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Category Archive: Google

  1. How to Understand User Behavior in Google Analytics

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    “User behavior” sounds like it could refer to all kinds of things. It does. As you’ll see, user behavior refers not only to how people find your site and navigate through it, but also what elements of your site they react to, if and how they convert, and what elements of your site could prompt them to one day come back. To put it succinctly, user behavior is your biggest indication of success in online marketing, and simultaneously your most informative tool to achieve that success.

    There are many ways to look at user behavior—you might focus on a narrow range of metrics, utilize niche software platforms like heat maps to track things like mouse movements and scroll speed, or use qualitative surveys to get honest feedback from real users. Today, I want to focus on the most efficient, most accessible, most cost-efficient way to examine user behavior: Google Analytics.

    Google Analytics can tell you almost anything about your site, user behavior included. To make things simple, I want to explore the use of Google Analytics in examining user behavior across three different, broad areas:

    • User entry, how users get to your site and where they get their first impressions.
    • Behavior flow, where users go and what they do once they’re in your site.
    • Engagements and conversions, how and why users engage with your brand (the ultimate measure of success).

    How to Use This Guide

    Before I dig any deeper, I want to clarify the intentions of this guide, some assumptions I’m making, and how to best use this guide for your own site.

    I’m assuming a few things about your brand, which should be true regardless of any online marketing strategies you currently use:

    • You have a website serving as the ultimate goal destination for your users.
    • Your ultimate goal for these users is a conversion (the purchase of a product, submission of personal information, download of an app, or other form of meaningful engagement).
    • Your users, regardless of whether or not they engage, also need to walk away with a positive impression so they can either return (and engage) or speak positively about your brand (enticing further engagement).

    I’ll be referring to these three principles throughout the article, and will be exploring them solely in the context of user behavior. Finding the right target audience, optimizing your traffic, maximizing your visitors, and selecting the right offers for users are all important topics for these principles, but they’ll be the subject of a future guide. For now, I’ll be focusing on the insights behavior can bring us.

    Feel free to read straight through or skip to a section you want specific information about.

    User Entry


    First, let’s take a look at how and why users are coming to your site.

    The place we’re going to start is where we’ll spend most of our time for this article, so get comfy.


    Head to “Behavior” in your dashboard and click on “Behavior Flow.” This should bring you to a massive, confusing looking chart that looks something like this:


    It’s about to get a lot less confusing.

    For now, we’re only examining how people are entering the site—we’ll get to the rest later—so take a look at the columns “landing page” and “starting page” here. Those terms may sound synonymous, but there’s a critical semantic distinction here. A landing page is the first URL a user clicks or enters, while a starting page is the first page a user arrives at. To illustrate the difference, consider a 301 redirect that takes a user from the URL they clicked on (a landing page) to a final destination URL (a starting page). You may want to examine both to see how and why your users are being redirected, but remember, our focus is on behavior, so we want to ask ourselves two questions:

    • What page is getting the most entrances?
    • Why is it getting the most entrances?

    *these questions are phrased as singular, referring to only one page, but feel free to look at several of your top-entrance pages for more thorough results.

    Let’s examine these individually.

    What page is getting the most entrances?

    For many of you, this will be a home page or a landing page you’ve specifically created to accept new users. Either way, it’s the first page people are seeing, and this information should be enlightening to you.

    This is the page where the majority of your users get their first impressions of your brand. In a moment, we’ll look at how those first impressions manifest into traceable user actions, but for now ask yourself the following questions:

    • Does this page accurately represent your brand? If not, then it requires improvement.
    • Is there another page you’d prefer to have your users land on? If so, you’ll need to modify your acquisition strategy; otherwise, your behavior flow may be compromised from the beginning.
    • What does this page say about the intent of your users? This dips into the “why” side of the question, but think about what’s in your users’ minds as they encounter your site for the first time. For example, a home page may indicate they’re trying to find a specific company like yours, while a specific interior page could suggest a more refined motive. You can take advantage of this by tailoring other pages to accommodate that motive.

    Why is it getting the most entrances?

    This question is less relevant to the behavior of your users and more relevant to your acquisition of users; this page is popular because it’s a popular link on social media, or on a referral source, or in Google search results. This can tell you something about the intent of your users—especially if your most popular landing page is a specific blog page—but it speaks more to your audience targeting methods and effectiveness at online marketing in general.

    Entrance modifiers

    If you’re interested in gaining more insight into why and how your users are entering in these specific ways, consider adding a modifier to your Behavior Flow chart. Click on the dropdown menu in the upper-left hand corner of the chart, and select a new variable to add to the left-hand side:


    For illustrative purposes, select “Acquisition” and “Default Channel Grouping.” Here, you’ll see a breakdown of your major sources of traffic (Direct, Organic, Referral, and Social) and where those sources ultimately land on your site.


    This may help you understand why certain entrance pages are more popular than others, but if you’re more interested in optimizing your initial audience, gaining more visitors, or otherwise modifying your incoming traffic, you’ll want to look at audience Acquisition rather than Behavior.

    For now, you should have two potential action items:

    • Improve your most popular entrance pages to maximize your users’ first impressions.
    • Select different entrance pages to direct your users according to your ultimate goals, and optimize them for greater user entry.

    Now, let’s move on to the guts of user behavior on your site.

    Behavior Flow

    This will be an easy transition since I already have you looking at the Behavior Flow chart in Analytics. Now, instead of looking exclusively at the entrance page, we’re going to be examining how and why your users engage with other parts of your site.

    First, let’s break the chart down.

    There are two things to look for here:

    • Directional flow. This will tell you where your users are going after their initial entry. You’ll notice several columns, starting with the “starting page” and numerically expanding to the right with “first interaction,” “second interaction,” and so on. Each new interaction represents a new page that a user has clicked. For example, you may see users start at your home page, head to your blog page, then click on a specific blog. By hovering over the graphic in question, you’ll be able to see specific numbers regarding these interactions.
    • Highlighted in red will be a portion of your traffic that has left your site altogether. Obviously, this isn’t ideal, but it’s not the end of the world, either. Take note of any abnormalities in this feature—pages with exceptionally high bounce rates, interactions levels where you lose the most users, etc.

    Segmenting Your Traffic

    It’s also worth noting that you can modify or add different traffic segments to evaluate certain demographics with a closer inspection. To do this, click on “Choose segment from list” above your chart, and select from any one of the dozens of choices Google offers you.


    For example, you could compare the behavior of “new users” against the behavior of “returning users” and gain key insights about the differences between those familiar with your brand and those new to it.

    Other Sources of Information

    The Flow chart is handy and concise, but it isn’t the only place to find information about the behavior of your users. In fact, it pays to look elsewhere—check out the “Overview” section of the Behavior tab, and I’ll show you what I mean.


    Here, you’ll find some key information about the general behavior on your site, including the average time a user spends on a page, the collective bounce rate of all your pages, and the most popular pages of your site overall. Click on “view full report” in the bottom right-hand corner of this chart, and you’ll be able to view metrics like these for each of your pages individually—for example, you’ll be able to calculate the average time a user spends reading a specific article on your blog or discover the bounce rate of your individual product pages.

    As usual with Google Analytics, there are many ways to modify this information. For starters, you can use the audience segmentation trick mentioned in the preceding section to closely examine one portion of your overall audience.

    Key Insights to Look For

    This is the most important piece of this section of the guide. Now that you know how to read the chart and peripheral information, it’s time to draw the key revelations that will allow you to improve your site’s design, content, and functions.

    • Which pages have the highest bounce rates? This should clue you in to some small failure of these pages, though unfortunately, you’ll have to use your own judgment to pin down the exact cause. This can be a lack of relevant or interesting content, an off-putting or obtrusive feature (like an annoying popup), or even something simple like a lack of internal links. For some reason, people don’t want to venture beyond this page when they get there. It’s your job to figure out why.
    • Which page connections are most significant? Take another look at your Behavior Flow chart. Are there strong correlations between any two specific pages? For example, do visitors on your homepage frequently head to your Contact page in sequence? If so, why? You can use this to your advantage in a number of different ways. For example, you could strengthen the relationship and add more conversion opportunities on the destination page, you could use similar tactics to relate two other significant pages, or you could redefine the existing page relationships to favor a different page—the choice is yours.
    • How long do people spend reading your content? This is one for the Behavior Overview page. Take a look at all your internal pages and how long users spend reading them. The higher this figure, the more engaging your content is; a low number is a sign that your pages aren’t sufficiently developed. Learn from the pages with the highest durations; what makes these pages especially interesting, engaging, or otherwise unique? Apply these qualities to your other pages.
    • How many interactions do you receive? Do you receive a lot of traffic at the “starting page” level, only to see a massive dropoff by the first interaction, followed by an almost inconsequential second interaction? That means your site needs more interactive power; try increasing the visibility and functionality of your navigation, including more internal links to other pages, and adding more calls to action throughout your site.
    • Which pages see the greatest overall traffic? This is especially valuable for a content strategy. Look at which of your pages receive the greatest amount of traffic overall. What sets them apart? Why is it so easy for people to find them? What makes people want them in the first place? Use these insights to fuel the refinement and creation of your other pages.

    With the core user behavior out of the way, let’s take a look at one final element of user behavior.

    Engagements and Conversions

    Any engagement with your brand is valuable, with some types being more valuable than others depending on your brand and your core strategy. “Engagement” here can mean just about anything—a download, a form submission, a purchase—and there are ways to track any of these engagements meaningfully in Analytics.

    To start, there are two ways to track and understand engagements: Events and Goals. Events are the most flexible creation, applicable for almost any user action on your site. Goals are better for tracing specific user paths, such as measuring visitors who visit a specific page and then convert a designated way.


    To start tracking Events, you need to go through a short set-up process. To avoid detracting too far from my main points, I won’t detail these steps here; they do require a bit of technical expertise, but you can find more information straight from Google on the process here.

    Once created, you can find reporting for all your Events under the Behavior tab in Analytics. Here, you’ll be able to filter by specific Events, groups of Events, or by different segments of your audience (detailed in my section on “Segmenting Your Traffic” above).


    Goals are a bit easier to create if you’re unfamiliar with the technical side of things. First, head to the Admin section (found in the upper-right), and you’ll see three columns. Click on Goals on the furthest right-hand column.


    Here, Google will walk you through one of several different pre-made templates for Goal completion. Once created, you’ll be able to measure and monitor your Goals in the same location.

    Learning from Goals and Events

    There are tons of insights to gain from Goals and Events regarding your conversion optimization—but that’s a topic for an entirely separate post. Here, let’s examine some of the behavioral insights we can gain by looking at actions leading up to Events and Goals:

    • How “deep” are users before they convert? If you notice lots of engagements around your “starting page” or “first interaction,” it means your users tend to make decisions quickly, and more conversion efforts should be spent on those introductory pages. On the other hand, you may find that your audience needs more time to make a decision, in which case your efforts should be spent getting your traffic deeper and more engaged before requesting an interaction.
    • What types of pages lead to the most engagements? Hopefully, you have conversion and engagement opportunities scattered throughout your site. Invariably, some of your pages will hold more favorable engagement rates than others. Why is this? Do these pages contain more information? Are they more entertaining or more colorful? Do they show off your brand in a different way than your other pages?
    • Are some engagements more lucrative than others? For example, do you get more newsletter subscribers than you get actual product purchases? This should help guide you not only in your selection and placement of engagement opportunities, but also in your presentation and arrangement of site content.

    Your biggest insights here should be the motivating factors for conversion—where are users when they convert? What are they doing? What are they seeing? Where have they been? Replicate these conditions elsewhere on your site, and you’ll double your potential converting traffic. Similarly, you’ll know what to stay away from in conversion opportunities that are rarely taken by your audience.


    Now that you’ve been sufficiently introduced to the ways to measure and understand user behavior in Google Analytics, it’s your responsibility to perform these tasks regularly to stay up-to-date on your site’s performance (and your audience trends). I recommend checking in at least once a month to see how your site is progressing, potentially more often if you’re experimenting with a new approach.

    There’s a lot of information in this post, so if you’re looking for a simplified takeaway, it’s this: if you can understand your users’ behavior, you can influence your users’ behavior. Use the insights you gain in key pieces of information like directional Behavior Flow, bounce rates, and time spent on pages to direct your users where you want them to go and get them to take the actions you want them to take. It isn’t a simple process, and you won’t get it right the first time, but with patience and commitment (and a lot of experimenting), you’ll eventually establish a process that works—and you’ll walk away with a better understanding of your target demographics as well.

  2. What Did Google Just Do to Its Core Ranking Algorithm?

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    At AudienceBloom, we’ve tracked a ton of Google updates, from the incessant add-ons to staples like Panda and Penguin, to one-off updates like last year’s content quality revision. Some updates require Google’s explicit announcement and explanation, while others get integrated without attracting much attention at all, but few changes significantly alter the “core” algorithm—the batch of code that Google trusts to run by itself without manual monitoring (think of it as Google’s foundation). Now, a recent change to Google’s core has caused some significant ranking volatility—and it might spell a new future for some of the branch (non-core) updates we’ve come to know and love.

    Recent Ranking Turbulence

    articleimage1787 Recent Ranking Turbulence

    First, let’s take a look at the introductory evidence. Earlier this month, over the course of a weekend, many webmasters and SEO experts noticed an increase in ranking volatility. Though nowhere near the size or scope of Panda, the shifts were significant enough to signal the introduction of something new to Google’s ranking algorithm. For a time, it appeared that this would be one of Google’s top-secret implementations, going unacknowledged and unnamed by Google on an “official” basis.

    However, both Gary Illyes and John Mueller (two Google rockstars) confirmed that yes, indeed, a core algorithm change was implemented that caused this ranking volatility. We haven’t gotten much in the way of details for this update—nor have we gotten a name—but the confirmation is a good starting point.

    The Integration of Panda

    articleimage1787 The Integration of Panda

    It’s worth noting that Google recently announced the integration of Panda into their core ranking algorithm. If you’re confused, you’re not alone. Panda was first introduced in 2011 as a “branched” algorithm, meaning it existed separate from the core but still interacted with it, and since, all the Panda updates we’ve seen have applied to that algorithmic branch. In fact, as recent as last year, we’ve seen monthly iterations of Panda, either making gradual tweaks to the algorithm or refreshing its data.

    The move to the core didn’t change much about Panda itself, but instead serves as an acknowledgment by Google that Panda is in a more-or-less “complete” form, ready to be integrated into its core algorithm permanently. For those of you who were still holding out hope that Panda was temporary, that hope is vanquished (and for good reason). There’s one major ambiguity here, and that’s exactly when the integration took place.

    Related or Unrelated?

    articleimage1787 Related or Unrelated

    If you’re like me, you’ll look at these two facts and come to a natural conclusion. You know that a fundamental change to Google’s core algorithm occurred, resulting in ranking volatility. You also know that Panda was recently integrated into Google’s core algorithm. If you put two and two together, you come to the conclusion that Google’s integration of Panda led to some of these ranking discrepancies, but did it?

    According to John Mueller and Gary Illyes, the integration of Panda is unrelated to the recent ranking volatility that many of us have seen. These were separate instances that have no bearing on one another, other than the fact that they both happen to deal with the core ranking algorithm. Mueller also confirmed that this recent volatility was completely unrelated to Penguin—crushing the hopes of many SEO experts who have been anxiously awaiting the next iteration of Twitter since the end of last year and adding confusion to the Google process.

    What It Means for You

    articleimage1787 What It Means for You

    Because our knowledge of this update is somewhat limited, there aren’t many takeaways that can lead you to better results. All we can do is focus on the changes that did occur, why they might have occurred, and what practical actions you can take to respond to those changes. As far as we can tell, there are only two critical distinguishing factors between the “winners” of the update (those who gained rank) and the “losers” (those who lost rank):

    • Winners tended to have longer-form, more descriptive content with more multimedia content.
    • Winners tended to have more recent content about the subjects in question.

    It’s no secret that Google loves recent, descriptive content, so is this update just a simple refinement of the significance of those factors? If so, your response to this update should be simple; increase the recentness and relevance of your content by beefing up your content with more visuals, more information, and a timelier posting schedule.

    However, there are two more critical questions we need to ask as a result of this volatility.

    When Is Penguin Coming?

    First, if Panda has moved to a permanent position in the core Google algorithm, and the recent volatility wasn’t a result of a new Penguin update, when is that new Penguin update coming? Is Google holding onto it for the middle of the year? The end of the year? Or is it waiting for one final push to “perfect” the Penguin branch so it, too, can be moved to the core algorithm? This leads me to my next question.

    Is Everything Moving to a Core?

    Panda has been a major branch for almost five years. If Google is now finally ready to move Panda into its core algorithm, are other branch updates like Penguin, Hummingbird, or even Pigeon going to eventually become cannibalized by the core algorithm? And if so, how will this affect the future of Google updates, especially as more of its components become self-learning and self-updating like RankBrain?

    This question probably peers further ahead than we need to look, but it’s an important consideration. For now, focus on what we do know—Panda is now permanent, and Google is still refining its definition of high-quality content. Keep your content fresh and detailed, and you shouldn’t experience any trouble from these recent core changes.

  3. 5 Ways to Use Google Analytics to Improve Your Content

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    Google Analytics is one of the most practical tools for executing, evaluating, and eventually improving an online marketing campaign. It’s fairly exhaustive, compatible with any website, and it’s completely free. It won’t give you all the bells and whistles that an advanced software system or a contracted marketing agency can, but it’s everything you need to get started.

    The thing is, most people realize Google Analytics is useful for tracking web traffic over time, but they don’t realize how much valuable data is available for other means, including improving your content marketing strategy. In fact, there are five distinct ways you can use Google Analytics—right out of the box—to refine your content over time:

    1. Searching for growth patterns over time.

    articleimage1782 Searching for growth patterns over time

    Your first—and biggest clue—to the effectiveness of your content should be your patterns of growth over time. For this, head to the Acquisition section of the dashboard and take a look at your inbound streams of traffic. Direct traffic refers to users who enter your URL directly, so instead look to Organic traffic, Referral traffic, and Social traffic.

    Organic traffic is a measure of how many people found your site through search engines—it’s a way of telling how much your content has led to increased domain authority and higher search ranks (though there are a combination of other factors at work here). Your Referral traffic, if you break it down to its individual sources, will tell you how effective your guest posts have been—look for high-traffic sources and growth over time. Social traffic works much the same way, telling you how many people have found your site on social media. Again, the strength of your content is the major indicator here. If you notice slow or stagnant growth in any of these areas, you’ll know where you need to focus your efforts to improve.

    2. Learning which topics attract the most people.

    articleimage1782 Learning which topics attract the most people

    This is critical. The effectiveness of your content marketing campaign begins with choosing the right topics. You have to choose headlines and subjects that are personally relevant to your audience, useful, yet still unique and rare enough that they don’t attract much competition.

    Stay in the Acquisition tab, and take a look at the landing URLs of your traffic—you can either look at all traffic here, or drill down to a category of sources. Arrange the columns by order of visits (this should be the default), and you should get a clear picture of which content topics are netting you the most traffic. Be sure to evaluate this figure at multiple points in time—you may find that a hugely popular topic from a year ago falls flat today, or vice versa. Either way, you’ll learn which topics are most and least effective in your campaign, and you’ll be able to adjust accordingly.

    3. Analyzing interest with user behavior.

    articleimage1782 Analyzing interest with user behavior

    Head to the Behavior tab, and you’ll be able to see how your content affects the actions of your users. This is useful for determining your content’s ability to motivate readers to explore your site further (and eventually convert). Track the “average” path of an inbound user by evaluating the Behavior Flow chart; see what most readers do after visiting one of your articles. Do they head to another article? Do they visit your Contact page? These insights will tell you how effective you’ve been at drawing your readers in further. If you notice a lapse, or if the majority of your readers end up on a page you don’t have as a high priority, you’ll need to adjust your internal linking strategy.

    4. Identifying weak points with bounce rates.

    articleimage1782 Identifying weak points with bounce rates

    Bounce rates aren’t the best way to learn about your traffic because people can bounce for almost any reason (and just because a user stays doesn’t mean he/she is meaningfully engaged with your content). However, high bounce rates can be an indication of weak points within your strategy. For example, if you notice your “how to” posts have a much higher bounce rate over time than your listicle-style posts, you know something in your listicle posts is doing a better job of keeping your audience engaged. Use these insights to compensate for any weaknesses you find and learn from your best material.

    5. Finding the most appropriate distribution channels.

    articleimage1782 Finding the most appropriate distribution channels

    Finally, use the segmented traffic options in the Acquisition tab to find the most appropriate, effective distribution channels for your content—and this can mean Referral or Social sources. Take a look at your inbound traffic on a per-channel basis, and arrange those sources according to total figures. Your most valuable sources will be at the top (in both Referral and Social sections). Don’t limit your distribution to only these sources, but do favor them, and do learn from them—why are these sources bringing you more traffic? Why does your audience prefer them?

    Google Analytics is practical, easily available, and intuitive for newcomers, but it’s not the only resource out there for improving your content—nor should it be your only reliance. Look to the behavior of your social media followers, the comment threads and user responses on your site, and any qualitative feedback you receive from your customers and readers. The more information you have at your disposal, the better you’ll be able to hone your content, both in terms of its inherent quality and in terms of its utility in your marketing strategy.

  4. The Evolution of Semantic Search in 2016

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    Search trends are dependent on a number of closely interacting technologies, and you need to be aware of how they’re changing if you want to stay ahead of the competition, especially as rates of change accelerate across the board. There are device technologies, which have given us mobile devices and more sophisticated forms of local search, web technologies, which have made it possible for more companies to make more creative websites, and raw search technologies, which make search faster, easier, and more relevant for users (among other classes of technology).

    Of the search technologies, one of the most fascinating—and the fastest changing—is semantic search, the ability for search engines to recognize and interpret the natural language of its users’ queries. Semantic search is evolving in some astounding ways, and the sooner you start adapting to them, the better.

    Hummingbird (2013)

    articleimage1774 hummingbird

    Before we look at how semantic search is developing today, we have to understand how it originally came into being. Back in the early 2000s, there was no such thing as “semantic search,” and natural language recognition seemed like a distant dream for AI. Search engines functioned using a keyword-based mapping system; they would identify certain keywords and keyword phrases in your query, then generate a list of the places on the web where those terms were used most frequently and most prominently. Over the years, this process became more sophisticated, weeding out unnaturally keyword-stuffed pages and mapping more complicated phrases, but it basically functioned the same way.

    Google’s Hummingbird update changed the game when it came out in 2013. Rather than using keywords to find the most relevant results for a query, Hummingbird could interpret the intention of a user query based on its phrasing, and find relevant entries from there. Its emergence marked a significant departure from keyword-based strategies of search optimizers, instead forcing content marketers to try harder to answer user questions, concerns, and interests.

    RankBrain (2015)

    articleimage1774 rankedbrain

    Late last year, Google released a new machine learning algorithm to Hummingbird called RankBrain. The goal of the algorithm is to improve Hummingbird’s semantic search capabilities by gradually learning more about the way people talk (and enter queries into search engines). Though semantic search is already pretty impressive, it struggles when a user’s query is especially wordy, complex, or ambiguous. RankBrain learns from prior experiences, essentially updating itself, and eventually becoming able to break those complex and indecipherable queries down to more manageable chunks. It’s a sign of Google’s commitment to never-ending phases of improvement—without the temporal and logistical wall between engineers and manual updates, this automated algorithm will be able to develop faster than ever.

    Rich Answers (Ongoing)

    articleimage1774 Rich Answers

    You’ve undoubtedly noticed a surge in “rich answers,” which is the term given to concise entries in SERPs given prominence above standard search results. These can take the form of images, sentences, paragraphs, numbers, or any other type of answer that can immediately and concisely address your query (without ever demanding you to click through to a separate page). These are rising in prevalence for three reasons:

    • Google’s Knowledge Graph is continually expanding with more information on more subjects
    • Hummingbird and RankBrain are getting better and better at understanding user queries
    • Google wants to give short, immediate answers whenever possible

    This is one of the most important effects of increased semantic search analysis, as it reduces reliance on external web pages to answer questions. It’s been argued that this will eventually stifle search traffic to all websites, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

    Related Questions (Ongoing)

    articleimage1774 Related Questions

    Related questions are also seeing a rise—especially over the last few months. You may see these popping up about halfway down your search results, prompting you to investigate similar or frequently asked questions related to your original query. However, you’ll notice the answers to these questions often differ from their rich answer counterparts, implying that a separate algorithm is responsible for generating them. It’s unclear how all this ties together, but it’s clear Google has a long-term plan for query pattern recognition in addition to basic semantic understanding.

    Developments to Watch For

    If you’ve read this article with an SEO perspective in mind, you may be wondering how all this affects you. Yes, it’s interesting to learn the inner mechanics and history of Google’s semantic search capabilities, but what practical information can you walk away with?

    First, understand the key areas that Google is developing (either through more manual updates or with their new machine learning algorithms): voice search, semantic understanding, rich answers, and related questions. Google’s main concern is on getting correct, relevant information into the hands of searchers as quickly and easily as possible.

    Your goal, therefore, should be to help Google get the job done. Spend more time researching common questions in your industry, and write answers to them. Explore complex, niche topics, and microformat your site so Google can scan it for the answers. Become known as an authority and provide the information that your users want, and you’ll be rewarded in the form of more visibility. It’s as simple as that.

    Semantic search isn’t going away anytime soon, and your competition may already be making plans to conquer it in their own way. Keep this in mind as you audit, analyze, and shape your strategy in 2016 and beyond. Success in SEO isn’t about finding something that works and sticking with it forever; it’s about constantly refining your approach to accommodate these captivating new trends as they emerge.

  5. The Misnomer of “Google Penalties” – What You Need to Know

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    The more complex SEO becomes, the more important specificity becomes in the semantics of discussion and analysis. Otherwise, confusion can emerge, newcomers can be misled into pursuing unfruitful or even harmful strategies, and even experienced search marketers can experience trouble forming accurate distinctions.

    A perfect example of this is the term “link building.” The literal, specific interpretation of the phrase implies the manual action of building inbound links on external sources, which is often a bad idea (unless you’re embedding them in valuable content or they’re truly valuable for the users encountering them). Yet the phrase “link building” can refer to any action designed to earn a site more links, including the creation and syndication of citation-worthy content, which involves no direct building whatsoever. I’ve seen multiple discussions with search marketers arguing the merits and faults of link building, with participants using conflicting interpretations of the term.

    One of the most egregious infractions of SEO semantics has come to rest on the term “Google penalty,” and derivative phrases like “penalize.” We’ve all been guilty of abusing this term at one point or another, myself included, usually under the impression that the use of the word will be made clear by its context. The problem is, most newcomers and outsiders see this phrase and are unable to recognize the distinction between a formal, literal Google penalty, and what we often refer to as a “penalty.” Hopefully, this article will clear up that confusion and reestablish a standard in our community for the usage of the term.

    Colloquial Google Penalties

    articleimage1763 Colloquial Google Penalties

    The term “penalty” has evolved to mean any kind of negate effect on your site’s search rankings, but in actuality, a Google penalty is a manual, near-permanent action that Google takes to intentionally throttle traffic to a given site. Anything else is just the result of a new algorithm update, a new considering factor, or even the emergence of a new competitor.

    There are clear black and white areas here. For example, if your site is host to a deliberate financial scheme, with infectious malware and universally bad link connections, it should be no surprise when you fall off the face of Google search ranks. If your site drops a rank or two overnight, but more or less retains most of its positions, that’s an innocent drop as the result of an algorithm change, and has nothing to do with Google punishing your domain.

    Somewhere in Between

    articleimage1763 Somewhere in Between

    The gray areas come into play with major algorithm updates or significant drops. For example, when Penguin rolled out, a number of sites experienced major declines in search visibility and organic traffic thanks to Google’s new way of evaluating link quality. This was more significant than a gentle overnight change, but also affected millions of business owners simultaneously, making it impossible to categorize as a literal, manual penalty. Similarly, a new bad link or spam-like piece of content could cause your ranks to suddenly drop (without being associated with a penalty).

    Changes like these can be construed as a “penalty” since they are designed to decrease the visibility of sites infringing on Google’s best practices. Many formal definitions of a Google “penalty” include sudden algorithm changes in their description. However, major algorithm changes are designed to:

    • Improve upon Google’s ability to evaluate site quality (though site quality factors generally remain the same; there’s no change in perception of quality, just how that quality is measured).
    • Improve the search experience of a given user.

    The term “penalty,” especially in reference to a manual action, implies a punitive measure that isn’t inherent in Google’s broader pushes. Also, negative shifts due to algorithm changes are often easy to reverse with simple changes to your approach or modifications to your site and backlink profile. Actual penalties are notoriously difficult to remove (just as prison sentences are hard to carry out).

    Real Google Penalties

    articleimage1763 Real Google Penalties

    Now that you have a clear understanding of what Google penalties aren’t, let’s take a look at what they are. Google tends to reserve manual penalty actions only for the most egregious offenders, and as a result, they tend to be harsh and hard to get rid of. Some of these offending actions include:

    • Deliberately buying or selling backlinks to manipulate rank.
    • Consistently spamming content like forum comments or poorly written blog posts.
    • Participating in extended blog networks designed to manipulate ranks, user behavior, or generate ad revenue dishonestly.
    • Illegal activities.

    Furthermore, if you’ve received a manual Google penalty, it won’t just sneak up on you. Most offenders get advanced warnings before the penalties take effect, and when they do, they get an explicit notification sent to the email address of their webmaster (this notification will also be on display under your Webmaster Tools dashboard, if you’re ever in doubt).

    What You Need to Remember

    This has been, at times, a lengthy discussion of semantics, but there are a handful of important practical takeaways. First, understand that most search rank volatility is not the result of a penalty, even if you lose substantial ground in the ranks. Second, real penalties are terribly hard to remove (but aren’t very common). Third, if you have been manually penalized, you’ll know about it. Otherwise, a handful of basic strategic changes and a commitment to ongoing quality are all you need to restore your position. Don’t let yourself fall victim to a “Google penalty” scare.

  6. Related Questions Are Growing – Here’s How to Take Advantage of Them

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    You’ve already experienced them, whether you realize it or not. Whenever you type a question into Google, or a phrase that mimics the structure and intent of a question, you’ll always see a handful of linked results, and occasionally you’ll see what’s known as a “rich answer.” Rich answers take a variety of forms; they could be short, succinct correct answers to your query like “4” when you ask how many quarts are in a gallon. They could be a couple of sentences explaining a complex question like a definition of a common word. They could also exist in other formats, including video, images, or Knowledge Graph entries with common information on a popular subject.

    You might have also noticed occasional boxes popping up about halfway down the SERP, with the title “People also ask” with a handful of questions and queries (between one and four) peripherally related to your original ask. You can click on any one of these queries to reveal a rich answer with a selection of information that answers the query directly.

    These are Google’s “related questions,” and they’re a growing part of the algorithm. In fact, they’re growing at an exponential rate, and if you’re interested in gaining more search visibility in the short-term and long-term, the time to take advantage of them is now.

    How Google is Scaling Up Related Questions

    articleimage1762 How Google is Scaling Up Related Questions

    According to a recent report by Moz, related questions have risen in prevalence by more than 500 percent since July, making it one of the fastest-expanding features of the algorithm and far outpacing other Knowledge Graph features. At the end of July, related questions were present for approximately 1.3 percent of all queries. By December, they were at over 8 percent. This rise was largely illustrated by two major spikes—one near the end of October and one near the beginning of December, implying some kind of push or change occurred around those times and indicating that this was a manual, deliberate step from Google.

    How Related Questions Are Found

    articleimage1762 How Related Questions Are Found

    Most related questions appear to have been generated by a machine learning algorithm. We can tell this because groups of questions sometimes have very similar, but grammatically distinct related questions to expand. For example, “what is a baseball made of?” and “what material is used to make a baseball?” are two practically identical questions that a machine learning algorithm might designate as independent.

    Because of this, it’s likely that the spike in related questions is due to a change or advancement pushed by collected (and possibly checked) information from a machine learning algorithm much like RankBrain. RankBrain was released as an addition to the Hummingbird algorithm, designed to learn more about the semantics of natural language, and transform ambiguous or complex queries into more decipherable versions. It’s clear how a self-updating algorithm like this could feasibly produce a selection of related questions for common inquiries with the slight—but noticeable—discrepancies we’ve found thus far.

    How Related Questions Are Answered

    articleimage1762 How Related Questions Are Answered

    It’s unclear how related questions are answered, but the process is both similar to and independent from the process that discovers and publishes traditional rich answers. For example, if you expand upon a related question, you’ll see a format that resembles a traditional rich answer. However, if you search for the related question independently, the rich answer you acquire will likely be different. This is an indication that related questions and original queries pull from different sources at least some of the time, which makes them controlled by separate algorithms. It’s unclear whether a page-one rank is necessary to be featured as an answer in a related question.

    How Related Questions Are Poised to Grow Further

    articleimage1762 How Related Questions Are Poised to Grow Further

    Typically, when Google experiments with a new feature, it appears in strange intervals, only to a selection of users, and then disappears entirely. With rich answers and related questions, however, these features have stuck around consistently for all platforms and all users, and are growing at an astounding rate. It’s clear that Google is heavily invested in its semantic understanding and ability to answer complex questions, so it’s reasonable to suspect that related questions will continue to grow in prevalence.

    Taking Advantage of Related Questions

    articleimage1762 Taking Advantage of Related Questions

    The key takeaway here is that Google has doubled down on its ability to answer user questions quickly and concisely. If you want to achieve more search visibility as the popularity of this feature rises, it’s in your best interest to answer as many common user questions as concisely as possible:

    • Select content topics based around common user questions you find on forums, in search trends, or when discussing with customers in person.
    • Include a concise, accurate answer to your topical question early on in your article so Google has the potential to find it easily.
    • Use microformatting to ensure that Google can easily crawl and interpret the data on your site, especially for non-debatable answers to questions.

    Taking these steps won’t guarantee you’ll make it as a featured answer to a related question, but they’ll increase your relevance for common user queries regardless. As more details emerge about related questions and how Google finds answers to them, you may find more actionable strategies to earn that visibility. It remains to be seen whether the rise in rich answers and related questions will have a negative impact on organic search traffic, but it’s worthwhile to hedge your bets and position your site to benefit no matter how these features develop.

  7. Are Search Rankings Less Volatile Than They Used to Be?

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    articleimage1744 Are Search Rankings Less Volatile Than They Used to Be

    The most stressful part of SEO is dealing with the sudden, unexpected fluctuations of search ranks that have, for the past 15 years or so, been inevitable. Google will push a new update to its algorithm, and millions of business owners will watch as their ranks inexplicably skyrocket or plummet. What’s maddening isn’t that a change was made, but that it was made without warning; major updates like Panda and Penguin instigated much hair-pulling and scary conference calls, followed by months of desperate recovery, but neither came with a warning.

    Thanks to these iterative pushes, search rankings were once held with a grain of salt—even the most experienced search marketers knew that their hard-earned number one rank might disappear tomorrow. But what about today? Just how volatile are SERPs today compared to Google’s older days of massive revisions, and how ready do you need to be for a sudden, inexplicable change in rank?

    Google’s Recent Update Pattern

    articleimage1744 Google’s Recent Update Pattern

    Panda was the first major shakeup in the modern age of SEO. In 2011, it affected millions of search queries, rewarding sites with awesome content and punishing those with thin or keyword-stuffed content (which, until that point, was a passable strategy). Penguin followed a similar pattern in 2012, leading many to believe that every year, Google would find some new, major way to update its algorithm and send SEO experts scrambling.

    However, this hasn’t been the case. Google’s made some big pushes and some big improvements to its algorithm since—just look at Hummingbird, Pigeon, or the Mobilegeddon update—but none of these have had as substantial an impact on search queries as Panda or Penguin. Google took care of the two biggest problems with its algorithm already: vulnerability to link spam and inefficient graders of content quality. As a result, its newer updates are smaller, focused on specific niches, and generate less of an impact.

    Micro-Updates and Refreshes

    articleimage1744 Micro-Updates and Refreshes

    Don’t mistake the presence of small updates for a lack of effort or improvement on Google’s part. In fact, Google updates its algorithm almost constantly by pushing forward new micro-updates and data refreshes, which tweak existing algorithms and provide new data with which to rank sites. For example, Panda’s been updating on a monthly basis for the past three years, but you probably haven’t noticed it affecting your ranks—that’s because these micro-updates only affect a small percentage of queries. Slowly but surely, Google is improving, but the volatility factor is nearly gone.

    I also want to mention RankBrain here, Google’s latest machine learning algorithm centered on Hummingbird, as I believe it’s the future Google wants to pursue. RankBrain collects data on its own and uses it to, essentially, update itself. As a result, the updates it pushes are tiny, almost to the query level—and it was able to exist for months without people noticing it. Inherently, this system is simultaneously more volatile and less volatile, depending on how you use the word. It processes and pushes far more changes and changes far more ranks per day than anything before it, but these changes are much smaller and less noticeable.

    Fair Warnings and Common Sense

    articleimage1744 Fair Warnings and Common Sense

    Google’s also done a much better job of being transparent with business owners and search marketers as of late. With the Mobilegeddon update earlier this year, webmasters had months of advance notice to take action and correct their mobile issues—even after several years of cautioning the importance of mobile-friendliness for modern sites. Similarly, Google was relatively forthcoming about the nature and extent of RankBrain, and even published its full search quality raters guide earlier this year. These don’t affect volatility directly, but do show that Google isn’t trying to surprise webmasters the way it has in the past with sudden, massive, unexplained changes.

    The Individual Factor

    articleimage1744 The Individual Factor

    If you do notice search volatility, there’s one factor you might be neglecting: the individual factor. Google relies on tons of data to formulate search results, including a user’s previous history, a device’s geographic location, and even the nature of the device. As a result, unless you can copy a search “situation” exactly, it’s likely you’ll find some major differences between accounts, locations, and devices. Don’t mistake this for search volatility; Google isn’t changing the ranks on you, you’re just giving it a different set of commands.

    The Bottom Line

    Search volatility is always going to exist, but it’s different today than it was a decade ago. Rather than occasional periods of massive volatility, today’s shakeups are more frequent and much, much less noticeable. You might change one position overnight, and then change back again before you notice, or over the course of a few months, steadily drop in ranks. But these changes can hardly be expressed as “volatility,” at least not anymore. Google’s updates are faster, smaller, less impactful, and are more about fine-tuning than overhauling.

    What should you take away from this article? The main point I want to get across is that Google’s pretty happy with its search algorithm, and they’re comfortable keeping it relatively stable. Data refreshes, micro-changes, and machine learning-based updates are still constantly rolling out, so you’ll never be fully safe from unexpected changes, but for the most part, you don’t need to be constantly watching over your shoulder. Just keep making the best content you can, listen to Google when they warn you, and stay up-to-date on the latest best practices.

  8. What We Learned From the Official 160-Page Google Search Guideline Document

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    Google’s got a lot to protect. It wants to make sure its users maintain a great overall experience. It wants to make sure webmasters can’t artificially manipulate its ranking system. It also wants to prevent any competitors from directly copying its algorithm or cannibalizing its traffic. All of these reasons justify why Google is typically so secretive and elusive about what it takes into consideration when calculating ranks—except now, it’s released a massive 160-page document comprehensively detailing the factors it takes into consideration.

    It’s called the Search Quality Rater’s Guidelines, and you can read the document for yourself—if you dare. It’s a time-consuming but rewarding process, as the document clarifies a lot of assumptions the SEO community has made in the past and reveals some new factors you might not have realized were taken into account.

    Time is precious, so instead of sending you off to read the document for yourself, I’ve gone through it with a fine-toothed comb to bring you some of the most important takeaways from the piece:

    A Caveat on the Nature of the Document

    articleimage1677 A Caveat on the Nature of the Document

    First, let me explain why the document is important and why you shouldn’t get too excited. Some SEOs are proclaiming this document as some magical recipe for any business to rank for any keyword. Unfortunately, there are no cheat codes here. There are no shortcuts or loopholes to take advantage of. Google isn’t detailing all the finer points of its search engine algorithm; instead, it’s explaining its perspective on what makes sites “good” sites, and how webmasters can improve their sites accordingly. It still takes a lot of work, and not everything can be reduced to a simple, objective answer, but in the course of these 160 pages, Google has done a great deal of explaining, clarifying, and introducing important concepts for search.

    YMYL—What’s Most Important?

    articleimage1677 YMYL—What’s Most Important

    Early in the rater’s guidelines, Google introduces the acronym YMYL, which stands for “your money or your life.” This acronym refers to the pages and sites Google finds most important—those that have the power to directly affect your money or your life. As a money example, an online storefront could influence your purchasing decision and give you a product in exchange for your money. As a life example, a medical database could help you figure out whether or not you need to go to the hospital.

    Pages that deal with money or life are held to a much higher standard than other pages—they are judged more strictly, and queries related to them are interpreted with greater care. As a result, you must prioritize these pages and spend more time ensuring they are accurate, appropriate, and useful.

    E-A-T—the Acronyms Continue

    articleimage1677 the Acronyms Continue

    We all know Google likes to rank “high quality” sites, but what makes them high quality? Google introduces a new acronym—E-A-T—which stands for expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness. The expertise present on a domain functions on a personal level. Who is writing the content on your site? Who is your webmaster? Who is your core team? Google takes this information seriously—known major players in your industry can boost your reputation, while newcomers or unknowns can bring it down. Authoritativeness works the same way, but for your domain rather than your people. Where is your domain mentioned? Who’s mentioning it? How well known is it throughout the web?

    As for trustworthiness, there are a number of other factors here. Is your content backed up with research? Is your page layout inviting, non-threatening, and non-spammy? Does your site have a history of making good impressions on people and seeing positive transactions?

    Reputation Factors

    articleimage1677 Reputation Factors

    When digging into the reputation factors for a site, Google acknowledges the importance of third-party sources for acknowledgement. For example, being listed or cited in Wikipedia automatically imbues some authority. For certain industries, being listed in industry directories or professional listings can also help. The key is to get your business listed and recognized in every listing that matters—it’s not enough to have a lot of backlinks (though that’s still important, too).

    Content Visibility and Accessibility

    articleimage1677 Content Visibility and Accessibility

    Your content is the most important part of your site, so it’s important to keep it visible and accessible at all times. Hopefully, your content already meets Google’s new E-A-T criteria, so beyond that, you’ll need to make it easy for the user to read. First, your site needs to be mobile-friendly—that’s an absolute must. Then, the bulk of your important content needs to be “above the fold” on every major device. Minimize scrolling as much as possible.

    You’ll also want to start paying more attention to supplementary content, a relatively new concept Google explains in the document. Supplementary content includes things like videos, links, and elaborations on the sides, top, or bottom of your pages.

    Needs Met

    When it comes to determining how a page is ranked for a given query, Google calls upon a system of “needs met,” ranging from “not met” to “fully met,” with “slightly met” and “highly met” in between. How your page ranks for this depends on how closely you’re able to answer a user’s query. If a user is searching for a specific product and you have a dedicated page for that product, you stand a fair chance of ranking as “fully met.” On the other hand, if a user has a long, specific inquiry about how to create something, and you only have content that talks about the subject generally, you might only get a “slightly met” needs rating. The lesson here is to include as much specific, detailed information as possible, and always keep your users’ needs in mind.

    Know and Know Simple Queries

    Google spends some time talking about “know queries” and “know simple queries,” which are queries that can be answered succinctly. Know simple queries are queries that can be answered objectively in the span of a sentence or two. Know queries are a bit more complicated, up for debate, or hard to pin down. Either way, for your content to be ranked or used for such an answer, you need to be able to answer user queries directly and succinctly. When crafting “how,” “why,” or other content that answers a question, start putting a short version of the answer near the top of your content body (and elaborate it further on in the piece).

    Updated Content Tricks

    These guidelines also revealed that Google is using a wayback machine to evaluate the true publication dates of your content. If you’re trying to make it appear that your site is updated more often than it is by re-dating old pieces, Google will now be able to catch on to your schemes. This is also true if you’re trying to backdate older archived pieces of content.

    Other Tricks and Schemes

    As always, Google makes sure to list and condemn black hat practices and manipulative schemes that can prevent you from ranking successfully. These include things like spammy link building, supporting a scam, writing low-quality content, and stuffing keywords into your content. Hopefully, by now, you’re staying far away from these types of tactics. Most of them are egregious and easy to avoid, so don’t worry about any surprises cropping up here. If you’re engaging in a black hat practice, you generally know you’re doing it. Google makes it clear that you can’t get away with these anymore.

    Keep Doing What You’re Doing—Mostly

    For those of you thinking “I already knew most of this,” you’re partially correct. Most best practices in SEO—showcasing quality content, avoiding black hat practices, and so on—are still best practices. The key revelations here lie in specificity. We knew Google valued some pages more than others, but we didn’t know that “money” and “life” were its key considerations for relevance. We knew that Google liked “high quality” and “authoritative” websites, but we never knew the relationship between expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness as Google laid them out here.

    The bottom line for you is to keep pursuing best practices, but think carefully about these new revelations and how you can improve your strategy for the better. If you have the time, I do encourage you to read the document in its entirety—if nothing else, it will reinforce your ideas on how search works and get you closer to Google’s way of thinking (which is always a good thing for your search ranks).


  9. 7 Great Google Analytics Functions You Might Have Overlooked

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    For most online marketers, Google Analytics is a godsend. It’s free, it’s simple, and it can tell you pretty much anything you wanted to know about your site. The only problem is, most users end up finding two or three nifty functions, then only using those functions for the remainder of their analytical needs. It’s certainly important to know, measure, and understand things like your total site traffic, organic traffic, and social traffic, but what else do you know about your customers? What other advantages are you tapping from Google Analytics?

    While the functionality of Google Analytics is practically boundless (and still growing), I want to take the time to introduce seven useful functions you might have overlooked thus far:

    1. Behavior Flow.

    articleimage1649 Behavior Flow

    You’ve probably already checked out the “Behavior” tab, where you can see how users react to different pages on your site, including how long it takes for them to bounce and where they generally enter. But the Behavior Flow section takes it to a new level. You might be intimidated by the visual component of the graph here, but if you break it down, it’s nothing that can’t be understood. In fact, it greatly assists you in visualizing the path the average user takes on your site. You can easily see which entry pages are most popular, where users go from there, and where you’re losing the most users. Use it as your guide to sculpt this “ideal” user path.

    2. Long term metrics.

    articleimage1649 Long term metrics

    When you run reports in Analytics, you probably take a look at the last month’s figures, or if you’re very committed, the last week’s. But have you looked at longer trends? Analytics can peer back as far as you’ve had the code on your site, likely giving you several years’ worth of information. Take a look at your traffic patterns between then and now—do you notice any seasonal spikes that could be taken advantage of? Did you have a dip or a substantial gain during a certain year? Have your bounce rates or conversions changed significantly?

    3. Audience locations.

    articleimage1649 Audience locations

    You might not think about your users’ locations, especially if you’re a national brand, but this information can be very helpful in identifying and possibly revising your target audience. Head to the Audience tab, and look at the geographic location of your users. You might find some rogue visitors from other countries that represent a possibility to expand, or you can drill down further and see what state most of your users are coming from. You can use this information to further optimize your site for those audience segments, or appeal to them in your offerings.

    4. Experiments.

    articleimage1649 Experiments

    Hopefully, you’re already conducting experiments in your online marketing strategy. They’re your best tools in learning more and doing better for your target audiences. However, you probably haven’t scoped out Google’s own Experiments section, which you can find under the Behavior tab. Here, you can set up basic experiments around metrics and parameters you define, offering up to 10 different variations of a single page (or target) to compare different segments of traffic against. If you’re interested in learning more or if you get stuck, Google has a great guide for this section.

    5. Goals.

    articleimage1649 Goals

    If you haven’t tapped into Goals already, now’s the time to get started. It’s in your best interest to set up a goal for every significant user action on your site, whether that’s getting to a certain page from a certain page, or filling out a specific conversion form. The more data you collect on these target instances of user behavior, the more ammunition you’ll have to adjust your strategy and optimize it further. You can set up Goals in the Admin tab, then view them in the Conversions tab. The process is relatively straightforward as long as you already have specific goals in mind.

    6. Shortcuts.

    Do you fumble around in Google Analytics every month to create just the right report for your campaign? If so, you haven’t found Shortcuts yet. It’s one of the main tabs on the left-hand side, but it’s often missed by search marketers. Here, you’ll be able to store your most commonly used reports and metrics, and recall them for future iterations.

    7. Device- and browser-based information.

    Found under the Audience tab, you might have overlooked the potential of learning your users’ browser and technology preferences. The Technology and Mobile menus can give you a breakdown of exactly how users are accessing your site, giving you critical insight to ensure your site’s proper functionality and possibly come up with new strategies catering to the majority of your users. For example, if you find the majority of your users are finding your site on Internet Explorer, it might be worth spending more time optimizing for Bing.

    Try these seven functions out for your own brand, and learn some new insights about your site and your customers. You don’t have to use them every week during your regular reports, but cycle them in occasionally to follow-up on one of your goals or see how your patterns are changing. Also, don’t be afraid to dig further into Google Analytics—the intuitive platform is friendly enough that you can probably make sense of new features right away, and if you don’t Google’s always there to help you out with their interactive guides. In the meantime, audit your inbound marketing strategy and see what you can do to improve your newfound metrics.

  10. 7 Reasons Manual Google Updates Are Practically Dead

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    It wasn’t that long ago when business owners and search optimizers felt like they were at Google’s mercy, waiting for the next unpredictable manual algorithm update to shake up their rankings and possibly ruin months of work. Though updates were around before 2011, Panda was the first major push, followed shortly by Penguin in 2012. Now, things are relatively quiet on the update front, but that hasn’t stopped speculators and worriers from constantly “looking around the corner” for the next major shake-up.

    Here’s thing: that shake-up probably isn’t going to come. Massive manual algorithm updates are practically dead, and here are seven reasons why:

    1. Google’s in a pretty good spot.

    articleimage1641 Google’s in a pretty good spot

    When was the last time you ran a personal Google search and came back disappointed with the results? It’s probably been several years. That’s because Google has all but perfected the modern search engine. With Panda ensuring only sites with great content can rank, Penguin filtering out link spam, and Hummingbird providing a better analysis of user queries, it’s unlikely that you’ll ever get an unhelpful or inappropriate list of results. Google has a great foundation now, and spammers are easily kept at bay. Of course, there are always little improvements to be made, but there really isn’t any more need for the type of massive game-changing updates that Google’s become known for.

    2. Updates have grown less and less significant.

    articleimage1641 Updates have grown less and less significant

    Panda was massive, affecting almost 12 percent of all queries. Its close cousin, Penguin, only affected 3 percent. Since then, the significance of each Google update has shrunk. Consider the case of Mobilegeddon, which earlier this year was heralded as the “next big Google update,” and the one capable of changing search ranks forever. Despite having most of the information in advance, panic set in and search markers braced themselves for the worst. When it came out, only a handful of sites saw any meaningful changes. That’s because it didn’t change much in terms of how Google produces search results. It was merely an improvement.

    3. Most updates now roll out gradually and iteratively.

    articleimage1641 Most updates now roll out gradually and iteratively

    You may not realize that Panda and Penguin weren’t one-time updates. Instead, they’ve consistently seen new add-ons and “data refreshes” over the past few years (and continuing today). Why haven’t you noticed? Because these are rolled out gradually and iteratively, layering themselves onto Google’s existing algorithm so nobody sees a major shakeup like they did with the first iteration. Panda rolls out a new refresh practically every month, and this seems to be the general direction Google’s heading—much less severe changes to the fold in favor of more consistent, imperceptible changes.

    4. New forms of search are bleeding into the mainstream.

    articleimage1641 New forms of search are bleeding into the mainstream

    Google is still the go-to search tool for two-thirds of online users, but new forms of search are starting to emerge—and they seem just as powerful and useful as Google (though they lack as much name recognition). Major competitors like Bing and lesser-knowns like DuckDuckGo are starting to grow in numbers, and new digital assistants like Siri and Cortana are changing the landscape of personal search as we know it. For the average search marketer this means two things—one, Google’s losing its status as the be-all, end-all search authority, and two, even if it does push out a manual update, you won’t see as much volatility since your search bets are naturally being hedged.

    5. PageRank hasn’t changed much recently.

    articleimage1641 PageRank hasn’t changed much recently

    This is admittedly one of the less convincing arguments on this list, but take a look at how much PageRank factors have changed in the past few years. It’s changed constantly, a little less each year, for most of the 2000s, but by 2013, it was practically stagnant. In 2014, John Mueller announced that Google would probably never change PageRank again, meaning it’s pretty satisfied with how things are ranking and isn’t interested in a new introduction.

    6. Google’s interested in bigger and better things.

    My big example here is the Google Knowledge Graph, but Google+, Google Now, and other new features and platforms compound this view. Traditional web searches have been favorable and profitable for Google, but the company is ready to move on to wider-reaching, more sophisticated forms of helping users retrieve the information they need. Rather than continuing to perfect an old system, it’s building new systems.

    7. RankBrain is the future of search updates.

    Finally, I want to touch on the importance of RankBrain. RankBrain is an artificial intelligence program that works with Hummingbird to better understand and adapt to user queries—it’s incredibly sophisticated, but the short version of the story is that it updates Google’s algorithm of its own accord. That’s right. Google is now being updated by itself—not by humans—so the big, batched, manually processed updates we’re used to seeing are no more. This is at least true for semantic search analysis for the time being, but don’t be surprised if you see more AI algorithm updating programs emerge in the near future, for Google and other engines.

    Google might come out with another manual update—in fact, it probably still has several more to go. But over the next few years, these updates will grow to be less massive, less impactful, and less noticeable. For you, that means you don’t have to worry about manual Google updates anymore—most of them will disappear, and the few that remain will be beneath your notice.

    Still, the world of search is far from done changing. Its evolution will continue, gradually but significantly, as new technology and user patterns emerge. Pay attention to these changes, stay on top of your strategies, and never stay in one place too long.

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