Sunday, March 30, 2014

Mobile SEO in 2014: What You Need to Know

Think about the last time you performed a Google search. Did you perform your search on a desktop or laptop? Or did you perform your search on a mobile phone?

As of 2013, mobile-obsessed Americans spent an average of two hours each day on their devices, and up to 25% of all searches were performed on a mobile device. These statistics and more were collated earlier this year by Search Engine Journal in its fascinating infographic, "The 2014 Mobile Landscape: 25 Statistics That Will Drive The Future of Mobile Marketing."

Among the many intriguing stats, Search Engine Journal also offered this tidbit:

"The mobile market will generate 35% more spending by 2015 compared to 2012: $400 billion versus $139 billion."

This growth is no surprise to the SEO industry, yet we believe mobile SEO might just upend conventional notions of traditional SEO. A key aspect of the recent algorithm update, for example, is Google's acknowledgment that more and more people are using voice command for search--a trend inspired, of course, by the mobile voice command systems like Siri.

Hummingbird will effect up to 90% of Google's results (source: Search Engine Watch), and was made to accommodate not only the recent increase of voice-based searches but more complex searches. As the USA Today noted in its article about the new algorithm:

"The change comes as people become more comfortable asking long, complex questions when they use Google to search the Web, rather than single words or simple phrases...Google is also making the change to ensure its search results work well with voice-based queries. When people speak, rather than type on a computer, they use more complex phrases..."

Although the algorithm update was meant to optimize mobile search, the emphasis on the evolving use of voice search and the increasing use of more complex questions will profoundly influence traditional search.

It's important to note, though, both of these trends were inspired by the mobile market. Most voice search occurs on mobile devices, and as the USA Today notes, "When people speak, rather than type on a computer, they use more complex phrases..."

So what does this mean for your SEO strategy? Well, hopefully you have a mobile SEO strategy distinct from your traditional SEO strategy. Although mobile SEO is in its infancy, it is certainly a distinctive discipline.

Last month Forbes published a helpful guide to mobile for SEO, "How to Master Mobile SEO in 2014." And recently,  mobiThinking published a very helpful article: "Mobile SEO Best Practices for 2014." Both articles will give you a helpful primer on mobile SEO.

Among Forbes' suggestions for optimizing your mobile SEO, a few can be enacted easily right now. Make sure you ensure "dependable, accurate pages," for example, by paying attention to the basics:
  • When embedding videos and images, check to ensure they play correctly on mobile devices. 
  •  Make sure your redirects go to the right mobile page (preferably the right page instead of just your home screen, which is annoying for any user). 
  •  Avoid having any type of mobile 404 or unavailable content. 
  •  Make sure no interstitial, click-to-leave ads appear on mobile sites, even if they appear on desktops.
Some of the other suggestions in the article, including "responsive design" and "dynamic serving"  might seem a bit esoteric to the SEO layperson, but they're no less important. To navigate the new rules of mobile SEO, you might just need to hire an SEO specialist.

We write the Organic SEO Blog to offer valuable information that can a) help you perform your own SEO, and b) help you find the best SEO specialist.

Read our articles. Empower yourself with knowledge!

Now, the web abounds with SEO specialists who can help you navigate the tricky maze of mobile search! The key is discovering an honest, ethical specialist who understands the evolving nature of SEO. Take heart, though. If you own a website, and you see the importance of mobile SEO, you do not need to feel overwhelmed by the evolving market.

Our suggestions? Do what you can on your own, and then call a professional, like Alex Stepman of Stepmans PC.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Google Algorithm News: Will Search Get Easier for Small & Local Sites?

At the recent Search Marketing Expo, SMX-West, the head of Google's Webspam team, Matt Cutts, announced an update to the Panda algorithm that might boost the visibility of small businesses.

Since September, when Google announced its latest major algorithm update, Hummingbird, we've discussed the new changes quite frequently. Yet, it's important to acknowledge that a site's performance on Google is never entirely determined by one algorithm change.

Some SEO newbies might assume that Hummingbird is an altogether new algorithm that necessarily replaced the old algorithm. In fact, Google's algorithm is an enormous beast that accommodates all updates. So Hummingbird, and Panda and Penguin co-exist simultaneously. Why? Well, each deals with entirely different issues.

We've discussed Hummingbird in detail. Panda, its algorithm predecessor, was released in February, 2011, with the purpose of penalizing what Google perceived to be "low-quality" sites with excessive advertising and minimal content. While Google's intentions might've been admirable, the update itself had a few inadvertent side-effects.

Panda was supposed to battle "content farms," websites that hire freelance workers to produce articles with the explicit purpose of satisfying the algorithm. These websites often boast enormous amounts of ads and offer very little in return. Of course, the Internet s better without these sites.

Unfortunately, while battling the content farms, other sites without perceived "authority"--defined in many ways, but most notably by well-written, quality content--were also damaged.

Most notably, Panda seemed to penalize small businesses in favor of brand name sites, placing undue emphasis on Amazon and the like for nearly every product search. Smaller sites just couldn't compete, even if they offered equal/or better products at equal/or better prices.

Most troublesome, however, was how the update effected local sites and services like beauty salons or plumbers. Many browsers have experienced the frustration of searching for a local spot to get a good haircut only to discover a first page jammed with national brands, like Supercuts.

Now, we all might live near a Supercuts, but most of us would prefer to learn about truly local beauty salons--and Google's Panda wasn't doing a great job of revealing this information.

Of course, a more specified local search could help refine the results. We might search "Ambler Hair Salon" instead of merely "hair salon." But we expect Google to be smarter, don't we? And the reality is that many people still do not always specify places when searching. We want Google to reveal the most relevant results for each browser. So when I, living in Philadelphia, search "beauty salon" it will be completely different from when my cousin, living in Encino, searches the same term.

Last year Google acknowledged this problem.

And now Google is making the change, apparently, to help small businesses. Cutts did not say when this change would take place. So stay tuned for more news on this update. In the meantime, if you own a small or local business, now is the perfect time to optimize your site for search engine performance. Upgrade your content. Improve your site's speed. Make a change.

If you need some guidance, please refer to our series of tutorials, beginning with our popular article, "Building a Website? Read This First!"

Or please contact our sponsor, Alex Stepman, of Stepmans PC.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

On Algorithm Bias & the Important Work of Organic SEO

Recently we offered five simple Facebook algorithm hacks to increase your Facebook profile's views, likes, and shares. When we wrote the title for that post, we paused at the word, "hacked." Did we really want to associate with a word that has come to define entire fields, like life hacking or bio hacking, known explicitly for trendy tips and tricks?

After all, SEO is not about tricks and tips. It's about the real work of matching unique browsers with unique content--work that we admire, and which our sponsor, Alex Stepman, has always advocated as the true job of an SEO specialist. And this work is all about the algorithms. Yes, beyond the word "hack," the true operative word in that post (and really for the entire SEO world) is "algorithm."

From Facebook to Netflix, most major websites structure algorithms to streamline the site's core functions. Facebook uses its algorithm, for example, to highlight certain types of posts, while Netflix's algorithm attempts to match users and movies.

An algorithm is simply a formula for solving a problem. And of course, algorithms determine much more than a site's core functions. But when we talk about algorithms, we tend to talk "big problems." For Google, for example, the "problem" is search--how to connect websites and people. For Facebook, the "problem" is sociability--how to inspire people to share. For Netflix, the problem is predicting people's movie tastes (a problem that many believe Netflix has yet to solve).

When we talk about algorithms we also tend to talk about cold precision--as if the algorithms are purely mathematical, and neutral.

This weekend at SXSW in Austin, Gilad Lotan from the startup incubator Betaworks and Kelly McBride from The Poynter Institute disputed this notion of "algorithm neutrality," in a discussion about how algorithms influence what news stories we see and how this influence effects democracy. 

McBride writes about the subject quite elegantly on Poynter.org:

"Algorithms control the marketplace of ideas. They grant power to certain information as it flies through the digital space and take power away from other information...

This used to be the job of editors, whom we described as gatekeepers. Those editors were flawed human beings, biased by their own perspectives. And it was hard to hold them accountable because their process for making decisions was a private one.

But algorithms are by their very nature biased, meant to give priority to some information and de-emphasize other information. And it’s even harder to determine the biases of an algorithm than it is to determine the biases of a human editor.

If you’re concerned with democracy, you’re in favor of holding algorithms accountable for their impact on the marketplace of ideas."

The important implication for SEO here is the notion of algorithm bias.

As we noted above, we end to think about algorithms as neutral, but really, although engineers base algorithms on mathematical principles, most of the judgements about those principles are exactly that--judgements, made by biased humans.

To display this bias, Lotan used the example of Twitter's trending topics. In the infancy of Twitter, Justin Bieber's fanatically active fans helped the pop star dominate the worldwide trending topics. For better or worse, Justin Bieber was what people were talking about. But Twitter's engineers tweaked the algorithm to "normalize" the content. As Lotan said at the conference:

"They normalized content…meaning it was much harder for Justin Bieber to trend."

Then McBride added: “Until he gets arrested in Miami and has to pee in front of a camera, and the video is then released. Then Justin Bieber will trend!"

The point here is that algorithms are made by biased humans. And for Lotan and McBride the problem is in that very word, "normalized."

As The Guardian reports in its review of the talk:

"Problems? Maybe. McBride noted that in the 20th century marketplace of ideas, the gatekeepers were editors, who tended to be white middle-class men reinforcing their own ideas about what stories and ideas were important – a problem, initially, for areas like the civil rights and women’s rights movements.

The question now is whether it’s white, middle-class software engineers whose decisions when building their algorithms are having unintended consequences on the kind of news that finds an audience."

Now, SEO is often viewed by its critics as a mere "gaming of the system."

We do not support this view. SEO is not the algorithm's adversary. Recently, in fact, we wrote about how organic SEO and Google can actually function as mutually beneficial partners. Read: "Google & Organic SEO: Dynamic Partners."

And yet, the SXSW talk inspires another view: What if SEO is the algorithms adversary, and SEO specialists are trying to "game" or "hack" the system? Is that so bad?

In light of the "normalized" bias, for example, isn't the SEO specialist's duty similar to the journalist's duty in uncovering the bias of SEO? 

McBride speaks about a recent paper written by Nicholas Diakopoulo for the Tow Center for Digital Journalism: "Algorithmic Accountability Reporting: On the Investigation of Black Boxes."

McBride believes that journalists "are the natural check on powerful algorithms," and she offers this solution to algorithm bias:

"How can journalists demystify algorithms? First by observing and describing how certain algorithms are working. Then by questioning the assumptions. And finally by reverse-engineering those algorithms to force more transparency into the system."

This is precisely the work of the organic SEO specialist. And why does an organic SEO specialist perform this work? To better connect browsers with the most relevant information.

We believe this work is noble.

And in light of the SXSW talk, we simply have one more way to view the hard work of organic SEO. As the organic SEO specialist works to "demystify," he or she is working like a journalist, and trying to make the Internet a more democratic place--a place where the top page of Google is not dominated by those with money or power, but with those who perform the hard work of creating relevant, high quality content.

Hard work is the key here, and isn't that the American Dream, so often recited by President Obama: that prosperity is dependent upon hard work? We believe so. And that is why we honor and respect the practice of organic SEO.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

SEO for Facebook: Five Simple Algorithm Hacks

Regular readers of The Organic SEO Blog might remember our #1 SEO goal for 2014: to create easily-discoverable and easily-shared content. Now, we typically talk about creating easily-discoverable content for search engines. In essence, SEO has always been about connecting brands and browsers, and helping browsers find the most relevant results.

But the principles of SEO can also be applied to social media networks, like Facebook, and by following a few basic tips, you can improve the chances that your social media content will be seen, liked, and shared.

It's no secret that Facebook would like to challenge Google for search engine dominance. As Business Insider recently reported, Mark Zuckerberg believes he has a bigger database than Google. This is a bold proclamation, yet it fits with Zuckerberg's mission to make Facebook "more than any search engine," by adding a more intimate dimension to search--an intimacy Facebook hopes to obtain from over ten years of billions upon billions of status updates and shared photos.

This grand project may take years to develop, but you can see its infancy in Faceook's search engine, Graph Search, and in the News Feed itself. Both try as much as possible to deliver precise results based on user's feedback and previous habit patterns. This is a boon for well-known brands with large audiences, yet it also offers SEO-type opportunity for all brands.

Like Google, Facebook continues to tweak its algorithm to deliver the most relevant results for users. Although Graph Search is not yet the go-to search engine, the News Feed acts like search engine, delivering results uniquely tailored to each user. As Forbes recently reported, Facebook bases its News Feed algorithm on several simple factors:
  • How often you interact with the friend, Page, or public figure.
  • The number of likes, shares and comments a post receives from the world...your friends.
  •  How much you have interacted with this type of post in the past.
  • Whether or not you and other people across Facebook are hiding or reporting a given post. 
So for now, the key to attracting views, likes, and shares on Facebook is understanding the News Feed and how Facebook displays content on the News Feed. Whether you're hoping to increase your personal profile's views, likes, and shares or your brands views, likes, and shares you should always keep in mind the following Facebook algorithm hacks:

1. The most popular type of Facebook post, and the most widely-seen, is the simple text status update. (Yes, despite what seem people say, text is better than photos). If you run your own Facebook Page for your company, you might've even noticed that your text-only posts receive more views ("total reach") than your updates that include links or pictures. Facebook is evolving to favor photos, too, but for now, the best way to attract an audience is the text-only status update.

2. When sharing a link, do not simply embed the link in your update like this:


People are more likely to interact with a link when you use Facebook's link share feature, which makes the same post from above look like this:


3. Now, the link share feature expresses another key point about the News Feed algorithm: the more visually appealing and interactive a post, the better. For brands, this means only posting concise and edited text updates (yes, language can be visually-appealing or not, depending on the quality of the writing) and professional-quality photographs.

4. Inspire engagement with coupons, giveaways, or questions. Valuable coupons and giveaways are an obvious tool for inspiring views, likes, and shares, but don't forget the simplest form of engagement: asking a question. The Nervous Breakdown, a literary site, has perfect the craft of the Facebook question by asking people to be creative in three words. A recent question, for example, asked: "In exactly three words, please describe what you wish you could still do."

5. Don't annoy your fans or friends. Facebook suggests that brands begin engagement with only one or two posts a week, and many brands only post once each day. Posting more than once can even have an adverse effect on views. A general rule of thumb of most (but obviously not all) brands is to make each post count--and try not to post more than two times per day maximum.

Finally, we'd be remiss if we didn't ask you to check out the Facebook page of our sponsor, Stepmans PC. If you'd like to receive our blog updates on Facebook, simply like the Stepmans PC page!