PostHeaderIcon Do Website Engagement Rates Impact Organic Rankings?



Posted by larry.kim

[Estimated read time: 11 minutes]

Your organic click-through rate is ridiculously important. While it may not be a direct ranking signal that’s even part of Google’s core algorithm, I believe CTR is an indirect signal that definitely impacts rank. And if you improve your click-through rate, you should see your rankings and conversions improve.

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Although having a high organic CTR is crucial, having positive website engagement metrics is even more critical. What value is there in getting hundreds or thousands of people to click on your brilliant headlines if those people don’t stick around for more than a few seconds?

If Google values dwell time, is there a way to see it? YES! Today I’ll share some data that shows the relationship between engagement rates (such as bounce rate and time on site) and rankings.

One important note before we get started: Please don’t focus too much on the absolute bounce rate and time on site figures discussed in this article. We are only looking at figures for one particular vertical. The minimum expected engagement will vary by industry and query type.

Does Google measure dwell time? How is that different from bounce rate & time on site?

Yes. We know Google measures dwell time, or how much time a visitor actually spends on a page before returning to the SERPs.

In 2011, Google announced a new option that allowed us to block domains from appearing in our search results. If you clicked on a result and then returned to the SERP from the website within a few seconds, Google’s blocked sites feature would appear. Clicking it would let you block all results from that site.

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Google told us they would study the data and considered using it as a ranking signal.

Although that feature is no longer with us, we know it was based on whether (and how quickly) you bounced back. So we know Google is definitely measuring dwell time.

The problem is, we don’t have a way to measure dwell time. However, we can measure three engagement metrics that are proportional to and directionally equivalent to dwell time: bounce rate, time on site, and conversion rate.

Does Bounce Rate Impact Organic Position?

OK, let’s get the official Google line out of the way. Google’s Gary Illyes tweeted the following in 2015: “we don’t use analytics/bounce rate in search ranking.” Matt Cutts said similar in the past. Pretty clear, right?

However, I’m not saying that bounce rate is used as a direct ranking factor. And Google definitely doesn’t need Google Analytics to compute dwell time. What I believe is that, in some Rube Goldbergian way, bounce rate does in fact (indirectly) impact rankings.

Does the data back that up? We looked to see if the bounce rate of the pages/keywords we were ranking for had any relationship to their ranking. Check out this graph:

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This is very peculiar. Notice the “kink” between positions 4 and 5? In mathematical terms, this is called a “discontinuous function.” What’s happening here?

Well, it seems like for this particular keyword niche, as long as you have a low bounce rate (below 76 percent) then you’re more likely to show up in positions 1 through 4. However, if your bounce rate is higher (above 78 percent), then you’re much less likely to show up in those coveted top 4 positions.

Am I saying bounce rate is part of the core search algorithm Google uses? No.

But I think there’s definitely a relationship between bounce rate and rankings. Looking at that graph, it leads me to believe that it’s no accident — but in fact algorithmic in nature.

My guess is that algorithms use user engagement as a validation method. Think of it more like a “check” on click-through rates within the existing algorithm that hasn’t been quantified.

Undoubtedly, click-through rates can be gamed. For example, I could promise you the digital equivalent of free beer and have a ridiculously high click-through rate.

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Image via Fox.

But if there’s no free beer to be had, most (if not all) of that traffic will bounce right back.

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Image via Fox.

So I believe Google is measuring dwell time (which is proportional to bounce rate) to check whether websites getting high CTRs actually deserve it and if the clicks are indeed valid, or if it’s just click bait.

One other question this discussion obviously raises is: do higher rankings cause higher engagement rates, as opposed to the other way around? Or could both of these be caused by some a completely unrelated factor?

Well, unless you work at Google (and even then!) you may never know all the secrets of Google’s algorithm. There are things we know we don’t know!

Regardless, improving user engagement metrics, like bounce rate, will still have its own benefits. A lower bounce rate is just an indicator of success, not a guarantee of it.

Does time on site impact organic position?

Now let’s look at time on site, another metric we can measure that is proportional to dwell time. This graph also has a “kink” in the curve:

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It’s easy to see that if your keyword/content pairs have decent time on site, then you’re more likely to be in top organic positions 1–6. If engagement is weak on average, however, then you’re more likely to be in positions 7 or lower.

Interestingly, you get no additional points after you cross a minimum threshold of time on site. Even if people are spending 2 hours on your site, it doesn’t matter. I think you’ve passed Google’s test — passing it by even more doesn’t result in any additional bonus points.

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Image via Fox.

Larry’s Theory: Google uses dwell time — which we can’t measure, but is proportional to user engagement metrics like bounce rate, time on site, and conversion rates — to validate click-through rates. These metrics help Google figure out whether users ultimately got what they were looking for.

Conversion rates: The ultimate metric

So now let’s talk about conversion rates. We know that higher click-through rates typically translate into higher conversion rates:

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If you can get people really excited about clicking on something, that excitement typically carries through to a purchase or sign-up.

So what we need is an Engagement Rate Unicorn/Donkey Detector, to detect high and low engagement rates.

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Before we go any further, we need to know: what is a good conversion rate?

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On average across all industries, site-wide conversion rate for a website is around 2 percent (the donkeys), while conversion rates for the top 10 percent of websites (the unicorns) get 11 percent and above. While absolute conversion rates vary wildly by industry, unicorns always outperform donkeys by 3–5x regardless of industry.

Remember, conversion rates are a very important success metric because you get the most value (you actually captured leads, sold your product, got people to sign up for your newsletter, or visitors did whatever else it was you wanted them to do), which means the user found what they were looking for.

How do you turn conversion rate donkeys into unicorns?

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Image via Fox.

The way you don’t get there is by making little changes. The difference between donkeys and unicorns is so huge. If you want to increase your conversion rates by 3x to 5x, then small, incremental changes of 2 or 3 percent usually won’t cut it.

What should you do?

1. Change your offer (in a BIG way)

Rather than A/B testing button color or image changes, you might be better off trashing your current offer and doing a new one.

Ask yourself: Why in the world are 98 percent of the people who see your offer not taking you up on it? Well, it’s probably because your offer sucks.

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Image via Fox.

What can you offer that will resonate enough that +10 percent of people would be excited about signing up for it or buying it on the spot?

Be open-minded. The answer is probably something adjacent to what you’re currently doing.

For example, for my own company, five years ago our primary offer was to sign up for a trial of our software. It was somewhat complicated, people had to learn how to use the software, and not everyone made it through the process.

Then I had an epiphany: Why don’t I just grade people’s accounts without having them do a trial of our PPC management software, and just give them a report card? That increased my conversion and engagement rates by 10x, and the gains persisted over time. There is much more leverage in changing the offer versus, say, the image on an existing offer.

2. Use Facebook Ads

You can influence users even before they do searches. Brand awareness creates a bias in people’s minds which has a ridiculously huge impact on user engagement signals. We can do this with Facebook Ads.

You want to promote inspirational, compelling, memorable content to your target market. Although they’ll consume your content, they won’t convert to leads and sales right away. Remember, love takes time.

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Image via Fox.

Rather, your goal is to bias them so in the future they’ll do a search for your product. If it’s an unbranded search, having been exposed to your marketing materials in the past, they’ll be more likely to click on and choose you now.

Facebook and many other vendors have conducted lift studies that prove that Facebook ads impact clicks and conversions you’ll get from paid and organic search.

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You won’t get away with promoting junk. You have to promote your unicorns.

For this, we’ll use Facebook’s:

  • Interest-Based Targeting to reach people who are likely to search for the things you’re selling.
  • Demographic Targeting to reach people who are likely to search for the stuff you’re selling, maybe within the next month.
  • Behavioral Targeting to reach the people who buy stuff that is related to the stuff you’re selling.

For example, let’s say you’re a florist or jeweler. You can target Facebook ads at people who will celebrate an anniversary within the next 30 days.

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Why would you want to do this? Because you know these people will be searching for keywords relating to flowers and jewelry soon. That’s how you can start biasing them to get them to have happy thoughts about your business, increasing the likelihood that they’ll click on you, but more importantly, convert.

It’s not just Facebook. You can also buy image display ads on Google’s Display Network. You can use Custom Affinity Audiences to target people who have searched on keywords you’re interested in, but didn’t click through to your site (or you can specify certain categories related to your business).

3. Remarketing

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Image via Fox.

People are busy and have short attention spans. If you aren’t using remarketing, essentially you’re investing a ton of time and money into your SEO and marketing efforts just to get people to visit one time. That’s crazy.

You want to make sure the people who gave you a look to see what your site was about never forget you so that subsequent searches always go your way. You want them to stay engaged and convert.

Remarketing greatly impacts engagement metrics like dwell time, conversion rate, and time on site because people are more familiar with you, which means they’re more likely to be engaged with you for longer.

There’s a reason we spent nearly a million dollars on remarketing last year. Investing in remarketing:

  • Boosted repeat visits by 50 percent.
  • Increased conversions by 51 percent.
  • Grew average time-on-site by 300 percent.

These are huge numbers for a minimal investment (display ads average around $10 for 1,000 views).

It’s your job to convert or squeeze as much money as you can from people who are already in the market for what you sell. So use remarketing to increase brand familiarity and increase user engagement metrics, while simultaneously turning the people who bounced off your site in the past into leads now.

4. Clean up your bad neighborhoods!

If you’ve tried all of the above (and other ways to improve engagement rates) and still have bad neighborhoods on your websites that have low CTR and/or user engagement rates — just delete them. Why?

I believe that terrible engagement metrics will lead to a death spiral where your site gets less clicks, less leads, less sales, and even lower rankings. And who wants that?

Now, I don’t have any proof of this, but the software engineer in me suspects that it would be very difficult for Google to compute engagement rates for every keyword/page combination on the Internet. They would need to lean on a “domain-level engagement score” to fall back on in the event that more granular data wasn’t available. Google does something conceptually similar in AdWords by having both account-level and keyword-level Quality Scores. It’s also similar to how many believe that Google considers links pointing to your domain and also individual pages on your site when computing organic rankings (a moment of silence for our beloved Google PageRank Toolbar). Dumping your very worst neighborhoods — only if all attempts to resuscitate have failed miserably — would, in theory, raise a domain-level score, if it existed.

Obviously better CTRs, higher engagement rates, and improved conversion rates lead to more leads and sales. But I also believe that improvement in these metrics will lead to better organic search rankings, creating a virtuous cycle of even more clicks and conversions.

Conclusion

It’s becoming increasingly clear that organic CTR matters. But you might not realize that high CTRs with low engagement rates aren’t that meaningful.

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Image via Fox.

So no cheap tricks, guys! Don’t invest in sites that specialize in gaming your click-through rates. Even though they might work now to an extent, they won’t work well in the future. Google is good at fighting click fraud on ad networks, so you can expect them to apply those same learnings to fight organic search click fraud.

I would prioritize click-through rate and conversion rate (or engagement) optimization at the very top of the most impactful on-page-SEO efforts.

At the very least you’ll get more conversions. But if I’m right, you’ll not only get more conversions, but you’ll get better rankings, which will lead to more conversions and even better rankings.

So use the tactics and strategies from this post to diagnose your engagement rates, and then start optimizing them!

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PostHeaderIcon How to Research the Path to Customer Purchase – Whiteboard Friday



Posted by randfish

Moving your customers down the funnel from awareness to conversion can make for a winding and treacherous road. Until you fully research and understand the buying process inside and out, it’s far too easy to make a misstep. In today’s Whiteboard Friday, Rand steps back to take a higher-level look at the path to customer purchase, recommending workflows and tools to help you forge your own way.

How to Research the Path to Customer Purchase Whiteboard

Click on the whiteboard image above to open a high resolution version in a new tab!

Video Transcription

Howdy, Moz fans, and welcome to another edition of Whiteboard Friday. This week we’re going to chat about the path to customer purchase and how to research that path. The reason this is so critical is because we have to understand a few things like our content and conversion strategy around where do we need to be, what content we need to create, how to position ourselves, our product, our brand, and how to convert people. We can’t know this stuff until we truly understand the buying process.

We’ve done a lot of Whiteboard Fridays that involve very, very tactically specific items in one of the steps in these, like: how to understand the awareness funnel and how to build your social media audience; or how to get into the consideration process and understand how you compare against your competition; or how to convert people at the very end of the buying cycle on a landing page.

But I want to take a step back because, as I’ve talked to a lot of you out there and heard comments from you, I think that this bigger picture of, “How do I understand this research process,” is something we need to address.

Buyers: Who are they?

So let’s start with: How do we understand who our buyers actually are, and what’s the research process we can use for that? My general sense is that we need to start with interviews with a few people, with salespeople if you’re working with a team that has sales, with customer service, especially if you’re working with a team that has customer service folks who talk to lots of their audience, and potentially with your target demographic and psychographic audience. Demographic audience would be like: Where are they, what gender are they, and what age group are they? Psychographics would be things around their interest levels in certain things and what they consume and how they behave, all of that type of stuff.

For example, let’s say we’re going to go target Scotch whisky drinkers. Now, I am personally among that set of Scotch whisky drinkers. I’m big fan of a number of scotches, as are many Mozzers. In fact, I have a bottle of Ardbeg — I think it’s the Uigeadail — in my office here at Moz.

So I might go, “Well, let’s see. Let’s talk to the people who sell whisky at stores. Let’s talk to the people who sell it online. Let’s talk to the customer service folks. Let’s do interviews with people who are likely Scotch buyers, which are both male and female, perhaps slightly more demographically skewed male, tend to be in a slightly wealthier, maybe middle income and up income bracket, tend to be people who live in cities more than people who live in urban and rural areas, tend to also have interests around things like fashion and maybe automobiles and maybe beer and other forms of alcohol.” So we can figure out all that stuff and then we can do those interviews.

What we’re trying to get to is a customer profile or several customer profiles.

A lot of folks call this a “customer persona,” and they’ll name the persona. I think that’s a fine approach, but you can have a more abstract customer profile as well.

Then once you have that, you can use a tool like Facebook, through their advertising audience system, to research the quantity of people who have the particular attributes or affiliations that you’re seeking out. From there, you can expand again by using Facebook and Twitter. You could use Followerwonk, for example in Twitter specifically, to figure out: What are these people following? Who are their influencers? What are the brands they pay attention to? What are the media outlets? What are the individuals? What are the blogs or content creators that they follow?

You can also do this with a few other tools. For example, if you’re searching out just content in general, you might use Google Search. You could do this on Instagram or Pinterest or LinkedIn for additional networks.

There’s a very cool tool called FullContact, which has an API that essentially let’s you plug in let’s say you have a set of email addresses from your interview process. You can plug that into FullContact and you can see the profiles that all of those email addresses have across all these social networks.

Now I can start to do this type of work, and I can go plug things into Followerwonk. I can go plug them into Facebook, and I can actually see specifically who those groups follow. Now I can start to build a true idea of who these people are and who they follow.

What needs do they have?

Now that I’ve researched that, I need to know what needs those folks actually have. I understand my audience at least a little bit, but now I need to understand what they want. Again, I go back to that interview process. It’s very, very powerful. It is time-intensive. It will not be a time-saving activity. Interviews take a long time and a lot of effort and require a tremendous amount of resources, but you also get deep, deep empathy and understanding from an interview process.

Surveys are another good way to go, but you get much less deep information from them. You can however get good broad information, and I’ve really enjoyed those. If you don’t already have an audience, you can start with something like SurveyMonkey Audience or Google Surveys, which let you target a broad group, and both of those are reasonable if you’re targeting the right sorts of broad enough demographics or psychographics.

The other thing I want to do here is some awareness stage keyword research. I want to understand that this awareness phase. As people are just understanding they have a problem, what do they search for? Keyword research on this can start from the highest level.

So if I’m targeting Scotch, I might search for just Scotch by itself. If I plug that into a tool like Keyword Explorer or Keyword Planner or KeywordTool.io, I can see suggestions like, “What’s the best Scotch under $50?” When I see that, I start to gain an understanding of, “Oh, wait a minute. People are looking for quality. They also care about price.” Then I might see other things like, “Gosh, a lot of people search for ‘Islay versus Speyside.’ Oh, that’s interesting. They want to know which regions are different.” Or they search for “Japanese whisky versus Scotch whisky.” Aha, another interesting point at the awareness stage.

From there, I can determine the search terms that are getting used at awareness stage. I can go to consideration. I can go to comparison. I can go to conversion points. That really helps me understand the journey that searchers are taking down this path.

It’s not just search, though. Any time I have a search term or phase, I want to go plug that into places like Facebook. I want to plug it into something like Twitter search. I want to understand the influencers on the networks that I know my audience is in. That could be Instagram. It could be Pinterest. It could be LinkedIn. It could be any variety of networks. It could be Google News, maybe, if I’m seeing that they pay attention to a lot of media.

Then once I have these search terms and awareness through the funnel, now I’ve got to understand: How do they get to that conversation point?

Once I get there, what I’m really seeking out is: What are the reasons people bought? What are the things they considered? What are the objections that kept some of them from buying?

Creating a content & conversion strategy.

If I have this, what I essentially have now is the who and the what they’re seeking out at each phase of this journey. That’s an incredibly powerful thing that I can then go apply to…

Where do I need to be?

“Where do I need to be” means things like: What keywords do I need to target? What social platforms do I need to be on? Where do I need to be in media? Who do I need to influence who’s influencing my audience?

It tells me what content I need to create.

I know what articles or videos or visuals or podcasts or data my audience is interested in and what helps compel them further and further down that funnel.

It tells me a little bit about how to position myself in terms of things like style and UI/UX.

It also tells me about benefits versus features and some of the prototypical users. Who are the prototypical users? Who should I showcase? What kinds of testimonials are going to be valuable because people say, “Ah, this person, who is like me, liked this product and uses it. Therefore it must be a good product for me.”

Lastly, it tells me about how we can convert our target audience.

Then it also tells us lastly, finally, through those objections and the reasons people bought, the landing page content, the testimonials to feature and what should be in those. It tells me about the conversion path and how I should expect people to flow through that: whether they have to come back many times or they make the purchase right away. Who they’re going to compare me against in terms of competitors. And finally the purchase dynamics: How do I want to sell? Do I need a refund policy? Do I need to have things like free shipping? Should this be on a subscription basis? Should I have a high upfront payment or a low upfront payment with ballooning costs over time, and all that type of stuff?

This research process is not super simple. I certainly haven’t dived deep on every one of these aspects. But you can use this as a fundamental architecture to shape how you answer these questions in all of the web marketing channels you might pursue. Before you go pursue any one given channel, you might want to try and identify some of the holes you have in this.

If you have questions about how to do this, go through and do this research first. You’ll have far better results at the end.

All right, everyone. Thanks for watching. We’ll see you again next week for another edition of Whiteboard Friday. Take care.

Video transcription by Speechpad.com

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PostHeaderIcon On-Page SEO in 2016: The 8 Principles for Success – Whiteboard Friday



Posted by randfish

On-page SEO is no longer a simple matter of checking things off a list. There’s more complexity to this process in 2016 than ever before, and the idea of “optimization” both includes and builds upon traditional page elements. In this Whiteboard Friday, Rand explores the eight principles you’ll need for on-page SEO success going forward.

On-Page SEO in 2016: The 8 Principles for Success

Click on the whiteboard image above to open a high resolution version in a new tab!

Video Transcription

Howdy, Moz fans, and welcome to another edition of Whiteboard Friday. This week we’re going to chat about on-page SEO, keyword targeting but beyond keyword targeting into all the realms of the things that we need to optimize on an individual URL in order to have the best chance of success in the search engines in 2016.

So what does that involve? Well look, we could spend a tremendous amount of time on any one of these, but I’m going to share eight principles that are behind all of the tactical work that you would put into optimizing that page for that keyword term, phrase, or set of phrases. Most likely, in 2016, it is a set of phrases that you’re targeting rather than just a single keyword term.

Piece of the whiteboard: illustration of a SERPs page

1. Fulfill the searcher’s goal and satisfy their intent

What we are trying to do is fulfill the searcher’s goal and satisfy their intent. So there’s an intent behind every search query. I’m seeking some information. I’m seeking to accomplish a task. Oftentimes, that initial intent is different from the final goal that someone might have.

I’ll give you an example. When someone searches for types of wedding formal wear, we might infer from that query that, right now, their specific intent behind this search is they want to see different kinds of potential formalwear that they could wear to a wedding, maybe as a guest or as a bride or a groom. But their ultimate goal is probably going to be to decide on one of those specific things and then potentially purchase that item or take something from their wardrobe and add it in there.

But this means that we need to try and serve both intents. It’s actually going to be really tough if we’re an ecommerce player to say, “Hey, you know what, I want a rank for types of wedding formal wear, and I want to rank for it with a page that tells people to buy this particular tuxedo.”

That’s tough for a bunch of reasons. You don’t know whether that formalwear is going to be necessarily black tie in the United States, which is tuxedo. You don’t know whether that person is a male or a female when they’re performing the search. A woman, well, they might buy a tuxedo but probably not, at least statistically speaking, they’re probably not going to. They’re probably going to buy a dress. You might have much more success with a piece of content like 20 suits and tuxes men look great in at a wedding. Especially if I’m targeting men or if this is types of men’s wedding formalwear, that’s probably going to be the piece of content that has a great chance of serving the searcher’s intent and fulfilling their goals, especially if we then take that content and link off to the places where you can buy or accessorize all those different pieces. So we’re trying to do both of these items in number one.

Piece of the whiteboard: A negatively-trending graph with User Satisfaction on the Y axis and Page Load Time on the X axis.

2. Speed, speed, & more speed

This is very simplistic, but the idea is really easy here. We know that user satisfaction is a signal that Google interprets in some ways directly and in many, many ways indirectly. We also know that abandonment rates are very high, even higher on mobile for longer-loading pages. We know that pages that have fast load times earn more links and amplification. We know that pages that earn more links earn more engagement on them. We know that all of these things including speed itself is positively correlated with rankings, and we know that Google has made page load speed a small, albeit small, but a ranking signal inside their algorithm directly. So critically important.

Piece of the whiteboard: an illustration of a SERP with questions about why it's ranking or not.

3. Create trust & engagement through UI, UX, and branding

Related to number two is number three, which is creating trust and engagement through UI, UX, and branding. Speed is certainly a big part of the user experience. This is also critical because these two both touch on being mobile friendly, having that multi-device friendliness so that it’s capable on any device. UI, UX, and branding though go into some different areas. So if I have my website, I’m really looking for a few different aspects of it from the SEO point of view.

This is frustrating because it touches on a lot of things that historically have been outside the control of search engine optimization professionals. Thankfully, as SEO becomes more multidisciplinary inside a marketing team, hopefully we have more ability to influence these things, stuff like:

  • Have people actually heard of your domain?
  • Do they know you, like you, and trust you?
  • Do you have UI and visual elements that make them perceive you as being trustworthy, even if this is the first time they’ve ever heard of you? That can be things like the images on the page. It can be the navigation. It can be the color scheme. It can be the UI library that you might be using or how you’ve done the visual layout of things. All of those pieces go into that “Do you look trustworthy?” That’s certainly a consideration that a lot of folks have when they’re looking at searches.
  • Are you intuitive to access? I mean intuitive both from a navigation standpoint and from the consumption of the content on the page as well.
  • Hopefully, you have some external validation signals to indicate that the content you have and the brand that you are is trustworthy. Those can be things like testimonials. They can also mean things like references or citations for the data or information that you’re providing or links out, all that kind of stuff.

Piece of the whiteboard: an illustration of a SERPs page with a sentence describing pogo sticking.

4. Avoid elements that dissuade visitors

You want to avoid elements that distract searchers or dissuade them from visiting you either at this time or in the future. The most common ones of these that we like to talk about a lot are ones that interfere with the content consumption experience. That’s things like overlays. “Do you want to stay married? If so, download our guide.” Then you have to say, “Yes, of course I want to stay married,” or “No, I’m a terrible person and I will not click on your popup,” and then another popup will come up.

Those types of overlays obviously have negative impacts, and you can see them in your user and usage data, your engagement data. You can determine how much of a sacrifice you’re willing to make in exchange for, “Well, we did get some email addresses out of this, or we got some conversion rate and so we’re willing to make that sacrifice,” versus “No, we’re not willing to make these sacrifices.” You have to choose what types of engagement-dissuading apparatuses you’re willing to put on your site.

But be aware, pogo sticking is a ranking signal. It’s something that they judge indirectly for sure and directly potentially as well. Pogo sticking meaning a searcher clicked on your listing in the results, they went to your site, and then they clicked the “Back” button and chose someone else from the results. Google interprets that and Bing interprets that very poorly for you.

A list of on-page elements described in detail in section 5.

5. Keyword targeting

Keyword targeting, classic on-page ranking signal, still true today. I know that many of us still see or are starting to see a lot more entrants into the search results that don’t do very particular keyword targeting, at least don’t do it the way we’ve historically perceived it, where it’s very keyword-driven. But it’s still incredibly smart to do this if and when you can. You just need to balance it out with all these other aspects.

Title element

Places that I would start. In fact, this is basically in order of importance. Title element, I would place the keyword term or phrase, the most important term or phrase that you’re targeting in the title element in the headline of the page. That can be the H1 tag, but it doesn’t need to be it. It could be just the bold, big headline at the top. That should match the page title generally speaking or be very close, because what you don’t want is you don’t want a searcher who clicked on one title element and then landed on a page that had a different headline and they perceived that mismatch, and so they clicked the “Back” button. That’s dangerous.

Page content, external anchor links, alt attributes, and URL

You want it obviously in the page content. If you can, when you can control it, you want it in external anchor links to the page. So if, for example, I have my home page about weddings and I am interviewed for something, I might put in my bio something about the wedding styles website that I own and control, and I would link back to that in that external anchor text. I want it potentially in the alt attribute of any images or photos or visuals that I’ve got on the page. I want it in the URL. Again, if I can control it and the URL is less important, so we’re going in decreasing order of importance here.

Image file name

I want it in the image name. Especially if I’m trying to rank in Google image search, image name, the file name of the actual image does matter and is important.

Internal links

Finally, I want it in internal links to the degree that it’s intelligent and balanced and doesn’t look spammy.

Do all these items, you’ve got your keyword targeting down. But this is not like the past, where just nailing keyword targeting is going to take my rankings to where they need to be. I’ve got to do all these other seven things too, including number six, related topics targeting.

An illustration of related topics targeting on a SERP.

6. Related topics targeting

So related topics is basically this concept that Google has a huge graph of lexical combinations and semantic analysis. They can essentially say, “Hey, when we see wedding formalwear, we often also see these terms and phrases, terms like tuxedo, tux, wedding dress, bowtie, vest.” In the United Kingdom, almost certainly we would see waistcoat, which is what we call a vest here in the United States, or a wedding suit, which is what is traditionally worn in weddings in the U.K. versus a tuxedo here in the United States.

Now, given that Google sees these terms and phrases very commonly associated with this one, they’ve essentially started to build up this graph between these, and so these topics they would say are very important to this search term. If someone’s looking for wedding formalwear, it’s unusual for them to find a page that has high relevance for users that doesn’t also include these types of words and phrases.

Therefore, as a search marketer, as a content creator, we need to think about: What are those terms and phrases that are related here, and how do I make sure to include them in my content? If I don’t, my ranking opportunity may decrease compared to my competitors who’ve intelligently used those terms and phrases.

A piece of the whiteboard: check boxes next to all the on-page elements necessary.

7. Snippet optimization

With a page, we’re not just trying to drive the ranking. We’re also trying to drive the click. So ranking number four and earning a 6% click-through rate, that might not be great, especially if the average is more like 11%. Then we’re earning half the average for our ranking position. That seems a little funny. Those percentages are not precise, but you get the idea.

We want to have the best-optimized snippet that we possibly can in the SERP. So you can see here I’ve got this, “what to wear to a formal wedding,” “a guide from randsfashion.com” and it’s mobile-friendly. It’s published on May 10, 2016. Then it has this nice meta description, the snippet there. This is essentially my advertisement to searchers saying, “Please click on my link. I want your click.”

On-page elements

Bunch of elements that go into this: the title, obviously, the meta description. The URL format, this randsfashion.com, very simple on home pages, gets much more complex when we have pages that are internal because Google starts to assign categories if you have messy URL parameters or inconsistent categories, tagging systems that can get nasty.

Publication date

Publication date matters quite a bit, especially for searches that have a fresh component. So if people are searching for types of wedding formalwear, well, you might not need to worry too much. But what if lots of people who search for this search for types of wedding formalwear 2016? Well, now you really need that fresh publication date. In fact, if Google sees lots of people search for that, they might actually take it as an intent signal that types of wedding formalwear alone deserves that date in there and that they should be ranking fresher content higher up because lots of people are looking for more recent, modern stuff.

Use of schema

Whenever there’s an opportunity, for example, if you’re in the recipe space, there are schema markups specifically for recipes. If you’re in the news space, there are opportunities for news. If you do video, Google doesn’t really obey it very much, except with YouTube, but there are video opportunities for schema markup. There are all sorts of other kinds depending on what you’re in, certainly local and maps and a bunch of other ones.

Domain name

That is something to consider. In fact, when you’re registering a domain name and building out a site, you should be thinking about how people want to click on it, the brandability, the snippet optimization, all that.

Content format

Content format is particularly important because Google, especially when there’s a more question-based search query, they’ve started showing those longer meta descriptions. So if you can encapsulate what you know is essentially the critical piece of content that answers the user’s question, chances are you might be able to get that larger space, vertical space in the SERP, and that might mean that you can draw more clicks in as well.

This works really well with lists. It works nicely with forums and discussions, threads. It works nicely with elements where you have a bunch of specific how-to, step-by-step process, those types of things. Same story with instant answer possibilities that you want to appear at the top of that Google SERP with an instant answer if you can. We know that that actually doesn’t take away click-through rate. It actually drives more of it. In fact, the real estate there means that you often get more clicks than organic position one, which is pretty great. Of course, all the different kinds of SERP feature opportunities like we talked about — images, maps, local, news, what have you.

Piece of the whiteboard: A positively trending graph with quality of content on the Y axis and difficulty of ranking on the X axis.

8. Unique value + amplification

This is the final piece of things that we’re thinking about as we do on-page optimization in 2016. That is I need to be thinking about: What bar do I need to reach in order to have a chance to rank, rank well, and rank consistently?

This is tough. So if the difficulty of ranking is very easy, the bar that I need to cross is probably somewhere between classic, good, unique content, like this content is good, it’s unique, and it exists. That’s all it needs. That’s a very, very low bar. Even for easy rankings, I would not suggest making that your bar.

I’d put it somewhere between there and twice as good as anyone else in the competition, but essentially targeting the same types of things. You’re doing the same kind of content. You just feel like you’re better than anything else in the top 10. That might be a reasonable enough bar for an easy ranking.

If it gets moderate, if it gets tough, I need to go up to uniquely valuable. Uniquely valuable, by that, we’ve had a whole Whiteboard Friday on it, which we can refer to, but uniquely valuable being this idea that I provide a value that no one else in the search results provides. So it’s not simply that I’m doing a better job. I’m also doing a unique job of providing information or data or visuals, whatever it is that is more and different value than anybody else.

Then finally, what we’ve called 10x content. If you have an insane difficulty of ranking, that might be the minimum bar that you need to hit, and we’ll link over the 10x video as well.

Basically, the questions that I’m asking when I’m talking about providing unique value and being worthy of amplification, which is something that our content needs to consider too, is: What makes this better than what already ranks? Do you have a great answer to that question? If you don’t, you should probably get one before you try targeting those keywords and producing that content.

Why will this be difficult or impossible for others to replicate? What’s the barrier to entry that your content provides, that all the other content providers can’t just look and go, “Oh, well I see that Rand’s done a very nice job ranking there. I’ll just take that and do it. That should be easy.” You need a barrier to entry. What value does this page provide that no other page in the SERPs provides? That goes to our unique value question.

The last one, who. Who will help amplify this piece of content and why? If you don’t have a great answer to who and why, it’s going to be incredibly difficult to get that amplification. If you can’t get the amplification, it’s going to be really, really hard to rank, because as much as on-page optimization does matte — and all of these eight principles matter for rankings — SEO in 2016 is not merely about on-page but about off-page as well, just as it’s been the last decade, 15 years. So, as we’re creating content, we need to think about that amplification process too.

All right everyone, look forward to your thoughts, and we’ll see you again next week for another edition of Whiteboard Friday. Take care.

Video transcription by Speechpad.com

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