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Category Archive: SEO

  1. 8 Types of Businesses That Need SEO the Most

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    I’m biased, and I’ll admit that, but I’m a firm believer that SEO is a good strategy for any business. Literally any company in the world can benefit from optimizing their site and online assets for visibility in search engines, and to a degree that’s both significant and cost-efficient. Still, I’d be lying if I said SEO had the same potential for every business. The truth is, some industries just have more to gain from SEO than others due to their competitive positions, key demographics, or propensity to influence consumer searches.

    These eight types of businesses are ones that have the most to gain from SEO—and the most to lose by neglecting it:

    1. Small businesses and startups. First, there are small businesses and startups, both of which have a limited customer base, limited resources and revenue, and occupy a space with a limited target audience. Why is SEO especially beneficial for them? For starters, it doesn’t take much for an initial investment—it’s actually one of the most cost-efficient marketing strategies there are. This eases the burden on your budget, but at the same time leaves you room to scale, which is especially important for growing startups. Small businesses can also get the edge over a bigger competitor by targeting smaller niches within their shared demographics.

    2. SaaS and online service companies. Software-as-a-service (SaaS) companies have grown in popularity over the past few years because of their lucrative and scalable model of operations, not to mention being tied exclusively to the digital realm. SEO is important here because early on, traditional advertising will do almost nothing for you. You need people on your website, trying your product, and that means you need a strong inbound flow of web users (which SEO provides). Plus, your software likely solves a problem for users, and what do users do when they encounter problems these days? They search for a solution.

    3. Niche companies. The term “niche” here is somewhat vague, but I’m referring to any company—big, small, national, or local—that performs a highly specialized function, or otherwise caters to a highly specific target audience. These companies have a huge advantage in the SEO field because they’ve naturally eliminated the competition. You’ll work with a smaller total potential audience and lower inbound traffic numbers, but the relevance of your audience will be much higher (and you’ll have far more competitive keyword opportunities). Use your best judgment here and ask—are there any other companies that target who/what you do?

    4. Locally exclusive companies. Local search actually operates on an algorithm separate from national SEO. You’ll notice this if you perform a local search (using geographic-specific keywords or enabling location awareness on your mobile device); you’ll see three entries above the “usual” organic search results.

    local search results

    As you might imagine, this triple slot availability gives you some incredible strategic opportunities. If you can make your site relevant enough to get to one of these slots, you’ll carry enormous visibility—and you don’t have to worry about competing with national players. For companies that operate exclusively for a local population, this is ideal.

    5. Medical professionals. Medical professionals, such as general practitioners, specialists, and physical therapists, have a number of advantages that other industries don’t. First, they have a specific field of specialization (for the most part), immediately reducing competition and providing keyword opportunities. Second, they operate locally, giving them an even better competitive edge in the market. Finally, most people end up searching for a provider when they’re experiencing symptoms or pain, putting search as one of the best ways to connect you with your target audience.

    6. Legal professionals. Legal professionals enjoy many of the same benefits that medical professionals do. They usually specialize in one key area, giving them a strong competitive advantage and fresh keyword opportunities, and their potential audiences are likely performing searches to find solutions to their legal troubles. Most lawyers and legal service providers also operate locally, giving them the opportunity to capitalize on local search as well.

    7. Maintenance professionals. There are dozens of sub-types of “maintenance” professionals; I’ve left this category vague and open for a reason. For example, a car mechanic could qualify just as well as a plumber or a roofer. The idea here is that these professionals help you when something physical is broken or in need of updating in your life. Why is this a good area for SEO? Because the item is physical, that implies a degree of locality, making local SEO a strong option. Because it’s broken, the owner will likely be searching for solutions, and because it may be an emergency, you’ll have an even higher likelihood of converting potential searchers due to their immediate need of assistance.

    8. Restaurants and bars. Restaurants and bars also need SEO. Even if they operate as part of a larger chain, they’re still tied to one physical location, which makes them ideal for capitalizing on local SEO. Depending on the nature of the business, specialized terms are a likely possibility for competitive dominance, and of course, most people search for places to eat on a semi-imperative basis. This creates a perfect storm of opportunity for search visibility, though the goal should be to get people in the door rather than onto a website.

    Again, these businesses aren’t the only ones that can benefit from a strong SEO campaign, but they do stand to benefit more than other types of companies. If you belong to one of these businesses and SEO isn’t currently a part of your marketing lineup, you need to seriously reconsider your strategic position, and soon—the longer you invest in SEO, the more of a payout you’ll see from it.

  2. Everything You Wanted to Know About Mobile Optimization

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    If you’ve been plugged into the online marketing community at any point in the past 10 years, you’ve likely heard the phrase “mobile optimization” thrown around. It’s a buzzword, but it’s a fundamentally important one, so I wanted to put together this comprehensive guide to explain exactly what mobile optimization is (and exactly what it isn’t), everything that it currently and could potentially entail, how to check to see if your site is mobile optimized, and what to do if it isn’t.

    There have been a number of misconceptions and half-truths circulating about mobile optimization, mostly as extremist responses to major announcements by tech companies like Google, and a panic that’s set in thanks to the rising trends of mobile use in most demographic segments. Fortunately, once you understand it, mobile optimization is relatively simple, and your site might already be in the clear. Still, there’s an ongoing component to mobile optimization—striving for a perfection that can never be reached—so there’s always more to learn about the process.

    What is mobile optimization?

    Here’s the simplest definition of mobile optimization you’re liable to find on the Internet: mobile optimization is changing your site to be as usable and convenient as possible for users on mobile devices. Ten years ago, mobile devices didn’t exist (or at least, weren’t popular), so most sites were designed specifically for desktop screens. Mobile screens, like those on smartphones, offer a handful of unique elements that desktop-designed sites can’t address:

    • Smaller screen sizes make it harder to view full-size pages, especially when it comes to viewing images and reading text.
    • Finger-based interactions make small, precision buttons on desktop sites hard to manage.
    • The diversity of devices available makes it hard to present an all-in-one solution.
    • Mobile browser compatibility is not universal, and not all types of code show up for all browsers.

    Mobile optimization strives to fix all these problems.

    Why optimize for mobile?

    You may be asking yourself what the benefits of mobile optimization are. After all, a good chunk of your user base is still accessing your site through desktop devices, and even those who aren’t can get most of the same experiences even on the un-optimized version of your site, right?

    Consider these benefits of mobile optimization before neglecting the strategy altogether:

    • SEO. Google (and other search engines) are staunch supporters of “ideal” mobile experiences. They want every site online to be “mobile friendly,” and they’re taking action to make it happen by penalizing sites that aren’t optimized for mobile and rewarding sites that are. Just by optimizing your site for mobile, you’ll earn higher positions in Google search results, resulting in more traffic to your site. In addition, you’ll earn a little badge next to your site’s name, telling users that your site is, indeed, mobile-friendly:

    mobile friendly website

    (Image Source: Google)

    • User experience. Some users are going to access your site through desktop, but the impressions mobile users get from a site are substantial. If a first-time visitor on a mobile device sees your content not loading properly or has a poor experience, he/she may not come back. Even loyal customers who don’t have a great mobile experience could leave you in favor of a competitor who can offer such an experience. Both your customer satisfaction and your brand reputation are on the line here.
    • Rising importance. These benefits are fantastic today, but what you really have to consider is their future value. Mobile devices and mobile web browsing are poised to surge dramatically over the course of the next several years. The longer you wait, the more benefits you’ll miss out on, and the worse position you’ll be in for the coming years.

    Let’s take a look at the factors shaping mobile user experiences, and how they relate to mobile optimization overall.

    The Mobile Landscape

    We’re in the middle of an era that revolves around mobile experiences, and it’s not going away anytime soon.

    Rising trends in mobile use

    It was May of 2015 when Google announced that mobile searches had overtaken desktop searches for the first time ever. Now, we’re on an ever-accelerating upward trajectory, with mobile use still growing and desktop use starting to look more and more obsolete.

    mobile usage

    (Image Source: SmartInsights/ComScore)

    Why the steep growth? Mobile Internet access used to be nothing more than a novelty, to be used in rare circumstances by a fraction of the population. Coverage was limited, speeds were egregiously slow, devices were clumsy, and smartphones were only in the hands of the super tech-savvy. But slowly, tech giants have favored mobile use with innovative features like better touchscreens, voice-activated search, faster Internet, and better geographic positioning. Collectively, these improvements have led more users to rely on mobile devices, which in turn has prompted more tech companies to invest in mobile technology. It’s a self-perpetuating and exponential cycle with no end in sight.

    Google’s response

    Google is one of these forerunners of mobile technology, and they’re one of the biggest influencers of this steep rising trend in mobile use. The company unveiled its Voice Search product back in 2002, and local search started developing even before that, but they’ve been two major areas of development in the past decade. Voice search has become more intuitive, local search has been integrated with mobile, and most importantly, Google started giving ranking advantages to sites that ranked well on mobile devices. For a while, this was somewhat informal and unspoken, but back in April of last year, it took a massive leap forward.

    Mobilegeddon v. 1.0

    Announcing the update nearly two months in advance, Google proactively warned webmasters that on April 21, it would be launching a massive update to reward sites that had been properly optimized for mobile and penalize those that had not. This was a rare move for the company, as most of its search algorithm updates came as undocumented, unannounced surprises that the rest of us optimizers had to scramble to try and crack. Now, Google heads were telling us exactly what to expect—more or less.

    The search community went on a rampage, donning the coming update as “mobilegeddon,” and using it as an opportunity to wrangle up business from webmasters who hadn’t yet updated their sites for mobile devices, or how exactly to go about it. Some insisted that this reaction was overblown, and to a degree it was, but the impact of “mobilegeddon” was still significant.

    desktop vs mobile

    (Image Source: SearchEngineLand)

    It’s not impossible for non-mobile-friendly sites to rank today, and desktop searches weren’t hit as hard as mobile searches, but it’s still a significant difference to note. Without a mobile-friendly site, your SEO potential is seriously compromised—and that update is here to stay.

    Another Mobilegeddon?

    In fact, there’s some evidence to suggest that Google may be planning another mobilegeddon-style update, to serve as an expansion to the first one. We don’t have a lot of details about this new update, other than the fact that it’s coming out in May of this year, but it’s speculated that this will serve to “boost” the original ranking signals heralded in by mobilegeddon version 1.0. Google has announced that webmasters of existing sites that are optimized for mobile will need to make no further changes to their sites.

    The Bottom Line

    What’s the key takeaway here? Mobile-friendly sites are a necessity if you want to remain visible and preserve your brand’s reputation in the modern era. Mobile trends aren’t going away, and if your site isn’t optimized for mobile yet, you’re actively losing traffic and user engagement.

    Guidelines for Mobile Optimization

    Now that the “mobile landscape” is out of the way and you have a good idea what you can expect from mobile optimization, let’s dig into the details of exactly what mobile optimization entails. These are mostly a series of onsite changes that you can implement to make your site appear and perform better on mobile and alternative devices, but there are many options when it comes to implementation and of course, testing.

    The Basics

    Let’s start with the basics. These are hallmarks of mobile optimization that you can’t ignore, and following all of them will put you in pretty good shape to be qualified as “mobile-friendly:”

    • Don’t block CSS, images, or JavaScript. These are all coding elements or types of content that you may be tempted to block from Google search crawlers, or otherwise disable for your users, to ensure a good mobile experience. You need to keep all these elements present and available to Googlebot (as well as other search crawlers) or you’ll run into indexation problems. All the mobile optimizing and high-quality content in the world won’t do you much good if Google isn’t indexing your site in the first place.
    • Ensure all your images and videos load properly. This is a crucial step, as most mobile browsers and devices function differently than desktop-based means of accessing content. You may find that on some mobile browsers, your content loads perfectly fine, but on others, all you see is a “file not found” or similar message. This is bad news, both for human visitors and for search crawlers, so if you discover one of these compatibility problems, you’re going to need to update your site. You’ll also want to make sure these images and videos are loading quickly, but that’s a separate bullet point altogether.
    • Make your text visible without zooming or scrolling. One of Google’s biggest concerns with mobile-friendliness is the convenience and navigability of your site. Design is important, but realistically, your text is the most important material on your site. If users have a hard time reading that text, your site isn’t doing its job, so to optimize your site for mobile, you need to ensure that all the text of your site is visible (i.e., readable) without the need for users to zoom or scroll horizontally. Take a look at this handy guide image Google created, illustrating how you can rearrange a site to better present your written information to mobile users:

    mobile responsive design

    (Image Source: Google)

    • Make buttons finger-clickable. No matter how much you love using your mobile device, you have to admit that the precision of an old-school computer mouse handily out-performs the clumsiness of your own fingers. When it comes to buttons, menus, dropdowns, choices, and other interactive elements, precision is notoriously difficult. If you want your site to be mobile-friendly, all those actionable elements need to be easily navigable with fingers. There’s no hard rule for this, such as the recommended size of a button, but you can generally rely on your best judgment. Test it and see how you’re able to fare with your own fingers—this is more intuitive than it is programmatic or mathematical.
    • Improve your page loading speed. Page loading time is a significant website factor, primarily for user experience but also for search ranking potential. Have you ever been to a webpage that takes longer than a second or two to load? It’s terrible. We should be ashamed of ourselves for our low attention spans, but it’s terrible. If your site takes too long to load, your users won’t even give you a chance, so keep your site as lean as possible by using the right image formats, reducing your multimedia sizes, clearing old drafts and meta data, and using a good caching plugin. The problem is compounded on mobile devices, since Internet speeds are usually much lower, so you’ll have to do double duty here.
    • Avoid Flash. Thanks in part to Apple’s crackdown on Flash compatibility in iPhone (and similar) devices, Flash is pretty much obsolete these days. Unless you have some niche function that literally can’t exist without Flash, or an already-dedicated user base, there’s no excuse to continue using it. It won’t load properly on mobile devices, and it’s only going to grow more archaic as the years roll on.
    • Avoid pop-ups. Some pop-ups can be valuable, such as prompts to sign up for an email newsletter, but as much as possible, you’ll want to disable these on mobile devices. Pop-ups are somewhat annoying on desktop devices, but on mobile devices, they’re even worse—not only is it harder to click them away with a finger, there’s also the likelihood that you’ll miss-press and end up loading a bulky page you didn’t intend. Don’t put your users through this experience unless you have to.

    Going Above and Beyond

    The above “best practices” are the basic ones you’ll need to comply with Google’s mobile standards and get your site seen as “mobile-friendly” by search engines. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean your mobile optimization journey is complete. Meeting the basic requirements will help you appeal to search engines, but you also have to bear your users in mind. Yes, meeting the above thresholds will be valuable for users, but if you really want to sell the experience of your site, you’ll need to go above and beyond the line of duty:

    • Maximize loading speed. Don’t just strive for a slightly faster website—try to outdo all your competitors here. If you can get your page loading in a second or less, your users will notice the difference. If you have lots of images to show off, this can be difficult, but you can still strive for on-page minimalism. Keep your content lean and focused, and reduce your image sizes as much as possible without sacrificing the quality. Get rid of any plugins on your backend that you aren’t currently using, and make sure your caching plugin settings are optimized for page performance.
    • Design specifically for mobile experiences. There’s a difference between taking an existing website and shoehorning it into decent mobile experiences, and designing specifically for mobile experiences. Unless you’ve done the research to prove that your target audience still uses mostly desktop devices (and plans to stay there indefinitely), it’s a good idea to redesign your website from the ground-up for your mobile audience. That means arranging all your content vertically, redesigning interactive functions to appeal to small touch screens, and visualizing your site completely differently. If you use an eCommerce platform, this will similarly need updating—there are many user interactions here, and mobile user interactions can make or break the experience.
    • Test and evaluate differences in user behavior to improve. Don’t just assume that your changes will be valuable to mobile users; you can use a degree of intuition to help guide your creativity and reaffirm the benefits of your changes once they’re actually applied, but don’t neglect the follow-up of measuring your user behavior. How are your users interacting with your site? Are they engaging the way you thought they would? Can you strive for something even better? Don’t be afraid to make iterative tweaks here, gradually building up your overall mobile performance.

    Implementation

    Aside from smaller factors like optimizing your images, there are three main ways you can implement broad mobile changes to your website:

    • Responsive design. The first, and most important, is what’s known as “responsive design.” This is the method currently favored by Google, and it’s one of the easiest to implement. It also gives you the most flexibility of any of the three options, and is the easiest to troubleshoot if something goes wrong.

    Essentially, the idea here is to code your site to automatically detect the size of the screen viewing it and adapt its material accordingly. For example, you might have a desktop layout like the one on the left in the diagram below, but when a user tries to access the same site on a mobile device, the site with “sense” it, and rearrange its components to be viewed conveniently.

    responsive design

    (Image Source: Google)

    This may seem space-aged or incredibly difficult to incorporate, but the reality is, there are many responsive options available these days. In fact, if you have a WordPress site, or use any popular CMS, you can easily find a free responsive template on which to build your site. It’s super popular for a reason.

    • Dynamic serving. In dynamic serving, you’ll essentially be creating multiple versions of your site in the backend code. Here, you’ll be able to control—with precision—the differences between how your site shows up on desktop devices versus mobile devices. Though the backend coding is going to be different, your URLs are going to be the same; your server will determine what type of device is being used to access your URL, and will serve up the code that’s most appropriate.
    • Separate URLs. With separate URLs, you’ll also be creating a separate version of your site, only this time it’s going to be hosted on an entirely separate URL (usually some variation of your root domain, such as mobile.example.com).

    If you’re having trouble visualizing or comparing these methods against each other, here’s a handy chart that Google created to explain the differences:

    google chart respnosive design

    (Image Source: Google)

    There are some pros and cons to each method, but ultimately, responsive comes out on top in most scenarios:

    responsive design pros cons

    (Image Source: Moz)

    Other forms of mobile SEO

    When it comes to the search optimization element of mobile optimization, there isn’t much more to be seen. The basic standards of onsite and offsite optimization apply here, and of course you’ll need to come up with high-quality content on a regular basis, but there’s nothing else specifically for mobile devices that you’ll need to do on an ongoing basis.

    Testing

    Let’s say you’ve done everything I’ve outlined above—even the “above and beyond” stuff—and you’re confident that your site is sufficiently optimized for mobile. Just how confident are you? Are you willing to bank the visibility of your website on it?

    Even if you feel supremely confident, it’s important that you test your assumptions.

    Device Differences

    One of the biggest reasons to test yourself is because of the sheer diversity of devices that are currently out there. Each device has its own quirks, layout issues, and rendering issues, and if you want your site to be as mobile compliant as possible, you’ll have to adapt for all of them. Just because your site looks fine on your specific model of smartphone doesn’t mean it’s similarly rendering across the board.

    devices used to search

    (Image Source: SmartInsights)

    • Desktops/laptops. Desktop and laptop devices aren’t ones you’ll have to worry about—at least not generally. If your site is working properly on any other mobile device, it’s probably working just fine on desktops. Besides that, Google doesn’t care much about desktop optimization these days anyway.
    • Smartphones. Smartphones make up the biggest market share of mobile users, and are the biggest concern you should have when it comes to site performance. Android, iPhone, and Windows Phone devices all fall under this category.
    • Tablets. Tablets generally have screens bigger than a smartphone but smaller than a desktop device, and may be oriented vertically or horizontally. It’s good to know how your site will look in both orientations because of this.
    • Multimedia phones. Multimedia phones are ones that can “meet XHTML standards, support HTML5 Markup, JavaScript/ECMAscript but might not support some of the extension APIs in the HTML5 standard.” Generally, any 3G-compatible phone that isn’t a smartphone falls into this category.
    • Feature phones. Feature phones can’t render standard websites, and instead rely on things like cHTML (iMode), WML, and XHTML-MP.

    Conducting Your Tests

    Google is one your side. Google wants your site to be mobile-friendly. Accordingly, they’ve developed a handy online test you can use to determine whether or not your site passes their basic standards. Run your site through this test and Google will let you know exactly what—if any—errors or incompatibilities it finds. If you pass this test, you won’t have to worry about any irregularities in your search rank or visibility.

    mobile friendly test

    (Image Source: Google)

    Even if you pass Google’s standard test, it’s a good idea to run tests on your own devices, or through a service like MobileTest.me, which will allow you to “simulate” how your site appears on different browsers and devices. This is because even officially mobile-friendly sites can have visual hiccups or unpleasant factors in their design that compromise your intentions or show up differently than you expected. Use this stage of testing to weed those errors and fault points out.

    A Note on App SEO

    All of the insights I’ve shared thus far have been relegated to optimizing websites for mobile browsers, but there’s another form of user interaction on mobile devices you should be preparing your business for: apps. Apps have surged in popularity, just as mobile devices have, and there’s no sign that their growth has an end point. In fact, they’re responsible for much more mobile use than web browsers.

    time spent on mobile apps

    (Image Source: SmartInsights)

    To address this, Google’s been implementing a number of functions and updates for what’s becoming known as “app SEO,” including the basic presence of apps in search engines, app deep linking to take users to specific screens within apps downloaded on their devices, and even app streaming, which allows users to access apps they haven’t downloaded.

    It’s not entirely certain whether apps may one day replace traditional websites, but they are becoming more important and they’re presenting more opportunities for marketers. Keep a close eye on their development as you fine-tune your strategic approach for mobile users.

    Key Takeaways

    This has been a long and exhaustive guide, so if you’re looking for some key takeaways, these are the highlights you should walk away with:

    • Mobile optimization is a necessity. If you want to rank, or if you want to keep your users happy, or both, mobile optimization is an absolute necessity. Mobilegeddon made this so last year, and that update alone is growing in significance. You can’t run away from this.
    • Responsive design is Google’s solution of choice. If you’re currently using dynamic serving or separate URLs, you can manage just fine, but responsive design is Google’s optimization method of choice. If you’re just now optimizing your site for mobile, this is the way to go.
    • Testing can help you find and correct any issue. No matter what stage of optimization you’re in, utilizing tools like Google’s Mobile Friendly test can help you sniff out and troubleshoot any problem with the mobile rendering of your site. You don’t have to rely on your assumptions or instincts.
    • You’ll want more than just the basics. Meeting all of Google’s baseline requirements for mobile-friendly sites is a good start, and will ensure you aren’t penalized for not being mobile-friendly, but if you want to succeed from a user experience perspective, you’ll have to do more to make your site functional and convenient on mobile devices.

    Mobile is a segment poised for even more expansive growth in the coming decade. If you want your brand and your website to not just survive, but outlast the competition, you need to prioritize the experiences of your mobile audience.

  3. How to Use Landing Pages to Earn More Revenue

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    Every business could use more revenue; it’s why online marketing exists and remains so popular across a number of strategies and platforms. But there’s a tactic that many marketers aren’t using, and it’s a relatively simple one, at least conceptually. It has to do with landing pages, which exist as somewhat separate pages of your website. Depending on how you create, integrate, and monitor and adjust these “landing pages” in the context of your overall marketing strategies, you could stand to earn far more sales—and revenue for your business.

    This guide will introduce you to the concept of landing pages, how to implement them effectively, and best practices for securing long-term gains for your investment.

    What is a “landing page”?

    First, let’s define exactly what a “landing page” is. There are a variety of forms here, but the basic concept is simple. A landing page is a specifically dedicated page of your website tied to some means of attracting customers. Visitors from various channels, such as social media or paid advertising, will “land” on these pages after clicking a link, and be presented with an opportunity to engage. Usually, these engagements are tied to some kind of value, making the focal point of the landing page a conversion opportunity. Usually, these pages are left off the main navigation, as they serve a niche function and may not be relevant for your standard audience.

    For example, you could create a landing page for your social media audience, advertising an eBook you’ve recently written. You could use this eBook as an incentive for new email newsletter subscribers, funneling your followers to the form contained in your landing page and securing a number of successful conversions.

    Landing pages offer a number of advantages, which I’ll get into in the next main section, but first, let’s take a look at exactly why landing pages are one of the best tools you have to increase your bottom-line revenue.

    Revenue and conversions

    The goal here is to gain more conversions, but the type of conversion you seek is up to you. Your conversion could be tied to a direct means of achieving revenue—such as selling a specific product—or an indirect means—such as acquiring more signups for your email newsletter. Either way, your goal is to get users to interact with your page on some level, which will ultimately drive more revenue to your business.

    How can landing pages do this?

    Key Advantages of Landing Pages

    Landing pages give your campaign a number of distinct advantages, most of which revolve around the customizability of the strategy. You can create a number of different landing pages, running simultaneously or one at a time, for any and all inbound marketing campaigns you have in operation, and keep them separate from the rest of your website at the same time. In this section, we’ll explore these individual advantages, and some key opportunities for development.

    Better audience targeting

    First off, landing pages give you an enhanced ability to target your audience. Let’s say you have two demographic segments: you appeal to single, young adults as well as parents of young children. These are two distinct demographics, and you’ll likely use two different marketing methods to target them (such as newer social media platforms for young adults and paid advertising for parents). If you funnel them both to the same website, you’ll have to speak in generic terms, which could lower your relevance and overall engagement, but landing pages give you the ability to segment your audience according to their demographic makeup.

    This is perfectly illustrated by the pizza-related landing pages below. Look how one variant targets families specifically, while the other targets single eaters.

    pizza landing pages design

    (Image Source: WishPond)

    Better analytics

    Using landing pages can also help you get better data from your audience, in a number of different ways. First, you’re isolating your customers’ behavior to only one page; rather than tracking the complicated paths your users take throughout your website to convert, the process is a simple yes/no opportunity. Second, when you have multiple landing pages running at the same time, it’s easy to compare your data apples-to-apples. Take a look at this chart as an example:

    landing page analytics hubspot

    (Image Source: Hubspot)

    Finally, you have a better ability to track your performance over time, which is vital as you make adjustments to your marketing page (and your landing page as well—more on that in the next section).

    Just keep in mind that in order to reap the analytics benefits of a landing page, you need to be actively tracking and measuring this data. The simple installation of a Google Analytics script is likely enough to get you the information you need here, but double check your tracking proactively to make sure everything’s in order before your campaign goes live.

    AB tests and experimentation

    Due to their flexible nature and similar structure, you can easily use landing pages as AB tests and as platforms for experimentation. On a surface level, this makes it easier to analyze and improve your landing pages over time. For example, if you aren’t sure what type of layout to offer, you can set up two almost-identical landing pages with differences in layout, run them simultaneously for the same audience, and objectively determine which one is better. And since landing pages are relatively easy to create, you don’t even have to limit yourself to AB tests—you can do ABC or ABCDE if you have the resources for it.

    AB tests

    (Image Source: Hubspot/ComScore)

    Experimentation here will maximize your landing pages’ potential profitability, so use it often as a means of self-improvement. It’s hard to say exactly what factors will encourage more conversions, so tweak everything to see what works and what doesn’t.

    Short-term campaigns

    You don’t have to use landing pages only for destinations in your long-term inbound marketing campaigns. In fact, they have a distinct advantage when used as measures for short-term stints, such as temporary promotions or seasonal items.

    For example, let’s say you’re featuring a sale on one of your top items, or that you have a new product you’re coming out with. You can use a landing page to build specific hype around your promotion without deviating from your standard website strategy.

    Search optimization

    One of the greatest advantages of landing pages is their ability to be optimized for search. Even though they main not appear in your main navigation, or be straightforwardly accessible to users on your site, they still have the URL structures, titles, descriptions, and on-page content that any page can use to rank for a Google search:

    ultimate guide to onsite seo

    What’s the advantage here, when you could just create a specific page of your website to do the job? The big opportunity is to target niche keywords you may not otherwise include throughout your site. It allows you to cater to specific topics and specific audiences without interfering with the rest of your strategy. Of course, you’ll still need backlinks and offsite optimization if you want your landing pages to rank, but I’ll touch on this in a future section.

    Best Practices for Landing Pages

    Now you know exactly how and why landing pages are valuable, so let’s turn our attention to making the most of each landing page. It’s not enough to simply create a page, tie it to an inbound campaign, and hope for the best. There are a series of best practices you’ll have to follow, in concept, design, content, and execution, if you want to earn the greatest amount of revenue from the tactic.

    Conversion opportunity

    The bottom line for any landing page is the number of conversions it can generate. Naturally, you’ll want yours to earn as many conversions as possible. For that, you’ll need to optimize your page to encourage more conversions, regardless of what “type” of conversion you’re offering.

    • Overall focus. Think of your landing page as a machine to generate conversions. That is your focus. If you keep everything on your landing page focused on achieving more conversions, you’ll maximize your conversion rate. Otherwise, you run the risk of getting distracted with things like promoting your company image or leading users to other sections of your site. Your design, layout, and copy should all “funnel” the user to fill out your form (or complete a purchase), with no opportunities for that focus to be lost. These are concise, singularly functional pages, so don’t let yourself get carried away with chasing secondary goals.
    • Prominent call-to-action. You’ll also need a prominent and final “call-to-action” on your landing page. Even though your headlines and copy should make it clear that you want your users to convert, your CTA (usually a button) will be the final threshold a user has to cross before passing revenue to your business. Make it prominent with contrasting coloration, a strong, compelling phrase, and a bit of explanatory text as well. CrazyEgg demonstrates this well:

    call to action crazy egg

    (Image Source: Wordstream/CrazyEgg)

    A valuable offer

    Conversion opportunities can be lumped into two main groups: product purchases and user signups. In both groups, you’ll have to prove the value of your offer before a user will be persuaded to convert. In the case of product purchases, this means you have to show off the value of your product with bullet points, advantages, and possibly reviews and case studies. Make your user see the true value of your product.For user signups, don’t take user personal information for granted—there’s a value to this, and you’ll have to provide a value in return if you want to receive it. There are several ways you can do this:

    • Free trials. You could offer a free trial of your service, especially if you’re a SaaS company. This will entice users to part with their personal information, and will give you an easy opportunity to sell them on your full services down the road.
    • Free content. This is an extremely popular way to earn new user signups. Here, you’ll create a landmark piece of content, such as an eBook, a template, a toolkit, or even a lesson series, and offer it as an exchange for users’ personal data. Hubspot uses this on a rotating basis:

    brilliant home page design

    (Image Source: Hubspot)

    • Newsletter subscription. You could use your email newsletter as the “value” in question—as long as you can succinctly prove that the content you’re distributing is actually valuable.
    • Discounts. Finally, you can give users discounts or promotions (on your products or an unaffiliated brand’s) in exchange for their information.

    Concise headlines and copy

    The content of your landing page is going to make a big difference in how users interact with it. First, make sure your headlines and body copy are concise—now isn’t the time for long paragraphs of highly detailed content. Provide a link to your main site for users who want to learn more about you, but keep your landing page material as short and sweet as possible. Remember, your goal is to get a conversion. Nothing more, nothing less.

    You’ll want your headlines to be compelling and exciting, so show off your brand personality and use strong, urgent language to motivate your users to take action. Use your body copy to sell your offer (bullet points work great here) and of course, be sure to craft a powerful few-words-long phrase to use as your final CTA. This is one of the hardest areas to nail, so don’t be afraid if you don’t have it perfect in round one—there are plenty of ways to experiment with your headlines and copy as you continue your strategy.

    Aesthetically appealing design

    “Aesthetically appealing” is one of the vaguest and subjective phrases I can think of to describe the layout and visual appeal of a landing page, but it’s appropriate because of how many directions you can take here.

    There’s a basic “formulaic” kind of layout you can use to get started. This usually has your form featured prominently, with your logo, headlines, body copy, and peripheral material (like images and/or video) stacked against each other. This is good to get started with, but you’ll also want to customize your approach—you don’t want your landing page to look like every other page out there.

    landing page design example

    (Image Source: Unbounce)

    The key features here are keeping all your content “above the fold” (a term that means less and less as mobile marketing becomes more significant), using colors and fonts to emphasize key areas and avoid missed material, and organizing your sections as logically as possible. Strive for an “at a glance” style of presentation; remember, your users will be making their decisions rather quickly, so you need to convince them as swiftly as possible.

    One other important note about your design; keep it as branded as possible. You’ll want to feature your logo at the top of your landing page, keep the coloration in line with your brand, and of course leverage the power of your brand voice throughout. Make your brand stand out—even if you don’t convert users, you’ll at least stick in their memory.

    Easy, approachable functionality

    The functionality of your landing page is also important—if users are forced to jump through hoops, or if they become frustrated in any way by your page, they’ll abandon it without converting. These are just a few of the simple ways you can improve your functionality:

    • Don’t force a scroll. All of your most important content, especially your form, should be featured above the fold. If you make users scroll before you start effectively convincing them, you’ll lose deals. Feel free to offer content below the fold, but keep it limited to supplementary material that not everyone’s going to need.
    • Reduce your required fields. This is a huge deal—users want to spend as little time on your tasks as possible, so keep your forms limited to only a handful of fields. If all you’re looking for is subscribers or additions to your database, consider asking only for names and email addresses. If you have a particularly valuable offer, you can ask for more.
    • Simplify your steps. Users should complete your conversion process in as few steps as possible. If you force them to go through many steps of a checkout, they may bounce before ever completing the process. A one-click checkout isn’t always possible, but it’s something to strive for.
    • Improve loading times. This is a basic step, but one that shouldn’t be ignored; keep your loading time snappy by reducing your image sizes, limiting your on-page content (images and videos), and eliminating any unnecessary code or meta data from your back end.

    Trust factors

    Before users will convert, they have to have some level of trust in your brand. Since most of these users will be unfamiliar with your brand when they sign up, this can be difficult to pull off—you need to call upon the value of trust factors to get the job done:

    • Customer reviews and testimonials. Include a handful of customer reviews and testimonials. For some brands, this will mean going all-out with personalized video reviews. For others, it will mean showing off an aggregated star rating. Either way, social proof can go a long way in securing the trust of your newest visitors.
    • Publisher and partner affiliations. If you have partnerships, publishers, or affiliations that will seem valuable to your users, show them off! They take up very little space, and make a big impression with your users. Take a look at how AudienceBloom uses them:

    affiliations

    (Image Source: AudienceBloom)

    • Trust badges. Trust badges are like publisher affiliations, but are usually associated with institutions like the BBB, PayPal, or other places that offer formal certifications for various business elements.
    • Guarantees and trials. You can also secure trust by making the transaction more secure; for example, you can offer a money-back guarantee, or promise a free trial before having to start. Even a simple statement of “it’s free!” can increase your conversion rate:

    free trials landing page design

    (Image Source: Unbounce)

    • Alternate contact information. Give people more options to reach you, such as with a phone number or a live chat window. Most people won’t take you up on this information, but they’ll feel like you’re more “real” if you offer it, and they’ll grow to trust you more.

    Search optimization

    Finally, you’ll want to optimize your landing page for search engines. I’m only going to touch on the basics here, since I’ve delved into topics of onsite and offsite optimization previously:

    • Onsite factors. Make sure your landing page has a title and description appropriate to its purpose, and relevant to potential searchers. You’ll also want to make sure your URL is concise, descriptive, and features as few numbers and non-alphanumeric characters as possible. You should have at least a few hundred words of content on your page, and all your images and videos should be optimize to be crawled by search engines. If your landing page is relevant to the rest of your onsite content, you can even work on interlinking it.
    • Offsite factors. Most of your offsite optimization will revolve around the quantity and quality of links pointing to your landing page. Strategically target publishers to maximize your relevance to your target audience, and diversify your portfolio by including a number of different backlink sources. This will increase your page authority, which in turn will increase your proclivity to rank for relevant queries—just make sure your links are valuable and relevant, which can be hard to pull off if your landing page is focused strictly on sales.

    Integrating Your Landing Pages

    Most of the best practices I’ve covered thus far have related to the layout and structure of a single landing page, existing in a vacuum. Once a user gets to your landing page, these tactics will help you tremendously. But what about the path they take to your landing page, and what about how they relate to the strategies driving customers to them in the first place?

    For these considerations, you’ll also have to learn to integrate your landing pages effectively.

    Match the medium

    When structuring your landing page and drawing up headline copy, keep your chosen medium in mind. For example, let’s say you’re tying one of your landing pages to a segment of your social media audience. In this case, you can assume that most of your users will be on mobile devices, they’ll be looking for fast transactions, and they’re probably plugged into current events. Contrast this with a traffic source like referral traffic from a major source of information—these users will likely be in the middle of a major decision, and will have more time to consider their next actions carefully.

    Of course, it’s possible to send multiple traffic streams to a single landing page, especially if your target demographics have multiple means of communication and interaction. This is a general consideration, and should be treated with a degree of flexibility.

    Match the message

    You’re also going to want to match the message of your lead-in closely. For paid advertising campaigns, your landing page content should closely match the headline and copy you used in your ad. For other campaigns, you likely used a headline or short sentence to draw people in. Whatever the case, you need to keep a degree of consistency, or else your users are going to feel alienated and jarred when they start navigating your page.

    VistaPrint has a great example of message-matching done right. Take a look at the process here—a search for “cheap business cards” leads to this prominent advertisement, which promises 500 cards for $9.99. Click on the link and you’ll be met with the basic headline “standard business cards,” which matches the query and the ad, along with a price and quantity offer that exactly meets the expectations the ad set up.

    cheap business cards

    vista print landing page

    (Image Source: VistaPrint)

    There are no surprises and no sudden changes here.

    Compare and contrast

    Finally, I highly encourage you to launch more than one landing page, even if it’s only two variations of the same idea. Just as conducting a survey with one person doesn’t give you nearly as much information as conducting the same survey with many people, the more landing pages you have to look at in similar live environments, the better. Compare and contrast your approaches, keeping objectively measurable data at the center of your interpretations.

    Ongoing Considerations

    As you continue to run your landing pages in the context of your marketing campaign, there are a few ongoing best practices to keep in mind:

    • Measure everything you can. This is crucial. If you want to glean the most powerful insights from your audience, you need to measure everything you can—that means the basic information like traffic volume and conversion rates, but also lesser information like heat maps of user interaction. You won’t have to look at every piece of data you gather, but you need to gather it in case you want it later; much of your conclusions will be based on historical and comparative findings, so it’s definitely better to have too much information and not use it than to lose data you wish you had.
    • Experiment and refine your approach. Landing pages are not a strategy meant for one-time creation and execution. They are an organic strategy, evolving over time, and only over several rounds of changes will they start to improve in meaningful ways. Furthermore, you can’t rely on your conceptual or hypothetical assumptions to hold true; challenge yourself by changing your landing pages in unique and speculative ways. You are an experimenter, and only through trial and error will you learn, for sure, which tactics are effective and which ones aren’t.
    • Don’t manage more than you can handle. In an earlier section, I mentioned that having more landing pages was better; this is true in terms of the amount of data you’re able to gather, but at the same time, don’t try to manage more than you can handle simultaneously. Each of your landing pages requires attention, maintenance, and adjustment to earn growth, so the more you add to your plate, the fewer time and resources you can spend on each one. Keep your list consolidated to a group you can actively manage, and during the beginning of your campaign, limit your focus to only a few.
    • Hedge your bets. Invest in a number of different areas if you want to see the biggest return for your money; this means using landing pages for a number of separate marketing channels as well as using strongly differentiated designs and content to appeal to your audiences. If you have a major traffic stream (i.e., thousands of monthly visitors), don’t risk them all on one untested landing page; segment your traffic to “hedge your bets” and balance out the winners and losers.
    • Drop what doesn’t work. When you spend hours of time concepting and creating a landing page, you don’t exactly like to admit that it isn’t getting the job done. But like it or not, some of your landing pages, in part or in full, simply aren’t going to work. When you realize this, drop the dead weight immediately. It isn’t going to bring any additional value to you.

    Getting Started

    Marketers everywhere are increasing their online marketing budgets, and you should be doing the same. Landing pages are a cost-efficient way to make almost any marketing strategy you currently follow more effective, and they don’t take much work or experience to get started. In fact, if you’re currently using a template-based site or a convenient CMS like WordPress or Drupal, you can start creating your own landing pages immediately. They don’t have to be fancy at first—so long as they follow the best practices I’ve outlined in detail above. Instead, the true power in landing pages comes with your ongoing adjustment and refinement.

    The sooner you get started with your landing page strategy, the more you’ll stand to earn in long-term revenue, so begin your strategy now—even if your pages aren’t perfect.

  4. Why Cortana Is Blocking Non-Edge Web Browsers

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    Windows Cortana is a major leader in the modern revolution of digital assistants. Alongside Google Now and forerunner Siri from Apple, these digital assistants are changing the way users are searching, and are shaping the world of SEO as we know it. Conversational and voice-based queries are becoming the norm, searches are jumping between online and offline content, and peripheral functions are starting to enter the landscape.

    Until recently, it looked like there would also be “blurred lines” between individual digital assistants and search engines themselves, but now Microsoft has drawn a line for Cortana that may influence how digital assistants develop from here on out.

    cortana

    (Image Source: Engadget)

    Cortana’s Block

    For a long time, Cortana was capable of using any third-party search engine to facilitate your search. For example, you could fire up Cortana and have it use Google Chrome and Google Search as a means to fetch online results. As of last week, you can now only use Cortana in conjunction with Microsoft’s latest browser, Edge (a replacement for Internet Explorer), and of course, Microsoft’s own Bing search.

    Users can still use any browser they wish as the default on their Windows 10 device and can search using any assistants or tools they prefer. However, if they’re using Cortana, Edge and Bing are the only possible conduits.

    The Motivation for the Change

    If Windows Cortana has allowed third-party crossovers thus far, why would Microsoft suddenly change the game with these new rules? The motivation, as officially stated by Microsoft, comes down to continuity. When Cortana is used in combination with unfamiliar programs, or those that weren’t officially designed to work with Cortana, the “result is a compromised experience that is less reliable and predictable.”

    Here’s the full scoop, straight from the source: “The continuity of these types of task completion scenarios is disrupted if Cortana can’t depend on Bing as the search provider and Microsoft Edge as the browser. The only way we can confidently deliver this personalized, end-to-end search experience is through the integration of Cortana, Microsoft Edge and Bing — all designed to do more for you.”

    This is the official story. Microsoft wants to maximize the Cortana experience for its users. But if you read between the lines, it’s not hard to see what game they’re really playing. It’s no secret that Microsoft has been fighting a losing battle on the web browser and search fronts for years, with Bing playing second fiddle to Google and Internet Explorer being the laughingstock of the Internet. Now, with Edge and Bing developing to respectable levels, Microsoft needs to fight hard to win more user loyalty. The best way to do that is by embedding them into an experience that many users have already become reliant on—Cortana’s assistant search.

    Two Big Problems With the Change

    If you’re a regular Cortana user under the previously existing framework, you might be a little upset about the change. There are users who don’t really care what browser or search engine they use, of course, but this new adjustment calls two main problems to mind:

    User choice is limited.

    First, there’s a limited range of user choices available now. Some degree of choice is present, of course—as Microsoft made clear in their recent post, users can still change the default web browser of their Windows 10 device (though there’s no option for changing the default search function). Still, whenever users call upon Cortana for their search needs, any results they click are going to take them to Edge and Bing, even if they’ve selected Chrome as their go-to browser. For users with history, bookmarks, and preferences already loaded into another web browser, this can be a frustrating experience.Changing default settings is also complicated, as pointed out by author Danny Sullivan; changing the default settings for a Windows 10 device, for Cortana, and for Edge are all complicated procedures. One could easily speculate that this was done specifically to encourage more users to use only Microsoft products.

    Microsoft Edge

    (Image Source: SearchEngineLand)

    Search is becoming re-monopolized.

    After a brief period of search engines starting to meld together, it would seem that this is a step in the opposite direction. Though there are more competitors in the field, especially with digital assistant options in play, the major players are still trying to accumulate dedicated users who only rely on one set of tools and digital resources.

    Where It Goes From Here

    So what comes next for the world of search engines and digital assistants? For starters, don’t expect the competition to settle anytime soon. Microsoft, Apple, and Google will all fight hard to retain their users and prompt them to use as many branded products as possible, from hardware to operating systems to individual browsers and apps. The lines drawn between devices and tech are only going to become more rigid. Eventually, this will probably lead to a confrontation—someone is going to get ahead of the others, and the remaining competitors will fade away. This could take years, or it could take decades—and by that time, search will probably be turned on its head once again.

    One interesting development from this segmentation of branded tech products is that search is likely to evolve on more differentiated paths. Rather than all tech growing together along similar paths, we may be presented with a diversity of different directions. It will be on us as users and marketers to determine what sticks.

  5. How Much Time Does Link Building Need To Be Effective?

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    Link building is an essential component of any SEO strategy; links are what Google uses to evaluate the authority of any given site. The simplified version is that links pass a finite amount of “authority” (based on the authority of the hosting site), which can cumulatively improve your site’s authority and increase the likelihood that you rank for various queries related to your brand. Link building, then, is the process of establishing external links that get you the authority you need to rank.

    link building

    (Image Source: Wordstream)

    Unfortunately, this isn’t a straightforward or simple process. You need to consider not only the authoritative strength of your chosen link building targets, but the type of content you write, the appropriateness of the link, its contextual relevance, and how you balance this source with all your other sources. Not to mention, when you first start out, you’ll be relegated to posting on low-authority sources, scraping by with minimal yield until you build up enough of a reputation to start posting on bigger, more prominent publishers.

    So where’s the tipping point? At what point do your skills, experience, and brand reputation become strong enough to start earning you a positive return?

    Two Forms of Link Building

    There are actually two types of modern link building that can be effective:

    • Earned links depend on the creation of highly valuable content with the potential to go viral. Essentially, the idea here is to create something awesome, and rely on your audience to naturally link to it. This is an exceptional strategy for ensuring your links are natural and diverse, but it’s hard to create content with this level of viral potential.
    • Manual link building puts matters in your own hands. Here, you’ll work to establish relationships with offsite publishers, writing guest post content with embedded links pointing to your homepage. It’s a much more controllable and reliable strategy, but requires more finesse.

    The Complicated Nature of Link Building ROI

    When I talk about how “effective” your link building strategy is, what I’m referring to is your overall ROI, or return on investment. This, in turn, is complicated because ROI can be manifested in a number of different areas:

    • Increased rank potential, even though link building is only one of several ranking factors.
    • Higher brand visibility, which is hard to measure.
    • Higher brand authority, which is hard to measure.
    • Direct referral traffic from click-throughs.

    Overall, though, each of these benefits will scale along with your strategy, and there will be relatively few payoffs in each area when you first start out.

    The Learning Curve

    When you first start out, you’re going to be bad at link building. No matter how many posts you read or how much advice you get from people who have already done it, chances are you aren’t going to be effective until you get your hands dirty and start figuring things out for yourself. This is also true because every company is going to be different, and a link building strategy that works for one company won’t necessarily work the same way for another. For this reason alone, it will likely be months before you start settling into a reliable strategy.

    Getting Set Up

    Even assuming your strategy is flawless, when you first start building authority, your return is going to be a pittance. You’ll first have to invest heavily in your onsite authority (to show you know what you’re talking about), which usually involves building up an archive of content posts, then establishing an ongoing rhythm for your blog. This alone can take weeks of intense work. From there, you’ll start working with low-level publishers, or posting on social media with hardly any followers to pick up your content—accordingly, your ROI is going to be abysmally low for a while.

    Scaling the Strategy

    Once you start scaling your strategy, you should start to see better results. This means attracting and retaining new and more engaged followers, working with a greater quantity of high-authority publishers, and overall developing better content. Getting here takes a number of steps, and depending on your level of commitment and experience, it could take anywhere from months to years.

    When Will You See a Positive ROI?

    It’s hard to say exactly when the crossover to positive ROI will be for your strategy, but if you’re starting from scratch, you can count on a few months—at a minimum—to develop your campaign. Though every campaign will be distinct, most campaigns will start to see this transition upon breaking into a secondary ring of publishers—ones that demand higher standards for their guest posts than the entry-level circle you’ll start with.

    The Shortcut

    Link building demands a heavy upfront investment before you start earning a suitable return on your ongoing efforts, but it’s definitely worth it once you understand the many types of returns you’ll see. Still, if you’re feeling intimidated by the steep and long learning curve, or if you’re just eager to start seeing results quickly, there is one potential shortcut: working with an agency.

    There are a lot of spammy agencies out there, promising fast results and using cheap overseas labor to build manual links, but there are also agencies dedicated to producing quality content and maintaining relationships with hundreds of high-profile publishers. These types of agencies, like AudienceBloom, can help you skip the learning curve, skip the gradual transitions, and start earning the authority usually reserved until after your initial investment.

  6. What Your Clients Should Know About Keywords in 2016

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    You depend on your clients for success, and they depend on you for results, but sometimes, simple misunderstandings or inefficiencies can get in the way of an otherwise perfectly functional relationship. Of particular note are “best practices” in SEO that are no longer best practices, or elements of SEO that are poorly understood. A client may demand a certain approach even if it may end up hurting their campaign, or they may blame you if they aren’t getting results in the exact form they wanted.

    Few SEO areas are as hotly debated or as dynamically evolving as keywords—in research, targeting, and optimization. Keyword-based strategies still exist, and are still effective, but they’re almost unrecognizable from their older counterparts, and as a result, many clients enter into an agency agreement with unfounded expectations or preconceived notions about how keywords are supposed to function.

    It’s your job as an agency to stay up-to-date on the latest best practices for keyword-based optimization, and make sure your clients understand these standards perfectly well. Otherwise, you risk damage to the relationship when they believe your side of the bargain to be unfulfilled.

    A Brief History of Keywords

    First, I want to address some of the old ways that keywords permeated SEO as a sharp contrast to the way they’re used today. You may already be familiar with these standards, and you may believe some of them to still be how the search world works. If you or your clients currently still accept or operate by this old model, you’re in desperate need of an update.

    Google’s search algorithm once relied on exact keywords matches to produce results. If a user searched for “chicken tacos,” for example, it would scout for all the pages on the web that featured the phrase “chicken tacos,” and then sort them based on how many times that phrase was used, along with the authority ranking of the site itself.

    This led to a series of practices designed to exploit this keyword basis for search; companies would research the most competitive keywords, then stuff them into page titles, body copy, and anchor text for links in order to maximize their relevance for those terms. Analysts would then monitor ranking progress for those specific keywords, gauging campaign effectiveness on this upward trajectory.

    If you’re still using these strategies today, the same way you would have a decade ago, there’s something wrong.

    The “Modern” Era of Keyword Optimization

    There are a number of interrelated factors for why keyword-based optimization is so different today than it was several years ago. Make sure your clients are aware of these factors, even if it’s only at a cursory glance, to help them understand the “modern” era of keyword optimization.

    The looming threats of Google Panda and Penguin

    Hopefully, your clients already know what Google Panda is. At its core, Panda is a quality update, focused on content, designed to penalize sites with low-quality content in any capacity, and reward sites with higher-quality content. One of the biggest offenses Panda targeted was “keyword stuffing,” the act of deliberately placing targeted keyword phrases in the headlines and bodies of articles throughout your site in an effort to achieve higher ranks. Panda introduced natural language detection and quality evaluation into Google’s algorithm, weeding out any articles or sites that were thought to be using too many keywords in their content. Today, if you try too hard to squeeze unnatural-sounding keywords into your content, you’re going to trigger this algorithm—plus, you’ll turn your readers away.

    Google Penguin, equally recognizable, offered a similar quality update for links, rather than content. The old-school keyword practice here was to build links with anchor text that included your target keywords, or at a minimum choose offsite articles with headlines that included the keyword in question. Thanks to Penguin, the “quality” of links is more easily detectable by Google, so if you try to stuff keywords here, you’ll also be penalized.

    The bottom line here is that domains that try to exploit keyword stuffing are going to be penalized, no matter what.

    The rise of Hummingbird and RankBrain

    Google Hummingbird came out back in 2013, and completely overhauled the way Google evaluates user queries. Rather than taking a look only at keyword phrases, Google introduced a semantic focus to the search engine, making it capable of evaluating and meeting user intent. Instead of mapping instances of keyword phrases to exact matches on the web, Google now dissects the intention behind a user’s query and attempts to grab results that meet that intention. In some cases, this results in radically different SERPs, but Google still relies on keyword detection to understand the subject matter of various sites and web pages. The power of keywords has been weakened, but not obliterated.

    RankBrain is a machine-learning modifier that was added to Hummingbird just last year, and it’s a sign that Google’s semantic capabilities are only going to grow more sophisticated. RankBrain’s purpose is to better understand complex and ambiguous long-tail user queries, essentially boiling them down to a more manageable level for Hummingbird to take over.

    There’s a great example of RankBrain’s effects floating around:

    rank brain effect

    (Image Source: SearchEngineLand)

     

    search engine results rank brain

    (Image Source: SearchEngineLand)

    Notice how the second query is asking the same thing, but in a more complicated, convoluted way. RankBrain’s job is to take the second query and figure out that it’s just a long way of asking the first query.

    The Knowledge Graph and local SEO

    Keyword optimization gets more complicated with the rise of the Knowledge Graph and local SEO, two very different concepts that share an undermining effect toward keywords.

    The Knowledge Graph is the system of indexed information that Google uses to provide you answers to specifically or concisely answerable questions. As an example, when you type in “why do baking soda and vinegar react,” you’ll see a short explanation pop up above all the organic search results:

    knowledge graph seo results

    There are many forms and types of queries that allow the Knowledge Graph to kick in. It’s a great resource for users, as it saves them the step of sorting through organic search results, but it has the indirect tendency to divert organic traffic, and it increases Google’s capacity to provide direct answers to queries, rather than mapping queries to existing locations on the web.

    Local search has the same “diversion” and “query answering” effects, but for a slightly different reason. Here, local searches operate using a separate algorithm, which kicks in when user location data is available (or when a user utilizes geographic-specific keywords). Older local SEO techniques, like stuffing unnatural phrases like “best plumber dallas tx” into content, are no longer valid here.

    Personalization

    Personalization is also affecting the significance of keywords in the modern era, thanks to Google accounts, browser histories, and personal digital assistants, all of which can feed or use data on your history and geographic location to alter your personalized search results. Two users who search for an identical query—let’s call the “chicken tacos” reference back to the forefront—might get totally different results. One might get chicken tacos recipes, based on his/her strong disposition for recipes in the past, while another gets chicken taco restaurants. This makes it harder to predict what your users are actually searching for, and more difficult to guarantee any kind of visibility from a ranking increase. After all, your ranking increase will only be for a part of the audience doing the search in the first place.

    Are keywords still important?

    After reading all this, you might start to wonder whether keywords are important at all these days, and if not, what the alternative might be.

    The answer isn’t exactly straightforward. In response to Hummingbird, some optimizers have suggested that a suitably alternative for keywords is “topics,” which gives you more freedom when it comes to phrasing. The goal here is to predict types of user queries and write topics that address those queries, such as answering common user questions or proactively addressing user concerns. You’d do topic research, much like keyword research, tracking down popular topics and ones that haven’t been suitably covered by competitors, then produce high-quality content that naturally contains contextual clues that help Google categorize it and call it up for the appropriate queries.

    Topic-based SEO is highly effective, and a suitable alternative to keyword-optimization in some ways. However, keywords still have a power of their own, giving you shorter, more precise phrases to work with, more trackable results, and generally higher potential volume. Even though Google doesn’t map keywords from queries to pages like it used to, it still uses keyword phrases to help it understand site pages, so they’re still a valuable strategic focus in an SEO campaign.

    Doing the Research

    One of the most important parts of a keyword optimization strategy is the research. The entire point of keyword optimization is to choose the most valuable keywords to optimize for, so getting the right information (and therefore, the best list of possible targets) is essential if you want your clients to see progress. Modern keyword research is a bit trickier than it used to be, but with the right tools, the right approach, and enough communication with your clients, you’ll do fine.

    keyword research

    (Image Source: AHrefs)

    Long-tail keywords vs. head keywords

    First, you need to know the difference between basic keywords (sometimes called head keywords) and long-tail keywords. There’s no exact cutoff here, but long-tail keywords are essentially the same as basic keywords, but… well, they’re longer. These are long phrases, sometimes colloquial, like “where’s the best place for chicken tacos” instead of the basic “chicken tacos.”

    Generally, the longer the query becomes, the lower the volume and competition become. This makes them easier to rank for but also makes them yield a lower potential traffic rate with a high rank. Compared to head keywords, they offer fast-paced gains, but a lower long-term payoff (assuming you invest sufficiently in the basic keywords). They’re also great material for topic-based optimization.

    A good, balanced strategy should have both basic keyword and long-tail keyword topics as part of your research, though depending on your approach, you may qualify your long-tail research separately, or as part of your topic research.

    Individual brainstorming

    When you first get started generating keyword ideas, you’re going to rely on your own brainstorming (and don’t worry, we’ll dig deeper in a minute). For this, you’ll definitely want to consult with your client; they know their industry, their business, and their customers far better than you do. Together, come up with a big list of various keyword terms you think your client’s customers might search for, and try to target specific products or services if you can. This will get you started in the right direction as far as relevance is concerned.

    Start compiling your keywords in a spreadsheet; we’ll be expanding on this shortly.

    brainstorming keywords

    (Image Source: AHrefs)

    Awesome tools to help you out

    After you’ve got an initial list scrapped together, you’ll have a working foundation for some heavy expansion. For this, you’ll probably need to rely on some external tools to help you get the job done. It’s almost impossible to pull all this data in by yourself.

    Google’s Keyword Planner.

    Google’s Keyword Planner is a tool within Google AdWords designed to help advertisers plan their campaigns, but the information it offers can be used for an organic campaign as well. Plug in all the keywords you came up with (and any subsequent keywords you find with the tools below), and it will tell you the average volume and competition rating for each; this will be vital in narrowing down your list of targets.

    google keyword planner

    (Image Source: Software Insider)

    AuthorityLabs.

    AuthorityLabs is a major name in the industry, because it helps you come up with new keyword ideas, measure things like search volume and competition for each, and even track your ranks as you implement them as part of your strategy. There are also a number of filters to play with to see how keyword results play out in different scenarios.

    authoritylabs report

    (Image Source: AuthorityLabs)

    SEMRush.

    SEMRush takes things a bit further by offering a number of research tools. If you enter a specific keyword, SEMRush will help you break it down in terms of its fluctuations, current competition, and volume. You can also find related terms here, and chart differences in desktop and mobile devices.

    semrush report

    (Image Source: SEMRush)

    Google Trends.

    Google Trends is a better tool for topic research and long-tail keyword results, but it’s still useful to see how your user demographic trends change over time. Start general here, and work your way toward more niche topics; you’ll learn much about user behavior and search patterns to inform your growing keyword list.

    google trends report

    (Image Source: Google Trends)

    Spyfu.

    Plug in a competitor’s URL here, and Spyfu will tell you some of their most profitable keywords and search positions. This is useful for finding key opportunities to outrank your closest industry competitors.

    Auto-Suggest.

    There used to be several keyword idea generation tools leveraging the power of Google’s auto-suggest API. Google’s auto-suggest comes up with popular related keywords, saving you the trouble of trying to think them up on your own. However, now that Google has privatized that API, these tools don’t have quite the power they once had. Ubersuggest is among the best here.

    ubersuggest google

    (Image Source: Content Marketing Institute)

    Three factors for success

    Ultimately, you’ll want to work with your client to narrow down your list to the top potential candidates, zeroing in on a dozen or two strong keywords with the highest potential return. You’ll want to look at three factors here:

    1. Relevance. Realistically, how close is this keyword to your client’s products, services, and target niche? This is going to be a subjective question, but you can ask more critical questions here; for example, how far along in the buying cycle would a customer be if they were searching for this? How informed is a customer who is searching for this? Who wouldn’t be searching for this?
    2. Volume. The volume is another important factor, as it controls how many people could ultimately be influenced by a high-ranking site for this query. However, there’s one limiting factor that could compromise volume’s effectiveness, and that’s competition.
    3. Competition. A keyword with a lot of competition will be nearly impossible to rank for. On the other hand, lower competition keywords tend to carry lower volume. You’ll have to find a balance if you want your strategy to work.

    At this point, you’ll have a solid list of target keywords with which to begin work.

    Finding the Balance

    Modern keyword optimization is all about balance, in more areas than one. Let your clients know that there’s no one right way to optimize for keywords, nor is blunt force ever a good strategic approach in the realm of keywords.

    Splitting focus between keywords and topics

    First, you’ll need to split your attention between optimizing for keywords and optimizing for topics. As we’ve seen, both are important if you want to host a successful strategy. However, it’s not always as simple as splitting your efforts down the middle, fifty-fifty. Instead, you’ll need to actively monitor the ebb and flow of your work, and make adjustments accordingly. Are there a lot of potential news topics to cover? Start optimizing for those topics. Is your client on the verge of a page-one ranking for a specific term? Start putting more effort into that term. And of course, if you find that your progress is slowing or that you aren’t getting the results your client needs, you can make adjustments to your strategic lineup.

    Keyword density

    You’ll want to include keywords in your blog posts, and meta data, and really, throughout your site. But thanks to Panda and Hummingbird, if you include too many, you’ll end up getting your client’s site penalized. What’s the solution? The old method was one of percentage, making sure your targeted keyword phrases don’t appear more than 2-3 percent of the time. However, a better solution is to avoid stuffing keywords at all; the less you think about it, the more naturally you’ll write, and the less you’ll have to worry about a penalty.

    For starters, only choose keywords that you can work into your content naturally, and then, work them into content titles only when they’re appropriate. From there, they’ll probably appear naturally as you complete the content work. For some keywords, this is easier said than done, but your first job is choosing the right keywords to begin with.

    How to observe rank changes

    Reporting is a big deal for agency-client relationships, and keyword ranks tend to be a sensitive issue. You’ll find your clients want high ranks, as fast as possible, and may grow irritated if they aren’t getting the ranks they want (or overly complacent if they are).

    First, set the expectation that ranks aren’t everything. Yes, you have target keywords and your goal is to rank for them, but you’ll be rising in rank for dozens of long-tail keyword phrases you didn’t even know you were optimizing for (thanks to your brilliant content marketing strategy). Plus, keyword rankings can only tell you so much—what’s really important is your inbound traffic.

    Second, set the expectation that ranks are volatile, and aren’t entirely predictable. Your rank may change from day to day, and may appear differently for two different people in the same room. There’s a degree of relativity to be expected in the modern realm of keyword-based optimization, so try not to let your efforts be judged too precisely.

    The Importance of Communication

    When it comes down to it, the vast majority of issues with keyword-based optimization can be avoided with a bit of proactive communication with your client. Here are some of the most important points to touch on, early in your relationship.

    • SEO isn’t magic. There’s no secret formula for how to get ranked number one for a given query, and even if you did, this isn’t a shortcut to positive ROI. This delusion needs to end now.
    • Keywords carry lots of misconceptions. The biggest is that keywords and queries have the same one-to-one relationship they did back before Hummingbird took over.
    • Keywords are still relevant. Despite the fact that Hummingbird is prevalent and topic-based optimization is a viable strategy, keywords are still very much a relevant (and some would argue, necessary) part of a modern SEO campaign.
    • Not every strategy is a guarantee. Strategies are just that—strategies. Not every stock investment you make will pay off, but you can be informed and make an educated decision about how to move forward. SEO is all about making the most educated, reasonable choices you can—and they won’t all pay off the way you thought they would.
    • Mutual work to find the right balance. If you want to be successful, you need to work together with your client. They know far more than you do about their business, and you know far more than they do about SEO. Only by pooling your strengths and making up for each other’s weaknesses will you be able to develop a strategy that really hits home.
    • Adjustment and refinement. You aren’t going to have a perfect keyword approach the first time you make the attempt. Only through adaptation, adjustment, and refinement are you going to find a strategy and a rhythm that works for your brand.

    If you make these points clear, and you follow the keyword strategies I’ve outlined above, you should have no trouble keeping your client happy and up-to-date with the latest best practices in keyword optimization.

    The Future of SEO Keywords

    It’s hard to say exactly what the future holds for keywords (or SEO in general). But I suspect that the world of keywords and topics is only going to get stranger. Technologies like Hummingbird, RankBrain, the Knowledge Graph, and digital assistants are evolving at a remarkable pace, and all of them are, in some way, making it harder to get your site ranked for a specific keyword term. Overall, keyword focus is only a part of SEO—building your authority, earning links, providing great content, and offering the best user experience are other fundamental pillars you need to worry about. So instead of trying to perfect the keyword side of things, hedge your bets, and try to develop the best overall strategy you can with your clients.

  7. How to Characterize a Software Product Through Branding

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    As a SaaS company, the heart of your business is your core software product, but unfortunately, until you grow to a much bigger size and reputation, your product isn’t going to sell itself. You can describe the logical benefits of your product, compare your price to your competitors, and demonstrate expert salesmanship when pitching it to new potential clients, but if it’s missing that “extra ingredient” to compel new users, even the best product on the market can fall flat.

    What is this extra ingredient? Branding. With it, an ordinary product can become extraordinary, and an extraordinary product can become unstoppable. But why is this branding element so important, and how can you characterize an inanimate, intangible product with it successfully?

    Why Is Branding Important for SaaS Companies?

    Branding is important for all companies for the following reasons:

    Recognition and customer acquisition.

    Branding allows your product (and company) to be recognized at a distance, much in the way that McDonald’s arches and the Nike swoosh have become simple symbols of much bigger, more complicated organizations. Over time, reiteration of these symbols and general atmospheres can lead to higher brand awareness, a better brand reputation, and therefore, a higher customer acquisition rate.

    Trust and loyalty.

    Consistent branding can also help you establish trust and loyalty in your existing population. When a user has a consistently positive experience, associated with some aspect of identity (such as a visual, or a tone of voice), he/she starts to associate the identity with the positive experience. It makes the decision to switch to a competitor that much harder, and encourages them to stay with your brand, specifically, for as long as possible.

    Foundation for advertising.

    Branding also gives you a solid direction on how to develop your advertising campaigns. It may give you a tone of voice, limits in terms of humor and sensationalism, visual cues, or a running theme you can exploit many times over. Not only does this make your advertising more effective; it also makes the conceptual process easier.

    Internal factors.

    Branding isn’t only for your customers. Creating a strong brand for your product, and your organization in general, can help you create a strong internal company culture as well. For example, let’s say you characterize your product as fun, energetic, and down-to-earth; in the right environment, you can nurture these characteristics in your employees, resulting in a more unified, productive, satisfied workforce. Google’s company culture is a perfect example.

    google company culture

    (Image Source: Google)

    But it’s even more important to SaaS companies because:

    Competition is fierce.

    Everyone realizes what a profitable and scalable model SaaS is, and as a result, the market’s been flooded with software products hoping for a piece of the action. Odds are, you have several competitors with few distinguishing factors between you. Branding can be your key distinguishing factor, edging out the competition immediately.

    Face-to-face interaction is nonexistent.

    Because most SaaS platforms are hosted online without a physical office, there’s almost no chance of face-to-face or personal interaction during the sales cycle. At the same time, personal connections are important to make strong sales and keep good customers. The solution? Use branding as a personal surrogate, demonstrating brand qualities the way you would a real personality.

    Short sales cycles.

    Your users are going to make a decision within a minute or two (for the most part). That’s not a lot of time to give your users a tour of your product or exhaustively list all the objective benefits of it. Instead, you have to give your potential customers a quick gut-level feeling that this is a good idea—and branding can help you do it.

    Retention is the gold standard.

    Finally, you have to know that SaaS companies aren’t won or lost in customer acquisition—it’s retention that separates the winners and losers. Branding can help you breed the familiarity, “personal” relationships, and commitment that keeps your customers subscribing to your service through thick and thin.

    The Trouble With Characterizing a Software Product

    Unfortunately, branding a product isn’t as simple as flipping a switch. You need something compelling, or else your brand won’t attract any new customers (or retain old ones), you need something that fits with your mission and vision as a company (or else it will be unstable), and you need something sustainable in the long-term (or else it won’t pay off). On top of those requirements, you’re working with something intangible and flexible, rather than a physical product.

    Throughout this guide, I’ll walk you through the main strategies you can use to develop a workable framework for your software brand, and implement it across your product, your site, your support network, your social media profiles, and of course, your advertising campaigns.

    Establishing Your Brand Standards

    Before your start applying your brand to the different areas of your SaaS business, you need to know what your brand standards are in the first place. I’ve written an extensively detailed guide, How to Build a Brand from Scratch, on the matter, so I’ll stay out of the weeds here, but I do want to highlight some of the most important components of a brand, and where those components are going to apply in your main strategies.

    Main Goals

    There are many goals for a brand to accomplish, but SaaS companies specifically need to zoom in on four of them:

    Differentiation.

    As noted above, one of the biggest challenges for SaaS companies in the current era is competition, so branding must serve as a differentiating factor. What is that factor? That’s up to you and your target audience. For example, compared to your competitors, could you be more professional in tone to appeal to more business people? Could you be more casual in tone to appeal to a younger audience? Do you want to be edgier? More traditional? There’s no right or wrong answer here, but when it’s all said and done, your brand should stand out from anything else on the market.

    Connection.

    Your brand needs to have a personal appeal to your target demographics. For this goal, it’s helpful to think of your brand as a kind of avatar for your company, representing it in a personal way so that your customers can form a personal attachment. Accordingly, your brand needs to embody characteristics that are approachable, familiar, or otherwise engaging to your target market (and you may need to do some research for this). As an example, take MailChimp’s literal “chimp” mascot, who makes everything seem friendlier, funnier, and more approachable.

    mailchimp

    (Image Source: MailChimp)

    (Side note: you don’t need a mascot to accomplish this)

    Immersion.

    The immersion factor is one unique to SaaS companies, since some brands have the luxury of limited customer interactions. Your customers, however, will be using your product for extended periods of time, and engaging with your brand in many different mediums, from your app itself, to your content, your website, your help pages, and even your social media accounts. If you want to be successful, you need to nurture an entire environment where people feel connected to your brand—not just one-time representations or one-sided interactions.

    Reinforcement.

    You need to use your brand to reinforce positive experiences with your product, and continually remind users why they signed up for your service in the first place. A good brand will have the potential to summarize all the visions and values of your company, and repeat itself throughout many channels, mediums and applications. The more places you are, the more you’ll be seen, and the more easily recognized you’ll be.

    Main Applications

    Now that you know what you need to accomplish, you need to know the main paths through which you can accomplish them. Creating a brand isn’t easy, but it helps if you can reduce your identity standards down to four main “groups” of characteristics.

    Logo and colors.

    Up first are the logo and colors of your brand, which are usually the first elements that people notice. There’s a reason for this; humans have strong visual senses, so we naturally lock onto and remember visual patterns. You’ll need to select a color scheme that fits your company’s tone, mood, and target audience (as well as your competitive landscape), and your logo should attempt to concisely represent who your company is and what it has to offer.

    Image and character.

    This set of characteristics is a bit more abstract, as it defines the “concept” of your brand more so than any tangible assets. For this, it’s often best to visualize your brand as a character, and imagine what that character might be like (as well as how it might be different from your competitors). Apple took this step literally in its now-landmark advertising campaign pitting Macs against PCs with actors representing each brand. You don’t have to go this far, but you do need to be able to describe the “type” of person your brand would be.

    image and character

    (Image Source: Business Insider)

    Voice.

    As another outlet for your brand’s communication, consider the tone and shape of your voice. I alluded to this a bit earlier, but you’ll need to consider a number of questions regarding how you write; how advanced is your vocabulary going to be? How casual can you be with your words, in terms of colloquialisms, abbreviations, and profanity? Will your sentences be short and concise or long and descriptive? These choices help shape your brand identity, and make a big impact on users whether they realize it or not.

    User experience.

    Finally, there are user experience factors, and this set of identity standards is unique to SaaS companies. Your users are going to be engaging with your software regularly, so how they interact with your software may help them form a stronger brand impression. For example, how does your app respond to their inputs? What feelings do your users get when they log in? We’ll explore some specific applications and examples of this later on.

    Be sure to formally document your strategy for each of these key areas, as this will serve as your identity guidelines moving forward. Keep this document handy as we move through the next few sections.

    The following sections will each touch on one area of application for your new brand standards, exploring how best to integrate the concept of your brand in a way your consumers will identify and relate to.

    The Product

    First, we need to take a look at the product itself, the reason you’re in business. You may already have a set framework or concept for your app, but the final layer of design and development should be heavily influenced by the type of brand you want to create.

    Overall design

    The type of basic design you offer can make a radical difference in how a user receives your app. Here, you need to think beyond what’s the most aesthetically pleasing (though that helps too) and think about what’s going to cement your brand’s identity in the minds of your users.

    These are just a handful of questions to get you started:

    • Do you want to look futuristic, or do you want a throwback look?
    • Do you want something fun and idiosyncratic, or something serious and precise?
    • Do you want something colorful and creative, or something more analytical and defined?
    • What colors should be prominent in your app, and what level of contrast do you want to achieve?

    There are no right or wrong answers to these choices; again, this all depends on who your target audience is and how you want to differentiate yourself. Whatever you choose, your choice should be apparent throughout the application, aiding the “immersive” experience that a successful brand-consumer relationship demands.

    Take Workday’s app as an example; it uses bright, palette colors throughout its app and precise, formal design choices to demonstrate an aura of professionalism while still being friendly and approachable.

    workday

    (Image Source: Workday)

    Functionality

    Of course, the design fun doesn’t stop at these basic design questions. You’ll also want to consider what types of functionality you want to include, and how those functions might signal different brand qualities to your users.

    For example, imagine you have a row of tabs on the main part of your app, and whenever you hover over one, it pops up, growing bigger and changing colors dynamically. Now imagine a wheel of options in the center of the page, and whenever you hover over one option, the others fade away. These produce two very distinct “feels,” the former being more fun and out-of-the-way, and the latter being more pragmatic and efficient.

    The type of functionality you present can be at a high level, such as deciding what features to offer your users or how to incorporate those features in a basic design, or at a more specific level, such as coming up with Easter eggs and quirks that your users can find by exploring your app.

    A “claim to fame”?

    If your software has a “claim to fame,” or some kind of functional distinction that separates it from other brands in your niche, you need to play this up throughout your product wherever you can. For example, let’s say your uniqueness rests on your app’s ability to perform functions faster than any other app on the market. In this case, you may want to include subtle reminders of this “speed” factor, such as tongue-in-cheek references on loading pages, or timers for specific functions.

    You don’t need to have one of these, but it can be helpful in securing your users’ loyalty. Brainstorm about the different advantages your company could offer, and settle on at least one that you can play up. This will also help you when you create advertising and social campaigns for your brand.

    Site and Support

    If you’re like most SaaS companies, you’ll have a website and a support/help center for your users in addition to wherever your software is hosted (website, mobile app, etc.). This is another great opportunity for you to show off what makes your brand special, appeal to curious new users, and of course, retain the users you’ve already collected.

    Layout and design

    Your first look should be at the layout and design of your website. For the most part, you can follow the same rules you followed in the design portion of your software development. Think about the way your colors and logo can integrate into your design, and question what types of functionality you want to offer your users. Obviously, you want your site to be intuitive and functional, but how are your choices affecting users’ perceptions of your brand identity?

    Copy and content

    Copy and content are both forms of writing for your audience, but the former is about quick-hitting headlines and opportunities for conversion, while the latter is about presenting information.

    In the former case, your web copy can do an awesome job of presenting exactly what kind of character your brand is. Carefully consider your tone, as every word here is going to count, and inject your headlines with bits of humor, or pride, or exclusivity, depending on your brand and goals. Zendesk has an excellent example with this headline, where they reveal their approachable vocabulary and throw in a vanilla punchline to get a quick laugh while avoiding rocking the boat:

    copy and content

    (Image Source: Zendesk)

    Your content marketing strategy is another powerful opportunity to demonstrate your brand, and it can manifest in a few different areas. First, you’ll want an ongoing content strategy to fuel your SEO campaign and attract new readers; this will likely reside in your blog. Second, you’ll want a comprehensive help and support section, full of interactive and searchable documents to help users when they (inevitably) encounter trouble with your software. In both cases, you’ll need to keep your content concise, and strictly adherent to the tone you’ve established for your brand. When users encounter this content, they’ll either be seeing your brand for the first time, or they’ll be in need of help—either way, they’re especially vulnerable, and your angle could make or break their impression of your brand.

    Examples and Easter eggs

    Throughout your help section especially, you’ll have the opportunity to include Easter eggs and subtle tidbits that your observant users will pick up on. They can be inside jokes, subtle references, or unique pockets of functionality that aren’t otherwise visible.

    For example, take MailChimp’s sample template referencing “adorable kittens” as an amusing alternative to something like lorem ipsum text. It falls in line with the amusing and friendly nature of the brand:

    mailchimp template design

    (Image Source: MailChimp)

    Personal exchanges

    Finally, whether it’s in a live chat, on a forum, or in some other method of exchange, you’ll probably be communicating with customers directly to resolve issues. When you do this, make sure your customer service representatives are using a voice and approach that falls in line with your brand standards. This will add a layer of comfort and familiarity to the experience, and if consistent enough, will lead to higher feelings of brand trust and loyalty. From there, your customer retention rates will skyrocket.

    Social Media and Advertising

    I’ve lumped the two of these applications together because, while independent, they are related. Both involve communicating directly with an audience outside the scope of your software product itself (or your website, in most cases). Ultimately, your brand standards should govern your approach to each.

    Personality and content

    Social media gives you the chance to truly show off your personality, and you better take advantage of it. Social media is where your users are going to turn when they want to contact you directly, the “you” in this case being your brand. Remember my example earlier, where I alluded to the fact that your brand should be a stand-in for a real person? The concept applies here too. Whenever you make a post, or respond to a user, or do anything on social media, you need to do so in a “voice” that matches your brand standards. This is going to be tough, especially since you’ll probably have multiple people working on one account, and you’ll often be posting as a reactionary measure, rather than a premeditated one. However, with solid and consistent brand standards, you can keep this atmosphere consistent and enhance the approachability and familiarity of your brand.

    Multiple social arms

    It’s also a good idea, if your audience is large enough, to segment your social media presence into different designated arms, such as one for customer support and one for regular updates. SalesForce takes this to another level, with no fewer than six separate Twitter accounts to follow, depending on your goals.

    salesforce twitter accounts

    (Image Source: Twitter)

    This will help you maintain consistency and delegate responsibilities for different engagements while keeping your overall brand consistent. You’ll also need to apply your brand standards to multiple social profiles at once, simultaneously following best practices for each app.

    Community building

    The more your brand is mentioned, the more popular and visible it’s going to become; when you develop a powerful enough community, you can ease off the gas and let your community start doing the promotional work for you. At higher levels of development, some SaaS companies start earning more customers simply because they have so many existing customers talking about them and working with them on a regular basis.

    You can encourage the development of a community in your own social spheres (and on your site) by creating a forum, engaging with your customers regularly, rewarding customers for engaging with others, and encouraging more brand engagements with contests, questions, and requests for user-submitted content.

    Brand as a foundation

    There are tons of advertising options beyond content marketing and social media; PPC advertising, banner ads, and even traditional forms of advertising like TV and radio are just a handful of examples. Your brand needs to serve as a foundation for all of these if you want to maximize your potential; if you’re consistent, this will greatly increase user familiarity with your brand, and keep your company top-of-mind with those already engaging with it. Before you develop the concept for a new ad campaign, ask yourself, does this fit in with my company’s image? Is the tone right? Are the company’s colors and logos visible? Does this accurately represent the type of experience a user might have with the app? You need to answer “yes” to all these questions before proceeding.

    Parting Thoughts

    Consistency.

    I’ve covered a lot of information in this guide, and most of it has focused on creating your brand standards and where you can apply those standards to fully characterize your brand. This will help you conceptualize a brand, and it gives you a good visual map for how your brand needs to develop, but there are a handful of further considerations I want to leave you with as you begin your SaaS brand journey.

    Branding is one of the most powerful and important marketing strategies you’ll use, in part because it affects all your other strategies, but it’s only going to be effective if you’re consistent with it. You can’t apply your brand to just your product, or just your social media campaign, and hope to reap the full benefits of the integration, nor can you change your brand standards a few months into the game. You can tweak your brand, gradually over time, but you have to give users that consistent look, feel, and comfort, or you’ll never be able to build the recognition or retention you need.

    Invisible values.

    It’s hard to directly measure the results of your branding efforts; you can’t calculate a brand ROI the way you can with just a social media marketing or just an SEO strategy. Branding’s most impressive values are actually somewhat invisible, unless you try to measure them with qualitative user surveys; for example, how can you measure the average person’s “awareness” of your brand? How can you measure a person’s disposition toward staying with your brand (especially when compared to a hypothetical scenario in which you have a different brand entirely)? You’ll have to rely on indirect indicators here.

    Company culture.

    I mentioned this earlier, but it’s worth repeating. If you want to reap the full value of a comprehensive SaaS brand, you can’t think of it as only existing for your customers. Your brand’s character and style should permeate your entire organization, giving your employees a standard to aspire to and giving them a foundation for how to interact with customers and vendors. It’s going to leave you with a more powerful, more cohesive organization—even if you don’t notice it right away.

    When characterized with a carefully considered and thoroughly described brand, your software will do a better job of standing out, pleasing your customers, and ultimately making you more money. Don’t take this strategy lightly.

  8. How Do Click-Through Rates Affect Search Ranks?

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    For as long as SEO has been around, search optimizers have debated how much “user experience” factors into a search rank. According to some data, qualitative factors like how long a user spends on a page can influence how that page ranks—but you could also make for a case of correlation influencing this relationship, rather than causation. On the other hand, you have classic “standbys” as ranking influencers, such as inbound link quality, with all other measurable ranking factors being secondary, correlational, or purely coincidental.

    Now, thanks to some insights from Google engineer Paul Haahr, we may have a clue as to whether one of the most hotly debated topics in the user experience debate (click-through rates) is just a myth, or if it truly does influence how your site ranks in Google.

    The Idea Behind Click-Through Rate Influence

    The concept behind CTR influence is pretty simple, and it’s likely the reason so many search optimizers have found it easy to believe that it’s a verifiable ranking signal.

    Google has an anticipated spread of CTRs for its various search results ranks. For example, let’s say it expects 1,000 click for the top query, 200 for the second, and 100 for the third. Now, let’s say after a while, the three sites in these positions offer a major discrepancy; the first site is only getting 400 clicks, the second site gets its expected 200, and the third gets 700. That’s an anomaly, and Google might come to the conclusion that this third entry is way more relevant than the other two. Accordingly, it may boost its rank.

    Google Click-Through Rate

    (Image Source: SearchEngineLand)

    Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to account for this pattern in a controlled experiment, keeping all other ranking factors consistent.

    Negative Evidence?

    There have been some interesting and, admittedly, persuasive studies in the past that have seemingly disproven, or at least suggested evidence to the contrary of the idea that organic CTRs influence search rank potential. One in particular used a “click bot” to automatically click on certain results for a small range of keywords as a controlled experiment to see if additional clicks from searches alone were enough to move the rankings of a particular entry. The results, as you might imagine, were nonexistent. There was no upward momentum whatsoever.

    click bot

    (Image Source: SearchEngineLand)

    However, as others have pointed out, there’s a serious flaw in this study: it used click bots. Google is no stranger to the use of bots in manipulation of search ranks (and other online advantages), and it has precautions in place to guard against these negative techniques. While the experiment is interesting, it doesn’t offer conclusive proof that organic CTR isn’t a ranking signal.

    Recent Evidence and RankBrain’s Influence

    A recent experiment done by Wordstream (and published by Moz) illsustrates a very interesting relationship between CTRs and search, and it goes a step further by drawing in possible effects from RankBrain, which helps Google decipher and understand semantically complex user queries.

    Here’s the basic rundown of the experiment. Wordstream examined the relationship between CTRs for given search queries and how they relate to a given search position. The key here is that basic keyword “head terms” are plotted separately from long-tail keywords, which is a major focus of RankBrain.

    CTR vs organic search position

    (Image Source: Moz)

    As you can see, long-tail keywords tend to carry a higher CTR, on average, than their basic counterparts. The same keyword niche was used to attempt to isolate variables that may have otherwise influenced the difference—so what could account for this?

    You could make the argument that the big difference here is the fact that long-tail keywords have a higher likelihood of premeditated user intent, which in turn could influence higher CTRs in general. However, note that in high-position ranks, long-tail terms greatly outperform basic keyword phrases, while in lower organic ranks (10 and lower), the difference is almost negligible.

    Keep that in mind when looking at this graph of similar keyword terms in paid results:

    CTR vs paid search ads

    (Image Source: Moz)

    The same pattern is not visible here. In the top ranks, the differences between shorter and longer keyword phrases is much tighter together, following a much more linear path as the ranks get lower.

    What’s the key takeaway from this study? There’s something interesting going on with CTRs and specifically organic search ranks. There’s just one thing stopping us from certifying this as evidence that CTRs positively influence search rank.

    The Co-Dependency Problem

    The big problem is that CTRs and search ranks are co-dependent variables. Assuming that CTR does influence search rank, the two become mutually inseparable. Did a search rank increase because it got a higher CTR, or did its CTR grow higher because it got a higher search rank? It’s almost impossible to isolate the factors here.

    How This Affects Your Strategy

    As there’s no direct proof of causation between CTRs and organic search ranks, and because even if there was, there are dozens of factors that are more important (including site structure, content, and external links), this shouldn’t affect your strategy too much. Click-through rates are still a good thing, and you should still aim to optimize for them with compelling title tags and accurate meta descriptions, but they may not directly affect your search ranks. Until we have more information, keep user experience optimization as a strategy separate from your SEO, and improve both for the best possible results for your site.

  9. 5 Ways Search Is Becoming More Personalized (and How to Adapt)

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    Search is facing yet another revolution, and this one has everything to do with the individual. When Google first launched, every user in the world viewed the same results. Today, its capacity for personalization has evolved to such a sophisticated degree, most of us don’t even realize what’s happening in the background. Individual attention and customization are the next big barriers for technological development, and search engines are working quickly to bring more personalization to the users who are craving it. If you want your business to be prepared, you need to be aware of these changes, and how your SEO strategy needs to adapt.

    Facilitators of Personalization

    First, it’s important to realize the mechanisms behind these personalization changes. There are several major technologies all advancing in different lines, in some cases working together to integrate these changes:

    Search algorithm complexity.

    On one hand, search algorithms themselves are getting more and more complex. As an example, when Hummingbird broke onto the scene in 2013, it completely changed how Google “understood” search queries, shifting its focus on keywords to a semantic deciphering of user intent. As search engines evolve, even incorporating AI and machine learning, they’ll “get to know” users even better.

    Big data.

    Technology is growing capable of gathering and better understanding deeper, more complex information like user behavior and demographic information. Search engines can use this data to inform their algorithm updates or direct their future plans.

    Shared account access.

    Tech companies are attempting to reduce logins by spreading one account over several platforms and products. This allows companies to use information from multiple apps in a single, cohesive understanding of a user.

    Digital assistants merging offline and online.

    Personal digital assistants, like Siri and Cortana, are blurring the line between offline and online search, tapping into existing files, apps, and information hard-stored on devices for other forms of digital search.

    Modes of Personalization

    Through these vehicles of advancement, we can identify five main modes of personalization, each present in modern search but increasing in sophistication:

    Geographic location.

    Geographic location has been an influential factor in search results for some time now, especially with the onset of mobile devices. Google is adept at delivering a list of results based on what companies or facilities are around your “current” location. Over time, this location has grown more specific, ranging from regions, to cities, and now getting down to a neighborhood level. Other geographic factors include national differences, such as how “football” might mean something different to a Briton than it does to an American.

    Local SEO

    History.

    Your personal browsing history is another mode of personalization; Google may favor sites or domains that you’ve frequented in the past, or take a look at how you’ve responded to various search entries in separate instances in the past. It uses this information to get a better understanding of your personal needs, and as long as you’re logged into your account, it can pull this information to personalize your search results. In time, this degree of personalization may increase in intensity, as search engines have more information to work with and more options for display.

    Social connections.

    Currently underdeveloped compared to the other items on this list, Google can tap into your social Google+ account to highlight articles or websites that your connections have shared or found helpful in the past. The sky’s the limit for how this may develop, especially as Google works on more potential partnerships with other social media apps.

    Bookmarks and apps.

    Thanks mostly to personal digital assistants, the apps and bookmarks you have stored on your device and browser can influence the types of results you receive in search. A perfect example of this is app deep linking; under the right conditions, you may encounter a link in your search results that leads to the interior page of an app that you have downloaded on your device. This link would not appear if you didn’t have the app (though app streaming may soon change that).

    bookmarks apps

    Habits and personality.

    Though currently on the back burner, digital assistants are starting to tap into this customization potential. By getting to know your habits, how you use your device, and what your personal preferences are, digital assistants may soon start categorizing us into archetypes, or making bold assumptions about our behavioral and display preferences—but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves here.

    How to Adapt

    This is a search change that doesn’t offer any straightforward route to adaptation. Unlike previous Google updates, like ones that refine content standards, there’s no single reaction your strategy can have. Instead, you have to work around this personalization trend by making your company (and website) more appropriate and specific to your audience:

    Optimize for local keywords.

    Make your local presence known, to a hyper-specific degree.

    Reward loyalty.

    User retention can translate to positive ranking signals, and you’ll appear in more searches among your frequenters.

    Encourage social integration.

    This is a good strategy anyway, but it doesn’t hurt to give it an extra boost.

    Revisit and re-optimize for your target niche.

    Zoom in your laser-focus and optimize your site for your target demographics only.

    These strategies are somewhat general, but these personalization trends are hard to pinpoint with the precision of older strategies like keyword-based optimization. Keep giving your users what they want, be straightforward and accurate with your onsite company descriptions, and you should have a higher chance of showing up in more searches.

  10. The Future of Onsite SEO (in 2016 and Beyond)

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    SEO is always in a state of fluctuation, but most of the updates and changes we pay attention to are ones that affect some small component of our overall strategies. For example, the Panda update of 2011 affected how the algorithm evaluated the quality of content, and the Penguin update the very next year changed how Google evaluated links. What if there’s a change coming that fundamentally overhauls one of the biggest pillars of successful optimization?

    The Role of Onsite Optimization

    “Onsite optimization” covers a lot of ground, but essentially, it’s a system of constructs, rules, and tactics that you can use to modify your site and make it more visible to search engines, as well as more authoritative in those engines’ eyes. Historically, there have been some significant changes to how onsite optimization works—for example, a decade ago, it was neither imperative nor even appropriate to optimize your site for mobile devices. Today, having a non-optimized mobile site is archaic, and can significantly stifle your potential growth. However, by and large, most onsite optimization factors have remained consistent.

    onsite optimization

    (Image Source: SearchEngineWatch)

    The bottom line for onsite optimization is that it sets your site up for the search engine rankings you want. If you’re interested in a fairly exhaustive guide on the subject of onsite optimization, you can check out AudienceBloom’s (Nearly) Comprehensive Guide to Onsite Optimization.

    Why Onsite SEO Could Be in for Massive Changes

    So why are we on the verge of a potential disruption in the world of onsite optimization? There are three factors working together here:

    • Different forms of search. First, you have to recognize that there are different types of search engines entering the game. Personal digital assistants, which would have been considered impossibly futuristic just a few decades ago, are now commonplace, and users are searching in new ways—mobile devices alone have had a dramatic impact on how people use search in the modern world.
    • Advanced data interpretation. If you’ve been plugged into any tech news in the past few years, you know the power of big data and how much insight we’ll be able to gather on users and systems in the near future. More user data means more sophisticated ways of evaluating user experiences, which could lead to further refinement of onsite ranking factors.
    • New types of “sites.” Finally, we have to recognize that what’s considered a “site” may be undergoing a significant evolution. I’ll touch on this more in the next section, but suffice it to say, the traditional website may be on its last legs. How can you perform onsite optimization where there is no site? We’ll explore this idea later on.

    With that being said, let’s explore some of the potential game-changers in the onsite optimization world, some of which could start having a massive effect on how we optimize websites as early as this year.

    App-Based SEO

    The first and potentially most significant trend I want to explore is the development of app-based SEO. Obviously, apps have permeated our society thanks to the popularity of mobile devices and the convenience of app functionality. Since apps don’t require the intermediary step of firing up a web browser, they’re becoming a more popular means of discovering online content and using online-specific functionality.

    What does this have to do with onsite SEO? Everything.

    Existing App SEO

    First, it’s important to acknowledge the amount of app SEO already relevant to today’s users. Apps are starting to serve as an alternative to traditional websites, occasionally offering what websites can’t, but more often offering what websites do, but in a more convenient, device-specific package.

    The fundamental crux of app SEO is optimizing your app to be indexed by Google (and other search engines), much in the same way that onsite optimization ensures your website is indexed. For most apps, this involves setting up communication between your app listing and Google’s search bots, so Google can draw in information like your app name, a simple description, an icon associated with your app, and any reviews. Google can then provide your app (along with an “install” button) in SERPs whenever a user types in a relevant query.

    mobile app seo

    (Image Source: Google)

    There’s also an app SEO feature known as “app deep linking,” but I’m hoping there’s a catchier name for it in the near future. This functionality allows you to structure links that point to interior pages or screens of your app, giving Google the ability to link to those pages or screens directly in search results.

    http url in app

    (Image Source: Google)

    There’s one limitation to this process: users must have the app already installed to see these deep links in their search results. But there’s a solution in beta!

    App Streaming

    Google’s latest brainchild is a functionality called “app streaming,” which allows users to access deep linked content within apps, and sometimes entire app functions themselves, without ever downloading the app to their devices. The premise is somewhat simple; Google hosts these apps, and allows users to use only the relevant portions of them, much in the same way that Netflix streams movies and shows as you’re watching them.

    app streaming

    (Image Source: TechCrunch)

    The concept is even expanding to advertising, which is great for companies that revolve around the use of mobile apps. Companies may allow for an in-results “trial” offer of their apps, giving users a chance to stream the app before they buy it:

    trial offer word search

    (Image Source: SearchEngineLand)

    So what does all this mean? It means that apps are developing their own “kind” of onsite optimization, unique from what we’re used to in traditional websites. For now, it might seem like a gimmick, but there’s reason to believe this change could be coming to all of us, sooner than we might think.

    Directional Shift

    The most important factor to remember here is the way consumer trends are developing. Mobile traffic has rocketed past desktop traffic, and there’s no signs of its momentum stopping anytime soon.

    global mobile users

    (Image Source: SearchEngineWatch)

    App adoption is also on an upward trend, correlating strongly with mobile traffic data (as you might have predicted). Because of this, users will demand more app functionality in their search results (however those results might be generated), and search engines will do more to favor apps.

    Could Apps Replace Traditional Websites?

    The most important question for this section is whether all these fancy app SEO features and rising app use could eventually replace traditional websites altogether. Conceptually, apps are just “better” versions of website. They’re locally hosted, so they’re somewhat more reliable, they offer more unique, customizable experiences, they can be accessed directly from your device, sparing you the intermediary step of using a browser, and there’s nothing a website offers that an app can’t.

    But just because apps “can” replace traditional websites, it doesn’t mean they inevitably will, especially with older generations who might be reluctant to adopt apps over the traditional websites they’ve known throughout the entire digital age. Still, even if apps don’t replace traditional sites entirely, they’ll still be significant players in how SEO develops in the future.

    Does Your Business Need an App?

    As a related note to this discussion, you may be wondering if your business “needs” to adopt an app, since they’re becoming so popular and influential in the SEO realm. The answer, currently, is no. Traditional websites are still used by the vast majority of users, and the cost of developing an app is often only worth it if you have a specific need for one as part of your business model, or if there’s significant consumer demand.

    Rich Snippets and Instant Answers

    On another front of development are rich answers, sometimes referred to as instant answers, or Knowledge Graph entries. These are concise answers that Google provides users who search for a simple, answerable query, and they come in a variety of forms. They may be a few lines of explanatory text describing the solution to a problem, or a complex chart, calendar, or graphical depiction, depending on the nature of the query.

    Take a look at these examples:

    google instant answers

    instant answers google search

    Note how the answer in the bottom example contains a citation, with a link pointing to the source of the information. Google draws all its Knowledge Graph information from external sources, and if yours is one of the contributors, you’re going to earn this visibility. Since users are getting the answers they’re looking for, you may not get as much traffic as an ordinary top position, but you will be the most visible in the results.

    The Rise in Rich Answers

    The most important optimization influencer here is the sheer increase in how many rich answers are provided. Google is developing this functionality at a fast rate because it understands the sheer value to users—getting the answer you wanted, immediately, without ever having to click a link, is the next generation of search engines. Just in the past year, there’s been a massive surge in the number of queries that are answered with rich answers, corresponding with Google’s increasing ability to decipher and address complicated user queries.

    growth in rich answers

    (Image Source: StoneTemple)

    Personal digital assistants, too, are capable of providing more direct answers to users. So what does this increased ability to provide direct information mean for onsite optimization?

    Structured Data as a Ranking Signal

    The first possibility is that structured data might become a ranking signal. Google and other search engines depend on websites to use a specific architecture, a structured markup, to provide information that can be used for such answers. Schema.org is a great resource for this, and even amateur coders can implement this markup on a site in relatively little time. Accordingly, Google may start rewarding sites that offer more completely adherent pages, or ones that offer better information.

    John Mueller addressed this recently:

    structured data

    (Image Source: SearchEngineLand)

    Competition and Complicating Factors

    There are a handful of factors to consider here that complicate the relationship of onsite optimization to rich answers:

    • The competition factor. There’s only one spot for the top position in a rich answer situation, which means competition is fiercer than ever. You have to provide not only the most relevant answer for a user’s query, but also earn the highest authority out of anyone competing for the spot. This demands more offsite optimization and authority-focused SEO.
    • The decline of organic traffic and traditional SERP entries. The provision of instant answers makes it somewhat less likely that users will click through links. They will also be less likely to see organic search entries further down the list, decreasing the significance of the “traditional” SERP layout, and possibly affecting the relevance of existing onsite factors like title tags and meta descriptions (more on this later).
    • Alternative targets. In the short-term, it’s better to target and provide complex information that Google may not currently be able to provide answers to. However, as the Knowledge Graph becomes more advanced, this will be harder and harder for businesses to do.

    The bottom line here is that directly provided answers are morphing the traditional SERP, the average user experience, and are changing what it takes for your site to be perceived as an authority.

    User Experience Factors

    The bottom line for search engines is to make users happy, and they’re going to evolve as they learn more information about what workers want and need. Technologies are becoming advanced enough to draw in big data about huge swaths of users; this will soon make it possible for Google and other search engines to learn even more about how their users interact with sites. This, in turn, will force webmasters to adopt more onsite changes that favor beneficial user experiences.

    User Behavior and Engagement

    Currently, user behavior serves as a peripheral ranking factor; longer time spent on page is a general indicator of a high-authority or otherwise high-value site, while higher bounce rates is an indicator of much lower authority. In the near future, Google may be able to look at even more specific usability factors as ranking signals, such as how quickly they scrolled through the site, whether or not it appeared as though they were reading content, and in what order they clicked your links.

    User engagement factors may similarly come into play. For example, how quickly a user moves to leave a comment on your blog, or what other apps the user connects to may indicate how authoritative your site is.

    Qualitative Optimization

    These new features, combined with other applications of big data, will make onsite optimization more qualitative in nature. In addition to hitting the mark with the “fundamentals” (some of which are described in the next section), your site will be required to qualitatively please your user base, which will require significant testing and adjustment. For some webmasters, this is nothing new; it’s what’s required for conversion optimization, but soon, search engines may demand it.

    Existing Factors

    So far, I’ve mostly been exploring how new technologies and trends will influence the development of new additions to the onsite optimization world. But what about the onsite optimization strategies that already exist? How are they going to be affected over the next few years? Will they remain the same? Disappear? Evolve? I want to take a quick look at some of the most important factors, and how they might develop with the times:

    • Basic functionality. The “basic” functionality of your site refers to users’ ability to access your site, load all of its content (including videos and images), and consume that content without any significant barriers, across all devices and browsers. As a general concept, this is going to remain identical—you’ll always need your site (or app) to perform. However, those performance standards might change with consumer adoption of new technologies, similar to how mobile devices spurred the necessity of “mobile optimization.”
    • Mobile optimization. This is the perfect segue for mobile optimization, another major tenet of modern onsite optimization. What’s going to happen to mobile optimization? For starters, it’s probably going to stop being a term. We’re a few years away from mobile devices becoming so entrenched in our society that we stop seeing them as “new,” and start seeing mobile optimization as a standard by default. From there, there will probably be even stranger devices and user experiences to start worrying about.
    • URL structures and sitemapping. Currently, search engines demand some level of sitemapping to easily categorize and interpret your site, and a URL structure that’s easy for users to follow (with appropriate names to help search engines understand your page intent). For as long as traditional websites remain alive, URL structures will remain important, and it’s doubtful these standards will change. However, apps will likely demand a new kind of infrastructural mapping, and a replacement for URLs (as all content is hosted within the app).
    • Internal links. Internal links make it easier for users to navigate your site, and help search engines understand the unique relationships between all your pages. I imagine these will remain important to some degree, but with increased emphasis on user experience, this will have to evolve. Your anchor text and link placement will need to be further optimized to improve user experiences (not just stuffed in to make your site a tighter network).
    • Site speed. Site speed is always going to be important, even if traditional websites die and apps take their place. Users are impatient and demanding, and I can’t imagine them becoming less so over time. Regardless of whether they’re trying to access a traditional page of web content or they’re trying to use your app, they need their experience to be immediately gratifying, and it’s up to you to provide that to them.
    • Encryption. User security concerns are growing somewhat consistently, thanks to data breaches and similar scares. Combined with increasing sophistication of cyber-security and ever-evolving threats from hackers, it’s likely that encryption and user security will become greater ranking signals over time.
    • Title tags and meta descriptions. Title tags and meta descriptions are features I’m divided on. On one hand, search engines needs some kind of concise data to let them know what a page’s intention is, and what kind of content a user might expect on that page. On the other hand, traditional SERPs may start to evolve beyond the need for any title and description entries. This is thanks to the rising trend of voice-based search and the provision of direct answers. There will probably be some form of titling and describing, but it may decline in significance since it will influence click-through rates less.
    • Onsite content. Finally, there’s onsite content, which is the amount and quality of content you have on each of your internal pages. Users will grow accustomed to faster content consumption experiences in the near future, so onsite content may start coming into play less when it comes to evaluating the quality of a site. It will always be important, but apps may make content less structured by necessity, and users may prefer more concise experiences.

    These are mostly speculative, based on historical patterns and possible technology developments, so take these predictions with a grain of salt.

    Conclusions

    Over the course of this article, we’ve taken a look at some of the boldest new technologies and consumer trends shaping the future of search, and how those changes could impact what we currently identify as onsite optimization. These may be enlightening, interesting, or amusing to you, but remember the only way to earn the practical value from this piece is to leave with actionable takeaways. If we’re truly on the verge of a new search disruption, you need to be ready for it. SEO favors the competitors who can adapt to the latest trends quickly, and that means taking action with every new development or revelation.

    Key Changes to Watch For

    In an effort to stay ahead of the competition, you need to remain vigilant and keep watch for how these onsite trends develop. Overall, the changes in onsite optimization will reflect a change in the role of traditional websites in general. In the next few years, this change will manifest in three key areas:

    • The rise of app importance. Apps are starting to become more important to users and search visibility in general, and that importance is only going to increase in the next few years. Eventually, that may lead to the demise of the traditional website, leaving “onsite” optimization to the realm of “app” optimization.
    • Prioritization of information. Users are hungry for faster, more accurate, more immediate information, and tech companies want to provide that. Rich answers and personal digital assistants are two examples of technologies attempting to bring this information to users, and future onsite optimization techniques will likely require some provision of this fast, concise, accurate information—even more so than today.
    • Sophistication of user insights. Search engines will have more information on users, which will make the process of onsite evaluation far more complicated (and rewarding for users). That means more experience-based ranking signals, and possibly more ranking factors beyond our direct control, such as greater SERP personalization.

    How Quickly Do You Need to Adapt?

    It’s hard to say exactly when or how these changes will develop—app-based SEO is already alive and well, and companies are starting to take advantage of it for their businesses, but we’re not in any immediate danger of traditional websites going extinct yet. Technology tends to develop faster than most consumers and business owners anticipate, and you certainly don’t want to get left behind, so err on the side of caution by hedging your bets. Invest in select new strategies you feel are pertinent for your site’s visibility, but don’t be too quick to abandon your old techniques. If I had to guess, these changes will probably manifest gradually over the next five years, so you have plenty of time to make your evaluations.

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