So You Have a Mobile-Friendly Website. What Now?

The author’s posts are entirely his or her own (excluding the unlikely event of hypnosis) and may not always reflect the views of Moz.

This post is based on a presentation I gave in October at SearchLove London 2013. The full slide deck is embedded at the end of the post. Also, use this link to watch the video of the presentation for free! :)


Lots of people can tell you why you need a mobilefriendly website. And lots of people can tell you how to build one. Including me. There have been countless posts and articles and guides written about how to build a mobile-friendly site, and how to optimize it for search, and how to track mobile visitors, and why mobile is important.

So at this point, most people would agree that having a mobile-friendly website is a basic requirement for any online brand:

If you’re just starting to think about it, you’re falling behind. And you don’t need me to convince you. Instead, I want to talk about what happens next. This post will cover some big-picture trends, case studies, examples and tactics, but the overall theme is “online everywhere.”

By the year 2017, it is predicted that 85% of the world’s population will have 3G coverage. (It could be even more; initiatives like Facebook’s campaign have the goal of bringing internet access to 100% of the world’s population.)

Mobile data in the year 2012 was 12x the size of the entire internet in the year 2000. In other words, it grew by 1200%. And by the year 2018 it is expected to grow 12x again…meaning the rate of growth is now twice as fast as when we started (12x growth in 6 years instead of 12).

What all of this means is that we’re becoming more connected than ever. And mobile is now a channel which can empower you to reach people you can’t reach any other way, as the number of mobile users worldwide is set to overtake the number of desktop users in 2014.

We are increasingly living in a multiscreen, device-agnostic world.

And this means that “mobile” can’t just be an add-on anymore. My boss Will Critchlow likes to say “there’s no such thing as mobile.” I would disagree slightly: I’d suggest that instead, “there’s no such thing as mobile for the user.”

Mobile is not a separate channel; it’s a technology. So although at this point there’s “no such thing as mobile” for the user, don’t be fooled: Making it easy for users is really hard. We can’t be lazy. What we need to be doing is asking the right questions.

What does this look like? Let’s take 3 scenarios: Companies A, B, and C.

Company A (call them the “Average Joe Corp.“) are asking the question: “how do we do ‘mobile’?” And this means they’ll be getting answers based on what everyone else is doing, regardless of whether it’s right for them or their users. For example:

  • a separate m. website
  • an app
  • SMS promotions
  • etc.

Company B (“Early Adopters Ltd.“) have a slightly better question: “how do we stay ahead of the next big mobile technology trend?” They’re not interested in what everyone’s doing already; they want to be ahead of the curve. So they’ll end up investing in things like

But Company C is different (let’s call them “User-Driven Business, Inc.“). They’re looking at it from a different perspective: a user-centric one. They ask: “how can we take advantage of new technology to anticipate our users’ needs?”

We all need to become more like “User-Driven Business, Inc.“, because our customers are people, and technology is for people. Instead of asking about how to ‘do’ mobile, or how to stay on top of new technology, we need to have the mindset of making mobile a core part of the customers’ journey, and keeping the user at the center.

Which looks something like this:

Phase 1: Discover

77% of mobile searches now take place near a PC. What this means is that mobile devices are rapidly becoming the device of choice, even when other options are available. And with new behaviors like sequential screening and multiscreening, mobile is increasingly an integral part of the customer’s discovery phase. 90% of users use multiple screens sequentially to accomplish a task over time, and 98% move between devices in a single day. Smartphones are the most frequent ‘companion’ devices used while multiscreening (i.e. using multiple devices at the same time).

So the first big trend we need to be aware of here is the need for a seamless and consistent user experience across all devices.

There are three main areas in which mobile technology impacts on the Discover phase:

1. Website

We’ve all heard the people who say that responsive design is always the answer. And responsive design is fine. But it’s a basic approach. And if you don’t approach it properly, you can end up with a subpar user experience.

Example: Starbucks

Starbucks made a beautiful responsive website; but on the smartphone version the ‘BUY NOW’ button has dropped to the bottom of the page, under many many reviews, a video and other non-essential content.

Desktop version:

Mobile version:

Small Steps

  • Consider using dynamic serving instead of pure responsive: this allows you to serve different HTML based on user agent, while maintaining a single URL for simplicity.
  • Think in terms of “content everywhere:” the concept of “Create Once Publish Everywhere,” discussed in more depth in the book by Sara Wachter-Boettcher. “Content Everywhere” is a system which allows you to relate different types of content using markup for a more search- and user-friendly approach, regardless of the platform used to access your content.

    • CASE STUDY: BBC Food used this approach for their recipes and saw an increase of more than 150,000 visitors weekly from search alone and overall traffic doubled, from around 650,000 weekly visitors to around 1.3 million. (data from Content Everywhere book)
  • Use long-term cookies for login: keep people logged in longer and remove the extra step of needing a sign-in each time your users visit your site
  • Sync user accounts across all platforms:

    • a great EXAMPLE of this is Amazon Kindle: if you leave off in the middle of a book on the iPhone app, and then pick it up on your Kindle, it will know where you last left off (cross-device)
  • Test, test, test: start by visiting your site on a mobile (or use the built-in emulator in your favorite browser).

    • TIP: Make sure you test for all the devices your customers use, or at least the majority (you can find out what these are from your analytics data).
  • Mobile CRO and user testing: there are loads of tools available for this type of testing; three that we like at Distilled are Qualaroo, CrazyEgg and Optimizely.

2. Search

The first big trend to keep in mind when it comes to search and discovery: it’s the same person regardless of device. So context and user intent become more important than asking whether it’s a mobile phone or a laptop.

CASE STUDYBravissimo

Bravissimo used a tool called WeatherFIT to customize their PPC campaigns based on individual user context. Basically they would only show lingerie and swimwear ads to users who had sunny/hot weather in their area.

Results: 600% increase in PPC-driven sales revenue and 103% increase in conversion rate.

Example: Google

Google is huge for online personalization and context-based content:

  • Google Implicit Search can understand the context of a query (such as ‘how tall is Justin Bieber?’ followed by ‘how much does he weigh?’) and return the correct answer.
  • Google Now aims to provide you the information you need before you ask for it (such as bus times, weather, metro service information, etc) by figuring out where you are and what you are doing.

This leads us to the second big trend for discovery via search marketing: anticipating your users’ needs before they themselves are even aware of them. If you can do this, you will be getting your brand in front of a whole new audience.

Small Steps

3. Social

Social is a huge channel for mobile. Four out of every five people who use Facebook (daily) and Twitter do so on a mobile device. So social marketing is mobile marketing.

But social is tricky, because brands no longer own the conversation. And the first big trend we see in social marketing is that permission’s not enough anymore. There is now so much content and so much information available that we don’t have time to read all the emails we sign up for. This has led to ‘filter bubbles‘.

You’re probably all familiar with the Mark Zuckerberg quote: “A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.” This may sound extreme but the mindset it shows has a very real impact on our marketing efforts.

Between technology (like Facebook’s EdgeRank, which shows more content for pages we engage with more frequently) and the people our customers follow (who only share and curate the content they find worthwhile), we need to be thinking in terms of peer-to-peer marketing if we want to have any hope of our target audience even seeing our content. One quick sense check for this is simply to ask yourself: “is it good enough to tell my friends about it?”

A final point: make sure any content you want to share via social channels is also mobile friendly. Given that 80% of these users are on mobile devices, you don’t want them to be faced with this:

Small Steps

  • Allow your social media team to engage in a conversational (rather than a salesy or overly formal) way.
  • Create content which people will want to share.
  • Ensure that all content for social sharing is mobile-friendly.

Phase 2: Explore

Once your users have discovered your brand, that’s just the beginning; they may need to explore their options a bit more before deciding to purchase from you. And you need to be aware of that whole journey from start to finish.

There are four main areas impacted by mobile in the Explore phase:

  • Tracking
  • Showrooming
  • Personalization
  • Online/offline integration

1. Tracking

Track the person, not the device. Other people (like Avinash Kaushik and Craig Bradford) can explain this much better than me, but the short version is:

Stop tracking each session as if it’s a different user. Instead, track people throughout their journey from start to finish – irrespective of device.

In the image above, wouldn’t it be better if we knew that:

  • The 3 online visits + single conversion (CID 111, 222 and 333) and the offline visit + conversion (CID 444) were actually
  • One person using 3 different devices plus making an in-store visit with a second conversion (UID ABC)?

Small Steps

2. Showrooming

It’s easy to panic about showrooming (when people look up your products in-store on a phone and find lower prices online from your competitors).

But this sort of thing is never a good idea:

…and it’s unnecessary. Instead, we should view showrooming behavior as an opportunity; to reinforce the value that our products and our store provide.


In 2012, Best Buy decided to tackle showrooming head-on: giving specially trained staff members tablets to search comparison sites for the lowest price, and allowing them to match that lowest price in order to complete the sale.

Results: It was successful – I don’t have exact metrics, but in February 2013 they rolled out a permanent price matching policy based on the positive results of this pilot.

3. Personalization

Personalization is huge, and especially so on mobile devices which are much more ‘personal’ devices than most (think how frequently laptops are used for work/school, desktops for families or in other shared environments like libraries – but smartphones are primarily used by individuals in leisure time).

Small Steps

  • Implement a recommendation engine for your logged-in customers. You can also do a form of this with non-logged-in users – Medium are a good example of this.

CASE STUDY: LK Bennett/Qubit

LK Bennett recently ran a campaign using the Qubit tag management system to personalize their website content by user context. The first test was targeted at UK-based visitors who had not purchased online within nine months, but had visited the site more than three times. These users were shown a special offer for free delivery if they were about to leave again without purchasing.

Results: an 11% increase in conversions from that visitor segment. Another test offered UK visitors free 14 day returns, and this saw a 14% conversion rate increase.

4. Online/Offline Integration

Because mobile devices are portable, there are many more opportunities for integration between the online and offline worlds via mobile devices.

What does this mean? The obvious example would be something like a QR code in a print ad or on a billboard. A more sophisticated version is something like Debenham’s virtual pop-up stores at famous UK landmarks, which users scanned with a special app and then were able to view and order clothing (after virtually trying it on, of course!).

My favorite example of online/offline integration is from IKEA:

Example: IKEA catalogue app

IKEA created an augmented reality app for their recent catalogue, which allowed users to use their device’s built-in camera to try out how different pieces of IKEA furniture would look in a given location in their home.

All of these examples – Best Buy encouraging showrooming and matching the lowest price, IKEA allowing people to ‘try out’ the furniture before they buy, and LK Bennett providing personalized offers about shipping and returns – play into the overall brand experience of your users, and help to determine whether they decide to buy from you or not. Basically, these are all different ways of helping potential customers past the “uncertainty” phase and giving them the extra little push to feel confident that they’re making the right choices.

Ultimately, whatever examples we use, the big trend for the Explore phase is to recognize the value of every touchpoint/interaction along the customer journey. The purchase isn’t the only thing that matters anymore. …and last click attribution is the devil.

Phase 3: Buy

This is all very well, but…what about the actual conversion? Well, the big trend here is to make mobile checkout EASY.

There are two main areas we can improve in order to engage mobile users more effectively in the purchase process:

  • Smarter checkout paths
  • Online/offline integration (yes, again!)

1. Smarter checkout paths

We need smarter conversion paths for mobile. My rule of thumb for this is KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid. 😉

Small Steps

For phone number fields:

<input type=”tel” />

for a numeric keyboard, use this:

<input type=”text” pattern=”d*” novalidate />

for any email fields, use this:

<input type=”email” />

to disable autocorrect:

<input type=”text” autocorrect=”off” />

  • Keep people logged in long-term: The fewer steps people have to take to complete a purchase, the less likely they are to abandon it. Mobile devices (smartphones in particular, tablets perhaps less so) are often only used by a single individual, so it is often much more convenient to use websites and apps which don’t require a login every time. By using persistent cookies (on websites) and saving password details in the phone (for apps) you make the process easier for your users.
  • Don’t neglect microconversions: It’s all very well trying to convince people to make big purchases via mobile; but don’t forget about the smaller stuff. Things like email signups and social sharing are very important and sometimes don’t work well on mobile devices.

2. Online/offline integration

If you have a physical store location(s), in-store mobile payment can also add convenience to checkout.

Example: PayPal

If you accept PayPal payments, you can allow people to use the PayPal app to checkout in-store as well as online.

Phase 4: Engage

Once your customer has purchased, you may feel that you can relax. But you’re not home free yet! You need to keep customers engaged with your brand and your services/products even after they purchase in order to turn them into repeat customers and, eventually, brand advocates.

There are three main areas in this phase which are important for mobile:

  • Apps
  • Email marketing
  • Social

1. Apps

The first question you should ask yourself if you’re considering creating an app is: “are you sure you need one?”

The benefit is, of course, that it’s a walled garden. The downside is that it’s a saturated market: there are 900,000+ apps in the Apple Store and over 1 million on Google Play. And despite the high volume of apps, only a few rise to the top: 10% of all iPhone app store revenue in Nov 2012 came from only 7 apps. So unless you really do need one, it’s not worth the extra effort and hassle.

How do you decide? Ask yourself, does my app (idea):

  • Add convenience?
  • Offer unique value?
  • Provide social value?
  • Offer incentives?
  • Entertain?

These are the attributes of a successful app. If it doesn’t do any of these things, you shouldn’t build it.

CASE STUDY: Tesco Homeplus

Tesco Homeplus, in South Korea, are an excellent example of how to use apps to retain customers (and this is also a great example of using online/offline integration in the Buy phase). As a mid-/large-sized supermarket brand (trying to compete against a bigger rival), they knew that their target customers were very busy, working very long hours and lacking free time to go shopping for groceries. So they created a ‘virtual store’ in the subway, which allowed app users to scan items they wanted to purchase and checkout on their phone. If they did this before 1pm, the groceries would be delivered to their home that evening.

Results: their sales increased 130% in three months, and their number of registered users went up by 76%

Ultimately, the key when it comes to apps is creating a unique experience and meeting a specific user need. If you can’t do this with your app, you probably don’t need one.

2. Email marketing

62% of emails are opened on mobile devices. So email marketing is mobile marketing. And remember, you can send push notifications via email (dependent on the user’s settings) which gives them a benefit we might have associated previously only with apps or SMS promotions.

Small steps

  • Send emails your customers want to open

    • Example: Innocent Drinks are a great example of email content which is fun, full of their brand personality and regardless of whether I always have time to read the emails, I never consider unsubscribing because I don’t want to miss out on it.

  • Use mobile friendly templates: MailChimp and Campaign Monitor are two services that offer this.

    • TIP: If your preferred provider doesn’t offer this, you can use one of these services to build your email and then export the HTML into your preferred provider’s template.
  • Test your email campaigns: we like Litmus; there are also other options.

3. Social

Social isn’t just part of the discovery process; it’s also a great channel for maintaining customer loyalty.

Example: Red Bull Wings

Red Bull have an incredible social campaign called Red Bull Wings. They monitor mentions on Twitter of keywords like ‘allnighters’, ‘midterms’, etc; then contact the tweeters to mail them a care package containing a Red Bull 4-pack and a personalized note.

This is just one example; but the big trend with post-purchase social engagement is: make current customers feel appreciated – and make it individually personalized, if possible.

Bonus example

I’ve covered a lot of things in this post, so now I want to share a campaign which I think pulls a lot of these together. It’s a great example of how to merge the online and offline worlds…but more importantly, it’s an example of one of the key takeaways from this post: the value of extreme (individual) personalization and context recognition.

BMW’s MINI Salutes You (part of the #MININotNormal campaign)

[embedded content]

I love this campaign because it keeps the (individual) customer at the center. It makes great use of personalization and context, as well as online/offline integration. And it hits the ‘post-buy engagement’ part beautifully by showing loyalty to current customers.

Results: As part of the online aspect, it also had great social reach (as you might expect). That video alone (part of a larger campaign) showed 1,941 offline customers were reached during that time…but there are 58,139 views (to date) of the video on Youtube. (The main campaign video has 1,661,042 views.)

So … what are the final takeaways?

Well, to “do mobile” right:

  • Make it a core technology
  • Keep the user at the center
  • Ask yourself: “How can I use mobile technology to anticipate and fulfill my users’ needs?”

You might be thinking, “surely these are all just marketing principles, though”. Well that’s TRUE.

Because mobile isn’t separate anymore. In some ways, it’s just another “browser”, and we need to test and optimize and create content for it just as we would for any other browser. This won’t be easy, but it will be worth it. So let’s buckle up and enjoy the ride!


How do you think we should be approaching the rise of mobile technology in 2014? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Here are the slides from the presentation this blog post was based on:

If you’d like to watch the presentation video (for free!), head on over to our video store page using this link: With a free account (just a username and password), you’ll get free access to the video to download and stream at your hearts content.

If you enjoyed this post and the presentation video, you might also be interested in our upcoming SearchLove conference in Boston—particularly in the session by Adam Melson, titled “Listening to Your Customers’ Wants to Achieve Their Needs.” It’s happening Apr 7-8 at the Joseph B Martin Conference Center. We’d love to see you there!

About bridget.randolph — Bridget Randolph is a Consultant with online marketing agency Distilled. She is particularly interested in the way that developments in mobile technology and social media affect our online experiences, and how these changes impact the nature of digital marketing.

Surviving the SEO &quot;Slog&quot; – Whiteboard Friday

Working to ingrain SEO best practices in a company can take several months, and can involve a lengthy period of diminishing returns that we sometimes call the “SEO slog.” To make things worse, our clients and colleagues often expect a consistent improvement. The difference between those expectations and the reality is what Rand tackles in today’s Whiteboard Friday, offering you four ways to minimize what he calls the “delta of dissatisfaction.”

Howdy, Moz fans, and welcome to another edition of Whiteboard Friday. Today I’m going to talk a little bit about the SEO slog. This is that really tough experience that many, many SEOs go through where, essentially, you’re putting a lot of effort into improving your rankings, improving your content, improving your keyword targeting, earning those links and mentions and social signals, user and usage data things, all the things that are going to help you perform on search engines, but you’re not seeing results. Virtually everyone who’s in the field has experienced this over the course of their career.

It happens because, a lot of the time, Google has got many, many triggers in their ranking systems to kind of check whether effort is worthy enough, or signals are organic and ongoing enough, to earn the site continued rankings, or whether there should be some sort of consideration and then evaluation and delay between when the effort is put in and things are improved and when results actually happen.

This is insidiously frustrating for lots of folks in the field. By the way, Google isn’t the only one responsible. Many times what happens is that SEOs make recommendations for organizations or inside their own organizations. They work with their marketing and their engineering teams to try and get things done, and it just takes a long time. It takes a long time to see the results of those.

So I actually really appreciated Scott Clark from BuzzMaven in Lexington. You can follow him on Twitter on @buzzmaven. Scott described this very eloquently. I like the graphic that he put together about the SEO slog. His blog post, by the way, was called “Thriving In the SEO Slog,” and he talked to a number of industry leaders, particularly those from consulting firms, about this process. He had a chart very similar to the one that I’m going to show you here.

Essentially, we have on the side here, effort. So a little bit of effort down on the bottom. Lots of effort and then a ton of effort right up on the top. Then, sort of month one through six, as you’re starting those SEO efforts and campaigns. This can happen on an entire website level, but this can also happen on a particular subsection of a website, or a new group of keywords, or a new set of content that you’re targeting.

What frequently happens is you see what’s needed to see return on investment, to see those improvements over time, versus what the expectations are, which I’ve got in purple versus orange, kind of diverge. So at the start, what’s needed, a lot of the time at the very start of an SEO campaign, especially if previous best practices haven’t been employed, it’s actually really minimal to start seeing a positive return on investment. But, over time, that effort ramps up a ton. You’ve got to do an incredible amount just to see a continued return on investment over those first few months, and there’s a delay between the effort that you put in here and when you’re seeing results towards the latter few months of a campaign.

Unfortunately, expectations are the opposite. A lot of clients, managers, teams, the people in your startup with you, the other folks that are in your consulting group, your client, all of these folks are expecting to see that effort is a little bit higher at the start, and then you kind of get the ball rolling and it goes down. That actually is true. The problem is it takes a long time to get that ball rolling. So what I usually see, what most of us in the industry see is that that effort ramps up tremendously in those first few months, and then over time it does go down a little bit. Maintaining those ongoing best practices is a little bit easier.

But this, right here, the difference between expectations and reality, that’s what I call the delta of dissatisfaction. People just get really frustrated around this.

There are a few good mitigation strategies, and some of these were mentioned, actually, by the experts that Scott Clark talked to in his post. The first one, the one that nearly every consultant mentioned, and I think is very smart, is to create the right expectations.

If you go into a client meeting, or you sit down with your marketing team, or you’re talking to your CEO about what you can and can’t accomplish, if you create the expectation that SEO is going to be this not necessarily silver bullet, but that you will make these investments and because things are done so badly today and the company you used to work for or the other websites that you’ve worked on had such success when you implemented these best practices, that you feel confident you can increase their rankings and their traffic and the acquisition of customers dramatically.

The problem gets created right then and there, because in the SEO world, for the last decade, for some reason people have held these two beliefs about SEO. Number one, that it’s a one-time activity, which is just dead wrong as all of you who are watching know. Number two is that once you optimize for the search engines, you are now optimal, and that means you don’t require additional ongoing effort, and the search engines will reward your efforts once they see them. Since Google’s crawling us so fast, well, we must get that benefit immediately.

Neither of these are the case. So creating the right expectations up front can work wonders. In fact, if you want to go ahead and make this chart and put it right in your presentations, as you’re showing the team, here’s what needs to be fixed. Here’s what we need to do. Here’s what I think we can accomplish. But, by the way, you’re going to think this can happen a lot faster than it can happen. If you tell them that up front, you’re creating those right expectations.

Number two, when things are going well, that’s a dangerous time, a very dangerous time. I urge folks not to just sort of celebrate and then create new projections, like, “Hey, well, we accomplished X. Y is certainly going to happen, and Y is going to be 2X, and 3X and 4X in six months and seven months and eight months.” Always create both a contingency plan, in case that traffic increase is temporary, and a conservative budget.

So I actually really like making budgets around traffic, around performance here at Moz, and in general that contain a best-case scenario and also a “and here’s what we’ll spend before we know whether this is the truth.” If you don’t, you can end up very, very sad.

Number three, make sure SEO isn’t your only inbound traffic channel, and it’s not the only inbound marketing effort that you’re working on. If you’re doing social media marketing and content marketing, you’re building an email list, and you’re doing branding and PR and outreach and connecting with your industry, you’re speaking at events, you’re doing paid forms of advertising as well, great. Now you’ve got some mitigation. Now you aren’t solely relying on SEO to provide all of the returns, and, thus, you can handle being off budget. If Google is 70% of your traffic and you miss by 10%, that’s huge. If Google is 20% of your traffic and you miss by 10%, oh, it’s not so bad. It’s only 2% off budget.

Number four, the last thing I’ll recommend here is that you measure and report leading indicators. By leading indicators, I mean not just the pages that are receiving traffic, but also things like link signals, rankings for long-tail stuff, looking at social shares, these leading indicators, these things that tend to, over time, correlate as rankings catch up to how your performance is going. By reporting on that kind of stuff, higher engagement on pages, those leading indicators will give you a sense of how things might be going two, three, four, five, six months from now with your search traffic and your rankings. That can be extremely helpful.

All right, everyone. Hope you’ve enjoyed this edition of Whiteboard Friday,and we’ll see you again next week. Take care.

After a Link-Based Penalty is Removed, Will Your Traffic Increase?

The author’s posts are entirely his or her own (excluding the unlikely event of hypnosis) and may not always reflect the views of Moz.

Are you familiar with the feeling of dread that comes with seeing this message in Webmaster Tools?

manual spam action message

Or perhaps, you haven’t received a message, but have seen something like this in your analytics:

Penguin hit

If you’ve received a traffic drop because of a link-based Google penalty, the results can be devastating. There are many articles written on what steps can be taken to recover, but not many on what to expect once you have done the work to get out of the penalty. Will your traffic increase suddenly? Will you see any increase at all? Will you see a decrease in traffic because you have disavowed links?

If you are looking for good information on understanding these penalties and how to do the work to remove them, here are some good articles:

The Difference Between Penguin and an Unnatural Links Penalty

Lifting a Manual Penalty Given by Google

Penguins, Pandas and Panic at the Zoo

How WMPU Recovered from the Penguin Update

The remainder of this article will talk about what outcome you can expect if you are dealing with one of the following scenarios:

1. Removal of a partial manual action penalty

2. Removal of a sitewide manual action penalty

3. Escaping the Penguin algorithm

1. Removal of a partial manual action penalty

To determine whether or not you have a partial action penalty, go to Webmaster Tools → Search Traffic → Manual Actions and you should see the following:

The message from the screenshot reads:

Google has detected a pattern of unnatural artificial, deceptive, or manipulative links pointing to pages on this site. Some links may be outside of the webmaster’s control, so for this incident we are taking targeted action on the unnatural links instead of on the site’s ranking as a whole.

Usually, when you receive a partial action warning you will get the following message in your Webmaster Tools:

Google Webmaster Tools notice of detected unnatural links to

Dear site owner or webmaster of,

We’ve detected that some of your site’s pages may be using techniques that are outside Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.

Specifically, look for possibly artificial or unnatural links pointing to your site that could be intended to manipulate PageRank. Examples of unnatural linking could include buying links to pass PageRank or participating in link schemes.

We encourage you to make changes to your site so that it meets our quality guidelines. Once you’ve made these changes, please submit your site for reconsideration in Google’s search results.

If you find unnatural links to your site that you are unable to control or remove, please provide the details in your reconsideration request.

If you have any questions about how to resolve this issue, please see our Webmaster Help Forum for support.


Google Search Quality Team

Occasionally, you will get a more cryptic message such as the following:

We’ve detected that some of the links pointing to your site are using techniques outside Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.

We don’t want to put any trust in links that are unnatural or artificial, and we recommend removing any unnatural links to your site. However, we do realize that some links may be outside of your control. As a result, for this specific incident we are taking very targeted action to reduce trust in the unnatural links. If you are able to remove any of the links, you can submit a reconsideration request, including the actions that you took.

If you have any questions, please visit our Webmaster Help Forum.

I have noticed that most sites that receive the “cryptic” message usually end up losing rankings. And, in many cases, the sites were affected by the next Penguin update. I would recommend that if you have a partial action, no matter what message you received, you need to take steps to remove the warning. There may be a few exceptions; if the manual spam action viewer tells you that a particular page of your site is affected, it is possible that only that page of your site has been demoted. An example would be if you were running a news site and had published a story that was beneficial to a particular business. If that business had built unnatural links to that page on your site in an effort to get that page to rank higher, this could cause a warning for just that one page. If this is the case, then you may not need to do anything as only that page is likely affected and not your whole site.

In my opinion, for the vast majority of sites that have a partial action message, it is vitally important for you to take the proper steps to get the penalty removed.

In order to remove these penalties, a very thorough backlink audit must be done. I have found that it is not enough to just address the worst of the links, or even the most recently obtained unnatural links. Once you have gone under the microscope of manual review, Google wants to see that you have made attempts to remove almost every single manipulative link that was made in the past.

Success: Manual spam action revoked! Now what?

Manual spam action revoked

You’ve done the cleanup, and achieved success! The joy of seeing a manual spam action revoked message never gets old for me. This message is usually the end result of many weeks (or often months) of hard work. I love the emails that I get from relieved site owners after they have seen this message. Invariably, one of the next questions asked is, “When will I see my rankings improve?” This question can make my heart drop because quite often, after a partial action warning is removed, not much changes. I am always careful to explain this to site owners when I first take them on as clients, but it seems that many of them, despite my warnings, are still expecting to see a return to top rankings once their penalty is lifted. Now, don’t get me wrong; some sites do show improvement, as I will show you soon. But with a partial action the improvement is rarely drastic.

There are three types of traffic patterns that I tend to see once a partial action warning has been removed:

Outcome #1 (most common): No improvement

Unfortunately, for many sites that have a partial action revoked, here is what I usually see in their analytics data:

Partial action revoked - no improvement

It is heartbreaking for a small business owner to go through months of work evaluating and removing backlinks that they had paid for a well-known SEO company to create, get their penalty revoked, and then see absolutely no improvement.

Why would there be no improvement after a partial manual action is revoked? For many sites, the only reason why they were ranking well before their penalty was because of the power of unnatural links. In most cases, these businesses have paid an SEO company to improve their rankings. Often, the SEO company has stated that their techniques all fall within the Google Quality Guidelines, and so the site owners are happy to see the great results and have no idea that a penalty could happen. (I wrote about this type of problem about 18 months ago. Many said that I was wrongly criticizing SEOs and that my article should have been targeted only at cheap overseas link builders, but I have seen many sites that were penalized after hiring well-known, reputable SEO companies that used low-quality methods to obtain links on a large scale.)

For the site whose analytics chart is shown above, the rankings were primarily gained through submissions to low-quality directories, bookmarks, and article syndication. Once the penalty was given, Google stopped counting the PageRank that was formerly received from these links. The resulting drop in link equity resulted in a decrease in rankings. But, the work that was done to remove the partial action warning, did not do anything to replace that lost link equity. When those links were removed (or disavowed) there were very few links left to support rankings. For many sites that have a partial action warning, the result, once the spam action is revoked is that nothing changes.

So, why would a site even go through the trouble to get the penalty removed? Are they doomed no matter what? No! It is certainly possible for a site to see improvement some time later. For example, if a site escapes Penguin (because the work that was done to get rid of the partial match action is the same work that needs to be done to escape Penguin), or if a site starts to gain natural links (either through good SEO efforts or naturally), then improvements can happen. Those improvements would not have happened if the work was not done to escape the manual action. I sometimes look at a partial match warning as a bit of a blessing. Most sites that get demoted by the Penguin algorithm have no way of knowing whether or not they have done the work necessary to be released from the jaws of Penguin. But, if you have done the work required to get rid of a partial match penalty, then you likely know that you have done enough to escape Penguin as well.

Although many sites see no immediate improvement once their partial match warning is lifted, there are some sites who do see an immediate improvement.

Outcome #2: Some improvement, but not a complete recovery

This can happen when the manual action is just affecting certain keywords. But, unfortunately, in my experience, there is no real way of knowing whether just certain keywords are being penalized or whether the penalty is on the whole site.

An example of a situation where a site would be penalized just for certain keywords would be if you had widespread publication of a widget in which you linked back to your site using keyword anchor text. If you have used the anchor text, “Widget provided by pretty green dresses,” there is a possibility that Google has given you a keyword penalty for “pretty green dresses.” Once the penalty is lifted, provided that your site has enough natural links and relevance to support rankings for “pretty green dresses,” then you may see some improvement that happens within days of getting the penalty lifted.

Here is a quote from Matt Cutts where he describes how Google could penalize a site on a keyword level:

Matt Cutts on Widgets

Here is an example of a site that had been penalized for a particular set of keywords and saw a slight increase in rankings once their partial action was lifted:

Partial action. Partial recovery.

The site had been penalized for some main keywords. Once the penalty was lifted, some of those keywords started to see a return to first-page rankings (but only to the bottom of the first page rather than their former #1 rankings, which is why the recovery is not more dramatic).

In some cases, if a site has been penalized for just certain keywords, recovery from a partial action can be close to 100% if the site has a really good base of natural links, but in my experience this does not happen often.

Outcome #3: No immediate recovery, but improvement happens once Penguin refreshes

A site usually cannot escape from Penguin until Google refreshes the Penguin algorithm. For sites that see no improvement (or only a small improvement) when their manual penalty is lifted, it is very possible that there will be further improvement the next time that Penguin refreshes. For the two analytics charts shown above, these sites have not seen a Penguin refresh since their penalty was lifted. (The last refresh at the time of writing this article was October 5, 2013 and both of those sites had penalties lifted later on in October.) I suspect that once Google refreshes Penguin, these sites will see some improvement. See the section below on Penguin recovery for more information on what to expect when a Penguin hit site escapes the Penguin algorithm.

2. Removal of a sitewide manual action penalty

If you have a sitewide penalty, you will see something like this in your manual actions viewer in Webmaster Tools:

In this case, a yellow alert tells you that “This site may not perform as well in Google results because it appears to be in violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.” Google then adds the following message with a bit more detail:

Google has detected a pattern of unnatural artificial, deceptive, or manipulative links pointing to pages on this site. These may be the result of buying links that pass PageRank or participating in link schemes.

In most cases, a site with a sitewide manual action will not be ranking in Google for their brand terms, and quite often, even a search for their url will fail to show the site. This type of penalty is devastating. Usually this penalty comes as a result of very obvious manipulation of the search engine results. Every site that I have worked on that had a sitewide penalty had been involved in a variety of link schemes including purchasing links, creating large numbers of interlinked microsites or very widespread creation of spammy backlinks.

The steps that need to be taken to remove a sitewide penalty are exactly the same as you would take for a partial match penalty, but the results are usually more rewarding. Once a sitewide penalty is removed, there is almost always an increase in traffic, although often it is just for brand terms.

Here is a site that showed a significant improvement once their sitewide penalty was removed:

Sitewide penalty recovery

It looks impressive, doesn’t it? Within a couple of days of getting their penalty removed, the site started to rank extremely well again for brand terms. Traffic increased dramatically almost overnight. However, did you notice that I didn’t show you the whole picture? Unfortunately, I don’t have a screenshot that shows the traffic prior to getting penalized. This site previously was getting several times this amount of traffic. When the sitewide penalty was lifted, the branded traffic increased, but the site did not regain most of their non-branded keyword rankings as those were primarily propped up on the power of links that Google is no longer counting.

While some sites only see a return for brand terms after a sitewide penalty is revoked, we have seen a number of sites that have had very dramatic improvements across the board. Here is a site that was hit severely with a sitewide penalty. Within 24 hours of receiving notification that their manual spam action was revoked, they began ranking well for brand terms. A few days later, the majority of their keyword rankings returned as well:

Sitewide penalty revoked

When a sitewide penalty is removed, in my experience, it usually takes 24-48 hours for brand terms to start ranking highly again. However, sometimes there can be a very painful tumultuous week where rankings come and go and may change depending on which data center you are seeing your Google results. We have one client right now for whom we successfully removed their sitewide penalty a few days ago. Within two days, we could see them ranking #1 for their URL, but brand terms were nowhere to be seen. However, the client could not see the #1 URL ranking. (And no, personalized search was not an issue.) The following day, the rankings were gone on our searches in the morning and then we could see the URL and brand terms raking again by the afternoon. Those rankings are still visible to us. But, the changes took a few extra days to be visible to our client who is in a different hemisphere and is likely seeing results from a different Google data center. If you have received notice that your sitewide penalty has been revoked, then please know that it can take a week (or possibly longer) for the Google results to fully show that your site is no longer being penalized.

On a similar note, in regards to both sitewide and partial actions, if you have received a message saying that your penalty has been revoked, but your manual spam actions tool is still showing a penalty, don’t worry, it will lift. It can sometimes take up to a week for the manual spam actions tool to show “no manual actions“.

3. Penguin recovery

There are not many published cases of Penguin recovery. Escaping Penguin is certainly possible—we have seen it! But, it is not easy. The work that needs to be done is very similar to what needs to be done to recover from a manual unnatural links penalty. Start with identifying the links that were made with the intentions of manipulating the search engine results. Then, disavow those links. It is debatable whether or not you need to remove links in order to escape Penguin or whether disavowing is enough. If you control the source of the links and can easily remove them, then definitely remove them. But, contacting site owners and keeping a record of your work will not likely make a difference for an algorithmic issue like Penguin, as no webspam team member is going to be checking your work. Some would argue that it is good to do so in case you ever do get manually reviewed, but my personal recommendation at this time is to remove unnatural links that you control, and then disavow the rest. Make sure you disavow them on the domain level.

It’s also important to note that Penguin is not completely about links. You will also want to clean up on site issues such as keyword stuffing as well.

To escape Penguin, you will need to wait until Google refreshes the Penguin algorithm. And, in some cases, you might even need to wait for two refreshes. In this webmaster central hangout, at the 38 minute mark, John Mueller explains that in order to completely recover from Penguin, the links in your disavow file have to all be recrawled and the algorithm has to refresh, and in some cases that whole process can take six to 12 months to be fully completed. Penguin does not refresh on a regular basis; it can sometimes be six months in between refreshes. The last announced refresh was October 4, 2013. (Some believe that there are occasionally unannounced refreshes, but I’m not sure if I agree.)

So, let’s assume that you have done a thorough backlink audit, removed links where possible, disavowed the vast majority of your unnatural links, cleaned up any spammy on-site issues, and Penguin has refreshed. Now what? Will you see an increase in traffic?

The answer to this depends on what remains once you have done the cleanup.

If you have very few truly natural links, then you likely will not see much improvement once Penguin refreshes. Here is the analytics data from a site that was affected by the initial rollout of Penguin. The site owner did a thorough link cleanup and disavow, but unfortunately did not see any improvement when Penguin refreshed.

Penguin hit - no recovery

The reason for this is most likely that the site was only ranking previously because of the power of unnatural links. In order to see improvement, they are going to have to be able to attract some good links and in some niches that is no easy feat. Gone are the days where a small site can outrank the big brands simply because an SEO was able to build thousands of keyword anchored links. In order to rank well these days you truly need to have an exceptional site that can rank on its own merit and not only because of SEO tricks. A good SEO will work on ways to improve the entire user experience and promote the site properly so that it can gain natural links and not just focus on a “quantity” over “quality” type of linkbuilding campaign.

If you do have a site with a good base of links beneath the unnatural ones, then it is possible to see some improvement once Penguin refreshes. The Penguin algorithm is Google’s way of saying, “We don’t trust this site because they have a history of cheating to get good rankings in the past.” If the Penguin algorithm is viewing your site unfavorably, then even your good links do not help you much. But, if you can clean up the signals that caused Penguin to dislike you, then, when Penguin refreshes, your good links regain their power. Here is a site that had a decent base of links underneath a large number of unnatural links. They were hit by Penguin on April 24, 2012. They eventually did a thorough cleanup, and on October 4, 2013, it appears that they escaped the algorithm:

Penguin recovery - partial

In my experience, when a site recovers from Penguin, this type of pattern is usually what we see. It makes sense that the site would not bounce back to its original rankings as some of those rankings were propped up by links that are now recognized as unnatural. It looks like this site was able to attract some new links but those links had only a small effect until Penguin refreshed and recognized that the site had now reformed. Now, as this site gains new natural links, it should continue to improve.

Here is another site that worked extremely hard to clean things up, and was rewarded on the October 4, 2013 Penguin refresh. This site has an excellent base of natural links and continues to gain links on a regular basis. They made the mistake of buying links in the past and those purchased links along with some low quality directory and bookmark links caused the Penguin algorithm to put the site in a bad light. Doing a thorough cleanup of the unnatural links allowed the site to escape Penguin. And now, their new links that have accumulated since April of 2012 are able to really help the site.

Penguin recovery example

Full Penguin recoveries like this are not common. You will read many articles of people telling you what you need to do to recover, but I believe that there are few SEOs out there who are consistently recovering Penguin-hit sites. In my experience, unless you have a good site that can attract links on its own, recovery from Penguin is going to be difficult.

As a side note, we have seen sites recover when Penguin refreshed two weeks after filing a disavow, so it doesn’t always have to take as long as six months to a year to see improvement. But, if you have a good site with good links and you have done a thorough cleanup, but you are still seeing dismal rankings, unfortunately you may need to be patient and ride through a couple of Penguin refreshes before you can tell if things are going to improve. I really wish that Google would allow site owners have some sort of indication as to whether or not their site is currently being devalued by Penguin. I can understand that one of the reasons that they don’t do this is because this would help spammers to determine what is and isn’t effective. But, it is extremely frustrating for site owners whose livelihood depends on business coming from their website and don’t know whether they need to do more clean up or not.

A few added thoughts

Many people believe that once a site has been penalized, it will always be penalized in Google’s eyes. According to John Mueller of Google, this is not true. In this hangout, John says, “If you’ve had a manual action on your website and that’s been revoked, then essentially there’s no bad history attached to your site. It’s not harder to rank anymore….It’s not the case that there is any kind of a grudge that our algorithms would hold against a site that has had a manual action.

You may have noticed that I have not shown any examples where rankings dropped after a penalty was removed. Many people are concerned that filing a disavow file will cause your site to drop even lower in rankings. The truth is that any link that is worthy of being disavowed has likely already been discounted by Google. We have yet to see a site that had its ranking decrease after filing a disavow file. In theory, this is possible, if you are disavowing truly natural links. But, even when we have sites where we have had to disavow a large number of links from authoritative sites (because of things like wide-scale keyword-anchored guest posting or paid infographic placement), rankings did not decrease.

Hopefully this article has helped to explain what you can expect once your link-based penalty has been removed. It’s rarely an easy process to recover from a manual or algorithmic devaluing, but it certainly can be done.

I should also note that the scenarios described above depict my experiences over the last couple of years of doing penalty removal work. It is certainly possible that other outcomes can happen. If you have seen something different, please do leave a comment!

Have a question? Leave a comment and I am happy to see if I can help.

The Science of Great Digital Content Ideas

The author’s posts are entirely his or her own (excluding the unlikely event of hypnosis) and may not always reflect the views of Moz.

“Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.”
— John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck has a point. Outside of being one of America’s most celebrated authors he was also a man that understood the life or death importance of ideas in the context of content.

As a lowly magazine journalist I remember routinely being told that “ideas are the lifeblood of content strategy” and that lesson has lived with me ever since.

It’s why I have spent thousands of hours since the early 2000s iterating my own process to maximize the output from time spent working on creating them.

Creativity as a process

It seems strange, then, to suggest that the process of creating brilliant ideas consistently should be just that: a “process.” After all, isn’t creativity best performed in an environment free from constraint and boundaries? There is evidence to suggest that is the case, but in practice structure ensures that those ideas are consistently award-winning and hit-you-between-the-eyes awesome.

But why is this even important in the first place? I’m sure I don’t have to convince you, as a learned reader of this blog, that content strategy is now the heartland of any effective digital strategy. Content, after all, is what has been creating audiences for thousands of years, and that will not change anytime soon.

In fact, it’s perhaps even more important than you are led to believe, and nobody puts it better than Yahoo! co-founder Jerry Yang when he said:

“I think that it’s always possible to have a great company if you have great ideas.”

Great ideas permeate every level of an organization, and so while this is focused squarely on digital content ideation, a similarly structured approach will produce equally consistent results across the board. And given that the biological process behind creating ideas (more on this later) is a real process our best bet is to mimic that as closely as possible in the physical world.

The problem with ideas

By their very nature ideas are subjective. Beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder, and so without any kind of structure, the ones that make it onto the final to-do list will often come from one or two that “shout loudest” in any open brainstorm scenario.

Before we even get into the actual structure, then, it is worth considering for a moment how you should set up the actual environment in which you plan to execute your ideation strategy.

Before you start

Deciding how often you want, or need, to create new ideas is the first step in the process, and this will be different for every business. If you are agency-side like us at Zazzle Media then the answer will be multiple times per month, but in house it really depends on how “big” your content ambitions are and an understanding of your audience in terms of what they want and expect you to create.

If you are working in-house at a large brand, then with multiple blog and social channels as well as work “off page” around digital PR, the answer may be once or twice per month. If you only have a single blog and do a “bit in social,” once every quarter may suffice.

How you answer this comes back to what you know about those you are writing for and also what resources you have to create the content.

The environment

The “where” of content ideation is critical to the success of the process. Working in the same room that is cognitively associated with mundane tasks can inhibit key synapses, or brain connections. What your brain is looking for, in simple terms, is to “loosen up.”

This is because our brains look for new experiences and stimulation and will work at their most creative when the three main areas known to be involved in idea creation are at their most relaxed. They are:

The executive attention network

This is the part of the brain used when you are really thinking hard, such as in a conference or client meeting, where concentration is critical. It links to memory, so you “store” those ideas for later and block distractions, allowing you to focus more intently.

The imagination network

This area of the brain is able to process the information and break it down, mixing it with past, present, and future scenarios to create possible new ideas.

The salience network

This monitors what is happening around you and passes the information to the appropriate area of the brain. It is the “switch,” if you like.

New surroundings help stimulate all of these key areas, and if you can get those participating in a meeting to go for a walk first, then you’ll also tick another key “creativity box” in releasing endorphins, which will serve to boost mental capacity even further.

To this end, we will often choose to run content meetings in the café within our offices, at a local bar/pub, or even outside (if the UK weather allows!).

The brainstorm

The key to great content strategy, of course, is variation. I have written previously about how you can check content flow, and it’s really important that you first understand the importance, and second are aware of how well you are performing against this critical content metric.

It’s important because of the way humans are built. For decades print publishers—especially in the world of magazines—have worked on improving the “flow” of their titles to ensure that avid readers keep coming back for more.

You can easily reverse engineer this and check it for yourself to see what I mean, but take my word for it; the more you are able to vary the type of content you produce, the better your return visitor stats will look and the larger your audience will grow.

This means that your brainstorm needs to be built to extract as many different ideas as possible, giving you the ammunition necessary to create such a strategy.

Here’s how. The chart below may look relatively simple, but it is the result of 12 years of trial and error, testing, blood, sweat, and tears to define the most effective roadmap for eking out the right mix of content, irrespective of niche.

The version you see here is a static version of the animated process you can play with by clicking on the image or right here (a version on our own site, which then links through to the various tools we use to make the process as effective as possible).

content ideation process

The idea is that you split each brainstorm into eight constituent parts. Let’s run through each stage in turn now…

1. The brief overall strategy

A critical component of any content process is to ensure there is a clear, shared understanding of the overall aim or strategy of the campaign. Like a company vision statement, it should permeate every level of the business and everyone working on the campaign should be able to recite personas and align everything to the overall aim of the work they are doing.

Sounds simple, but the number of times we see businesses without this kind of alignment has made this a very important first-port-of-call in the process.

It is a relatively easy entry into the overall ideation process and requires a simple conversation and initial centering of all ideas around the objective.

For instance, that may be “to grow an audience of 30-40-year-old white-collar workers who are into skiing.” Centering all ideation on that will keep ideas focused and in line with overall objectives.

An example idea: A series of image-based “how to” guides covering ski techniques (this site does a good job of this), distributed via targeted social amplification to our target demographic.

2. Data/personas

This then ties into a deeper conversation around what key data we have, or can create, to improve existing or “reach” audience insight.

A previous post of mine on the Moz Blog detailed a way in which we leverage data from social to help inform audience understanding, and often we will run this process beforehand to give us an initial swathe of audience profiling data.

This is also where existing persona detail will be shared so we can ensure that we are coming up with ideas fit for the different “types” of audience being targeted.

A 35-year-old married father of two working in insurance will be intrigued by very different content than a 60-year-old widower looking to invest cautiously for retirement when they are considering financial services businesses, for instance.

This is where we create those audience-centric ideas, and this section can often be one with the greatest depth.

Based on insight into our skiing business example, we may discover that there is a high correlation between our audience and those that also like surfing. If that is the case, an example idea may be a list-based feature looking at X ways in which surfing techniques can help you become a better skier.

3. Long-tail opportunity

Long tail is an increasingly major opportunity, especially for those leading their digital marketing charge with content creation. Google’s Hummingbird update is also designed to better surface more precise answers to queries, and that should mean more traffic for what traditionally we had traditionally known as the long tail.

Creating content that is based squarely on existing search volume as opposed to simply guessing and hoping it may attract visits is a critical component of any strategy.

The research for this can be carried out beforehand, but often we find it more useful to run tools such as Ubersuggest and Grepwords during the session to make it inclusive and more interesting. More people suggesting input phrases can also mean you end up with a wider selection of potential terms to run through.

The idea then is to prioritize those phrases either on potential search volume or ‘fit’ with the mix of the overall content plan.

Here is a snippet of what the former tool has surfaced for our skiing example; clearly there is opportunity to utilize this information in the formation of a daily article creation strategy:

4. Semantic phrases

The marketing world is awash with talk of entity search and semantic association. For those that haven’t the time or inclination to go away and read awesome guides on this area by the likes of Aaron Bradley or Moz’s own Matthew Brown, in simple terms it is the concept of organizing information by understanding individual “things” (entities) and their relationships with other “things,” without there already being an explicit link between them.

Semantic search understands those relationships, and therefore (in theory) the implicit part of any query, and can thus deliver a richer list of results.

Understanding what other phrases, or words, may be semantically linked can be useful in ensuring that you are “whole-of-market” going forwards, and can expand laterally into relevant content areas.

Few tools really help with this at present, well but one we do use is LSI Keywords, which provides a very simple way of exporting other similar or relevant keywords. Google’s own database of entities, Freebase, is also quite useful, and its search functionality will list other associated entries, giving you a simple map of subjects you could still cover while staying relevant. If you type the word into the top search bar, you are presented with a list of themes relevant to the topic:

You can further expand the list by clicking on the “view more” link at the bottom of the drop-down. This list can give you an amazing framework from which you can work on wider topic areas.

5. Trending content

One of the easiest ways to capture large amounts of new visitor traffic is to jump on existing conversations around trending content themes.

Again, it can pay to get everyone involved in the brainstorm to spend five minutes before the meeting researching news-related blogs, news sites, and social channels for ideas to expedite the process, but it is not impossible to do this live, either. Google Trends, Social listening tools, Fresh Web Explorer, and other tools can be great to get the latest angles on relevant themes.

These will obviously be time-sensitive, so it is important that you brainstorm for this content on a regular basis and leave placeholders within your content calendar for what you find. So, for instance, once a week (say every Wednesday) you’ll enter [news-led article], and the subject matter will be decided based upon the maximum possible impact.

The idea, also, is that you move the debate forward. Don’t simply rewrite what has already been said. Look for exclusive, interesting angles to throw in the mix.

For instance, if I use Social Mention to look at the latest skiing chatter, I soon discover that there is some cool content being shared via Facebook (use the search filtering options in the left column to drill down to specific platforms, sort by sentiment, and look for top users, etc.). Perhaps you can come up with Part Two to the epic “Star Wars Meets The Winter Olympics?”

6. Evergreen content

And then we come to one of the most important areas of all: evergreen content. Why is it so important? Quite simply, it’s the content you will put the most effort into perfecting, that will attract the most traffic, and that will have the most longevity.

It is imperative that you really understand the core concerns, frustrations and gaps in knowledge your audience has so you can fill those gaps in great detail and build trust, association, and engagement with your brand.

So, how do you go about working out what kind of content you should be producing here? The answer lies in keyword analysis, competitor analysis and audience data insight once again.

Tools like Searchmetrics can also help here; its long-tail opportunity tool can help you see what some of the most successful sites rank for alongside their traffic volumes and value. This makes finding the opportunities you don’t have and ranking them in order of priority that much easier. Sort by either volume or opportunity, and you have a list of content creation to-dos right there!

For this section to run smoothly, you should prepare a spreadsheet of keywords with search volumes for your target country. This will help validate any ideas that come out of the brainstorm. Ensuring that what you think is a good idea for a lengthy evergreen piece actually matches real-world search demand. If you’re putting in a heap of effort then this is crucial in ensuring positive ROI from the activity.

You should end up with a list of five to 20 ideas to go away and begin work on.

7. Content types

By now you should have a long list of possible ideas. The key at this point is to start classifying them into “content type” piles. To do this, create a spreadsheet with all the relevant content types for the brand along the top, and then drop in your ideas below. That way you can see which content types may be a little light on the ideas front, and you can further brainstorm around that specific area, filling in the gaps. Here’s an example of such a table:

8. Purchase funnel

The final discussion centres squarely on ensuring that the range of content covers the entire purchase funnel. For those that do not have the classic funnel engrained, you can see the various stages to the right here in the widely accepted classic purchase funnel, based on the AIDA principles first set out by marketer E. St Elmo Lewis.

AIDA stands for:

  • A – attention (or awareness): Attract the attention of the customer.
  • I – interest: Raise customer interest by focusing on and demonstrating advantages and benefits (instead of focusing on features, as in traditional advertising).
  • D – desire: Convince customers that they want and desire the product or service and that it will satisfy their needs.
  • A – action: Lead customers towards taking action and/or purchasing.

Classic Conversion Funnel

What regularly happens with ideation is a team will end up with lots of content that sits at the top of that funnel, helping with brand discovery and touching on consideration.

It is critical, however, to brainstorm content ideas that help people through that buying process and also help turn them into evangelists and long-term clients/customers.

This is where in-depth, unbiased buying guides and looking after your posts comes in. You can also improve retention with work to build a community around your offering (Moz is the perfect example!), offers and competitions, “exclusive” member clubs and offers, and so on.

We had this missing from the mix until around six months ago, but since introducing it we have managed to add a powerful new dimension to the overall content plan, and it works really well.

So, you now have your list of ideas. The next phase is then what we class as content planning, which is a subject all of its own. In short, you then need to distill those ideas into realistic, deliverable, concepts, and once you have that editing process complete you then place those ideas into an editorial calendar that can be delivered with the resources you have available.

Example for each stage of this funnel may include:

  • Exposure/awareness: The “Star Wars Meets the Winter Olympics” idea mentioned above.
  • Discovery: A thought-leadership piece on why the brand believes a new country is the next big “skiing Mecca”
  • Consideration: An expert buyer guide on the products and wider choices, such as the “best skiing holiday for under $1,000”
  • Conversion: Trust-building content, such as an honest comparison table comparing our brand with other competitors, proving why we are best.
  • Customer relationship: An amazing editorial email concept introducing them to the brand initially, with offers, etc.
  • Retention: Exclusive offers for those “in-the-club/VIPs” (existing customers).

That’s the process; here are the tools to help

There are a number of tools we use on a regular basis to make this entire process more efficient and effective. I have listed the best of them below to help you through the ideation process:

1. Ubersuggest – a popular long tail opportunity finder based on Google’s suggest feature of previously searched for phrases.

2. Grepwords – The Instant Keyword Tool provides downloadable ‘csvs’ of related keywords along with search volumes and CPCs.

3. Google Trends – This is generally a very useful tool to find trending content and check for demand but it’s especially useful when you use the 2013 round up of top searches. The how to guides could be gold dust for the right businesses?

4. Magazines – A less obvious “tool,” but certainly a great resource for great content ideas. Choose a specialist title for your niche.

5. Bottlenose – A great content-curation engine built to aggregate content based on social “noise” and sharing.

6. Content Idea Generator – not the best tool on the list here but it can help with idea structuring.

7. Topsy – An awesome Twitter-based analytics and analysis tool that can be used to see most shared content.

8. Inboxq – A great tool for surfacing key questions being asked so you can answer them and create content based on them.

9. Murally – This is a useful tool for helping to curate related concepts and ideas in one place

10. Flickr – A fantastic resource for visual content cues. Stick those you like on a board and you soon have a look and feel understanding.

11. Followerwonk – Useful for finding influencers around specific subject matter to see what’s being shared and engaged with in a space.

12. Trello – This is a great tool for organizing more complex ideas.

13. Quora – A fantastic resource for discovering longer-tail content opportunities to answer questions being asked.

14. Google+ circles – Follow the right groups, and they can be fantastic idea resources.

15. Ifttt – Not an idea tool in its own right, but the automation of certain tasks can make collating ideas so much easier.

16. Alltop – An easy one-stop-shop for latest subject matter articles and other content to ‘borrow’ ideas from!

17. Google Alerts – A must-have for the latest on your niche to help with trending content.

18. Zanran – A brilliant “search engine” for stats and facts, which helps with content based on compelling data.

19. Moz Alerts – Another useful tool for keeping an eye on trending content ideas and competitor activity.

20. LinkedIn Groups – Like Google+ Circles, these are fantastic for finding questions to answer.

21. Link Bait Title Generator – We love this simple tool. It may be limited in terms of ideas but it’s quick and simple to use.

22. Delicious –The original shareable content aggregator and still a great place to discover fantastic content ideas.

23. Trapit – A clever content curation tool that gets the right content to you efficiently

Pulling it together

The next stage of the process, as explained, is to then edit your final list of ideas down into a realistic list of concepts that you CAN deliver with the time and resources you have available, and that can be a significant amount of work in its own right.

Get it right though and you will end up with a content calendar filled to the brim with ideas that grow and engage your audience across every digital channel. That plan becomes the heartbeat of your entire digital marketing strategy.

5 Steps To Improving Search Rankings

5 Steps To Improving Search Rankings

I’ve shared this previously, but recently did a deeper dive on the subject with Eric Enge. This week’s blog post will be pretty short, then as the full interview can be seen of his Stone Temple blog. Basically, we covered the thinking behind my graph showing the order of priority I put on doing work today.

  • Content
  • Social
  • User Experience
  • Link Building
  • SEO

It might seem like old news, but I still think it’s worth a read. Eric asks some great questions and we get into a bunch of detail on each point.

Duane Forrester
Sr. Product Manager

Knowledge Graph 2.0: Now Featuring Your Knowledge

Sometime in January, Google quietly rolled out a change that I believe could revolutionize organic search. Currently, the impact is limited, and it may take months or years for the full effect to be felt, but the underlying shift is fundamental to the future of the Knowledge Graph and the delicate symbiosis between Google and webmasters.

Answer box 1.0

Let’s start at the beginning. I’ve written a lot about the current generation of answer boxes (sometimes called “direct answers” or “one-box answers”). These display quick answers to what are usually concrete questions. For example, if I want to know when the Willis Tower here in Chicago is open, I can search for [Willis tower hours] and get:

Google’s ability to understand questions has expanded significantly in the past couple of years, probably pushed forward even more by the Hummingbird update. For example, I can get the same answer box by querying [when is the Sears Tower open].

So, where is this data coming from? Typically, it’s coming directly from the Knowledge Graph, and you can spot it pretty easily. Here’s the Knowledge Panel for [Willis tower]:

I’ve added the red arrow – as you can see, the information in the answer box is taken directly from a property in the Knowledge Graph. You can easily reverse it, too, to create endless examples. Let’s take the property “Construction started: 1970” and turn it into a query, like [when was the sears tower built]. You’ll get another answer box:

Most of this information comes from a very limited number of sources, including Freebase, Wikipedia, and Google+. Freebase is structured in terms of entities and properties (think object-based, as opposed to article-based), which makes it a perfect fit for Knowledge Graph.

Google’s dilemma

There’s a problem, though. The main sources of data for the Knowledge Graph are curated by people. Ironically, Google is facing the same dilemma with Knowledge Graph in 2014 that led to the creation of internet search engines in the first place. Put simply, the scope of information is much too large, and growing too quickly, for any human-edited approach to scale. Google can’t just hire Wikipedia editors – they need a new data source.

Google is hardly blind to this problem. In a research paper published just this year, Google outlines the basic issue (hat-tip to Andrew Isidoro):

The paper goes on to explain a method of extracting missing knowledge graph data on demand, using Google’s existing search technology. Welcome to…

Answer box 2.0

Luckily (for them), Google already has one of the largest data sources on the planet – their index of the worldwide web. What if, instead of looking for answers in a limited set of encyclopedic sources, Google could generate answers directly from our websites?

That’s exactly what they’ve done. For example, here’s what you’ll see at the top of a recent search for [social security tax rate]:

Unlike answer boxes based on the Knowledge Graph, this new format pulls its answer directly from third party websites, giving them attribution via the page title and link. In many ways, this is an additional organic result, and like all answer boxes in the left-hand column, it appears above “#1”.

These longer answers look more like search snippets, but there’s also a second version, triggered when Google can find a definitive answer on a third-party site. Here’s the new answer box for the query [September birthstone]:

This example includes a longer snippet, but the direct answer – “Sapphire” – is highlighted, more in the style of a traditional answer box. Again, the source page’s title and URL is shown below the snippet.

How do we know, beyond the third-party attribution, that this isn’t coming from the traditional Knowledge Graph? Try a variation on the query, like [september’s birthstone]. I get this result:

Here’s the answer box for a longer query [what is september’s birthstone]:

Interestingly, the short answer (“sapphire”) is no longer capitalized, because that’s how Google found it on the source page. In my personal testing, these variations weren’t consistent, so Google may be using some kind of query refinement. Regardless of that, it’s pretty clear that these answers are being generated on the fly.

The new number one

These answer boxes are essentially a new organic result, and clearly disrupt the traditional top results. So, where are these answers coming from, and how do you get one? We don’t have a lot of data yet, but in every case I’ve seen, the URL used to create the answer box also appears on page one of Google results. So, you have to already be ranking well on the term.

In most of the cases that I’ve seen so far (again, the data set is small), the answer is coming from the #1 organic position. For example, here’s the answer box and #1 result I get for [marine corps’ birthday]:

So, is essentially getting two listings on this SERP. In some cases, though, the answer is coming from a result lower on page 1. Here’s the answer box and part of page 1 for [richest man in the world]:

In this case, Time Magazine gets credit for the answer box, even though it’s all the way down in #8, and Forbes has all three of the top organic spots. What’s even worse is that Time article directly cites Forbes as the source, even in the search snippet. So, what’s going on here?

I suspect this comes down to fairly basic on-page factors. The main Forbes article is a bit design-heavy (it has limited crawlable text) and uses an “infinite” scroll approach. None of the Forbes pages directly mention the phrase “richest man in the world”, especially in proximity to Bill Gates’ name.

What if I change my query to something that Forbes targets better, like [world’s richest people]? Here’s the result I get (all of these searches are incognito, but I can’t rule out some sort of query history effect):

It’s interesting that Google seems to be inferring that I want to know the world’s richest person (and is bolding “Bill Gates”), but doesn’t feel that the answer is definitive enough to break it out as a short answer. Even since starting this post, Google has made refinements to the matching system, but currently it seems like on-page keyword targeting is fairly critical.

It’s just the beginning

Google clearly has a long way to go. Some of the answer boxes are pretty ridiculous. Take, for example, a search for [hair color]:

This is a pretty ambiguous query, and it doesn’t seem well suited for any kind of answer box (let alone one that’s one step away from a salon advertisement). Expect Google to put a lot of time and money into improving this system over the next year.

While this post is focused on answer boxes, Google is using a similar approach to expand knowledge panels. For example, here’s a search for [biology]:

Notice the “Related topics” section – only one of those results is coming from Wikipedia. Google is building a decent chunk of this knowledge panel on sites in their index. The attribution on these is much more subtle – only the small, gray text goes to the source site. The blue links (except for “Wikipedia” at the top) go directly to more Google searches.

Is the balance shifting?

It’s easy to see how this progression is inevitable – Google has to expand the Knowledge Graph, and they can’t rely on human editors and static data sources. While this data may be good for users, it represents a shift in the balance between Google and webmasters. There’s always been an implied symbiosis – Google crawls our sites and extracts information, but they send us traffic in return. We may not always like how they do things, but the end result has benefitted millions of site owners.

What happens when a user can get a simple answer quickly, and that answer is extracted from a third party page and cannibalizes the organic clicks? What happens when third-party data is being used not to drive traffic to the source, but to more Google searches? It seems to me that the symbiosis is threatened.

For now, there’s not much you can do. You can work to retune your on-page content to appear in these new entities, but you do so at the risk of harming your own organic traffic. It’s probably better to be in the answer box than let your competitor be there, but it’s hardly an ideal choice. The best I can say is to be aware of your money terms – not just how you’re ranking, but how those SERPs actually look in context. At some point, we may all have to decide if giving away our data is worth what we get in return.

Getting Reviews the Right Way for Local Businesses

The author’s posts are entirely his or her own (excluding the unlikely event of hypnosis) and may not always reflect the views of Moz.

It’s the bane of every business that relies on local traffic: reviews. Reviews are not new to business. We have been dealing with them in business since we had businesses and people could talk. In the last few years, we have been able to participate in the conversations that happen between consumers. Local reviews are just an extension of word of mouth marketing. It’s a permanent record of consumer’s thoughts of your business much like social media.

The worst part is having no reviews, or having reviews (GLOWING reviews) from real customers, and Yelp doesn’t show or count them. Reviews are the links of the local world. They drive new business and are imperative to growth. However, if you ask for one or incentivize their posting, they might not count.

Yelp Review Guidelines:

“You shouldn’t ask your customers to post reviews on Yelp.”

Google+ Review Guidelines:

“Reviews are only valuable when they are honest and unbiased … Don’t offer money or product to others to write reviews for your business or write negative reviews about a competitor. We also discourage specialized review stations or kiosks set up at your place of business for the sole purpose of soliciting reviews.”

What’s a business owner to do?!

Learn from link building

This is going to come at an odd time as link building (guest posting) is hot in the search media right now, but the link building world has been through this exact situation and local businesses can learn from it.

Don’t chase tactics. Look for inspiration from other businesses but modify ideas to your business and your users. Just like link building, if your reviews show up in a pattern, that pattern is detectable by a computer algorithm and will likely be discounted.

Anything that is pattern-based is detectable, including:

  • IP address of the reviewer: Never ask for reviews from your location(s).
  • Timeline: This means if a number of reviews come in together over a period of time, think all in one day or one week. It reflects that they were asked to leave a review in one big push.
  • Same phrases: If many reviews use the same phrasing, it can look orchestrated.

Scale is the enemy. Along the same lines as the patterns discussion above, trying to scale reviews is going to produce detectable trends. Don’t try to go out and get reviews en masse. You need them, yes, but a slow trend is the better way to get them. This brings us to the next point: influence.

Influence and integrate

We just covered what not to do; now let’s review how to go about getting reviews that are approved, shown, and can help grow your business. Just like links, reviews are best when they are placed there without your interaction, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore the matter completely. Businesses can influence people to leave reviews. Influence, not entice or coerce. Influence with communication.

Guaranteed reviews: knock down, drag-out fantastic customer service

This is the one solid way to get reviews without ever having to mention the word review. I’m talking Zappos, Nordstrom, and Amazon level of customer service. You treat your customers—all of them—like they are kings and queens. Give them no choice but to tell people about you. The following is a review for one of my favorite food trucks in Seattle:

This is a long time investment though and I know not everyone has the time or thinks about leaving reviews. You can’t make great customer service happen IRL sometimes, it’s not always you in control. Regardless, this is still the best long-term solution.

But businesses have immediate needs, so here is how to address getting more reviews now.

Define your customer lifecycle

The key is laying out the standard lifecycle of a customer. I am going to pick on a favorite local business that inspired this post: Dreamclinic Seattle. The blue is online interaction, purple is in-person interaction. You can get more color coded with medium (email, organic, yellow pages, etc.) but I went with simple.


The main point of outlining the customer lifecycle is to see the cycle part of it and realize you have more than one opportunity to influence a review. Most businesses that rely on reviews have a customer lifecycle. If you haven’t defined yours, do that now.

Integrate with all email marketing

1. Define email contact points

Once you have the customer lifecycle, add in when you normally contact your customers via email. You want to know when they are already online and thinking about you (this is key to online engagement!). There should be a few opportunities like newsletters, offers, post-purchase, post-visit, and confirmations. It doesn’t matter if you are selling a good or a service, there should be communication throughout the customer lifecycle.

2. When will the customer be in the right frame of mind to leave a review?

Now consider when the customer is going to be able to write the best review. Sometimes it’ll be almost immediately after the purchase, sometimes a few weeks after. For example: Dreamclinic needs to have a “Drink water!” reminder email an hour after a massage with a mention of social media and scheduling the next appointment (the mentions being side thoughts and the water being the main purpose).

3. Communicate for something other than a review.

Once you know when the best time is, line that up with a communication with the customer that is not about a review. Find another reason to get a hold of them. It can be a customer service survey or just a check in about their purchase. In this email, don’t attempt to sell them anything, be genuinely interested in how they are feeling. If you get a reply (an engaged customer), then be sure to mention (one-on-one) that you would appreciate a review.

Notice that this whole process is basically identifying people that want to leave a review, are engaged with your brand, and are conversing with you individually. There is nothing about scale here; it’s all about identifying people individually and helping them help your business.

Mention social media in all communication

Beyond email, you should be mentioning your best converting and favorite social media outlets for your business to your customers. Not for reviews, but for engagement. Reviews will come with engagement.

Start with the questions:

  • Where do you get the most community involvement?
  • Are you a new business? If so, where do your competitors see more engagement?

List those places, don’t just use Facebook and Twitter because you “should.” Once you know your top converting communities, mention them to your customers in all parts of the life cycle. Think about your business cards, mailers, receipts, the chalkboard outside, your menu, and more. Check out some inspiration I found from Heidi Cohen.

Remember, mention your online communities and integrate the mentions into the whole lifecycle, and the reviews will roll in naturally.

Speaking of local search issues, have you heard about the new Moz Local?

How Can Mobile SEO Help my Non-Mobile or Local Business?

Google recently said that mobile search volume could exceed desktop search volume by the end of 2014. Don’t panic, though; there’s quite a bit more nuance to the trend than most people realize.

In today’s Whiteboard Friday, Rand helps us understand that nuance, and talks about how we can level-up our mobile game in ways that will benefit our businesses regardless of whether and when Google’s forecast comes true.

Howdy, Moz fans, and welcome to another edition of Whiteboard Friday. This week I thought it was very interesting that Google came out and said mobile search volume may exceed desktop search volume by the end of 2014, by the end of year 2014. So next year, 2015, we might be living in a world where there are more searches on mobile devices than there are on desktops and laptops, which is fascinating. But I think it’s very important to take a few steps back and realize what’s going on here and then apply and say, “All right, how can mobile SEO, mobile search really help my business, even if I’m not a local-serving or a mobile-serving business?”

Well, all right. The first thing that I think is very important is in the statistic are some intricacies. They’re not flaws or inaccuracies, they’re just intricacies. Many searchers around the world, particularly in the regions that are growing the fastest, and we’re talking about a lot of parts of Southeast Asia, the Mid-East, Africa, South America, underdeveloped parts of North America, and Europe even are getting mobile before they get desktops and laptops. It’s also the case that many young people are using mobile devices before they’re using desktops and laptops, particularly in age groups where they’re not doing professional kinds of work yet.

So it’s often the case that you have to ask yourself, “Well, who really are the people who are really accounting for this growth?” It could very well be that they are not in your target demographic, psychographic, age range, all these types of groups, geographic groups.

It’s also the case that a lot of mobile devices now are offering a close-to-laptop experience. I mean one of the things that I was shocked by mobile not really changing all that much dramatically. It did have a lot of big changes and has had a lot of big changes on the world of technology and the world of how we use the Web and software. But one of the things that I was surprised about that didn’t happen is that it hasn’t taken away from those things. In a lot of ways that’s because the experience is so close to what you get with a desktop and laptop, particularly with very advanced devices. You can do so many of the things, close to almost of the things that you could do with a desktop or laptop. I almost think of my mobile device as just as a smaller, slightly-less-convenient-for-long-typing laptop. It’s pretty much like that.

So as you’re looking at the statistic, I think that a lot of companies, a lot of executives, a lot of marketing folks are going, “Oh my god, what’s our mobile strategy?” It is good to be asking that question, but you might not want to panic. One of the things that we did recently at Moz is we took a look at what is the percent of people who have ever tried to access our websites via mobile devices, and it turns out the percent was shockingly low. It was like 3% or 4%, I think less than 4% of people even today, which is up only slightly from last year, when it was like 3.5%. Now it’s like 3.7% or something of all of our visits come via any type of mobile device.

We don’t have responsive design or a great mobile experience on many of our pages, but we do on a few things, for example, on my personal blog, So we looked at, “Hey, is there a difference between people accessing, which is sort of very mobile-friendly versus the main blog, which is not mobile-friendly,” because that might tell us something about our audiences. We looked and there is a difference. It’s the opposite of what you would expect. The responsive-design-friendly one, my blog, gets an even lower percent of its traffic from mobile devices than the main Moz blog does.

So really mobile is not, at least not yet our audience. We’re still thinking about it of course, and in fact responsive design is on the list of the Inbound Engineering team. So in the next few months you should be seeing a mobile-responsive site for the very small percent of you who do like to browse Moz on mobile.

Doing that type of work, figuring that out, and looking at trend lines as well can be really helpful. The other thing I might urge you to do is think very carefully about, “Hey, I might want to be buying some advertising on places like Google and Facebook,” and looking at the percent of those advertising bodies that are on mobile versus desktop, because it could be the case that you’ve just trained your customers. For example, Moz, maybe we’ve trained our customers not to browse us on mobile because we don’t have a great mobile experience, and that’s what biasing.

So I would urge you to think about who these groups are, whether they’re in your world, those kinds of things, before you go figuring out whether this is a critical question to answer. The chances are though eventually it will be an important question to answer, and when it is, you need to think a little bit about the mobile user experience and what a mobile user can do for your business, especially if you’re not particularly focused on local or mobile types of searches today.

So a mobile user has these sort of buckets that I like to put into what they’re doing with their device when they perform searches in Google or in Bing. Those are sort of needs: I must find this place right now. I must get the hours for this. I must know when it’s open. Their wants: I’m interested in this. I want to price compare something. Their curiosity: I think probably almost half of the queries that I do have to do with who was in what particular movie at a dinner table. I suspect many of you are the same. And then there are fun sorts of things as well, people looking for games, looking for distractions. I browse Reddit and Hacker News, which I guess is some combination between work and fun, a lot on my phone, particularly if I’m in a store with my wife and she’s shopping and I don’t need to go shopping right then.

This is a little bit different in fitting into the classic informational, navigational, transactional models of search usage. But in mobile you can actually think of the vast majority of mobile queries falling into the informational and navigational. Transactional is still very low. E-commerce rates, conversion rates, email entry rates, a lot of those things where people do something and they enter data in and they complete some sort of call to action on mobile are still way, way, way lower than they are on desktop. The caveat to that being if you’re targeting a group of folks who mobile is their primary or only device, be aware that these rates may be much, much higher. If you’re dealing with US consumers who have mobile and have desktop/laptop, well, then transactional rates are likely to be much lower, and navigational and informational are most of the things that you’re going to want to serve.

Now, when it comes to mobile, I really think of mobile in a lot of the same ways that I think about social from a funnel perspective. So if I’m thinking about the marketing funnel and I have discovery, my first discovery of a brand, my first acknowledgement of its existence, and then my first experience, my first visit to that website, most of that mobile SEO should be done around these two things — the discovery and the first experience. I’ll talk about some tips and ways to do this. But what I really mean here is that you want visitors who come via these channels, who come via mobile search, in particular, to want to come back later, and that means providing an experience, providing a brand experience, providing a message that’s really clear about what your company, product, information can offer them and why they should return in the future, why they should like you and trust you, why you’re a good site for them to check out in the future when they might have more of those transactional things, because chances are they’re not going to do them on that first mobile experience.

Now, a few tips for mobile SEO. The first one maybe is the most critical. I worry most about that experience for informational and navigational searchers, and because I worry about that, there’s actually a way to figure out which pages are the most important. So what I can do, you can sort in your Google Analytics or whatever analytic system you’ve got, you can sort pages receiving traffic from search engines by mobile device. Then you’ll get kind of a list of URLs. You get that list of pages. These are the pages where Google sends traffic from mobile devices to my site today.

Now, in addition to obviously fixing up and making sure that these mobile experiences are positive, the caveat to this is Google does have some biasing on mobile. So they do look and they’ll say, “Hey, this site is not providing a great responsive design. The pages aren’t loading fast. It’s not targeted to the geography that we know the phone is in,” all these kinds of things, and so they may be actually reducing your mobile traffic. Thus, it might pay to do some experimentation on, “Hey, let’s take a group of these pages that are down here, that aren’t receiving much traffic. Let’s do some mobile SEO, and let’s see what happens, see if we can’t improve that. ” If that is the case, implementing some mobile SEO best practices, speeding up the pages, putting a responsive design in place, etc., if that can improve these, then you know what your opportunity cost is and where you might want to invest.

The second thing, you’ll see this as a mobile user, and many times pushing or forcing an app download on someone, while it does mean that you get them more into your fold potentially, assuming they ever use the app, it’s rarely the best user experience. In fact, oftentimes some of the folks who’ve done some of the most extensive testing, the online dating world is one of these where they’ve done a lot of testing of this, what they’ve found is providing a great experience or pretty good experience on mobile through the Web for searchers and then having just a slight message that is, “Hey, we have an app. You can do even more with our app,” that kind of thing, almost like an advertisement on the website actually works better than sort of the experience you get from LinkedIn or Yelp, where every time you visit on your mobile device they try and force you to download.

Now, LinkedIn and Yelp are very different because they are very mobile-centric and they do want that capture. Perhaps they are willing to sacrifice some of the usability and user experience. But you should be aware that Google might be looking at that, and if they’re seeing that pogo-sticking, people jumping away from the Yelp or LinkedIn page back to the search results, remember they might be downgrading and not letting those pages rank so well over time.

Third thing, even if you don’t have responsive design, and there are still many, many companies like Moz who don’t yet have responsive design, you can do a lot of things to improve the performance of your mobile pages, and that includes obviously speeding up download speeds, but limiting ads, particularly overlays. A lot of folks, especially in the technology and marketing industries and in a lot of B2Bs, have those popovers, the overlays that ask for an email capture or ask you to dismiss a message or those kinds of things, that can be a very frustrating experience on mobile because it’s so hard to close those. You have to sort of zoom in on my phone and then like hit that little tiny x. Extremely annoying, you can see those pogo-sticking rates going up again. So even just surfing around with your mobile device on your own site, figuring out if you should turn those off, that can have a positive impact.

Then number four, a lot of the testing that we’ve seen from folks who do conversion rate optimization is that with mobile limiting choice is even more valuable than it is on a desktop/laptop experience, and I think part of the reason for that is that you don’t have the opportunity to do as much investigation as easily and as quickly on a mobile device as you do a desktop/laptop. So limiting the choice on all sorts of things, on navigation, limiting choice on calls to action, limiting choice on sharing, for example, it can be really helpful. So a lot of the time, with content marketers, what you’re doing with mobile is trying to attract people whose first experience is going to be, “Wow, this content is really interesting. I might share this. I might Tweet it. I might share it on Facebook. I might put it Instagram.” Well, maybe Instagram not so much, but LinkedIn, Google+.

So that is somewhere where we’ve seen some of the very, very smart content sites, people like BuzzFeed and Upworthy, what they do is they look at how mobile traffic shares, and they say, “You know what? We’re actually not going to have four buttons. We’re only going to have one button. It’s only going to be the Facebook Share button,” or “It’s only going to be the Tweet button,” or “We’re going to look at how the visitor came to the page, and then we’re going to provide a sharing call to action based on that.” So for those of you who are doing content marketing, you might want to consider limiting that choice as well.

There’s lots and lots of other things that we can do with mobile SEO, but I think this is a good starting point and, especially considering Google’s announcement here, a timely one. So I look forward to all of the advice and comments down below, and we’ll see you again next week for another edition of Whiteboard Friday. Take care.

New Title Tag Guidelines &amp; Preview Tool

Google’s recent SERP redesign may not seem like a big deal to the casual observer, but at least one change could have a real impact on SEOs. This post will explore the impact of the redesign on title tags, and define a new, data-driven length limit, but first, a new tool…

Title tag preview tool (2014 edition)

Pardon the reverse order of this post, but we wanted to put the tool first for repeat visitors. Just enter your title and the search query keywords (for highlighting) below to preview your result in the redesign:

Note: Enter keyword phrases as natural queries, without commas. This preview tool only highlights exact-match text (not related concepts) and is only intended as an approximation of actual Google results.

How the redesign impacts titles

Google’s redesign increased the font size of result titles, while keeping the overall container the same size. Look at the following search result both before and after the redesign:

The title on the top (old design) has a small amount of room to spare. After the redesign (bottom), it’s lost six full characters. The old guidelines no longer apply, and so the rest of this post is an attempt to create a new set of guidelines for title tag length based on data from real SERPs.

It’s harder than it sounds

You may be thinking: “Ok, so gimme the magic number!”, but unfortunately it’s not that easy. While we try to set a reasonable length limit as a rule of thumb, the reality is that Arial (the title font) is proportionally spaced. Put simply, different characters have different widths. For example, the following two titles are both exactly 40 characters long:

As you can see, these two 40-character titles cover a wide range. Let’s break down what’s going on here…

(1) Narrow letters are narrow

Ok, that’s probably obvious, but let’s just put it out there. The first title is full of lowercase l’s and i’s which take up relatively little space. Meanwhile, m’s and w’s take up quite a bit more space. In this font, three lowercase l’s are actually narrower than one lowercase w.

(2) ALL CAPS take up more space

Capital letters are wider than lowercase letters – again, not a big surprise. All-caps titles also tend to be hard to read and are the visual equivalent of shouting. In some cases, like “LEGO” above, capitalization is important and necessary. In other cases, like “BRIDGEWATER COMMONS”, it’s just noise.

(3) Width varies with the query

Google highlights (bolds) the query keywords, so a longer query will bold more keywords. Bolded characters take up slightly more space. So, even if you found a title that just squeezed into the width limit, the actual display of that title would change depending on the keywords searchers use to find it.

(4) Cut-off titles have less characters

Google is cutting off titles with CSS, and the browser appends “…” whenever a title is truncated. So, a title that’s just slightly too long and gets cut will actually be shorter than a title that barely squeaks in under the width limit, due to the additional space required by “…”.

Data from real-life searches

In order to really understand what’s happening to title tags in the wild, we need to collect the data. So, we set about looking at real searches to understand where title tags were getting cut off after the redesign. Before I get into the methodology, I’d like to thank Bernt Johansson, founder of Swedish SEO firm Firstly for his generous help in hacking together this particular jQuery monster.

We looked at page 1 search results for 10,000 queries. Since not all SERPs have 10 results, this resulted in 93,438 total search results. An encoding error caused some issues with special characters, requiring us to toss out some bad data – this left us with 89,787 titles to work with. Query highlighting was preserved from the original searches. This data was all collected from using English search queries.

Since Google is truncating the titles using CSS, we have to replicate them as rendered (not just look at source code). Once the titles were extracted, each of them was displayed in a browser (Chrome on Windows 7) at the same size and width as a Google desktop search (18px Arial in a 512-pixel wide <div>). Then, a somewhat bizarre combination of JavaScript, jQuery, AJAX and PHP stored the display length for analysis. Due to minor variations, our display lengths could vary from Google’s by ±2 characters.

Means, distributions & confidence

Sorry, it’s about to get mathy up in here. Let’s look at just the titles that were truncated by Google, to find out how their lengths varied. This leaves 28,410 titles for analysis. I can tell you that the mean (average) length of those titles was 57.7 characters, but don’t run off just yet. If the distribution of these lengths was normal, then setting the mean as a reasonable limit would mean that half of the titles at that length would still get cut off. That’s hardly ideal. Also, this doesn’t account for the titles that weren’t cut off.

Just out of curiosity, though, let’s look at the overall distribution of cut-off title lengths (post-cut-off):

The good news is that this distribution is roughly normal, peaking at about 57-58 characters. Post-cut-off title tags ranged in length from 42 to 68 characters. Here’s a title cut off at 42 characters:

Again, all-caps titles take up more space, and the query (“anywho reverse lookup”) is fairly long. Here’s a title that makes it up to 68 characters after being cut off:

In this example, the query is short (“Giftster”), the title only has two capitalized words, and there are quite a few lowercase l’s and i’s in play. Keep in mind that all of the lengths in the graph above are after the cut-off. Gifster could probably get away with 1-3 more characters beyond what’s displayed. We also need to consider the pre-cut-off length and account for the ellipsis.

So, how do we turn this all into something that’s actually useful? What do we really want to know? Ultimately, we want to find a reasonable length at which we can be fairly confident our titles won’t get cut off. At each length, I looked at what percentage of titles were cut off. Since the distribution is fairly normal, longer titles were (as expected) more likely to get cut off. Here are the cut-off lengths at five different levels of confidence:

  • 80% – 57 characters (81.6%)
  • 90% – 56 characters (91.6%)
  • 95% – 55 characters (95.8%)
  • 99% – 53 characters (98.7%)
  • 99.9% – 49 characters (99.9%)

Since character lengths are integers, we can’t hit the 80%, 90%, etc. marks right on the money, so these are the closest numbers (the actual percentages are in parentheses). Maybe I’m biased by my statistics background, but I tend to think 95% is a pretty reasonable level. Put simply, if all of your title tags were exactly 55 characters long, then you could expect about 95% of them to be left alone (1 in 20 would be cut off).

There’s no magic number

I feel comfortable saying that 55 characters is a reasonable title-length limit under the new design, but keep in mind that your title lengths may vary quite a bit. In addition, a cut-off title isn’t the kiss of death – Google still processes keywords beyond the cut-off (including for ranking purposes), and other formats, like vertical results and Google+, may display your full titles. Here’s an example from Google news vertical results:

In this example, the first news result actually displays the full title of the article, whereas the second result is truncated. Ultimately, if you’re really concerned about any given result, you need to see it for yourself. In some cases, a mysterious trailing “…” may even make a title more clickable (I wouldn’t bank on it, but it’s possible).

In many cases, like blog posts titles, it’s not worth going back and revising everything based on this new data. I’d look closely at your core pages, view the SERPs for your target keywords, and make sure that your snippets look the way you’d like them to. Use your judgment, and keep the guideline in mind for future SEO efforts, but don’t start hacking at characters. Google could change the rules again.

When Building Communities Isn’t the Best Way to Build Links

I entered SEO as a link builder. In 2010, my job was easy and my toolset mainly consisted of article marketing software, directory submissions, comment posting and link networks. Fast forward four years >> I now solely create visually engaging content in an effort to scale link building. I didn’t make this career shift because “link building is no longer effective;” quite the opposite: I changed focus from manual to scalable link building because I now work in more competitive industries and my clients generally need 100+ links per asset to move the needle—content helps me meet that demand to acquire large amounts of new linking root domains at once.

Over the past two years I’ve become obsessed with content (and Reddit, unfortunately). I’ve started to keep the companies that are producing the best and most successful digital content on my radar. Two companies that have recently started to stick out are Movoto and Airbnb. Both are scaling link acquisition via content, but they are going about it in entirely different ways. Airbnb is growing its own grassroots community, while Movoto is actively targeting existing and passionate online communities with its content marketing.

Before we dive in, both companies are growing rapidly in terms of organic search according to SEMrush:


AirBnB SEMrush


Both of these companies are starting to do exceptionally well in the SERPs, primarily due to either growing (Airbnb) or targeting (Movoto) an audience.

Perception, product, and content

Airbnb and Movoto are both trying to rank for extremely competitive terms, however their content marketing strategies couldn’t be further from each other, and that fact hinges mainly on two aspects of these businesses’ models:

  1. The length of the customer purchase journey
  2. The probability of repeat purchases

First, let’s think about both of these sites’ customer purchase journeys and their customer lifetime value (LTV). Airbnb is selling rentals, which someone could need multiple times a year. Movoto is selling homes. The price point and level of commitment required from the customer are wildly different. More importantly, people generally only look for a new home during or after a major life event, like marriage, death, having a baby, or getting a new job. On the other hand, you could decide to take a random weekend ski trip at 4:15 p.m. on a Friday and book an Airbnb almost instantly. If Airbnb customers really enjoy their Airbnb experience, there’s a good chance that they will rent another Airbnb and continue to add to the company’s bottom line. However, no matter how awesome a time someone has buying a home, there’s a very small chance that they will decide to repeat the experience anytime soon.

Movoto and Airbnb’s business models differ in the sense that Airbnb is incrementally extracting value out of customers over a long period of time, while Movoto is most likely getting 100% of the customer’s LTV at the first purchase.

For Airbnb, creating their own community is a pragmatic marketing strategy for keeping users engaged. I theorize that’s why most of Airbnb’s content is either about their business, their community of users and hosts, or about their product.

Where Airbnb is winning in content

  • Really unique homes: Some of the listings on Airbnb are naturally link worthy, like this igloo or this treehouse. As Airbnb grows, and more interesting and unusual listings pop up, these interesting listings will continue to scale Airbnb’s link acquisition.

“The Airbnb Neighborhoods were created to help guests visiting a certain city finding the right place to stay. Where hotels tend to be concentrated in one part of town, Airbnb’s are more spread out. We have found that the Neighborhoods are not only helping our guests to find the right place which matches their interest, but also help the cities to see guests traveling to parts of those cities which usually are overlooked by tourists. This has had a profound economic impact on local businesses, and their Neighborhoods.

The Neighborhood pages have been created with the typical guests & hosts in mind first. Delivering a best in class user experience, both from a content standpoint, as well as making it easy to navigate, has proven to be successful for Airbnb. This is where I would like to point out that content does not only include the written text, but the story is told in the form of images, which were specially taken for this project with the storyline in mind. This gives every page a unique peek into the characteristics of the Neighborhood, which makes these so useful for people planning to visit that city, as well of the locals exploring their own city.”

  • Product/community blog: Airbnb has a bit of a leg up here in terms of link acquisition. Because they are a prominent company disrupting an established industry, pretty much anything they do is newsworthy. However, when you take a look at their blog, it’s not so much a place for them to market themselves as it is a forum to address critical issues, consumer concerns, and changes with the product. It’s racked up a lot of links over time (1900+ linking root domains), but it’s racked up way more hearts and minds—and most likely converted a fair amount of users into first time renters by alleviating their pain points while researching the product.

  • One-off content marketing efforts: The Airbnb Annual Report is an amazing piece of content marketing – but it also speaks to how savvy Airbnb is when it comes to marketing itself. By showing the community how quickly Airbnb is growing (and how much money is out there for hosts to make) Airbnb is educating people about the company trajectory, its product and the future of the industry as a whole – all through beautiful, product-centric, interactive content.

The overarching theme of Airbnb’s content

All of Airbnb’s content keeps the brand, its product and the Airbnb community in the front of the users mind. Airbnb relies on a community in order to function, and because that community is inclusive, empathetic and charitable—it’s one of the most marketable aspects of the Airbnb brand. Airbnb also faces certain challenges—like regulation and challenges from the hospitality industry. Because their business model is still being established, they need those hearts and minds on their side to fight for them and champion their product.

Movoto is taking a different path

Because a home purchase is so infrequent, constantly trying to grow a community through ongoing social media and brand-centric content marketing could get tiresome for readers, especially because those interacting with the brand would most likely have little motivation to purchase a home until a major life event occurs. However, Movoto still needs to scale link building, and in order to do that without building a community of their own, they must engage an audience in a way that causes them to share and tweet the content they produce.

Targeting existing audiences

Movoto creates content that appeals to pre-existing audiences. They are also great at picking their subject matter—they choose topics that are popular enough to be covered in mainstream press, but also appeal to the hardcore niche fanboy sites.

Their most successful content takes some type of pop-culture reference or hot topic, applies it to real estate, and then earns press from both big news sites and mid-level authority blogs. The Harry Potter Hogwarts Property Evaluation Infographic may be the best example of this strategy in action:

It’s earned links from over 140 domains including mainstream sites like Daily Mail, Fox News, and Daily Finance, and it also earned links from fan sites like Nerdophiles, Toy To The World, and Potter Talk.

Movoto is creating and marketing useful, fun and informative content that directly appeals to a particular niche audience—but it also has a larger mainstream appeal. Because Movoto executes content well in terms of information and visuals—they are racking up links and quickly rising in the rankings. They’ve also produced a number of successful interactives, like How Many Legos Would it Take to Build your House, or alternatively How Many Tetris Blocks.

Many of Movoto’s blog posts have earned over 100 linking root domains, primarily due to their ability to target an audience that will engage and share content online. Because they don’t have to structure their communication around a growing community, like Airbnb, they are free to be pretty creative with their subject matter and publish things that are going to get a strong response (like 54,000 shares on Facebook for that post alone).

Community building isn’t for everyone. It’s best suited for communal products

As digital marketers we’re quick to champion new strategies that result in increased traffic, links and social shares—but it’s important to consider how our marketing efforts fit with the overall business model. After all, it’s not just links and shares we’re after, we are all trying to grow businesses in the most cost effective manner possible.

Community building really only makes sense for communal products. So, while it’s the perfect growth strategy for a product like Airbnb, it makes no sense for a real estate site like Movoto. If you’re stressing over social singles and your lack of community engagement—maybe you don’t have a product that the community can get behind and actively support—and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, you just need to go elsewhere for your links because that’s what your business model demands.