The Rules of Link Building – Whiteboard Friday

Posted by BritneyMuller

Are you building links the right way? Or are you still subscribing to outdated practices? Britney Muller clarifies which link building tactics still matter and which are a waste of time (or downright harmful) in today’s episode of Whiteboard Friday.

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The Rules of Link Building

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Video Transcription

Happy Friday, Moz fans! Welcome to another edition of Whiteboard Friday. Today we are going over the rules of link building. It’s no secret that links are one of the top three ranking factors in Goggle and can greatly benefit your website. But there is a little confusion around what’s okay to do as far as links and what’s not. So hopefully, this helps clear some of that up.

The Dos

All right. So what are the dos? What do you want to be doing? First and most importantly is just to…

I. Determine the value of that link. So aside from ranking potential, what kind of value will that link bring to your site? Is it potential traffic? Is it relevancy? Is it authority? Just start to weigh out your options and determine what’s really of value for your site.

II. Local listings still do very well. These local business citations are on a bunch of different platforms, and services like Moz Local or Yext can get you up and running a little bit quicker. They tend to show Google that this business is indeed located where it says it is. It has consistent business information — the name, address, phone number, you name it. But something that isn’t really talked about all that often is that some of these local listings never get indexed by Google. If you think about it, Yellowpages.com is probably populating thousands of new listings a day. Why would Google want to index all of those?

So if you’re doing business listings, an age-old thing that local SEOs have been doing for a while is create a page on your site that says where you can find us online. Link to those local listings to help Google get that indexed, and it sort of has this boomerang-like effect on your site. So hope that helps. If that’s confusing, I can clarify down below. Just wanted to include it because I think it’s important.

III. Unlinked brand mentions. One of the easiest ways you can get a link is by figuring out who is mentioning your brand or your company and not linking to it. Let’s say this article publishes about how awesome SEO companies are and they mention Moz, and they don’t link to us. That’s an easy way to reach out and say, “Hey, would you mind adding a link? It would be really helpful.”

IV. Reclaiming broken links is also a really great way to kind of get back some of your links in a short amount of time and little to no effort. What does this mean? This means that you had a link from a site that now your page currently 404s. So they were sending people to your site for a specific page that you’ve since deleted or updated somewhere else. Whatever that might be, you want to make sure that you 301 this broken link on your site so that it pushes the authority elsewhere. Definitely a great thing to do anyway.

V. HARO (Help a Reporter Out). Reporters will notify you of any questions or information they’re seeking for an article via this email service. So not only is it just good general PR, but it’s a great opportunity for you to get a link. I like to think of link building as really good PR anyway. It’s like digital PR. So this just takes it to the next level.

VI. Just be awesome. Be cool. Sponsor awesome things. I guarantee any one of you watching likely has incredible local charities or amazing nonprofits in your space that could use the sponsorship, however big or small that might be. But that also gives you an opportunity to get a link. So something to definitely consider.

VII. Ask/Outreach. There’s nothing wrong with asking. There’s nothing wrong with outreach, especially when done well. I know that link building outreach in general kind of gets a bad rap because the response rate is so painfully low. I think, on average, it’s around 4% to 7%, which is painful. But you can get that higher if you’re a little bit more strategic about it or if you outreach to people you already currently know. There’s a ton of resources available to help you do this better, so definitely check those out. We can link to some of those below.

VIII. COBC (create original badass content). We hear lots of people talk about this. When it comes to link building, it’s like, “Link building is dead. Just create great content and people will naturally link to you. It’s brilliant.” It is brilliant, but I also think that there is something to be said about having a healthy mix. There’s this idea of link building and then link earning. But there’s a really perfect sweet spot in the middle where you really do get the most bang for your buck.

The Don’ts

All right. So what not to do. The don’ts of today’s link building world are…

I. Don’t ask for specific anchor text. All of these things appear so spammy. The late Eric Ward talked about this and was a big advocate for never asking for anchor text. He said websites should be linked to however they see fit. That’s going to look more natural. Google is going to consider it to be more organic, and it will help your site in the long run. So that’s more of a suggestion. These other ones are definitely big no-no’s.

II. Don’t buy or sell links that pass PageRank. You can buy or sell links that have a no-follow attached, which attributes that this is paid-for, whether it be an advertisement or you don’t trust it. So definitely looking into those and understanding how that works.

III. Hidden links. We used to do this back in the day, the ridiculous white link on a white background. They were totally hidden, but crawlers would pick them up. Don’t do that. That’s so old and will not work anymore. Google is getting so much smarter at understanding these things.

IV. Low-quality directory links. Same with low-quality directory links. We remember those where it was just loads and loads of links and text and a random auto insurance link in there. You want to steer clear of those.

V. Site-wide links also look very spammy. Site wide being whether it’s a footer link or a top-level navigation link, you definitely don’t want to go after those. They can appear really, really spammy. Avoid those.

VI. Comment links with over-optimized anchor link text, specifically, you want to avoid. Again, it’s just like any of these others. It looks spammy. It’s not going to help you long term. Again, what’s the value of that overall? So avoid that.

VII. Abusing guest posts. You definitely don’t want to do this. You don’t want to guest post purely just for a link. However, I am still a huge advocate, as I know many others out there are, of guest posting and providing value. Whether there be a link or not, I think there is still a ton of value in guest posting. So don’t get rid of that altogether, but definitely don’t target it for potential link building opportunities.

VIII. Automated tools used to create links on all sorts of websites. ScrapeBox is an infamous one that would create the comment links on all sorts of blogs. You don’t want to do that.

IX. Link schemes, private link networks, and private blog networks. This is where you really get into trouble as well. Google will penalize or de-index you altogether. It looks so, so spammy, and you want to avoid this.

X. Link exchange. This is in the same vein as the link exchanges, where back in the day you used to submit a website to a link exchange and they wouldn’t grant you that link until you also linked to them. Super silly. This stuff does not work anymore, but there are tons of opportunities and quick wins for you to gain links naturally and more authoritatively.

So hopefully, this helps clear up some of the confusion. One question I would love to ask all of you is: To disavow or to not disavow? I have heard back-and-forth conversations on either side on this. Does the disavow file still work? Does it not? What are your thoughts? Please let me know down below in the comments.

Thank you so much for tuning in to this edition of Whiteboard Friday. I will see you all soon. Thanks.

Video transcription by Speechpad.com

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Your Red-Tape Toolkit: 7 Ways to Earn Trust and Get Your Search Work Implemented

Posted by HeatherPhysioc

Tell me if this rings a bell. Are your search recommendations overlooked and misunderstood? Do you feel like you hit roadblocks at every turn? Are you worried that people don’t understand the value of your work?

I had an eye-opening moment when my colleague David Mitchell, Chief Technology Officer at VML, said to me, “You know the best creatives here aren’t the ones who are the best artists — they’re the ones who are best at talking about the work.”

I have found that the same holds true in search. As an industry, we are great at talking about the work — we’re fabulous about sharing technical knowledge and new developments in search. But we’re not so great at talking about how we talk about the work. And that can make all the difference between our work getting implementing and achieving great results, or languishing in a backlog.

It’s so important to learn how to navigate corporate bureaucracy and cut through red tape to help your clients and colleagues understand your search work — and actually get it implemented. From diagnosing client maturity to communicating where search fits into the big picture, the tools I share in this article can help equip you to overcome obstacles to doing your best work.

Buying Your Services ≠ Buying In

Just because a client signed a contract with you does not mean they are bought-in to implement every change you recommend. It seemingly defies all logic that someone would agree that they need organic search help enough to sign a contract and pay you to make recommendations, only for the recommendations to never go live.

When I was an independent contractor serving small businesses, they were often overwhelmed by their marketing and willing to hand over the keys to the website so my developers could implement SEO recommendations.

Then, as I got into agency life and worked on larger and larger businesses, I quickly realized it was a lot harder to get SEO work implemented. I started hitting roadblocks with a number of clients, and it was a slow, arduous process to get even small projects pushed through. It was easy to get impatient and fed up.

Worse, it was hard for some of my team members to see their colleagues getting great search work implemented and earning awesome results for their clients, while their own clients couldn’t seem to get anything implemented. It left them frustrated, jaded, feeling inadequate, and burned out — all the while the client was asking where the results were for the projects they didn’t implement.

What Stands in the Way of Getting Your Work Implemented

I surveyed colleagues in our industry about the common challenges they experience when trying to get their recommendations implemented. (Thank you to the 141 people who submitted!) The results were roughly one-third in-house marketers and two-thirds external marketers providing services to clients.

The most common obstacles we asked about fell into a few main categories:

  • Low Understanding of Search
    • Client Understanding
    • Peer/Colleague Understanding
    • Boss Understanding
  • Prioritization & Buy-In
    • Low Prioritization of Search Work
    • External Buy-In from Clients
    • Internal Buy-In from Peers
    • Internal Buy-In from Bosses
    • Past Unsuccessful Projects or Mistakes
  • Corporate Bureaucracy
    • Red Tape and Slow Approvals
    • No Advocate or Champion for Search
    • Turnover or Personnel Changes (Client-Side)
    • Difficult or Hostile Client
  • Resource Limitations
    • Technical Resources for Developers / Full Backlog
    • Budget / Scope Too Low to Make Impact
    • Technical Limitations of Digital Platform

The chart below shows how the obstacles in the survey stacked up. Higher scores mean people reported it as a more frequent or common problem they experience:

Some participants also wrote in additional blocks they’ve encountered – everything from bottlenecks in the workflow to over-complicated processes, lack of ownership to internal politics, shifting budgets to shifting priorities.

Too real? Are you completely bummed out yet? There is clearly no shortage of things that can stand in the way of SEO progress, and likely our work as marketers will never be without challenges.

Playing the Blame Game

When things don’t go our way and our work gets intercepted or lost before it ever goes live, we tend to be quick to blame clients. It’s the client’s fault things are hung up, or if the client had only listened to us, and the client’s business is the problem.

But I don’t buy it.

Don’t get me wrong — this could possibly be true in part in some cases, but rarely is it the whole story and rarely are we completely hopeless to affect change. Sometimes the problem is the system, sometimes the problem is the people, and my friends, sometimes the problem is you.

But fortunately, we are all optimizers — we all inherently believe that things could be just a little bit better.

These are the tools you need in your belt to face many of the common obstacles to implementing your best search work.

7 Techniques to Get Your Search Work Approved & Implemented

When we enter the world of search, we are instantly trained on how to execute the work – not the soft skills needed to sustain and grow the work, break down barriers, get buy-in and get stuff implemented. These soft skills are critical to maximize your search success for clients, and can lead to more fruitful, long-lasting relationships.

Below are seven of the most highly recommended skills and techniques, from the SEO professionals surveyed and my own experience, to learn in order to increase the likelihood your work will get implemented by your clients.

1. How Mature Is Your Client?

Challenges to implementation tend to be organizational, people, integration, and process problems. Conducting a search maturity assessment with your client can be eye-opening to what needs to be solved internally before great search work can be implemented. Pairing a search capabilities model with an organizational maturity model gives you a wealth of knowledge and tools to help your client.

I recently wrote an in-depth article for the Moz blog about how to diagnose your client’s search maturity in both technical SEO capabilities and their organizational maturity as it pertains to a search program.

For search, we can think about a maturity model two ways. One may be the actual technical implementation of search best practices — is the client implementing exceptional, advanced SEO, just the basics, nothing at all, or even operating counterproductively? This helps identify what kinds of project make sense to start with for your client. Here is a sample maturity model across several aspects of search that you can use or modify for your purposes:

This SEO capabilities maturity model only starts to solve for what you should implement, but doesn’t get to the heart of why it’s so hard to get your work implemented. The real problems are a lot more nuanced, and aren’t as easy as checking the boxes of “best practices SEO.”

We also need to diagnose the organizational maturity of the client as it pertains to building, using and evolving an organic search practice. We have to understand the assets and obstacles of our client’s organization that either aid or block the implementation of our recommendations in order to move the ball forward.

If, after conducting these maturity model exercises, we find that a client has extremely limited personnel, budget and capacity to complete the work, that’s the first problem we should focus on solving for — helping them allocate proper resources and prioritization to the work.

If we find that they have plenty of personnel, budget, and capacity, but have no discernible, repeatable process for integrating search into their marketing mix, we focus our efforts there. How can we help them define, implement, and continually evolve processes that work for them and with the agency?

Perhaps the maturity assessment finds that they are adequate in most categories, but struggle with being reactive and implementing retrofitted SEO only as an afterthought, we may help them investigate their actionable workflows and connect dots across departments. How can we insert organic search expertise in the right ways at the right moments to have the greatest impact?

2. Speak to CEOs and CMOs, Not SEOs

Because we are subject matter experts in search, we are responsible for educating clients and colleagues on the power of SEO and the impact it can have on brands. If the executives are skeptical or don’t care about search, it won’t happen. If you want to educate and inspire people, you can’t waste time losing them in the details.

Speak Their Language

Tailor your educational content to busy CEOs and CMOs, not SEOs. Make the effort to listen to, read, write, and speak their corporate language. Their jargon is return on investment, earnings per share, operational costs. Yours is canonicalization, HTTPS and SSL encryption, 302 redirects, and 301 redirect chains.

Be mindful that you are coming from different places and meet them in the middle. Use layperson’s terms that anyone can understand, not technical jargon, when explaining search.

Don’t be afraid to use analogies (i.e. instead of “implement permanent 301 redirect rewrite rules in the .htaccess file to correct 404 not found errors,” perhaps “it’s like forwarding your mail when you change addresses.”)

Get Out of the Weeds

Perhaps because we are so passionate about the inner workings of search, we often get deep into the weeds of explaining how every SEO signal works. Even things that seem not-so-technical to us (title tags and meta description tags, for example) can lose your audience’s attention in a heartbeat. Unless you know that the client is a technical mind who loves to get in the weeds or that they have search experience, stay at 30,000 feet.

Another powerful tool here is to show, not tell. Often you can tell a much more effective and hard-hitting story using images or smart data visualization. Your audience being able to see instead of trying to listen and decipher what you’re proposing can allow you to communicate complex information much more succinctly.

Focus on Outcomes

The goal of educating is not teaching peers and clients how to do search. They pay you to know that. Focus on the things that actually matter to your audience. (Come on, we’re inbound marketers — we should know this!) For many brands, that may include benefits like how it will build their brand visibility, how they can conquest competitors, and how they can make more money. Focus on the outcomes and benefits, not the granular, technical steps of how to get there.

What’s In It for Them?

Similarly, if you are doing a roadshow to educate your peers in other disciplines and get their buy-in, don’t focus on teaching them everything you know. Focus on how your work can benefit them (make their work smarter, more visible, make them more money) rather than demanding what other departments need to do for you. Aim to align on when, where, and how your two teams intersect to get greater results together.

3. SEO is Not the Center of the Universe

It was a tough pill for me to swallow when I realized that my clients simply didn’t care as much about organic search as my team and I did. (I mean, honestly, who isn’t passionate about dedicating their careers to understanding human thinking and behavior when we search, then optimizing technical stuff and website content for those humans to find it?!)

Bigger Fish to Fry

While clients may honestly love the sound of things we can do for them with search, rarely is SEO the only thing — or even a sizable thing — on a client’s mind. Rarely is our primary client contact someone who is exclusively dedicated to search, and typically, not even exclusively to digital marketing. We frequently report to digital directors and CMOs who have many more and much bigger fish to fry.

They have to look at the big picture and understand how the entire marketing mix works, and in reality, SEO is only one small part of that. While organic search is typically a client’s biggest source of traffic to their website, we often forget that the website isn’t even at the top of the priorities list for many clients. Our clients are thinking about the whole brand and the entirety of its marketing performance, or the organizational challenges they need to overcome to grow their business. SEO is just one small piece of that.

Acknowledge the Opportunity Cost

The benefits of search are no-brainers for us and it seems so obvious, but we fail to acknowledge that every decision a CMO makes has a risk, time commitment, risks and costs associated with it. Every time they invest in something for search, it is an opportunity cost for another marketing initiative. We fail to take the time to understand all the competing priorities and things that a client has to choose between with a limited budget.

To persuade them to choose an organic search project over something else — like a paid search, creative, paid media, email, or other play — we had better make a damn good case to justify not just the hard cost in dollars, but the opportunity cost to other marketing initiatives. (More on that later.)

Integrated Marketing Efforts

More and more, brands are moving to integrated agency models in hopes of getting more bang for their buck by maximizing the impact of every single campaign across channels working together, side-by-side. Until we start to think more about how SEO ladders up to the big picture and works alongside or supports larger marketing initiatives and brand goals, we will continue to hamstring ourselves when we propose ideas to clients.

It’s our responsibility to seek big-picture perspective and figure out where we fit. We have to understand the realities of a client’s internal and external processes, their larger marketing mix and SEO’s role in that. SEO experts tend to obsess over rankings and website traffic. But we should be making organic search recommendations within the context of their goals and priorities — not what we think their goals and priorities should be.

For example, we have worked on a large CPG food brand for several years. In year one, my colleagues did great discovery works and put together an awesome SEO playbook, and we spent most of the year trying to get integrated and trying to check all these SEO best practices boxes for the client. But no one cared and nothing was getting implemented. It turned out that our “SEO best practices” didn’t seem relevant to the bigger picture initiatives and brand campaigns they had planned for the year, so they were being deprioritized or ignored entirely. In year two, our contract was restructured to focus search efforts primarily on the planned campaigns for the year. Were we doing the search work we thought we would be doing for the client? No. Are we being included more and getting great search work implemented finally? Yes. Because we stopped trying to veer off in our own direction and started pulling the weight alongside everyone else toward a common vision.

4. Don’t Stay in Your Lane, Get Buy-In Across Lanes

Few brands hire only SEO experts and no other marketing services to drive their business. They have to coordinate a lot of moving pieces to drive all of them forward in the same direction as best they can. In order to do that, everyone has to be aligned on where we’re headed and the problems we’re solving for.

Ultimately, for most SEOs, this is about having the wisdom and humility to realize that you’re not in this alone – you can’t be. And even if you don’t get your way 100% of the time, you’re a lot more likely to get your way more of the time when you collaborate with others and ladder your efforts up to the big picture.

One of my survey respondents phrased it beautifully: “Treat all search projects as products that require a complete product team including engineering, project manager, and business-side folks.”

Horizontal Buy-In

You need buy-in across practices in your own agency (or combination of agencies serving the client and internal client team members helping execute the work). We have to stop swimming in entirely separate lanes where SEO is setting goals by themselves and not aligning to the larger business initiatives and marketing channels. We are all in this together to help the client solve for something. We have to learn to better communicate the value of search as it aligns to larger business initiatives, not in a separate swim lane.

Organic Search is uniquely dependent in that we often rely on others to get our work implemented. You can’t operate entirely separately from the analytics experts, developers, user experience designers, social media, paid search, and so on — especially when they’re all working together toward a common goal on behalf of the client.

Vertical Buy-In

To get buy-in for implementing your work, you need buy-in beyond your immediate client contact. You need buy-in top-to-bottom in the client’s organization — it has to support what the C-level executive cares about as much as your day-to-day contacts or their direct reports.

This can be especially helpful when you started within the agency — selling the value of the idea and getting the buy-in of your colleagues first. It forces you to vet and strengthen your idea, helps find blind spots, and craft the pitch for the client. Then, bring those important people to the table with the client — it gives you strength in numbers and expertise to have the developer, user experience designer, client engagement lead, and data analyst on the project in your corner validating the recommendation.

When you get to the client, it is so important to help them understand the benefits and outcomes of doing the project, the cost (and opportunity cost) of doing it, and how this can get them results toward their big picture goals. Understand their role in it and give them a voice, and make them the hero for approving it. If you have to pitch the idea at multiple levels, custom tailor your approach to speak to the client-side team members who will be helping you implement the work differently from how you would speak to the CMO who decides whether your project lives or dies.

5. Build a Bulletproof Plan

Here’s how a typical SEO project is proposed to a client: “You should do this SEO project because SEO.”

This explanation is not good enough, and they don’t care. You need to know what they do care about and are trying to accomplish, and formulate a bullet-proof business plan to sell the idea.

Case Studies as Proof-of-Concept

Case studies serve a few important purposes: they help explain the outcomes and benefits of SEO projects, they prove that you have the chops to get results, and they prove the concept using someone else’s money first, which reduces the perceived risk for your client.

In my experience and in the survey results, case studies come up time and again as the leading way to get client buy-in. Ideally you would use case studies that are your own, very clearly relevant to the project at hand, and created for a client that is similar in nature (like B2B vs. B2C, in a similar vertical, or facing a similar problem).

Even if you don’t have your own case studies to show, do your due diligence and find real examples other companies and practitioners have published. As an added bonus, the results of these case studies can help you forecast the potential high/medium/low impact of your work.

Image source

Simplify the Process for Everyone

It is important to bake the process into your business plan to clearly outline the requirements for the project, identify next steps and assign ownership, and take ownership of moving the ball forward. Do your due diligence up front to understand the role that everyone plays and boil it down into a clear step-by-step plan makes it feel easy for others to buy-in and help. Reducing the unknown reduces friction. When you assume that nothing you are capable of doing falls in the “not my job” description, and make it a breeze for everyone to know what they’re responsible for and where they fit in, you lower barriers and resistance.

Forecast the Potential ROI

SEOs are often incredibly hesitant to forecast potential outcomes, ROI, traffic or revenue impact because of the sheer volumes of unknowns. (“But what if the client actually expects us to achieve the forecast?!”) We naturally want to be accurate and right, so it’s understandable we wouldn’t want to commit to something we can’t say for certain we can accomplish.

But to say that forecasting is impossible is patently false. There is a wealth of information out there to help you come up with even conservative estimates of impact with lots of caveats. You need to know why you’re recommending this over other projects. Your clients need some sort of information to weigh one project against the next. A combination of forecasting and your marketer’s experience and intuition can help you define that.

For every project your client invests in, there is an opportunity cost for something else they could be working on. If you can’t articulate the potential benefit to doing the project, how can you expect your client to choose it above dozens of potential other things they could spend their time on?

Show the Impact of Inaction

Sometimes opportunity for growth isn’t enough to light the fire — also demonstrate the negative impact from inaction or incorrect action. The greatest risk I see with most clients is not making a wrong move, but rather making no move at all.

We developed a visual tool that helps us quickly explain to clients that active optimization and expansion can lead to growth (we forecast an estimate of impact based on their budget, their industry, their business goals, the initiatives we plan to prioritize, etc.), small maintenance could at least uphold what we’ve done but the site will likely stagnate, and to do nothing at all could lead to atrophy and decline as their competitors keep optimizing and surpass them.

Remind clients that search success is not only about what they do, it’s about what everyone else in their space is doing, too. If they are not actively monitoring, maintaining and expanding, they are essentially conceding territory to competitors who will fill the space in their absence.

You saw this in my deck at MozCon 2017. We have used it to help clients understand what’s next when we do annual planning with them.

Success Story: Selling AMP

One of my teammates believed that AMP was a key initiative that could have a big impact on one of his B2B automotive clients by making access to their location pages easier, faster, and more streamlined, especially in rural areas where mobile connections are slower and the client’s clients are often found.

He did a brilliant job of due diligence research, finding and dissecting case studies, and using the results of those case studies to forecast conservative, average and ambitious outcomes and calculated the estimated revenue impact for the client. He calculated that even at the most conservative estimate of ROI, it would far outweigh the cost of the project within weeks, and generate significant returns thereafter.

He got the buy-in of our internal developers and experience designers on how they would implement the work, simplified the AMP idea for the client to understand in a non-technical way, and framedin a way that made it clear how low the level of effort was. He was able to confidently propose the idea and get buy-in fast, and the work is now on track for implementation.

6. Headlines, Taglines, and Sound Bytes

You can increase the likelihood that your recommendations will get implemented if you can help the client focus on what’s really important. There are two key ways to accomplish this.

Ask for the Moon, Not the Galaxy

If you’re anything like me, you get a little excited when the to-do of SEO action items for a client is long and actionable. But we do ourselves a disservice when we try to push every recommendation at once – they get overwhelmed and tune out. They have nothing to grab onto, so nothing gets done. It seems counterintuitive that you will get more done by proposing less, but it works.

Prioritize what’s important for your client to care about right now. Don’t push every recommendation — push specific, high-impact recommendations that executives can latch on to, understand and rationalize.

They’re busy and making hard choices. Be their trusted advisor. Give them permission to focus on one thing at a time by communicating what they should care about while other projects stay on the backburner or happen in the background, because this high-impact project is what they should really care about right now.

Give Them Soundbites They Can Sell

It’s easy to forget that our immediate client contact is not always able to make the call to pull the trigger on a project by themselves. They often have to sell it internally to get it prioritized. To help them do this, give them catchy headlines, taglines and sound bites they can sell to their bosses and colleagues. Make them so memorable and repeatable, the clients will shop the ideas around their office clearly and confidently, and may even start to think they came up with the idea themselves.

Success Story: Prioritizing Content

As an example of both of these principles in practice, we have a global client we have worked with for a few years whose greatest chance of gaining ground in search is to improve and increase their website content. Before presenting the annual strategy to the client, we asked ourselves what we really wanted to accomplish with the client if they cut the meeting short or cut their budget for the year, and the answer was unequivocally content.

In our proposal deck, we built up to the big opportunity by reminding the client of the mission we all agreed on, highlighted some of the wins we got in 2017 (including a very sexy voice search win that made our client look like a hero at their office), set the stage with headlines like, “How We’re Going to Break Records in 2018,” then navigated to the section called, “The Big Opportunities.”

Then, we used the headline, “Web Content is the Single Most Important Priority” to kick off the first initiative. There was no mistaking in that room what our point was. We proposed two other initiatives for the year, but we put this one at the very top of the deck and all others fell after. Because this was our number one priority to get approved and implemented, we spent the lion’s share of the meeting focusing on this single point. We backed this slide up verbally and added emphasis by saying things like, “If we did nothing else recommended in this deck, this is the one thing to prioritize, hands down.”

This is the real slide from the real client deck we presented.

The client left that meeting crystal clear, fully understanding our recommendation, and bought in. The best part, though? When we heard different clients who were in the meeting starting to repeat things like, “Content is our number one priority this year.” unprompted on strategy and status calls.

7. Patience, Persistence, & Parallel Paths

Keep Several Irons in the Fire

Where possible, build parallel paths. What time-consuming but high-impact projects can you initiate with the client now that may take time to get approved, while you can concurrently work on lower obstacle tasks alongside? Having multiple irons in the fire increases the likelihood that you will be able to implement SEO recommendations and get measurable results that get people bought in to more work in the future.

Stay Strong

Finally, getting your work implemented is a balance of patience, persistence, communication and follow-up. There are always many things at play, and your empathy and understanding for the situation while bringing a confident point-of-view can ultimately get projects across the finish line.

Special thanks to my VML colleagues Chris, Jeff, Kasey, and Britt, whose real client examples were used in this article.

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Desktop, Mobile, or Voice? (D) All of the Above – Whiteboard Friday

Posted by Dr-Pete

We’re facing more and more complexity in our everyday work, and the answers to our questions are about as clear as mud. Especially in the wake of the mobile-first index, we’re left wondering where to focus our optimization efforts. Is desktop the most important? Is mobile? What about the voice phenomenon sweeping the tech world?

As with most things, the most important factor is to consider your audience. People aren’t siloed to a single device — your optimization strategy shouldn’t be, either. In today’s Whiteboard Friday, Dr. Pete soothes our fears about a multi-platform world and highlights the necessity of optimizing for a journey rather than a touchpoint.

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Desktop, Mobile, or Voice? All of the above.

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Video Transcription

Hey, everybody. It’s Dr. Pete here from Moz. I am the Marketing Scientist here, and I flew in from Chicago just for you fine people to talk about something that I think is worrying us a little bit, especially with the rollout of the mobile index recently, and that is the question of: Should we be optimizing for desktop, for mobile, or for voice? I think the answer is (d) All of the above. I know that might sound a little scary, and you’re wondering how you do any of these. So I want to talk to you about some of what’s going on, some of our misconceptions around mobile and voice, and some of the ways that maybe this is a little easier than you think, at least to get started.

The mistakes we make

So, first of all, I think we make a couple of mistakes. When we’re talking about mobile for the last few years, we tend to go in and we look at our analytics and we do this. These are made up. The green numbers are made up or the blue ones. We say, “Okay, about 90% of my traffic is coming from desktop, about 10% is coming from mobile, and nothing is coming from voice. So I’m just going to keep focusing on desktop and not worry about these other two experiences, and I’ll be fine.” There are two problems with this:

Self-fulfilling prophecy

One is that these numbers are kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy. They might not be coming to your mobile site. You might not be getting those mobile visitors because your mobile experience is terrible. People come to it and it’s lousy, and they don’t come back. In the case of voice, we might just not be getting that data yet. We have very little data. So this isn’t telling us anything. All this may be telling us is that we’re doing a really bad job on mobile and people have given up. We’ve seen that with Moz in the past. We didn’t adopt to mobile as fast as maybe we should have. We saw that in the numbers, and we argued about it because we said, “You know what? This doesn’t really tell us what the opportunity is or what our customers or users want. It’s just telling us what we’re doing well or badly right now, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Audiences

The other mistake I think we make is the idea that these are three separate audiences. There are people who come to our site on desktop, people who come to our site on mobile, people who come to our site on voice, and these are three distinct groups of people. I think that’s incredibly wrong, and that leads to some very bad ideas and some bad tactical decisions and some bad choices.

So I want to share a couple of stats. There was a study Google did called The Multiscreen World, and this was almost six years ago, 2012. They found six years ago that 65% of searchers started a search on their smartphones. Two-thirds of searchers started on smartphones six years ago. Sixty percent of those searches were continued on a desktop or laptop. Again, this has been six years, so we know the adoption rate of mobile has increased. So these are not people who only use desktop or who only use mobile. These are people on a journey of search that move between devices, and I think in the real world it looks more something like this right now.

Another stat from the series was that 88% of people said that they used their smartphone and their TV at the same time. This isn’t shocking to you. You sit in front of the TV with your phone and you sit in front of the TV with your laptop. You might sit in front of the TV with a smartwatch. These devices are being used at the same time, and we’re doing more searches and we’re using more devices. So one of these things isn’t replacing the other.

The cross-device journey

So a journey could look something like this. You’re watching TV. You see an ad and you hear about something. You see a video you like. You go to your phone while you’re watching it, and you do a search on that to get more information. Then later on, you go to your laptop and you do a bit of research, and you want that bigger screen to see what’s going on. Then at the office the next day, you’re like, “Oh, I’ll pull up that bookmark. I wanted to check something on my desktop where I have more bandwidth or something.” You’re like, “Oh, maybe I better not buy that at work. I don’t want to get in trouble. So I’m going to home and go back to my laptop and make that purchase.” So this purchase and this transaction, this is one visitor on this chain, and I think we do this a lot right now, and that’s only going to increase, where we operate between devices and this journey happens across devices.

So the challenge I would make to you is if you’re looking at this and you’re saying, “Only so many percent of our users are on mobile. Our mobile experience doesn’t matter that much. It’s not that important. We can just live with the desktop people. That’s enough. We’ll make enough money.” If they’re really on this journey and they’re not segmented like this, and this chain, you break it, what happens? You lose that person completely, and that was a person who also used desktop. So that person might be someone who you bucketed in your 90%, but they never really got to the device of choice and they never got to the transaction, because by having a lousy mobile experience, you’ve broken the chain. So I want you to be aware of that, that this is the cross-device journey and not these segmented ideas.

Future touchpoints

This is going to get worse. This is going to get scarier for us. So look at the future. We’re going to be sitting in our car and we’re going to be listening — I still listen to CDs in the car, I know it’s kind of sad — but you’re going to be listening to satellite radio or your Wi-Fi or whatever you have coming in, and let’s say you hear a podcast or you hear an author and you go, “Oh, that person sounds interesting. I want to learn more about them.” You tell your smartwatch, “Save this search. Tell me something about this author. Give me their books.” Then you go home and you go on Google Home and you pull up that search, and it says, “Oh, you know what? I’ve got a video. I can’t play that because obviously I’m a voice search device, but I can send that to Chromecast on your TV.” So you send that to your TV, and you watch that. While you’re watching the TV, you’ve got your phone out and you’re saying, “Oh, I’d kind of like to buy that.” You go to Amazon and you make that transaction.

So it took this entire chain of devices. Again now, what about the voice part of this chain? That might not seem important to you right now, but if you break the chain there, this whole transaction is gone. So I think the danger is by neglecting pieces of this and not seeing that this is a journey that happens across devices, we’re potentially putting ourselves at much higher risk than we think.

On the plus side

I also want to look at sort of the positive side of this. All of these devices are touchpoints in the journey, and they give us credibility. We found something interesting at Moz a few years ago, which was that our sale as a SaaS product on average took about three touchpoints. People didn’t just hit the Moz homepage, do a free trial, and then buy it. They might see a Whiteboard Friday. They might read our Beginner’s Guide. They might go to the blog. They might participate in the community. If they hit us with three touchpoints, they were much more likely to convert.

So I think the great thing about this journey is that if you’re on all these touchpoints, even though to you that might seem like one search, it lends you credibility. You were there when they ran the search on that device. You were there when they tried to repeat that search on voice. The information was in that video. You’re there on that mobile search. You’re there on that desktop search. The more times they see you in that chain, the more that you seem like a credible source. So I think this can actually be good for us.

The SEO challenge

So I think the challenge is, “Well, I can’t go out and hire a voice team and a mobile team and do a design for all of these things. I don’t want to build a voice app. I don’t have the budget. I don’t have the buy-in.” That’s fine.
One thing I think is really great right now and that we’re encouraging people to experiment with, we’ve talked a lot about featured snippets. We’ve talked about these answer boxes that give you an organic result. One of the things Google is trying to do with this is they realize that they need to use their same core engine, their same core competency across all devices. So the engine that powers search, they want that to run on a TV. They want that to run on a laptop, on a desktop, on a phone, on a watch, on Goggle Home. They don’t want to write algorithms for all of these things.

So Google thinks of their entire world in terms of cards. You may not see that on desktop, but everything on desktop is a card. This answer box is a card. That’s more obvious. It’s got that outline. Every organic result, every ad, every knowledge panel, every news story is a card. What that allows Google to do, and will allow them to do going forward, is to mix and match and put as many pieces of information as it makes sense for any given device. So for desktop, that might be a whole bunch. For mobile, that’s going to be a vertical column. It might be less. But for a watch or a Google Glass, or whatever comes after that, or voice, you’re probably only going to get one card.

But one great thing right now, from an SEO perspective, is these featured snippets, these questions and answers, they fit on that big screen. We call it result number zero on desktop because you’ve got that box, and you’ve got a bunch of stuff underneath it. But that box is very prominent. On mobile, that same question and answer take up a lot more screen space. So they’re still a SERP, but that’s very dominant, and then there’s some stuff underneath. On voice, that same question and answer pairing is all you get, and we’re seeing that a lot of the answers on voice, unless they’re specialty like recipes or weather or things like that, have this question and answer format, and those are also being driven by featured snippets.

So the good news I think, and will hopefully stay good news going forward, is that because Google wants all these devices to run off that same core engine, the things you do to rank well for desktop and to be useful for desktop users are also going to help you rank on mobile. They’re going to help you rank on voice, and they’re going to help you rank across all these devices. So I want you to be aware of this. I want you to try and not to break that chain. But I think the things we’re already good at will actually help us going forward in the future, and I’d highly encourage you to experiment with featured snippets to see how questions and answers appear on mobile and to see how they appear on Google Home, and to know that there’s going to be an evolution where all of these devices benefit somewhat from the kind of optimization techniques that we’re already good at hopefully.

Encourage the journey chain

So I also want to say that when you optimize for answers, the best answers leave searchers wanting more. So what you want to do is actually encourage this chain, encourage people to do more research, give them rich content, give them the kinds of things that draw them back to your site, that build credibility, because this chain is actually good news for us in a way. This can help us make a purchase. If we’re credible on these devices, if we have a decent mobile experience, if we come up on voice, that’s going to help us really kind of build our brand and be a positive thing for us if we work on it.

So I’d like you to tell me, what are your fears right now? I think we’re a little scared of the mobile index. What are you worried about with voice? What are you worried about with IoT? Are you concerned that we’re going to have to rank on our refrigerators, and what does that mean? So it’s getting into science fiction territory, but I’d love to talk about it more. I will see you in the comment section.

Video transcription by Speechpad.com

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How to Optimize Car Dealership Websites

Posted by sherrybonelli

Getting any local business to rank high on Google is becoming more and more difficult, but one of the most competitive — and complex — industries for local SEO are car dealerships. Today’s car shoppers do much of their research online before they even step into a dealership showroom. (And many people don’t even know what type of car they even want when they begin their search.)

According to Google, the average car shopper only visits two dealerships when they’re searching for a new vehicle. That means it’s even more important than ever for car dealerships to show up high in local search results.

However, car dealerships are more complex than the average local business — which means their digital marketing strategies are more complex, as well. First, dealers often sell new vehicles from several different manufacturers with a variety of makes and models. Next, because so many people trade in their old cars when they purchase new cars, car dealers also sell a variety of used vehicles from even more manufacturers. Additionally, car dealerships also have a service department that offers car maintenance and repairs — like manufacturer warranty work, oil changes, tire rotations, recall repairs, and more. (The search feature on a car dealer’s website alone is a complex system!)

Essentially, a car dealer is like three businesses in one: they sell new cars, used cars, AND do vehicle repairs. This means your optimization strategy must also be multi-faceted, too.

Also, if you look at the car dealerships in your city, you will probably find at least one dealership with multiple locations. These multi-location family of dealerships may be in the same city or in surrounding cities.

Additionally, depending on that family of dealerships, they may have one website or they might have different websites for each location. (Many auto manufacturers require dealers to have separate websites if they sell certain competitors’ vehicles.)

So if you’re helping car dealers with SEO, you must be thinking about the various manufacturers, the types of vehicles being sold (new and used), the repair services being offered, the number of websites and locations you’ll be managing, manufacturer requirements — among other things.

So what are some of the search optimization strategies you should use when working with a car dealership? Here are some SEO recommendations.

Google My Business

Google My Business has been shown to have a direct correlation to local SEO — especially when it comes to showing up in the Google Local 3-Pack.

One important factor with Google My Business is making sure that the dealership’s information is correct and contains valuable information that searchers will find helpful. This is important for competitive markets — especially when only a handful of sites show up on the first page of Google search results. Here are some key Google My Business features to take advantage of:

Name, address, and phone number

Ensure that the dealership’s name, address and phone number is correct. (If you have a toll-free number, make sure that your LOCAL area code phone number is the one listed on your Google My Business listing.) It’s important that this information is the same on all local online directories that the dealership is listed on.

Categories

Google My Business allows you to select categories (a primary category and additional categories) to describe what your dealership offers. Even though the categories you select affect local rankings, keep in mind that the categories are just one of many factors that determine how you rank in search results.

  • These categories help connect you with potential customers that are searching for what your car dealership sells. You can select a primary category and additional categories – but don’t go overboard by selecting too many categories. Be specific. Choose as few categories as possible to describe the core part of your dealership’s business.
  • If the category you want to use isn’t available, choose a general category that’s still accurate. You can’t create your own categories. Here are some example categories you could use:
    • Car Dealer
    • Used Car Dealer
    • BMW dealer
  • Keep in mind that if you’re not ranking as high as you want to rank, changing your categories may improve your rankings. You might need to tweak your categories until you get it right. If you add or edit one of your categories, you might be asked by Google to verify your business again. (This just helps Google confirm that your business information is accurate.)

Photos

Google uses photo engagement on Google My Business to help rank businesses in local search. Show photos of the new and used cars you have on your dealership’s lot — and be sure to update them frequently. After you make a sale, make sure you get a photo consent form signed and ask if you can take a picture of your happy customers with their new car to upload to Google My Business (and your other social media platforms.)

If you’re a digital marketing agency or a sales manager at a dealership, getting your salespeople to upload photos to Google My Business can be challenging. Steady Demand’s LocalPics tool makes it easy for salespeople to send pictures of happy customers in their new cars by automatically sending text message reminders. You simply set the frequency of these reminders. The LocalPics tool automatically sends text messages to the sales reps reminding them to submit their photos:

All the sales reps have to do is save their customers’ photos to their phone. You set up text message reminders to each sales rep and when they get the text message reminder, the sales team simply has to go into their smartphone’s pictures and upload their images through the text message, and the photos are automatically posted to the dealership’s Google My Business listing! (They can also text photos to their Google My Business anytime they want as well — they don’t have to wait for the reminder text messages.)

Videos

Google recently began allowing businesses to upload 30-second videos to their Google My Business listing. Videos are a great way to show off the uniqueness of your dealership. These videos auto-play on mobile devices — which is where many people do their car searching on — so you should include several videos to showcase the cars and what’s going on at your dealership.

Reviews

Online reviews are crucial for when people search for the right type of car AND the dealership they should purchase that car from. Make sure you ask happy customers to leave reviews on your Google My Business listing and ensure that you keep up by responding to all reviews left on your Google My Business listing.

Questions & Answers

The Google My Business Q&A feature has been around for several months, yet many businesses still don’t know about it — or pay attention to it. It’s important that you are constantly looking at questions that are being asked of your dealership and that you promptly answer those questions with the correct answer.

Just like most things on Google My Business, anyone can answer questions that are asked — and that means that it’s easy for misinformation to get out about your dealership and the cars on your lot. Make sure you have a person dedicated on your team to watch the Q&As being asked on your listing.

Also, be sure to frequently check your GMB dashboard. Remember, virtually anyone can make changes to your Google My Business listing. You want to check to make sure nobody has changed your information without you knowing.

Online directories (especially car directories)

If you’re looking for ways to improve your dealership’s rankings and backlink profile, online automotive directories are a great place to start. Submitting your dealership’s site to an online automotive directory or to an online directory that has an automotive category can help build your backlink profile. Additionally, many of these online directories show up on the first page of Google search results, so if your dealership isn’t listed on them, you’re missing out.

There are quite a few paid-for and free automotive online directories. Yelp, YellowPages, Bing, etc. are some of the larger general online directories that have dedicated automotive categories you can get listed on for free. Make sure your dealership’s name, address, and phone number (NAP) are consistent with the information that you have listed on Google My Business.

Online reviews

Online reviews are important. If your dealership has bad reviews, people are less likely to trust you. There are dedicated review sites for vehicle reviews and car dealership reviews. Sites like Kelley Blue Book, DealerRater, Cars.com, and Edmunds are just a few sites that make it easy for consumers to check out dealership reviews. DealerRater even allows consumers to list — and review — the employees they worked with at a particular dealership:

If they have a negative experience with your dealership — or one of your employees — you can bet that unhappy customer will leave a review. (And remember that reviews are not only left about your new and used car sales — they are also left about your repair shop as well!)

There are software platforms you can install on your dealership’s site that make it easier for customers to leave reviews for your dealership. These tools also make it simple to monitor and deflect negative reviews to certain review websites. (It’s important to note that Google recently changed their policies and no longer support “review gating” — software that doesn’t allow a negative review to be posted on Google My Business.)

NOTE: Many automotive manufacturers offer dealerships coop dollars that can be used for advertising and promotions; however, sometimes they make it easier for the dealers to get that money if they use specific turnkey programs from manufacturer-approved vendors. As an example, if you offer a reputation marketing software tool that can help the dealership get online reviews, the dealership may be incentivized to use DealerRater instead because they’ve been “approved” by the manufacturer. (And this goes for other marketing and advertising as well — not just reputation marketing.)

Select long-tail keywords

Selecting the right keywords has always been a part of SEO. You want to select the keywords that have a high search frequency, mid-to-low competitiveness, ones that have direct relevance to your website’s content — and are keyword phrases that your potential car buyers are actually using to search for the cars and services your dealership offers.

When it comes to selecting keywords for your site’s pages, writing for long-tailed keywords (e.g. “2018 Ford Mustang GT features”) have a better chance of ranking highly in Google search results than a short-tailed and generic keyword phrase like “Ford cars.”

Other car-related search keywords — like “MSRP” and “list prices” — are keywords you should add to your arsenal.

Optimize images

According to Google, searches for “pictures of [automotive brand]” is up 37% year-over-year. This means when you’re uploading various pictures of the cars for sale on your car lot, be sure to include the words “pictures of” and the brand name, make, and model where appropriate.

For instance, if you’re showing the interior of the 2018 Dodge Challenger, you may want to name the actual picture image file “picture-of-dodge-challenger-2018-awd-front-seat-interior.png” and use the alt tag “Pictures of Dodge Challenger 2018 AWD Front Seat Interior for Sale in Cedar Rapids.”

As with everything SEO-related, use discretion with the “pictures of” strategy. Don’t overdo it, but it should be a part of your image optimization strategy to a certain extent on specific car overview pages.

Optimize for local connections

One thing many car dealerships fail to realize is how important it is to make local connections — not only for local SEO purposes but also for community trust and support as well. You should make a connection on at least one of the pages on your site that relates to what’s going on in your local community/city.

For instance, on your About Us page, you may want to include a link to a city-specific page that talks about what’s going on in your city. Is there a July 4th parade? And if so, are you having a float or donating a convertible for the town’s mayor to ride in? If you sponsor a local charity or belong to the Chamber of Commerce, it’d be great to mention it on one of these localized pages (mentioning your city’s name, of course) and talk about what your dealership’s role is and what you do. Is there an upcoming charity walk or do you donate to your local animal shelter? Share pictures (and be sure to use alt tags) and write about what you’re doing to help.

All of this information not only helps beef up your local SEO because you’re using the city’s name you’re trying to rank for, but it also creates good will for future customers. Additionally, you can create links to these various charities and organizations and ask that they, in turn, create a link to your site. Local backlinking at its best!

Schema

If you want to increase the chances of Google — and the other search engines — understanding what your site’s pages are about, using schema markup will give you a leg-up over your competition. (And chances are your car dealership competitors aren’t yet using schema markup.)

You’ll want to start by using the Vehicle “Type” schema and then markup each particular car using the Auto schema markup JSON-LD code. You can find the Schema.org guidelines for using Schema Markup for Cars on Schema.org. Below is an example of what JSON-LD schema markup looks like for a 2009 Volkswagen Golf:

Listen to the SEO for Car Dealerships podcast episode to learn EVEN MORE!

If you want to learn even more information about the complexities of car dealerships and search optimization strategies, be sure to listen to my interview on MozPod’s SEO for Car Dealerships.

In this podcast we’ll cover even more topics like:

  • What NOT to include in your page’s title tag
  • How to determine if you really own your dealership’s website or not
  • How to handle it if your dealership moves locations
  • Why using the manufacturer-provided car description information verbatim is a bad idea
  • Does “family owned” really matter?
  • How to handle car dealers with multiple locations
  • How to get creative with your Car Service pages by showing off your employees
  • Why blogging is a must-do SEO strategy and some topic ideas to get you started
  • Ways to get local backlinks
  • Tips for getting online reviews
  • What other digital marketing strategies you should try and why
  • And more

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What Do SEOs Do When Google Removes Organic Search Traffic? – Whiteboard Friday

Posted by randfish

We rely pretty heavily on Google, but some of their decisions of late have made doing SEO more difficult than it used to be. Which organic opportunities have been taken away, and what are some potential solutions? Rand covers a rather unsettling trend for SEO in this week’s Whiteboard Friday.

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What Do SEOs Do When Google Removes Organic Search?

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Video Transcription

Howdy, Moz fans, and welcome to another edition of Whiteboard Friday. This week we’re talking about something kind of unnerving. What do we, as SEOs, do as Google is removing organic search traffic?

So for the last 19 years or 20 years that Google has been around, every month Google has had, at least seasonally adjusted, not just more searches, but they’ve sent more organic traffic than they did that month last year. So this has been on a steady incline. There’s always been more opportunity in Google search until recently, and that is because of a bunch of moves, not that Google is losing market share, not that they’re receiving fewer searches, but that they are doing things that makes SEO a lot harder.

Some scary news

Things like…

  • Aggressive “answer” boxes. So you search for a question, and Google provides not just necessarily a featured snippet, which can earn you a click-through, but a box that truly answers the searcher’s question, that comes directly from Google themselves, or a set of card-style results that provides a list of all the things that the person might be looking for.
  • Google is moving into more and more aggressively commercial spaces, like jobs, flights, products, all of these kinds of searches where previously there was opportunity and now there’s a lot less. If you’re Expedia or you’re Travelocity or you’re Hotels.com or you’re Cheapflights and you see what’s going on with flight and hotel searches in particular, Google is essentially saying, “No, no, no. Don’t worry about clicking anything else. We’ve got the answers for you right here.”
  • We also saw for the first time a seasonally adjusted drop, a drop in total organic clicks sent. That was between August and November of 2017. It was thanks to the Jumpshot dataset. It happened at least here in the United States. We don’t know if it’s happened in other countries as well. But that’s certainly concerning because that is not something we’ve observed in the past. There were fewer clicks sent than there were previously. That makes us pretty concerned. It didn’t go down very much. It went down a couple of percentage points. There’s still a lot more clicks being sent in 2018 than there were in 2013. So it’s not like we’ve dipped below something, but concerning.
  • New zero-result SERPs. We absolutely saw those for the first time. Google rolled them back after rolling them out. But, for example, if you search for the time in London or a Lagavulin 16, Google was showing no results at all, just a little box with the time and then potentially some AdWords ads. So zero organic results, nothing for an SEO to even optimize for in there.
  • Local SERPs that remove almost all need for a website. Then local SERPs, which have been getting more and more aggressively tuned so that you never need to click the website, and, in fact, Google has made it harder and harder to find the website in both mobile and desktop versions of local searches. So if you search for Thai restaurant and you try and find the website of the Thai restaurant you’re interested in, as opposed to just information about them in Google’s local pack, that’s frustratingly difficult. They are making those more and more aggressive and putting them more forward in the results.

Potential solutions for marketers

So, as a result, I think search marketers really need to start thinking about: What do we do as Google is taking away this opportunity? How can we continue to compete and provide value for our clients and our companies? I think there are three big sort of paths — I won’t get into the details of the paths — but three big paths that we can pursue.

1. Invest in demand generation for your brand + branded product names to leapfrog declines in unbranded search.

The first one is pretty powerful and pretty awesome, which is investing in demand generation, rather than just demand serving, but demand generation for brand and branded product names. Why does this work? Well, because let’s say, for example, I’m searching for SEO tools. What do I get? I get back a list of results from Google with a bunch of mostly articles saying these are the top SEO tools. In fact, Google has now made a little one box, card-style list result up at the top, the carousel that shows different brands of SEO tools. I don’t think Moz is actually listed in there because I think they’re pulling from the second or the third lists instead of the first one. Whatever the case, frustrating, hard to optimize for. Google could take away demand from it or click-through rate opportunity from it.

But if someone performs a search for Moz, well, guess what? I mean we can nail that sucker. We can definitely rank for that. Google is not going to take away our ability to rank for our own brand name. In fact, Google knows that, in the navigational search sense, they need to provide the website that the person is looking for front and center. So if we can create more demand for Moz than there is for SEO tools, which I think there’s something like 5 or 10 times more demand already for Moz than there is tools, according to Google Trends, that’s a great way to go. You can do the same thing through your content, through your social media, and through your email marketing. Even through search you can search and create demand for your brand rather than unbranded terms.

2. Optimize for additional platforms.

Second thing, optimizing across additional platforms. So we’ve looked and YouTube and Google Images account for about half of the overall volume that goes to Google web search. So between these two platforms, you’ve got a significant amount of additional traffic that you can optimize for. Images has actually gotten less aggressive. Right now they’ve taken away the “view image directly” link so that more people are visiting websites via Google Images. YouTube, obviously, this is a great place to build brand affinity, to build awareness, to create demand, this kind of demand generation to get your content in front of people. So these two are great platforms for that.

There are also significant amounts of web traffic still on the social web — LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, etc., etc. The list goes on. Those are places where you can optimize, put your content forward, and earn traffic back to your websites.

3. Optimize the content that Google does show.

Local

So if you’re in the local space and you’re saying, “Gosh, Google has really taken away the ability for my website to get the clicks that it used to get from Google local searches,” going into Google My Business and optimizing to provide information such that people who perform that query will be satisfied by Google’s result, yes, they won’t get to your website, but they will still come to your business, because you’ve optimized the content such that Google is showing, through Google My Business, such that those searchers want to engage with you. I think this sometimes gets lost in the SEO battle. We’re trying so hard to earn the click to our site that we’re forgetting that a lot of search experience ends right at the SERP itself, and we can optimize there too.

Results

In the zero-results sets, Google was still willing to show AdWords, which means if we have customer targets, we can use remarketed lists for search advertising (RLSA), or we can run paid ads and still optimize for those. We could also try and claim some of the data that might show up in zero-result SERPs. We don’t yet know what that will be after Google rolls it back out, but we’ll find out in the future.

Answers

For answers, the answers that Google is giving, whether that’s through voice or visually, those can be curated and crafted through featured snippets, through the card lists, and through the answer boxes. We have the opportunity again to influence, if not control, what Google is showing in those places, even when the search ends at the SERP.

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

Video transcription by Speechpad.com

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The Goal-Based Approach to Domain Selection – Whiteboard Friday

Posted by KameronJenkins

Choosing a domain is a big deal, and there’s a lot that goes into it. Even with everything that goes into determining your URL, there are two essential questions to ask that ought to guide your decision-making: what are my goals, and what’s best for my users? In today’s edition of Whiteboard Friday, we’re beyond delighted to welcome Kameron Jenkins, our SEO Wordsmith, to the show to teach us all about how to select a domain that aligns with and supports your business goals.

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Goal-based Approach to Domain Selection

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Video Transcription

Hey, everyone. Welcome to this week’s edition of Whiteboard Friday. My name is Kameron Jenkins, and I am the SEO Wordsmith here at Moz. Today we’re going to be talking about a goals-based approach to choosing a domain type or a domain selection.

There are a lot of questions in the SEO industry right now, and as an agency, I used to work at an agency, and a lot of times our clients would ask us, “Should I do a microsite? Should I do a subdomain? Should I consolidate all my sites?” There is a lot of confusion about the SEO impact of all of these different types of domain choices, and there certainly are SEO ramifications for each type, but today we’re going to be taking a slightly different approach and focusing on goals first. What are your business goals? What are your goals for your website? What are your goals for your users? And then choosing a domain that matches those goals. By the end, instead of what’s better for SEO, we’re going to hopefully have answered, “What best suits my unique goals?”

Before we start…define!

Before we start, let’s launch into some quick definitions just so we all kind of know what we’re talking about and why all the different terminology we’re going to be using.

Main domain

Main domain, this is often called a root domain in some cases. That’s anything that precedes your dot com or other TLD. So YourSite.com, it lives right before that.

Subdomain

A subdomain is a third-level domain name for your domain. So example, Blog.YourSite.com, that would be a subdomain.

Subfolder

A subfolder, or some people call this subdirectory, those are folders trailing the dot com. An example would be YourSite.com/blog. That /blog is the folder. That’s a subfolder.

Microsite

A microsite, there’s a lot of different terminology around this type of domain selection, but it’s just a completely separate domain from your main domain. The focus is usually a little bit more niche than the topic of your main website.

That would be YourSite1.com and YourSite2.com. They’re two totally, completely separate domains.

Business goals that can impact domain structure

Next we’re going to start talking about business goals that can impact domain structure. There are a lot of different business goals. You want to grow revenue. You want more customers. But we’re specifically here going to be talking about the types of business goals that can impact domain selection.

1. Expand locations/products/services

The first one here that we’re going to talk about is the business wants to expand their locations, their products, or their services. They want to grow. They want to expand in some way. An example I like to use is say this clothing store has two locations. They have two storefronts. They have one in Dallas and one in Fort Worth.

So they launch two websites — CoolClothesDallas.com and CoolClothesFortWorth.com. But the problem with that is if you want to grow, you’re going to open stores in Austin, Houston, etc. You’ve set the precedent that you’re going to have a different domain for every single location, which is not really future-proof. It’s hard to scale. Every time you launch a brand-new website, that’s a lot of work to launch it, a lot of work to maintain it.

So if you plan on growing and getting into new locations or products or services or whatever it might be, just make sure you select a domain structure that’s going to accommodate that. In particular, I would say a main root domain with subfolders for the different products or services you have is probably the best bet for that situation. So you have YourSite.com/Product1, /Product2, and you talk about it in that sense because it’s all related. It’s all the same topic. It’s more future-proof. It’s easier to add a page than it is to launch a whole new domain.

2. Set apart distinct facets of business

So another business goal that can affect your domain structure would be that the business wants to set apart distinct facets within their business. An example I found that was actually kind of helpful is Apple.com has a subdomain for Trailers.Apple.com.

Now, I’m not Apple. I don’t really know exactly why they do this, but I have to imagine that it was because there are very different intents and uses for those different types of content that live on the subdomain versus the main site. So Trailers has movie trailers, lots of different content, and Apple.com is talking more about their consumer products, more about that type of thing.

So the audiences are slightly different. The intents are very different. In that situation, if you have a situation like that and that matches what your business is encountering, you want to set it apart, it has a different audience, you might want to consider a subdomain or maybe even a microsite. Just keep in mind that it takes effort to maintain each domain that you launch.

So make sure you have the resources to do this. You could, if you didn’t have the resources, put it all on the main domain. But if you want a little bit more separation, the different aspects of your business are very disparate and you don’t want them really associated on the same domain, you could separate it out with a subdomain or a microsite. Just, again, make sure that you have the resources to maintain it, because while both have equal ability to rank, it’s the effort that increases with each new website you launch.

3. Differentiate uniquely branded sub-departments

Three, another goal is to differentiate uniquely branded sub-departments. There is a lot of this I’ve noticed in the healthcare space. So the sites that I’ve worked on, say they have Joe Smith Health, and this is the health system, the umbrella health system. Then within that you have Joe Smith Endocrinology.

Usually those types of situations they have completely different branding. They’re in a different location. They reach a different audience, a different community. So in those situations I’ve seen that, especially healthcare, they usually have the resources to launch and maintain a completely different domain for that uniquely branded sub-department, and that might make sense.

Again, make sure you have the resources. But if it’s very, very different, whether in branding or audience or intent, than the content that’s on your main website, then I might consider separating them. Another example of this is sometimes you have a parent company and they own a lot of different companies, but that’s about where the similarities stop.

They’re just only owned by the parent company. All the different subcompanies don’t have anything to do with each other. I would probably say it’s wisest to separate those into their own unique domains. They probably definitely have unique branding. They’re totally different companies. They’re just owned by the same company. In those situations it might make sense, again, to separate them, but just know that they’re not going to have any ranking benefit for each other because they’re just completely separate domains.

4. Temporary or seasonal campaigns

The fourth business goal we’re going to talk about is a temporary or a seasonal campaign. This one is not as common, but I figured I would just mention it. Sometimes a business will want to run a conference or sponsor an event or get a lot of media attention around some initiative that’s separate from what their business does or offers, and it’s just more of an events-based, seasonal type of thing.

In those situations it might make sense to do a microsite that’s completely branded for that event. It’s not necessary. For example, Moz has MozCon, and that’s located on subfolder Moz.com/MozCon. You don’t have to do that, but it certainly is an option for you if you want to uniquely brand it.

It can also be really good for press. I’ve noticed just in my experience, I don’t know if this is widely common, but sometimes the press tends to just link to the homepage because that’s what they know. They don’t link to a specific page on your site. They don’t know always where it’s located. It’s just easier to link to the main domain. If you want to build links specifically for this event that are really relevant, you might want to do a microsite or something like that.

Just make sure that when the event is over, don’t just let it float out there and die. Especially if you build links and attention around it, make sure you 301 that back to your main website as long as that makes sense. So temporary or seasonal campaigns, that could be the way to go — microsite, subfolder. You have some options there.

5. Test out a new agency or consultant

Then finally the last goal we’re going to be talking about that could impact domain structure is testing out a new agency or consultant.

Now this one holds a special place in my heart having worked for an agency prior to this for almost seven years. It’s actually really common, and I can empathize with businesses who are in this situation. They are about to hand over their keys to their domain to a brand-new company. They don’t quite know if they trust them yet.

Especially this is concerning if a business has a really strong domain that they’ve built up over time. It can be really scary to just let someone take over your domain. In some cases I have encountered, the business goes, “Hey, we’d love to test you out. We think you’re great.However, you can’t touch the main domain.You have to do your SEO somewhere else.” That’s okay, but we’re kind of handcuffed in that situation.

You would have to, at that point, use a subdomain or a microsite, just a completely different website. If you can’t touch the main domain, you don’t really have many other options than that. You just have to launch on a brand-new thing. In that situation, it’s a little frustrating, actually quite frustrating for SEOs because they’re starting from nothing.

They have no authority inherited from that main domain. They’re starting from square one. They have to build that up over time. While that’s possible, just know that it kind of sets you back. You’re way behind the starting line in that situation with using a subdomain or a microsite, not being able to touch that main domain.

If you find yourself in this situation and you can negotiate this, just make sure that the company that’s hiring you is giving you enough time to prove the value of SEO. This is tried-and-true for a reason, but SEO is a marathon. It’s not a sprint. It’s not pay to play like paid advertising is. In that situation, just make sure that whoever is hiring you is giving you enough time.

Enough time is kind of dependent on how competitive the goals are. If they’re asking you, “Hey, I’m going to test you out for this really, really competitive, high-volume keyword or group of keywords and you only have one month to do it,” you’re kind of set up to fail in that situation. Either ask them for more time, or I probably wouldn’t take that job. So testing out a new agency or consultant is definitely something that can impact your ability to launch on one domain type versus another.

Pitfalls!

Now that we’ve talked about all of those, I’m just going to wrap up with some pitfalls. A lot of these are going to be repeat, but just as a way of review just watch out for these things.

Failing to future-proof

Like I said earlier, if you’re planning on growing in the future, just make sure that your domain matches your future plans.

Exact-match domains

There’s nothing inherently wrong with exact-match domains. It’s just that you can’t expect to launch a microsite with a bunch of keywords that are relevant to your business in your domain and just set it and forget it and hope that the keywords in the domain alone are what’s going to get it to rank. That doesn’t work anymore. It’s not worked for a while. You have to actually proactively be adding value to that microsite.

Maybe you’ve decided that that makes sense for your business. That’s great. Just make sure that you put in the resources to make it valuable outside of just the keywords in the domain.

Over-fragmenting

One thing I like to say is, “Would you rather have 3 websites with 10 backlinks each, or 1 website with 30 backlinks?” That’s just a way to illustrate that if you don’t have the resources to equally dedicate to each of those domains or subdomains or microsites or whatever you decided to launch, it’s not going to be as strong.

Usually what I see when I evaluate a customer or a client’s domain structure, usually there is one standout domain that has all of the content, all of the authority, all of the backlinks, and then the other ones just kind of suffer and they’re usually stronger together than they are apart. So while it is totally possible to do separate websites, just make sure that you don’t fragment so much that you’re spread too thin to actually do anything effective on the SEO front.

Ignoring user experience

Look at your websites from the eyes of your users. If someone is going to go to the search results page and Google search your business name, are they going to see five websites there? That’s kind of confusing unless they’re very differently branded, different intents. They’ll probably be confused.

Like, “Is this where I go to contact your business? How about this? Is it this?” There are just a lot of different ways that can cause confusion, so just keep that in mind. Also if you have a website where you’re addressing two completely different audiences within your website — if a consumer, for example, can be browsing blouses and then somehow end up accidentally on a section that’s only for employees — that’s a little confusing for user experience.

Make sure you either gate that or make it a subdomain or a microsite. Just separate them if that would be confusing for your main user base.

Set it and forget it

Like I said, I keep repeating this just because it’s so, so important. Every type of domain has equal ability to rank. It really does.

It’s just the effort that gets harder and harder with each new website. Just make sure that you don’t just decide to do microsites and subdomains and then don’t do anything with them. That can be a totally fine choice. Just make sure that you don’t set it and forget it, that you actually have the resources and you have the ability to keep building those up.

Intent overlap between domains

The last one I’ll talk about in the pitfall department is intent overlap between domains.

I see this one actually kind of a lot. It can be like a winery. So they have tastings.winery.com or something like that. In that situation, their Tasting subdomain talks all about their wine tasting, their tasting room. It’s very focused on that niche of their business. But then on Winery.com they also have extensive content about tastings. Well, you’ve got overlap there, and you’re kind of making yourself do more work than you have to.

I would choose one or the other and not both. Just make sure that there’s no overlap there if you do choose to do separate domains, subdomains, microsites, that kind of thing. Make sure that there’s no overlap and each of them has a distinct purpose.

Two important questions to focus on:

Now that we’re to the end of this, I really want the takeaway to be these two questions. I think this will make domain selection a lot easier when you focus on these two questions.

What am I trying to accomplish? What are the goals? What am I trying to do? Just focus on that first. Then second of all, and probably most important, what is best for my users? So focus on your goals, focus on your users, and I think the domain selection process will be a lot easier. It’s not easy by any means.

There are some very complicated situations, but I think, in the end, it’s going to be a lot easier if you focus on your goals and your users. If you have any comments regarding domain selection that you think would be helpful for others to know, please share it in the comments below. That’s it for this week’s Whiteboard Friday, and come back next week for another one. Thanks everybody.

Video transcription by Speechpad.com

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An 8-Point Checklist for Debugging Strange Technical SEO Problems

Posted by Dom-Woodman

Occasionally, a problem will land on your desk that’s a little out of the ordinary. Something where you don’t have an easy answer. You go to your brain and your brain returns nothing.

These problems can’t be solved with a little bit of keyword research and basic technical configuration. These are the types of technical SEO problems where the rabbit hole goes deep.

The very nature of these situations defies a checklist, but it’s useful to have one for the same reason we have them on planes: even the best of us can and will forget things, and a checklist will provvide you with places to dig.


Fancy some examples of strange SEO problems? Here are four examples to mull over while you read. We’ll answer them at the end.

1. Why wasn’t Google showing 5-star markup on product pages?

  • The pages had server-rendered product markup and they also had Feefo product markup, including ratings being attached client-side.
  • The Feefo ratings snippet was successfully rendered in Fetch & Render, plus the mobile-friendly tool.
  • When you put the rendered DOM into the structured data testing tool, both pieces of structured data appeared without errors.

2. Why wouldn’t Bing display 5-star markup on review pages, when Google would?

  • The review pages of client & competitors all had rating rich snippets on Google.
  • All the competitors had rating rich snippets on Bing; however, the client did not.
  • The review pages had correctly validating ratings schema on Google’s structured data testing tool, but did not on Bing.

3. Why were pages getting indexed with a no-index tag?

  • Pages with a server-side-rendered no-index tag in the head were being indexed by Google across a large template for a client.

4. Why did any page on a website return a 302 about 20–50% of the time, but only for crawlers?

  • A website was randomly throwing 302 errors.
  • This never happened in the browser and only in crawlers.
  • User agent made no difference; location or cookies also made no difference.

Finally, a quick note. It’s entirely possible that some of this checklist won’t apply to every scenario. That’s totally fine. It’s meant to be a process for everything you could check, not everything you should check.

The pre-checklist check

Does it actually matter?

Does this problem only affect a tiny amount of traffic? Is it only on a handful of pages and you already have a big list of other actions that will help the website? You probably need to just drop it.

I know, I hate it too. I also want to be right and dig these things out. But in six months’ time, when you’ve solved twenty complex SEO rabbit holes and your website has stayed flat because you didn’t re-write the title tags, you’re still going to get fired.

But hopefully that’s not the case, in which case, onwards!

Where are you seeing the problem?

We don’t want to waste a lot of time. Have you heard this wonderful saying?: “If you hear hooves, it’s probably not a zebra.”

The process we’re about to go through is fairly involved and it’s entirely up to your discretion if you want to go ahead. Just make sure you’re not overlooking something obvious that would solve your problem. Here are some common problems I’ve come across that were mostly horses.

  1. You’re underperforming from where you should be.
    1. When a site is under-performing, people love looking for excuses. Weird Google nonsense can be quite a handy thing to blame. In reality, it’s typically some combination of a poor site, higher competition, and a failing brand. Horse.
  2. You’ve suffered a sudden traffic drop.
    1. Something has certainly happened, but this is probably not the checklist for you. There are plenty of common-sense checklists for this. I’ve written about diagnosing traffic drops recently — check that out first.
  3. The wrong page is ranking for the wrong query.
    1. In my experience (which should probably preface this entire post), this is usually a basic problem where a site has poor targeting or a lot of cannibalization. Probably a horse.

Factors which make it more likely that you’ve got a more complex problem which require you to don your debugging shoes:

  • A website that has a lot of client-side JavaScript.
  • Bigger, older websites with more legacy.
  • Your problem is related to a new Google property or feature where there is less community knowledge.

1. Start by picking some example pages.

Pick a couple of example pages to work with — ones that exhibit whatever problem you’re seeing. No, this won’t be representative, but we’ll come back to that in a bit.

Of course, if it only affects a tiny number of pages then it might actually be representative, in which case we’re good. It definitely matters, right? You didn’t just skip the step above? OK, cool, let’s move on.

2. Can Google crawl the page once?

First we’re checking whether Googlebot has access to the page, which we’ll define as a 200 status code.

We’ll check in four different ways to expose any common issues:

  1. Robots.txt: Open up Search Console and check in the robots.txt validator.
  2. User agent: Open Dev Tools and verify that you can open the URL with both Googlebot and Googlebot Mobile.
    1. To get the user agent switcher, open Dev Tools.
    2. Check the console drawer is open (the toggle is the Escape key)
    3. Hit the … and open “Network conditions”
    4. Here, select your user agent!

  1. IP Address: Verify that you can access the page with the mobile testing tool. (This will come from one of the IPs used by Google; any checks you do from your computer won’t.)
  2. Country: The mobile testing tool will visit from US IPs, from what I’ve seen, so we get two birds with one stone. But Googlebot will occasionally crawl from non-American IPs, so it’s also worth using a VPN to double-check whether you can access the site from any other relevant countries.
    1. I’ve used HideMyAss for this before, but whatever VPN you have will work fine.

We should now have an idea whether or not Googlebot is struggling to fetch the page once.

Have we found any problems yet?

If we can re-create a failed crawl with a simple check above, then it’s likely Googlebot is probably failing consistently to fetch our page and it’s typically one of those basic reasons.

But it might not be. Many problems are inconsistent because of the nature of technology. 😉

3. Are we telling Google two different things?

Next up: Google can find the page, but are we confusing it by telling it two different things?

This is most commonly seen, in my experience, because someone has messed up the indexing directives.

By “indexing directives,” I’m referring to any tag that defines the correct index status or page in the index which should rank. Here’s a non-exhaustive list:

  • No-index
  • Canonical
  • Mobile alternate tags
  • AMP alternate tags

An example of providing mixed messages would be:

  • No-indexing page A
  • Page B canonicals to page A

Or:

  • Page A has a canonical in a header to A with a parameter
  • Page A has a canonical in the body to A without a parameter

If we’re providing mixed messages, then it’s not clear how Google will respond. It’s a great way to start seeing strange results.

Good places to check for the indexing directives listed above are:

  • Sitemap
    • Example: Mobile alternate tags can sit in a sitemap
  • HTTP headers
    • Example: Canonical and meta robots can be set in headers.
  • HTML head
    • This is where you’re probably looking, you’ll need this one for a comparison.
  • JavaScript-rendered vs hard-coded directives
    • You might be setting one thing in the page source and then rendering another with JavaScript, i.e. you would see something different in the HTML source from the rendered DOM.
  • Google Search Console settings
    • There are Search Console settings for ignoring parameters and country localization that can clash with indexing tags on the page.

A quick aside on rendered DOM

This page has a lot of mentions of the rendered DOM on it (18, if you’re curious). Since we’ve just had our first, here’s a quick recap about what that is.

When you load a webpage, the first request is the HTML. This is what you see in the HTML source (right-click on a webpage and click View Source).

This is before JavaScript has done anything to the page. This didn’t use to be such a big deal, but now so many websites rely heavily on JavaScript that the most people quite reasonably won’t trust the the initial HTML.

Rendered DOM is the technical term for a page, when all the JavaScript has been rendered and all the page alterations made. You can see this in Dev Tools.

In Chrome you can get that by right clicking and hitting inspect element (or Ctrl + Shift + I). The Elements tab will show the DOM as it’s being rendered. When it stops flickering and changing, then you’ve got the rendered DOM!

4. Can Google crawl the page consistently?

To see what Google is seeing, we’re going to need to get log files. At this point, we can check to see how it is accessing the page.

Aside: Working with logs is an entire post in and of itself. I’ve written a guide to log analysis with BigQuery, I’d also really recommend trying out Screaming Frog Log Analyzer, which has done a great job of handling a lot of the complexity around logs.

When we’re looking at crawling there are three useful checks we can do:

  1. Status codes: Plot the status codes over time. Is Google seeing different status codes than you when you check URLs?
  2. Resources: Is Google downloading all the resources of the page?
    1. Is it downloading all your site-specific JavaScript and CSS files that it would need to generate the page?
  3. Page size follow-up: Take the max and min of all your pages and resources and diff them. If you see a difference, then Google might be failing to fully download all the resources or pages. (Hat tip to @ohgm, where I first heard this neat tip).

Have we found any problems yet?

If Google isn’t getting 200s consistently in our log files, but we can access the page fine when we try, then there is clearly still some differences between Googlebot and ourselves. What might those differences be?

  1. It will crawl more than us
  2. It is obviously a bot, rather than a human pretending to be a bot
  3. It will crawl at different times of day

This means that:

  • If our website is doing clever bot blocking, it might be able to differentiate between us and Googlebot.
  • Because Googlebot will put more stress on our web servers, it might behave differently. When websites have a lot of bots or visitors visiting at once, they might take certain actions to help keep the website online. They might turn on more computers to power the website (this is called scaling), they might also attempt to rate-limit users who are requesting lots of pages, or serve reduced versions of pages.
  • Servers run tasks periodically; for example, a listings website might run a daily task at 01:00 to clean up all it’s old listings, which might affect server performance.

Working out what’s happening with these periodic effects is going to be fiddly; you’re probably going to need to talk to a back-end developer.

Depending on your skill level, you might not know exactly where to lead the discussion. A useful structure for a discussion is often to talk about how a request passes through your technology stack and then look at the edge cases we discussed above.

  • What happens to the servers under heavy load?
  • When do important scheduled tasks happen?

Two useful pieces of information to enter this conversation with:

  1. Depending on the regularity of the problem in the logs, it is often worth trying to re-create the problem by attempting to crawl the website with a crawler at the same speed/intensity that Google is using to see if you can find/cause the same issues. This won’t always be possible depending on the size of the site, but for some sites it will be. Being able to consistently re-create a problem is the best way to get it solved.
  2. If you can’t, however, then try to provide the exact periods of time where Googlebot was seeing the problems. This will give the developer the best chance of tying the issue to other logs to let them debug what was happening.

If Google can crawl the page consistently, then we move onto our next step.

5. Does Google see what I can see on a one-off basis?

We know Google is crawling the page correctly. The next step is to try and work out what Google is seeing on the page. If you’ve got a JavaScript-heavy website you’ve probably banged your head against this problem before, but even if you don’t this can still sometimes be an issue.

We follow the same pattern as before. First, we try to re-create it once. The following tools will let us do that:

  • Fetch & Render
    • Shows: Rendered DOM in an image, but only returns the page source HTML for you to read.
  • Mobile-friendly test
    • Shows: Rendered DOM and returns rendered DOM for you to read.
    • Not only does this show you rendered DOM, but it will also track any console errors.

Is there a difference between Fetch & Render, the mobile-friendly testing tool, and Googlebot? Not really, with the exception of timeouts (which is why we have our later steps!). Here’s the full analysis of the difference between them, if you’re interested.

Once we have the output from these, we compare them to what we ordinarily see in our browser. I’d recommend using a tool like Diff Checker to compare the two.

Have we found any problems yet?

If we encounter meaningful differences at this point, then in my experience it’s typically either from JavaScript or cookies

Why?

We can isolate each of these by:

  • Loading the page with no cookies. This can be done simply by loading the page with a fresh incognito session and comparing the rendered DOM here against the rendered DOM in our ordinary browser.
  • Use the mobile testing tool to see the page with Chrome 41 and compare against the rendered DOM we normally see with Inspect Element.

Yet again we can compare them using something like Diff Checker, which will allow us to spot any differences. You might want to use an HTML formatter to help line them up better.

We can also see the JavaScript errors thrown using the Mobile-Friendly Testing Tool, which may prove particularly useful if you’re confident in your JavaScript.

If, using this knowledge and these tools, we can recreate the bug, then we have something that can be replicated and it’s easier for us to hand off to a developer as a bug that will get fixed.

If we’re seeing everything is correct here, we move on to the next step.

6. What is Google actually seeing?

It’s possible that what Google is seeing is different from what we recreate using the tools in the previous step. Why? A couple main reasons:

  • Overloaded servers can have all sorts of strange behaviors. For example, they might be returning 200 codes, but perhaps with a default page.
  • JavaScript is rendered separately from pages being crawled and Googlebot may spend less time rendering JavaScript than a testing tool.
  • There is often a lot of caching in the creation of web pages and this can cause issues.

We’ve gotten this far without talking about time! Pages don’t get crawled instantly, and crawled pages don’t get indexed instantly.

Quick sidebar: What is caching?

Caching is often a problem if you get to this stage. Unlike JS, it’s not talked about as much in our community, so it’s worth some more explanation in case you’re not familiar. Caching is storing something so it’s available more quickly next time.

When you request a webpage, a lot of calculations happen to generate that page. If you then refreshed the page when it was done, it would be incredibly wasteful to just re-run all those same calculations. Instead, servers will often save the output and serve you the output without re-running them. Saving the output is called caching.

Why do we need to know this? Well, we’re already well out into the weeds at this point and so it’s possible that a cache is misconfigured and the wrong information is being returned to users.

There aren’t many good beginner resources on caching which go into more depth. However, I found this article on caching basics to be one of the more friendly ones. It covers some of the basic types of caching quite well.

How can we see what Google is actually working with?

  • Google’s cache
    • Shows: Source code
    • While this won’t show you the rendered DOM, it is showing you the raw HTML Googlebot actually saw when visiting the page. You’ll need to check this with JS disabled; otherwise, on opening it, your browser will run all the JS on the cached version.
  • Site searches for specific content
    • Shows: A tiny snippet of rendered content.
    • By searching for a specific phrase on a page, e.g. inurl:example.com/url “only JS rendered text”, you can see if Google has manage to index a specific snippet of content. Of course, it only works for visible text and misses a lot of the content, but it’s better than nothing!
    • Better yet, do the same thing with a rank tracker, to see if it changes over time.
  • Storing the actual rendered DOM
    • Shows: Rendered DOM
    • Alex from DeepCrawl has written about saving the rendered DOM from Googlebot. The TL;DR version: Google will render JS and post to endpoints, so we can get it to submit the JS-rendered version of a page that it sees. We can then save that, examine it, and see what went wrong.

Have we found any problems yet?

Again, once we’ve found the problem, it’s time to go and talk to a developer. The advice for this conversation is identical to the last one — everything I said there still applies.

The other knowledge you should go into this conversation armed with: how Google works and where it can struggle. While your developer will know the technical ins and outs of your website and how it’s built, they might not know much about how Google works. Together, this can help you reach the answer more quickly.

The obvious source for this are resources or presentations given by Google themselves. Of the various resources that have come out, I’ve found these two to be some of the more useful ones for giving insight into first principles:

But there is often a difference between statements Google will make and what the SEO community sees in practice. All the SEO experiments people tirelessly perform in our industry can also help shed some insight. There are far too many list here, but here are two good examples:

7. Could Google be aggregating your website across others?

If we’ve reached this point, we’re pretty happy that our website is running smoothly. But not all problems can be solved just on your website; sometimes you’ve got to look to the wider landscape and the SERPs around it.

Most commonly, what I’m looking for here is:

  • Similar/duplicate content to the pages that have the problem.
    • This could be intentional duplicate content (e.g. syndicating content) or unintentional (competitors’ scraping or accidentally indexed sites).

Either way, they’re nearly always found by doing exact searches in Google. I.e. taking a relatively specific piece of content from your page and searching for it in quotes.

Have you found any problems yet?

If you find a number of other exact copies, then it’s possible they might be causing issues.

The best description I’ve come up with for “have you found a problem here?” is: do you think Google is aggregating together similar pages and only showing one? And if it is, is it picking the wrong page?

This doesn’t just have to be on traditional Google search. You might find a version of it on Google Jobs, Google News, etc.

To give an example, if you are a reseller, you might find content isn’t ranking because there’s another, more authoritative reseller who consistently posts the same listings first.

Sometimes you’ll see this consistently and straightaway, while other times the aggregation might be changing over time. In that case, you’ll need a rank tracker for whatever Google property you’re working on to see it.

Jon Earnshaw from Pi Datametrics gave an excellent talk on the latter (around suspicious SERP flux) which is well worth watching.

Once you’ve found the problem, you’ll probably need to experiment to find out how to get around it, but the easiest factors to play with are usually:

  • De-duplication of content
  • Speed of discovery (you can often improve by putting up a 24-hour RSS feed of all the new content that appears)
  • Lowering syndication

8. A roundup of some other likely suspects

If you’ve gotten this far, then we’re sure that:

  • Google can consistently crawl our pages as intended.
  • We’re sending Google consistent signals about the status of our page.
  • Google is consistently rendering our pages as we expect.
  • Google is picking the correct page out of any duplicates that might exist on the web.

And your problem still isn’t solved?

And it is important?

Well, shoot.

Feel free to hire us…?

As much as I’d love for this article to list every SEO problem ever, that’s not really practical, so to finish off this article let’s go through two more common gotchas and principles that didn’t really fit in elsewhere before the answers to those four problems we listed at the beginning.

Invalid/poorly constructed HTML

You and Googlebot might be seeing the same HTML, but it might be invalid or wrong. Googlebot (and any crawler, for that matter) has to provide workarounds when the HTML specification isn’t followed, and those can sometimes cause strange behavior.

The easiest way to spot it is either by eye-balling the rendered DOM tools or using an HTML validator.

The W3C validator is very useful, but will throw up a lot of errors/warnings you won’t care about. The closest I can give to a one-line of summary of which ones are useful is to:

  • Look for errors
  • Ignore anything to do with attributes (won’t always apply, but is often true).

The classic example of this is breaking the head.

An iframe isn’t allowed in the head code, so Chrome will end the head and start the body. Unfortunately, it takes the title and canonical with it, because they fall after it — so Google can’t read them. The head code should have ended in a different place.

Oliver Mason wrote a good post that explains an even more subtle version of this in breaking the head quietly.

When in doubt, diff

Never underestimate the power of trying to compare two things line by line with a diff from something like Diff Checker. It won’t apply to everything, but when it does it’s powerful.

For example, if Google has suddenly stopped showing your featured markup, try to diff your page against a historical version either in your QA environment or from the Wayback Machine.


Answers to our original 4 questions

Time to answer those questions. These are all problems we’ve had clients bring to us at Distilled.

1. Why wasn’t Google showing 5-star markup on product pages?

Google was seeing both the server-rendered markup and the client-side-rendered markup; however, the server-rendered side was taking precedence.

Removing the server-rendered markup meant the 5-star markup began appearing.

2. Why wouldn’t Bing display 5-star markup on review pages, when Google would?

The problem came from the references to schema.org.

        
<p> <h1 itemprop="name">Avatar</h1> </p> <p> <span>Director: <span itemprop="director">James Cameron</span> (born August 16, 1954)</span> </p> <p> <span itemprop="genre">Science fiction</span> </p> <p> <a href="../movies/avatar-theatrical-trailer.html" itemprop="trailer">Trailer</a> </p> <p></div> </p>

We diffed our markup against our competitors and the only difference was we’d referenced the HTTPS version of schema.org in our itemtype, which caused Bing to not support it.

C’mon, Bing.

3. Why were pages getting indexed with a no-index tag?

The answer for this was in this post. This was a case of breaking the head.

The developers had installed some ad-tech in the head and inserted an non-standard tag, i.e. not:

  • <title>
  • <style>
  • <base>
  • <link>
  • <meta>
  • <script>
  • <noscript>

This caused the head to end prematurely and the no-index tag was left in the body where it wasn’t read.

4. Why did any page on a website return a 302 about 20–50% of the time, but only for crawlers?

This took some time to figure out. The client had an old legacy website that has two servers, one for the blog and one for the rest of the site. This issue started occurring shortly after a migration of the blog from a subdomain (blog.client.com) to a subdirectory (client.com/blog/…).

At surface level everything was fine; if a user requested any individual page, it all looked good. A crawl of all the blog URLs to check they’d redirected was fine.

But we noticed a sharp increase of errors being flagged in Search Console, and during a routine site-wide crawl, many pages that were fine when checked manually were causing redirect loops.

We checked using Fetch and Render, but once again, the pages were fine.

Eventually, it turned out that when a non-blog page was requested very quickly after a blog page (which, realistically, only a crawler is fast enough to achieve), the request for the non-blog page would be sent to the blog server.

These would then be caught by a long-forgotten redirect rule, which 302-redirected deleted blog posts (or other duff URLs) to the root. This, in turn, was caught by a blanket HTTP to HTTPS 301 redirect rule, which would be requested from the blog server again, perpetuating the loop.

For example, requesting https://www.client.com/blog/ followed quickly enough by https://www.client.com/category/ would result in:

  • 302 to http://www.client.com – This was the rule that redirected deleted blog posts to the root
  • 301 to https://www.client.com – This was the blanket HTTPS redirect
  • 302 to http://www.client.com – The blog server doesn’t know about the HTTPS non-blog homepage and it redirects back to the HTTP version. Rinse and repeat.

This caused the periodic 302 errors and it meant we could work with their devs to fix the problem.

What are the best brainteasers you’ve had?

Let’s hear them, people. What problems have you run into? Let us know in the comments.

Also credit to @RobinLord8, @TomAnthonySEO, @THCapper, @samnemzer, and @sergeystefoglo_ for help with this piece.

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