Search is constantly evolving; this much, we know. The last two months have been a rocky road for SEOs, with Google pushing an (unannounced) update to quality assessment alongside a local search algorithm update at the start of September. Then, at the end of the month came the much-vaunted real-time Penguin rollout, changing link-spam assessments so that they are now calculated and adjusted in real-time rather than at (lengthy) intervals.
Now, not content with having moved the goal-posts several times in two months, there are rumours of further changes to core ranking algorithms shaking up SERPs. Clients can sometimes fail to understand just how often these changes roll-out, and how much expertise is required to keep abreast of these shifts and their implications for strategy, especially as their effects upon each client will be different.
No area causes as much confusion as the question of keywords, especially where future-proofing is concerned. The common refrain, “how do I rank 1st for [term]” can only ever receive a complex answer, and to be frank, the truth often only confuses matters further. The fact of the matter is, if you’re tracked as ranking 1st, this absolutely does not mean you’re ranking first for everyone, nor appearing for your key demographics.
The Problem with Keyword Tracking
SEO used to be simple: you grabbed a fist-full of cash and bought a load of anchor-text rich links. If you had more money than your competitors, bought the right links, and targeted the right terms in your anchor text, you ranked first.
Now, it’s different, and the fact of the matter is that keyword tracking no longer accurately represents the true nature of search. Google adjusts search rankings on the fly, depending on a range of factors. Most noticeably, given the Mobilegeddon update in May, the difference between mobile and desktop results are often marked. Imagine I own the ‘Art of Dog Grooming’ – I take my smartphone and computer and search for ‘dog grooming’ on both. This is the result:
I rank 2nd on desktop, but I’m not even in the top three on mobile. Not only that, but on both I’m below a local pack containing three competitors. I’m doing good on desktop, less well on mobile. But it isn’t so simple: on mobile there are also three paid ads present, which do not show on desktop.
Keyword tracking software is going to say that I rank 2nd on desktop, 4th on mobile. In truth I’m below nine competitors on mobile, and five on desktop. So far, the software has a lot to answer for.
Not only this, but a user’s search history is used to inform future results. Your cookies and Google account both tell the search engine what you’ve done before, how you responded, and what works for you. If I sign out of Google and clear my cookies on desktop, my ranking changes yet again:
Suddenly K9 Creations has beaten me. Simply removing my history information from the search changed my position by a place. So which ranking position am I? Is there such a thing as a ‘real’ ranking position, and can a keyword tracker help me find it?
The Issue with Bots
As Google becomes increasingly intelligent, prioritising user intent, experience, and site usefulness, the fact is that these algorithms all rotate around one person: the user who is making that search, in that location, at that moment. Each search results page that is generated is influenced by this user and their unique context.
So why isn’t the bot going to give us an accurate measure of our search performance? Because bots are not particularly convincing humans, and approach search engines without all the online baggage that makes you who you are.
Imagine the blandest person you ever met. They have no age, no gender, they came from nowhere, and they have no interests or hobbies. This is who approaches Google with a search term when a keyword is being tracked.
In short, this simulates the first time a person goes online in their entire life, which (let’s face it) is a pretty limited market segment, and certainly not who you want to target your entire campaign towards. This data is, at best, an indicator of where Google calculates a site’s ranking BEFORE personalisation. Useful, sure, but an accurate reflection of your site’s search performance? Doubtful.
So what can SEOs and Clients do?
It’s quite simple, really; target your products and message. No company has a product that actually targets every conceivable demographic, so why target everyone? Find your audience, then optimise for them. Google has said it time and again: optimise for users, not for Google.
There’s no point in making sure you rank first for bots with no personality: these users simply do not exist, and they aren’t going to put money in the till. Instead, create content and offer services that appeal to your core demographics. This is the way to achieve sustainable, profitable growth.
This is where SEO, PR, and Media all combine. You wouldn’t blow a £100k media budget on adverts without targeting them towards your audience, so why should you spend your digital & development budget on chasing somebody who doesn’t even exist?
If you have access to experts in demographic analysis, efficient targeting strategies, and reputation management, then use them. It’s this network of skills and information that integrated comms agencies use to inform better marketing strategies across the gamut of audience interactions, and it’s this wider strategic view that drives everything we do at Boutique.
The Future of Digital Marketing
Nowhere is the need to cater to real people clearer for a digital strategy than in Google’s current drive towards intelligent assistants and integrated technology. Google Home and Google Assistant aim to provide real-time solutions through a conversational interface for people it grows to know over time. A tracking bot’s complete lack of personality means it can never accurately reflect the use-case of this type of technology.
So how do you ‘rank’ for a voice interface that only returns the single ‘best’ response? By giving Google exactly what it wants: information.
Moving forwards, if voice search continues to grow, keywords may become less important while needs-fulfilment and relevance continue will only rise in significance. You need to make sure that your site makes it clear to search crawlers where you are, what you do, who your service users are, and why you are right for that demographic.
We already know that Google Home pulls data from rich snippets for its answers, so making content clear and appropriate for this format becomes paramount to success in this emerging search market. Content needs to be semantically clear in its use and content, while the site itself needs to be well-maintained to ensure this data can be chunked efficiently into useful and actionable snippets. It’s about making it easy for Google to know what you’re offering, and why it would want to put that towards an appropriate audience.
Content may well have been king for some time, but there’s only one way voice search is going to push things: technical SEO is coming back to the fore.
In comes the brief.
Easy peasy. The target demographic is basically you – (you’ve got this!). Every 18-25-year-old ABC1 female outside of London consumes near enough the same media as you, right? A bit of Cosmo, the odd scan of the Metro on the way to work and the Daily Mail app is the holy grail for quick news.
A recent experiment by Newsworks demonstrates just how easy it is to assume you are a complete representation of the demographic you sit within.
In their recent study, they asked 30 young media planners who sat within the 23-27 age bracket to record their daily media consumption. They then compared this to a sample of 23-27-year-old non-media planners – and the results were fairly surprising.
For example – in our office we have magazines and newspapers left right and centre. We live and breathe news and media. We scan the papers every morning, so of course we consume more national print than our non-media planner counterparts?
Non-media planners spend an average of 45 minutes consuming national print, whilst media planners spend just 33 minutes.
This was a stat that surprised me the most – as I quickly thought of all the 23-27-year-olds that I know, and the fact that not one of them would be likely to pick up a paper. But that’s the thing – not everyone is the same.
Here’s another one. Surely the vast majority of 23-27-year-olds don’t spend more than a few hours a night watching the telly? I don’t think I could name more than a few who even watch that much (other than the hungover Sunday night Netflix binges of course). Although at 19 I’m a little under that age bracket, I’d probably say I consume about an hour or so a day – and in the summer months it’d be even less.
Non-media planners spend over an hour each day consuming TV/video content – nearly 4 hours, in fact. Media planners spend just over 2.5 hours.
That’s a pretty significant difference isn’t it?
Turns out that media planners are all about Netflix too – with the streaming service taking up 30% of their total viewing. Surprisingly, for non-media planners this figure sits at just 10%.
It can be pretty easy to assume that everyone else who falls into the same demographic as you thinks the same as you do. And although it’s useful to have an actual understanding and insight of that audience, it’s important to stay open minded.
Next time you’re sat in front of a blank media planning schedule and you tick the consumer box, don’t necessarily assume that everyone is the same as you.
So here’s the sell:
At Boutique, we use a variety of research tools and insights to help us understand our clients audience as much as possible – but data and stats aren’t always everything. We make sure this is mixed with a good dosage of real life knowledge, experience and understanding, which is why every single proposition is completely bespoke. Strategy is always our focus – and planning based on assumption alone just isn’t us, or what we do. We think and do better.
It’s been a full month since this year’s second round of seaside and search at Brighton SEO, and that means two things. Firstly, I’ve swapped the southern coast for the murky canals of Leeds. Secondly, it’s become clear which papers have moved from ‘inspirational on the day’, to inspiring lasting change in my approach to SEO.
Hannah Smith’s Art, Virtual Snowballs and the Feels was an early peak, reminding us that content for content’s sake may work for some sites, but that to gain meaningful customer engagement we need to treat our users as people with feelings. The watch words: Relevant, Resonant, and Different are a fantastic way to think about your content, and help you refine ideas to improve your chances of success.
And success is central to what we do as marketers. Too often you see undue emphasis upon the ‘Different’, aiming for off-the-wall strategies in an attempt to achieve viral exposure. The good ones remember to keep these relevant to the brand and its audience, but Hannah reminded us that only the best can make content that satisfies these criteria and resonates with their audience.
Nobody is going to share your shocking content that is aimed at them if they don’t feel anything when they see it. Success doesn’t just mean ‘going viral’: often the most valuable results are the meaningful engagements from existing and new users. Sure, shares feel good, but what use is an additional barrage of bounced sessions and one-time users?
The next biggie was Mark Thomas’ thrill-ride through the glamorous world of log files. It was good to see such an un-glamorous area of SEO given the airing it deserves (albeit in a small room buried in a distant corner of the Brighton Centre). In a marketing world where ‘Content is King’, a reminder to indulge in some light Log File Analysis was very welcome indeed.
It may be worth reading Mark’s write-up of his April Brighton SEO paper alongside this, which is a handy guide to making your log files Excel-friendly. Needless to say, I was left inspired to indulge my inner geek, and wondering just how many of my contemporaries have actually used a command prompt in the last 6 months.
It’s definitely the less sexy side of SEO, and clients are rarely excited when you say ‘I’d love to see your log files’ instead of ‘burn QR codes into ham and distribute it for free via carrier pigeon’, but it’s necessary and valuable work. So don’t be proud, grab a Linux distro and get involved.
Finally, and falling roughly into the same basket, are Christoph Cemper’s 7 More things you Didn’t Know about Links… (video, so headphones in!) and Will Critchlow’s keynote; SEO Split Tests You Probably Should be Running. These both served as enduring reminders that we shouldn’t take everything Google announces at face value, nor should we follow ‘best practice’ without testing its effect ourselves.
Just because something worked well for another business, doesn’t mean it will have the same effect upon your site: there are over 200 ranking signals, and they all conspire to make each site a unique case. Work with your site to ditch received wisdom and become data-driven, this is the truest form of best practice.
It’s easy to lose track when you’re being pumped for fresh content ideas, and fighting through statistical noise to establish causality, but we’re search engine optimisers. Think about the meaning of that word: optimisation. Optimisation must be led by data, which in turn can only be gained through experimentation and analysis.
So, whether you’re deploying content or working behind the scenes, keep tracking your KPIs and logging your data. We’re optimisers, so let’s keep learning and sharing knowledge so that we can optimise our approach to search marketing.