then use the back button to return to the SERP.

I tried this a few times without luck but ... I was anxious and might have clicked the back button too quickly. So I fired it up in an incognito tab and tried to forget about it. I returned to it 20 to 30 minutes later, hit the back button and the new Authorship presentation appeared!

Google Authorship SERP for The Atlantic

Lets be clear, the only reason Google would present these results is if they think it would improve the search experience. The signal being sent by the long dwell time is that the content (and therefore the author) was satisfying.

Now, using my handy structured data testing tool bookmarklet I found that this specific Authorship configuration was completely borked.

Authorship SNAFU on The Atlantic

The tool tells me Authorship isn't in place. It does however find the real author of this piece, as well as another author who is prominently displayed on the page. James Fallows does appear on the page but he is not the author of this or any of the other linked pieces.

Authorship Bounce by Publisher

So an incorrect Authorship result for a page that doesn't validate as having Authorship in place. That was unsatisfying but I remained curious. Could I replicate this new Authorship presentation with another publisher?

Google Authorship for Marketing Land

I sure could! This time I was seeing the Authorship image and all of the linked pages were actually correct and showed me more Marketing Land content from Matt McGee. Things were getting more interesting! I ran it through the structured data testing tool.

Google Extracted Author Name

The tool actually claims that this piece of content doesn't have Authorship attached, though clearly it does. The thing is, Matt doesn't have Marketing Land in the Contributor to section of his Google+ profile. And I don't believe he uses a Marketing Land email address. (I know a bit more about this because I email Matt back and forth quite a bit.)

This is just more evidence that Google is attempting to complete the verification loop for authors by looking at other attributes on the page, in other social profiles and on their Google+ profile.

For example, who is Step Guide and why are they showing up as an author on this page? Well, it's actually pretty simple.

Google Authorship 'by author' pattern matching

Google is trying to extract the author by using a standard byline pattern matching technique. This seems reasonable in some ways but can clearly go awry in various other ways, this being just one of them.

Authorship Bounce by Author

My next question was whether this was just on publishers or if I could trigger this result based on an author. I used myself as the guinea pig this time.

Google Authorship AJ Kohn

Sure enough I can get that to work too. What is really shocking here is that the other links are not to my site but to my Google+ posts. Now, that doesn't matter too much to me, though I'm not entirely happy with the result. But larger publishers will go bat shit crazy seeing links to other properties based on their own content.

Here's another example using an author which also shows that this presentation doesn't only appear as the first result.

Google Authorship Mixed Site Results

I'm sure Google would tell you that the intent of the query was the author and not the publisher. So it makes sense not to filter those Authorship results by publisher. I get and largely agree with the logic but it won't make publishers very happy, particularly if a number of those links are going to Google+ posts.

Cue the Google is evil meme.

Authorship Bounce by Article

Now what about if I just look for a specific article? I tried this again and again and again and again but couldn't get the new Authorship presentation to appear.

[Update] After publishing this I put out the bat signal on Google+ for more examples and Mike Arnesen (a new and intelligent voice in the community) came through with a great one.

Google Authorship Result Using Article Name Only

Not only is this Authorship bounce result triggered without an author or publisher but it returns two other domains outside of SwellPath. How do they feel about that?

SwellPath encourages team members to have personal blogs and guest blog on other sites. We want to see our team members' content being promoted, even if it is not on our own site.

That's an enlightened view, though SwellPath isn't a typical content publisher building a business on page views.

Double Rainbow What Does It Mean

Authorship Engagement

This new Authorship presentation shows that engagement is used as a measure of author satisfaction and may contribute to AuthorRank. That's big news! In this case engagement is measured in the amount of time you spend on that piece of content. It confirms the importance of long clicks versus short clicks not only for Authorship but for any page and site.

The use of dwell time as a proxy for engagement and satisfaction may also point to problems with using more obvious social signals such as +1s. The latter might not indicate true authority but simple popularity. I've been concerned about how Google might untangle these two concepts. Here I see a glimmer of promise that content that is simply perceived as valuable because of the source or author will be discounted.

This also shows why bounce rate is a lousy optimization metric out of the box. The real danger is pogosticking and even then I can think of many instances where this metric would lose fidelity. If you're going to use bounce rate you have to modify that measure in Google Analytics. I recommend you read this, this and this to get you started.

Long story short, getting people to actually read your content is important.

Authors Are Entities

The fact that I can't get this result to trigger unless there is a publisher or author in the query is telling. Both authors and publishers are entities and Google can clearly associate the two when they see fit.

It seems like an easy step to roll-up the AuthorRank of contributing authors to the publisher level, allowing Google to assign the domain a new type of quality metric. Authorship is creating new dynamics in the author and publisher relationship and this new Authorship bounce presentation should only increase the tension between the two.

Who needs who more?

Extracted Authorship

The adoption of Authorship has been mixed with some studies showing a substantial amount of adoption and others the opposite. The increasing use of extracted authorship tells me two things.

First, that Google isn't satisfied with the adoption rate and second, they're still eager to increase adoption and use Authorship as a signal. Why else would they bother trying to do all of these connection gymnastics?

This is further bolstered by the new Authorship Project emails many have been receiving, which I believe is tied to the new Rich Snippets Structured Data Testing Tool.

Multi-Author Pages?

Hints at Multi-Author Results

There's also a subtle takeaway from the structured data results. The phrase 'as one of the authors' appears in the extracted author name. This seems to indicate that Google is gearing up for having more than one author attached to a page. This is in line with the original Agent Rank patent and would make sense if a Google commenting product were released.

Testing 1-9-4

It pains me to say this but the structured data testing tool can't be trusted. Or at least it can't be when it comes to Authorship. The new UX and name hasn't changed the janky results it returns.

While this might be related to the many ways in which Google is trying to complete the loop without author intervention it creates a fair amount of confusion for Authorship evangelizers and likely reduces adoption rates.

This makes me sad. Please fix this Google.

TL;DR

The new Authorship bounce presentation shows that engagement is used as a measure of author satisfaction and may contribute to AuthorRank. It also debunks bounce rate signal claims, sheds light on entity relationships and exposes weaknesses in the structured data testing tool.

Content Recall

September 19 2012 // Marketing + SEO // 34 Comments

"Produce great content." No doubt you've heard this phrase over and over again as content marketers bask in the sun of Google's animal algorithm updates. You've probably even heard it from me.

But what is great content? It's a dreadfully fuzzy term that often disintegrates into a less that satisfactory 'I know it when I see it' explanation. Maybe our focus on great is misplaced.

Instead of creating great content, create memorable content. 

Recall

Peter Gabriel I Don't Remember

The definition of recall is fairly straightforward.

A measure of advertising effectiveness in which a sample of respondents is exposed to an ad and then at a later point in time is asked if they remember the ad. Ad recall can be on an aided or unaided basis. Aided ad recall is when the respondent is told the name of the brand or category being advertised.

Advertisers are keen on recall because it's a measure of mind share and true reach. It doesn't matter (as much) if your ad was seen by millions of people if no one really remembers it. Particularly if they can't connect that ad to your brand.

Ads are just another form of content. So shouldn't content recall work the same way?

Memorable Content

Online, we can't easily identify those who saw a specific piece of content and then ask them whether they recall it two weeks later. (Though that's an interesting little product idea.)

Yet, the absence of this data doesn't mean we can't begin to think about what type of content is memorable. Bill Sebald wrote something that struck a chord for me recently.

I tweeted that out after reading another “top x link building tactics” list. A fluffy, chewed up piece of tactics we’ve all seen before. It didn’t claim to be written for beginners – which would have at least described the intended action of the content – but it was just more noise that wasn’t helpful for a reasonably experienced SEO. It was also praised in the comments and shared quite a bit … but so are the annual “SEO is dead” posts, and I’ve yet to find a new takeaway from that topic either.

I shared this post with a headline of '124 Reasons This Post Could Save the Internet in 7 Seconds'. Because I'm tired of these cookie-cutter posts too.

Mind you, we see them because they do well by some measures. I'd argue it's because of the perceived value and not the real value. Too often we think more is better. So getting 96 tips must be hugely valuable right?

I believe very few of those tips are actually read. People aren't going to read all of them so they scan and maybe they think a few are good. But how many are really remembered?

I suppose you could argue that this shotgun method ensures that some of the tips are found. Users simply cherry-pick the ones that matter to them. But that's a lot of work for the user. Instead, the Paradox of Choice kicks in, people decide not to engage at all and it gets sent to some read-it-later hell where it collects dust until it's ultimately deleted or succumbs to bit rot.

Those long list of posts may get you kudos but I think it's a 'I should think this is awesome so I'll say it is awesome' type of reaction. Maybe that's okay for you, but it isn't for me.

Because it speaks to the real problem with this kind of content. If you didn't read it you're not going to remember it.

Can you honestly recall that specific list versus another one? How often are you trying to find a list of content you saw a few months ago?

Reading Is Fundamental

Reading Rainbow with Levar Burton

The first obstacle to memorable content is getting it read. You can't remember something if you haven't read and understood it.

While there's certainly a component of reach involved (getting people to the content), I'm more concerned with whether those who actually view the content are truly reading and comprehending it.

That's why readability is so critical. Making your content more accessible - more scannable - actually helps it get read. They might not read it word for word, but you'll increase the chance of them reading important passages that will stick.

This excerpt on why we mangle quotes shows how the brain craves readability.

Our brains really like fluency, or the experience of cognitive ease (as opposed to cognitive strain) in taking in and retrieving information. The more fluent the experience of reading a quote—or the easier it is to grasp, the smoother it sounds, the more readily it comes to mind—the less likely we are to question the actual quotation. Those right-sounding misquotes are just taking that tendency to the next step: cleaning up, so to speak, quotations so that they are more mellifluous, more all-around quotable, easier to store and recall at a later point. We might not even be misquoting on purpose, but once we do, the result tends to be catchier than the original.

Don't you want your content to be easier to store and recall? I sure do.

How We Remember

Memento Polaroid

It's not just about getting your content read, but remembered. Yet, memory is a tricky thing. Here's an excerpt from UX Booth on the concept of 'Roomnesia' applied on a macro-level.

Recent research suggests the Internet is becoming an external part of our memory and that we are experiencing “reduced memory for the actual information, but enhanced memory for where to find the information.” In other words, we can’t remember the name of the director of Memento but we can remember where to find that information. It’s easier to remember one “room” (IMDb) rather than the many actors and directors that inhabit our world. By delivering high quality content through a trustworthy website you help to make your site memorable as the store of relevant information.

The concept of remembering one "room" is incredibly important when extended to content marketing. Obviously you must be focused and stay on topic. A reader has to be able to easily attach a phrase to your content. How do you want them to describe that post to a friend? If you can't do it in a sentence you're in trouble.

But think about how this applies to guest blogging. What room am I going to put a guest post in? The one that provides the most cognitive ease, right?

So your post on the power of evergreen content on SEOMoz? Odds are that's going to go in the 'SEOMoz' room and not the 'author' room. At some point you might have enough pull, but Rand and team have done a pretty stellar job of branding, haven't they?

This isn't just theory. You can see how this plays out as people respond to guest content. Mackenzie Fogelson recently blogged on John Doherty's site. Here's the first comment on her piece.

Comment to Publisher, Not To Guest Author

So even with prominent text telling readers it was a guest post, it seems like an engaged reader associated this content with John and not Mackensie. I don't think this is the fault of the reader (nor John or Mack). It's just cognitive ease at work.

That's not to say that guest blogging can't be part of the mix. If I didn't make it clear before, find publishers that are in a different and complementary vertical. Content recall goes up since users are more likely to put that content in the 'right' room based on the unusual topic.

Even if they don't, you don't want a lot of competition when people are searching for or re-finding this content. It's a lot easier to find a specific piece of content about SEO on Bloomberg than it might be on Search Engine Land.

Modified Branded Search

I'd argue that when we remember content we're using a root modifier strategy. The root is usually what the content is about - the topic. The modifier is usually the room where you stored that memory - the author, publisher or brand. So our content searches look something like this:

"hacking Jeff Atwood"

"Old Spice viral video"

"scamworld The Verge"

You can measure content recall by looking at your modified branded search terms and traffic.

Modified Brand Search Terms

Are people remembering and associating specific content I produced with my brand? Now, mind you I've got some odd things going on with my name versus my brand and a brand that can include a number or a word but I'm following Tim Gunn's advice and making it work.

Monitor these metrics when embarking on a content marketing effort. Is your modified branded search traffic going up? Are the breadth of terms in your modified branded search traffic expanding? What content (and syntax) is getting the most traction?

Memorable content leads to brand awareness.

Spontaneous Mentions 

I know that content has been memorable when it is spontaneously mentioned in another piece of content. The number of Tweets, Likes, +1s and comments all show a certain amount of popularity but it's these mentions and links that truly matter.

It's funny how this resolves down to contextual citations, the real backbone of most search algorithms.

Of course the link is nice but it's the knowledge that it was read, understood and remembered that counts. Your content and brand is a meme of sorts and those spontaneous mentions show how far it's reached.

My post about the decline in US desktop search volume wasn't particularly popular in comparison to other posts. Yet I was able to get a spontaneous mention from TheStreet. That's pretty awesome in my book.

That's why this focus on numbers, on the volume of Tweets or Likes, may be a false positive. That minute of fame feels good! Gamification 101 right? It's so good you might try to replicate it again and again. But producing 15 posts that meet these numbers adds up to 15 minutes of fame and nothing more.

Track spontaneous mentions (not total backlinks) as a way to measure the strength of your content.

Fill In The Blank

Mad Libs Logo

Gabriel Wienberg recently put a different spin on recall.

He's the _______ guy. That's the _______ startup. Isn't that the __________ search engine?

Unfortunately, the way we are wired means we generally don't like to put more than one thing in those blanks even though most people and companies would prefer more words.

In other words, people often make poor choices of leading characteristics. They take the path of least resistance, insert their own biases, repeat hearsay, etc.

Once again we see cognitive ease at work here and the importance of recall. Are you using your content to continually play to your leading characteristic? Do you know how people are remembering your brand?

Memorable content can help ensure the right words go in those blanks.

Multi-Content Stories

A real content strategy should be about storytelling. It should promote your brand (personal or corporate), message and value proposition. Not every piece of content has to do everything at once, but together they should be moving your brand forward.

I think about each piece of content as an opportunity to tell a story and reinforce brand.

It’s not that our memory is a glitchy wetware version of computer flash memory; it’s that the computer metaphor just doesn’t apply. Roediger said we store only bits and pieces of what happened—a smattering of impressions we weave together into feels like a seamless narrative. When we retrieve a memory, we also rewrite it, so that the time next we go to remember it, we don’t retrieve the original memory but the last one we recollected. So, each time we tell a story, we embellish it, while remaining genuinely convinced of the veracity of our memories.

While this passage from Scientific American is about specific memories I think it can also apply to your memory of a person or brand. I want to ensure that each new piece of content shapes how other pieces of content are remembered and retrieved.

Because not every piece of content deserves to have the same level of recall. They'll have different goals and meet different types of user intent. Not every piece of content has to be some epic War and Peace tome. But they should all fit your narrative and help perserve or improve the memory of the content corpus.

We're constantly rewriting the memory of that person or brand or site. Your job is to shape memory through content.

Have A Take, Don't Suck

Animotion Obsession

Recent posts seem to indicate that creating controversy or, at a minimum, provoking emotion is the pathway to success. To me this is focusing on the result instead of the product. The goal isn't to make someone cry, create controversy or generate enemies.

Despite what you've heard, any press is not good press. Not only that, but usually those trying to force these emotions are far too transparent. (Remember, don't feed the trolls!)

Instead, follow Jim Rome's advice: "Have a take, don't suck."  Have an opinion and back it up with solid reasoning and logic. Have a point of view, but make it your point of view, not someone else's point of view or one specifically created to generate a desired reaction.

Don't obsess about whether your content is going to elicit emotion, bring your own to the table. Create passionately not programmatically.

TL;DR

Great content is only great when it's read and remembered. Track metrics that measure content recall so you can produce a content marketing strategy that ultimately leads to increases in brand equity and awareness.

US Desktop Search Volume Declines

September 12 2012 // SEO // 20 Comments

The latest comScore search engine rankings were released today. I'm sure many will focus on the small movements in market share between Google, Bing and Yahoo. Yet, there is big (really big) news buried in this release.

US Desktop Search Volume

I've been tracking this metric for more than seven years.

Monthly US Desktop Search Volume

August 2012 was the first time we've seen US desktop search volume decline year-over-year. Specifically, volume in August 2011 was 17,122 versus 17,046 in August 2012.

This is a big turning point for search.

Search Trends Matter

This doesn't mean that search is dead, it's simply moved from desktops to phones and tablets. Unfortunately, I don't have a reliable source of search volume data for mobile search. The industry desperately needs one.

What it does mean is that mobile is not something you should think about, it's something you must think about.

Nearly a year ago I wrote about these search trends so I won't repeat those here (but go and read it ... now). However, I think they did make a lot of SEOs look better than they were, helped Google rise to prominence and will make Facebook's post IPO prospects far less rosy.

As an industry we need to start thinking about how search is going to evolve and the different type of context and intent implied by phones and tablets.

Search, it's never boring.

Readability and SEO

August 13 2012 // SEO + Web Design // 86 Comments

Content marketing is the hot new thing in the wake of Google's animal themed algorithm updates. Marketers are doubling down on content. Yet, the majority of content on the web is not optimized for readability.

It's not just what you say, it's how you present it.

What Is Readability?

There are a lot of definitions of readability, some of which stir up a fair amount of debate. My version is aligned with Steve Krug's Don't Make Me Think, Giles Colborne's Simple and Usable, the legacy of David Ogilvy and the research of Jakob Nielsen.

Readability is about making your content accessible and comfortable. Never make it a chore.

Readability Improves SEO

hey girl I like your blog posts

If you make your content difficult to read the value of that content goes down. Lack of readability frustrates comprehension and reduces sharing. This, in turn, limits the social echo of your content and lowers the chances of it obtaining organic links.

In short, readability is a valuable but overlooked part of SEO. Here's my guide to producing readable content.

People Don't Read, They Scan

The first thing you have to come to grips with is that people are not reading every word. Study after study after study shows that people scan instead of read.

On the average Web page, users have time to read at most 28% of the words during an average visit; 20% is more likely.

That doesn't mean you should skimp on good writing. Instead, you just need to structure your content with scanning in mind.

Use A Font Hierarchy

First You Looked Here, Then Here

One of the better ways to meet that scanning behavior is to use a font hierarchy. Too often I see people using the same font size for their subheads, thinking that a simple bold is going to make the difference. It doesn't.

If you look back through this blog you'll see how I figured this out over time. Older posts don't use a proper font hierarchy and that makes them more difficult to read.

There are some guidelines on the proper ratio for your font hierarchy, but there are so many variables, from the font you're using to the length of the piece to name just a few. My advice is to use five foot web design to make sure you can read your subheads from a distance. Sometimes I just read my subheads to see if they tell enough of the story by themselves.

I've settled on using 14px for body text with a 24px subhead and always want the subheads to be in one line.

Subheads Are Your Friends

The key is to allow people to see the sections of your post at a glance. Make your subheads large enough and descriptive enough so readers can determine whether they'll actually take the time to read that section word for word.

Use subheads as an advertisement to that section of content.

Subheads are also a great way to logically outline your content. What are the different points and aspects of the topic you're covering? Most of my blog posts (including this one) start as an outline, which is an asset to creating content that communicates and engages.

Legibility Matters

Using Impact As Body Text Font

Of course you need to use a font face that is legible. Above, I've used Chrome's Developer Tools to change the font on a recent Google blog post to Impact instead of Arial. Impact works on LOLcats when it's large white text with a black border on a photo background, but using Impact as your body text font? LOL!

There's a interesting study that shows that the ability to retain information improves when you use unusual fonts. The problem is that people would abandon that content altogether if they weren't in a controlled setting.

I like (and use) a nice san serif font like Helvetica. But don't get hung up on the serif versus san serif argument. Research conducted by Alex Poole indicates that it's likely a matter of personal preference.

So if you like Georgia or Times New Roman, go for it. Sure, there have been some studies that show different fonts produce different reading speeds, but I wouldn't obsess over it.

Get Line Height Just Right

Legibility is actually the most straight forward part of the equation. Readability is composed of a combination of factors that include the font, size, line height (leading), character spacing (kerning), content width and other typographic variables.

One of the bigger components is line height. Lets look at the same content using different line heights.

Line Height Too Small To Read

Line Height Too Big to Read

Right Line Height For Reading

The first is too tight, the second too loose. They both frustrate easy reading. I think the line height I use (the third one) is decent. However, I found the golden ratio argument and calculator to be pretty compelling. So maybe I'll increase my line height slightly.

Color Contrast

Bad Color Contrast

If you haven't noticed I'm a big fan of black text on a white background. I'm in the Ogilvy camp on this one. Not only that but I see far too many people using colored fonts with some sort of colored background. Maybe the color palette is yellow and purple but there's no good reason to have yellow type of a gray background. It's difficult to read.

Don't let a style guide get in the way of readability.

I'd rather go with the easy black on white. But if you're going to start futzing with colors I recommend that you download and use this Contrast Analyzer tool to ensure it passes all of the various color tests.

Color Contrast Brightness ResultsColor Contrast Luminosity Results

Highlight The Important Stuff

You want your readers to walk away from your content having learned or at least remembered something, right? Make it easy for readers to find the important stuff by highlighting those points. This could mean bolding those sentences or, you know, actually highlighting them.

The goal is to make sure that the memorable stuff jumps out to the reader.

Use Short Paragraphs

Deal With It Glasses

There are studies on this but, isn't this just common sense? Huge chunks of text are an instant turn-off to readers. For instance, why do you think there are only a few people in the SEO community who read patents? Those things have massive soul-crushing chunks of text that make your eyes cross.

Remember, you're not reading Jonathan Franzen, that's a different type of reading. Context is important.

In general, I keep my paragraphs to three to four sentences at most. And I'm never afraid to use one sentence paragraphs if I think it's an important point I want to get across to readers.

I'm sure many of you might be thinking that long paragraphs are just fine. The right people will read it, the one's who appreciate the fine art of writing, right? Wrong!

It's not only your job to write well, but write in a way that is accessible.

Crush Pronouns

Him and Her instead of Romeo and Juliet

When you're writing, you're doing so within a mental flow. You're making a logical argument and linking concepts in prior sentences and paragraphs with those in the current one. But what happens to the reader who is scanning that text? If they haven't read the paragraph above word for word (or even at all), then those pesky pronouns are completely useless to the reader.

Now, I'm not saying you should remove all pronouns but I do recommend that you go back after you've completed your piece and replace those that make sense.

But isn't that going to make the content stilted? In a word, no.

Using nouns is a more accurate description of your content. You're creating sign posts for your readers so they know exactly what they're reading at all times.

Nouns help users and search engines better understand what your content is about.

I also believe in a type of visual osmosis. At a glance you're able to digest a whole lot of what is on the page without actually reading it. It might be why it's so difficult for computers to emulate the human evaluation of pages.

Remember too that when you are truly reading, those nouns are visual short codes. You're not really reading the name of a character in say, Harry Potter, every single time they're mentioned right? Nouns are a way for you to understand context.

Use Images

A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words

The web is getting more and more visual. Take advantage of that by using images to break up the flow of your content. Not only that, but you can use images to augment the text. You can tell a story or a joke with that image or make a connection for readers that they might not have made through the text.

Do not let me catch you writing content without at least one image. I mean it!

In addition to all of the benefits it has within the content it's also vital to ensuring that your content is portable. If you're lucky enough to have your content shared on social networks you must optimize for appearance. Because people scan (yup, again) their news feeds.

If your content doesn't have a good image, or has a default image like a magnifying glass (I'm looking at you Google) or RSS icon, then the odds of that content being seen, read and shared go down precipitously.

Reduce Clutter

If you work in advertising or design for any amount of time you'll hear people refer to white space. It's that part of the page that is left untouched so that the remaining content can breath and shine.

Many websites try to cram as much as they can onto the page leaving very little white space. In fact, the Readability app is a reaction to these overly cluttered environments.

Your banner ad, your timed pop-up, your premium newsletter sign up, your Hello bar, your Greet Box, your social icons and a whole host of others might be distracting users from getting value from your content.

Link Your Paragraphs

Pass the Baton in Your Writing

I had an English teacher in high school who I absolutely hated. His name was Dr. Flynn. He was a tall, ill-tempered man who would bark out his lessons and become red-faced with rage at our incompetence and insolence.

I remember one week where we had to bring in a topic sentence every day. Each of us had to read our that sentence out loud at the beginning of class.

"Wrong!"

"Wrong!"

"Good!"

"Wrong!"

This was just about getting the topic sentence right, never mind how the first paragraph should detail all of the points you'd cover in the following paragraphs.

But what stuck with me most was the idea that the last sentence in a paragraph should be linked to the first sentence in the next paragraph. There was order and logic to how you constructed a paper or essay.

When I got to college I realized that Dr. Flynn had done me a huge favor. Because a lot of my classmates were clueless. When I mentioned some of the lessons he'd drilled into me, I'd get vacant stares in return. To this day I am still thankful for Dr. Flynn's lessons.

So whether you call it story telling or creating a logical flow, make sure that you're linking your paragraphs and sections so that it makes sense to the reader.

Reading Difficulty

Of course there's also how you write. There are a number of different ways that you can assess the difficulty of a piece of content. How many words are in each sentence? How many syllables are in each word? How many sentences in each paragraph? On and on and on.

There are a number of tests to help assess the reading level of your content. Cloze, Flesch-Kincaid, Gunning Fog, Coleman Liau, SMOG and others can all be used to determine an objective reading difficulty. Arienne Holland put together a good list of online readability tools on the Raven Blog.

Your writing should be focused and concise. Now, I don't always follow this advice. Many of my blog posts are a bit long and I do indulge in some word play from time to time.

I tend to believe that my personality comes through via my writing and it's that type of authenticity that is compelling to readers. However, I do edit myself quite a bit, chopping whole chunks of text that, while enjoyable to have written, are superflous in nature.

And I rely heavily on other forms of readability to make up for this deficiency. So, do as I say, not as I do in this instance.

TL;DR

Readability is an overlooked part of SEO. Those who embrace readability will have a leg up as content marketing becomes more and more important. Because great content isn't great unless it gets read.

(Thanks to Micah France for introducing me to Simple and Usable and to Rand Fishkin for inspiration.)