Google+ SEO

January 20 2012 // SEO + Social Media // 228 Comments

This comprehensive Google+ SEO guide covers every aspect and angle of Google+ and how it impacts search. My normal TL;DR has been replaced with a Google+ SEO Best Practices section located at the bottom of this post.

I will be periodically updating this post (updated January 23, 2012) as things inevitably change. Please don't hesitate to comment or contact me with observations or when certain features change. I also thank the many people (on Google+) who helped in the research phase of this guide.

Google+ Search

Most of the attention is on the integration of Google+ in Google search results. However, internal search on Google+ is a fascinating product and lays the groundwork for search integration.

Google+ Search Facets

Google+ search queries return results with a standard selection of facets.

Google+ Search Facets

Sometimes Google selects these facets for you. Specifically, it will default to People and pages for many queries. These are generally category or head terms like SEO, Photography, Chef, CEO, Gardening etc. But a query for something like 'banana bread' will not return a preselected People and pages facet but just provide an Everything feed of content.

You can select certain types of content using what I call the content facet.

Google+ Search Type Facet

This is all pretty self explanatory. I'm still not certain why Sparks has survived though. Next is what I call the universe facet.

Google+ Search Universe Facet

Here you can select what universe of results you want to search. The 'From you' option is extremely handy in finding your own Google+ content. And finally there is what I call the location facet.

Google+ Search Location Facet

At present you can search for Google Check-ins in certain cities. This facet does not get trigged when you use a location modifier. This isn't super useful right now but it does point to future local search opportunities.

Google+ Search Results

The actual results are a live stream of Google+ content.

Google+ Search Time Facet

Most recent is just what it sounds like. So the real-time search everyone thought was going to transform the world is a small feature in Google+ search.

You can switch to Best of which delivers results based on a combination of who is in your Circles and engagement (+1s, comments and shares) on those items with some Sparks content thrown in for good measure. There's some sort of time component at work here as well that skews results to more recent content.

I see this in action when I search for 'I did not wake up in' which returns a number of posts from my personal travel meme, the first few of which are from this week. (Please note that your results may look vastly different than mine.)

Google+ People and Pages Results

The content results are, therefore, pretty straightforward from and SEO perspective. It's the People and pages that are far more interesting and potentially valuable. The question is how these People and pages are selected.

Google+ Search Results

Google+ search results are personalized but through some crowdsourcing I've been able to determine the search signals.

The most important signal is whether the query term appears in the Introduction, Employment, Education or Places lived section of your profile. Danny Sullivan rarely shows up in a search for SEO because he doesn't have the term in any of those fields. He does in his tagline but that's not used in the internal search algorithm. Or if it is, it's not heavily weighted.

Google+ Danny Sullivan Profile

After the query match it's all about who you have in your Circles. If you have more than six people in your Circles who also match the query then it comes down to a mixture of Circle count (heavily weighted), name verification (moderately weighted) and engagement (lightly weighted).

Occupation is not used. How do I know this? I've had Purple Jellyfish Farmer as my occupation for months. A search on this phrase returns no results.

Google+ Purple Jellyfish Farmer Results

Bragging Rights is also not used for People and pages search.

At present results also seem to favor People over Pages. But if you don't have enough People to fill out these results Google backfills with Pages that have that query term in the name and a high Circle count.

Circle count is clearly important but some sort of engagement metric might be at play when the set of people returned is low. It's difficult to say if or to what degree engagement plays a part right now.

Using a new Google+ account I was able to see 'unbiased' results.

Google+ Search Results for New User

While Jonathon has SEO in both Introduction and Employment (having it both places seems to help a lot) and enjoys a solid Circle count I find his inclusion here over others to be curious. These results point to a slight added weight on those who are verified. How you get verified is still a mystery to me. I'm hoping to figure this out in the very near future.

Google+ search results can change quickly. Here's my search for SEO the day after my initial research.

Google+ Search Results for SEO

Danny Sullivan is now appearing instead of Bill Slawski. Why?

Google+ Danny Sullivan Profile Updated

Yup. Including SEO in his Introduction now ensures that Danny will be returned for internal Google+ queries on SEO.

The Places lived section is also used for internal search purposes.

Google+ Search City Modifier Results

The problem here is that I haven't lived in Elkins Park in the last two decades. And if users are looking for people and pages using Google+ then there will be a lot of false positives.

Google+ Search Spam

Clearly there's also an invitation to spam the Places lived section. If I wanted to show up for searches in numerous cities I could just say I lived in all those places. In fact, there are a lot of areas ripe for spam right now.

Google+ Spam for SEO

Arpeet is ranked well up in a search for SEO. I don't know Arpeet. He might be a fine SEO but I found it curious that he was ranked among some of the better known folks in the industry.

Google+ Other Name Spam

Clearly Arpeet is dropping every SEO related keyword in his Introduction but he's also spammed Google+ by claiming his Other name is SEO.

Education can also be spammed.

Google+ Education Spam

The Google+ spam cop (who is not Matt Cutts) will need to keep an eye on these and other methods of spam and over-optimization. Right now it seems way too easy.

Search+

Sorry but I am not going to use that silly name or acronym and instead will refer to the new integration of Google+ into search as Search+. While I will speak to the controversy  surrounding this integration my focus will be on the implementation and what it means for SEO.

In a nutshell Search+ transforms your search results based on the connections, interactions and activity you have on Google+. It is the largest search personalization effort ever attempted by Google.

Search+ can be turned on and off using icons near the top right of the page.

Search+ Icons

This helps to address critics of the filter bubble phenomenon. You can set the default view by clicking the gear icon and selecting search settings.

Search+ Settings

Among other things on the page you can set your Personal results preference. This doesn't mean that you won't be able to access one or the other, it simply sets one as the default view for your search.

People and Pages

One of the bigger features of Search+ is the promotion of People and pages for certain topics.

Search+ People and Pages Example

A search on SEO returns the profiles for Rand and Danny. The screen capture above is in a logged out session. If I were logged in I'd see whether these individuals were in my Circles. If they weren't I'd be given the opportunity to add them right from the search result. Powerful stuff.

So, as it stands the rich seem poised to get richer.

Because Circle count is a primary factor in how these People and Pages are selected. It's not the only thing as I'll soon show you but it's a large part of the equation.

But first, how useful is it to see People and Pages that are already in my Circles? Might it be more interesting to show People and Pages I don't have in my Circles?

Danny and Rand might be the most relevant results but are they relevant if I've already 'found' them. If search is about discovery, then you'd think that the default should be to present people you don't already know. This would actually make this feature interesting for a wider audience.

The assumption here is that all search is about discovery. But it's not. Prior attempts at personalization provided Google with insight into how we use search to re-find content. This can be as simple as navigational search or as detailed as searching for a phrase in hopes of it returning 'lost' content.

While I believe that Search+ tries to address this intent I'm not sure the People and Pages section should be applied to that task. But I digress.

How are People and Pages selected?

First you can click the See more link and look at the list of people.

Search+ See More Results

This is the same personalized list you get when doing an internal G+ search. But the order doesn't map to the selections for People and Pages. In fact, we know that Danny wasn't even optimized for SEO until just recently. Yet, during that time he was being presented in People and Pages for SEO.

So is it just flat out Circle count? No. Here are the People and Pages for Social Media.

Search+ Social Media People and Pages

Makes sense right? But if I click See more I find that Robert Scoble is returned.

Search+ Social Media See More Results

And we all know that more people have Robert in a Circle than Brian or Chris. In fact, he has more than them combined. So it's not just about Circle count. Instead they feel like curated lists. Yet, that flies in the face of Google's steadfast reliance on algorithms.

But it's pretty clear that there is a list of people for each of these terms. Some lists are longer than others. For 'blogger' you can refresh and get a few different people.

Search+ People and Pages BloggerSearch+ People and Pages BloggerSearch+ People and Pages Blogger

But try as I might, no matter how many times I refresh, only Rand and Danny are returned for SEO and Brian and Chris for Social Media. I'm left to conclude that People and Pages are defined, curated lists of people by topic. That means there's nothing you can really do to optimize for these slots. Cue the torches and pitchforks.

[Update 1/25/12] The lists for both 'seo' and 'social media' have been expanded to include a handful of other people. Hit refresh a few times and you'll see them cycle through the list for that topic.

Google+ Posts

Of course what we're paying the most attention to is the actual Search+ results.

Search+ Personalized Results Example

My search for great science fiction returns two personalized results in the 2nd and 5th position. Each of these posts contains a link to a site outside of Google+, as well as a those that lead directly to Google+. While a lot of attention is focused on the latter (Google is biased they scream!), I'm more interested in the former. Because here's what the non-personalized version of this query returns.

Search+ Unpersonalized Results Example

The two sites in my personalized results do not appear in these results. In fact, a site I've already visited (NPR) appear below these personalized results. To optimize for Search+ it is vital that sites produce relevant content that is easily shared. Of course the other element is the reach of those sharing that content. Those who are in more Circles and get more engagement will provide greater exposure for that content.

And if it tips and turns up in What's hot, the reach for that item could be quite substantial. As an experiment, do a Google search for OCD and see if I am one of your personalized results.

This is where Ripples provides some insight. How is your content transmitted through the system? Which users helped to provide your content more reach? Identifying those people and engaging with them could help give your content more search visibility.

Search+ Algorithm

The current Search+ algorithm seems fairly rudimentary and is composed of only a few factors which can sometimes produce results that are less than desirable.

Search+ Algorithm Issues

This humorous post by Steven Hodson won't help me if I'm looking to purchase a mirror.

One of the over-riding factors in the Search+ algorithm is a simple text match on the query. There is no real determination of context or intent which can often produce these types of irrelevant results. This is a real achilles heel in the current implementation from my perspective.

This text match only occurs on those who you have in a Circle. This does limit the potential for spam since you'd hope you haven't Circled a spammer. This also means that your Search+ results will, in large part, be a product of the number and type of people you Circle.

I have a fair amount of people Circled so my Search+ results can often look chaotic. Someone using Google+ just for family might have fewer personal results. Will they be more relevant? Well, think about posts on Google+ (or Facebook) from your own family and decide for yourself.

Where those results rank within Search+ results is another matter. It's clear that engagement, both with that person and on that specific piece of content, is important. Content from people you engage with more often or content that is more popular overall will rank better. 

When content was shared on Google+ also seems to be an influence with Google placing a moderate to heavy weight on recent content. We're still in the beginning phase of the integration so I'm not sure exactly how much weight is being put here yet.

Anecdotally, I've also noticed that non-Public content seems to be given a lesser weight. I'll look to validate this moving forward since this, in some ways, seems backward.

Looking forward I would think that Search+ would need to better understand context and intent to deliver the type of relevance most users are seeking. Don't get me wrong, it works well sometimes but the signal to noise ratio can go sideways quickly, particularly if users are increasing their Google+ Circles and usage.

One way Google may think about solving these issues is by using and automatically filtering by Circle, particularly if they start to provide self-organizing Circle suggestions based on their acquisition of Katango. So instead of searching all your Circles Google may identify the query as being about photography and personalize those results based on your 'Photographers' Circle.

But we're a long way off from that. For now it's all pretty much spaghetti against the wall.

Google +1 Button

The prevalence of explicit social annotations has diminished since the introduction of Search+. The +1 button on search results is now only shown when you hover or rollover that result. The implication here is that the primary use of +1s is to deliver content into the G+ environment where it can then be used for Search+ personalization.

So instead of getting a bunch of visual cruft about how many people +1 this result and that result, they've decided to leverage all that data to deliver personalized results.

That doesn't mean the +1 button isn't important. It is. You want people to +1 your content so that it shows up on Google+ where it can drive traffic and engagement. The total number of +1s may be a social signal, but I'm unsure to what degree.

Google+ +1 Button

The +1 button number only reflects +1s from that URL. It does not take into account the +1s that occur on Google+ as a result of that initial +1. I sense that the latter metric might be more important to Google than the former.

Though if Google wanted to boost the adoption of +1 they could match Facebook and base this number on the +1s of that content from that URL and on Google+ as well as the total number of shares and comments. A higher number presented on the +1 button creates stronger social proof and may actually create additional +1s.

Either way, having the +1 button prominently available is vital for Google+ SEO optimization.

Google+ Social Snippets

I mentioned above that making content that is easily shared is vital. This means that you should make your +1 (and other) buttons easy to find and use. I've had great success with the floating share bar on this blog and on client installations.

Making them available is only half of the battle. How those snippets look is the next part of the optimization process. I have a detailed guide on how to optimize social snippets but will provide a few examples of why it's important to get this right.

+1 Button Optimization Gone Wrong

Google is actually one of the worst offenders when it comes to snippet optimization. They can get away with this but you can't.

+1 Button Optimization Problems

eConsultancy might not be getting as much social engagement on this item because of the poor snippet. The description here is clearly not related and the image, while branded, does nothing to tell me anything more about the story.

Optimizing your social snippets leads to more clicks, more comments and more shares. This is your content on the go and presented in an environment where people are scanning very quickly. Forget the 5 second test, this is the 2 second test.

This isn't even that bad of a snippet since they do have their brand image. Worse is when you see a big RSS or Facebook icon. It happens. It happened to me before I decided I no longer wanted to shoot myself in the foot. So if it's happening to you, get up and do something about it.

Google+ Content

It's not just about content being shared on Google+. Content created on Google+ can also rank well under certain circumstances. This was true well before Search+ was launched. I innocently asked if people would know what I meant if I said 'half measure and full measure'.

Search+ Native Google+ Nonpersonalized Search Results

Sure enough, there I am as the 7th result for this query with an Authorship treatment that is likely to get me a fair amount more clicks than a normal 7th place result. This Google+ post has been as high as 4th. Now, it's a long-tail query but make no mistake, you can create content on Google+ and get it to rank without personalization.

But now we'll look at this same query with Search+ personalization turned on.

Search+ Native Google+ Personalized Results

That post ranks 9th in personalized results but only because of the research I did recently for this very post which now ranks 2nd.

Search+ Personalized Results for Half Measure and Full Measure

In fact, the speed in which Google+ posts are indexed is incredible, sometimes showing up within minutes of being published.

Google+ Formatting

Also notice that the Titles for Google+ posts are optimized in the personalized environment.

Search+ Personalized Title

Compare that to what it looks like without personalization.

Search+ Unpersonalized Title

That prefix is pretty ugly from my point of view and reduces the chances that someone will click on that result. But let's think about this for a moment.

Most users really just scan Titles to decide which result is most relevant or will satisfy their query intent. What would happen if users clicked on a Google+ result without knowing it was going to Google+?

That prefix is a very big and loud sign that tells users that the content is different. Sure, the result is in a SERP leading to Google+ and it has a fancy Authorship treatment but Google is also making it very clear where that click leads.

You should also format your Google+ posts to optimize for this presentation. That means creating a title for each post using bold formatting. You do this by placing a * at the beginning and end of what you want in bold (i.e - *This is the title*). When you share that post the * will disappear and the text between will be in bold (i.e. - This is the title).

Make your Google+ posts as readable as possible.

Google+ Brand Pages

You want to grab one of these and use it for, at a minimum, reputation management. The issue here is how much interaction and time you'll need to dedicate to this social media outpost.

Managing a Facebook page (the right way) is actually a lot of work. A Google+ page would be just as much work, if not more. The major difference between the two is that Search+ can deliver a lot more people to your Google+ brand page.

Search+ Brand Page Result

A branded search for AT&T brings up the AT&T Google+ page. This only occurs for a very small select group of brands right now. The question brands have to ask is whether they want that much exposure? Conversations are right there on the search results. A lot of negative sentiment could then be just one click away. So if you're not prepared to really be social, I'd be wary about this type of implementation.

Of course, brands can also show up as People and Pages suggestions.

Search+ People and Pages for Cars

The actual conversations aren't visible which is less scary in my view. I should note that Ferrari and BMW are the only two that show up for this query, further supporting the idea that these are curated lists.

I see this as a war of attention or perhaps a war of resources. How much time is a business willing to spend maintaining a social presence on both Facebook and Google? Surfacing the brand pages in search forces that issue.

Google+ Page Optimization

Optimizing your Page is far more difficult than your personal Profile. There are fewer fields to fill out, the current algorithm relies heavily on the Page Name and verification via rel="publisher" is rather confusing.

The first thing to understand is that Pages do seem to be second class citizens from a search standpoint.

Google+ SEO Consulting Results

Here you can see that I don't get a full set of People and pages results even though there are others that could qualify here (both People and Pages.) But in nearly every instance Pages are trumped by People.

That might not always be the case though so we'll explore the current ordering by clicking View all.

Google+ View All Link Building Results

I've switched to a 'link building' query and am showing the second page of results after a host of people such as Eric Ward, Julie Joyce, Ivan Dimitrijević, Jim Boykin and other notables. These folks are all doing a bang-up job of optimizing for this term by having the keyword in their Introduction and often in their Employment as well.

But once I get past those in my Circles it really becomes about the Name field, even more so if it's a Page. That's not surprising since the only relevant fields for a Page are Name, Tagline and Introduction. While all of these fields do seem to be used the Name is given an enormous weight for Pages.

That doesn't mean you should change your Page name to rank. That's short-sighted and won't help your brand. But you should be cognizant of this current limitation and ensure you fill out the Tag Line and Introduction thoroughly to boost your chances of being returned as this algorithm evolves.

The other reason not to change your name willy-nilly is that you will break your Page verification.

Rel="Publisher"

A Google+ Page can and should be verified.

Verification badges helps users to confirm the authenticity of a profile or page. This way when you find a profile or page about a celebrity or popular business, you can be sure that the profile or page actually belongs to them.

Jon Ray got me pointed in the right direction about the mechanics and requirements of getting verified. The first step is linking your Page to your website. This is actually pretty straight-forward.

Google+ Page Verification Link to Website Instructions

So far so good. But now you have to link back from your website to your Google+ Page.

Google+ Page Rel=Publisher Verification

Two things to understand here. First, the rel="publisher" link must use the canonical version of your Google+ Page. The problem is that the canonical URL is never actually presented to users. Here's what my Page URL looks like.

https://plus.google.com/u/0/b/105091680524136911230/105091680524136911230/about

But here's what the link must look like.

https://plus.google.com/105091680524136911230

This isn't a big deal for me but it certainly introduces a substantial area for user error.

More importantly, you should only place the rel="publisher" link on your site's home page. Yet, there are instructions on the Google+ Pages help page and within the badge generation code that tell you to place the rel="publisher" link in the <head> section of your page. That essentially places the rel="publisher" link on every page of your site.

If you implement it in this way and are also using rel="author" (which you should be) then the Rich Snippets Testing Tool will give you this error and warning.

Google+ Rich Snippets Testing Tool Error

So instead you need to find a way to place the rel="publisher" link only on your home page. Thankfully my sidebar is dynamic and I'm able to present a link just after my Blog Roll list that contains the appropriate mark-up.

Google+ Rel="Publisher" Mark-Up

To confirm that you've set this up correctly you then drop your home page into the Rich Snippets Testing Tool.

Google+ Rel Publisher Success

This is what you want to see. You'll want to test both your home page and a post page to make sure that you are verified appropriately from a publisher and author perspective.

Done right? Wrong.

The last step is to submit a Google+ Page verification request. But before you do make sure you meet all of the requirements.

Google+ Page Verification Requirements

1,000 people must Circle your Page to be eligible for verification. Not a trifling amount for a small business. While I still recommend implementing the rel="publisher" mark-up, you'll have to decide whether it's worth the time and investment to get to that 1,000 mark.

Google+ Authorship

Google+ is an identity platform. One of the primary benefits is the ability to confirm authorship of your content.

Google+ Authorship

Authorship delivers a rich presentation that increases the click-through rate on that result. The image immediately draws the eye, just as other rich snippets do on search results, while the Circle count delivers additional confidence via social proof.

There is a clear short-term SEO benefit. But it's the long-term benefit that might be more important. I'll get to that a little later on.

If you're interested in Authorship (and you should be) I have a Google Authorship guide to help you set it up.

Authorship Links

The Authorship presentation also has links to that author and a link to More by that author.

Search+ Authorship Presentation

The author link just goes to the profile page but the More by link does something different.

Search+ More by Author

The More by link produces a compound search of sorts with your name and the keyword term. In this instance it does a nice job of pulling up some contextually relevant posts from my blog, a random Tweet that was archived by Buzz and my own post on Google+ that contains a link to the Bounce Rate vs Exit Rate post. Overall, I'm pretty pleased and it's mildly compelling for users.

But it doesn't always work that way.

Search+ More by Author Bad Example

If you were to find my post on Tom Wilkinson and then click More by AJ Kohn the compound search would provide the above results.

The two other posts referenced from my blog are not related except for the fact that they were the previous and next post. The remaining results match on some or portions of the compound search but are not at all related. And more to the point, they are not authored by me.

This seems like a bug that should be fixed since the intent of that click is to see more by that author. More by author links do not deliver on the implied promise or fulfill query intent.

I'm doing all of this without Search+. Turn it on and in some ways this gets even worse.

Search+ More by Author Personalized

The photo with Billy Idol and the Beastie Boys is on another post and makes it here because of the previous and next text attached to that image. That's not relevant but it is authored by me. But down below is a result from Matt Cutts. I like Matt and it's not a bad thing to be associated with him but that post is not authored by me. Nor is the one below it (not pictured) which comes from Quora.

I am participating in conversations on these other sites, but that's just not the same. I'm not thrilled with this but from a personal brand standpoint it might not be terrible. I stand behind the dialogs and conversations I have on other sites.

If I'm a publisher I'm probably freaking out because you could potentially be sending users to other destinations. But before we freak out lets think a bit more about intent.

Authorship and Intent

If I'm searching for 'bounce rate vs exit rate' my intent is to learn about the difference between these two metrics. The idea that a substantial number of users would click on the author name or More by link instead of the link that fulfills their query intent is, well, ludicrous.

Some users might click those links by accident. But what do you think happens then? If they click the author link and wind up on a profile, that doesn't fulfill the query intent. The majority will likely return to the search result and click the correct link.

Click the More by link and the odds are that they'll wind up at the same end destination link because it's at the top and it's the most relevant to your initial query intent.

The number of clicks that are lost to Google+, other sites or abandoned searches as a result of the Authorship implementation is extremely low when you layer on query intent. That tiny loss is more than made up for by the increase in visibility and click-through rate.

Google+ Influence

I've written a number of times about Google creating an influence metric that will impact how content is ranked within search. Google+ and Authorship are at the center of this effort. The long-term potential for AuthorRank is not a fantasy. We're not talking about some Klout number that is essentially a reflection of activity. No, this would be a far more nuanced metric that would never be made public.

Not only will Google be looking at the quality of the content you produce, they'll look at how it is received. Google+ allows Google to mine the engagement graph. Who shared your content? How many +1s did it receive? How many comments? How many shares? What was the sentiment of those comments? Were those comments valuable? Who made those comments? Were those comments from people influential on that topic?

Remember that Authorship is attached to content created on Google+ as well, both posts and comments. So your +1s and shares and comments are all being analyzed. The push for more engagement on Google+ is, in part, to expand the engagement graph and acquire more data so it can implement an AuthorRank algorithm with confidence.

Panda separated low-quality and high-quality sites. AuthorRank would do the same for people and their associated content. As the tidal wave of digital content roars in Google's ears finding ways to sort the good from the bad quickly will be of increasing importance.

Content without Authorship could become a second-class citizen.

Circle Count

What can you do, aside from Authorship and creating great content, to increase your Google+ influence. First and foremost is to have a large following or Circle count.

Circle count isn't as easily gamed on Google+ because of identity. While the pseudonym debate has gone silent I wouldn't be surprised if Google didn't assign a confidence score to each account. If you have a large following from accounts that Google doesn't fully trust, your large Circle count will be less meaningful.

Obtaining a high Circle count means sharing and creating a lot of great material. One personal tip I can share is that your content doesn't need to be on just one topic. If you look at my Google+ stream I'm all over the map. It's essentially a look at what I come across and am thinking about from day to day.

That means you'll get what I feel are the best articles on SEO, UX and other professional disciplines as well as inspirational images and a healthy does of LOLcats.

What that really comes down to is sharing more of yourself. Be human.

Engagement

I am sure that some people will say they do all that but no one engages with them. The truth is, this isn't easy and it takes a lot of work on your part to make it happen. You can't just post and think the world will engage with you. I see far too many experts claiming that Google+ is a ghost town because of this phenomenon. I don't often say this but, those people are doing it wrong.

If you're in the 1% of Internet celebrity then engagement will follow you from platform to platform. Robert Scoble, Ben Parr, MG Siegler, Danny Sullivan, Thomas Hawk are established and will see engagement no matter where they go. They've put in an enormous amount of time and effort to get there.

The 99% of us left have to do the same and earn engagement. So how do you do that? There's no real formula but here are my personal observations and tips.

Post to Public. By not doing so you limit yourself and the ability for others to find you and your content. This means you should be aware of what you're posting. You can be personal but you should have boundaries.

Respond to engagement. If someone +1s your post go and Circle them if you haven't already. If they comment, reply to that comment using their @name. If someone shares your content go and +1 that share and add a thank you comment if appropriate.

Flag people down. Use the @name function wisely to reference people who might have a view on that content or to which you want a response. Do not over do this or you will piss people off. But done right you can actually bring the right people into a great debate.

Create conversation. Comments meant to engage should not be of the 'great post' variety but should be valuable. Thoughtful comments that bring up issues and add value are more likely to get a response.

Cultivate engagement. Keep track of the people who engage with your content most frequently. Put them in a Circle and you can share directly with them, kick-starting engagement on your post and increasing the probability of more engagement.

Circle people. Circle people in your area(s) of expertise. You're not looking for them to follow you back (though some will) but instead you're looking to interact with the content they produce. It's that engagement that will translate into more people Circling you.

Monitor real time searches. You can quickly find, monitor and engage with specific content by searching by keyword and jumping into the real time stream of results. Yes, real time can be useful in this instance.

Google+ Real Time Results

Find some searches that work for you and save them so you can access them again and again. This is the way I was able to monitor and respond to those who were sharing this guide.

Google+ SEO Best Practices

Here's a quick checklist of 9 items critical to your Google+ SEO success.

Optimize your Google+ Profile

Fill out your Introduction, Employment, Education and Places lived understanding that the text in these sections is used for Google+ search. If you want to be returned for the term 'SEO' you need to have that term in one of these fields.

Placing the term in two or more fields seems to deliver some added benefit. Do it if it makes sense but don't go overboard.

Get Verified

A verified name with that small checkmark icon seems to have some influence on Google+ search. When I figure out exactly how to make this happen I'll let you know.

Confirm Authorship

Google+ is an identity platform that allows you to claim Authorship of your content. Doing so delivers a type of rich snippet in search results that will increase the visibility and click-through rate on your content today and may put you in the catbird's seat when Google implements AuthorRank.

Use the +1 Button

Put the +1 button on your site prominently so users can deliver your content to Google+. Not only will this result in traffic to your site, it allows Google to understand how people are engaging with your content.

Optimize Social Snippets

It's not enough to just create content and have the +1 button on your site. Optimize your social snippet to ensure you're getting the most engagement out of your content.

Create Great Content

Put this in the 'no duh' category, but really, create great content. It's not enough on its own but everything gets easier if you do this.

Share Great Content

Great content takes time so you won't always be sharing your content. Instead, share the great content of others. Make your Google+ feed valuable and interesting and you'll be rewarded.

Format Google+ Posts

Just putting a URL as your Google+ post won't cut it. Create a bold title for each of your (longer) posts. Not only is this easier to read it's what Google will use as the browser Title on Search+.

You should also start to use hashtags, sparingly, to ensure your posts are aggregated appropriately.

Use Google+

Really use Google+. Using it for the express purpose of SEO won't be successful. Do or do not. There is no try.

What I Learned in 2011

December 30 2011 // Career + Life // 17 Comments

Way back in 2007 I decided to strike out on my own and begin consulting. I had a number of clients and things were going well. The snag? I wanted to buy a house and banks were simply not loaning money to folks who didn't have W-2 income. Well, they might but not to those who didn't have 20% to put down and Bay Area housing prices made that difficult.

At the time one of my clients was anxious to get me more involved and by early 2008 we agreed on an arrangement where I'd work three days a week as an employee, giving me the ability to pursue consulting the other two days. It was a great arrangement that provided stability and flexibility for the next three years. I know this isn't a typical arrangement and I was (and still am) sincerely grateful for the opportunity.

But in 2010 I was turning down more business than I was taking on and I lost a few prospective clients because they weren't sure I had enough bandwidth. I also, finally, bought a house and no longer had a pressing need for W-2 income. So I decided it was time to return to my initial goal - to consult full-time and run my own business.

Strangely, it was a bit more nerve-wracking this time around. I'd grown comfortable and now had a mortgage looming over my head. But those just weren't good reasons not to move forward. I'm a big believer in taking risks, particularly when I'm betting on myself.

So how'd it turn out?

Well, all in all, 2011 was a great year. I filled up my list of clients, was nearly always busy, made good money and got to spend amazing time with my wife and daughter. But it wasn't all roses. I learned a lot this year - about myself and about running a business.

The Power of Gratitude

Thank You Painted on Street

never needed to drum up work. The work came to me. Referrals remain the lifeblood of my business. This might be atypical. Remember, I was able to take on clients part-time for a number of years. I was building a track record and securing endorsements that would pay off in the future. As soon as I began to wonder if things had finally dried up I received at least one but usually more inbound inquiries. I do not take this for granted.

But there are important lessons to be learned when I think about the amount of business I get through referrals. First, you must deliver great work. The referrals won't come otherwise. When you're working for a client, you're not just working for them, you're working for all the clients they might refer to you in the future. Let your client down and you cut off a valuable part of your sales funnel.

This also means keeping up with clients both past, present and future. This isn't easy for me. I'm not a social animal and while I think about a lot of these people, I don't often reach out to say hello and touch base. Nor do I like to pursue prospects to see if they're ready to engage. But I made an effort this year to do so and it paid off. I slacked off on this in the last few months. I'll change that going into 2012.

In the past I thought this type of outreach was intrusive but I find that most people enjoy a quick email. It usually leads to interesting discussions and, yes, the occasional referral. Sometimes just being top-of-mind is what gets you in the door.

Another thing. When someone helps you out with a referral, say thank you. Even if that referral doesn't pan out, thank them for thinking of you. Never forget the power of gratitude.

Respond ASAP

Stopwatch

As the year wore on I got more and more inbound emails and inquiries. They competed with emails from current clients and outstanding proposals. Not to mention the comments people were kind enough to leave on this blog or those who paid me a kind word on Twitter.

I've read, again and again, that responding quickly is critical. Yet, I didn't do a great job of this. In part, I was hobbled by the desire to craft the perfect response. Was it important just to respond or to respond with something of substance? What I've learned is that it's better to lean toward the former, in part because my idea of substance was often far more than was expected.

I'm not saying you should be glib but the adage that a little bit goes a long way fits in this scenario. I still fight this battle though and often let days and days go by before I respond. This is bad. Don't do it. I'm hoping to turn this around in 2012 and respond quickly and see where those conversations go and not hold myself up to some ultimate standard of communication.

So if I ignored you this year, I apologize. It's not that I didn't care. In fact, I still remember nearly every email I didn't return and every Tweet I didn't acknowledge. Hopefully I won't paint myself into this guilty corner in 2012.

Build The Brand

Fingerprint

I decided to spend a decent amount of time building my personal brand. I took to heart some advice from Rand Fishkin about blogging. I did more of it and made it easier for people to share my content. I also spent more time promoting myself, through Twitter, via comments on other blogs, on Quora, LinkedIn and on Google+. I'm still better at promoting other people than myself but I came a long way this year.

I also became a Sphinn editor which then morphed into being a Marketing Land curator. It was one of the best things I did this year. I got to know and learned from folks like Matt McGee, Michelle Robbins, Danny Sullivan, Hugo Guzman, James Svoboda, Todd Mintz, Jill Whalen and many more. It also ensured that my information consumption was being put to good use.

You see, I consume a vast amount of information. On a typical day I'm dedicating approximately two hours to reading articles, analysis, responses and posts on a wide range of topics. To be honest, I think being able to make sense of all that information, connecting the dots and finding trends that I can pass on to my clients is valuable. Some of that also shows up on Twitter and Google+.

Building the brand also meant being more social. I did a fairly good job of this online. I thought my Valentine's Day post was a good start and from there I upped my interactions on my blog and via Twitter. I also embraced Google+ and used it as I had FriendFeed, posting a diverse amount of content that let people get to know the 'real' me.

I also took advantage of an opportunity and went to see Amit Singhal, Ben Gomes and Matt Cutts at the Churchill Club. Not only did I get to see them, I had a chance to chat with each of them as well. It reminded me that I need to get out there more often, even if I'm a bit socially uncomfortable. Again, my thanks to Rick Bucich who was my wing man. We could be social awkward together and that makes a huge difference.

Earlier in the year I had botched SMX West. I'd received some shocking personal news that really rocked me. I won't go into here but suffice to say I didn't attend many sessions and even when I did I wasn't really there. Yes, there are other conferences and perhaps I should have gone but ... I didn't.

This year I'm looking to attend at least two conferences and speak at one. While there I'll remind myself to be more social and meet all of the people I've been talking to throughout the year. Putting myself out there and letting people put a person to the words is important.

One of the results of my brand building efforts was the opportunity to participate in the SEOmoz Search Engine Ranking Factors and Google News Ranking Factors panels. There's a bit of virtuous cycle here. Your brand gets a boost by being on these panels which amplifies your brand moving forward and helps you secure more business which in turn increases your brand, if you're continuing to do good work.

I remain dedicated to doing great work for my clients.

Better, Faster, Cheaper

Daft Punk

The old better, faster, cheaper adage is that you can only do two of the three at any given time. I wasn't going to be cheap. I'd already learned that being cheap diminished my contribution and often attracted the wrong type of client.

So I settled on better and faster. The problem? Everything took longer than I expected. Part of this is my stubbornness around being better. When I do something, I want to do it really well. It wasn't about meeting the client's expectations, it was about blowing those expectations away. It was about pulling on every little thread in a site audit to make sure I didn't miss something.

All of this made being faster, while maintaining my level of quality, a challenge. At times I thought about doing things 'good enough' or finding ways to simply deliver what the client expected. Why was I knocking myself out? But being thorough and thoughtful was part of my DNA. Not only that it was a point of differentiation. It's what I stood for. And as I've already discussed, delivering great work doubled as my sales funnel.

It's also one of the reasons I turned down a number of guest blogging and speaking opportunities. My own blog posts take between two and five hours each. (This one is well above that.) I don't think that's going to change. I'm methodical and I'll do an extraordinary amount of due diligence before I'm comfortable putting something out there.

Building vs Doing

Jenga Game Balancing Act

Obviously, I'm a big believer in building your brand and business. That takes work. Blog posts. Quora. Google+. Twitter. Commenting. Seriously, there's a lot of work involved in building and promoting your business. Balancing the time you spend building the brand versus doing the work can be difficult. Doubly so if you take into account my personal expectations of quality.

I fought this see-saw battle all year and expect to do so again in 2012. There's just no way around it.

Fill Your Pipeline

 

Eggs

Don't count your chickens before they're hatched. There were times when I thought I had a slew of business lined up waiting to go. But I'd already learned to keep piling on prospective work. Because suddenly a few of those potential clients go silent, there's a change in management or you simply don't get that business.

And what's the worst thing that happens if you book too much business? Seriously, that's a good problem to have. That's when you buy a bunch of Red Bull, work with clients on timelines and deliverables and bring on a few trusted colleagues to help out.

Send Me ...

Tuxedo

Cranking out proposals and contracts isn't as easy as it sounds. You figure out quickly that different clients want different types of things and that, in turn, demands a different type of approach and response. I took time to build proposals for a variety of types of projects and even came up with a menu of services.

Having been the recipient of a lot of proposals and contracts over the years (even from others in my industry) so I had a general idea of what was expected and how they were presented. Honestly, the amount of diversity here is incredible. I've seen cookie-cutter PowerPoint decks, simple one page word documents or a novella worth of FAQs being used as proposals.

In my eyes, the level of professionalism just isn't that high. So of course I wanted to do better. I spent time and energy getting a standard look and feel to my materials. The same fonts. The same formatting. The same iconography. I wanted to put my best foot forward every time.

That took time but by the end of the year I had a lot of collateral squared away and ready to go which made the proposal process a lot less time consuming.

Cross the Ts, Dot the Is

Magnifying Fine Print

Then there are contracts. You need to have your own but you also need to be prepared to review and sign those provided by clients. Don't just glance at this stuff. Read the contract and make sure that you are okay with the terms. If you're not, make suggested revisions. Now, I didn't get tangled up in a bad contract this year, but that's partly because I changed terms prior to entering that agreement. Don't be afraid to do this.

I might also add that twice I had clients correct errors (minor legalese errors) in my own contract template. While this is embarrassing I am thankful that they took the time to review the contract and provide that feedback. I'm better for it.

Going Steady?

 

Ring

So you land a new client and you're doing a site audit. Some of these are one-time engagements but most of the time you (and the client) are hoping that it turns into a long-term relationship. The question is how to structure those engagements. I've avoided retainer based engagements because there are times when I'll feel like I'm not delivering enough value and other times when I feel like that client is soaking up way too much of my time. Honestly, I was more concerned about the former.

While I might be able to drive a few clients into a retainer based relationship and have a set amount of money coming in, I just didn't want that added pressure and the question in the back of my mind - am I doing enough? That said, I had enough clients asking for this that I decided to give it a try. So far, so good.

I structured my retainers so I had some protection from being ridiculously overworked. That helped put my mind at ease on that side of the equation. But what about that feeling that I'm not contributing enough? What I've found is that it's about trust and reliability. Clients need to trust that you're looking out for their interests and that you are there with advice and recommendations that they can trust and believe in. Having that resource, on call, is valuable. This is even more important in a field where things change frequently and there is a slew of conflicting (and bad) advice.

I haven't figured out the best way to seamlessly move from audit into a long-term engagement but the majority of my clients do take this path. It's usually not the same and that makes it strange and bumpy at times. I'm not sure this is a problem I can or should solve.

For Love and Money

Love Greater Than Money

Invoicing and keeping track of accounts receivables wasn't that big of a problem. I have a nice invoice template I've used for years and diligently track unpaid invoices. In 2011 I only had one client who I had to chase down for payment.

You do begin to learn who pays quickly and who is cutting your net 30 arrangement to the very last day. Sometimes cash flow became an issue, particularly when I had to pay subcontractors or vendors. That's certainly something I'll work on in 2012.

Outside of that I didn't actually like doing the invoicing. Crazy isn't it? The thing that gets me paid always felt like pulling teeth. Reviewing everything I'd done and tallying up the hours and deliverables was just not fun for me. Getting those checks in the mail certainly did!

I just really like what I do and am able to make a good living at it. For that I am very lucky.

The Right Clients

Astronauts

You need to get good, quickly, at figuring out which clients are right for you. For me, this means they're already knowledgeable about SEO and Internet marketing. I want smart teams that I can partner with and engage in meaningful dialog that moves the site and my knowledge forward. Because make no mistake, you are constantly learning in this business. Every new engagement brings a new set of challenges and reveals a new wrinkle that you might not have seen previously.

I don't want clients who are constantly questioning the validity of SEO. I avoid those who can't bring resources to bear on recommendations because I want to see results. I'm not a big fan of politics so I avoid large organizations. Discount hunters are also usually bad news. I've also experimented with small business and local clients but my services just don't scale for most of these folks.

There are plenty of posts out there about  bad clients but it's really on you to find the good clients. Don't be afraid to turn away clients who you know are going to be a time suck. Another way to handle this is to bake it into your proposal. Pricing yourself out of potentially bad relationships is a very valuable technique.

In the end, I want clients who understand that I'm going to tell them the truth, whether it's popular or not.

How Much!?

Cat Covering Ears

Medical coverage costs a metric-fuck-ton. I'm using foul language here because it really is that bad. The amount I pay for medical coverage is obscene. I'm looking to lower this cost in 2012 but there's also a huge amount of complexity and fear in switching plans. I've been through this rodeo just in switching plans when I went from job to job. But it's even more difficult when you're self-employed and worried about making sure your family has health coverage.

In addition, the quarterly tax payments can be a drag. I don't mind paying taxes. I'm quite happy to pay my share. But the chunks you pay are sizable so you really have to plan ahead. Get yourself a CPA if you're going to start a business or even just do a fair amount of consulting. The $500 I pay mine is well worth it and has saved me money and countless hours of my time.

Stay Active

Me on Mount Diablo

I let my health slip a bit this year. I didn't eat well and didn't exercise as much either. This is odd since I'm spending so much time at home. I've already begun to change this and will be a healthier person in 2012. This is important because being active can help you work through problems and simply think better. Diet can also have a profound impact on your mood.

All of this is wrapped up in making sure you keep motivated. Like or not, sometimes that motivation leaves you. You get stressed and get jammed up. You feel like you're juggling too much and that you'll never catch up. You wake up and you just don't want to tackle what's in front of you. It feels enormous and endless. That's where being active can change things. Get out on the bike and ride for a few hours and you clear your head and come back energized.

More or Less

Dali Clock Painting

I am a huge believer in life/work balance. That said, now that I'm running my own business I am working a lot more. Part of this is the fact that I work at home. I'm upstairs in my office, wearing an old Google fleece and some sweatpants. I'm up at 6am every day looking through my RSS feeds and soaking up as much information as I can instead of spending an unproductive hour or more commuting.

The days begin to blend together. Weekdays and weekends aren't so different so you wind up putting in hours on the weekend too. But it's all on your own terms! That's the great thing.

So if I want to stop and go for a bike ride with my daughter. I can do that. If I want to watch Breaking Bad on Netflix in the middle of the day. I can do that. The flexibility is amazing. So even though I might be working more hours I'm also spending more quality time with my family and doing the things I really want to do.

Leverage

Pick a Direction

It got to the point where I was essentially booked solid. If you're charging an hourly rate, you can only make so much. There are only so many hours in the day. Sure, you can use fixed pricing on audits but most of the time you're not making much more there. You figure out the hours you need and price the audit accordingly. Honestly, I probably short-changed myself more often than not. As I mentioned, everything takes longer than you think.

So you begin to think about how you could get to the next level. Did I want to build an 'agency'? Maybe but I'm a better leader than manager. So you begin to think about other ways to leverage the expertise you have. This is where I'm looking in 2012. Once again, I'll be balancing initiatives to build and expand the business versus doing the work. So, while I may not be an agency per se, I think there's a strong possibility that I'll want to bring some other people in next year.

This might give me just enough time to explore new ways to serve clients. Maybe I should write an ebook or a real book? I did a number of SEO training sessions this year, maybe that's something to pursue.

I have a great but complex idea for a WordPress Plugin. I actually did a substantial amount of research here, wrote a solid product document and contacted a developer but it just never got off the ground. I could restart that project.

And then there are other ideas outside of this industry, one of which would provide bloggers with a new revenue stream.

I don't lack in ideas. I lack in time. And with that time constraint I vacillate. I want to pick the 'right' one. But I know that's not the right way to approach things. Pick one. Try it. If it works, awesome. If it doesn't. Learn from the failure and move on to the next idea. It's easier said than done but I'm committed to this philosophy in 2012.

2012 Internet, SEO and Technology Predictions

December 27 2011 // Analytics + SEO + Technology // 8 Comments

It's time again to gaze into my crystal ball and make some predictions for 2012.

Crystal Ball Technology Predictions

2012 Predictions

For reference, here are my predictions for 2011, 2010 and 2009. I was a bit too safe last year so I'm making some bold predictions this time around.

Chrome Becomes Top Browser

Having already surpassed Firefox this year, Chrome will see accelerated adoption, surpassing Internet Explorer as the top desktop browser in the closing weeks of 2012.

DuckDuckGo Cracks Mainstream

Gabriel Weinberg puts new funding to work and capitalizes on the 'search is about answers' meme. DuckDuckGo leapfrogs over AOL and Ask in 2012, securing itself as the fourth largest search engine.

Google Implements AuthorRank

Google spent 2011 building an identity platform, launching and aggressively promoting authorship while building an internal influence metric. In 2012 they'll put this all together and use AuthorRank (referred to in patents as Agent Rank) as a search signal. It will have a more profound impact on search than all Panda updates combined.

Image Search Gets Serious

Pinterest. Instagram. mlkshk. We Heart It. Flickr. Meme Generator. The Internet runs on images. Look for a new image search engine, as well as image search analytics. Hopefully this will cause Google to improve (which is a kind word) image search tracking within Google Analytics.

SEO Tool Funding

VCs have been sniffing around SEO tool providers for a number of years. In 2012 one of the major SEO tool providers (SEOmoz or Raven) will receive a serious round of funding. I actually think this is a terrible idea but ... there it is.

Frictionless Check-Ins

For location based services to really take off and reach the mainstream they'll need a near frictionless check-in process. Throughout 2012 you'll see Facebook, Foursquare and Google one-up each other in providing better ways to check-in. These will start with prompts and evolve into check-out (see Google Wallet) integrations.

Google+ Plateaus

As much as I like Google+ I think it will plateau in mid-2012 and remain a solid second fiddle to Facebook. That's not a knock of Google+ or the value it brings to both users and Google. There are simply too many choices and no compelling case for mass migration.

HTML5 (Finally) Becomes Important

After a few years of hype HTML5 becomes important, delivering rich experiences that users will come to expect. As both site adoption and browser compatibility rise, search engines will begin to use new HTML5 tags to better understand and analyze pages.

Schema.org Stalls

Structured mark-up will continue to be important but Schema.org adoption will stall. Instead, Google will continue to be an omnivore, happy to digest any type of structured mark-up, while other entities like Facebook will continue to promote their own proprietary mark-up.

Mobile Search Skyrockets

Only 40% of U.S. mobile users have smartphones. That's going to change in a big way in 2012 as both Apple and Google fight to secure these mobile users. Mobile search will be the place for growth as desktop search growth falls to single digits.

Yahoo! Buys Tumblr

Doubling down on content Yahoo! will buy Tumblr, hoping to extend their contributor network and overlay a sophisticated, targeted display advertising network. In doing so, they'll quickly shutter all porn related Tumblr blogs.

Google Acquires Topsy

Topsy, the last real-time search engine, is acquired by Google who quickly shuts down the Topsy API and applies the talent to their own initiatives on both desktop and mobile platforms.

Delicious Turns Sour

December 19 2011 // Rant + Technology + Web Design // 8 Comments

In April, the Internet breathed a sigh of relief when Delicious was sold to AVOS instead of being shut down by Yahoo. In spite of Yahoo's years of neglect, Delicious maintained a powerful place in the Internet ecosystem and remained a popular service.

Users were eager to see Delicious improve under new management. Unfortunately the direction and actions taken by Delicious over the last 8 months make me pine for the days when it was the toy thrown in the corner by Yahoo!

Where Did Delicious Go Wrong?

Delicious Dilapidated Icon

I know new management means well and have likely poured a lot of time and effort into this enterprise. But I see problems in strategy, tactics and execution that have completely undermined user trust and loyalty.

Bookmarklets

The one mission critical feature which fuels the entire enterprise falls into disrepair. Seriously? This is unacceptable. The bookmarklets that allow users to bookmark and tag links were broken for long stretches of time and continue to be rickety and unreliable. This lack of support is akin to disrespect of Delicious users.

Stacks

Here’s how they work. Select some related links, plug them into a stack and watch the magic happen. You can customize your stack by choosing images to feature, and by adding a title, description and comment for each link. Then publish the stack to share it with the world. If you come across another stack you like, follow it to easily find it again and catch any updates.

Instead of the nearly frictionless interaction we've grown accustomed to, we're now asked to perform additional and duplicative work. I've already created 'stacks' by bookmarking links with appropriate tags. Want to see a stack of links about SEO, look at my bookmarks that are tagged SEO. It doesn't get much more simple than that.

Not only have they introduced complexity into a simple process, they've perverted the reason for bookmarking links. The beauty of Delicious was that you were 'curating' without trying. You simply saved links by tags and then one day you figured out that you had a deep reservoir of knowledge on a number of topics.

Stacks does the opposite and invites you to think about curation. I'd argue this creates substantial bias, invites spam and is more aligned with the dreck produced by Squidoo.

Here's another sign that you've introduced unneeded complexity into a product.

Delicious Describes Stacks

In just one sentence they reference stacks, links, playlists and topics. They haven't even mentioned tags! Am I creating stacks or playlists? If I'm a complete novice do I understand what 'stack links' even means?

Even if I do understand this, why do I want to do extra work that Delicious should be doing for me?

Design

Design over Substance

The visual makeover doesn't add anything to the platform. Do pretty pictures and flashy interactions really help me discover content? Were Delicious users saying they would use the service more if only it looked prettier? I can't believe that's true. Delicious had the same UI for years and yet continued to be a popular service.

Delicious is a utilitarian product. It's about saving, retrieving and finding information.

Sure, Flipboard is really cool but just because a current design pattern is in vogue doesn't mean it should be applied to every site.

UX

There are a number of UX issues that bother me but I'll highlight the three that have produced the most ire. The drop down is poorly aligned causing unnecessary frustration.

Delicious Dropdown Alignment

More than a few times I've gone across to to click on one of the drop down links only to have it disappear before I could finish the interaction.

The iconography is non-intuitive and doesn't even have appropriate hover text to describe the action.

Delicious Gray Icons

Delicious Icons are Confusing

Does the + sign mean bookmark that link? What's the arrow? Is that a pencil?

Now, I actually get the iconography. But that's the problem! I'm an Internet savvy user, yet the new design seems targeted at a more mainstream user. Imagine if Pinterest didn't have the word 'repin' next to their double thumbtack icon?

Finally, the current bookmarklet supports the tag complete function. You begin typing in a tag and you can simply select from a list of prior tags. This is a great timesaver. It even creates a handy space at the end so you can start your next tag. Or does it?

Delicious Tag Problems

WTF!? Why is my tag all muddled together?

Delicious improved tagging by allowing spaces in tags. That means that all tags have to be separated by commas. I get that. It's not the worst idea either. But the tag complete feature should support this new structure. Because it looks like it functions correctly by inserting a space after the tag. I mean, am I supposed to use the tag complete feature and then actually backspace and add a comma?

It's not the best idea to make your users feel stupid.

Uptime

Delicious Unavailable Page

The service has been unstable, lately as poor as it was at the height of Twitter's fail whale problem. I've seen that empty loft way too much.

What Should Delicious Do Instead?

It's easy to bitch but what could Delicious have done instead? Here's what I think they should have (and still could) do.

Filtering

An easy first step to improve Delicious would be to provide a better way to filter bookmarks. The only real way to do so right now is by adding additional tags. It would have been easy to introduce time (date) and popularity (number of times bookmarked) facets.

They could have gone an extra step and offered the ability to group bookmarks by source. This would let me see the number of bookmarks I have by site by tag. How many times have I bookmarked a Search Engine Land article about SEO? Not only would this be interesting, it maps to how we think and remember. You'll hear people say something like: "It was that piece on management I read on Harvard Business Review."

There are a tremendous number of ways that the new team could have simply enhanced the current functionality to deliver added value to users.

Recommendations

Recommendation LOLcat

Delicious could create recommendations based on current bookmark behavior and tag interest. The data is there. It just needs to be unlocked.

It would be relatively straightforward to create a 'people who bookmarked this also bookmarked' feature. Even better if it only displayed those I haven't already bookmarked. That's content discovery.

This could be extended to natural browse by tag behavior. A list of popular bookmarks with that tag but not in my bookmarks would be pretty handy.

Delicious could also alert you when it saw a new bookmark from a popular tag within your bookmarks. This would give me a quick way to see what was 'hot' for topics I cared about.

Recommendations would put Delicious in competition with services like Summify, KnowAboutIt, XYDO and Percolate. It's a crowded space but Delicious is sitting on a huge advantage with the massive amount of data at their disposal.

Automated Stacks

Instead of introducing unnecessary friction Delicious could create stacks algorthmically using tags. This could be personal (your own curated topics) or across the entire platform. Again, why Delicious is asking me to do something that they can and should do is a mystery to me.

Also, the argument that people could select from multiple tags to create more robust stacks doesn't hold much water. Delicious knows which tags appear together most often and on what bookmarks. Automated stacks could pull from multiple tags.

The algorithm that creates these stacks would also constantly evolve. They would be dynamic and not prone to decay. New bookmarks would be added and bookmarks that weren't useful (based on age, lack of clicks or additional bookmarks) would be dropped.

Delicious already solved the difficult human element of curation. It just never applied appropriate algorithms to harness that incredible asset.

Social Graph Data

Delicious could help order bookmarks and augment recommendations by adding social graph data. The easiest thing to do would be to determine the number of Likes, Tweets and +1s each bookmark received. This might simply mirror bookmark popularity though. So you would next look at who saved the bookmarks and map their social profiles to determine authority and influence. Now you could order bookmarks that were saved by thought leaders in any vertical.

A step further, Delicious could look at the comments on a bookmarked piece of content. This could be used as a signal in itself based on the number of comments, could be mined to determine sentiment or could provide another vector for social data.

Trunk.ly was closing in on this since they already aggregated links via social profiles. Give them your Twitter account and they collect and save what you Tweet. This frictionless mechanism had some drawbacks but it showed a lot of promise. Unfortunately Trunk.ly was recently purchased by Delicious. Maybe some of the promise will show up on Delicious but the philosophy behind stacks seems to be in direct conflict with how Trunk.ly functioned.

Analytics

Delicious could have provided analytics to individuals as to the number of times their bookmarks were viewed, clicked or re-bookmarked. The latter two metrics could also be used to construct an internal influence metric. If I bookmark something because I saw your bookmark, that's essentially on par with a retweet.

For businesses, Delicious could aggregate all the bookmarks for that domain (or domains), providing statistics on the most bookmarked pieces as well as when they are viewed and clicked. A notification service when your content is bookmarked would also be low-hanging fruit.

Search

Delicious already has search and many use it extensively to find hidden gems from both the past and present. But search could be made far better. In the end Delicious could have made a play for being the largest and best curated search engine. I might be biased because of my interest in search but this just seems like a no-brainer.

Revenue

Building a PPC platform seems like a good fit if you decide to make search a primary feature of the site. It could even work (to a lesser extent) if you don't feature search. Advertisers could pay per keyword search or tag search. I doubt this would disrupt user behavior since users are used to this design pattern thanks to Google.

Delicious could even implement something similar to StumbleUpon, allowing advertisers to buy 'bookmark recommendations'. This type of targeted exposure would be highly valuable (to users and advertisers) and the number of bookmarks could provide long-term traffic and benefits. Success might be measured in a new bookmarks per impression metric.

TL;DR

The new Delicious is a step backward, abandoning simplicity and neglecting mechanisms that build replenishing value. Instead management has introduced complexity and friction while concentrating on cosmetics. The end result is far worse than the neglect Delicious suffered at the hands of Yahoo.

Author Stats

December 15 2011 // SEO // 3 Comments

Yesterday Google launched a new Authorship home page and Author stats within Google Webmaster Tools. The continuing emphasis on Authorship is a clear signal of the importance of this feature within Google.

Before reading up on Author stats, take a moment to learn how easy it is to implement Google authorship on your site or blog.

Author Stats

Author stats is available directly from the home page of Google Webmaster Tools under Labs.

How To View Google Author Statistics

Click on Author stats and you'll see statistics for pages for which you are the verified author.

Google+ Posts in Author Stats

I'm showing you page 2 of my own Author stats in part because it makes it easier to demonstrate that Google is assigning authorship to Google+ posts. Not only that, but they're showing you that these Google+ posts are being presented in search, gathering both impressions and clicks.

I vaguely knew this was happening but it makes it a lot more real when you see the numbers and real impact.

Stats by Profile not by Site

A bit giddy with this new source of information, I wanted to see what this looked like for one of my clients who has multiple authors.

Google Author Statistics In a Site Profile

There again is the Author stats link under Labs. But when I clicked on it, I got the same pages from my own personal site. I followed up with Javier Tordable, Google Software Engineer, who confirmed that Author stats are by profile and are not aggregated by site.

The Author Stats feature is independent of the site (that is the reason it appears in Home, before selecting a site). It also appears in the Labs menu for a site, but that's only for ease of use, rather than because it depends on the site.

That makes sense though I am putting in a request now for an aggregated view of all authors by site. That would make it easier to see the impact and more compelling for sites to implement authorship.

Specific Author Statistics

The statistics shown under Author stats are Impressions, Clicks, CTR and Average Position with the percentage change for each in that given timeframe.  These are nice basic numbers.

However, it's clear based on the average position number (very high) that a wide variety of terms and platforms (specifically image search) are being included here. While you can filter by platform you still don't have the ability to see the average position by query term.

In addition, the big metric everyone is looking for is the impact an Author result has on CTR, similar to what Google attempts to do with the +1 Metrics search impact report.

Google +1 Metrics Search Impact

My posts haven't reached a statistical level of significance but I appreciate what Google is trying to provide here. I'm not sure Author stats search impact would work the same way since that would mean Authorship would need to be turned off for a substantial set of users. I can think of a few ways they might quantify the impact but it may expose too much data to users.

Don't get me wrong, this is a great start and Google seems committed to improving Author stats.

This is an experimental feature so we’re continuing to iterate and improve, but we wanted to get early feedback from you. You can e-mail us at authorship-pilot@google.com if you run into any issues or have feedback.

I'm happy to see these Author stats and look forward to future improvements.

TL;DR

Author stats are now available in Google Webmaster Tools, showing statistics for pages for which you are the verified author. The continuing emphasis on Authorship shows the importance Google places on the feature and how Authorship might be used to improve search quality.

The Truth Doesn’t Matter

December 14 2011 // SEO // 2 Comments

Matt Cutts says good content is more important than SEO.

Good Content?

There is actually a lot of truth to that. The problem is that too many people don't understand the definition of good content. This goes double if it's content you've produced. Nobody likes to hear that their baby is ugly.

This video set off a number of anti-SEO threads with the most egregious being from ReadWriteWeb. Adam Singer's reaction to this post is at once both hilarious and sad.

But that's the thing. People will take this video (or the writing of pundits who will selectively extract what they want from it) and misconstrue Matt's message, deciding to avoid SEO and instead crank out content. Gobs and gobs of content. Much of that content will be unfocused, poorly formatted and have no sense of what query intent it is supposed to fulfill.

Then these same people will wonder why they're not getting a lot of Google love.

The Truth Doesn't Matter

Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men

What Matt says in this video is true, but the truth doesn't matter. Because it's how people interpret and execute on this information that will ultimately make the difference. Sadly, most won't do a good enough job. I might not be making many friends with that statement but I call them like I see them.

It's the same reason why I dislike the stern advice people give to 'write for people'. The problem? Most don't really know how to do that effectively. Instead, I tell people to write for search engines. The result? People write better content for people and, by extension, for search engines.

TL;DR

A good SEO serves as a guide to help you to both produce and get the most out of content, ensuring that it is valuable and satisfies query intent.

Query Synonyms

December 12 2011 // SEO // 8 Comments

The fact that Google frequently uses synonyms to boost search quality is nothing new. But Dan Petrovic brought an interesting example to my attention via Google+ which spawned a dialog that included Bill Slawski, Wissam Dandan and Steven Baker, Principal Software Engineer on the Search Ranking team.

It is conversations like these that make search so enjoyable. Hopefully you agree.

The Query

Dan's question revolved around the query 'the dreaming void plot'.

The Dreaming Void Plot Google Search Result

This query returned results for The Temporal Void as well as The Dreaming Void, both books by Peter F. Hamilton. The question was why?

Bold Words

First things first. Bold words in search results usually reflect the query terms. It's one of the strongest signals of relevance that Google can provide to the user. Your eye naturally gravitates to those bolded words and they reinforce the fact that the result(s) matched your query.

Synonyms

However, Google has also been bolding synonyms when they're returned in search results. The easiest way to see this is to combine a synonym operator (~) with a negative operator (-).

Google Synonyms Example

Here it's easy to see that fantasy and sleep are bolded and are thus synonyms to dream according to Google. This makes complete sense.

The Diagnosis

Here's where it gets interesting. The terms dreaming and temporal are not ... regular synonyms. By that I mean that if you try the operator scenario above for dreaming you will not see temporal in bold.

A cursory look at your favorite dictionary will also tell you that these are not 'grammatical' synonyms.

The next thing I did was conduct a search using the root query: The Dreaming Void. The result did not yield results for The Temporal Void. I then looked at related searches, one of my favorite search features.

Google Related Searches for The Dreaming Void

Lo and behold the 'first' related search is 'temporal void'. This tells me that Google sees a very strong relationship between these two terms based on query patterns.

The related search for the full 'the dreaming void plot' query does not yield any temporal void terms. That's not entirely unexpected for reasons I won't go into here for the sake of brevity. Finally, I remove the related filter and then test the query using the new verbatim search.

Verbatim Results for The Dreaming Void Plot Query

Poof. All results for 'The Temporal Void' disappear. Though obvious, this confirms that the results for 'The Temporal Void' are either synonyms or match similar terms.

Query Synonyms

This is what I refer to as a query synonym. The science behind these is actually incredibly interesting and complex. Because synonyms are not just about simple grammar, they're about language, syntax and context as well.

Wissam Dandan offered this excerpt from a recent Google blog post on search quality changes.

Related query results refinements: Sometimes we fetch results for queries that are similar to the actual search you type. This change makes it less likely that these results will rank highly if the original query had a rare word that was dropped in the alternate query. For example, if you are searching for [rare red widgets], you might not be as interested in a page that only mentions “red widgets.”

Could this be related to Dan's query? It might. The idea behind related queries is similar to synonyms. (Irony, huh?) The example provided by Google is that it will return results for 'floral delivery' when you search for 'flower shops'. The change above will reduce the likelihood of false positives which may allow Google to increase the use of related query results refinements.

In the case of 'the dreaming void plot' there don't seem to be any rare query terms. In fact, most documents in the content corpus contain all of these words and the word 'temporal' as well. There's a high degree of co-occurrence for the terms 'dreaming' and 'temporal' which makes sense since they are part of a series of books.

But that's the thing, what seems easy and straightforward to us is actually quite difficult for a machine.

The Science of Synonyms

Then the always smart Bill Slawski joined the conversation providing more examples of why synonyms are so difficult.

For instance, while we may often consider the words "auto" and "car" to be synonyms, that's not the case when you set an alarm on "auto." Even within longer phrases, words that we might consider to be synonyms might not be. So, "automobile" and "car" are synonyms when we search for a [ford car], but not when we search for a [railroad car].

Bill went on to reference a number of patents that describe how Google might approach synonyms and related query refinement, five of which list Steven Baker as a co-inventor.

Search queries improved based on query semantic information

Identifying a synonym with N-gram agreement for a query phrase

Determining query term synonyms within query context

Identifying common co-occurring elements in lists

Longest-common-subsequence detection for common synonyms

Document-based synonym generation

Machine Translation for Query Expansion

While Bill and I sought out other science fiction series that might display this same behavior Steven joined the conversation. While he wasn't able to provide much detail he did reference his blog post on synonyms.

An irony of computer science is that tasks humans struggle with can be performed easily by computer programs, but tasks humans can perform effortlessly remain difficult for computers. We can write a computer program to beat the very best human chess players, but we can't write a program to identify objects in a photo or understand a sentence with anywhere near the precision of even a child.

The last statement is a odd sort of synonym for my own SEO philosophy and name of this blog. The post also answered my question as to whether query synonyms are provided the same bold treatment. (They are.)

TL;DR

Google is actively using complex methods to identify synonyms and related queries to improve search results. While this type of query results refinement is usually spot on and unnoticeable it can sometimes be flawed. In those instances, you can remove these results using the verbatim search tool.

The Knuckleball Problem

December 08 2011 // Marketing + Rant + Web Design // 4 Comments

The knuckleball is a very effective pitch if you can throw it well. But not many do. Why am I talking about arcane baseball pitches? Because the Internet has a knuckleball problem.

Knuckleball

Image from The Complete Pitcher

The Knuckleball Problem

I define the knuckleball problem as something that can be highly effective but is also extremely difficult. The problem arises when people forget about the latter (difficulty) and focus solely on the former (potential positive outcome).

Individuals, teams and organizations embark on a knuckleball project with naive enthusiasm. They're then baffled when it isn't a rousing success. In baseball terms that means instead of freezing the hitter, chalking up strikeouts and producing wins you're tossing the ball in the dirt, issuing walks and running up your ERA.

If a pitcher can't throw the knuckleball effectively, they don't throw the knuckleball. But in business, the refrain I hear is 'X isn't the problem, it's how X was implemented'.

This might be true, but the hidden meaning behind this turn of phrase is the idea that you should always attempt to throw a knuckleball. In reality you should probably figure out what two or three pitches you can throw to achieve success.

Difficulty and Success

The vast majority of pitchers do not throw the knuckleball because it's tough to throw and produces a very low success rate. Most people 'implement' or 'execute' the pitch incorrectly. Instead pitchers find a mix of pitches that are less difficult and work to perfect them.

Yet online, a tremendous number of people try to throw knuckleballs. They're trying something with a high level of difficulty instead of finding less difficult (perhaps less sexy or trendy) solutions. And there is a phalanx of consultants and bloggers who seem to encourage and cheer this self-destructive behavior.

Knuckleballs

In general I think mega menus suck. Of course there are exceptions but they are few and far between. The mega menu is a knuckleball. Sure you can attempt it, but the odds are you're going to screw it up. And there are plenty of other ways you can implement navigation that will be as or even more successful.

When something has such a high level of difficulty you can't just point to implementation and execution as the problem. When a UX pattern is widely misapplied is it really that good of a UX pattern?

Personas also seem to be all the rage right now. Done the right way personas can sometimes deliver insight and guidance to a marketing team. But all too often the personas are not rooted in real customer experiences and devolve into stereotypes that are then used as weapons in cross-functional arguments meetings. "I'm sorry, but I just don't think this feature speaks to Concerned Carl."

Of course implementation and execution matter. But when you consistently see people implementing and executing something incorrectly you have to wonder whether you should be recommending it in the first place.

Pitching coaches aren't pushing the knuckleball on their pitching staffs.

Can You Throw a Knuckleball?

Cat Eats Toy Baseball Players

The problem is most people think they can throw the online equivalent of the knuckleball. And unlike the baseball diamond the feedback mechanism online is far from direct.

Personas are created and used to inform your marketing strategy and there is some initial enthusiasm and some minor changes but over time people get tired of hearing about these people and the whole thing peters out along with the high consulting fees which are also conveniently forgotten.

The hard truth is most people can't throw the knuckleball. And that's okay. You can still be a Cy Young Award winner. Tim Lincecum does not throw a knuckleball.

How (and When) To Throw The Knuckleball

This doesn't mean you shouldn't be taking risks or attempt to throw a knuckleball once in a while. Not at all.

However, you shouldn't attempt the knuckler simply because it is difficult or 'more elegant' or the hottest new fad. You can take plenty of risks throwing the slider or curve or change up, all pitches which have a higher chance of success. In business terms the risk to reward ratio is far more attractive.

If you're going to start a knuckleball project you need to be clear about whether you have a team that can pull it off. Do you really have a team of A players or do you have a few utility guys on the team?

Once you clear that bit of soul searching you need to be honest about measuring success. A certain amount of intellectual honesty is necessary so that you can turn to the team and say, you tossed that one in the dirt. Finally, you need a manager who's willing to walk to the mound and tell the pitcher to stop futzing with the knuckleball and start throwing some heat.

TL;DR

The Internet has a knuckleball problem. Too many are attempting the difficult without understanding the high probability of failure while ignoring the less difficult that could lead to success.

Google Changed My Title

December 04 2011 // SEO // 14 Comments

I recently blogged about Google changing my Title tag and using the URL instead. While this particular variant was new to me, I've been tracking how Google changes Titles for quite some time.

Google reserves the right to change your Title and has been experimenting with different Title algorithms for at least eighteen months. Here's a quick primer on when and why Google changes Titles.

The Title Tag

First things first. What is the Title tag? The <title> tag is placed in the <head> to define the title of that document (aka web page.)

Title Tag HTML Example

The Title determines what is shown in a browser tab and is prominently displayed in search engine results.

How the Title Tag Shows Up in Google Search Results

The Title shows up as the blue link in search results. Not only is the Title a very strong search engine signal, it's what users see first when scanning search results. Getting your Title right should be near the top of your SEO checklist.

Why Google Changes Titles

The reason Google changes Titles is almost always to better serve the query and aide the user. Sometimes these changes are made for obvious reasons and other times the reasons are more complex.

No Title Tag

Sometimes people screw up (big time) and a page doesn't have a Title. If the content is solid and useful, Google steps in to provide you with a Title.

Thank You Captain Obvious

Duplicate Title Tag

The bane of many an SEO, sometimes each page on a site has the same Title. Once again, Google steps in to provide assistance for this blunder while the SEO curses the developer.

Generic Title Tag

Sometimes Google feels like it knows better and will replace a generic title tag with something it believes is more appropriate. For instance if your Title for the home page is, in fact, 'Home Page' then Google may decide to generate a more specific Title that will be more useful for users.

This is probably how Google began testing their Title algorithms, starting with the least focused Titles and seeing how they could change them to better match queries and increase click-through rates.

Title Tag Append

At times, Google won't completely change your Title but instead will add to it by putting the domain name at the end of your Title. The notion here is that the domain provides some additional and valuable context to users.

This is more important then it looks in my opinion. It tells me that the URL is not being used by mainstream users. They're simply not seeing the URL most of the time because they're scanning the results, not reading them.

Moving the URL directly below the Title (something Google did recently) means that it is likely more important than the meta description. The domain can be a signal of trust if a user has an affinity for that site through personal experience or other marketing efforts.

The domain append is Google's attempt to help you brand your result.

Specific Title Tag

That finally leaves us with the last and most drastic Title change. Google will actually switch a very specific Title tag with something it believes might be better for the user. This means they're changing a perfectly good Title you probably spent time carefully crafting.

Googlebot Wants To Help You

Specific Title tag changes are most often related to the query. Google is looking to increase the perceived relevance of that result by using the search term in the title, much as PPC professionals understand the need to have keyword terms in their ads.

This practice takes advantage of the natural scanning behavior of users. They're not reading every search result, they're scanning those results and are simply looking for their search term.

If your Title doesn't have the search term (but it is a match for that query based on the content) Google wants to give that result a fighting chance.

Without the search term in the Title, a substantial number of users will simply not see your result. They'll skip over it since it doesn't seem like it's relevant. Remember, users are doing this at breakneck speed and making nearly instantaneous decisions as to whether each result is relevant or not.

Google changes your Title because they think it'll help increase the click-through rate on your result.

Of course, I've also seen Google change Titles even when the keywords were present in the original Title. Most often they replaced a shorter keyword with a keyword phrase. I haven't seen much of this lately so this may have been a test that didn't pan out.

How Google Changes Titles

Google is changing Titles based on a series of on-going algorithmic tests. While I don't know the specifics, I do know that they are first looking for a candidate pool - documents that should be returned for a query based on their content (but aren't) or documents that score well in relevance but have very low click-through rates for specific queries.

These are but a few ideas of how Google might be defining a candidate pool, but the object is to find under-performing but valuable content and see if a different Title improves user satisfaction. This might be measured for that specific result or for the entire SERP for that query.

Once Google identifies a candidate pool they work on constructing their own Title. Most often this is done by extracting words from the on-page content of that page. This is similar to what Google will do when they write their own meta description.

Of course, we've now seen that Google might also use the URL to construct a Title. Perhaps this is part of Google's on-going Title algorithm experimentation? Creating readable Titles from on-page content isn't easy. So maybe Google's thinking the URL might be a shortcut when it includes the target keyword. A parsed URL might actually conform to natural language better than extracted and combined keywords or keyword phrases.

The research performed for the URL Titles post also shows that Google can dynamically change the Title based on the query. So unless you're really paying attention, Google could be changing your Titles and you wouldn't even know it.

Is Changing Titles Good or Bad?

Should you be outraged or thanking Google for changing Titles? Both probably.

Google is only doing this because it wants to improve search quality and user satisfaction. Not only that but Google can measure the impact of these changes in a very holistic way. It's not just about improving click-through rate. They're looking at the pogosticking behavior and other user satisfaction signals to calculate the real impact of these Title changes.

This means you might get better and more focused traffic to your page because Google is refining and calibrating the Title.

On the other hand, Google is essentially providing help to certain pages within a SERP. So the site that can't figure out how to create proper Titles might wind up getting more traffic because Google took pity on them. (Sure the user is better served but ... cold comfort for you eh?)

You're also trusting that Google does know best. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don't. Unfortunately we don't have transparency as to how or how many times our Titles are changed, for what queries and to what outcome.

This may also drive marketing managers absolutely bananas since they want complete control over their brand. (You know the type.) That lack of control could be troublesome and also send the wrong signal to site owners. The last thing you should come away with is to think Google will simply fix your poorly conceived Titles.

TL;DR

Google changes your Title for a number of reasons when it believes it can improve relevance and user satisfaction. The emphasis on changing the Title, particularly in matching the Title to the query term, reinforces its importance and supports the scanning behavior users employ on search results.

URL Titles

December 02 2011 // SEO // 30 Comments

The other day I noticed something strange happening. Google was using my URL as the Title instead of my own Title tag.

Not Provided Keyword Google Search

Upon seeing this I kind of freaked out and immediately went to check the Title settings on this post. Everything was in order but I was using the original 'Stop Whining About (Not Provided)' Title tag.

At the time I was not the first result for this query. But I changed the Title to 'Not Provided Keyword In Google Analytics' and a day or so later I bounced up to number one for this term. The URL as Title still remains though, which is pretty annoying.

URL Titles

So I started to poke around looking for other examples of this URL as Title behavior. It didn't take me long to find one.

Cut Up Learning Google Search Result

I checked to make sure I hadn't botched the Title and found , again, that everything was in order. The Title I had for the post was 'Is Information Overload Really a Problem?' But here's the thing, I can get that Title to display on a search result.

Information Overload Not a Problem Google Search Result

That's the same post but I used the search term 'information overload not a problem' instead. So what's going on here?

Google Title Match

Google wants to match the Title of a result to the query when it believes the content of that result is relevant to the query. So if someone is actually searching for 'cut up learning' Google has determined that my post is highly relevant. However they replace my Title, which has none of those keywords in it, with my URL which actually does.

Here's another example.

Influence Metric Google Search Result

My Title tag does not include the word 'metric' so Google decides to use my URL for the Title instead. Again, I can get my Title to display using a different query.

Titles Matter

If you haven't figured it out yet, Titles matter ... a lot. So much so that when Google wants to return a result it will change the Title to better match the query. The reason for this is simple. Users scan for and assign higher relevance to Titles that include their query.

Just between you and me, I believe that exact match query Titles are perhaps the most underrated SEO tactic. I've actually got some research to back that up which I'm hoping I might get to share in the future.

Can't Google Parse URLs?

While I appreciate that Google is trying to do me a solid here and get my post in front of the 'right' queries, it would be nice if they could parse the URL and make it readable.

So cut-up-learning would become 'Cut up learning' or 'Cut Up Learning' if they used title casing. This would certainly be a better experience for users who are quickly scanning search results. Playing my own devil's advocate here, the odd URL as Title could actually break the visual flow and create more emphasis but ... I doubt it.

How about it Google, can we render the URL as Titles so they're a bit more readable?

Using URL Titles

At this point you might be interested or outraged depending on your perspective, but what can you do with this newly acquired information?

First off, you should look at the keyword clusters for your popular content. What you're looking for are terms that aren't in your Title but might be in your URL. Based on what you find you can then change your Title so that it is capturing a greater breadth of matching queries.

The other interesting idea is to use this as a dual targeting tactic. You can deliberately target one keyword term or modifier in the Title and another in the URL. Then watch to see which one drives more traffic and adjust accordingly (or not if you're happy with things the way they are.)

At the end of the day when you see this URL as Title behavior Google is telling you, clearly, that it wants to return your content for that query. So pretend Google is EF Hutton and listen ... closely.

TL;DR

Google is replacing Titles with the URL when the URL delivers more relevance based on the user query. This URL as Title behavior reveals just how important Titles are to users and, by extension, to SEO.