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Updated: 18 hours 28 min ago

Why Your Website Should Be More Like Duct Tape and Zip Ties

Mon, 07/13/2015 - 13:07
How to Marry Your Website’s Design and Engineering with the Principle of Affordance

Photo via: http://blog.gearhead.com/essential-snowmobile-trail-repair-items/

Have you ever visited a website and thought, what on earth am I supposed to do with this? I’m having trouble using this website. Let me go find my answer elsewhere. Not a great user experience, huh? Inversely, have you visited a site and wondered, Wow! This is a visually appealing and very intuitive website. It lets me do what I came here for and more! – this is the reaction you want your customers to have every time they land on your site. So how is this achieved? Enter affordances.

 

What are Affordances?

That mostly subconscious feeling you have when something “just works” is all thanks to the principle of affordance. You see, affordance is where design and engineering come together to produce something that is versatile even beyond its intended use. Let’s watch this quick two-minute explainer video:

 

 

So what does this have to do with websites? Well, let’s just say when it comes to websites… users totally judge the book by its cover. Sure, your website might have been created to help your brand acquire new leads, sell your products/services, and/or educate users, but these days, users crave more. When a site not only offers relevant information but also packages said information in an aesthetically pleasing way, more often than not the enhanced packaging is what increases on-site user engagement. Implement the principle of affordance and suddenly your site users feel like they’ve found your information more valuable – enough to endorse it, vouch for it, share it, and keep coming back all because you gave them the goods they came for and more.

 

Photo via: http://memegenerator.net/instance/55088184

Examples of Affordance at Work

Personally, Thrillist.com, Vox.com, and FiveThirtyEight.com win in my book for providing excellent, affordance-optimized, article-reading experiences. Here’s why:

In the grand scheme of any marketing manager’s strategic focus these days, many neglect affordance. Plenty find ways to succeed without it. However, then you have big shots like Apple making affordance a top priority, a choice many would argue remains a core catalyst for their continued success.

So no, to generally succeed in the digital space, Apple or the websites I highlighted above did not necessarily have to choose to spend time and money developing their unique affordance-optimized features. However, by choosing to invest in these areas, they set them apart from their competitors and enabled their complete UX to soar above and beyond their core affordance – allowing users to read articles, yes, but also creating innovative, interesting ways to reinvent reading itself for the digital space. Essentially, they made their website into the duct tape and zip ties of their industries!

 

The Magic of Duct Tape and Zip Ties

What comes to mind when you think of duct tape and zip ties? Worthless? Can’t do much with them? Actually, for most I’m guessing it’s quite the opposite. Duct tape and zip ties are two of the simplest tools that can be used in countless different ways. Ever heard of duct tape prom outfits or whatever Christian Grey needed these for (see, many uses!)?

 

 

Photo via: http://weknowmemes.com/2012/06/if-it-cant-be-fixed-using-duct-tape/

 

When figuring out how to apply the principle of affordance to your website’s design and engineering, your best bet is to shoot for making your site more like duct tape and zip ties – a simple tool, usable in countless different ways.

 

Photo via: http://memecrunch.com/meme/MYWT/zip-tie

 

Google Agrees!

Google loves websites with many affordances. It loves them so much so that it is advocating that developers develop versatile websites designed to help users not only complete intended actions, but also complete future actions like asking the website a question or setting a command. Jarek Wilkiewicz, a Googler working on Knowledge Graph, explains that designers must embrace certain affordances as the new standards because search engines are increasingly using them to inform their rankings – favoring webpages with the best affordances satisfying a given user query.

Why has Google started favoring affordances in this way? Well it all goes back to that core principle of affordance. Generally speaking, when a site is optimized with affordances, it not only provides the content a user is looking for, but it eloquently presents the content in a useful context. Essentially, a website or app offering many affordances provides a better user experience and therefore should rank higher.

 

A Few Affordance Optimization Tricks

Recently, fellow Search Agent Kirby Burke attended the Smashing Magazine Conference, at which presenters discussed many of the performance and design issues I have talked about here. In summary, make sure your website isn’t another useless invention by following these performance and UX tips:

  1. Fast: Optimize resources to render above-the-fold content in two seconds or less.
  2. Functional: Ensure the most important elements and actions are accessible to users across all devices. Check out our white paper on Implementing Responsive Web Design for more fast and functional tips.
  3. Consistent: The visual design style should be consistent across all devices.

Think about the other businesses in your industry or vertical. Which website(s) do what they are made for and more? Which websites do you frequent, and why? Would you still visit those sites if they didn’t have that extra feature which sets them apart from the rest? Which website do you consider to be at that versatile duct tape and zip tie level?

Let me know in the comments!

 

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Make Display Ad Impressions = Display Ad Views

Tue, 06/30/2015 - 14:35

Google recently released an infographic, The Importance of Being Seen, on the viewability of display ads by consumers. Short and succinct, the study determined that…

Overall, only 56% of all display ad impressions are actually viewed.

The study also found that,

  • Above the fold is a better position than at the top of the page, with 68% viewability
  • Below the fold can be effective
  • Vertical ad units are seen more than horizontal ones
  • Performance varies across industries

So what does all of this mean and what should you do with it? In this post, we’ll address these questions and more, starting with,

Are people seeing my banner?

Yes, but just not all of the time. The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) defines whether or not a display ad is viewed based on if at least 50% of the ad’s pixels are in view on the screen for a minimum of 1 second. One second – that’s slower than your average scroll, but faster than someone loading the page and walking away. Thus, it is likely that only 50% of your banner impressions are actually seen by the human eye. However, you should also keep in mind that unless you have strict frequency caps on your campaigns, even if user A can’t see your banner on site B, they may very well see it on site C, when they’re surfing for something else.

Should I pause my display campaigns?

No, but with a caveat. If you’ve run display ads in the past, you know that they can drive click traffic and conversions. Additionally, they contribute to the click volume and conversions on your paid search campaigns. Display ads are also a great way to try and reach new consumers who are unfamiliar with your product and wouldn’t automatically search or click on your paid search ad.

Now the caveat…

If your performance data shows either no lift in brand awareness, site traffic, or to your other channels (eg. paid search), then it’s time to rethink where you are advertising and why. The answer could be as simple as shifting budget to a different vendor who is more in line with your target market or as complex as an entire revamp of all of your creative and display goals.

If in reviewing your data you find out that your display strategy needs a complete overhaul, consider this before you let the impending workload get you all pause-happy: while possible, it is rare that display campaigns are ever completely ineffective. At their worst, ads delivered via this online marketing channel drive increased traffic toward your site by raising brand awareness, so doesn’t developing a new display campaign sound completely worth the investment? We think it does.

Should I limit my ad position to above the fold?

No. Although Google’s determined that above the fold has a 68% viewability vs. the 40% of below the fold, when you break out the data between these two positions a bit more granularly, you see that your ads have better chances of being viewed below the fold than they do above the fold. In addition, jockeying for above the fold visibility often comes with premium prices and higher position competition, which could likely increase your costs exponentially without driving that many more conversions or visitors to your site. If, however, you leave your campaign open to whichever position is available in the auction and set competitive bids, you’ll still be viewed in either of the two areas on the page.

Should I rethink my ad sizes?

Potentially. Before deciding yes or no here, review your performance data – something you are already doing as part of your normal campaign optimization, yes? So, let’s say you see better performance with your 160×600 while your 300×250 is expensive and not converting. Your initial response to these results may be, oh, of course it makes sense to either pause the 300×250 or bid it down so that I’m not spending as much. However, let’s consider Google’s recent findings again. There is still a 41% viewability rate on the 300×250, so it’s not a quick – pause all horizontal units – decision. You really need to consider all of the available data before you flip that switch.

What’s my next move?

To truly get the most out of this study, you should analyze your current display budgets and campaign performance stats, then determine if you’re allocating your dollars in the most efficient places. When digging into the data, here are some questions to consider:

  1. Goals – what am I trying to achieve with these display campaigns?
    • If your main goal is to drive more awareness, then you should determine just how much money you’re comfortable spending on your campaigns.
    • If your main goal is to drive more conversions, then you should take a look at campaign performance, cost per conversion, and whether or not your display campaigns drive paid search click and conversion volume before implementing any changes.
  1. Budget – How much spend am I allocating to display vs. paid search?
    • Test out different percentages spent on paid search vs. display. Allow each new balance variation to run for at least two weeks, but preferably closer to 4, to determine how much of an impact a lower display budget has on your total conversion volume. Once the results are in, make adjustments accordingly.
    • Advanced option – Is it possible to split your display budget out into brand awareness vs. direct response, so that you can test both? Try it out!
  1. Bid Strategy – Which bid strategy works best for my campaigns?
    • Viewable CPM only charges you when 50 percent of your ad shows on screen for one second or longer, so you should only pay for ads that are seen. This strategy works best in brand awareness, where the goal is to get as many eyeballs on your ad as possible.
    • CPC bid strategies only charge you when a consumer clicks on your ad. This strategy works best if efficiency and direct response are your goals, since you only pay if the consumer takes an action on your banner.

Important Note Here: Depending on the targeting of your campaigns, sometimes viewable CPM is more effective than CPC and vice versa. So, your best bet is to run a test, where one type of GDN targeting campaign is bid one way for 30 days and then the other for 30 days. Review the results after the 60 days to see which one achieved your desired result. Rinse and repeat for the other targeting types you’re using in your campaigns.

In the end, what it boils down to is that display ads do contribute to your overall marketing goals. You just need to figure out by how much to inform how much you are willing to spend on them. As with any marketing channel offering growth potential in the online space, the motto remains test, test, test, rather than pause, pause, pause.

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How Exactly Do Sitelinks Affect PPC Performance?

Thu, 06/18/2015 - 13:27
Using Various Paid Search Ad Extensions to Gauge Online Performance

 

 

Today, too many search marketers struggle with both increasing search volume while also systematically measuring the origins of that growing traffic. This kind of visibility can crucially impact where you choose to position spend, and ultimately, which audience segments your advertisements reach. It’s basically like you’ve been swimming with your eyes closed all this time, and suddenly you get a pair of goggles – serious game changer.

In fact, we recently helped a client struggling with this very issue. Their team’s main concern revolved around how sitelinks were affecting both their PPC advertising efforts, as well as their organic search traffic. We decided to tackle the problem head on, by testing a variety of different ad extensions on performance.

 

Our Test

We had been running brand campaign review extensions throughout their engagement, but wanted to validate and quantify the conversion rate impact, along with volume (CTR), by testing other types of extensions – namely enhanced sitelinks. Before our engagement, the client was not taking advantage of this tool for their brand campaigns. Once we activated the feature, they saw immediate positive results. Within a day, click through rate (CTR) increased by 11%. However, this volume picked up with no effect on conversion rate (CR).

 

Road Bump

In most cases, a client would see such an immediate spike in CTR as a positive; however, the added real estate these sitelinks took over on SERPs became a cause for concern, as they were now negatively affecting Earned (SEO) efforts. To holistically rebalance the client’s Paid and Earned efforts, we reverted our changes and turned off both review extensions and enhanced sitelinks. Consequently, we saw an immediate and dramatic change in our campaigns’ performance.

  • As expected, CTR decreased within the following 24 hours.
  • Surprisingly, CR quickly declined as well, by 12%. This was a fairly unexpected outcome, since when we saw that initial CTR increase, we hadn’t seen any sign of a CR increase. Our (and the client’s) internal alarm bells started ringing. While CR leveled out somewhat over the following days, it still performed well below normal and did not stabilize on its own.

 

Our Fix

We turned review extensions back on, and immediately CR surged by 30%. This was obviously more in line with what our client wanted to see. In doing so, we confirmed our hypothesis regarding the amount of control we had over brand campaign performance via sitelinks and extensions.

 

Represents actual figures.

 

Key Learnings

This test confirmed that we could regain more control over campaign performance simply by testing various types of ad-extensions.

Will using ad extensions boost traffic?

Yes. The increased real estate enhanced sitelinks occupy jumps out at anyone browsing the web; these feature draw searchers’ eyes directly to brand ads. While this may not directly lead to conversions, it will most certainly lead to increased traffic.

What if I just want to boost conversions?

If your brand is solely focused on conversions, then you should focus on review extension optimization. As we saw in our test, pulling back review extensions led to a significant drop in CR. Review extensions – essentially 3rd party reviews – give brands external validation, particularly when the excerpts provided are from reputable sources.
Someone in the market for your brand’s product or service oftentimes equates a review extension as social proof of your authority, particularly in instances where competition is fierce. All it takes between losing a consumer to the web and getting a conversion, in many cases, comes down to having a human voice and positioning your product as positively as possible. Leverage this feature to strengthen your brand’s online authority, validating shoppers trust in your product, and ultimately boosting conversions.

 

Conclusions and Summary

We validated that performance metrics like CR and CTR can be controlled by search marketers, to a large degree, by implementing simple changes to sitelinks and reviews. Of course, the effectiveness of a campaign depends largely on the client, budget, and a number of other factors. However, in the right situation, these tools can be extremely valuable in achieving and measuring various performance objectives.

 

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Finding More Volume in Paid Search

Tue, 06/09/2015 - 13:55

Clients are always looking for more volume and more efficiency, whether by way of driving more traffic to their sites or by gaining more conversions, sales, or leads. While it is nearly impossible to get both at the same time, there are a few ways to boost volume on your paid search campaigns without breaking the bank. In this post, we’ll outline two different strategies – working with what you’ve got and branching out into uncharted territory. We’ll also only address paid search, since display is a different beast altogether.

Working with What You’ve Got

Optimize Current Campaigns and Keywords

The first, less risky, way to find more paid search volume is by looking for it in your current campaigns and keywords. Here are a few great places to look.

Budgets: If you have room in your budget, an easy way to find more volume is to push up on the better performing campaign’s daily spend.

Dig into the Data: Take a look at a 14 and 30 day campaign report to see if any of your campaigns are routinely capping out (Google has a handy ‘Limited by Budget’ status and Bing has something similar). You want to look at more than one time frame for this analysis, because your campaign performance varies depending on search volume and bids. You could be fine for budget this week, but were limited last week and vice versa.

Analyze then Act: Either manually or using some of the search engine tools, analyze the daily spend of the campaigns that are capping out to see how much more room you have to push, without negatively impacting your CPA. So, for example, if your target CPA is $20 and your daily budget is $100, that means your daily average of conversions should be around 5. If any of your campaigns have a higher daily average of conversions, and thus a lower CPA, then you have room to push more budget to those campaigns.

Check and Balance: If you have budget constraints, you can still push more spend to the better converting campaigns by taking a little off the top of the poorer performing campaigns. Even adding $10/day to your better performing keywords will drive more volume; it may not be a ton more volume, but enough to make it worth pushing down the budgets of the poorer performing campaigns.

Bids: Take a look at a 14 and 30 day keyword report to see if any of your keywords are being capped by your budgets, bids and/or bid strategy.

Let Top Converters Fly Solo: If your campaign budget is limiting your top converting keyword set, consider pulling your top converters out into their own campaign(s). This will allow you to push more budget toward those keywords that drive the most conversion volume.

Bump up Your 3rd Placers: If your keywords routinely have an average position of 3 or lower, try boosting bids to see if you can drive more volume by pushing up the average position for the affected keyword set. This may or may not work – sometimes the best position for specific keywords is position 3, whereas position 1 only drives more spend, but not more conversions.

Boost Your CPA Cap: If your keywords are being constrained by the CPA cap on your bid strategy, you may be able to boost your CPA cap to give them more room to find volume. You might also want to break out the keywords in your bid strategies, so that your higher CPA keywords aren’t constraining your lower CPA keywords by being in the same bid strategy.

 Obviously, if you don’t have room in your CPA to push up the keyword targets, then this isn’t the best option for you.

Search Query Report: Run a 30 day and 90 day (or even YTD) SQR report to see if there are queries that are converting and/or have high click volume that aren’t in your current campaign. A longer time frame on your SQR may highlight keywords that in a 30 day report aren’t shining stars, but when looked at in a longer time frame are actually great converters.

 

Branching Out Into Uncharted Territory

Keyword Expands and Keyword Mining

The best way to really drive more volume is to find new keywords to add to your account that may (or may not) drive more traffic to your site and hopefully more conversions. There are quite a few ways to find new keywords:

Use Google’s Keyword Tool: You can use Google’s free tool to see keywords featured on your or your competitor’s site (simply put in the URL for either and see what comes up). You can also pick a broad term and do a search to see what kind of volume is available for the many existing variations.

 If you do use the keyword tool, make sure to pay attention to irrelevant keywords showing up in the same search results as your relevant keyword, which you may want to negative out of your account.

Mine Your SEO Keywords: A great way to find additional keywords is to mine your organic keyword set. You’ll either need access to Google Webmaster tools or Bing Webmaster tools to find specific organic keywords ripe for addition. Both tools show the latest keywords driving traffic to your site for a specific time period (no more than 90 days). You can also use competitive tools such as Brandwatch or SearchMetrics to do the same, if you have a subscription.

Track Your Competitors: There are some great free and paid tools available, able to show you the top keywords driving traffic to both your site and to your competitors. Some top options include:

SEMRush: This is a free and paid tool that will show you (depending on the level of access you have) the top keywords driving traffic to your site and to your competitors’ site. You can see both organic and paid keywords in this tool. You can even see the ads being matched to the keywords – helpful if you are also interested in changing up your ad copy.

Similar Web: This is a free tool (with a paid version) that can also show you the top organic and paid keywords driving traffic to your site or to your competitors’ sites.

Engage Your Search Engine Reps: If you have a dedicated search engine rep for either Google or Bing, they can help you find additional keywords to add more volume. They can do a keyword expand based on your current keyword set and/or a keyword expand based on your competitive set in the industry.

Pro Tip: No matter how you find new keywords to add into your account, the best way to routinely add new keywords is to create a separate test campaign. This tactic allows you to limit the amount of budget the new keywords spend, while still allowing you to see which ones drive volume. Once a keyword proves its worthiness (as in, it converts at your target CPA), you can move it into one of your regular campaigns so as not to further limit its allocated budget. Typically, you should check in on your new keywords at the 14- and 28-day mark. If they drive a lot of spend but are poor converters, you either should pause them or determine if they assisted other keywords to convert. If they did assist in conversions, you’ll want to determine whether to keep them active, move them to a new campaign, or pause them.

Whether you push for more volume in your current campaigns, branch out into new keyword territory, or do a little (or a lot) of both, any one of these techniques will teach you more than you currently know about what works and what doesn’t work in your account – and, hopefully, you’ll see a boost in conversion or traffic volume to boot.

 

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Structured Data Gets a Face Lift

Fri, 05/29/2015 - 13:47
New Schema.org Vocabularies and Terms Introduced

Photo via http://www.unclutter.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Label-Maker.png

Schema.org, essentially the Dewey Decimal-style organization governing how the Internet categorizes and distributes both digital and real-world information, has been hard at work expanding its full hierarchy of structured data types. Since Schema.org, comprised of Internet experts from Google, Bing, and Yahoo, started back in June 2011, many industries and groups have requested the organization expand its support database to include specific terms to categorize real estate, product, finance, medical, bibliographic, and other kinds of information. Due to this growing demand for new structured data vocabularies, Schema.org has now announced changes to the way they govern, grow, and manage these vocabularies.

 

What You Need to Know

Schema.org has made some exciting updates, with undoubtedly more to come in the near future. Here’s the complete list thus far.

 New Public Forum: Schema.org formed W3C the Schema.org Community Group, a forum for architects, developers, and marketers alike to stay up to date and/or actively participate in structured data’s evolution. Why join? At the very least, for quick access to new extensions, discussions, and up-to-date news.

New Extension Mechanism – This new extension mechanism is designed to enable groups and industries to extend Schema.org terms to fit their custom use cases. Huh? Yes. Let me explain with this handy example:

Schema.org has designated “ShareAction” as a schema type used for identifying an element which can be shared. However, on certain platforms, like let’s say Pinterest, folks do not share. They pin! You see, sharing and pinning in this context mean the same thing, except pinning is a more precise type of action that means sharing relative to this particular platform. Tricky, tricky.

Due to these types of linguistic relationships, Schema.org has introduced extensions enabling us to extend any schema type – in this case, making “Pinning” an extension of “Sharing”. Look for more extensions to come as more industries and groups embrace schema.org (this is why you should join the working group!).

Publically Present Schema.org Issues on GitHub – In the spirit of the open Internet, Schema.org has moved documentation of their issues and milestones to GitHub. Here, you can see, comment, and review upcoming releases.

New Versioning or Snapshots of the Entire Vocabulary – This page lists the updates rolled out with every release. Details include fixes and examples, site improvements, and new vocabularies.

New Automotive Vocabulary – Schema.org launched the Automotive Ontology Community Group to advance the use of shared conceptual structures in the auto industry across the Internet. What this means is although every car manufacturer may use varying terminologies for each particular item they sell, for example a car door can also be a car hatch, every consumer and manufacturer knows what a car door is – even if it’s a rear hatch, it is still a door. Applying structured data around information such as doors, cargoVolume, fuelCapacity, fuelEfficiency, fuelType, etc. will allow everyone – consumers, developers, car manufacturers – to connect the most meaningful data points at the right times.

 

Why Should Brands Care About All of This?

Because this is where the Internet is headed. Google and other tech and Internet groups are hard at work assisting their users in getting the exact information they need to optimize with structured data. In fact, at this years’ Google I/O Developers conference, Aparna Chennapragada, Director of Google Now, showcased her team’s current project, which leverages entities such as the ones discussed above in schema.org.

Ultimately, Google is moving towards creating a conversational search engine where queries will move from explicitly stated names to implicit context. In order for Google to return the appropriate answers to your customers’ questions, you need to help it understand the entities contained in your webpage or app.

 

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Mobilegeddon was the Quake, App Installs are the Aftershock

Thu, 04/30/2015 - 10:19
Google Rolls Out App Install Button in Search Results

Amidst the ado, hubbub, and general hullabaloo concerning Mobilegeddon, Mopocalypse, or whatever you want to call it, Google quietly rolled out a smaller, separate mobile update a week prior to April 21st. Well, “smaller” in terms of scope, but perhaps not in terms of importance. Google’s App Indexing specifications have been around for some time now, but they’ve never been as impactful as they are now. Back in February, Google announced that information from indexed apps was a ranking factor for signed-in Android users with the app already installed. Then, on April 16th, Google took this even further, announcing that…

  1. App Indexing is now a ranking signal for all Android users, not just those who have the app installed.
  2. When App Indexing is implemented, app install buttons may now appear in search results for Android users who do not have the app installed.

That’s right, you can now drive app installs from Google search results through App Indexing. This means you can actually acquire new users and drive even more engagement with your app right from Google search results. Once the app is installed, users will be taken directly to the app content that is relevant to their search.

 

Coming Soon to iOS?

 

So Android users are covered, but what about iOS users? While Android has a much larger market share than iOS, iOS does come in second, and together they made up 96.3% of the smartphone OS market in 2014. Is it only a matter of time before Google supports App Indexing for iOS apps? A couple of signs indicate that this may be on the horizon. The first, a response from the Google’s Mariya M. on the Google Webmaster Help Forum, feels like a strong hint. She writes, “Indeed, as has already been mentioned, app indexing is supported only for Android for now. Stay tuned for updates,” (emphasis mine).

Additionally, some larger sites have already gone as far as to add deep links to their iOS content. You can see this across HuffingtonPost.com. The back end of their homepage boasts the following code,

Just below the deep link to their Android app, there is a deep link to their iOS app. While this snippet of code may serve no purpose yet, as far as I know, it seems likely that it will be the way to get iOS app content indexed in the future. HuffPo is including it to get a jump on the competition if/when Google does start supporting App Indexing for iOS apps. Google has not yet provided guidelines for deep linking to iOS app content, but progressive sites like HuffPo apparently feel it is worth taking the initiative to get a head start on this.

 

What About Apps Without Corresponding Web Pages?

 

In June of 2014, without much fanfare, Google introduced its new App Indexing API. One feature of the API is that it allows apps without corresponding web pages to notify Google of their deep links, allowing that content to be indexed and surface in Google search results.

Taken together, all of this means that Google is equipped to be your app search engine, even without the formality of a website as a middleman. App content can rank even if the user does not have that app installed and there is no website associated with that app. Add iOS App Indexing and the service will be even more complete. In a way, the level of engagement could be even deeper than what comes out of app store searches, because the actual in-app content will ideally line up exactly with user intent.

 

Brand Takeaways

 

If you’ve already implemented deep linking of app content on your site, you’re in good shape! That’s all Google needs to start displaying the app install button in search results. If your app does not have a corresponding website, you’ll need to use the App Indexing API to get your content indexed. It would also be prudent to start thinking about deep linking of your iOS app – being prepared will pay off if and when Google does start supporting this. You’ll be ahead of the curve.

 

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Is Search Getting Too Personal?

Wed, 04/29/2015 - 12:54

In the days of yore, SEO was a very different creature compared to what it is today—part panda, part penguin, part hummingbird, and let’s face it, part human. With each evolutionary development, search marketers find themselves scrambling to keep up.

Keeping up with these changes can sometimes feel like walking into a crime scene. You see the outcome immediately, but the cause is hardly ever staring you straight in the face. You first have to dig for clues (data). Then you have to try to piece them together (analysis), come up with a theory, and find the evidence to back it up (test).

One particular development that’s been causing a stir lately is personalized search. Much to most users’ delight, search engines like Google and Bing are increasingly serving up more personalized results pages than ever before.

We see personalization in a variety of ways, including the search results, query Autocomplete, and People Also Ask, which Google is testing right now. The query suggestions and results we see are not just based on what’s popular or trending; they’re also heavily influenced by our personal search history, social behavior, likes, and location. What that means is that no two people are going to have the same search experience for the same query.

To demonstrate this, I typed in the following query as myself (logged in to Google, with my history and cache preserved) and as someone who is not me, using Private Search in Firefox. You can also use Chrome incognito. Here’s what we see:

 Personalized Google Autocomplete:

Private Google Autocomplete:

My personalized suggestions are more robust, based on what Google knows about me based on my search history—that I like cats, clothing, and entertainment. What’s interesting to note is that both types of searches yield “Catalina” related suggestions. That’s most likely because I happen to live in Los Angeles, and regardless of whether or not I’m searching as myself or in private, Google still knows what my IP address is.

Using a different query this time (“swimsuits”), let’s look at the SERPs. The differences are slight, but they’re there. The top seven organic results are the same, but they appear in different order, thus proving that personalization can affect page rank:

Personalized Search Private Search    

 

Again in this example, it’s apparent that my personal search history is affecting the SERPs. While I might not actually ‘shop’ at Nordstrom.com (too pricey for me), I do browse their site quite a bit. This could explain why Nordstrom beats out Kohl’s for the #2 spot in my personalized search.

If you try this out yourself, you may find the differences quite subtle, but that may change very soon as Google continues to push more towards a more personalized, unique search experience. In fact, Matt Cutts recently suggested that perhaps “SEO” should stand for Search ‘Experience’ Optimization because search has become so much more than it was before—it’s all about what resonates with the individual—it responds to users on a more intimate level.

 

Brand Takeaways

So this is all great news for consumers searching online, but what does it mean for brands that want to ensure their pages are still ranking? Good question. With personalized search becoming the trend, brands should be more concerned with ‘who’ they’re ranking for rather than ‘how high’ they’re ranking. If your page is ranking #1 for the wrong audience, what good does that do you?

Here are a few pro tips for navigating personalized search:

  • Get to Know Your Audience – Brands should focus their time and effort on getting to know their target audience, determining that target audience’s wants and needs, understanding how they search, and discovering what they respond to. Armed with the right information, brands can focus on crafting an SEO strategy that’s aimed at reaching the right people, in the right place, at the right time.
  • Link Content with Strategy - A big part of that strategy should focus around content—on page, video, images, meta data, and so on. Every piece of content should be written with specific users in mind, which means it should speak their language, sympathize with their needs, and offer credible, tangible solutions. The desired results for implementing a strategy like this would not only be a favorable page rank, but more importantly, increased click-through and conversion rates.

With personalized search becoming the SEO trend to follow, search marketers will find themselves relying less on page rank to measure SEO success and instead transitioning toward a more holistic approach to analytics. If I may be so bold as to take Mr. Cutts’ notion a step further, when determining how effective your Search Experience Optimization is, don’t think so much in terms of page rank, but rather, brand authority.

 

Be Future-Proof

How Google measures brand authority may always be a bit of a mystery, but what we do know is that, since its last Quality Rating Guide was released in the summer of 2014, Google is making an undeniable shift towards using brand-related metrics—expertise, authority, and trustworthiness—to determine which pages get the most visibility in the search results.

Staying connected and engaged with your existing and target customers will not only improve your online presence; it will also strengthen brand awareness as a whole. SEO aside, brand building should always be top-of-mind in any marketing strategy; whether it’s online or offline – that’s just Marketing 101. In the old days of SEO, this basic rule of thumb fell by the wayside. But the truth is, personalized search demands that we start thinking like traditional marketers again. This way, no matter what updates Google throws our way in the future, we can protect our brands, pages, and websites by ensuring we always have a solid connection with our audience.

 

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