Complete SEO Strategy for 2014

Step 1: Define Your Target Audience and Their Needs

Until recently I headed up technical marketing for Yahoo Media, where our competition was in verticals like news, sports, movies, games, and finance to name a few. In terms of online competitiveness, this is nothing to sneeze at. This is how I learned to base everything I do on strategy.


Let me tell you a story. Early in my tenure at Yahoo we tried to get into the site dev process in the early stages in order to work SEO into the Product Recommendations Documents (PRD) before wireframing began.  But as a fairly new horizontal group not reporting into any of the products, this was often difficult. Nay, damn near impossible.  So usually we made friends with the product teams and got in where we could.

On one specific project, one of the SEOs on my team was brought in during the wireframe stage.  T­he entire product team held SEO-specific meetings every week to go over specific recommendations, taking them very seriously, and leaning on every word our team said.  We were thrilled.  We were hailing their efforts, promising big wins for the relaunch, and even hyping up the launch and it’s projected SEO results in the company SEO newsletter.

Then the site relaunched. Initially we saw a drop. This is expected, especially when you relaunch an entire site of that magnitude.  Three weeks passed, and results were flat.  Five weeks passed, no upward trend.  Three months passed and the product team stopped talking to us. Results never went back up.

Define Target Audience

Define Target Audience

Like many SEOs, I was hired with one vague responsibility: to set up an SEO program and achieve results.  Like many SEOs, we jumped right in and started spewing out SEO audits, rewriting title tags, offering up link suggestions, rewriting URLs and so on.  And like many SEOs we promised results. But what we didn’t do, until that fateful launch, was develop a comprehensive strategy.  Sure, we did keyword research, we recommended partnerships and widgets and architecture advice, but we didn’t step back and take a good look at our target audiences, what sites were meeting their specific needs in search results, and what we specifically could build into the product that would be far more desirable than what everyone else had (not even thought of yet ideally) to make sure our entire site is superior, resulting in the inevitable stealing of search traffic from our competitors.

Instead, in this instance, we started at wireframe stage, plopping in keywords and meta tags.  Of course, the site really needed those things, and although it launched technically “optimized”, it wasn’t enough to provide a better product than our top competitor(s).  A product that people want to visit, revisit, email to friends, share on social networks, and link to more than our competitors.  It wasn’t even enough to move up in the rankings.

From that point on, if a property didn’t consult our team during the early concepting stages of a project, we shied away from working on that project at all. And let me tell you, things got a lot better.


Doing SEO strategy right takes targeted competitive insight and very specific recommendations, beyond any SEO basics rulebook. And ideally a good relationship with the product (site) manager.

Over the next few posts, and starting with this one, I’m going to share with you a detailed 8-step process for creating your own SEO strategy (what I often refer to as an SRD (SEO Research Document)), beginning with defining target audiences and taking it all the way through some fairly comprehensive competitive research, search traffic projections, content strategies, and specific goals and prioritizations. The steps behind this are something you can templatize and use for every project, and your boss/clients will love it, I promise.

I’ll be writing this as I go, so I’d be interested in hearing how you do strategy now, and if there are any types of things you’d like to see covered in the posts.

Strategy is the type of thing that moves you up to the next level of SEO superstar.   Ready?


The first step in most marketing campaigns, Search Marketing included, is to start by defining your target audience.  Your target audience is a defined set of people who you are marketing your product to.

Traditionally, defining a target audience involves determining their age, sex, geographic locations, and especially their needs (aka pain points).  Check out’s description of personas and how to do task analysis & scenarios for more details, or better yet, read Vanessa Fox’s upcoming book about personas related to search and conversion.

What we want to zero in on for our SEO Strategy are those pain points.  What do they want?  What are their needs that aren’t being met?  Knowing these things will help us better define a content strategy and prioritize content to bring to the forefront.

There are two reasons we start with audience needs rather than jumping straight into keyword research

  1. Content Strategy: You want to provide content and tools that are as relevant and useful as possible to your target audiences.  This goes beyond regular SEO practices and into site strategy, although providing relevant, useful content in itself is linkbait. For example, let’s say I have a health site.  I have several types of articles on health, drug information, and information on types of diseases and conditions.  My angle on the site is that I’m targeting seniors.  If I find out seniors are primarily interested in information on prescription drug plans and cheap Viagra, then I know that I want to provide information specifically on those things.  This allows me to hone in on that market’s needs and deprioritize or bypass other content.
  2. Targeted Keyword Discovery: Ideally you’ll want to do keyword research based on what the audience wants, not solely on what content the site already has (or plans to have sans audience targeting), which may be limited. I can do keyword research on health conditions and drugs (content I have on my site) and determine what the general population is searching for and optimize my current content, or I can cast my net wide and look at what my target audience wants first, then do my keyword research.  You may find there are needs that your site is not meeting.  Knowing my senior audience is interested in primarily in prescription drug plans and cheap Viagra, I can first make sure I’m providing that content, and then further determine the top keywords in these areas (in the next article Step 2), and use those terms in relevant and high visibility areas on my site.

This screenshot from my own Strategy template below simply suggests adding information on the target audience and what they want. Specifics are as good as the research you do, and will likely be very different with each project.  Let your Strategy template give you breathing room.

So how do you get target market info?  Lets start with these scenarios.

Scenario 1: I know who my target audiences are, but I don’t know their pain points:

  • Check out market research studies* online (you can find many free reports, but in-depth ones will usually cost you some money).
  • Conduct surveys of your audience by putting surveys on your site, sending emails, hiring survey professionals, or using survey sites like SurveyMonkey
  • Conduct focus groups – either on your own (if you can gather a group of people that you know are in your targeted demographic) or through a professional market research company
  • Use social media listening platforms that provide topic buzz volume and sentiment by demographic (Nielsen Buzz Metrics and NetBase are two options, although not cheap)
  • Forrester has a nifty little demographic profiling tool for social behavior online by audience
Consumer Profile Tool

Consumer Profile Tool

Scenario 2: I know my industry but don’t know whom exactly to target:

  • Check out industry research studies* online (you can find many free reports, but in-depth ones will usually cost you some money).
  • Search for industry statistics online. For example, here I found some great statistics on seniors that would allow me to better understand their current situation and what they need.
  • Hire a research company that specializes on your industry
  • Use social media listening platforms that provide topic buzz volume and sentiment by industry. I haven’t tested any social listening platforms with specific industries in mind to know exactly who provides demographic info based on industry.  If you happen to know of tools that do this, please share with us in the comments.

*A few of the places you can find industry/market statistics:

Social media tools are especially useful if you’re planning on integrating search and social campaigns, as they are great research tools for both channels. Here’s a screenshot from NetBase that shows a demographics module on the left, as well as demographic results for the Crest Pro-Health brand being searched.


Research can get expensive when you really get into it, but you can find data if it exists on your industry/demographic, and you’re an experienced searcher. Be sure to check your sources, and don’t be afraid to email people and ask where they got their information if you need to.

Here’s what I found in free online info about my seniors audience in the Healthcare industry

  • Seniors’ specific conditions (source)
    • Data found: Arthritis, hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, and respiratory disorders are some of the leading causes of activity limitations among older people. Alzheimer’s disease and dementia alone afflict 4 million Americans, a figure expected to increase 350% by 2050 if no cure is found.
    • What this means to me: These are topics I will provide extra information and tools on
  • More senior women with disabilities than men (source)
    • Data Found: Older women were more likely than older men to experience disability, 43 percent and 40 percent, respectively
    • What this means to me:  I will put a little more emphasis on targeting senior women on my site, with articles and tools specifically geared to women.
  • Top geographic locations where seniors are (source)
    • Data Found: Florida, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia were the states with the highest proportions 65 and older in 2000: 17.6 percent, 15.6 percent, and 15.3 percent, respectively
    • What this means to me:  I can provide local information like pharmacies, doctors,  caregivers, nursing homes, etc with those primary areas highlighted. I can also target PPC ads in those geographic locations.
  • Retirement info for single seniors (source)
    • Data Found: Fewer [seniors] who are married with children from a previous relationship and single females have a clear vision of what they hope to experience in—and what they must do to prepare for—retirement.
    • What this means to me:  Provide advice column content on retirement, especially geared towards these seniors.
  • Caregivers are a secondary target (source)
    • Data Found: 34 million adults (16% of population) provide care to adults 50+ years.
    • What this means to me:  I might want to consider a section and/or tools/and/or articles targeted at people taking care of seniors as well.
  • Potential advertising partners (source)
    • Data Found: Forty-eight percent of caregivers reported using at least one of seven outside services (e.g., transportation, home-delivered meals, respite, etc.) to supplement their caregiving
    • What this means to me: These outside services are good targets for partnerships and advertising for the site.

This was all free information I found online in less than an hour, that gives me some great ideas for content, partnerships and potential tools to build into my site to be relevant and useful to my target audience. Of course this is just some quick loose data, so I’ll emphasize again: be careful where your data comes from (try to validate when possible), and think about how to use your data wisely.


Each of these discoveries is potential content or strategy, and should be written up in your SEO Strategy document. Provide as much data and reasoning as possible for why you recommend this content.

See the screenshot below for some of the sections for specific recommendations that you can add which will provide the meat of the document. Keep in mind this is a very flexible document – add recommendations that make sense (for example you may not always have specific design considerations for a project). Remember, it will be different every time you do it.

For each piece of content you are recommending, try to provide:

  1. Backup Data: Provide information backing up why this content will appeal to your audience
  2. Specifics: Be as specific as you can with your recommendations.  For example if you’re suggesting partnering with meal home delivery sites, find out which ones are going to provide the most relevant info, at what cost if possible, and what the ideal partnership would look like for content and SEO purposes.  Even provide contact information if you can.


This doesn’t have to be completely formalized right now because we’ll be getting even more insights to layer on top of this from our keyword research and competitive research in later steps.  But add as much information as possible for now – you can always add more, change it or even change your mind and get rid of it later.  We will finalize recommendations in Step 5.


In the next article we’ll take a look at some methods for doing categorized keyword research that allows you to further prioritize content based on the popularity of categories of keywords.

In the meantime, do you have any suggestions, insights, tool recommendations or great places to find market research data or create personas?  Please share!

Data Driven From MOZ

How to Write Better Copy While Barely Trying: 6 Foolproof Tips

How to Write Better Copy While Barely Trying: 6 Foolproof Tips

How to Write Better Copy While Barely Trying: 6 Foolproof Tips

I was in a client meeting recently when I found myself tuning out the conversation and becoming increasingly distracted. It wasn’t by anything happening outside or even an odd outfit in the room, but by the typos I kept finding on a new client’s current website.

My colleague was speaking on how we’d fix it and all I could do was go page-by-page, grimace-by-grimace through the website wondering why this was happening. Why hadn’t anyone fixed this yet?

Despite what some experts will tell you, people do still read on the Web. Therefore, the copy on your website matters.

The copy you use in ads, in video scripts, in blog posts, and in infographics matters. Your customers are reading and hearing your words and making judgments on whether they can trust you and what kind of business you are based on the words you use.

Present the right image by writing better copy.

1. Write for Your Audience

There are many reasons why, as a business, you need to understand your audience. Doing so will help in every step of your marketing process, but most especially in writing copy.

Great content is content written to make your customers feel smart. It solves their problems, addresses their needs, and does so in a way that makes sense to them. It doesn’t hawk your product or use language designed to make you look like an expert while making them feel dumb.

To write content that is targeted toward your audience you must understand:

  • Who are they?
  • What do they want?
  • What do they need?
  • What pain are they experiencing?
  • How do they find solutions?

Once you know this, you can write for your audience, based on where they are in their educational process – not content that is over their head or not advanced enough for their needs.

2. Master the Opening

What’s the important part of any content piece?

Well, the headline. But after the headline? It’s the lead sentence.

The purpose of your lead sentence is to get someone to read the rest of what you’ve written. If you can hook them right then, you can pull them through the rest of the content. If you don’t, you’ve lost them.

A good lead sentence gets the reader into the content quickly. It may be posed as:

  • A personal experience
  • A bold statement
  • A problem that needs a solution
  • An opinion
  • A riddle
  • An announcement
  • A quotation

Whatever form it takes, it is engaging. It is compelling. And it pulls the reader into the rest of the piece.

3. Write About What’s at Stake

You’re writing landing page copy for a product you’ll be releasing next month. Great. You write about how the product works, its features, the colors the product comes in, how it bends, how it moves, how much the product weighs, and the songs it sings when you press the blue button on its head.

This is all valuable information. But if you’re telling your customer this story (the story about what your product does), you’re telling them the wrong story. Instead, tell them what’s at stake – the benefit they’ll experience if they buy your product and, just as important, what they’ll miss out on if they don’t buy it.

  • If you’re selling a new coffee pot, it’s not about how quickly this pot will brew your coffee; it’s about how faster coffee means more morning time spent on your deck talking to your spouse.
  • If you sell electronics, it’s not about the size of the television screen; it’s about how many people you can crowd around to enjoy the big game.

Use your content to show people what’s at stake and what they’re risking by not acting now. We all suffer from FOMO. Use it.

4. Present a Complete Story

I don’t mean present a story in the sappy “show your customers who you are” way. But in the more technical “your copy needs an arc” way. Whether it’s a landing page, your home page, or an animated explainer video, your content needs a recognizable structure that your customers (and your marketing team) can follow.

It should look something like this:

Scene One: We meet the protagonist. [Look at this cute puppy.]
Scene Two: We meet the problem or the situation. [The puppy is at an animal shelter.]
Scene Three: We meet what’s at stake. [The puppy will die if you don’t adopt it.]
Scene Four: We meet the solution. [Rescue the puppy.]

That doesn’t mean your homepage needs to be a novel in length, but it should include these elements. It should identify the problem, show the benefit of taking action, showing what the correct action is, and then make it easy for the customer to act.

5. Write. Then Edit. Then Write Again.

Writing copy is a process and it can be hard. Commit to your vomit draft – or that first draft you use to spill out every idea, every phrase, every benefit point, and every idea you want to try. Write it out and let yourself keep writing it out without interruption.

When you’re finished, then edit. Do not write and edit at the same time. It breaks your process, stifles your creativity, and ruins any chance you have of working up a good flow for the content to come pouring out. Commit to that vomit draft and its potential.

Once it’s out, then you can go back and check your copy for things like:

  • Redundant sentences or ideas.
  • Bad grammar.
  • Unnecessary use of the word “that”. [If the sentence reads properly without it, you don’t need it.]
  • Adjectives that say nothing.
  • Sentences that say nothing.
  • Wimpy language.
  • Awkward phrasing.
  • Anything you stumble on when reading out loud.

Editing is important, but not while you’re writing.

6. Cut Out the Jargon

Yes, I know we just discussed the importance of editing, but this needs to be stated: Cut the crap. I mean, the jargon.

The only thing your state-of-the-art, groundbreaking, holistic, results-oriented groked product is doing is losing everyone currently reading your copy. As humans, we don’t take to that.

We shouldn’t be writing copy other people won’t absorb. And we wouldn’t have to if we understood our audience and understood what they wanted, who they are, and why our product or service is a match. If we knew that we wouldn’t have to rely on words that take up space but ultimately say nothing.

Your copy matters, whether it’s a script, a page, or a social media update. The copy you write is your opportunity to connect with a customer, to break through the noise, and to create an impression in a customer’s top of mind. Don’t waste the opportunity with weak words.

Source:  Lisa Barone

Conversion Settings Can be Imported From Google Analytics to AdWords

New Conversion Settings Can be Imported From Google Analytics to AdWords

New Conversion Settings Can be Imported From Google Analytics to AdWords

Google AdWords has announced new conversion settings for advertisers that allow you to import goals-related data from Google Analytics directly into your AdWords account, and edit the data within.

First, you can set specific conversion windows for anywhere between seven and 90 days. This allows you to look at your conversion data related specifically to the type of product you’re selling, whether it’s a purchase that someone generally takes a long time to decide, or something that has a much shorter decision window or an impulse buy. It’s currently set to 30 days by default.

Additionally, flexible conversion tracking can now be applied to conversions imported from Google Analytics. For example, you can now differentiate your conversions, such as sales counting, as separate conversions from your leads. You could also use it to track unique conversions against all conversions.

Lastly, editable conversion values allow different members of your online marketing team to set different values for goals and transactions that are imported from Google Analytics, without it changing values within Analytics. This will allow PPC managers to better optimize their goals without it affecting the social or organic search teams who are using that same data within Google Analytics.

None of the above changes will affect the numbers that are being reported within Google Analytics, however, it is worth noting that conversions may be reported differently when comparing conversions in Google Analytics versus conversions within Google AdWords.

These changes are now live for all advertisers.

Source : Search Engine Land

Google Panda 4.0 | Complete Detail about Panda 4.0

Is eBay A Big Loser In Google’s Panda 4.0 Update? — Winners & Losers Data



Yesterday, Google began rolling out their Panda 4.0 update designed to punch low-quality content. That’s generated both “winners” who have moved up in rankings as “losers” have dropped down — and eBay might be one of the big losers.

Searchmetrics gave us their initial winners and loser charts, based on rankings they continually monitor. These show that one of the biggest losers was eBay. According to the data, eBay lost a tremendous amount of traffic from Google, much of it from the area of its site.

Another huge loser was, yes, the search engine, that lost a tremendous amount of traffic in their Questions section at

The Losers:, eBay, & Google-Backed RetailMeNot

Among the top losers include,, and I should note, is venture backed by Google’s venture arm. Here is the top list of losers from the Searchmetrics initial analysis:


Here is a chart showing eBay’s UK drop by their main root domain versus the directory from Searchmetrics: in Google UK

Dr. Peter Meyers from Moz also documented with their analytics how much eBay lost with this update. Pete said, “over the course of about three days, eBay fell from #6 in our Big 10 to #25.” Meyers digs deep into the analysis on the Moz blog.


Refugeeks looked at early SEM Rush data, which also showed a steep decline for ebay’s web site in Google. Note, SEMRush will be sending me more data as they work it up at their office. Here is a chart from the UK data:


The Winners

With all algorithm updates, there are also those who win and gain rankings. The big winners seem to be,,, and


The SearchMetrics data is sorted by increase in SEO visibility in absolute numbers, but sorted by percentage (relative).

Only Losers Really Know If They Lost

As we said with the Panda 3.5 Winners & Losers report, lists like this aren’t perfect. The sites above may have had gains and drops for other reasons; less visibility this week because last week they were visible for different news stories, for example.

It’s also worth remembering that this is a sample of search terms. The only way to really know if any update has hurt or helped you is to look at your search-driven traffic from Google, rather than particular rankings or lists like this, which have become popular after Google updates. If you’ve seen a significant increase, you’ve probably been rewarded by it. A big decrease? Then you were probably hit.

More About Panda 4.0

Google Begins Rolling Out Panda 4.0 Now



Google’s Matt Cutts announced on Twitter that they have released version 4.0 of the Google Panda algorithm.

Google’s Panda algorithm is designed to prevent sites with poor quality content from working their way into Google’s top search results.

But didn’t Google stop updating us on Panda refreshes and updates since they are monthly rolling updates? Yes, but this is a bigger update.

Panda 4.0 must be a major update to the actual algorithm versus just a data refresh. Meaning, Google has made changes to how Panda identifies sites and has released a new version of the algorithm today.

Is this the softer and gentler Panda algorithm? From talking to Google, it sounds like this update will be gentler for some sites, and lay the groundwork for future changes in that direction.

Google told us that Panda 4.0 affects different languages to different degrees. In English for example, the impact is ~7.5% of queries that are affected to a degree that a regular user might notice.

Here are the previous confirmed Panda updates, note, that we named them by each refresh and update, but 4.0 is how Google named this specific update:

Panda Update 1, Feb. 24, 2011 (11.8% of queries; announced; English in US only)
Panda Update 2, April 11, 2011 (2% of queries; announced; rolled out in English internationally)
Panda Update 3, May 10, 2011 (no change given; confirmed, not announced)
Panda Update 4, June 16, 2011 (no change given; confirmed, not announced)
Panda Update 5, July 23, 2011 (no change given; confirmed, not announced)
Panda Update 6, Aug. 12, 2011 (6-9% of queries in many non-English languages; announced)
Panda Update 7, Sept. 28, 2011 (no change given; confirmed, not announced)
Panda Update 8, Oct. 19, 2011 (about 2% of queries; belatedly confirmed)
Panda Update 9, Nov. 18, 2011: (less than 1% of queries; announced)
Panda Update 10, Jan. 18, 2012 (no change given; confirmed, not announced)
Panda Update 11, Feb. 27, 2012 (no change given; announced)
Panda Update 12, March 23, 2012 (about 1.6% of queries impacted; announced)
Panda Update 13, April 19, 2012 (no change given; belatedly revealed)
Panda Update 14, April 27, 2012: (no change given; confirmed; first update within days of another)
Panda Update 15, June 9, 2012: (1% of queries; belatedly announced)
Panda Update 16, June 25, 2012: (about 1% of queries; announced)
Panda Update 17, July 24, 2012:(about 1% of queries; announced)
Panda Update 18, Aug. 20, 2012: (about 1% of queries; belatedly announced)
Panda Update 19, Sept. 18, 2012: (less than 0.7% of queries; announced)
Panda Update 20 , Sept. 27, 2012 (2.4% English queries, impacted, belatedly announced
Panda Update 21, Nov. 5, 2012 (1.1% of English-language queries in US; 0.4% worldwide; confirmed, not announced)
Panda Update 22, Nov. 21, 2012 (0.8% of English queries were affected; confirmed, not announced)
Panda Update 23, Dec. 21, 2012 (1.3% of English queries were affected; confirmed, announced)
Panda Update 24, Jan. 22, 2013 (1.2% of English queries were affected; confirmed, announced)
Panda Update 25, March 15, 2013 (confirmed as coming; not confirmed as having happened)


Google Ranking Products By Reviews And Ratings

Google Ranking Products By Reviews And Ratings

The team at CPC Strategy spotted a new test in the Google Product Listing Ads (PLAs) last night. In a search for coffee grinders that was qualified with “best”, the PLAs were shown in order of a  numerical rankings system that appears to be factoring in the quality and quantity of each item’s ratings.

In the screenshot above, notice that #2 ranked Cuisinart Supreme has by far the most reviews at 312, but with a rating of 4 stars it loses out to 5-star rated Capresso Infinity which has 169 reviews. However, the Cuisinart Supreme is still able to outrank three items with 4.5 stars (De Longhi, Breville and Baratza Encore) which each have significantly fewer ratings than the Cuisinart with the Breville and Baratza with fewer than 50 each.

Similarly, looking at the Baratza Encore and Breville Smart, which rank 5th and 6th respectively, each has a rating of 4.5 stars, yet Baratza with 48 reviews ranks ahead of the Breveille with just 30 reviews.

CPC Strategy also noted that the test worked with the qualifier “top” as well and pointed out that the link to the Google Shopping portal says “Shop for top rated coffee grinders on Google” in the results for “best coffee grinders”.

I haven’t been able to replicate the test, yet, but Roman Fitch a retail specialist at CPC Strategy notes that the test seemed to be running on electronics and appliances. So keep your eyes out. We’ve reached out to Google for comment and will provide any update here.

You Should Never Know In Advance Where A Link Is Coming From

You Should Never Know In Advance Where A Link Is Coming From

You Should Never Know In Advance Where A Link Is Coming From

Duane Forrester from Microsoft’s Bing team wrote a blog post today on the official Bing Search blog named 10 SEO myths reviewed. There are many good and obvious points Duane makes in the post but one point he makes about links is very revealing.

Duane wrote:

You should never know in advance a link is coming, or where it’s coming from. If you do, that’s the wrong path.

That obviously means you should not buy links, but it also goes as far as saying that you shouldn’t ask other webmasters to link to you. You shouldn’t do any action at all, that you know, for a fact, will lead to you getting a link from a source.

Technically, if you know that emailing me a story about search topics will lead to you getting a link in our daily SearchCap, that seems like it would be going against what Bing’s Senior Product Manager is saying is allowed.

Or maybe I am looking to much into what Bing wrote?

Build a Social Media Marketing Funnel

Who says social media doesn’t convert? Seth Godin noted: “You can use social media to turn strangers into friends, friends into customers, and customers into salespeople.”

You already know that everyone is on these social sites, so I’m not going to bore you with stats on the number of users each social site has. But did you know that you are 51% more likely to buy a product if you hear good things about it on Facebook? Or, better yet, you are 68% more likely to buy a product if you read about it on Twitter?

Now that you know social media can convert strangers into customers, the next step for you to take is to build a social media marketing funnel. To explain how you can do that, I’ve created an infographic that breaks down the necessary steps.

Social Media Funnels

Build a Social Media Marketing Funnel

Does Google Want to Cut Out AdWords Middlemen?

The launch of Google AdWords and its subsequent rapid growth in the early 2000s helped spawn an entire industry around paid search advertising. The ecosystem that arose includes Google and its advertisers, as well as a slew of agencies, consultants, software platforms, data providers, third party tools and various combinations thereof in between

Almost every change or announcement that Google makes seems to raise the question of which of these middlemen Google may be trying to disintermediate.

Is Google Threatening Paid Search Providers?

When it was recently announced that Google would stop passing search query data via referring URL for paid search clicks, Marin Software was prompted to address whether this posed a serious threat to their management platform business.

They rightly responded that it “would not be that big a deal,” a sentiment RKG’s George Michie also expressed in saying, “This is an annoyance, but in the great scheme of things, it’s not a major problem.”

Just last week, Google’s “Step Inside AdWords” presentation announced a number of new features, including a set of “enterprise-class” reporting, bidding and management tools. This raised similar questions, but unless you were already losing sleep thinking about Google cutting you out of the loop, you’re probably not going to start waking up in cold sweats over this one.

Focusing on digital agencies and bid management platform providers, let’s examine some of the reasons why Google isn’t likely to put us all out jobs soon.

Paid Search Done Well Is Complex & Complexity Is Only Increasing

Too Many Steps (Less is More)

When Enhanced Campaigns was first announced, it was touted as simplifying the management of AdWords campaigns across devices.

While it may have done that (particularly for less-sophisticated advertisers), it also opened up a range of new possibilities for how advanced marketers could take advantage of existing segmentation options such as geography, device, audience lists and time-of-day, and it created a framework upon which additional levels and layers of complexity could be added in the future.

Under the legacy AdWords model, segmenting bids for facets of user context like device and geography meant duplicating campaigns with different settings. If we wanted to set different bids based on mobile vs. desktop, the US state the searcher is in and whether or not the searcher is a returning customer, we would have quickly multiplied the number of necessary campaigns by 200 times.

If we wanted to account for more granular geographies like city or zip code level, or even a radius around a set of locations, the number of campaigns we would need under the old AdWords model could increase by orders of magnitude. This was not manageable, so advertisers had to pick and choose a limited number of high-priority aspects of user context to account for.

More Complexity & More Control

With Enhanced Campaigns, advertisers can now act upon much more of the information we have at our disposal. If we want to adjust bids for a thousand different locations and multiple devices, we can easily add those as modifiers. But, this also introduces the complexity of calculating how all of those modifiers should be set when our performance data is spread so thinly.

This is a problem that agencies and bid management platforms have been working on and solving for over a decade, particularly with respect to predicting the performance of low-traffic keywords, an area with many parallels to predicting the importance of pieces of user context.

Google’s free AdWords bidding tools have only recently even allowed for adjustments based on the value of conversions, and they do not approach the sophistication of the better bid platforms out there, which incorporate many data signals that go well beyond account structure.

While Google could task a team of engineers tomorrow with bringing its free bidding tools up to speed with the best enterprise options, they could have done so a year ago, or five years ago. They don’t seem to be in a rush.

Were they to do so, that would just be one piece of the puzzle though, since even the best tools require smart people at the controls.

Paid Search Is Labor-Intensive & Requires Human Insight

Missing piece of puzzle - why people search (image)It seems much more likely that Google could seriously threaten the paid search software business than the management side. Solving problems algorithmically is in Google’s DNA, but a lot of the work that goes into managing paid search well involves the types of problems where human beings still hold the advantage over computers.

At its core, paid search management is about language, whether it is building out keywords, writing succinct ad copy that will stand out and appeal to users, or even tailoring a feed for Product Listing Ads. A software program, like Google’s Keyword Planner, can scan a URL or crawl an entire domain and generate an extensive list of potential keywords. Most will be good, some will be odd but harmless; but almost invariably, a subset will be downright dangerous.

An analyst can scan a web page and see a product such as an “electric guitar with free amp” and wouldn’t think to run the phrase “free guitars” on broad match. An algorithm just might. That’s a blunt example, but the necessity of understanding the nuances and meaning of language (and using that knowledge predictively) crops up time and again in paid search management. It can be very expensive to drop a computer-generated term list into AdWords, sight unseen, and hope our bidding algorithm will quickly separate the wheat from the chaff.

Even with bidding, human insight and oversight is invaluable. Bidding software is only as good as it’s written, but its effectiveness also depends heavily on the quality of the inputs we feed it.

Does your bidding platform know that Cyber Monday will be December 1st this year, instead of the 2nd like last year? Hopefully, but the paid search analyst sure will. Does your platform know that a product you sell was just touted by a big celebrity and its conversion rate will soar through the roof? Unlikely.

With paid search, or really any marketing technique, we also have to scrutinize the larger strategic questions that no software is going to answer for us. For instance, should we weigh customer lifetime value more heavily, or do we need to see a more immediate return on our investment?  Should we steer our mobile customers to our app even if we take a short-term hit on conversions?

Google may be able to help in this area and the more day-to-day examples above, but it hasn’t been a core strength for them and it would mark a pretty major shift in focus.

Paid Search Isn’t Just Google & It Isn’t An Island Entire Of Itself

Somewhat obviously, even if Google could provide top-notch, free AdWords bidding tools and maybe even manage them as well, advertisers would still need to manage Bing and Yahoo search along with a host of other channels.

Would Google be willing to provide a free tool that worked with Bing Ads? Tough to say. Would advertisers trust Google to allocate spending appropriately across engines? Most probably would, but not all.

Advertisers also use platforms and employ agencies to manage and report on multiple other channels. AdWords may be the single biggest line item in a digital marketer’s expense report, but we also have other display efforts, social, organic search, and CSEs to account for, and typically an attribution scheme that ties them all together.

Concluding Thoughts

Google is a huge company full of smart people; it can do pretty much what it chooses. If they don’t at some point make a big push to cut out some of the middlemen in the AdWords ecosystem, it may speak more to the economics of it all than anything else.

In 2012, the top 233 US search agencies covered by Ad Age’s 2013 Agency Report generated combined revenues of $1.03B. Google generated $21B in US revenues in 2012. Those agencies’ revenues amounted to about 5% of Google’s, which might seem pretty efficient to Google compared to trying to scale up a massive new service delivery business. Rather, they can count on the existing market to produce robust paid search programs and focus instead on their own strengths.

Also, although a reputable agency is not going to push their clients to spend more than they should, the interests of agencies and Google are well-aligned and geared toward seeking out opportunities for growth.

On the management platform side, it’s almost surprising that Google isn’t doing more, but then again, it may just be a tough business. In 2013, Marin Software had revenues of $77.3M dollars, but a net loss of $35.9M. If Google invested more in this space, they would do so to get advertisers to spend more on ads, but Google may again be content to let the market handle it rather than make a large investment themselves.

There’s also no guarantee that advertisers would drop their current tool, thus freeing up budget, even if Google had a comparable free option. Google Analytics is a great tool, but from my experience, most enterprise-level advertisers still use a paid option.

To close, Google’s official headcount stood at a little over 46 thousand in Q1 2014, but the livelihoods of many more are affected by the moves it makes. This includes those of us intermediaries and facilitators in the AdWords ecosystem, as well as the clients we work with. I don’t read recent events as suggesting any tectonic shift is happening soon, but I could be wrong. Thoughts?

SEO Check List 2014

Business SEO

Business SEO

12 Other Google Update Checks

1. Titles and Descriptions

Titles and descriptions still remain one of the most misunderstood items on any site and they are still as important as ever. Know what these mean and how to write each properly. Make sure you don’t have duplicates, ones that are too long or over-optimized tags.

2. Anchor Text

Is your anchor text over-optimized with keywords? Are you using keywords when domain names should be used? What is the natural way someone would link to your site? This counts with inbound links as well as internally. Beware of over-optimized and overused keyword anchor text.

3. Links – Inbound & Outbound

Run a link check. How do your inbound links look? The threshold for spammy links was about 80 percent, it is now down to about 50 percent. That means 50 percent questionable links can keep your site or a page out of the index.

Know your link profile.

Using outbound links, make sure you are not sending out link juice on ad links, but still make sure you are doing some links offsite. Google doesn’t like it when you hoard that link power all for yourself. Share with worthwhile sites, but never with ad links.

4. Links Cross or Triangulate

Sometimes by accident even, sites crosslink to other sites they own or partner with that site while sitting on the same IP addresses or C classes. Do you know if yours do? If they do, delink your sites or put rel=nofollow on those links, or Google may think you are attempting to put up a link network of your own.

Remember, Google can’t discern intent, so the appearance of impropriety is all that you need to give yourself a penalty.



5. Page Speed

Google likes to say page speed is a small factor for websites and maybe for some industries this is the case, but in others our experience shows it isn’t. This only makes sense. For Google, faster loading sites lower the load on Google’s end, so take the page speed tool, check your site, and get it above a 90 percent if you can. That seems to be the magic threshold for most.

6. User-Generated Content Spam

User-generated content spam on your site is directly linked to a penalty now at Google. (Heard about Sprint’s latest fiasco?)

It doesn’t take a lot to indicate to Google “No One is Home” keeping an eye on things.

Make sure you have checked your blogs and comment areas for things like multiple https or for words such as “free shipping” with a database crawler or in Google with “words go here” and see, is someone scamming you?

Note: If the spammers are very good you may not be able to see it without a Google search.

7. Redirects

Get a tool like Screaming Frog and check your site pages for redirects then make sure those redirected pages have a 301 permanent redirect, which tells Google the page has been permanently moved and it should keep following it.

It’s rare you need a different type of page redirect and if you do, then remove the page from the index with a noindex tag in the header. (There are rare cases where this won’t be the case, this is just the general rule.)

Also make sure you have your canonicals in place and that they are correct. This should go without saying, but not all sites do it.

8. Over-Optimization on Non-Content Items

A common type of over-optimization happens in the navigation, the header or footer.

This is where someone either adds a keyword to every (or almost every) word to try to rank for the term or where someone adds an overabundance of header or footer links to “help” a site position for known keywords. This won’t help and is likely to give the site a penalty.

9. Alt Attributes

How are you using the alt attribute on your images? Don’t stuff keywords into this text. Using good alt text, especially when images are replacing text in links, can be very good for a site. In fact, Google will treat this alt text as actual text in these cases.

SEO Content Strategy

SEO Content Strategy

10. Ad Issues

Google doesn’t like it when a site seems to only be there to support the ads on it, so an overabundance of above the fold ads can cause the site to receive a penalty.

What is too much? Google is a little obtuse about this, but find out what is above the fold for your screen size (not your screen, but the site screen size), then hold up a post it note, if it takes up more space than the note, it is probably too large.

11. Crawl Issues

When is the last time you got into your Webmaster Tools and checked how your crawls were going? How is your crawl rate? Are the spiders having any crawl issues?

We once had a client who had 28k crawl errors. These will affect your site strength and authority with the “No One Is Home” devaluations. So keep an eye on your crawl rate and if it is not crawling well, find out why as quickly as possible and fix it!

12. Malware or Rogue Sites

For the most part, we’re fortunate that Google will email us and tell you that you have malware on your site – but be careful: this isn’t always the case. Periodically you want to do a search for your site, see if you trigger malware warnings in a site search or mobile, then check your analytics to make sure no one is running anything untoward on your site like say a rogue Viagra site. If you want to see how prevalent this is, go to Google search and put in “.gov” Viagra.

Not only can these sites be doing things on your site that could be causing you “hack” issues, but also sending links to their pages on your site causing your link profile to be damaged.

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