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SEO in 2011: What’s Working, What’s Not & Where to Focus

By Max Thomas

Next week I’ll be presenting on SEO In 2011: What’s Working, What’s Not at SMX Advanced in London (sorry I missed the wedding, but glad to be at SMX in London!), in which I’ll share some of our experiences with what’s working for SEO, what’s not (but used to), and generally where things are headed. 10 minutes is a short amount of time to address all of that, so following is a fuller discussion, including some extra tactics and observations. Please feel free to add your own thoughts as these are topics that many SEOers are evaluating and discussing actively.

On to the post. Following are key takeaways of where we’ve seen the changes to SEO fundamentals in regard to our clients’ campaigns, as well as questions we receive from companies. They are organized by (1) Trends, (2) Tactics, (3) Reporting and (4) Looking Forward.

Trends – What’s Changing?

Most every website has seen some change in its rankings from the Panda/Farmer update, and mosty likely even before then with the changes implemented throughout 2010. These changes impact a website’s content and SEO strategy directly. In addition, a tremendous shift over 2010 has been the format of search results that users see and HOW this impacts their search behavior. From personalized and regional search results to Google suggest, people search differently now and a company’s online strategy (for presence and SEO) must keep up with the changes. Following are some primary considerations.

Regional vs National Search Results

As location-based search results continue to influence what people see and how people search, it is becoming increasingly unrealistic for any one site to rank “nationally” (or in all locations) for the same search term. Search results and search behavior are now very specific to a user’s geographic location. As such, companies must look at their online presence as a “regional strategy” rather than trying to rank everywhere for the same term.

I know SEOers understand this, but we find some companies still do not fully grasp the reality. Following shows the search results for “back packs” with the geographic setting as “San Diego”. Note the local search results from Google Shopping and how they differ based on my geographic setting and where I’m searching from.


Google Search for Backpacks in San Diego

Here’s another example, this time search for a truly local service, “auto repair”. Note the split between national sites and local sites on page 1: Pre-Panda/Farmer update, there were more directories ranking, now there are more websites of local auto shops.

In addition, Google’s blended “Local Search” results (e.g., maps and organic listings combined) have “pushed down” the organic listings in many markets, leaving fewer organic ranking opportunities on Page 1. This has a net effect of (sometimes) only 12 listings on Page 1 Google, 7 blended map results and 5 website listings. Markets that don’t show blended Local Search results (such as “insurance agent san diego”, below) display the “7-Pack Map” on top and the 10 organic listings beneath (a total of 17 organic results); as Google continues to roll-out the blended results, we’re sure to see fewer and fewer markets with this many page 1 organic results.

Branded Search

Online Reputation Management used to be only for companies that have negative or problematic reviews ranking for their branded search terms. While “cleaning up” is still an issue for some firms, the more significant trend is the increase in “brand name” search queries for a company or product (driven largely by social media and reviews – which both focus on sharing information about specific companies by name). This means companies need to pay close attention to the search results for their name(s), particularly when their own website is outranked by high-ranking branded directories and URLs (e.g., Yelp, Linkedin, Yellowpages, Blogspot, Avvo, etc.) that are not directly controlled by the company. In this regard, SEO now includes the importance of “owning” brand name search results so that a company may manage it’s brand within search.

Following is an example of search engine rankings for an executive in Silicon Valley. Note the number of search results that aren’t directly “owned” by the individual or their company. The majority of these listings can be managed, but some can’t. For the person (or business), this is a “branding” issue; it makes sense that they “own” their online presence.

Search Focus vs. Diversified Traffic Sources

Up until recently, search (including organic and ppc) has been a primary focus of traffic-building for many online companies, if not the online marketing industry in general. From the dramatic drop in rankings for mega sites like Mahalo (see Sistrix report on drop in megasite rankings) to the financial losses of small businesses that relied heavily on organic search traffic for customers (see WSJ article on the Panda/Farmer Update’s impact on SMB online retailers), it just doesn’t make sense to focus exclusively on Google as the primary traffic channel. Open it up – look at Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Youtube, building a community around your website’s blog, your own networks, affiliates, even off-line marketing (gasp!) to diversify a company’s online presence.

Following is a snapshot of traffic sources for two real lead-generation (leads are phone calls or form submits) websites (names removed). Both are very successful in their space. Once has diverisifed its traffic sources among multiple sources (most of which it controls directly) while the other has focused heavily on organic search, including great emphasis on community building, engaging content and blogger outreach. While both approaches have worked, the different mix of traffic sources correlates with the varying approaches toward their online presence. From a business perspective, while one has a higher variable cost per new lead (note heavy use of paid channels) the other has a much lower variable cost but their reliance on organic search makes them more suspectible to changes with Google’s algorithm. They are very “white hat” in their approaches and have built up their rankings and traffic steadily over the years, but the fact remains that Google’s rules could change again in a way that hurts (rather than helps) them. This, in effect, becomes a business decision in regard to the need for diverisifying a site’s traffic sources.

Diversified Traffic Sources
Search Dominant Traffic Sources

Site vs. URL Authority

Up until the Farmer/Panda update, Google search results indicated that Google evaluated specific URLs (rather than the entire website) in regard to that URLs relevancy and ranking for a particular search term. This partly explains why phenomena such as keyword-specific domains (like “ChicagoAutoRepair.com”) and generally weak sites would rank for competitive terms. As explained by Matt Cutts. the end of exact-match anchor-text domains might be near. In addition, with the Farmer/Panda update, Google now looks at the SEO strength and authority of the entire website (versus only the URL). Furthermore, Cutts explained at SMX West 2011 that Google may crawl a site less if there’s poor quality content (see transcript of session). What’s “poor quality content”? Content that people don’t visit or interact with — sort of like those content-farm-like blog posts and information pages that offer very little helpful information to the user. What does Cutts recommend? The general consensus is to re-evaluate those pages and possibly get rid of them as they might (emphasis on “might”) hurt your site’s overall rankings.

Obviously ,this has a definite impact on a company’s online marketing strategy, not only in regard to SEO efforts, but also user-experience and content development.

Tactics – What To Do?

Okay, on to some specifics. Following are some tactics and observations we’ve found effective, particularly as they relate to the strategy considerations above.

Map Rankings vs. Blended Results

With blended Local Search results, Google is now creating a combined search result that references: i) citations, ii) inbound links, iii) content, iv) overall site authority, v) mentions on other directories and sites, vi) social media mentions and vii) reviews. (Hint: Watch the blended search results and Goolge Place pages closely as they are continually being updated, which impacts the content Google pulls in.)

This means to rank in local search requires building up all of the above. For citations, the focus is on consistent use of the same Name, Address and Phone (NAP) on the website, Google listing and all other directories and data aggregators (such as InfoUSA, Targus and Axciom). For inbound links, the focus is on quality sites that are in or related to a business’s industry AND/OR are about the city/region where the business is located. Think active blogs in the company’s city, local events and organization sites, resource pages on local schools (.edu’s) and companies. For content, the focus is on quality and original content that engages users, and ideally is about the company’s business, local region and other companies/organizations it associates with. For reviews, the focus is on encouraging customers to leave legitimate reviews; it’s the quality that matters, not just the quantity. For more detailed information on what impacts local search rankings, please see my case study presented at SMX West 2011 (Do Directories Really Matter For Local Search Rankings In Google?) as well as these other posts regarding ranking in local search:

Low-Level Links vs. High Quality Links

Before 2010, it was possible to rank a site primarily via links from low-level sites like general directories, link farms and blog comments. Now Google has upped the ante for quality links, so how does that impact link building? In short, the focus is now more on links from high quality and relevant sites like Maven blogs (every market and industry has blogs that have many users and high SEO authority), authority media links (see PR below), resource links and mentions on school (.edu) and corporate sites, authority Twitter profiles and many others. What do all of these have in common? Outreach and content. That’s right. Most of these require contacting (do I have to?) a site or building a relationship with a blogger or Twitter profile; done right, this relationship can result in great links AND increased exposure for a website. The second part is content. After all, why would anyone link to a site or pay attention to a request without having something to link to? Content has to be relevant, compelling and engaging for people to link to or read it. Content is the new calling card for link building. (See below for more discussion about content.)

Online PR vs Links From Authority Media

Pre-2010, it was possible to push out online PR’s and flood search results for a specific term. Now Google generally does not rank on Page 1 online press release sites (like 1888pressrelease.com, etc.), at least not long term UNLESS the site leverages the target keyword as part of the domain. An example of this is Free-press-release.com which creates a subdomain using the name associated with the profile. For example, maxthomas.1205676.free-press-release.com, which has a high relevancy for “max thomas” searches.

The online pr focus now is coverage from authority media sites (as well as the links from those sites). Authority media sites can have a large impact on rankings and also a company’s online reputation. There are generally two ways to secure authority media coverage: The first is to hire a traditional PR agency with online connections in your industry; the second is the DIY approach where a company can build outreach to journalists via services like HARO (Help A Reporter Out) or My News Desk.

“Canned” Ghost-Written Content vs. “Content is King”

Pardon me, but canned content “sucks” for three main reasons: 1) Users don’t care – users (e.g., “people”) are tired of article-style, generic content that’s not unique; 2) Google doesn’t like it – aside from duplicate content issues, Google now de-emphasizes pages that don’t get lots of visitors, comments, etc.; 3) It’s not engaging – if a user lands on a generic article page of a website, will that person be compelled to take action? (Meaning, will they convert?) Probably not. For more insights on the downside of canned content, see Monique Pouget’s article “Blogosphere Lessons: Why You Should Can The Canned Content” that evaluates some real-word canned content downsides.

So while lots of keyword-rich content used to help with rankings, that doesn’t work so well anymore. What to do? Think. Think about all the great content that’s under a company’s nose that people will want to engage with and link to. At the end of this post is more discussion on content building; following is a short-list of considerations for great content:

  • Hyper Local Blog – Are you a local business? Yes, then blog about your town and connect to other businesses, people and organizations who care about in your community, especially when they tie-in to with your business. We’ve seen cases where active blogs generate 60% (that’s 60%!) of a website’s entry pages. The Fitzgerald website an example of a great “hyper local” blog of an apartment building website that has done an excellent job of positioning itself as a leading news source in its community, even to the degree that local events now contact them about being added to their blog (talk about engagement!).
  • News Blogs – While throwing out the canned content, get rid of the ghost-written blog too. Look at creating a blog on your website that is a “news” blog about your industry or market. Take it a step further and hire a “real” person to write it and let them use their “real” name on your blog. Take it even a step further and post weekly or even 4-5 times a week. This has the potential to create a blog that users want to read, revisit and even link to. David Reich at Six Estate Communications has a great model for creating engaging and high-quality news blogs.
  • Events/Tradeshows – Is your company participating in an event? Yes, then let people know. Blog about the participation and reach out via social media to the organization and other presenting organizations. This content stands a good chance of getting lots of attention as it’s informative, has a social component and it piggy-backs the general excitement about the upcoming event. Here’s a great example of a blog by Monique Pouget on ThunderSEO about attending MOZcon which continues to attract visitors.
  • Video – If your company has the bandwidth to create short (think 2-3 min) videos about information and tips helpful to your customers, then please do it. Done well, video can be engaging and helpful. Leverage your Youtube channel to help increase awareness and participation. Crest Capital provides a great example of a company that does a good job of using video for providing helpful information and increasing user engagement. In less than 2 years, the Crest Capital YouTube channel has over 15,263 video views (wow!) on 50+ videos that offer helpful information on industry-specific issues (like Section 179 Deductions – Crest is an equipment leasing company) to playful video’s about employees and what goes on “behind the scenes”.
  • Badges – Do you have vendors, agents and/or customers who might be a “badge” from you on their website? This is often a great strategy for building awareness and links that is easily overlooked. Crest Capital provides a great example of a badge that i) engages customers, ii) increases it’s relationship with a vendor and iii) embeds a keyword-rich link back to CrestCapital.com. Following is an example of their vendor badge on a vendor’s website (Entech Signs – Alpha LED). Note: The beauty of these links is that they typically can be handled by a company internally, via it’s business development, sales and/or customer service departments (potential high-quality Link Bonanza!).

Badge Example

  • Guest Blogging – There’s two ways to do guest blogging. One is to write a blog post and ask another site to post the blog, including a link back to your website. The second is to invite other bloggers to post original content on your website’s blog (they get exposure on a new website), and encourage them to spread the word on their blog (and social media profiles) about their latest post on your website. The latter has the benefit of unique content on your website, plus the added exposure of the guest blogger spreading the word about the post. This might sound terribly clever, but it’s not. Done well, it’s a great way to engage users and build community around your website. We’ve seen first-hand how effective guest blogging programs increase user engagement and traffic sources. (Note: Look out for future posts about guest blogging on ThunderSEO.com!)
  • Infographics – These have been around for awhile and have lost some of their steam, but as Gary Magnone explained, “I think the real truth is that weak infographics are dead.”  Great infographics still have staying power. In regard to a company’s overall marketing strategy, these aren’t just for linkbait; they also can be used effectively for educating a company’s customer (or prospect) base as well as conveying a poignant message. Following are some resources that delve deeper into strategy and creation of infographics:
  • BlueGlass’s post on What Makes A Good Infographic
  • I Am Bored’s infographic How To Make An Infographic

Experimentation vs. Black Hat

While it’s generally true that maintaining a focus on the user experience will keep a site out of dangerous territory with Google, it’s important to experiment with various approaches to link building and SEO in general. Such experimentation can be completely above-board and “white hat”. Rand Fishkin gives a nice overview of white-hat tactics that result in rankings in his presentation at SMX Sydney 2011; they tend to require more work than “black hat” tactics, but the results also tend to last longer and have a wider reach.

Even so, whether white hat or black hat in approach, remember that experimental SEO tactics come with their own risks and rewards. When it comes to link building, a general rule of thumb is that  the larger a site’s (legitimate) link profile, then the less susceptible it is to a dramatic ranking losses from link building tactics that Google doesn’t like. This means that if your website has a strong link profile, then you can try-out different strategies and tactics without too much risk of losing rankings. However, if the majority of a site’s inbound links are deemed spammy by Google, then the site might risk losing more than it gains (see Vanessa Fox’s explanation of the J.C. Penney Link Scheme).

Also, tread cautiously with on-page tactics. Google Webmaster Tools is very clear about what tactics will penalize a website and risk the site being labeled as spammy (arrrghh!). See Webmaster Central for Google’s webmaster guidelines. So when it comes to tactics like scraper sites, white hat cloaking, hiding text for accessibility or buying links to bring down a competitor, pay close attention to what Google’s looking out for (see Vanessa Fox’s excellent wrap-up of “Lessons Learned at SMX West“).

Remember, SEO experiementation is essential (after all, Google is constantly “experiementing”) but tread cautiously.

Reporting

In short, with personalized and geographic-specific search results, ranking reports are questionable (anyway, the focus should be on tracking conversions and long-term traffic and visitor patterns). Try it for yourself, get on the phone with someone in another city and search for the same term; you’ll see some commonalities, but not all; then, do it again and see the results change (it’s like magic!). Still not convinced? Check out Conrad Saam’s Keyword Ranking Report Report.

Inspired by Conrad Saam and Veronic Fox, there are about 14 primary metrics that we track over time to monitor a site’s performance.

Following are the top three that we recommend every site should be aware of.

  1. Branded vs. Non-Branded Seach Traffic – This is the best measure we know of to show whether the SEO is working. To track this, we use Google Analytics’ non-paid traffic by keyword and filter all branded terms (like company/product names, employees, addresses, phone numbers, etc.). Track this monthly over time and you get a good picture of how effective the SEO efforts have been on traffic (especially compared to keyword rankings).
  2. Crawl Rate and Crawl Errors – Major shifts in crawl rate indicate if something’s wrong or going great; crawl errors show if there’s problems with the website’s pages and how to fix them. Both of these are found in Google Webmaster Tools. Bekka Palmer has a great overview of how to use these in “More Than The Sum Of Their Parts: 5 SEO Tools That Work Better Together“.
  3. Conversions – At the end of the day, traffic, links, visitors, etc. are all simply metrics. Conversions (e.g., sales or leads) are what matter most. As one of our first clients explained, “I don’t care how many visitors we have…did my phone ring?”. Also, focusing on conversions encourages a company to look at BIG PICTURE in regard to its marketing and pr efforts.

Looking Forward – Where To Focus?

“Content” (with a capital C) is becoming a central focus of strong SEO strategies.

  • First, great content speaks to users (clients and prospects), increases engagement and supports conversions.
  • Second, when great content engages users (vs. canned, dry content), then Google picks up on that signal resulting in higher page rankings and higher crawl rates.
  • Third, great content is necessary for attracting high-quality inbound links (whether it’s a manual request or a viral link).
  • Fourth, great content supports social media engagement (think Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Youtube) because its content that you want to spread the word about, and that people want to interact with…which increases overall awareness of a business via social media and search.
  • Fifth, great content pulls everyone’s focus together so that marketing, sales, customer service, pr, executive, etc. have the opportunity to work together; this has the end result of a more compelling and cohesive marketing message and a big boost to user engagement.

Content Strategy/Development Considerations

When evaluating how to proceed with content development, it’s important to look internally but also at the competition to see what they’re doing. Following are some basic guidelines:

  • Content Audit: Conduct a “Content Audit” of your website to see what content is there currently, as well as all company departments to see where there are opportunities for content. Examples include white papers, events, seminars, conferences, upcoming announcements, video tutorials, etc. It’s typically eye-opening to go through this basic exercise to tally all the different types of content a company is probably already generating inhouse. Content isn’t always writing new, original posts; most often it’s as simple as tapping into a company’s extant information flows, marketing, etc.
  • Competitor Content Analysis: Along with looking under your own roof, take a look at your competition and tally what content they feature on their websites and social media profiles. In addition, look at engagement metrics to determine how valuable the content is for the user, as well as if the content ranks in search (it potentially drives traffic) and if there are inbound links to the content (indicating the content is so worthy that folks want to link to it). To this last point, also look at the types of sites linking to it: Are they directory or SEO-driven links engineered to push-up the content’s rankings; or are they from industry-related blogs, resource sites, new sites, etc.
  • Content Schedule: Once a company has evaluated the content it can create (today) and determine if there’s additional content ideas from competitors and inhouse brainstorming, make a final list and a schedule. The schedule is vital. Without it, most content falls by the wayside. In creating the schedule, clearly identify the various content channels, who’s responsible, and how to promote. For example, will the content be pushed out via the blog, twitter, facebook, and/or online pr? If video, will it be posted first to the company’s YouTube channel, and then to its blog, etc.

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In summary, Google is constantly updating and changing, but it really has maintained its consistent focus on the user (as Matt Cutts has explained over and over and over again). Yes, links still matter – a lot. Yes, content still needs to be optimized for keywords. Yes, it’s still possible to experiment with strategies to inflate rankings. BUT at the end of the day, a highly engaging website that helps customers and users, and naturally attracts links because people want to link to its content (and perhaps even share their own)…well, that’s a beautiful thing. In fact, it’s really only possibly when a business coordinates all of it’s departments, services and vendors, and embraces its online presence as more than a lead-generator or traffic source, but as a living and interactive extension of the business itself.

Max Thomas

Max Thomas is ThunderActive’s founder. He loves new ideas, laughing, shoes, personal style, and art.

Wanna connect? See you on Twitter or Foursquare.

  • http://www.myseopandit.com/ SEO Services

    Very Very useful information with deep analysis which will be useful to understand the recent changes on search engine for search engine optimizers.Thanks for great sharing.

  • http://sixestate.com David Reich

    Hey Max – fantastic post, and thanks so much for the shout out to http://SixEstate.com! Now I have to go through and check out all the articles and resources you’ve highlighted.

    On that note, there was an interesting post on SEOptimise abou how linking out from your blog to meaningful content may help with your own rankings:

    http://www.seoptimise.com/blog/2011/03/linking-out-instead-of-link-building-to-rank-in-google.html

  • Melanie

    This was a great read. Thanks!