Alternatives to SEO Rank Checkers

[pullquote]How do I know if my search rankings reports are accurate? You don’t. Move on.[/pullquote]A friend pinged me this morning asking about alternatives to using the SEOMoz Pro rank checking tool. The reported results were not the same as they were seeing when manually searching.

Even when logged out of Google and with a clear cache and no cookies, Google is still personalizing search results for each user based on the search history of each IP address and your geographic location.

This question is increasingly common for people reporting rankings to their SEO clients. As mentioned before, I am NOT IN FAVOR of relying solely on search rankings. There are plenty of other, more meaningful metrics.

Here’s my response, which I felt was worth sharing:

For consistency reasons (and time constraints), I’ve stopped using rankings as an indicator of SEO results.

When I do look at them, I use SEOMoz Pro and WebPosition (webposition.com). There’s no way around the IP-level personalization that I’ve found that still simulates real-life search patterns.

Using 2 data sources gets you a couple different data points. They hardly ever match, so I look at trends over several months and not particular data points from an exact moment in time.

Try reporting on organic, non-branded keyword visits and the number/type of unique landing pages from that traffic segment. If you have conversion data, all the better. Rankings are meaningless unless you are actually attracting qualified traffic and generating sales/leads/whatever. The landing pages reports show how much of your content is exposed in search engines, and where you might be missing opportunities to attract new visitors by focusing on some internal pages or sections.

It’s a lot more work, but I’ve found that clients appreciate tangible results in addition to (or instead of) showing rankings. Anything that keeps the SEM industry more accountable and transparent is a good thing, in my mind.

Ready For Less Useful SEO Traffic Metrics?

Google’s big on privacy these days. It’s no surprise, considering the blowback they’ve received on Google Buzz and their impending antitrust investigations.

Even so, I was a very surprised to hear Google announce that they are going to stop reporting which keywords drove traffic to sites in Google Analytics if the searcher A) is logged into Google, and B) clicks on a link to your site in the organic search results.

The goal is to make searching more secure. Google suggests this will only impact a small percentage of visitors, but the ramifications extend beyond Google.com and affect anybody that relies on Google Analytics.

How It Works

To protect Google users’ privacy, Google will encrypt the data transfer between their browser and Google. This makes it harder for somebody to capture and “read” your data as it is transmitted from your computer to Google and back.

Bad For SEO And CRO

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is complicated enough, but when Google removes some crucial keyword data from the Google Analytics, it becomes much harder to analyze results and know what is working (and what isn’t).

To help you better identify the signed in user organic search visits, we created the token “(not provided)” within Organic Search Traffic Keyword reporting. You will continue to see referrals without any change; only the queries for signed in user visits will be affected. Note that “cpc” paid search data is not affected.

[pullquote]This can hurt a site when every 0.1% matters.[/pullquote]The real concern is for those people focused on Conversion Rate Optimization. Some data will be missing, which means that conversion rates at the keyword level won’t be as valid.

Even though I don’t do much SEO work for clients these days, the organic search traffic data is extremely valuable for planning, managing, and optimizing PPC campaigns. It helps us define a campaign structure and set initial bids for new advertisers. PPC data, when compared to SEO data for the same keywords, can really improve campaign efficiency and effectiveness.

Boon For PPC?

Despite the drawbacks for SEO folks, marketers can look at this as just one more reason to invest in PPC.

From the Google.com blog post describing the change:

If you choose to click on an ad appearing on our search results page, your browser will continue to send the relevant query over the network to enable advertisers to measure the effectiveness of their campaigns and to improve the ads and offers they present to you.

Markets always seek efficiency. If PPC marketers can demonstrate greater efficiency than SEO because they have more data, rational companies will invest where they can get the greatest return.

(CC photo credit)

Landing Page Quality Matters More Than Ever

Landing Page

A Basic Lead Generation Page

Anybody involved in Pay Per Click (PPC) marketing will tell you that landing pages matter as much, if not more than keywords and ads.

What’s the point of bidding on different keywords if you don’t give your site visitors easy access to the information, products, or services that they searched for?

Google announced this week that landing pages can now positively influence a keyword’s Quality Score. Previously, landing pages would only count against you.

From SearchEngineLand:

Landing page quality has long been a factor in Google AdWords, but more as a negative signal. If an advertiser’s landing page was particularly terrible or misleading, advertisers could have their ads rejected or their accounts suspended or revoked — depending on how bad the policy violation was. The new change will assign landing page quality a positive value, incentivizing advertisers to make sure the landing page’s keywords and content are closely aligned with the keywords for which they’re bidding.

Hooray for Landing Pages

This is great news, especially as the intractable problem of PPC squeezes out smaller advertisers with rising click costs. The only way to compete effectively is to test, measure, and refine your landing page strategy to improve conversion rates and convert more visitors to customers.

I’ve been in favor of this all along, and I’m extremely glad to see Google is finally doing the right thing for its users and advertisers.

Spend (Wisely) Through The Economic Downturn

What’s the best way to weather an economic downturn? For most businesses, the answer usually falls somewhere between “cut expenses” and “grow revenue”.

Just like a household budget, business owners must pay more attention to where, how, and why we spend our money if we hope to survive and emerge from the slowdown in a position to grow and prosper.

The Role of Digital Marketing in a Down Economy

If the previous 10 years have taught us anything, it’s that digital technologies have enabled massive shifts in consumer behavior. As advertisers, we must follow the consumer and adapt to their needs and media consumption habits.

Your customers have more technology, more ways to share opinions, and more influence than ever before. Thanks to these same omnipresent and “always on” digital channels, marketers have more ways to reach the right people with the right time with the right message. Fortunately, for each new medium that emerges, there are ways to measure, refine, and optimize the message in nearly real-time.

In a down economy, the direct, targeted, measurable nature of digital marketing takes on increased importance as it allows us to save time and money compared to more traditional advertising channels.

Pay Per Click Advertising: Direct, Targeted, Measurable

Given the range of advertising options available, PPC represents the purest, most efficient way to reach your potential customers at the exact moment they are researching or searching for your products or services: when they type what they are looking for into a Google (or Yahoo or Bing) search box.

Thanks to the real-time nature of PPC auctions, multiple ad messages can be tested simultaneously to determine which offers generate the best response. Campaigns can be “optimized” for greater efficiency simply by turning off or tweaking the underperforming ads and allocating more budget to the ads that are most likely to result in a sale, lead, or other conversion event.

Finally, PPC campaigns generate a lot of data. This data should not just be viewed and thrown away, it needs to be analyzed to determine which combinations of keywords, ads, and targeting options generate the best return for each dollar spent. For example, AdWords campaign results can be merged with Google Analytics data to identify more lucrative audience segments. For example, searchers on mobile devices may respond differently than their desktop counterparts and should be treated differently.

Tying It All Together

Unfortunately there is no quick fix for a slow economy. It’s going to hurt some people more than others, but all of us are affected one way or another. But a slow economy does not stop people from using technology or engaging in digital activities.

The best we, as marketers, can do is find ways to “spend less” and “earn more”. By investing at least some of your marketing dollars in a direct, targeted, measurable advertising medium such as Pay Per Click, your business can reap the benefits of improved efficiency and effectiveness while saving money.

If you would like to know whether or not your business is a good candidate for a PPC campaign on Google, Yahoo, or Bing, try searching for the products or services that you offer. Do you see your competitors’ ads showing up? Chances are not all of them are blindly throwing money into Google’s already deep pockets. They must be realizing some quantifiable level of return, right?

CC Photo Credit

Web Listings, Inc – SEO Scam?

If I sent you a letter saying you needed to pay $65 per year to get your house listed with the Post Office, would you pay it? NO, you’d toss it in the trash and possibly file a complaint with the FTC.

If you have a website, chances are you’ve received a solicitation from Web Listings Inc. that is designed to trick you into thinking it’s an invoice.

So why do people pay them to submit their websites to search engines that already know they exist?

Web Listings, Inc.

Web Listings, Inc.

 Look closely. If you read the fine print, it says, “This is not a bill. This is a solicitation.” A simple Google search for “Web Listings Inc.” turns up dozens of scam and fraud alerts. It’s common knowledge that search engines have no problem discovering new websites and crawling most types of content. Finally, the top 3 search engines account for 95% of the search volume in the U.S.. There’s no need to submit to 20!

Lessons in Persuasion

So why do people still pay Web Listings Inc. to submit their websites to “20 established search engines”? I think it boils down to three reasons:

  1. People don’t read the fine print. It’s common practice to hide the true terms of a deal in small print.
  2. People don’t properly research a company before doing business with them. It looks official so it must be legitimate, right?
  3. People are motivated by fear of losing their visibility in search engines. Fear of loss is a more powerful motivator than potential gain.

Why I Hate This

It deepens the distrust people have for SEO and our industry in general. It wastes small businesses’ hard-earned money. It adds absolutely no value to a website or business. It preys on people’s fears.

I also hate this because it’s apparent that enough people are still falling for it to remain profitable, and probably wildly so.

Please, research a company before you send them money. Read the fine print. Ask around.

If you still need help, Google it. I’m sure you’ll find a helpful answer from somebody that didn’t pay $65 a year to have their site listed there.

Google Analytics Outage

Just a quick post to bring you up to speed on a situation I’ve been monitoring this week.

Google Analytics, which measures website activity on millions of sites, is in the process of fixing a reporting error within their systems that may have resulted in missing and/or incomplete data in dashboard reports, advanced segments, and Google AdWords integrations since around April 20th.

This may result in lower-than-average conversions or visits to your site.

No data has been lost, it’s just not showing up in the reports for some date ranges and segmented report structures. All reports will eventually be complete and accurate. Their ETA for resolution is 5/24.

You can check their status at any time here, or visit the official Google Analytics blog for updates.

P.S. If you were a client of mine, I would have alerted you about this already via email. Not a client? You can still sign up to receive my client newsletter here.

Measurable SEM Presentation Slides

I had a great time presenting to the AMA Richmond chapter this morning. Huge thanks to Studio Center for hosting and Mike Rose for organizing.

P.S. If you are looking to hire an experienced senior marketing exec, Mike is your man.

P.P.S. The picture on slide 3 is my son…you had to be there.

Illustrated History of Google’s Evolving Algorithm

We know that search engine rankings change (a lot). We know that each update moves some sites up in the rankings while others fall from grace.

But even though this is old news, Aaron Wall at SEOBook.com frequently rants against algorithm changes that affect large numbers of sites (especially his own) while leaving some other offenders unscathed.

Regardless of your opinions, his point is valid. The algorithmic updates sometimes seem to arbitrarily affect some sites more than others with similar characteristics.

But, as Google has always said, it’s their algorithm and they can do whatever they want with it.

Rankings Don’t Matter

The smart marketer doesn’t rely on rankings alone to determine if their SEO efforts are successful. In fact, I recommend NOT relying on search rankings. Check out this post on the SEO metrics that I feel are more relevant than rankings.

Collateral Damage from Algorithm Changes

Aaron’s infographic gives an idea of the “collateral damage” caused by Google’s algorithm changes. Again, you may not agree with everything in it (I sure don’t), but it’s a great visual representation of how the algorithm has evolved.

(click for full-size version on SEOBook.com)

Google's Collateral Damage.

Infographic by SEO Book

25 Free SEM Tools To Survive The Abyss

An AbyssTo the uninitiated, Search Engine Marketing (SEM) can feel like staring into an abyss.

How deep does it go? Where does it start and end? How do I avoid getting swallowed alive? What happens if I get in over my head?

There are countless consultants, companies, and software tools that can help you navigate these waters, but it helps to have a reliable map and a good compass to avoid being lead astray. The following tools are provided by the search engines themselves and are a great head start towards improving your company’s visibility in a wide variety of search results.

Even (especially) if you are planning on hiring somebody else to manage your search engine marketing, you need to familiarize yourself with the tools of the trade.

Search Engine Optimization

Once you verify ownership of your site, search engines will share a lot more inside information about how they view your site and content. The following are must-have tools for any website owner that wants to know how their site is perceived by search engines, any obstacles that their crawlers encounter, and who’s linking to you.

1. Google Webmaster Tools – Shows obstacles uncovered by their crawlers, search queries that your site ranks for, and allows for some control over your site’s appearance in search results.
2. Bing Webmaster – Similar to Google’s tools, but don’t always assume the results will be the same. Each search engines views sites differently, so it’s best to get a “second opinion” from Bing. Also, since Bing now powers Yahoo search results, you can diagnose problems on both engines in one place.
3. Yahoo Site Explorer – Since the Bing/Yahoo alliance began last year, the Yahoo Site Explorer tools have been largely replaced by Bing Webmaster data. However, Yahoo Site Explorer still shares extremely useful inbound link data.

Website Analytics and Testing

Websites are nothing more than digital brochures unless you measure how well they are performing and make changes to improve the results. These tools provide insights into your visitors’ behavior so you can make more informed business decisions.

4. Google Analytics – By far the best web analytics tool on the market for small- medium businesses. It allows you to analyze the “who, what, where, why, when and how” of your website’s visitors. It helps you understand how they got to your site and what they did once they got there. Plus, it’s completely free!
5. Yahoo Web Analytics – While it’s only available to Yahoo advertisers or hosted e-commerce sites, it goes a step beyond Google Analytics to provide demographic and psychographic data about your visitors in real-time.
6. Google Website Optimizer – A free, relatively simple tool to A/B test different elements on a web page (images, text, buttons, forms, etc.) to mathematically determine which combination leads to the highest conversion rates. The numbers don’t lie, and it minimizes the risk of “going with your gut” or assuming that the web designer (or design by committee) nailed it the first time.

E-Commerce Product Listings

You mean people actually buy stuff online? Sure they do! And they frequently start their search on a major search engine. Conveniently, it’s easy (and free) to list your products in their shopping engines.

7. Google Merchant Center – Do you sell products online or in a retail store? Did you know you can list them on Google’s product search engine for free? These results frequently appear in Google’s web search results so you could receive additional free exposure and traffic.
8. Bing Shopping – Upload your products through Microsoft adCenter and your products can appear in Bing and Yahoo search results.

Multimedia Search

Sure, people waste a lot of time online “researching” the latest viral videos. However, if your company has digital content such as photos or videos, a little legwork can make sure potential customers can check out your assets.

9. Flickr – A free photo-sharing website owned by Yahoo that allows members to upload and share their images. If your business or products are highly visual, this can be a great way to build awareness and connect with people searching Flickr or the general web since images frequently show up in web and images search results.
10. YouTube – The world’s largest video-sharing website. Your video content is discoverable by people searching YouTube or presented in Google search results when people search for related keywords. Video can be a powerful sales tool when done right, and picking a distribution channel is an important part of getting it right.
11. Google Images – Insure that photos on your website incorporate SEO best practices to increase the likelihood of them ranking well in Google’s image search engine. This can increase traffic and awareness from highly competitive keywords.
12. Yahoo Image Search – Similar to Google Images, but with better grouping of thematically related images. For example, a search for “Richmond, Virginia” also displays options to view nearby landmarks, neighborhoods and events.
13. Bing Image Search – A more visually appealing layout of image search results that focuses on creating a rich experience for searchers.
14. Yahoo Video – A good source for commercially produced video content with less of a focus on user-generated content than YouTube.

Local Search

Claiming your business’ listings in each of the major search engines insures that your details are accurate and up-to-date. This is especially important as their databases are often pulling from outdated sources. Plus, you can upload photos and videos to make your listings stand out.

15. Google Maps / Google Places
16. Yahoo Local
17. Bing Maps
18. Yelp – A different type of search engine, Yelp is a leader in the customer reviews space. Businesses can claim or create their listings to better manage their listings and promote offers.
19. Reviews Sites & Directories – This is where it gets hairy. There are literally thousands of reviews sites, local directories, and internet yellow pages sites. It is impossible to find and keep track of all of them, but start with the obvious and try to check and update a few each week. Most offer ways to claim or edit your business listing so be sure to fix anything that is wrong. One word of warning, every one will try to up-sell premium listings. You could go bankrupt paying for all of them, so use your judgment (and web analytics reports) to figure out which ones send the highest quality traffic and start there.

News Search Engines

Each of the major search engines crawl news sites and curate their own news search sites. If you are a publisher or media site, you need to insure your content, site maps and data feeds are structured properly to maximize your exposure in news search results, which are also frequently positioned prominently in web search results for timely or newsworthy searches.

20. Google News
21. Yahoo News
22. Bing News

Paid Search Advertising

These technically are not free services, but I cannot overstate their importance. The list of benefits reads like a marketer’s wish list: immediate exposure to people that are searching for your products or services, real-time performance data, accountability, immediate on/off controls, geographic targeting, and relatively simple ROI calculations. I could go on, but the important thing to remember is that paid search is highly effective for those willing to invest the time or money in managing it properly and optimizing for better results.

23. Google AdWords
24. Microsoft adCenter

Bonus Level! Keyword Research

25. Google AdWords Keyword Tool – This is the first stop for most search marketers that need to know how many people search for specific keywords in an average month. By comparing keyword variations (plurals, synonyms, geographic modifiers, etc.), marketers can determine where to allocate their SEO and SEM resources. It’s free, but the data provided are invaluable.

Utilizing these (mostly) free search engine tools, any company can improve its standings in search results and attract more qualified visitors to its website.

The biggest mistake I see people making when embarking on a search marketing journey is putting all their eggs in one basket. Don’t fall victim to the temptation to focus only on Google, or ignore the traffic-driving potential of your other digital assets.

How many of these tools have you used? What would you add to this list?

(CC Photo Credit: Landfeldt on Flickr)

Rankings Don’t Matter and Other SEO Metrics

Visits increased last month! Visitors spent more time on the site and viewed more pages per visit.

Congratulations!

What do you do with that information? If you’re stumped, please keep reading. If you never get past your Google Analytics dashboard, please keep reading. If you still refer to website visits as “hits”, please keep reading.

The Most Costly Mistake Website Owners Make

There are countless ways to spend your marketing dollars. It doesn’t matter which tactics you deploy, the biggest mistake you could make is not measuring how well each marketing dollar performs.

I’m not just talking about overall visits, page views or time on site. The most important metrics are based on outcomes, such as a lead form completion, phone call, e-commerce transaction, or white paper download.  These are the visitor actions that actually propel your business forward and generate sales. We call them “conversion events” or simply “goals”.

How to Measure SEO Campaigns

SEO campaigns are a bit trickier to measure than a normal advertising campaign. It can be hard to tell what constitutes a successful SEO strategy, but we have a few tricks that will help you understand how effective your efforts are.

[pullquote]Trends are the best indicator of success.[/pullquote]Trends are the best indicator of success. When possible, look at data over a period of weeks, months, or years to compare to previous performance rather than just focusing on one data point.

Metric 1: Organic, Non-Branded Visits

Let’s break this down. “Organic” visits are simply clicks from a search engine’s primary search results, not the sponsored links. “Non-Branded” refers to clicks on keywords that don’t contain your company name or other clues that could indicate the visitor already has some awareness of your company and was seeking you specifically.

For example, Bob’s Used Autos in Miami would want to increase traffic from non-branded keywords such as “used car dealers in Miami”. An increase in searches for “Bob’s Used Autos in Miami” might indicate his TV ads are helping build awareness, but the non-branded traffic is purely incremental.

To track this metric, filter your Traffic Sources > Keywords report by “non-paid” visits:

Non-Paid Visits

Next, exclude your brand names in the Keyword Filter at the bottom of the list:

Filter Keywords

Finally, you’ll have an accurate count of organic, non-branded search visits:

Non-Paid Filtered Keywords

Advanced Tip: Set up an Advanced Segment to make this analysis easier in the future, and to compare goal conversion rates for this segment against branded terms, PPC traffic and other sources.

Metric 2: Unique Landing Pages

To get an idea of how Google values your content, you’ll want to know how many unique pages are receiving organic, non-branded traffic. This is a great indicator of how many pages rank well enough in Google to get clicks.

If your site has 10,000 product pages, wouldn’t you want to know if only 100 of them are getting any traffic from your SEO campaigns?

To track this metric in Google Analytics, use the Content > Top Landing Pages report and change your Advanced Segments to Non-paid Search Traffic:

Advanced Segments

Now, your Top Landing Pages report will show your most popular landing pages for organic search traffic:

Top Landing Pages

Spend some time reviewing this list and looking for gaps in your site structure. You might be able to identify pages or sections of your site that are noticeably absent.

Over time, you can use this report to see if Google is sending traffic to more of your pages as your search visibility improves. If not, re-consider your SEO strategy and focus on filling in the gaps.

Advanced Tip: Compare bounce rates on your top landing pages to identify pages where visitors land but immediately leave without clicking deeper into your site. Are you missing any opportunities to convert them into customers?

Metric 3: Goal Conversion Rates

Traffic is good, but conversions are the real reason your site exists. If your site isn’t converting visitors into customers efficiently, you may be wasting money and missing opportunities to grow your business, lead pipelines, or ad revenue.

Website objectives depend on your business objectives.  If you need sales leads, measure lead form completions and track phone calls. If you sell products online, measure your e-commerce transaction rates and ROI. Whatever it is, it can be measured.

If you don’t know how to measure your desired outcomes, consider hiring a web analytics consultant to configure your site to track these events and design a simple reporting structure that shows you the information you need to make more informed business decisions.

By comparing the conversion rates from your organic, non-branded search visits over time, you can see whether or not your SEO efforts are attracting higher quality traffic in addition to (or instead of) higher quantities.  Quality always trumps quantity.

Advanced Tip: Assign dollar values to goals that don’t necessarily generate direct revenue so you can measure the impact of your traffic sources and compare them apples-to-apples. For example, if 10% of the people who download your white paper become customers, and a new customer is worth $100 to your business, assign a goal value of $10.

Wait, What About Search Rankings?

[pullquote]Search rankings are best considered an ego metric.[/pullquote]Search rankings are best considered an ego metric. You noticed I didn’t even mention search rankings as an SEO metric? I don’t think rankings matter anymore. Given the highly personalized, geo-targeted, socially-influenced rankings that Google and Bing provide today, no two people see the same search results in the same order.

Try searching for a keyword from your office computer and compare it to results you see at home. Search while logged into Google and when logged out. Compare your search results pages to your office-mates. They will be tailored to each person’s search history and preferences.

Higher rankings make us feel better, but if traffic, sales and other metrics are not improving, your business is no better off in position 1 than position 100.

In Conclusion

Sales matter. Leads matter. Total visits and rankings are fun to look at but provide no real insight into how well your website is performing. Focus on the metrics that drive your business and adjust your strategies to continually improve them.