This post is a preview of a new downloadable guide I will be offering for those who pre-order Optimize by March 13, 2012. The full guide will have screenshots, examples and more “SEO Deep Dive” advice. If you want the full, illustrated Content Marketing SEO Troubleshooting Guide, visit OptimizeBook.com to pre-order and subscribe to our mailing list for more details.
Content Marketing at its core is about planning information that is thoughtful about the needs and interests of target customer groups as they take the journey through the buying cycle, interacting with content and pulling themselves towards purchase. The role of search engines in making ebooks, white papers, case studies, newsletters, webinars, reports, video, images and many other content marketing tactics is often underestimated or overlooked.
The effect of best practices SEO on content to attract relevant audiences can be substantial. However, search is a dynamic marketing channel requiring ongoing attention. Without proper care and feeding, search traffic can fluctuate, fall victim to more aggressive competitor SEO practices or never get off the ground. Or search engines can simply take away features that make SEO easier to do. Because search can provide such a significant and relevant audience to content, it’s worth investing time to troubleshoot for better performance.
Seeing great SEO, social media and content marketing strategy and tactics being implemented every day, I can’t help but be biased towards having a dedicated agency, consultant or in-house resource for optimization. However, dedicated resources are not very valuable unless there’s some appreciation for what an Optimize and Socialize approach can provide.
To provide some practical and tactical perspective on this essential intersection of SEO, Social Media and Content Marketing, here are a few tips for basic SEO troubleshooting that just about anyone responsible for content in an organization can use. I’ve also included some “SEO Drilldowns” that a pro might explore further and key considerations for content marketers.
Before we get into the Basic SEO Troubleshooting tips, here are a few important things to understand regarding Google and personalization:
Logged out – Google search results when you or other users are not logged in are as close to “generic” as you’ll get, but they are still customized according to your geographic location and your click activity during the session. The days of generic search results that can be predictably viewed by more than one person in different locations is gone. If you do search while logged out, you’ll get a more generic experience than logged in – so it’s worth noting the difference.
Logged in – Users of Google services who are logged in while searching will almost certainly be presented with unique search results. Personalization can be influenced by a variety of factors, including the recent social signals integration of Google+ into Google search results – aka Google Search Plus Your World and especially from the universal Google product data sharing that will start March 1st 2012. Other influences include past search history, geographic location and your interaction with search results are factors for Google to adjust search results just for you. Keep in mind, logged in or out, there are over 20o signals used to sort search results.
Google has made SEO troubleshooting increasingly difficult by encrypting search for users who are logged in to Google. Initially at 9%, our “Unknown” keyword referrers to Online Marketing Blog are now at 26%. Through a combination of historical data analysis and extrapolation from other data sources, you can fill in that gap somewhat, but it definitely takes an experienced SEO/Web Analytics person to do so.
For our purposes, we’re focusing on the basics that can provide insight regardless of logged in or logged out since they are so fundamental to improved visibility of content marketing assets in search engines. Basic troubleshooting often starts by a review of web analytics showing a decrease in traffic from a certain phrase over time or the aspiration to increase search traffic for a particular topic. Keep in mind, there is a difference between business competitors and content competitors in the search results (SERPs). Perform the following troubleshooting actions while not logged in:
From your web analytics, log the past 1-3 months of search traffic for the phrase in question (if any) to your website.
What you’re looking for: How often has the target keyword phrase driven traffic via search engines to your website each month, week and day? What does the trend line look like over time? Which pages are attracting search traffic for this phrase and any obvious variations of it? (singular vs. plural). If you’ve optimized specific pages for this phrase, look at all search traffic to it, including “Unknown” encrypted phrases. Basically, you’re documenting the performance of the phrase as a starting point.
SEO Drill Down: How a SEO professional approaches benchmarking current keyword performance might vary, but here are a few ideas. Expand on all the variations of the target phrase, the distribution of “unknown” vs. identifiable phrases, the split between different search engines as sources of traffic, brand vs. non-brand queries, the distribution of different pages and content objects across your domain that attract search traffic related to the phrase. Also review the appearance of the target keyword phrase(s) in Google Webmaster Tools ranked list of keyword phrases. What are the trends for this keyword phrase for ranking (iffy), traffic, inquiries and sales over time?
Key Content Marketing questions: For the content assets you’re optimizing, what role does the content play for target customers in the buying cycle? Is it optimized for phrases relevant to awareness, consideration, evaluation or purchase? What is the relationship of your optimized content assets to each other and to a landing page (if used)? If you’re using a hub and spoke or constellation model for publishing, map out the content and media objects intended to perform for the target phrase in question. Audit them to see what has actually been optimized for the phrase. What new content assets will be created on a go forward relevant to the target phrase?
2. Search Results Landscape
Search for the phrase on Google and/or Bing (logged out) and document the URL, title and description for each of the top 10 search results:
What you’re looking for: Identify the type of websites and content that have high visibility on the target keyword phrase. Capture information about the pages or digital assets that the search engine finds most relevant. Besides capturing the title, description and web address, note the types of content and sources – commercial, non-commercial, web page vs. media or local. It’s helpful to know what kinds of content as well as which websites/pages the search engine finds most relevant for the phrase and topic. If the search engine favors video content, PDF files and news sources, then it might mean an adjustment in your content marketing media mix for that phrase.
SEO Drill Down: More data about the SERP can be quite useful to log including: Content Type (web page, social, news, image, video thumbnail, local, product, pdf, MS Word doc), Content Category (Business, News, Blog, Media, University). Documenting the search results page over time can reveal trends such as whether the same pages maintain top positions, and what the diversity of content types is. Additional research into social signals is worth tracking as well. All such SERP analysis is performed while logged out.
With the level of personalization now in place with Google, savvy SEOs will have access to user accounts that exemplify the target audience persona’s online behaviors in order to trigger a personalized search experience that is similar to the customer segment.
Key Content Marketing questions: According to your content plan, what types of content and media are you creating and what’s the difference between those media types and the categories/formats of content presented in search results for your target keyword phrases? It’s useful to know of the content marketing types in place for your efforts have any particular preference in the search results for the target phrase. If not, what other types of content, sources and media are in favor? Having a picture of the logged-out search results landscape for target keyword phrases can influence editorial decisions about formats used. If blog posts are virtually ignored but press releases are favored, then it may be useful to leverage news story-style press releasees in addition to your blog posts.
This task is also used to collect information about content competitors for use in our other steps below.
3. Keyword Presence
Use the Advanced search option in Google or Bing to check for the presence of the target search phrase anywhere within the pages of your site. Refine that search to look for the exact match presence of the phrase in the title tags of your pages.
What you’re looking for: Does the target keyword phrase exist within content on your site? If so, where? It’s simply amazing how many companies expect traffic from certain keyword phrases when the target keywords are either not present in a significant way or not at all on the website.
SEO Drill Down: Further refinements might include looking for exact match of the phrase as well as variations and with modifiers. Look for the phrase in Title Tags, within H1 tags as headings, within body copy, within anchor text links between pages, as image alt text, annotations to images, video or other media, use within breadcrumb and navigation links.
Additional considerations include any page level barriers to a search engine finding or crawling links. Document the presence as well as the lack of presence for keywords in the areas commonly used by search engines to determine page relevancy.
A review of the top ranking pages documented in Step 2 above should also be checked for the presence of the target keyword phrase.
Key Content Marketing questions: Are keywords being used in your PDF templates used to create eBooks, Reports or White Papers? Are digital assets such as infographics, videos, blog posts, press releases and other content marketing objects using keywords where relevant? Are keywords used in file names, folder names and navigation to content assets?
4. Inbound Link Footprint
Using a link tracking tool such as majesticseo.com or opensiteexplorer.org, check for the total number of links to the content assets that have been optimized for the target keyword phrase. Do the same review with the top 10 competing URLs found in step 1.
What you’re looking for: Links are like electricity for content when it comes to visibility in search results. Links are also important sources of direct traffic. If you expect a page or digital asset to be considered the “best answer” for a query by a search engine, keywords on the page are not enough. A quantity of links to a specific page will make it easy to find and also serves as a ranking signal.
The more topically relevant the content is of the link source, the better. Also the actual text used to link from another web page to your web page matters as well. “Click here” for our White paper and Get “More info” on our Newsletter are not nearly as useful as “Download our Red Widget Whitepaper” or “Sign Up for our Product XYZ Newsletter” when it comes to anchor text.
SEO Drill Down: Using advanced features of link analysis tools, check for the quantity and diversity characteristics of links to target pages. Also check for the on-topic relevance of the link sources. How authoritative are the link sources? What is the context? Is it a news story in a major industry publication or is it one of 200 links on the same page pulled together by automated software? Look at the types of links: text, image, follow vs. no follow, redirect, placement on page (high, low), number of links on the page, context for the link, overall topic. How many links use the target keyword phrase as anchor text? How many variations of the target phrase are used? What is the rate of link acquisition over time for your optimized page?
Besides performing this link research on your own optimized pages for target keywords, it can be useful to review this data on the content competition identified in Step 1 for benchmarking and comparison purposes as well as to identify new linking opportunities for your own content.
Key Content Marketing questions: As you craft relevant content in alignment with target customers and their stage in the buying cycle, think about how you’re promoting that content to attract inbound links from relevant websites. Social networks (Step 5) can have a significant impact on the reach of the content you promote, but social isn’t the only channel of distribution. If your white papers, case studies, archived newsletters and webinars get links from other sites that have commenting functionality, be sure to publicly thank them in a relevant comment. Link out from your blog to get on the radar of industry bloggers and they may link to the next press release, infographic or report that you publish.
5. Social Shares
Check for social shares of the target URLs on your site that are most relevant for the search phrase in question. Do the same for the top 10 competing URLs found in step one.
What you’re looking for: Is your content being shared on the social web? It’s not a “nice to have” anymore. Social engagement and sharing of your content is absolutely essential in order to gain advantage within search and social distribution of your content. Social media optimization of your content is essential and includes making it easy for readers to share your content to their social networks as well as having an active social presence that’s focused on building up a community you can promote content to. Documenting the presence of social shares for your own content and that of the top 10 competing URLs form Step 1 can help identify opportunities.
SEO Drill Down: For the content that you’ve created, optimized and built links to, document the presence, frequency and sources of social media shares. Do so at regular intervals in the way you might take snapshots of the SERPs page for your most important target keyword phrases. Social shares means links within public Facebook posts, Tweets, public Google+ shares, Q/A sites like Quora and even bookmarking/news services. Pay attention to the presence of keywords along with those socially shared links and whether they are congruent with your keyword targets.
Beyond link sharing on social sites, look for social engagement with your content where there’s commenting functionality. Cross promotion with different social channels such as blog, video, image, document hosting (Slideshare) as well as social networks like Twitter and Google+ can provide rich signal for both search engines and users.
Key Content Marketing questions: While social network participation for content marketers is often focused on the social channel conversation relevant to the buying cycle and customer segments, it’s also important to consider broader visibility. In other words, when it comes to social promotion and shares as well as network size, bigger is better. As always, a quantity of quality (relevance) is the ideal. At the same time, the size of your network determines the universe of exposure. In other words, the more Facebook and Google+ fans/friends you have, the greater the likelihood that your shared content will be seen overall. Facebook’s recent report showed on average, you are more than 7 times more likely to share a link on Facebook if you’ve seen the link from one of your friends, so get friendly and grow your network.
Social media and it’s direct influence on search visibility is a reality and content marketers must consider not only the topical relevance of the content they create, the keywords and links but also social promotion, sharing and engagement.
Another consideration for Content Marketers and the Social SEO equation is the importance of Author authority and trust. Officially there may be no such thing as “TrustRank” at Google, but with the forced Google+ accounts, Author Markup and unified user data sharing across Google services, trust associated with a user is clearly important. An individual who has a significant social network, produces a quantity of quality content that a community actively engages with will have distinct advantages when promoting content over a brand that publishes generically. Content Marketers should factor in named entities of individuals and/or the brand itself and what it will take to create a relevant presence to be considered authoritative for important topics.
Clearly the dynamic and increasingly complicated nature of today’s search engines can make the reliability of any one conclusion valuable for an indeterminate period of time. That’s why, if search traffic is important to your business, that your business has an experienced professional analyzing search, social and website performance data on a regular basis. As content marketers, we put a lot of hard work into planning, creating and managing thoughtful content designed to attract, engage and inspire readers to become customers, advocates and participants in the brand community. Keeping tabs on how those community members and customers discover our content is essential for it’s ability to have an impact.
If you like this type of advice, then be sure to pick up a copy of Optimize: How to Attract and Engage More Customers by Integrating SEO, Social Media and Content Marketing (Wiley) available March 13.