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.
Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to account for this pattern in a controlled experiment, keeping all other ranking factors consistent.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
SaaS companies have their work cut out for them. In theory, the SaaS model is one of the most profitable and scalable types of businesses in the modern world. Assuming you have a good idea and a reasonable profitability basis, there’s nothing stopping you from scaling up a business to the point where your incoming revenue is practically limitless.
However, most SaaS companies rely on large-scale user bases in order to achieve that level of profitability. When you get to the order of thousands of users, your app is stable enough and your reputation is strong enough that retention and acquisition become child’s play. But every business starts with zero customers, and something needs to close the gap.
That “something” is marketing, but not all marketing strategies are equally effective, or equally appropriate for a SaaS brand.
Defining an “effective” marketing strategy
First, it’s important to understand what makes for an “effective” marketing strategy to begin with. There are many considerations for this, as the process for any given customer to make a purchase and remain a subscriber is fairly complex, and marketing strategies can operate at multiple levels.
Some strategies target all of these goals, while others specialize on one or two. Marketing strategies also range in cost and in time investment. Ultimately, this guide will consider strategies that accomplish as many of these goals as possible, as consistently as possible, for the least amount of total investment (and therefore, highest ROI).
Fast sales cycle. First, most SaaS companies have lightning-fast sales cycles. SaaS subscriptions aren’t necessarily an impulse buy, but they certainly don’t rely on the long back-and-forth exchanges that most B2B operations do. Most rely on immediate conversions, usually with the offer of a free trial (as in the example below). This means marketing needs to have an immediate draw and reach a wide number of users to be effective.
Customer retention. Customer acquisition is important, but retention is far more valuable. If your churn rate is too high, even a marketing strategy with a high propensity to generate new traffic and customers will fail. An ideal SaaS marketing strategy reaps the best of both worlds.
Brand differentiation. There are tons of SaaS companies out there, partially because everyone else has realized what a valuable model SaaS can be. Just take a look at this random sampling of specialized CRM SaaS platforms:
Your marketing needs to have some mechanism for strongly differentiating your brand.
Long-term yield. Remember, SaaS is dependent on long-term gains and profitability over the course of years, not months or weeks. There are many marketing strategies that promise fast, short-term returns, but it’s better to invest in a strategy with a similarly long-term payoff.
The fast scalability of SaaS companies means you need to find strategies that can function feasibly well at multiple stages of your growth. Ideally, you’ll be able to adopt them at launch and grow them with your company to the final stages of your growth.
Niche specialization. Since there are many niches available for SaaS companies, there are some variations in which marketing strategies are effective for individual companies. However, this guide will focus mostly on strategies that can be useful for any specialized niche.
With these considerations in mind, let’s explore some of the best all-around strategies a SaaS company can adopt.
I’ve listed content marketing as the first and most effective marketing strategy a SaaS company can adopt. It’s difficult to prove this with numbers, since every campaign is different, but for your investment, content marketing is the strategy that offers the best long-term return in the greatest number of different areas. It operates on every level of customer acquisition—from raising brand awareness to converting visitors and even retaining your existing customer base—and it’s relatively cheap, since it doesn’t require much overhead or specialized technology. Best of all, it’s scalable—meaning it’s effective at every stage of your growth—and it’s perfectly positioned for long-term gains. In fact, the return you see on content marketing should increase exponentially as you invest more and more effort into it.
Let’s take a look at some of the individual applications content marketing can offer. Keep in mind that some pieces of content will be able to fulfill multiple roles in this list.
Inbound-focused content is geared toward getting the greatest number of users to your site. This happens in many contexts, such as building awareness and visibility of your brand, sparking the interest of potential visitors, and clinching the deal by earning an inbound click.
Accordingly, there are some main considerations your inbound content should focus on:
Standing out from the white noise. Your first job is simply getting noticed. You can maximize your chances here by making your content visible in as many places as possible, and by coming up with truly original content topics.
Appealing to your target demographics. And your target demographics can’t be “everyone.” Find the target market most likely to buy your product, and gear all your content to them. Otherwise, you’ll attract lots of visitors, but only a fraction of them will be interested in making a purchase.
Offering some valuable, practical information. This will ensure that your users’ needs are met adequately, possibly driving them to that fast next step of actually converting.
Suggesting your product as a solution. Your content should be geared, in some way, to a problem that your target market faces. If your product is a solution to that problem, you can bet your content will be effective in driving a portion of your readers to a purchase.
AudienceBloom is a proud user of inbound-focused content. In fact, you’re reading a piece of it right now! With unique content, focused on providing valuable information and making your readers’ lives easier, you’ll have no trouble attracting more people to your brand. From there, if your solution is valuable enough, the conversion and customer flow will be natural.
Content is also effective because of its potential to retain audience members who have already become customers. For this, you’ll have a similar but distinct set of priorities. Since you’ve already gotten these visitors to become active subscribers, you need to give them some kind of recurring value with content that features the following qualities:
Covering news and presenting new information. If you provide your customers with a stream of updates related to your niche, you’ll accomplish a few key goals in achieving higher retention. First, you’ll give them a value, which will keep them around longer. Second, you’ll showcase your position as a thought leader in the industry.
Encouraging further use of the software. Any article that implies, subtly or overtly, that users should keep using your software is a bonus. For example, if your company provides time-tracking software, you could cover topics that suggest the efficiency and value of time-tracking software use.
Showcasing share-worthy stories. You can also aim to spark a combination of customer loyalty and the attraction of new customers by posting share-worthy stories, like case studies of real users or some benevolent act your company has made.
As I mentioned, there can certainly be overlap between these different content functions. I’ve only listed them separately to illustrate the different applications and benefits of content marketing.
Help and support content
As a completely separate section of content, your help and support documents will be imperative to keeping your customers around for a longer period of time. If implemented properly as part of your content marketing strategy, it makes your campaign even more effective by simultaneously giving existing customers the resources they need to continue using your software and showing potential new customers your commitment to user experience and customer service.
How you set up your help and support content section is up to you, but the goals are simple:
Give users exhaustive resources to navigate your software. Leave no stone unturned here; solve as many problems as you can.
Help users by providing multiple routes to solutions. One article hidden away isn’t good enough; feature search options, forums, and FAQ sections to supplement your work and make it as easy as possible to find a satisfactory answer.
Make your content visible to both existing and prospective users. This is necessary if you want to build both retention and acquisition.
Every document you produce here is a permanent addition that bolsters both your acquisition and retention rates.
I’ll explore SEO a bit more in the next section, but I wanted to mention it in the context of your content marketing strategy, since it’s responsible for a significant chunk of content marketing’s value. If you optimize your onsite content pieces for SEO, with proper protocols for title tags, meta descriptions, headers, body content, etc., you’ll earn greater domain authority, you’ll rank higher for search terms related to your business, and you’ll earn more search traffic as a result.
With all these angles, the power of content marketing should be clear. Requiring a minimum investment, lasting forever, and offering a compounding return as you grow your content marketing strategy, content marketing meets all the goals and accounts for nearly all the challenges I mentioned in the introduction. In the long term, it offers the highest ROI of any marketing strategy for SaaS companies.
SEO makes the list for many of the same reasons that content marketing did, and that’s no coincidence; the two strategies are fundamentally related. Content marketing serves as fuel for an SEO campaign, so with only a handful of additional strategies, you can earn powerful results on both fronts. Like content marketing, SEO is relatively inexpensive to execute, straightforward in its concept, and it offers compounding returns over time.
The main idea here is to increase your domain authority so you achieve higher visibility in search engines. That higher visibility will lead to more search traffic, which will give your site more visitors. And since it mostly relies on digital constructs, these position changes are semi-permanent, and you’ll continue reaping the rewards indefinitely. Let’s take a look at the main points of the strategy.
Onsite optimization is all about making sure the main content and structure of your site meets certain thresholds and standards set by search engines. Doing this not only makes sure your site is seen and “indexed” by search engines, but also maximizes your chances of search engines “understanding” what your site is about, correlating it with appropriate keywords and topics.
Google likes to see sites with ongoing streams of content; it shows they care about their users. Not to mention it adds more pages of your site that Google can index, maximizing the spread of your potential search visibility, and it allows you to target specific keywords and keyword phrases that might be relevant to your audience. I already wrote about different goals your content has from a user experience perspective; here, your goals with content are earning prime search ranking opportunities, which could potentially send thousands of visitors per month your way.
Offsite content and link building
The third, and arguably most powerful element of an SEO strategy is offsite content and link building. I’ve written about link building extensively as well, but I want to touch on the value of the strategy as it relates to SaaS companies. The idea here is to guest post content on high-authority external sites. These links serve as third-party indicators that your site is authoritative, and help your site rank higher in searches. And, on a secondary level, they can send direct referral traffic from these high-authority sources to your site. As most of these links are permanent, you’ll reap these benefits continuously for several months (at a minimum) for every new offsite post you publish.
Conciseness prohibits me from exploring the true value of SEO as a strategy, with all its complexities and variables you may encounter. But on a surface level, the takeaway for SaaS companies is this: with a relatively small investment, you can earn thousands of new visitors per month (and possibly build your reputation in the process, especially with high-authority external sources vouching for you).
Social Media Marketing
Social media marketing is another marketing strategy especially valuable for SaaS companies. It’s completely free to establish an organic presence on the vast majority of social media platforms, and there’s no limits or boundaries for the type of communication you can facilitate in the strategy. You can use social media to gain more brand visibility, cement relationships with your existing clients, build your reputation, and even provide support to your current customer base. It’s scalable, focuses on both acquisition and retention, and provides accumulated benefits over time—making it ideal as a SaaS-focused strategy.
Even better, social media marketing exists in a complementary harmony with both SEO and content marketing. As you’ll see (and have seen), these three strategies complement and enhance each other. Separately, they’re incredibly valuable opportunities for acquisition and retention, and together, their effects multiply even further.
One of the most important factors driven by social media is brand awareness. When you post actively and work to establish your presence in outside areas, you’ll start gradually attracting new followers to your brand. People who have never seen it before will start to become familiar with it at a distance, and the followers you do acquire will learn more about what makes your brand unique.
It’s hard to get to 15,000 followers (or more) in a short timeframe, so instead try to focus on incremental goals. Set up an active, consistent posting schedule, then begin an outreach program. You’ll want to participate in conversations related to your area of expertise, work with influencers in your industry to achieve a higher level of visibility, and even engage with targeted individuals who might be a good fit for your brand. You can also use hashtags, contests, and viral content to earn more shares and become visible in alternative ways.
The ultimate goal of visibility is to inch people down the stages of the buying cycle. Awareness gets them closer to a visit, which gets them closer to a conversion. Feel free to engage in tactics that push for these stages—such as calls-to-action that request user signups—but be wary not to overload your campaign with advertising, or your users will begin to distrust you.
Content and SEO benefits
Social media is also valuable as a tool to boost the effectiveness of both your content marketing and SEO strategies. First, let’s take a look at how it makes content marketing more effective. Your primary goal here is to use social media as an amplification outlet for your work; people won’t naturally stumble across your blog, so whenever you publish a new post, make the announcement on social media. You can also syndicate previous works in the future, maximizing their visibility and possible return. If your work is good, you’ll facilitate more social shares, which will amplify the reach of your content even further.
The SEO benefits of social media marketing function along similar lines, capitalizing on this ability to make content more visible. Social shares of your content function as secondary signals to Google’s algorithm, but the real power here is the propensity for link building. The more high-authority links you have pointing to your domain, the higher your authority will grow, but it’s hard to earn those links naturally. Through social media syndication, you can maximize your chances of a piece of content on your site “going viral,” achieving thousands of shares and possibly millions of newsfeed impressions. In that pool of potential visitors, it’s inevitable that you’ll earn at least a few strong, natural links—as long as your content is link worthy.
Many SaaS brands also user social media as a customer service tool, providing a convenient and functional alternative mode of support (and a proactive way to announce service schedules, downtime, and other proactive measures). Some have even created a separate, dedicated account for this purpose.
You can be where your customers want to be. Your customers are already on social media, so adding a support channel means extra convenience for them.
You can address many concerns at once. By posting regular FAQs, helpful articles, facts, announcements, and other information, you can keep your audience in the know and update the majority of your users at once, helping you maximize user retention.
All your work is publicly visible. This is key, especially with marketing as our primary consideration here. Any time you work with a customer on social media to resolve an issue, every other social media user—even non-subscribers—can see it. Positive customer service interactions could be the tipping point in landing a final user decision.
You can get ahead of potential disasters. Things aren’t always going to go smoothly or perfect, but social media gives you an outlet to get ahead of those disasters by announcing what’s going on, answering user questions, and sometimes, just apologizing.
Though veering slightly from the strict definition of “marketing,” customer service is a powerful angle to use in your social media strategy that lends strength to the overall approach.
SaaS communities are powerful for both customer retention and acquisition. When a user feels as though he “belongs” with your brand, he’ll never want to stop subscribing—giving him a sense of community facilitates the development of those feelings of belonging. An outside user looking in will see the comfort and advantages of the community (and at later stages, its sheer size), and may be persuaded to subscribe on that basis alone.
You’ll see this as a common tactic in many SaaS companies, some of whom have created onsite forums and engagement platforms to encourage intra-community discussion.
Still, the best way to develop a thriving community is through social media. Make people feel like they belong to your brand by engaging them one-on-one; respond to their comments, ask them questions, and personally thank them for their contributions. They’ll remember you, and other users will see your interactions. Over time, you’ll recruit more and more followers, all of whom can converse with each other as much as they converse with you, and your community will start to take shape.
In the early stages, much like content marketing and SEO, you’ll be hard-pressed to turn a meaningful profit. However, if you remain consistent and focused in your strategy, there’s no reason why you can’t cultivate a community of thousands to engage with your brand. The enhancement benefits to your content and SEO strategies alone make social media worth the effort—but add in the customer service angle and the community building power, and you’ll calculate that even a few hours of work per day can be enough to earn you thousands of new visitors per month (and strengthened relationships with your existing subscriber base).
Paid advertising is a popular online marketing channel, so I wanted to address it and its possible advantages for SaaS companies. In paid advertising, you’ll select a medium (usually something like Google or Facebook, with prominent visibility and targeting options), they’ll post an ad, and you’ll pay a fixed price for every click you receive.
This is a cool strategy, and one that can earn you a decent ROI, but there are a handful of disadvantages for SaaS companies that make it less than ideal as a long-term marketing solution:
Most other SaaS companies are already doing this. Try to get involved, and you’ll have a hard time standing out in the crowd.
Cost. Thanks in part to competition and in part to rising overall PPC costs, you’ll end up paying a hefty monthly fee to support your advertising.
Linear growth. No matter how much you scale, your investment will always return the same amount; you aren’t investing in long-term growth with PPC the way you can with the aforementioned strategies, because as soon as you stop paying, the ads are taken down.
For these reasons, I don’t recommend paid advertising as a long-term marketing strategy in SaaS. However, it does have some powerful advantages at the start of a SaaS company’s growth, including giving you the ability to target a specific audience and ensuring a positive ROI early on in your campaign. It’s definitely worth considering as a short-term addition to your growth strategy.
There are a number of strategies I haven’t mentioned that can be valuable for SaaS companies, including email marketing and affiliate marketing, but the ones I outlined above are bigger and more important as overall constructs. Together, content marketing, SEO, and social media form a powerful, interrelated, complementary package of marketing tactics that provide the best long-term returns in both customer acquisition and customer retention. And while paid advertising often yields a positive ROI, it pales in comparison to inbound strategies when looking at the long term.
You’ve got your blogging strategy in place, but are you doing everything you need to do for SEO?
SEO doesn’t just “happen.” Yes, it’s true that having a content marketing strategy in place already puts you in a better position to gain rank for keywords relevant to your industry, as long as you stay consistent with your posting strategy. However, you can’t just write “any” type of content and throw it onto the web haphazardly. There’s an important series of steps and considerations you’ll need to take if you want to ensure your blogging strategy is doing everything it can for your SEO campaign.
The purpose of this guide is to look at all of these “optimization elements” on a per-post level, guiding you in crafting perfectly optimized web posts every time you’re ready to publish a new article.
Elements of an SEO Strategy
First, let me take a step back and explain that SEO is a complicated, multifaceted strategy that unfolds over a number of different channels and tactics. Search Engine Land recently tried to condense this broad spectrum of factors to a single infographic:
Ultimately, your onsite optimization, your onsite content, your offsite content, and your peripheral strategies (like link building and local SEO) will all factor into how you rank for keyword phrases relevant to your brand. That means your content is only responsible for a fraction of your overall results—a significant fraction, but a fraction nonetheless.
Similarly, there are overall strategic factors that will come into play in your content strategy that aren’t covered here, such as where you publish your content, how you set up your blog, how you syndicate your posts, and so on. This guide will tell you how to optimize your individual posts to maximize their success—but that alone is only one part of your overall SEO strategy.
With that in mind, let’s start digging into what is it that makes any given blog post “optimized.”
Before I start looking at the individual content and technical factors that make an individual piece optimized, we need to know what we’re optimizing for, specifically. A handful of optimization factors are standard best practices you can apply to any post exactly the same way, but the majority of them are dependent on your specific targets. Accordingly, you’ll need to outline what it is you’re trying to achieve before you start trying to achieve it.
Choose the right keywords. Your first job is to target the right keywords. Now, keyword strategy has changed significantly in the past several years, so don’t jump into this with an old-school SEO approach. Your goal here isn’t to choose a specific keyword target, stuff that keyword into your articles with reckless abandon, and stop at nothing until you rank for that keyword. Instead, thanks to Hummingbird and semantic search, you’ll need to take your keyword targets with a grain of salt. Hummingbird interprets the intention behind a user query, rather than looking for an exact match keyword, so you can’t rely on one-to-one matches and repetition to earn you a keyword rank. Instead, you’ll use keyword research to identify areas of high search volume and low competition that present valuable ranking opportunities. Then, you’ll integrate those keywords (along with synonyms and related terms) into your articles—which I’ll cover in more detail later. Google’s Keyword Planner is great for this.
Choose the right topic. Because semantic search makes long-tail keyword phrases and user interests more important than individual keyword mapping, you’ll also have to take a step back and consider what topics you want to write. Take a look at your competitors, industry publications, and your newsfeeds overall. What are people talking about? What aren’t people talking about that they should be? Are there any topics that seem especially popular and ripe for coverage? Are there any alternative angles you can take or new data you can present? The main question in the back of your mind should be, “what would I want to search for if I was in their position?” The best topic ideas tend to be ones that are original (so there’s low competition), valuable/practical (so it appeals to a wide audience), and topical (so there’s lots of people searching for it, or something similar).
Write for your audience. Finally, remember that you shouldn’t write primarily for search engines. As much as it’s valuable to find keywords and topics with a high potential return and frame your posts in a way that maximizes their visibility in search engines, your users still need to be your first priority—or you’ll turn them off of your brand and all your efforts will be for naught. When you’re shaping your lists of keywords and topics to explore, keep this in mind, and be sure to make changes as appropriate. During the course of writing, editing, and publishing, you’ll also want to strike a balance here—don’t get too carried away by focusing exclusively on search optimization.
At this point, you should have a good idea what keywords, topics, and demographics you want to target, and we can start looking at how to optimize for them.
First, let’s look at the content features of your post. These are somewhat more approachable for novices, as they can be controlled during the writing and production process, and require virtually no technical expertise.
Write a concise, powerful headline
Your headline is going to serve a number of important functions, so you need to nail it. It’s one of the first things Google looks at when evaluating the topic of your piece, but even more importantly, it’s what most users will see when they encounter your article for the first time. In search engines, you’ll have more control over this “first impression” with title tags (which I’ll get into in the technical section), but don’t forget, users will be encountering your blog post on your actual blog, and on social media as well.
Generally, you’ll want a headline that:
Is unlike any other headline out there. Otherwise, it won’t stand out.
Accurately describes your content. Otherwise, Google won’t index it properly and users will be disappointed.
Features one or more of your target keywords. This helps you rank for your targets.
Imply some value. Users only click on content that appears valuable in some way.
Conveys a sense of urgency. Get users to click immediately, or you’ll lose them forever.
Take a look at the headline I’ve cited above; it’s unique, offers a concise description (with a target keyword phrase), a value (for agencies), and urgency due to its importance.
Include headers and sub-sections
Your content should be broken down into sub-sections, no matter what your primary focus is. Even a short-form post should have at least a few paragraphs, and those paragraphs should be marked by headers. These headers and subsections help users visually identify how your article is organized, and help them skim your content; skimming isn’t ideal, but they’re going to do it anyway, so you might as well help them out. Your headers will also come in handy for helping Google to understand what your content is and how it’s organized—more on this when I touch on H1 header tags in the technical section.
Prioritize introductory sentences
The first sentences of your paragraphs and sub-sections get extra priority when Google crawls your content, so make them count. Take the one in this sub-section as an example; it clearly describes the main point without giving everything away up front. Include a keyword or two if you can, but focus most of your attention on setting up the sentences that follow. This is also important for users who are trying to speed read your article to get the gist of what you’re saying.
Include images and videos
Visual content is a major trend in the content marketing world, and for good reason. Posts with images and videos get far more shares and click-throughs than posts without them, users are increasingly spending time seeking images and videos rather than written content, and since visual content is harder to produce, there’s still a competitive advantage in being one of the few companies in your niche to pursue them. Having visuals in your content will make your piece bigger, better, more visible, and with a higher potential for going viral. Try to include at least one visual element in every piece you publish, preferably something original.
Include your keyword phrase and conversational variations throughout your text
This is a bit tricky, since there’s no “golden rule” for keyword inclusion. Generally, you’ll want to include your target keyword phrases at least a handful of times throughout the course of your document, but you also don’t want to run the risk of keyword stuffing. To avoid this risk, please your users, and make the most of the Hummingbird algorithm all at the same time, rely on conversational variations of your keyword phrases instead. Try to incorporate general terms for your target keywords, and talk about them in natural ways. Think of it like a date. Don’t try so hard to impress Google that you end up seeming awkward; just be yourself.
Aim for long-form content when you can
There’s no single rule that dictates the “ideal” length of a blog post, though we’ve taken a stab at trying to figure this out before. The truth is, both long-form and short-form content have advantages in SEO. On average, standout short-form pieces are more likely to earn links and shares. However, standout long-form pieces are more likely to, when they earn links and shares, earn far more links and shares. That’s a mouthful, but the takeaway is this—each has unique advantages and disadvantages, but if you do the work necessary to make a long-form piece successful, long-form has higher payoffs. Strive for length, as long as you can make that length valuable (no fluff).
This is such a basic step I shouldn’t have to mention it. But the sad fact is, I do have to mention it. Though Google doesn’t penalize things like grammatical inconsistencies and poor spelling, these errors can have an indirect effect on your rank. Plus, if you’re suspected of using unnatural language, you could earn a direct penalty, and that’s not even mentioning the poor user experience effects it can have.
Meta Data and Technical Factors
Now, let’s look at some of the more technical factors of post optimization. These aren’t as technical as, say, creating a new navigation, or trying to optimize your site for mobile devices, but they have more to do with how the post is structured and interpreted by search crawlers than they do with your actual content.
Write a catchy title tag
Your title tag is what appears in Google search results as the blue hyperlinked text in every entry. Here’s a perfect example:
As a general rule, as long as you have a good headline, you can use your headline as a double for the title tag. You might also want to include some text at the end, the way the example uses “REI expert advice” to optimize for a brand term and some peripheral keywords after the relatively short title. Feel free to include an addition keyword here, but be mindful that you aren’t over-optimizing.
Generally, your title tag should be 50-60 characters. Any more than that, and Google will cut you off. Remember, you’ll also want to optimize your title tag for inbound users, making your title as appealing as possible to maximize click throughs.
Write an accurate, descriptive meta tag
Your meta description is a tag-team partner for your title tag. Here, you’ll have 150-160 characters to work with, so you get more breathing room and more opportunities to naturally include some of your target keyword phrases. This is the written text that appears under the title and link (see the example in the preceding section), so it’s another opportunity to capitalize on user interests on SERPs. It’s not as important as a title tag, for search engines or for users, but don’t neglect it.
Include H1, H2, H3, etc. tags
In my section on content considerations, I outlined the importance of including sub-sections with clearly marked headers. There’s also a technical component to this—you’ll need to include these bits of information with header tags for search engines to index and understand your content properly. Include an H1 tag for your first header, an H2 tag for your second, and so on, and remember to be as descriptive as possible.
Most modern platforms will take the title of your article and make that the URL; this is good enough for most SEO strategies. There are just a handful of bad practices you’ll want to avoid to ensure your URLs are optimized for search engines and for users. For example, you’ll want to avoid excessive numbers and characters at the end of your URL string; these are incoherent and make it hard for users to share or remember links. You’ll need to include a breadcrumbs trail (though this is usually not an issue), and you’ll want to include at least one strong keyword in a useful description at the end of your URL.
You know you need to include images and videos for SEO, but you also have to optimize them so search engines can understand them. These optimization tactics won’t increase the rank of your page directly, but will help your images and videos achieve higher visibility, which will indirectly drive more traffic to your page (and site).
For images, this means giving the image an accurate title, resizing it so it can load quickly and properly, using alt tags to describe the image, and including a caption so your users know why you’ve chosen the image in the first place. It also helps to align your images with the edges of your piece.
For video, this can be more complicated or less complicated depending on your goals. For example, if you’re merely embedding another person’s YouTube video, you don’t really have to do anything other than embedding it. However, if you’re running your own video content marketing strategy, you should engage in separate best practices for optimizing video so they can be found through search.
Interlink your piece with other content you’ve written
This is a seemingly minor step, but it’s an important one. Reference other posts you’ve written and other pages of your site in the body of each blog post you publish (within reason; usually three to five is plenty). Google favors sites whose pages are easy to get to; as a general rule, no page should ever be further than three clicks away from any other page. Interlinking helps strengthen the navigational “tightness” of your site, and furthermore, encourages users to spend more time on your site by leading them to different areas.
Ensure your content is compatible and loads quickly on all devices and browsers
This is another basic step, but you’d be surprised how many people miss it. Especially with embedded images and videos, you’ll want to do a “dry run” of your content and make sure it loads correctly on all types of devices and browsers. There are many tools for this, such as BrowserStack, so there’s no excuse not to investigate before finalizing your publication.
Encourage subscriptions and comments
The more your users engage with your piece, the more they’ll be willing to share it, the longer they’ll spend reading it, and the more authority you’ll earn for your efforts. Encourage your users to engage with your material by making it easy for people to leave comments (and by writing material that facilitates discussion in the first place).
You’ll also want to encourage your users to subscribe, to build your recurring readership and give a visibility boost to any pieces you write in the future. These can be RSS feeds or email newsletter subscriptions—anything that keeps your users coming back for more.
Include share buttons
Contrary to popular belief, social shares don’t pass authority the way that backlinks do. There’s some evidence to suggest that social signals are correlated with higher ranks, but it’s more likely that social shares are an indirect ranking signal. The more users share your piece, the more visible it becomes, and the more links it’s liable to earn. Those links are what are actually passing the authority. Because of this, social shares are important for SEO, just not in a direct way. It’s still in your best interest to capitalize on this correlational phenomenon, so make it easier for your users to share your content by including social share prompts at the bottom of every post.
Up to this point, we’ve been examining considerations for onsite posts, but don’t forget that onsite content should only be one part of your SEO and content strategy. You also need to focus on optimizing your offsite content if you want to be successful.
Fortunately, the same rules I’ve extensively outlined above are going to apply here (for the most part). For example, you’ll still need a good topic, a catchy headline, proper formatting, etc., but many of the technical factors are going to be out of your control. If you’re working with a high authority publisher, you can pretty much rest assured that these technical fixtures will be taken care of for you. However, there are a handful of special considerations you’ll need to bear in mind when producing and submitting offsite content:
Choose topics relevant for your publisher. When you choose topics, you’ll have to bear your audience, your goals, and your brand in mind, but when publishing offsite, there’s another variable you’ll have to consider—the publisher. During the early stages, this isn’t much of an issue; you’ll be primarily focusing on lower-authority publishers who won’t be picky about the types of content you submit and publishers well-aligned with your industry. But as you gain more experience and start working with publishers who have audiences in the hundreds of thousands or more, be prepared for some pushback and a delicate balancing act in optimizing a post that will still be accepted.
Include one strong link back to your domain. For the most part, one link is plenty. Google judges backlinks from any given domain on kind of a sliding scale; the first link from one source passes a ton of new authority, but any subsequent links on that same source will pass lower amounts of authority. Even worse, if you try to deliberately stuff your article with backlinks, you’ll either be rejected by the publisher outright or you’ll be penalized by Google for spamming links—not a pretty picture. Instead, make sure your link is valuable and relevant for your audience.
Optimize your link’s anchor text. You’ll also need to optimize the anchor text for your link—the text in which your link is embedded. Old-school SEO practices dictate that you should include your keyword phrase here, but this practice is somewhat obsolete. Instead, your text should be optimized to describe what it is your link is pointing to. For example, I could introduce another blog by saying, “I discuss more about content marketing in my recent blog post on finding competitive advantages with content.” Notice how the hyperlinked text is overtly and sensibly descriptive, and naturally contains a couple of keywords that could be associated with the piece.
Be aware of special meta data considerations. Your source of choice may have certain preferences or certain systems that prevent you from creating your own meta data or otherwise have strict standards on what data can be created. For example, they may mandate you create a tagline, but take charge of providing all titles and descriptions themselves. This isn’t as important as you might think, since this is an article on their site, not yours, and they have a vested interest in getting as much traffic as possible. Don’t be afraid to relinquish some control here.
You’ll also need to be aware that different publishers will have different systems, processes, and standards. You’ll have to adapt if you want to make the most of all of them.
Consistency and Adaptation
Now that you know the ins and outs of how to optimize a blog post for SEO, there are just two more general rules you’ll need to follow to be successful. The first is a rule of consistency. You can’t pick and choose when you follow these best practices, or only follow some of them, if you want to succeed in the long run. You need to apply these optimization tactics to every piece you publish, no matter what. Overall, these tactics will help you write better, more valuable user-focused content, and the few technical tweaks you need to make should only take you a few minutes each to complete. It’s well worth the extra investment, but only if you do so consistently.
The other rule is one of adaptation. People don’t produce perfect content on the first try, ever. You won’t write perfect titles or meta descriptions, and you won’t target the “perfect” set of keywords in your first run. Give your strategy some time to marinate and prove its worth, but if something’s not working, you can’t be afraid to change it. Pick a variable, make an adjustment, and see if things approve. Repeat as necessary until you start seeing the results you want.
With all these practices in place, you should have complete control over your blog optimization strategy. Though it’s only one piece of the SEO puzzle, it’s a powerful one, and you should start to reap the rewards in mere weeks.
Okay, so we all know that the search world is constantly evolving. It’s changed, radically, in many different ways since its general inception in the mid-1990s. Most of these changes, however, have been slow and gradual improvements to the core, original search engine algorithm. Search experts and marketers were quick to note when these things happened; for example, when Panda was released, 11 percent of queries were affected, and marketers couldn’t help noticing this extreme volatility because they were watching their ranks closely.
But users didn’t really notice this volatility—to the average user, the changes and improvements in search are so gradual they’re barely noticeable, the same way it’s hard to tell when a child is growing when you see him/her every day.
What Constitutes a Disruption?
Because of this incremental phenomenon, it’s tough to categorize what might count as a search engine “disruption.” Usually, a tech disruption happens all at once—when a new product is released, a new trend takes off, or a new company emerges to challenge the norm. Now that all the norms of search are pretty much in place, the minor “disruptions” we’ve had so far (usually in the form of Google updates) can’t really claim to have that much impact. User search behavior has changed much in the past 20 years, but again, it’s done so incrementally.
Still, knowing that, the search world may be on the verge of a major disruption in the truest sense—a new set of phenomena that may turn the nature of online search on its head. And it’s already starting to take place.
Artificial Intelligence on Two Fronts
Disruption is coming in the form of artificial intelligence (AI), and in two distinct modes of operation, it’s already here:
AI is powering diverse new types of virtual assistants. These include programs like Siri, Cortana, and Google Now, and are becoming more popular modes of search at an astounding rate.
So on one hand, you have AI interfering with the way users are searching, and on the other, you have AI taking over the updating process for search engines.
Let’s take a look at each of these in turn, and how they could be considered disruptive.
Chances are, you’ve used a virtual assistant at least once in your life, and in the near future, you’ll find yourself using them even more. Consider how these programs could cause the next major search disruption:
Voice search popularity. First, it’s important to address the rising popularity of voice search in general. By some estimates, voice-based searches have gone from zero to over 50 billion searches per month. That’s a huge jump, and it’s only going to get bigger. That means more people are using colloquial phrases and forgoing traditional search engines entirely.
Cross-realm search. It’s also important to realize that most virtual assistants aren’t limited to one realm of search. For example, Cortana and Siri will search the Internet, your local device, your online accounts, and even files within your local device for your search queries. Search is no longer exclusively online, and the lines between online and offline are starting to blur.
User intent and semantic capabilities. Virtual assistants are also becoming more adept at recognizing natural language and user intent, which means it’s going to be harder than ever to “optimize” anything in specific ways, and users will have hyper-focused intentions when looking for solutions or content.
On-the-go searching. Virtual assistants are also driving more mobile and on-the-go searches, which is changing the way people form queries. They need more immediate, location-based answers, rather than the products of premeditated keyword-based research queries of old.
Machine Learning in Search
On the other front of AI development, you have new machine learning algorithms working to replace the previously manual job of improving search engines. This has started out small, with a modification to Hummingbird known as RankBrain, but we can expect to see bigger, better versions of these machine learning algorithms in place in the near future. There are three key ways it could be a disruptor:
Micro-updates. RankBrain doesn’t come up with major changes and then push them to a live environment. It runs through tons of micro-updates on a constant basis, meaning that incremental improvement is going to happen on an even more transformative level.
Unpredictable paths of development. Since human beings won’t be in control of algorithm updates forever, machine learning algorithms could take searches down new, unfamiliar paths of development—some of which may look very different to today’s average user. Entire constructs and norms may be fundamentally overwritten.
Rate of change. Perhaps what’s most scary about the idea of machine learning is the sheer pace at which it can develop. With algorithms perfecting themselves and perfecting how to perfect themselves, the pace of development may skyrocket, leaving us marketers in the dust.
Since these technologies are still being developed, it’s hard to estimate to what degree they’ll be able to redefine the norms of user searches. However, early indications show these two forms of AI to be powerful, popular, and for lack of a less clichéd phrase, game-changing. As a marketer, you can’t prepare for the future in any concrete way, since even the technology developers aren’t sure where it’s going to go from here, but you can prepare yourself by remaining flexible. Hedge your bets with lots of long-term strategies, try to jump on new trends before your competitors can, and always be willing to adapt.
It’s almost impossible to survive as a small business in the modern world without some kind of online marketing strategy, even if that’s just a website and a basic social media presence. Assuming you could build up enough foot traffic and reputation in the physical world, you’ll still have to deal with competitors who offer everything you do, plus the online visibility component.
But getting started with an online marketing strategy (and managing one long-term) isn’t exactly straightforward, nor is it easy, even for an experienced entrepreneur. The truth is, small businesses are facing some hard challenges in the online marketing world. Fortunately, there are always alternatives and workarounds:
First off, marketing can be expensive. There are many cost-efficient ways to market your business, but even then, you’ll be spending hundreds of dollars a month at a minimum to start seeing results. For many small businesses, especially newer ones, this is a crippling additional expense. Plus, in the first few months of your execution, you may have to deal with a negative ROI or break even until you learn how to make the changes necessary to become profitable. Don’t write off marketing because it seems like an unnecessary expenditure; even though it demands additional investment up front, it will pay off if you’re willing to grow your strategy. This is an investment, not an expense.
2. Strategic Basis.
As a small business owner, you’ve decided to start online marketing. You have a budget of $2,000 per month, and you’re excited about the potential benefits you’ll see. But what exactly do you do with that money? Do you start with a website and start building arms of your strategy around it? Do you distribute that money evenly across many strategies, or invest exclusively in one to maximize its potential payoff? There’s no one answer to these strategic questions, especially at the beginning of your campaign, when you don’t have any historical data. Though it might be scary, the best thing to do is pick a direction and run with it—you’ll always have time to change later.
3. Time Investment.
The time investment is another concern of small business owners, on two levels. On the individual level, it takes several hours to plan, execute, and even understand a marketing campaign. Even if you’re working with an agency or another external partner, the time burden can be significant. On a broader level, most online marketing campaigns only pay off significantly in the long-term; for example, it’s usually several months before a content marketing strategy or SEO campaign starts to pay off. For small businesses in need of more immediate revenue, this is disconcerting.
4. Trusting an Expert.
There are thousands of self-proclaimed marketing experts available on the web. Some are individual consultants, some are freelancers, and some are agencies. Each of them claims to have the “secret” to marketing success, but each offers a different price level and very different range of services. As a small business owner without much dedicated expertise in this area, it can be challenging to sort out what constitutes a “good” marketing strategy from a “bad” one. Schemes are always a problem, to the point where Google has several support pages dedicated to helping users understand these schemes.
Online marketing is popular for a reason; it’s effective. If you’re entering the game for the first time, you’re going to face a wealth of competition, the most concerning being from well-established businesses who have longer histories and bigger budgets than you do.
Finding a way to beat these competitors can be tough, especially when you’re just starting out. You may need to be selective about the strategies you use, or find a specific niche to get a good angle. Otherwise, your already-tight budget is going to be stretched thin, and you’ll have a hard time breaking a profit.
Small business owners are usually inexperienced when it comes to marketing analysis—they may look at a statistical report and not know what questions to ask, or how to make sense of the data. Because of this, it’s easy to misinterpret the data, or even to draw the wrong data in the first place. To make matters worse, you won’t have much historical data on your company at all, giving you no basis for comparison. The best thing you can do here is rely on multiple external sources and don’t be afraid to experiment.
The marketing realm is changing all the time, with new trends and technologies to consider. The most successful marketers are the ones who see these changes and are able to adapt to them, even though it’s easier to stick to the same old strategies you’re used to. Since your attention will be on developing your small business, it’s hard to dedicate enough focus to adapting your marketing strategy to new circumstances, but it’s a major priority if you want to succeed.
If you’re facing some—or all—of these online marketing challenges as a small business owner, you can at least take solace in the fact that you aren’t alone. Again, these problems won’t go away immediately, and there are no shortcuts to fix them, but they can be addressed, and reasonably, with the right ambition and direction. One by one, as you correct or compensate for these challenges, you’ll find your marketing potential growing in a concretely measurable and consistent way.
Google never stops coming up with new improvements, but its latest addition to local search is somewhat surprising. Just last year, Google revolutionized local search by streamlining the “3-pack” format across both desktop and mobile devices, and now it’s tinkering with new functions, such as purchasing plane tickets and discovering tourist attractions in new cities.
So what’s the latest and greatest that Google has to offer?
Local Business Cards
Try not to take the title too literally; Google isn’t pulling in business card information from local realtors and professional networkers. Instead, there’s a new kind of image- and information-based carousel that provides searchers with a more in-depth look at local businesses.
Notice the carousel of small information cards just below the traditional link, and to the left of the Knowledge Graph box. Each of these boxes is filled with company-submitted information, including still images, animations/videos, copy, and links. It appears to be updated based on time, the way Twitter feeds used to, and it’s been confirmed that Google is not drawing this information from MyBusiness, social feeds, or anywhere else. The feature works on both mobile and desktop devices, though it was designed to appeal specifically to mobile users. In the mobile format, these “business cards” appear under the Knowledge Graph box, rather than to the left of it. Users may also “share” the content available in these cards.
It should be noted that this functionality is currently a test, possibly stemming from a similar feature, Candidate Cards, which rolled out just a few weeks ago. However, if the test goes well, it’s likely that Google will implement this on a full scale.
The big unanswered question for this feature is whether or not Google will decide to roll it out to all local businesses. But let’s assume for a minute that it will.
Will this be available to national or large enterprises? This will likely apply to the independently owned local coffee shop, but what about the local Starbucks across the street from it? Both companies will have Knowledge Graph boxes and will appear somewhat equally in other areas of search visibility, but it seems unfair and maybe even a little inappropriate to give national franchises or large corporations access to even more visibility.
What limitations will there be on provided content? Google’s candidate cards struck up some major controversy because of the way candidates were using them. While some candidates used them as intended, as simple messages or arguments during a debate, others used them as an advertising platform, requesting direct donations from users. This is significantly more complex in the political realm, but what would happen if local businesses were given free search advertising features like this? Would our search results start becoming littered with these ads? This leads me to my next question.
Could this be a paid feature? Though candidate cards were rolled out for free and for users’ best interests, it’s not unthinkable to imagine these business cards as a paid advertising feature. They’re displayed prominently, there’s a lot of room for creativity and flexibility, and it gives brands a guaranteed number of impressions. My gut feeling on this is that this won’t turn into a paid feature—somehow I can’t imagine Google striving to give users more information like this, only to squeeze a profit out of local business owners to get the job done.
How can this integrate socially? Right now, the share button offers integration with Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and email, but what other forms of social integration might Google be able to offer? Will brands be able to tie their own social media activity into business cards in a reverse of the process?
Will this only apply to branded searches? Currently, business cards are only known to appear for branded searches of the companies they’re appearing for. As this is a highly limited test, it’s uncertain whether this limitation would remain in the future. If these business cards can be used for direct advertisements, it seems unlikely that Google would allow them for non-branded searches (at least not for free), but Google has surprised us many times before.
Clearly, there’s a lot of potential for a feature like this, but a lot of difficult problems to work out. The big test will be to see how users respond to this initial rollout; as long as reactions are favorable, the rest of the problems may work themselves out naturally.
Predictions and Conclusions
It’s too early to say definitively whether Google will roll out this feature to all local businesses (or which businesses will “count” as local), but if I were a betting man, I’d say it’s fairly likely. Given that candidate cards have been deemed successful already, and this is basically just an extension of that, combined with the fact that Google has been consistently tinkering with local search results for years, it seems reasonable to suspect that this update will make the final cut.
When it does, I encourage you to be ready to take full advantage of it. Have images and videos ready for your pop-out business cards, and ideas for both commercial (such as product ads) and non-commercial (such as informative content) applications. Don’t be surprised if this turns into a paid feature, but given Google’s long history of supporting local businesses, don’t expect it.
Depending on how you classify SEO, there’s really only one primary goal: attain higher ranks in search results. Yes, all the tangential brand and customer benefits from content marketing and other peripheral strategies are nice bonuses, but in strict terms, ranking is the bottom line. Accordingly, it’s no surprise that most modern tactics evolved to take advantage of what we know as “ranking signals,” which are actions or constructs that send a message to Google’s evaluative algorithms that your site is an authority worth ranking. Get more ranking signals, move up in rank. It’s that simple.
The complexity comes from the fact that not all ranking signals are fully understood (since Google doesn’t publish its complete ranking algorithm) and from the fact that there are actually different types of ranking signals. Today, I want to address a critical difference you may not have known about: direct ranking signals versus indirect ranking signals.
Direct Ranking Signals
If you’ve spent any significant time in the SEO community, these are probably ranking signals you know about. They come in all shapes and sizes, but are all ultimately the product of an action or improvement that makes your site perceptibly more authoritative. For example, a new link pointing to your domain is a ranking signal; depending on the strength of the source, it could pass a little or a lot of authority to your site. Similarly, but to a much lesser extent, the loading speed of your web pages can serve as a ranking signal:
Ranking signals also come into play when it comes to relevance. For example, if you create a page that targets a keyword phrase like “garden salsa,” it could help you rank higher for queries containing the phrase “garden salsa.”
For the most part, direct ranking signals are adequately published, and because the majority of them can be executed intentionally as part of an SEO strategy, there isn’t much mystery surrounding them, other than the fact that there are a lot and they change somewhat frequently:
What, then, counts as an indirect ranking signal? Like their direct counterparts, these are constructs or actions that can influence your rank—but they don’t do so directly. In fact, they have no direct bearing or influence in Google’s algorithm at all. Yet at the same time, they can increase your ranks in strong and sometimes unexpected ways.
For example, let’s say you’ve written a fantastic article about how to buy a perfect pair of shoes. It doesn’t get much traction at first, but one day, a major influencer in the fashion industry happens upon it and shares it with her audience of 100,000 followers. This action has no direct influence on your ranking whatsoever (contrary to popular belief).
However, imagine a few possible results of this action. A handful of users may read your article and link to it on their own blogs, establishing “direct” ranking signals as a result of an innocuous event. Others may specifically search for your brand in combination with shoe-related keywords, strengthening the correlation between your brand name and shoe-related words. Many of those 100,000 followers may share your article even further, multiplying these positive effects across other demographics and audience segments.
This is an “indirect” ranking signal, and there are many examples of how these can come to pass. Social shares, interviews, referrals, brand mentions, and even in-person discussions can all constitute indirect ranking signals.
Is It Worth Pursuing Indirect Signals?
This leads to an interesting question: if indirect ranking signals don’t pass authority, are they worth incorporating into an SEO strategy? Our example above is a pretty optimistic scenario, and arguably one worth pursuing. Having your article shared with 100,000 people, for most brands, is an incredible opportunity. However, there’s no guarantee that it will lead to measurable benefits; what if the share falls flat? What if lots of people read it, but few people take any course of action that results in a direct ranking signal?
The answer is pretty simple. Yes, indirect ranking signals are less concrete and less predictable than their direct counterparts, but if you look at averages, they’re definitely worth pursuing. If 10 influencers, each with a similar profile of 100,000 followers share your article, all it takes is one to hit home to generate tons of new direct ranking signals for your domain. Therefore, it’s a good idea to pursue indirect ranking signals, as long as you’re also incorporating direct signals into your strategy.
Indirect Ranking Signal Adoption
There’s some good news if you’re interested in incorporating more indirect signals into your strategy—you probably don’t have to change much. If you write content that people want to read, you’ll naturally earn more shares and generate more discussion. If you get active on social media, you’ll naturally earn more brand mentions and generate more attention for your work.
If you want to dig into semantics and get technical, than indirect ranking signals should not be a part of SEO. But they’re a natural part of many peripheral strategies that are closely related to SEO, including content marketing, guest posting, relationship building, social media marketing, and even in-person professional networking. Any positive PR for your brand, at any level, could contribute to attaining a direct ranking signal, so work to unify your strategies under a common vision for ranking growth.
With apps seeing increasingly popular usage for specific functions—like making restaurant reservations or getting directions, for example—more than one marketer has raised the question: with mobile usage rising and apps becoming more popular, could apps become a new “type” of website, eventually making traditional websites altogether obsolete?
A new update on the Google front may hold a clue to that development. But first, we have to look at how apps have developed in the world of search engine indexing.
App-Based SEO in a Site-Based World
Up until a few years ago, and arguably still today, the “default” mode of the Internet is the access of specific server-hosted web pages through a web browser. This is the structure for which search engines were developed, and until recently, websites were the only constructs that could take advantage of search result improvement.
When apps started becoming popular, Google introduced a host of new app-specific search indexing techniques. Namely, they started indexing apps the way they index websites. As a result, a prompt for your app may appear when a mobile user searches for something relevant to your app. They’ll be presented with your app name, a description, your rating, downloads, and then a link to install the app directly:
Other search engines have also jumped on this trend. Additionally, it’s possible to index specific content from your app into the search engine; by building deep app links, a user who searches for the relevant content will be presented with a link that opens the app to a specific page within the app. The only hitch is, the user must have the app installed already to access that content.
When these techniques started to become more popular, especially for businesses that already had apps, many marketers took it as a sign of things to come. Much like Google started introducing mobile search results, and now demands mobile websites by default, Google could be introducing app results, eventually demanding apps by default.
From a user experience standpoint, apps do hold a number of advantages over websites; they’re more immediately available, designed to function in specific ways, and offer a higher degree of personalization due to having access to a personalized device. Then again, most of us who have grown up knowing the Internet as a collection of web pages find it hard to imagine the traditional web browser experience ever truly going away.
For all their advantages, apps still have one critical disadvantage: they have to be downloaded on a device in order to be accessed. At least, they used to.
Google App Streaming launched just a couple of months ago, and has since risen in both functionality and popularity. Now, when you perform a search for deep linked content within an app that isn’t currently downloaded on your phone, you have the option to “stream” the app. Contrary to a common misconception, you aren’t accessing a mobile site version of the app when you do this; you’re actually accessing a version of the app that’s running in the Google Cloud, almost like a remote access machine.
This essentially solves the problem of the “download barrier” when it comes to app access through search engines. Google’s goal here is to provide a user with the content he/she needs, regardless of whether it currently exists as a webpage or as a mobile app.
Is Google Driving an App-Only Web?
Seeing Google’s recent favoritism toward supporting apps in its search engine, you might be led to believe that Google is attempting to gradually phase out traditional websites in favor of mobile apps (as we briefly discussed earlier). However, this doesn’t appear to be the case; app content doesn’t take precedence over web content. In fact, by offering this, Google is striving to give users the best of both worlds. Traditionally indexed web content is still available, with the addition of app streaming to avoid alienating users who need app access. In effect, Google is striving to keep apps and web pages as closely bound together as possible.
Where Does It Go From Here?
It’s hard to say exactly what Google has in store for the future, mostly because it’s consistently surprised the marketing community with its advancements for the better part of two decades. However, if I were a betting man, I’d say that app-based and webpage-based SEO will continue to exist as complementary and independently valuable strategies for interested organizations. Google clearly doesn’t favor one over the other, but instead is trying its best to make as many users happy as possible. If anything, we should look to user preferences as an indicator of what comes next.
The search engine world is bigger than just Google. Bing has overseen some major improvements over the past several years, stealth competitors like DuckDuckGo are showing promising signs of growth, and other tech giants (including Apple and Facebook) have already stuck their toes in the water to test the limits of search engine development. Now, a new competitor may be entering the fray, and it’s a name we all recognize: Wikipedia.
To be fair, Wikipedia’s actually considered making a search engine for a long time now. It’s only recently that it formally announced and detailed its plans. The official news came from the Wikimedia (the official owner of Wikipedia) detailing a sizable grant from the Knight Foundation. The document describes a vision for a new search engine, called the Knowledge Engine, which is intended to “democratize the discovery of media, news and information.” This search engine will attempt to create a more unbiased, publicized bank of searchable information on the web—one that’s “completely free of commercial interests.”
In summary, the Knowledge Engine will strive to be a transparent creation designed to increase the availability of knowledge to all Internet users.
Understandably, the SEO and broader online community were abuzz with speculation and anticipation about what such a development would entail. The language of the letter appears critical of search engines like Bing and Google, which have clearly dominated and dictated search engine technology trends, including being influenced by the needs of advertisers. Accordingly, people rallied Wikipedia as “taking on” Google with a contemporary competitor.
However, this appears not to be the case. Wikimedia has responded to these speculations, saying their goal is not to build yet another “global crawler search engine,” nor is their goal to create what is essentially another Wikipedia. Instead, this project will be distinct from either of these goals.
In the world of tech giants, Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, and Wikipedia are usually the first to come to mind. Of these, Wikipedia has held two distinctions thus far; first, it’s the only organization in this group to have not developed its own search engine. Second, it’s the only organization that’s not for profit. Wikipedia, seeing no non-profit search engines and having a core mission to provide the world with more information, is driven to bring more transparency, fewer monopolies, and more thorough provision of information to web users. This is in line with its mission statement: “…to empower and engage people around the world to collect and develop educational content under a free license or in the public domain, and to disseminate it effectively and globally.”
Accordingly, there should be no mystery as to why Wikimedia is pursuing such a goal.
The Wikimedia community has talked about developing its own search engines for years, so the concept isn’t entirely new. The $250,000 grant is certainly helping to propel the idea forward, but there are a few other motivations for its timing:
Google’s antitrust issues. Over the past several years, Google has caught flak from Europe (and more recently the United States) over violating antitrust laws with its provision of search results. Identifying this as a major problem, Wikimedia could be simultaneously attempting to solve and take advantage of this for extra visibility.
The Google Knowledge Graph. Google’s provision of rich answers, direct answers above the fold of typical SERPs, has certainly encroached on Wikipedia’s territory. Obscuring Wikipedia entries and sometimes drawing information from the articles themselves, Wikipedia could be acting as a response to a perceived threat.
Shifting user demands. Online users are growing more accustomed to getting fast, concise answers to informational queries, often on mobile devices. This renders the old-style Wikipedia page somewhat less modern and relevant. Wikipedia could simply be trying to evolve in line with consumer demands.
How Could This Affect SEO?
Now let’s take a look at how this might affect your current SEO strategy, even though the release of the search engine is likely months or years away:
Decreased search share. If users can get better, more direct answers from the Knowledge Engine, they may choose to use it over Google, further eating away at Google’s search share. Your choices may be to either optimize for the Knowledge Engine as well (which will take more work) or suffer the decreased search visibility (which will decrease your revenue).
Increased visibility challenges. The Knowledge Engine will apparently use a “public curation of relevance,” which stands separate from keyword relevance, semantic search, and backlink profiles that traditional search engines use. This would make SEO extraordinarily difficult, if not entirely impossible, for for-profit businesses.
Advertising opportunities. Seeing that the Knowledge Engine won’t be operating for a profit, you can almost guarantee that there won’t be any new search advertising opportunities. Opportunities on Google and Bing may therefore decrease in cost due to lower search volume (or remain steady due to unchanged rates of competition).
Future developments. What’s most striking is how the Knowledge Engine may affect current and future search engines. Its revolutionary new approach and structure could influence Google, Bing, and dozens of new search competitors to push the limits of what can be accomplished in online search.
Personally, I’ll be interested to see how this new, publicly controlled, non-profit search engine develops. It’s striving to be a true game-changer, offering a system and a position that no other organization has attempted to date. It may fall flat, as Jimmy Wales’s for-profit project Wikia Search did back in 2004, it may skyrocket to popularity thanks to Wikipedia’s current user base, or it may fall somewhere in between.