Sunday, December 28, 2014

2014: The Top SEO Stories

The Organic SEO Blog was created two years ago, in December, 2012, with a simple purpose: to demystify the theory and application of organic search engine optimization. We spent a great deal of our first year writing about SEO basics, like keywords and algorithms. In 2014, we began to write more about topical matters, like the emerging market for mobile SEO and Google's ever-changing algorithms.

Despite our evolving emphasis, however, we've continued to explore the world of organic search engine optimization in layman's terms. We write with an eye for how small business owners can apply key SEO principles. We hope that you've found our posts helpful!

Today, in the spirit of the ubiquitous end-of-year lists, we'd like to take a look back at the year in SEO. And as we near the end of our second year, we'd like to wish our readers a happy, healthful, and prosperous new year.

1. Mobile SEO

2014 was certainly the year that mobile SEO caught fire--so much so that many SEO professionals are sick of talking about it. In its predictions for 2015, Search Engine Watch gathered a few choice comments from the SEO community:

"I hope we move away from having to tell advertisers to invest in mobile. Those who aren’t providing a good mobile experience for their visitors will be left behind, plain and simple." - Melissa Mackey (@mel66), Gyro

"We’ll finally be moving away from the tired reminders of the importance of mobile. By now, I think we are aware that a lot of people use smartphones to search for things!" - Andrew Goodman (@andrew_goodman), PageZero Media

To Melissa Mackey's point, we posted a detailed analysis of two decidely different mobile experiences from two Brooklyn-based clothing companies: one clearly optimized for mobile, Brooklyn Industries, and one one clearly not optimized for mobile, The Brooklyn Circus.

Since that post, The Brooklyn Circus has optimized their site for mobile. Below is a screenshot from an iPhone. At the time of our post, the site was essentially a shrunken desktop site with zero navigability. Now the site is easy-to-read and easy-to-use. Kudos, Brooklyn Circus!

A new mobile experience from The Brooklyn Circus

For more on mobile SEO, please read: "Don't Lose Sales: Optimize Your Website for Mobile Search Now!"

By now, as Mackey so definitively notes, and our experience in Brooklyn revealed, if you're not optimized for mobile your totally hosed, plain simple.

The intriguing question for 2015: How will SEO mobile evolve to match consumer's browsing habits? Since social media seems seems intertwined with so many people's mobile experience--and, let's face it, people's experience of life itself--how will brands adapt the mobile experience to take advantage of, say, Facebook.

Speaking of social media...

2. The Changing Nature of Social SEO

We predict 2014 will be remembered as the year that brands lost the power to "advertise" on social media.  Recently, Facebook announced that starting in the New Year, the social media giant will crack down on "overly promotional" posts. And if you're thinking about switching your efforts to Twitter, forget about it!

In November, Shareaholic released a "quarterly report" (for Q3 of 2014) detailing how much traffic the eight largest social media sites drive to other sites. Facebook drives the most traffic: 22%. And Pinterest is Facebook's closest contender. Surprisingly, among the eight largest social media sites, Twitter ranks close to StumbleUpon in referrals. Despite its apparent influence, Twitter is a relatively insular site, driving less than one percent of the"big eight" referrals.

So Facebook it is--for now. And Pinterest, which we believe will attract even more SEO attention in 2015. But without the power to "promote" what's a brand to do? Take a cue from the best social media mavens: engage!

For more, please read: "Brands: Say Goodbye to the Facebook News Feed and Hello to Your New Customer Service Hub" & "SEO 101: Three Tips for an Effective Social Media Campaign."

3. The Implications of Algorithms

Of course, talk of algorithms will always dominate the SEO world. But this year seemed to bring a host of conversations about the very idea of algorithms. More than ever, algorithms have been scrutinized in light of what information is revealed (and sometimes withheld).

With the debate about the nature of algorithms, came the startling news that many sites were testing users without their knowledge all in the name of the algorithms. There was an uproar about Facebook testing its users without their knowledge or permission. Then OKCupid announced the results of its own studies without the slightest hint of apology.

As the company's president, Christian Rudder, wrote on the OKCupid blog:

"We noticed recently that people didn’t like it when Facebook 'experimented' with their news feed. Even the FTC is getting involved. But guess what, everybody: if you use the Internet, you’re the subject of hundreds of experiments at any given time, on every site. That’s how websites work."

For more, please read: "A Frank Look at Algorithms: OKCupid, Google, and How You Can Fight Back with Organic SEO." 

Rudder was essentially detailing part of the problem people have with algorithms--specifically how they seem to compromise privacy at the expense of a better browsing experience.

The idea of "algorithm neutrality" developed particular poignancy in the wake of Ferguson, which we detailed with an eye to Facebook, who seemed to be burying Ferguson posts on the News Feed.

Please read: "Algorithms Have Consequences: #Ferguson, Facebook, and Algorithm Bias."

The most elegant work on this subject came from Zeynep Tufekci:

"But I wonder: what if Ferguson had started to bubble, but there was no Twitter to catch on nationally? Would it ever make it through the algorithmic filtering on Facebook? Maybe, but with no transparency to the decisions, I cannot be sure. Would Ferguson be buried in algorithmic censorship?"

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What will 2015 hold for the world of SEO? Stay tuned next week for a futuristic look at 2015.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Facebook Introduces a New Search Tool for Status Updates & Comments

Facebook has taken another step to challenging Google for search engine dominance. Earlier this year, we learned from Business Insider that Mark Zuckerberg believes that Facebook has a bigger database than Google. Zuckerberg's stated goal has been to make Facebook "more than any search engine," by sharing information from billions upon billions of status updates and shared photos.

Until now, this information has been hard to find. Despite the lofty intentions of Facebook's search engine, Graph Search, most users have simply scrolled through endlessly loading pages to find past updates or comments.

But yesterday Facebook introduced a new search tool that allows users to easily find past status updates, comments, and other bits of information posted by themselves and their friends. At the same time, much to the delight of seemingly every Facebook user, Facebook has stopped showing Bing results in its searches. As Rueters reported last week:

"Searches on Facebook have long been geared toward helping users connect with friends and to find other information that exists within the walls of the 1.35 billion-user social networking service. But for years, Facebook’s search results also included links to standalone websites that were provided by Bing."

The inclusion of Bing's results might have been more about the relationship between Facebook and Microsoft--and less about user experience. As Rueters notes:

"Facebook and Microsoft have a longstanding relationship dating back to Microsoft’s $240 million investment in Facebook, for a 1.6 percent stake in the company, in October 2007. As part of that deal, Microsoft provided banner ads on Facebook’s website in international markets.

Facebook stopped using Microsoft banner ads in 2010 as it moved to take more control of its advertising business. But Facebook, during that same time, expanded its use of Microsoft Bing search results to international versions of its service."

Have you used Facebook's search to access any information outside of Facebook?

In our own anecdotal questioning of friends and family, no one remembers using Facebook search for the web at large. Instead, for web-based queries, most have turned to Google. In our estimate, by focusing acutely on its own results, Facebook has certainly enriched the user experience.

And this seems to be the true story here. Most articles about this change have focused on Facebook's disavowal of Bing, but for us the story is about Facebook's new insular-style search.

How will this style of search challenge Google for dominance?

The answer to this question is not entirely clear. Facebook's ultimate search goal will take years to develop, yet you can see inklings of its style now, in Graph Search and the News Feed. Both attempt to deliver accurate results based on feedback and previous habit patterns. And undoubtedly, like Google, Facebook will teak its algorithm to deliver better results.

But again, if these results are limited to the Facebook experience, how can Search Graph possibly compete with Google?

Whatever Facebook's long term ambitions, coupled with its recent decision to "crack down" on overly-promotional posts, the new search experience will certainly change the social landscape for brands. More then ever, to be relevant on Facebook, a brand must inspire conversation.

Facebook users do not want to be talked to. People are attracted to social media because of the engagement. Successful brands understand that customers are friends, too.  If you're a brand, then, try to be a part of the conversation. On your own page, especially, respond to all inquiries with sincerity, compassion, and timeliness. Talk to your "followers." And definitely do not treat your followers like followers. Treat them like friends.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Bing Details its Essential Ranking Components with an Emphasis on Content Quality

Early this week in a blog post, "The Role of Content Quality in Bing Ranking," Michael Basilyan, a Senior Program Manager from Bing, detailed the essential components of the Bing algorithm with an emphasis on how the search engine evaluates content quality. While much of this is self-evident, the post is a timely reminder of precisely how search engines go about separating the wheat from the chaff. So here's a review of what Basilyan had to say with our own comments.

First, for Bing, according to Basilyan, content quality is one of three parts of what determines a search ranking. In his post, Basilyan included this nifty mathematical graphic:
Bing's essential ranking components

Here's how Basilyan defines the three parts:
  • Topical relevance to the query (“Does it address the query?”)
  • Content Quality (as measured by the three pillars...[see below]), and 
  • Context (“Is the query about a recent topic?”,“What’s the user’s physical location?” etc…)
In his discussion of content quality, Basilyan cuts right to the chase: using the example of a serious medical query, "breast cancer symptoms," he writes that search results can have "life-altering ramifications." Considering the stakes, Basilyan infers that it is a search engine's duty to limit low-quality, "incomplete" content written by non-experts.

In the case of medical information, this is particularly true. A great deal of the available medical content is lacking depth (example: Web MD); a great deal more, what you might find on forums and periphery websites, is often untrue and unhelpful. And yet, there's a ton of information. To produce what Bing feels is the best results, the search engine focuses on authority, utility, and presentation:

How Bing translates "Content Quality"

Authority

The best writers in any genre establish a sense of authority via the written word. Yet, oddly, Basilyan does not note the value of writing in establishing authority. According to Basilyan, to establish authority, Bing includes "signals from social networks, cited sources, name recognition and the author’s identity."

But really, we think Basilyan and Bing would agree: ultimately, authority is established by the writing itself. Of course, name recognition and identity play a huge role in establishing a sense of confidence. Yet a name is merely enough to lure readers. To maintain and establish a readership, an author must write with lucidity and confidence.

Lucid and confident writing (preferably with a unique perspective) is the sort of writing that attracts "signals from social networks." This is the way good writers without much name recognition attract attention. As Cheryl Strayed in the guise of Dear Sugar said, "Write like a motherfucker."

Strayed was a relatively unknown writer when she penned the Dear Sugar advice column. Yet she ingeniously used the attention she attracted from Dear Sugar to promote her memoir, Wild, which became a monster hit and was adapted into a film (now playing).

For more on Strayed's masterful self-promotion, read "Dear Sugar's True Identity is Revealed."

Utility

Have you ever spent your hard-earned time reading an article that a) had little to do with the content the title seemed to promise, or b) made you feel that you wasted your time, or c) actively annoyed you with its lack of clarity and detail? Useless content is the scourge of the Internet, and the enemy of all good organic SEO specialists. On the opposite end of the content spectrum is the type of useful content that Bing characterizes as "utility":

"When considering the utility of the page," Basilyn writes, "our models try to predict whether the content is sufficiently useful for the topic it is trying to address. Does the page provide ample supporting information? Is it at the appropriate level of depth for the intended audience?"

That last word is key. To truly provide utility, your content must address a specific audience. Understanding your topic is crucial, but understanding who needs/wants to read about your topic is even more crucial. Once you understand your audience, you can create content uniquely suited to convert your readers into potential customers. In crafting quality content, you create an image for your customer. Suitably, Bing emphasizes imagery in its algorithm:

"We prefer pages with relevant supporting multimedia content: instructional videos, images, graphs, etc."

The logic here is clear: the more supporting material, the more useful the content.

For more information on Bing's emphasis on multimedia content as well as creating the best image for your customer, read: "Bing's Emojis & the Diversity of SEO Content."

Presentation

Sometimes even when a website offers good content, the message is lost in a barrage of pointless information, pop-ups, and aggressive advertisements. You see this across the Internet, from an ultimate purveyor of quality content, The New York Times, to the pointless Esquire Style Blog.Thankfully, Bing is fighting back against the annoyance of poor presentation:

"A well-presented page will have an easy-to-read, accessible design, and will make its primary content easy to find. In contrast, poorly presented websites require the user to wade through introductory or unrelated material to access meaningful content."

It's important to note, however, that Bing does welcome "appropriate usage and presentation of advertising." We've always thought that the style website, Put This On, manages to offer its advertisements in an elegant manner that does not compromise the site's stellar written and visual content. On the other hand, bad examples of the "usage of and presentation of advertising" can be found all over the Internet. Basilyan's comments on this seem especially helpful:

"Bing will promote and support websites and webmasters that provide ads relevant to the content of their website and place ads so that they do not interfere with the user experience. Pages with well-designed layouts will be preferred to pages that hide content behind ads, fail to clearly delineate ads from the main content, or feature ads that are easily confused with navigational elements."

The takeway? Ads are OK. Just make sure they don't "interfere" with your otherwise good content!

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Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Brands: Say Goodbye to the Facebook News Feed & Hello to Your New Customer Service Hub

Businesses that have tried to market their brands on Facebook have been stymied by Facebook's evolving News Feed algorithm. In the past, Facebook showed users every post from every friend and every page that a user "Liked." But as the size of the network evolved, Facebook introduced the News Feed algorithm to collate information tailored to each user.

In the past year, especially, the News Feed algorithm has presently a distinctly tailored experience, rich with friends and family. Late in 2013, Facebook abolished the organic reach of page posts. Businesses could no longer expect a significant amount of traffic from the News Feed. Instead, Facebook asked brands to pay for exposure. Today you'll likely catch more posts from your best friends and family, but you'll miss most posts from your favorite brands.

The current News Feed may or may not appeal to you. Some users, for example, might actually prefer to see occasional updates from the likes of, say, a favorite clothing brand who is offering a sale. Even if some users are ambivalent, however, the businesses themselves likely do not find the News Feed algorithm appealing at all.

As the News Feed has evolved, Facebook has all but eliminated posts from "Liked" pages. And recently, Facebook announced that starting in the New Year, it will crack down even harder on "overly promotional" posts. Precisely what Facebook means by "overly promotional" is not clear. As Marketplace reported yesterday:

"It's a gray area, says Jim Rudden, chief marketing officer of Spredfast, a social marketing platform. Rudden tells clients they should keep posting even if the rules change, but they should make sure their posts are what people will want to see. The industry term for this is 'good content.'"

For Facebook, "good content" is the apparently the opposite of "too promotional" content. As Facebook noted in its announcement:

"According to people we surveyed, there are some consistent traits that make organic posts feel too promotional:
  1. Posts that solely push people to buy a product or install an app 
  2. Posts that push people to enter promotions and sweepstakes with no real context 
  3. Posts that reuse the exact same content from ads"
Even if you avoid these types of posts, there is no guarantee that your "good content" posts will show up on timelines. Facebook says that "pages still matter--a lot," but many brands might find this hard to believe. Frankly, with this latest move, Facebook is sure to frustrate many business owners.

So what's a business to do? We believe a Facebook page is still an essential part of a quality SEO campaign. Instead of hoping to attract attention from the News Feed, however, you might do well to view your Facebook page as a destination--much like your website. In its announcement, Facebook itself offered solid evidence for this reasoning:

"What many businesses may not realize is that Pages are an important destination for their current and potential customers. In October, for instance, nearly a billion people visited Facebook Pages. Of those visits, more than 750 million happened on mobile devices. Many businesses also use Pages as a customer service channel. Businesses should think about their Page as a cornerstone of their online identity, not simply as a publishing service. The businesses that are doing this well understand the discovery and communication that happens when people come to their Page."

So good advice for your Facebook page might look like good advice for your website: offer high quality and relevant content, tailored to your unique audience. Beyond this simple advice, it might be helpful to remember the social nature of Facebook. Instead of trying to sell products on social media, try to socialize with your fans (customers).

Please read: "Facebook, Sociability, and Organic Reach."

Given the new limits on content, however, perhaps the best way to make your Facebook page a viable space is to use the page itself as your customer service hub. Do not advertise your goods, per say; advertise your  service. On your website and other social media platforms, urge customers to reach out to you on Facebook for any comments, concerns, or questions. And make sure you provide quick and truly helpful answers.

Social Media Marketing with Stepman's PC

If you're looking for an SEO company that understands how to effectively promote websites on all social media channels, we suggest contacting our sponsor, Stepman's PC: 215-900-9398 Stepmans PC combines traditional marketing methods and organic SEO--with an emphasis on natural website optimization--to design thoughtful, inspiring, and effective social media marketing campaigns.