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In this week’s episode of Marketing Nerds, Mark Traphagen, Senior Director of Marketing at Stone Temple Consulting, spent some time talking to me about what is going to be important to focus on in 2016, for both marketers and businesses. We talk about Mobilegeddon, HTTPS, the evolution of the SEO, the type of content that performs, and much more.
Here are a few of transcribed excerpts from our discussion, but make sure to listen to the podcast to hear everything:
What is going to be most impactful for marketers in 2016?
The first area that I’ll talk about is the mobile ranking changes—what people came to refer to in the industry as Mobilegeddon back in the spring of this year. Our mutual friend, Gary Illyes from Google, cringes whenever anybody says that because it sounds so negative.
What that was, for anyone who might not know… It was one of those very surprising and rare times when Google came out and told us something major that they were going to change, they were going to do, before they did it, and then they did it. They said that with the rise of mobile, the fact that they were seeing more and more searches taking place on mobile devices, and the fact that the experience—of course, as we all know—on mobile is very different from desktop, that they felt it was important to their users that sites be mobile-friendly. That sites show up well on a mobile device. It’s a different experience.
Google wanted to incentivize that. The way of doing that was to actually come out and say, “If your site is mobile-friendly, if your site works well, looks good, is easily used, easily viewed, easily navigated on a mobile device—on a smartphone in particular—then we may give you a ranking boost for that on a mobile device.” It’s very shocking when Google does something like that. I always call it Google behavior modification. Sometimes they tell us these things because they want to change our behavior.
With more people using smartphones, if you do a search and you come to a site that’s a crappy mobile experience, it’s hard to navigate and it frustrates you, Google feels like ultimately that reflects on them. Like, “We sent you here and we’re responsible.” It is becoming more ruthless. I guess maybe the takeaway from that is that anybody that’s trying to do business online can’t afford anymore to be uninformed. They can’t afford to not know what’s happening in the search world.
What happened when the mobile update was implemented?
One of the questions about mobile, coming back to that, when it first came out and they actually told us the day—again, very unusual and interesting that they told us, “This is the day we’re throwing the switch on.” Once that happened, they said, “Well, actually, it’s going to take a few weeks for all the results to settle in and for it to come to what it’s going to be.” Still, they told us, “As of this day, the mobile ranking update is in effect.”
What we did at Stone Temple Consulting was we were fortunate enough to have taken a large snapshot. We had a set of over 15,000 queries that we had studied. We had taken a chunk of those, looked at those before the mobile update, a few months before it and said, “Here’s where they’re ranking. Here’s where they are.” Then about a month after, when it seemed like everything is probably going to settle in, we took a look at that same group of 15,235 queries.
…The anecdotal things you first heard the weeks after Mobilegeddon was people saying, “It was a big fizz out. I didn’t really see that much change.” But these were all people that were looking at individual results. They were maybe just looking at their own sites and things like that. Some of them saw it, some of them didn’t, so I don’t see that big a change.
But we were looking at, again, this large set of queries. To cut to the chase, what we saw was it did have significant effect. …In our query set, we saw that over 46% of the non-mobile-friendly pages … And I should say, just to be sure, to define that, we were using Google’s designation.
If you’ve searched on a smartphone anytime in the last year, you’ve probably seen sites where Google will put a little tag on the search results that says, “Mobile-friendly.” We don’t know everything that that means, as you were saying earlier. We took that as the evidence. We were going to assume that if Google puts a tag on there, this is a site that the mobile update should effect. What we found again was 46% of the non-mobile-friendly pages—pages that did not have a mobile-friendly tag in the search results—lost rankings over that period of time.
It was all over the map: anything from just a one or two position drop to major dropping, like dropping a page or more, to in some cases disappearing. We didn’t do the stats on that, like down to that level of how many dropped how much. We were just basically looking for, did you go up or go down? We want to have a big enough sample knowing that there were other updates that happened during that time, so certainly not everything in this sample went up or down because of the mobile-friendly update. We saw enough to say it’s definitely statistically significant that far more non-mobile-friendly pages lost ranking than gained it.
The ratio there was like 47% to 19%. 47% lost ranking. Only about 19% gained ranking. On the mobile-friendly pages, it was more split. 30% gained and about 25% lost. Pretty much within the normal fluctuation that you would expect because anybody that watches such rankings know they fluctuate, they go up and down all the time within a certain margin. We felt that this was significant enough to say, yes, the mobile ranking update did have a significant effect. The main effect of it was, non-mobile-friendly pages tend to lose ranking.
How can businesses identify if they’re affected and, if they are, take action to fix it?
You have to think about the experience. Now, more and more, one of the things that many of us in the search engine world are talking is how important user experience is. That is even becoming, in a sense, a ranking factor, because Google is getting better at evaluating that on a machine basis. Looking at a site and saying, “Does this site have the characteristics of a site that users like, enjoy being on, and find friendly?” They are able to measure that and evaluate that. That is going to become more and more of a factor.
Why are they doing it? Because you should have the same motive as Google does. Google, as I said in the beginning, wants to have a good experience for its users. They want you to click on the search result and be happy. If you are a site owner, you should want people coming into your site to be happy. It’s not going to do well for your brand if people are frustrated, if they can’t navigate the site, if it takes forever to load on a mobile device, if it’s hard to read. That’s the number one thing. I think this is something good to do.
Beyond that, as far as the priority of it, I think one factor is thinking, “How important is this to my users?” Then to prioritize it, you should look at your analytics. How much of your traffic is coming from mobile? If you are getting a significant amount of traffic from mobile then this seems like a higher priority. You should also look over time. Look way back, look over early 2015, at least into the present. Are you starting to lose organic search traffic from mobile? If you are, then that may be an indication that this mobile update is impacting your site and you need to do something about it.
Thoughts on HTTPS and its impact in 2016?
Yeah…that was another one that they announced. They didn’t quite announce as clearly as they did the mobile-friendly update, but as you said, they hinted at it. They said, “We may start giving a little boost to pages.” That set off a big—you and I both remember it—big for people thinking that this is going to be a huge update and it’s going to have an effect. Once they said, “Yeah, we are starting to do that,” we studied it, Marcus Tober at Searchmetrics studied it…bottom-line was, at least initially, we could not discern any significant boost.
There were small things here and there but again not enough was able to separate from the general noise of the general fluctuations of the search results. …Eric Enge from Stone Temple was on a panel with somebody from Google who was very much involved with the Https movement within Google.
That’s where the quote came from where he said, “Well, it’s basically a tie breaker.” That could be one way that we are using it. That’s not a major ranking boost, but all of the things being equal. We have two sites that are pretty equal but this one is secure, this one is not. We are probably going to give the nod and the ranking to the secure site. I do think it will become more important. They haven’t stopped talking about it.
A lot of people said in the beginning when this first was coming out was, “Well, this is important obviously for E-commerce sites or any sites that asks for secure information, personal information. Obviously they should be secured, but your average website, if it’s mostly a content or publishing site, no you don’t need that.” I think Google has made some good points on that and saying that, “As people become aware of this, the general public becomes more aware that https means something up there. They are going to begin to look for it on sites and they are going to begin to expect that because any site these days … Almost any major site is mining information from you in some way or you are exposing yourself just by being there in some way.” People are going to want to feel, “I have that extra layer of security.”
The evolution of the SEO in 2016
It has always been a part of our philosophy at Stone Temple Consulting, but we are seeing more and more with our clients, a lot of what we have to do is education. Education and helping them with that decision-making, the priority setting, through talking about it. It’s not just a matter anymore of doing it and saying, “Okay, here are some basic technical problems your site has. This is what you have to do to fix them,” but it’s looking at all these things we’ve been talking about. We haven’t even hit some of the other big things that are happening and have to be thought about.
We have to be an ally because otherwise—if we are working with a large brand and their SEO or marketing department—we just throw all these recommendations at them and they feel overwhelmed. They only have so much budget; they only have so much man power. What we have to do is help them to prioritize, help them to assess, “What is most impactful to us and our users? What should we be giving resources to first?” That’s becoming almost as important, maybe as important, as any of the technical things that we help them to do.
Let’s talk about content
I think we are seeing a maturing … It’s interesting to watch this, in the years that I’ve been in the industry. I know you’ve seen it too over time. There’s different waves of things come in. They are “the new thing”, they are exciting—whether it’s social media or whatever it is. For hours everybody just does it because that’s what everybody is doing. “You’ve got to do social media; just do social media.”
There comes a certain point a few years in where there’s a maturing that starts to happen. People realize, “Okay, we’ve got to talk about where are we really getting value from this and how much time are we spending on it—what are we getting in return for that?” I think we are seeing that with content now. There has been a lot of talk; it probably started with Mark Schaefer’s Content Shock article.
Like a lot of people, I don’t agree with everything in that. I think that he has some points—there’s no denying that the amount of content that’s thrown at us is increasing. I don’t see it as a zero-sum game, as he portrays it. On the other hand, it’s undeniable that it’s getting harder and harder to get your stuff noticed. …I don’t think ever it was really easy, but it’s certainly harder now to get anything out there that’s going to get mass attention and have huge amounts of eyeballs on it, huge amounts of people talking about it, sharing it, and that sort of stuff.
A more recent wakeup call on that was this big study that came out from BuzzSumo in partnership with Moz a few months ago that was quite eye-opening.
What they basically said was that, they looked at 100,000 random posts. These are posts from all different kinds of sites, high authority, low authority, big well known, little known, all over the map. They said that 75% of those pages, those blog posts they looked at, had zero external links to them. 75% had zero external links. Even among the 25% that had any links at all, most of them had only very few like a handful scattering and most of those weren’t from very authoritative sites.
There’s one-percenters club here, the rich of the rich. There’s only a very small amount of content out there, relative to all the content that’s published, that gets links. The other thing is that it’s also true of social shares, always a hard word for me to say that most of those, 75% of them, had 39 or fewer shares total of any social network. The bottom-line of their study was, there’s tons of content being published and most of it is not getting seen or not getting any real results.
Real Quality Content
The phrase that I always use is, there has to be something there. There has to be something of substance at the end of the day. We’ve put out studies on social engagement that look at the bare stats of how hashtags affect, how much does an image in social share affect…in terms of the amount of engagement you get. Those things have a truth up to a point. If you take them exactly as you have said, you say, “Well, okay I’ll get more retweets and more re-shares and more comments on a social share if I include an image and I have a hashtag and I share at least one link—I’ll just do all those things in all my tweets and expect results.”
Those things can help but… if you get down out of the stats and look at the actual posts, they are having the most significant effect on things that are great. You are really saying something of substance. There’s no magic tricks. Just like we learned with SEO, right? It’s not just sprinkling some fairy dust on your social post and then they start to work.
You have to keep in mind that any of these engagement studies are always correlation studies, they are just correlating presence of the hashtag or presence of an image or whatever it might be to increase engagement, increase shares, that sort of thing. You have to ask yourself, is it possible all these results that we are seeing point this way—that the kinds of posts that are really excellent, extraordinary, and above the average content, also can possibly tend to do those other things as well. There people are paying attention.
They are going to have good images, they are going to use hashtags, and they are going to craft their posts very carefully. It may…not just the presence of a hashtag or an image or something as it is that a lot of those posts are just by people paying more attention and putting more care into their content.
What are the key takeaways from Stone Temple Consulting studies?
We’ve been doing a lot of looking into what we call Google Rich Answers. It’s the increasing amount of questions that Google answers directly in search. That was another shocking wake up call to a lot of our industry, saying like, “Wait a minute, this is the stuff that people always had to click to a website for, now they are getting the answer on the search page. They don’t have to click anywhere else.”
The lesson we’ve been learning there is, even when Google does something that seems to be hurting us, or taking away our traffic, or are going after something where we’ve gotten traffic in the past, you can be smart and savvy and you can—instead of just complaining about it and whining about it—find ways to help Google out with that. That actually drive traffic to you. These rich answers are one of those areas.
Because of the way Google constructs them they do take them…for the most part, from third party sites. They do have a link to the site. We’ve been doing a lot of research on, first of all, how you can get into one of those answer boxes on the Google search page, and how you can construct an answer that is likely to still get people to click through your site. Now you’ve gone from it being a liability where Google has stolen your answer and featured it right on the page to saying, “Google has gotten us into a special box above all the other search results and we are getting huge traffic.”
We’ve seen numerous examples of this, people getting unbelievable traffic boosts from being in one of these answer boxes…the overall lesson there is sometimes it never pays to whine and complain about something. If the change has happened, the change has happened. What you need to do is say, “Is there a way that we can turn this to our advantage? And, if not, then how do we adapt to it; how do we do something different that’s going to still help us to thrive in that environment?” That’s one thing I think, overall, we’ve learned.
Let me give you one more. We have said it but I want to reemphasize it. If you are going to be in the content game at all, think about emphasizing quality over quantity. I think there’s still a reward for being consistent. I don’t believe the old chestnut about content that says, “the most important thing is just to be churning something out three time times a week,” applies at all anymore or has any value. Having a few really amazing pieces that become the definitive answer, the definitive resource for whatever the question out there might be, is far more valuable than being able to produce 75, 80, 100, 150 articles all over the place.
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