Eli Schwartz

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SEO

How to hire for an in-house SEO opening

Hiring for SEO is really hard and it is about to get even harder.

After an extended period of time where many large organizations chose to not focus on SEO internally, there is suddenly renewed interest in hiring for SEO. The following is my opinion based on independent research on the sequence of events behind this sudden surge in interest in SEO.

SEO demand plummeted

The dropoff in demand for SEO talent coincided with the acceleration of paid marketing primarily on Facebook back in 2015. With the latest efforts around Facebook’s privacy pivot – and Google’s too, some granular ad targeting options will no longer be available – meaning advertisers will inevitably start paying for non-targeted impressions. The net result is the CAC (customer acquisition costs), a metric more important than ad engagement costs will continue to rise.

When this first started, marketing budgets remained fairly stagnant, but advertising outcomes – a function of the higher CAC – trended lower. The slow squeeze on what used to be a very stable and consistent ATM (the cash machine – not any sort of advertising acronym) is forced marketing leaders to look for channels that might have an opportunity.

SEO revitalized

In many instances, this internal soul searching lead to a discovery that the SEO channel has been quietly driving a significant amount of revenue with very little investment. There may be someone already responsible for SEO or this seat could be entirely empty. Either way, the executive team decides that it’s time to resource SEO, but they don’t know how to prioritize their action items.

Even if they have an SEO audit in-hand, they still don’t know what items can be backburnered and which must be a full-stop-the-presses effort. The next solution is to hire someone to oversee SEO or better manage the individuals currently responsible for organic traffic.

And, this is where they hit a wall. Others are coming to the same realization and the ratio of SEO jobs to those that can fill the roles is very lopsided.

At the moment there are 17, 241 SEO jobs listed on LinkedIn

But there are only 25k people in the United States with jobs in their title. This means that the ratio of jobs to people is 2:3.

For comparison sake, the ratio of jobs to people in software engineers is 1:2 and we all know how highly sought after engineers are.

A very logical effect of the lowered demand for SEO talent meant that less SEO talent was groomed over the preceding five years. Having participated in the marketing industry through events and conferences, I had a first hand view of the shrinking SEO community. Marketers that might have developed SEO skills with a key focus on just SEO instead were diverted into other tangential roles that did not help them build the technical SEO skills now considered to be critical.

Additionally, as SEO was not considered a key function, salaries tended to be lower than other marketing roles. Anyone working in SEO that wanted to earn more money or get promoted was inevitably forced to take on roles outside SEO.

Talent imbalance

So now in 2019, we have a truly imbalanced market for talent. There is a rising demand to fill SEO roles while at the same time the number of people that have the necessary experience have been shrinking for years.

For specialized skills such as enterprise level technical SEO, international SEO, large scale image SEO, and even enterprise level local SEO, there is even a smaller pool of potential candidates.

Many of the open roles are looking for people that have 5+ years of experience – a cohort that is really thin when it was 5 years ago that this function started to be underutilized. Those that accrued the requisite 5 years of experience either worked at an agency which means there could be a skills gap for some of the necessary cross-functional abilities required for an in-house role or they are the rare candidate that has the right mix of experiences that are now highly sought by just about everyone.

SEO leadership

For organizations seeking an SEO leader that can help with strategy, planning, internal communication, and management, many of the roles require 10+ years of experiences. Finding an individual that worked in the few companies that actually resourced SEO over the last decade is even harder to find simply because of all the forces that pulled people away from SEO over this time period.

I believe there are only two ways that I think companies can overcome the talent shortage and fill their SEO needs.

  1. Make the SEO role at their company more attractive than any other role the candidate will be interviewing for at the same time. This goes beyond salary and benefits but more into the actual job role. The position should have significantly more responsibility than their previous role, and the hiring manager should be able to demonstrate how the role will significantly impact the organization’s bottom line. This more than anything will help sell the right role for a person responsible for SEO. There are too many SEO roles that are just about closing tickets and not really driving results. The right candidate will be excited by the possibility of growing a business through organic search.
  2. Use an SEO consultant. There many people with the right amount of experience, but they are not looking for a full time role. While a company might take some time to come around to outsourcing this functional role, the impact from the right SEO consultant could be even greater than a full-time employee. A consultant brings the know-how from all of their other clients in addition to the years of experience they likely had working in-house. Most importantly, it is far easier to onboard a consultant than to find the right employee. To find a good consultant one should rely on their network on Linkedin or use a service like GetCredo.com which will
    match you with the perfect firm from their vetted network.

TL;DR

In closing, if you are an SEO professional or someone interested in working in SEO reading this, know your value. The SEO skillset is in high demand, and you have leverage in finding your next role.

For the hiring manager, be aware of how tight the market is for this role and put on your best recruiting show.

SEO

What does search query intent mean?

In the early days of SEO, the process of choosing keywords to target was quite literal. It really mattered whether you optimized for the singular vs plural version of a keyword or which specific synonym you included in a piece of content. In the same vein, ideas such as keyword density (using a keyword multiple times), keyword order and even emphasizing a keyword with bold or italics were considered best practices.

With the advancement of Google’s artificial intelligence based search algorithm, Google can go far beyond just matching strings. With years of engagement history – meaning they know what users actually click- they know what people want even if the user can’t really articulate what they are looking for! 

Here I have searched for “finals time” and I don’t need to specify that its for the NBA, and Google shows me the time for the NBA finals.


Or when I search “drinks” Google gives me a maps result of places to go have drinks.

This is called intent matching. On a simplistic level, it means that Google can skip over whether a search query is spelled correctly, contains a plural or singular, or even the language of the query. On the content side, they are also “reading” the content and determining how it might match the intent of a user.

Again, they ignore word tense, spelling and raw keyword density. Relying on AI to make the match between user and website is a closer approximation of Utopian matchmaking then just using easily gamed metrics like string and pattern matching.

To understand this in practice, here are some example queries

Say a user was looking for “Legally Blonde” but couldn’t remember the name of the actual movie. They might search something like “Blonde lawyer movie” or “Blonde harvard lawyer”. In each case, the results will show pages related to the movie: “Legally Blonde”.

Granted, the page does use those keywords; however, they are certainly not the focus of the page. To really drive the point home, this movie will appear in the results even for terms that are not on the page, but clearly exhibit the same intent! In the movie, Reese Witherspoon’s character attended Harvard Law school. Queries that use the word, “Stanford” and “Yale” are considered to have the same intent as “Harvard” and the results are therefore similar.

It should go without saying that if a user’s query were to contain “attorney” instead of “lawyer” , Google would consider the query to be lawyer regardless and would even bold the word “law” in the search snippet.

Even more interesting, for the query “Blonde Yale attorney”, the same movie still appears in the results because as before even without a keyword match the intent is the same.

One final example of how search intent works is to use an example query that describes something a user is seeking rather than keywords at all. If I were to describe a snakefly in words, I might search something like “bug long neck and wings”. In this case, the first result tells me that it is a snakefly, but that might not be so surprising since the webpage has all the words from my query in the page.

However, if instead of long I searched “bug with stretched neck and wings”, the 3rd result will be one for Snakefly and the content does not even use the words “stretched neck”.

This is intent matching at its best and is a foreshadow of the future where keywords become less and less part of how SEO works.

SEO

How to clone Amazon’s SEO best practices to dominate new shopping verticals

This post was first published on Techcrunch on May 16, 2019

Amazon dominates the top ranking positions of Google for tens of thousand of ecommerce queries, but there are plenty of products in newer shopping categories where Amazon has not yet achieved SEO supremacy. Retailers in nascent verticals have an opportunity to follow Amazon’s SEO playbook and become the default ranking ecommerce website.

Achieving this success can be done purely by focusing on on-page SEO without the need to build a brand and a backlink portfolio that rivals Amazon.

For those unfamiliar with mechanisms of SEO, there are essentially two streams of SEO tactics

  1. On-page SEO – this is anything to do with optimizing an actual page or website for maximum SEO visibility. Within this bucket will fall efforts such as the content of a page, meta data, internal links, URL/folder names,  and even things like images.
  1. Off-page SEO – A key component of Google’s algorithm is the quality and sometimes quantity of the links from external sites that point to a page or website. At a high level the better backlinks a page or website has the more authority the page has to rank in search.

On-page SEO teardown

Delving into just their on-page SEO, their tactics can be divided into four distinct areas which we will go through in detail.

  1. Content
  2. SEO site architecture
  3. Cross-linking
  4. Page layout

If you are following along with this process, make sure to logout of your Amazon account or open up an incognito window. Google only views the logged out version of the site, so all of Amazon’s SEO efforts are focused there.

PAYWALL

Off-page SEO not necessarily required

Before we go further, here’s a bit more about why off-page SEO isn’t required here.

As one of the largest brands in the world, Amazon certainly has a unique ability to garner backlinks that any smaller competitor would not have, but this is not the magical elixir some would think it is. Backlinks are only a component of the algorithm and better performance on areas like relevancy and intent matching will always beat out a better linked page.

For example, the query “Michael Jackson”, Amazon is nowhere in the top 10 results and some of the ranking results have significantly less links than Amazon.com with nearly 4 billion backlinks according Ahrefs.com. This is because for this query, a shopping site like Amazon is not considered to be relevant. As soon as a shopping intent keyword is appended to the query like “michael jackson costume” suddenly Amazon does rank.

Interestingly, Amazon is the second ranking result behind a site that specifically sells costumes likely because Google has determined that a costume site is more relevant for a searcher looking for costumes. This underscores the point of this guide that with good SEO Amazon can be beaten and Amazon does not have an innate SEO advantage because of their brand.

Content

Content on Amazon is comprised of what they choose to put on the homepage, category pages and specific product pages. From an SEO standpoint, while the rest of the ecommerce world invested and continues to invest in category pages (think the index page for all products in a category), Amazon places all of their SEO investment into creating killer product pages.

Amazon’s page not only pulls all available text from the manufacturer, but they add content unique to Amazon such as comparisons, tech specs directly on the page, and finally reviews. Again reviews is an area that Amazon has been perfecting for years while competitors neglected their own SEO efforts.

A big thing Amazon does right is that they appear to have a better flagging system that does not allow funky titles to make it in to their feeds. As a result all of their important on-page meta tags of titles, H1’s and meta description are built with minimal errors.


Conduct a search for “discontinued” or “broken” on any other competitors and you will not be as impressed.

SEO is not just focused on text search, as images are content too. Every product on Amazon has alt text (initially created for the visually impaired, but now useful for image search) with the full product title included.

This helps for a number of reasons:

  1. If someone were doing a product search in Google images (or any image search engine) they would be able to find the Amazon product.
  2. When someone finds a product on the web and they want to do a reverse image search to learn where to buy it, Amazon is eligible to be found.
  3. As more people start using visual search tools like Google Lens, Amazon is one of the top results.

SEO site Architecture

Everything about the way Amazon’s site was built was constructed for SEO. Early on in Amazon’s SEO efforts, they had links to all of their categories right on their homepage, but now they only do this within Javascript which has arguable benefits for SEO. This is the basic optimization that most sites will implement, but the real power of Amazon’s architecture is in their taxonomy. From the beginning, Amazon was creating the taxonomy for every product in the world, and it is this site structure that makes so easy for both users and of course search crawlers to always know exactly where they are and how to find a new product without needing to search.

Compare the difference between Target’s baby category page and Amazon’s.

Amazon has category links on the top of the page, popular products and then brands.

Target highlights only two products, has category links within the page and can only find brands as a part of the faceted navigation.

Amazon’s best in class site architecture is also a key driver in their very clean URL generation. Compare these 4 URL’s for the baby category.

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/baby-car-seats-strollers-bedding/b/?node=165796011

Walmart https://www.walmart.com/cp/baby-products/5427

Target https://www.target.com/c/baby/-/N-5xtly

Overstock https://www.overstock.com/Baby/35/store.html

From Amazon’s URL it is crystal clear what to expect while the others leave something to be desired.

Cross-linking

An underpublicized secret of SEO is that internal links will do more to increase organic visibility than building more  external links. Building upon Amazon’s superstructure of taxonomy, the site uses hierarchical connections to create related links that are actually related links. A search crawler dropped on any page will be led into a near endless of stream of pages that have a connection to the previous page. This negates any risk of there ever being an orphaned page and it helps create or support the ontology driven algorithm that powers Google’s intent matching engine.

While cross-linking is a key component of any web property hardy anyone gets this right like Amazon. Compare the cross linking of the iPhone on Amazon vs Best Buy.

Best Buy

Page layout

Finally, Amazon is able to pull together the elements of content and related links and build a page that search engines are easily able to process. Category pages build the brand cross links right into the page so they seem as natural as possible and don’t need to rely on faceted side navigation like other ecommerce sites.

On product landing pages they blend the perfect mix of product description, rich content such as media, Q&A and user reviews. The immediate landing page has all of the most important content without anything hid in a collapsible box like other sites do, and the UGC which has lower search value is included at the end of the page.

Compare how Amazon adds UGC vs target.com which hides the Q&A.

Target

Summary

If you want to build SEO like Amazon, there is a very clear playbook you can follow. The most important lesson to take from Amazon is to embed SEO into the foundation of a website. Without a doubt, URL’s, titles, headlines, and product descriptions need to be generated and placed without errors.

As evidenced by Amazon’s success over the last two decades, it is worth taking a step back to build a taxonomy so clean that every product has a perfect home. Amazon created niches of niches and this is a great best practice to follow.  Using this clean taxonomy, maximize on cross linking to the best that a site’s design can handle. Show related products, related categories, and even competing categories. A broom obviously might be paired with a dustpan, but only will a clean taxonomy allow one to make the connection to a mop.

SEO

How long does SEO take?

Understanding how long it will take to generate results is one of the biggest questions anyone looking to undertake any SEO effort is going to want to answer. You could know how to build infographic links, the best usage of backlinks and keywords and still not be able to determine the time it would take for the results to show.The challenge with this and many other questions is that there is no blanket answer. Each and every site has its own unique fingerprint in Google’s index and as a result all sites will perform differently.

A site with a long history in Google’s index that is currently held back by technical issues may see near instant results as soon as the issues are fixed. On the other hand, a site that is just beginning their SEO journey might take many months until the see meaningful results.

While the idea of a Google sandbox has gone by the wayside many years ago, there is still a concept of SEO needing to marinate within the Google results. It takes time for Google to crawl and index a new page. After that, it takes even more time to acquire positive signals like backlinks, performance metrics, and on-SERP click through rates.

Regardless, in nearly all cases I am certain that within six months nearly all sites will see positive momentum that validates their SEO efforts. The growth will be slow and hardly noticeable but when one looks back after a period of time they will always see a positive change.

SEO traffic is one of the slower channels to scale, but the investment is well worth it. My experiences helping to build SEO efforts from zero to millions of dollars has always proven out that SEO is the highest ROI channel by far!

The best of way of illustrating this is to think of a hike up to the top of a mountain. Progress will be slow and painstaking, and even after some time it may feel like the summit is still far away; however, if after an hour you look back you should see progress made. After 6 hours, the summit might still be far, but the progress will be undeniable (provided of course you did not get lost!)

climb a hill SEO

One final note: don’t measure SEO progress in rankings; rather focus on the traffic and revenue that results from organic sources.

 

SEO

SEO tech stack – these are my go-to SEO tools

I frequently get asked to share the SEO tools I use on a regular basis, so I created this placeholder post to put my current SEO stack I am always trying out new tools, and I will update tools on a regular basis.

Crawling

Rank checking, Keyword Research, Competitive Research

In general I am never a fan of checking rankings, but when necessary these are the tools I rely upon.

Keyword Research

SEO

SEO Profit Calculation and Why It Beats Every Other Channel

When compared to any marketing channel, organic SEO is going to be one of the most profitable channels because there is a relatively low initial investment and the costs can be amortized over a multiple year period.

The basic ROI formula for customer acquisition channels is whatever the value of the customer is to the business minus the CAC (Customer Acquisition Cost). A standard value might be something like LTV (Lifetime Value) or AOV (Average Order Value).

The calculation is a follows:

LTV – CAC = Profit

Profit  / CAC = ROI

To understand this better let’s look at the standard ROI calculations for each marketing channel. The profit calculation will always be the same, but the CAC formula will differ.

Paid Marketing

CAC is calculated by looking at how much advertising needs to occur before a single customer is acquired. Looking at PPC (Pay per Click) campaign as an example:

If the average CPC (Cost per Click) is $0.20 and it takes 100 clicks to convert a single customer (1% conversion rate) then the CAC would be $0.20 * 100 which is $20. The profitability formula would never change for previously acquired customers, but it might look better for future customers if additional spend efficiencies were to be added and the CPC goes down or the conversion rate goes up.

This calculation is far simpler when thinking only of paid marketing as search engine marketing, but there are only slight tweaks for other paid channels.

Display campaigns are just like PPC campaigns, but the additional measurement criteria of “view through” (people that saw but didn’t click) means the time decay of the returns needs to be a little bit longer.

Paid social is also just like search engine marketing where the CAC is based on the cost mechanism – click or conversion – but the networks (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn) want you to believe that there are additional “organic” conversions that will happen because of the paid campaign. In reality, these aren’t really organic as they would not have happened without the paid campaign. These conversions should just be included as campaign conversions even if they didn’t directly result from a paid click.

Brand

This is a very hard channel to calculate the actual conversions that are generated from brand efforts, but in a vacuum this might be the “Direct” channel in an attribution report.

The CAC for Brand will constantly changing as every additional conversion from a brand campaign will bring down the average cost for each conversion. This can continue happening long after the brand campaign ends too.

To illustrate, a company spends $x to buy a billboard on the side of a highway for one month. The CAC will be the total of all acquisition generated by the billboard divided by the $x. Unlike paid marketing, $x remains a constant while the conversions can continue to grow.

Provided that this was a successful campaign, the ROI will continue to improve long past the month that the billboard was visible, although it will not continue to perpetuity.

Referral

A referral campaign can have two meanings in an attribution report. It can either be a link placed on another website or it can refer to efforts to get one customer to refer another. For the sake of argument, we are going to assume that there is no cost to links placed on other websites (for paid link campaigns the brand ROI calculation is a better fit) and just discuss a customer to customer referral campaign.

In a successful referral campaign, the CAC of each new customer is really the CAC of the first customer divided by each referred customer plus the referral fee paid. So, if customer A was acquired for $100 in a paid campaign, but then referred 4 customers the CAC for all five customers would now be $20. If there’s a referral fee paid for each customer of $20 we would need to add that back into the CAC calculation. We could either add the 4 referral fees of $20 to the original $100 giving us a blended total of $180 to divide by 5 or we can do this a cleaner way.

The CAC for the first customer would be $100 while the subsequent customers would have a CAC of $20. In this case, the ROI for the referral campaign would be fixed as the costs for each new customer will be the exact same.

Organic

CAC for an SEO campaign will continue to decline as long as content produced for organic purposes continues to generate conversions. From my experience, this can go well past the five year mark, so ROI will improve on a near constant basis.

Leaving aside technical overhead and salaries for SEO efforts since this overhead would have to exist even if there were no SEO efforts at all, the actual cost for the campaign is likely just the direct content costs which can be fairly low.  As before the CAC will equal the number of conversions divided by the cost. In this case just like a brand campaign, the cost is fixed but the conversions are not.

To put numbers behind this, if the content costs $500 to reproduce and in month 1 it generated 1 conversion, the CAC will be $500. In month 2 and 3  it might produce another 9 conversions, so now the CAC is only $50. If you carry this forward for 5 years with continued growth in the amount of traffic and conversions,  you an see how the CAC will be on a constant descent with ROI on a constant ascent.

Summary

Based on this breakout, if I was asked where the best place to spend marketing dollars might be, I will always recommend pouring it into organic efforts. Organic is a long slow build, but it’s building a foundation that will generate returns long into the future. Paid channels are always quick and easy, but as soon as the spigot of spend is turned off the acquisition efforts will stop. The best analogy I ever heard was that paid marketing is like renting a house while SEO is like paying for a mortgage. When you rent for years, you will have nothing to show for it; however, mortgage payments eventually lead to substantial equity in a home.

SEO

SEO Keyword Research Should Start at the Top of the Funnel

While there are many debates within the realm of SEO over what strategy is most effective to grow SEO traffic, the one thing everyone can agree on is that content – in any format- is the most critical component of any organic effort. Fast pages with a clean architecture will never drive any organic value if there is no content with which Google can rank the pages. Additionally, there isn’t much use for a user to do if there’s no content on the page.

Content is King

It is for this reason that tools and guides related to keyword research are so popular around the web. In this respect, content may be “king” but the emperor does not have any clothes without proper keyword research. The common recommendation around keyword research for SEO is to use keyword tools which reveal some sort of metric around volumes of monthly search and competition.

Building upon this data, one would pick keywords with high search volume and low competition.  Keyword research in this fashion would consist of putting a primary keyword in a keyword research tool and then building upon that first keyword with similar keywords. The challenge in this approach is that this would likely result in keywords that don’t necessarily match the user intent of the query.

Competitive Research

One way to negate this intent challenge is to use a competitive research tool which shows the keywords that competitors are ranking on and then building on that keyword set. (Personally, I love Ahrefs.com for this).The obvious issue here is that if competitors are already generating traffic from these keywords, a site already has a competitive mountain to climb.

Regardless over whether, the start of the keyword research begins with high value keywords or competitor rankings, this effort only reveals queries all the way at the bottom of the funnel. By their very nature, they will be hyper competitive with other sites on both organic and paid listings.

Top of Funnel Keywords

Instead, my advice has always been to get into the mind of customers and build a user journey into a search funnel. Everyone that has ever built a search campaign is also a search user, and when we search we hardly ever start with bottom of the funnel transactional keywords. At some point, we start with more exploratory discovery keywords.

This top of the funnel is where it is a lot easier to match the intent of a user and also have far less competition. It is also gives websites the chance to introduce their brand to users and potentially have them come back directly to the site without needing to search again when they are closer to the bottom of the funnel. For users that are taking too long to convert, sites can run retargeting campaigns on the paid network of choice and remind the users to come back.

Example Funnel

To illustrate how this might work, here’s an example of how someone might search for a new phone beginning all the way at the top of the funnel. This is a loose example, but I am sure anyone that has ever purchased any new device online can imagine how many queries they might conduct before they finally search the very bottom of the funnel “buy” query.

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The best visual example of this search funnel is Google’s 2009 Super Bowl commercial  where they show the progression of someone’s life using Google queries beginning with deciding to study abroad through falling in love and then ending with buying a baby crib. The queries in the video are a great representation of the intent behind specific queries that can seem very broad and are far less competitive.

A traditional keyword research effort would direct content efforts towards the top of the funnel, but as this video shows every bottom of the funnel conversion keyword begins with many more early informational searches.

SEO

SEO Prediction and Themes for 2019

Year after year in December there have , many have been predicting the year of impending death of SEO and there were some years, I almost believed it. Now, not only do I not think SEO is on any sort of death bed, I think that its brightest years are still to come.

For years, organizations big and small have been underinvesting in SEO in favor of allocating budgets towards paid channels. Now that paid costs are rising with the reduction of targeting data due to privacy regulation, I believe there will be a resurgence in demand for SEO here are some of the themes that I think will be popular in 2019.

1) Google has been rapidly expanding their Google Assistant capabilities which powers voice search on phones and Google Home. This past year, Google moved the goalpost once again with the launch of the Google Home Hub which now adds a visual display to a voice assistant. I expect to see position zero matter more than ever as an increasing amount of searches are conducted on these assistant devices. Smart content writers who optimize their writing towards ranking on these top positions will win in this new paradigm of multi-platform search.

2) Google AI is good enough that this year Google will commence their autonomously driven taxi service. A company that produces technology which can make life and death decisions millions of times per day should have no problem figuring out which links are unnatural or gamed. I think that this year links will start to matter less as Google simply discounts unnatural links, and the minority of SEO’s that used these tactics will have to work on generating natural links. Rankings will be based on QUALITY links and QUALITY content as determined by human mimicking technology that underpins Google’s core algorithm. Essentially marketers need to focus on the basics of good marketing rather than finding shortcuts.

 

3) Google isn’t the only company with a smart assistant that allows users to search by voice, and while search isn’t their core competency Amazon and Apple likely will cut into Google’s search dominance as an increasing amount of users adopt their devices over Google’s. For years, nearly everyone ignored every engine that was not named Google, but that party is about to end. I think that 2019 will be the year that once again SEO will not just be about how to optimize for Google, but we will have to take into account these other “engines” as well. This new reality will make things a lot harder for websites as the rules for ranking will not be the same. Now, marketers will need a strategy on how to best rank on each engine.

I may be wrong about the specific themes for next year, but I am quite confident that by the end of 2019, SEO as a channel will matter more than it did at the beginning of this year. Hiring for organic roles have been accelerating all through 2018, and I believe that if the economy slows as many are predicting this channel dues to its lopsided ROI potential will become even more critical.

 

SEO

What is an SEO site audit and do you need one?

I was once talking to an entrepreneur about the SEO performance on his site, and I suggested that he might want to get an SEO site audit to make sure that all of his bases are covered when it comes to SEO. He immediately rejected that idea since as he said “we already have Moz, so we are good.” The fact that he didn’t get the distinction between a tool and an audit made me realize that a lot of people probably are equally unaware.

While Moz, as well as other great tools like Ahrefs, SEMrush, and Searchmetrics are all great tools for reporting out on progress, they don’t do a deep dive sanity check on best practices that is individualized for every site. A better way of understanding this is to use a health analogy.

Using a basic wearable device like a Fibit that keeps on top of some common health stats like activity, heart rate and sleep is no substitute at all for a full physical checkup by a medical professional. Much like this example, a daily stat tracker like the tools above might be able to report on some activity metrics, but they will not catch the impending sitewide “heart attack” that creeping URL changes or misconfigured canonical links could cause.

Even worse, when a site is experiencing an organic issue the last thing anyone should do is rely on a status report from a tool to identify any maladies, much like no one should rely on WebMD for a diagnosis. This is the time to have an experienced professional have a look at the site and conduct an audit to find out what ails the site.

What does a website audit look for?

There are basic templates for a website audit which any experienced search engine optimization professional will use to start; however, once they start digging into the metrics they will diverge into an individualized audit. Just like when someone visits a doctor, they want someone with lots of experience and an innate sense of the questions to ask, the same should apply for an SEO audit.

The more experienced the person or team conducting the audit may be, the more they will be able to tell when things are off and where to look deeper.

Here are the basic things that a website audit will look into:

 

    • Penalty analysis  –  in a penalty analysis the auditor will look for any unexplained dropoffs in metrics that align with either Google manual actions or known algorithmic updates

 

  • URL structure – URL’s should have a nice clean structure that make it very clear to both users and search engines what is contained on each page. Ideally there shouldn’t be any parameters in the URL, but this can depend on the specific use cases
  • Duplicate content and canonical usage – There is no such thing as a duplicate content penalty; however, duplicate content issues cause Google to have to make a decision about which URL to index. This may not be the desired URL, so canonicals can help declare the preferred URL. Improper usages of canonicals can be very detrimental to the site.

 

  • Internal links – In many respects internal links can be more important than external links, so ensuring that everything is in perfect shape for proper crawling and indexation is critical
  • Backlinks – the sites that link in to a site can both help and harm a site, and understanding the mix of backlinks can be an audit unto its own for a big site
  • Indexation  – in my opinion this is the most important part of any audit. This is where the auditor will determine if the site is properly indexed in search and what may be holding it back.
  • Script usage – Despite Google’s proclamations to the contrary using Javascript is simply not as effective for SEO as HTML. Uncovering Javascript that drives important parts of the site can lead to new opportunities for growth
  • Keyword usage – Keywords are the bulwark of any SEO campaign and mapping their usage their usage helps to determine gaps and opportunities.
  • Onpage SEO (titles, descriptions, H1) – These are the basics of any effort and it is always surprising to me how many opportunities can be uncovered by just looking at title tags.
  • Content quality – SEO is driven by content, but poor content can actually be harmful. An outsider’s view of the content can assess the quality of the content portfolio.
  • Robots.txt – this is the directive to search engines on what pages of the site can be crawled. Overdoing it will lead to important pages that can’t get traffic while underdoing it will lead to pages that are useless being crawled.
  • Sitemaps – XML and HTML sitemaps are both helpful and necessary for page discovery, and this analysis will measure the effectiveness of the current setup.
  • Site speed – Page and site speed are factored into the Google algorithm for very slow sites, but even if there’s no algorithmic issue there can always be a poor user experience
  • Expired content – Not all content should be exposed to search engines and users especially content or product that are no longer relevant. How these pages are handled can have a significant impact on a site.
  • Spam – even the most authoritative and secure websites have had issues with spam on the site. While this likely will not lead to a search performance issue it is certainly not a good user experience.
  • Schema markup – In a world of voice assistants and position zero rankings, schema markup is increasingly more important. An analysis of current markup as well as available markup will lead to new opportunities for growth.
  • Mobile vs desktop – Search experiences are completely different on mobile devices so there should be no surprise that mobile SEO can be different to. This analysis reveals those differences.
  • International – An international audit can be a stand alone audit since depending on how many countries are targeted this can be a very broad exercise. This audit will assess all of the areas above, but by specific country.

Whether you decide to hire an expert or conduct your own audit, always make sure you are taking a deep look at all of the most important issues and not just relying on the quick health checkup of a tool.

SEO

The odd story of how AT&T’s biggest Super Bowl launch became the website for the world’s largest casino loyalty program

Super Bowl Launches

The phenomenon of using the massive audiences tuned in to watch the big game as a base to pitch for sales is far from new and there are notable Super Bowl commercials going as far back as the 1960’s.

What is a bit more unique is the companies that have used the Super Bowl audience to introduce a product or offering for the very first time. Apple famously launched the Macintosh with their “1984” commercial, and the infamous Dot Com Super Bowl of 2000 was a veritable feast of tech companies using investor money to launch their websites.

In 2002, mobile technology was in its absolute infancy and “killer features” like SMS were just coming onto the scene. In an attempt to make a play for a vast swathe of market share, AT&T made an audacious launch of unlimited calling and texting – unheard of at the time, and they used a Super Bowl commercial to draw attention to an unknown website with details about their new product offering.

Mlife

What is Mlife?

For weeks before Super Bowl XXXVI AT&T ran a series of TV commercials and billboards teasing a new product called Mlife. Nowhere in the advertisements was the AT&T brand name or any details on what Mlife was supposed to be. During the actual Super Bowl, there were a series of 15 seconds ads showing belly buttons with one simple call to action: Go to Mlife.com. Millions of people did just that (I was one of them) and the sheer onslaught of traffic brought the website to its knees. No one was even able to find anything more about Mlife since the website could not load.

Fortunately for AT&T, there were other Mlife spots during that game and viewers were able to at least learn that AT&T was behind the campaign. (You can watch all of the commercials on this site that gathers all old Super Bowl ads.)

During the days and weeks after the Super Bowl, AT&T was declared the clear winner of advertising championship, and their commercials were the topic of discussion on all the morning shows.

What is Mlife Today?

In business, brand and company names are always changing with mergers, acquisitions and just straight rebrands. Even a storied brand like AT&T has gone through its own brand name changes. (Remember American Telephone & Telegraph or the more recent Cingular Wireless?)

The wireless industry – now called the mobile industry hardly resembles what existed in 2002.  The powers-that-be at AT&T decided that they no longer needed the Mlife brand, but they did something that just might horrify any marketer. They sold the domain, the brand equity and all the SEO value acquired by launching the website during a Super Bowl. Today if you go to Mlife.com, it is the homepage for MGM Resorts’ (the parent brand of casinos like Bellagio, Aria, and MGM Grand) loyalty program.

Without a website like Zillow for domains it is hard to know how much MGM paid AT&T for the domain name. In my admittedly finger in the wind guess, it couldn’t have been too expensive, as there are a number of related names to Mlife that are owned and monetized by domain squatters. (I refuse to link, so just guess them yourself.)

At the time MGM registered the domain in 2010 they didn’t seem married to the name Mlife as the name for MGM’s loyalty program’s name.  The actual loyalty club product was not even launched until 2011. While the domain squatters wouldn’t have let these other names go for a steal they would certainly have to be less costly than what AT&T should have priced the domain if they had valued it correctly.

MGM Mlife

Millions of Dollars in Earned Marketing Wasted

As with all assets, there are many ways to price a domain name, but one that should never be neglected is the value of the brand and SEO pointing to the domain. Leaving aside the debate over the specific value of a link, the links directed at Mlife could be considered relevant and valuable if AT&T would have used the domain to redirect it to one of their latest mobile promotions. Even if by some weird algorithm twist the links had zero value whatsoever, there are possibly still users that click on the article  links to a 16 year old mobile campaign that are not going to find the most recent mobile deals.

Essentially, this means that the value of the domain is worth considerably more to AT&T than it would be to any other party that wanted to buy it.

A Lesson for All Marketers

Within this odd marketing story there lies a key lesson for any marketer. When evaluating the book value of any marketing asset you need to consider the sum of all the history behind the asset before selling it off or relegating it to the trash. Every marketer is going to have a long list of failed projects and assets, and while they all might not have reached their desired potential this does not mean that the all of the efforts were for naught. Every social media fan, link, feedback review and even just access to a domain for SEO testing likely has a higher value to the company than just the street or market value of just that asset.

Every time I go to Las Vegas and see MGM billboards telling me to go to “Mlife.com” to sign up for their loyalty program, I remember the 2002 AT&T campaign that launched that domain and I reflect on this missed opportunity. To me, and hopefully to you too, AT&T’s folly should serve as a stark reminder that in web marketing, everything counts.

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