Interesting times for Digital Marketers

interestingSome weeks very little changes across the platforms we use to reach our customers and prospects. Those are what I think of as good weeks. The only certainty however is change, and this week has seen a whole heap of changes from Google and Facebook. Here’s a little about each and some links where you can read more in depth analysis.

Google Places becomes Google+ Local

Google are beating the Google+ drum hard, despite the weak engagement numbers, and have given their local business product the Plus treatment with this overhaul of features and functionality. TheNextWeb concentrate on what Google+ Local means for users while Google Local expert Mike Blumenthal covers how the Google+ Local changes affect businesses.

Google kills etailers free traffic source, Google Products/Shopping

After a decade in beta, the trouble-prone (setting and letting it run never worked very well, with the constant data format and required field changes) Google Base/Products/Shopping part of Google is going away. When it worked it could be a reasonable source of traffic, but now Google have laid to waste the comparison shopping sites it was intended to compete with, by way of the Panda updates, they’re free to start raking in the cash by making it a purely pay to play deal. If you want your products to appear in the SERPs like they used to it’s time to crank up the Ad budget.

price-comparison-trends-uk-june-2012
UK Price Comparison Websites traffic trends since 2009

Facebook finally doing something for their real customers

Facebook, reeling from the reality check of their post-IPO stock slump, have rolled out a couple of long overdue new features for the people who ultimately keep the lights on: their advertisers. Page admins now have some shiny new abilities that will make managing a page just a little bit easier. First up is scheduled posts. Sure you’ve been able to do that before with third party services (and these services remain useful still, particularly ones that allow you to post an RSS feed to Facebook, but now you can schedule a post in the future. Mashable have a little bit of a kvetch about the interface  whilst AllFacebook set out how to use it.

Secondly, something that third party tools weren’t ideally placed to provide – you can now assign different levels of admin roles, all the way from ‘Insight Analyst’ – someone who can’t make or comment on posts (other than as their own personal account) all the way up to Manager, with each subsequent level gaining the ability to comment, add posts and finally the ability to assign admin privileges to others. AllFacebook has the details.

2 years with Advanced Web Ranking

Over the space of the two years I’ve been using Advanced Web Ranking it has become an essential part of my digital marketing toolset.

Do rankings really matter?

In this ‘new reality’ of Google Search Plus Your World, personalised and localised results, you’d think that tracking rankings for your keyword phrases wasn’t all that important. To some extent, yes, your search engine position for any particular phrase isn’t static like it used to be – there are lots of variables that come into play. On the other hand there’s been backlash recently about personalised search results and this is something that the engines can’t really ignore.

Yes they do

The reason rankings still matter and why tracking them is important is that:

  1. Not every query is personalised
  2. Not every user is logged in when they search
  3. Tracking rankings can help early diagnosis of other problems

Why use software to do it?

There are a variety of ways to track your rankings – online (subscription based web services, through to the new Google Analytics & Webmaster Tools sharing features) as well as desktop software like Advanced Web Ranking, so why go this route?

Cloud based services – pros and cons

Web based subscription services (cloud based) sound great in principle – no need to remember to run software on your computer (AWR has a scheduler, so that’s not such a big deal) and no large up-front cost. However you’re then tied into paying a monthly fee to access your reports and data. Stop paying? No more access.

Google Analytics new Webmaster Tools ranking data integration

Aside from the obvious fact that this only shows you how you rank on Google (and not any local search engines that are important to you), the data is widely held to be unreliable and doesn’t necessarily track your choice of keywords. There’s also no way to group keywords in order to focus more on how you rank for your most important terms. Google effectively decides what they are for you. You also have to use Google Analytics to get this information.

Advanced Web Ranking’s strengths

Track the evolution of sites keyword rankings over timeBy running software on your own computer you get several advantages:

Control over when ranking checks are performed

You get to decide when the checks are done, manually or to a schedule you define.

The data is yours to keep forever

With Google data it’s never certain how long it will be kept for. With a web-based subscription service, you stop paying and you lose access.

Single up-front cost to buy for 1 year, reasonably priced maintenance plan

You have a one-off cost up-front with a year’s search engine updates included (new search engines added and updates to search engine profiles to ensure that the rank checking software gathers results correctly) and extensions to the maintenance plan are inexpensive compared to monthly subscription services. If you’re out of the maintenance plan the software carries on working (so you can look at your data) and will still run ranking checks, but should search engine specs change, you’ll need to buy a renewal. Renewals are more expensive than extensions but at least you’re not left needing to buy a whole new full license.

Track results on many more search engines

With 2,000 search engines already included, and requests taken to add others, you can see how your site is doing on many more search engines offered by web-based options.

Unlimited websites

This is a huge deal if you have more than a couple of websites you’re responsible for tracking. Whereas subscription based services often give you tracking for up to 3 sites, there’s usually a heftier price to be paid when you go beyond that.

Be in more than one place at once

With customisable location settings for your Google queries, you can see how you’re doing from different locations very easily. There’s also built-in proxy support so you can both increase the throughput of your rank-checking queries as well as ensure that the results you’re getting are valid for the audience a site is targeting, not just your location.

Go get it

Advanced Web Ranking starts from just $99 for the standard version – enough for a small business to track their own sites and the top-end Server version, which comes with an company-wide license to run the software and connect to a shared database, great for SEO and marketing agencies, is just $599.

Beware False Link Flattery

If you run a blog, you may have noticed a rash of ‘trackbacks’ or ‘pingbacks’ recently. These are articles on other blogs or websites that link to your posts. When you follow the link to the site linking to you, you may find that your link doesn’t appear within the body of the article at all. In fact you can’t even find it on the page.

If you look closely, you may find a ‘Mouse here for Related Links’, as pictured. Your link is hidden under there. A process, likely automated, has found your post, amongst several others, and is linking to it, in the hope that you will Approve the Pingback and in so doing, create a link from your article to theirs. Of course the link on your article is likely to appear visibly on the page to readers and without a rel=nofollow tag (links like this don’t pass ‘google juice’.

It’s a trap!

Venus Fly TrapThese hidden related links are discounted by search engines because of the rel=nofollow and almost certainly ignored by humans, because they’re not easily found on the page. Don’t fall into the trap of approving any trackbacks or pingbacks without first checking out whether you are being linked to in a meaningful way rather than a spammy attempt like this to dupe you into building someone else’s backlink profile for them. Until spam prevention filters designed to weed out spammy comments (such as Akismet) can also detect things like this, keep your eyes open!

Image Credit: Venus Fly Trap image by BotheredByBees, via Creative Commons on Flickr.

Are price comparison sites still relevant?

Whilst researching the relative costs and market share of UK price comparison websites for a client I used Google Trends for Websites (log in to your Google account to get actual numbers on the Y axis) to compare some of the big players.

The graph below tells a sorry tale. Even before March’s first Panda update, squarely aimed at aggregators, scrapers and middlemen, Google clearly had the long knives out for price comparison sites, demoting them in the search results, ousting them in place of their own Google Products/Shopping results.

Price Comparison Sites Google Trends Chart

If these numbers are to be believed, then the traffic to price comparison sites has dropped off a cliff. Whether price comparison websites are relevant or not depends on how much you’re paying per click (the usual way you’re charged for traffic from such site) and what your conversion rate is. If you’re still making money and it’s worth the effort of setting up and managing product feeds, paying the invoices and monitoring whether the traffic you do get is worth it, then yes. If you were looking at being listed on a price comparison site as a way to buy a boatload of traffic, then you may need to look elsewhere. And it’s no surprise that the elsewhere in question is Google’s own Adwords program.

Ask for the review

Customer Review Form on WebsiteI recently added a ‘review reminder email’ feature to a customer’s website. The website has had customer reviews functionality for years and I’ve only recently taken over responsibility for it.

A single email is sent out two weeks after purchase, summarising all the products a customer ordered that day, with a direct link to each product.

In this highly unscientific test, the volume of reviews submitted before was on average 1 per day, now it’s between 3 and 4.

Given the SEO power of User Generated Content, the business value of asking for reviews, aside from the social proof and useful additional product info that customer reviews generate.

But what if the reviews are negative?

Negative reviews help too (h/t @aeonmcn); they add further credibility and help potential purchasers make informed decisions – what’s a minus for some may be a plus for others.

Credit where its due

How to attribute credit to your brand building and offline efforts in Google Analytics

logosAn often mocked excuse given by non direct response advertising media and its proponents when charged that such advertising is wasteful is that the money spent on the ads ‘builds brand awareness’ or ‘improves brand recall’.

Did you know it’s actually pretty easy to measure that online? Instead of the credit going to ‘search’, where it’s far too easy to think that the traffic is down to online efforts such as SEO, you can measure the traffic coming from branded searches and direct web address type-ins.

What you need to do is set up an Advanced Segment, called “Brand Traffic” in Google Analytics that matches:

All organic traffic where the keyword is one of your brand terms

This is all the people typing in your brand search terms into Google, Bing et al. This is called a ‘navigational’ search. Don’t forget to include a keyword that matches your domain name, you’d be surprised by how many people get the location bar and the search box confused.

PLUS

All direct traffic

This is everyone who comes to your website from a bookmark, a link in email from a friend (unless they were using webmail client, then the referrer will be the domain that they were browsing on. If you want to get more specific about separating that traffic out, then add some more lines to your filter) or a link clicked from a twitter client rather than the twitter web site, when the link doesn’t have any utm parameters on it to reclassify the traffic.

There’s no such thing as 100% accuracy

One of the first things to accept about web analytics is that there’s no such thing as 100% accuracy. There will always be cases when things aren’t tracked properly but we’re not really looking for exact numbers, just a trend.

Watch your branded traffic trend

When you’re done with setting up this advanced segment you’ll have an idea of the change in time of your web traffic that is the result of your brand building efforts outside of search. Make sure you use the Annotations feature of Analytics to mark any big offline efforts you’re involved in.

 

Image credit: All my life’s logos by captcreate via Creative Commons on Flickr.

Are we nearly there yet?

Or why SEO is like a road trip.

There’s been some back-and-forth over the importance of search rankings amongst SEO thought leaders. There’s the school of thought that rankings don’t really matter because measuring them can be inconsistent and inconclusive – personalised search and localisation being two factors that mean not everyone sees the same results. Then there’s the ‘it’s a yard-stick, one of many, and it can tell you useful things, even if it’s not accurate’ angle.

From my own experience it’s useful to have the information because you can quickly tell if your site has slipped across the board (i.e. there’s a whole-site factor that has affected it, like site speed suddenly being more significant), but when one of my inbound marketing clients obsesses over their rankings as a metric of success, I feel it necessary to point out that there are other, more important measures of success, such as how much business their website is bringing in this year compared to last, as well as a whole boatload of other metrics we could look at that give a fuller picture.

road tripIf you’ve ever done much driving on a road trip with kids you’ll doubtless have had the questions ‘are we nearly there yet?’ and ‘what’s the fastest this car goes’? Then there are a whole load of things that the instruments on your dashboard can tell you though: how many miles per gallon are you doing? what’s the e.t.a.? when do we need to stop to fill up, or make a rest stop? are there any traffic conditions coming up we need to be worried about? or speed cameras? any warning lights for oil change or service?

What’s success on a road trip? Getting there without running out of fuel, in a reasonable amount of time, without incurring any speeding tickets or getting in an accident, and having fun while doing it.

If all you paid attention to was reaching a maximum speed (or ranking) then you’re ignoring all the other elements that make for a safe and economical trip, burning more fuel than you need, racking up speeding fines or worst case, die in a fiery ball-of-death multiple car pile-up.

Google turns the dial on page speed

CheetahGoogle seems to be on a crusade against slow websites. Last year they first spoke about incorporating page load times into the ranking algorithm. One client, suffering from the curse of cheap shared hosting, has just seen his first wide-ranging rankings drop of one to four places. Interestingly, by removing external widgets (Facebook Like Button, a Youtube video) and using CSS sprites for more of the images most of that ground has been recovered within a couple of days, so it seems Google are very responsive to changes.

This suggests that the dial has been turned on the importance of page speed to Google’s algorithm.

Where does Google get that page speed data from?

Real users – if you’ve installed the Google Toolbar and not opted out of pretty much everything, Google logs URLs and load times. The more traffic your site gets the higher chance there is that your visitors have the toolbar installed and the more reliable the data Google gets.

Do I have speed problem?

To find out if your site might be being penalised for loading slowly, take a look at what Google’s Webmaster Tools tells you in the Labs > Site Performance section, comparing our site performance to all the sites they test, or install the Page Speed Add-on for Firefox and Chrome, or use Google’s new Page Speed Online tool.

What can I do about it?

There are many different aspects that affect a page’s load time, from the time taken for the server to generate the HTML for the page, to the time taken to deliver it and all the related scripts, stylesheets and images. If you’ve got a problem (you’ll know about it soon enough if you do) then it’s time to spend money on better hosting and some development time to squeeze the very best performance you can out of the site.

image credit: Shoot-n-fish via Creative Commons on Flickr

Why the Case Study needs to die

princess and the frogThe case study as an element of marketing communications has outlived its usefulness. It’s one of those things that exists as a short-hand for ‘how xyz company benefited from using our product/service’. We’re used to case studies from text books we read at school or university. We’re drawn, to like moths to a flame, to use the term on websites because it has (fake) intellectual weight. It sounds impartial; ‘case’ as in ‘legal case’, ‘study’ as in ‘serious examination’.

Who are we kidding?
A case study on a company’s website is never going to be impartial and it probably isn’t even that exhaustive a study either.

So what do we call them?
How about ‘customer stories’ or ‘customer success stories’? Let’s face it, we’re never going to write about failures of our product or service to meet a need.

What makes a story?
The 5 Elements of a Story are well known, pick your explanation. I’m rather partial to the version that uses the medium of hiphop.

In short: Setting, Plot, Characters, Conflict, Theme

Instead of writing a bland case study these elements, and the fact that we’re calling it a story not a study obliges us to make it interesting and readable.

Who does this already?
Smart companies like MailChimp present their customer successes like this and you can find plenty of examples in business books. You know those business books that are hard to put down? Books like Guy Kawasaki‘s How to Drive the Competition Crazy, Seth Godin‘s Free Prize Inside, David Meerman Scott‘s New Rules of Marketing & PR and others (feel free to add your favourites in the comments below). In these books we hear about how a person overcame a problem, presented in a way that illustrates the writer’s point. These aren’t dry ‘case studies’, though they’re often referred to as such in reviews, perhaps because to call them stories might seem childish.

Further reading
For some detailed learning of why thinking in terms of storytelling, pick up a copy of Ann Handley and CC Chapman’s Content Rules. My Kindle app tells me the word story appears 100 times in the book, that’s how serious those guys are about storytelling.

Let’s remember why we’re doing this
We put content on our websites to be read, not to tick off an item on a to-do list and fill a hole in a sitemap. We owe it to our readers to be interesting, in return for their attention.

 

image credit: Frog King by freno via Creative Commons on Flickr

A year with Advanced Web Ranking

In the year that I’ve been using it, Advanced Web Ranking has become an indispensable part of my web software toolkit and the one piece of SEO software I use constantly, saving time by performing tasks that would otherwise take an age and bringing together all the functionality that an SEO needs day-to-day.

Keyword research

Keyword Tool

Getting your keyword list, especially for a new project with no keyword history, isn’t a simple task. Advanced Web Ranking’s keyword research tool makes it easier and quicker by harnessing Google’s Adwords Keyword  Tool (international versions too) and several others, right in the application so you can build your keyword list using real data on search volumes.

Kicking things off

There are a number of ways to get traffic coming in and submission to search engines and directories is a good a place as any. The process is streamlined by AWR’s Submitter tab. It gives you the low down on around 100 search engine and directory sites, both international and local. For each it links you out to the submission page, in your default web browser. Keeping track of where you’ve submitted to can be a pain, but AWR makes it easier by allowing you to ‘mark as submitted’ when you’ve completed each submission, and you can refer to your Submission report to check on your work (or someone else’s!).

Where do you stand?

Once you’ve got your keyword list you’ll need to track how your site ranking against them. If you’re still manually rank checking, you’re mad! Especially because Google personalises your search results whether you’re logged in or now. Using AWR you can even use proxies in other countries if you’re tracking how a site is doing in a specific locality, but you’re not there (your search for pizza place will return different results to mine). Manually monitoring keyword rank for more than a couple of keywords is a time-consuming and thankless task anyway. You can schedule tasks (like a full rankings update) for whenever you want so your computer isn’t tied up (and using bandwidth) when you need to use it.

Sizing up the competition

Getting an overview of the competitive landscape for each of your keywords (and tracking them over time too) is a snap. When AWR is checking your ranking it’s also recording who is in the top 50 results. Optionally you can have AWR fetch the Pagerank (for what it’s worth) of the competitor pages as well. The Top Sites tab lists form an essential part of your competitive intelligence – watch for the climbers, movers and shakers and dig deep using various online tools to find out what they’re doing to achieve those positions.

Suggested Competitors
Suggested Competitors

As well as the Top Sites tab, the ‘Suggest Competitors’ function aggregates the visibility scores over all the keywords, highlighting which sites are worth your attention. From that list it’s down to you to decide whether they are direct competitors in a business sense or a web traffic sense. If you’re a retailer for a product then a review site isn’t directly competing for your business but they may provide a way to work with them, editorially or by selling advertising. Your true direct competitors are worth adding as project websites so you can monitor them more closely, in the same way you monitor your own positions.

To sum up

If you have responsibility for monitoring, managing or improving the search engine position of a website, you need a tool like this. As opposed to a cloud based tool, AWR gives you the peace of mind that you can access your data any time too, and the large user base means that the developers are very responsive when something changes that needs a fix. With the purchase of a license you get a year of updates – both program updates and search engine updates.