A Complete Guide to Social Media Customer Service by @anna_bredava

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Social media was created with the idea of dialogue in mind, so it’s not surprising that more and more users choose it as the main channel of communication with brands.

According to a study by J.D. Power, 67 percent of consumers have used a company’s social media site for servicing; therefore, having a social customer support strategy is not just a matter of preference, it’s a must.

Successful businesses meet their customers where they are, and there is a very high chance that they are on social media, trying to contact your company.

Nevertheless, social media customer care is oftentimes overlooked and neglected.

Many businesses leave handling complaints on social media to social media managers, which may lead to throwing a client in the “I’ll-pass-you-to-our-customer-service” hell cycle.

There’s nothing inherently bad in letting your social media team manage customer service on social, but they will need some training to be able to manage customer care issues correctly.

The important caveat that makes social customer support stand out is that it is never just that.

Many times it’s happening in the public eye, therefore, your social customer service strategy affects your brand image more than ever.

In that sense, social customer service gives you opportunities for community building and raising brand awareness. And it would be a mistake to miss out on it!

When the former football star and the hero of ‘Gleason’ documentary Steve Gleason called out Southwest Airlines on the lack of training in dealing with people with disabilities, they responded immediately. Gleason’s followers took notice of their reply.

The process of setting up social support channels involves two stages: preparation and the workflow itself.

In this article, we’ll go through all the steps of building a social customer service strategy from scratch and answer the frequently asked questions about social customer support.

Step 1: Analyze the Past Experience

Any great strategy starts with research. Analyzing your current customer care activity can help you identify pain points, “rush hours,” and your clients’ demands and expectations.

Moreover, your social media team can also give you valuable insights: do you already have established communication channels with your audience that are used for support issues (Instagram DMs, Twitter)?

Is there a need for a separate social media community designated to customer care? These and other questions can only be answered by the people who manage social media for your brand.

Step 2: Determine the Channel & the Team

Decide if you want to involve a person from your customer support team or a social media manager.

The answer will depend on the training process: will it be easier and faster to train your social media manager to handle customer service issues or vice versa?

Enterprise-level companies typically have a designated social support team which often works from a separate social media handle: for instance, @SpotifyCares or Apple Support.

However, for a smaller business, it might not be the strategy that makes sense.

Unless you’re constantly getting an influx of queries from customers on social media, I don’t recommend setting up separate profiles for customer care. Multiple profiles can be confusing to customers; besides, using your main profile to engage with customers helps raise brand awareness.

A great alternative would be creating a place for a community to interact with a brand and each other (for instance, a Facebook or a LinkedIn group) and checking up on it regularly.

Facebook Group

Facebook Group

Step 3: Create Guidelines

Once you have the team and insights in place, it’s time to create customer service guidelines (i.e., the rules that will guide your social customer support specialist(s)).

Here are some of the questions that you might want to address:

  • What is your desired response time?
  • What tone of voice should you take?
  • What constitutes a social media crisis and when should managers be alerted?
  • Will you respond to positive feedback and how (liking, commenting, reposting)?

You can even go further and create a template with answers to common queries — or borrow them from your customer support team. Just make sure that the tone of the response is consistent with your brand image.

Fashion Nova took on a playful and informal manner of communication.

Step 4: Choose What to Automate

It can be quite challenging to stay on top of all the social inquiries and respond to them in due time. That’s why many social support reps use tools and bots.

There are two major issues that automation can tackle:

Making Sure You Respond to Every Mention

Negative reviews and customer care issues can be scattered all over social media, from Twitter to various subreddits.

Sometimes, they are not directed at your brand, but even when they are, people might misspell your social media handle or simply forget to tag you.

Even though this customer tried to tag Tesco, they misspelled the brand name, so Tesco never saw her tweet.

In fact, research shows that only 3 percent of brand mentions actually use a Twitter handle, opting for the company or product name instead.

Monitoring your brand name and including misspellings can help you with that. You can use Tweetdeck and Google Alerts or a social listening tool like Mention, Hootsuite, or Awario (disclosure: I work at Awario).

These tools will organize all the mentions of your brand across multiple social networks in an easy-to-navigate feed, so you can take care of them one by one.

Respond to Mentions Quickly

According to Conversocial’s report ‘The State of Digital Care in 2018’, one-third of customers expect brands to respond in less than 30 minutes.

Salesforce also reported that 80 percent of consumers felt that an instant reply to their queries had a moderate to major influence on their loyalty to the brand.

Obviously, it’s not possible for a human to stay alert 24/7. You can use a social listening tool to get mentions from several platforms in one feed in real time, but there are still weekends and after-work hours.

Luckily, there are robots which don’t need to sleep and can work all the time!

Facebook already offers automated responses for when you’re out of the office: they notify your customers when you’ll be back online.

Moreover, you can automate any part of your communication – Facebook comments, Facebook mentions, Twitter mentions, DMs on Twitter and Instagram – with the help of bots.

There are a lot of ways to automate your communication: go with an integration tool like IFTTT or Zapier, choose a tool that specializes in one platform, or create your own bot.

However, don’t automate beyond what’s absolutely necessary: customers are not always happy to get a message from a robot.

Step 5: Analyze Complaints

This step is sometimes omitted from brands’ social service strategies, even though it is extremely important. Understanding where customer dissatisfaction comes from enables you to improve your product.

For example, Samsung uses social listening not only to directly assist their customers but also to monitor all the new product launches to identify weak points.

“When we first launched the S8, I was asked in a meeting whether the red tint on the display was a ‘thing’. I typed in “Samsung red tint” [on Crimson Hexagon’s platform] and confirmed that yes it was, and we were soon able to deploy a software update that got rid of it.” says Amy Vetter, Senior European Digital Insights Manager at Samsung.

Social Customer Support: Frequently Asked Questions

Should I Answer ALL the Mentions?

That depends on your brand! If you work for a huge company, it’s an unrealistic goal to reply to every single mention of your brand.

However, if you’re a smaller brand, responding even to positive mentions can raise your visibility and help with community building.

The customer didn’t have a support query, however, HelloFresh still responded.

Besides, customers that receive responses from brands on Twitter are willing to spend up to 20 percent more and are 30 percent more likely to recommend the brand.

Here’s the standard workflow for replying to customers:

  • Reply to DMs.
  • Reply to negative mentions (assuming you use a social listening tool to analyze sentiment).
  • Reply to inquiries about the company/product.
  • Reply to other mentions (compliments, showing off the product, etc.).
  • Check the community platform (a Facebook/LinkedIn group or a subreddit).
  • Repeat.

When Should I Ask Customers to PM/DM Me?

Not every conversation on social media has to be public: a lot of customer support interaction happens in private messages of a brand’s social media accounts.

However, it’s always better to minimize the hustle for your customer, so changing the communication channel should be both necessary and easy.

Pivoting to private messages works best when you need customer’s personal information (email, order number) or a thorough explanation of the issue they are experiencing to assist them.

Make sure you notify a customer publicly after sending them a private message. This will also show anyone else who stumbles upon the conversation that you didn’t just ignore the request. A simple “we sent you a message with more details, please check” will do.

Note that you should put all the effort into avoiding changing the platform completely: it’s social support after all, so you should be able to help your customer on social media.

When customers use social media to complain, it’s often because a company has already failed to assist them through conventional customer service channels, so directing them back to email will only annoy them even more.

Should I Introduce Myself?

Nobody likes talking to an anonymous brand or Twitter handle.

According to the report from Salesforce, 69 percent of respondents pointed out the importance of personalized customer care, and how can you be personal without introducing yourself?

Admittedly, replying to every message and mention you get with “Hi, I’m Jared!” might get a little bit annoying. A good tactic is to add your initials or a first name at the end of a message.

Should I Follow Up?

This might seem like a redundant question, but I wanted to remind you once again: always follow up if the problem isn’t completely solved.

When you can’t assist a customer right away, the best practice is to set a deadline for following up with updates, depending on the urgency of the problem.

It’s also a good idea to follow up if a customer didn’t respond initially: some brands will move on after sending one reply. However, in the rapid stream of social media it’s quite easy to miss one notification, so it’s better to message them once again.

A Complete Guide to Social Media Customer Service

A Complete Guide to Social Media Customer Service

Conclusion

Social media has become one of the most popular platforms for customer care – whether you like it or not.

To make your customers happy and get additional bonuses of raising brand awareness, you need to quickly respond to all the mentions and messages you get in a manner that complies with your branding.

More Resources:


Image Credits

All screenshots taken by author, March 2019

The Rise of On-Page SEO Tools: Pushing the Frontiers of SEO & Content

Let’s talk content and on-page SEO — on steroids. Let’s talk about cutting-edge SEO research that can truly transform your ranking success.

Our discussions over the last few years have been focused on editorial plans, query intent, and user engagement.

While they are surely a part of the equation (and I am a deep believer of content quality, avoiding SEO spam and creating useful answers), we have forgotten an important part of getting content right: data-driven decisions.

I want to reinvent your definition of keyword difficulty. I want to reinvent your understanding of competitive analysis. It is time to truly leverage the latest SEO tools for your content creation.

Understanding Page 1 Is the Most Important Ingredient of SEO

Not all keywords are created equal.

Creating a blog post of 1,000 words is certainly a good SOP and an efficient way to brief your content writers. However, it is most likely not the right advice for the keyword for which you are trying to rank.

Different query types need different content. This means that Page 1 will look radically different whether you are looking for “SEO blog”, “buy CBD oil online” or “underground techno club Berlin”.

I want to invite you to study Page 1 and truly understand what content type, content length, and keyword frequency Google would like to see.

To achieve SEO success, your keyword research and content planning need an update.

Using Statistical Relevance to Understand Successful Websites

The last two years have seen a rise of tools that are doing keyword specific competitive research for you. Statistical analysis has never been easier — or faster.

New SEO tools use statistical analysis to understand what all those websites on Page 1 have in common – and for which ranking factors your website is deficient. You now get a list of statistical relevant optimizations to make.

The difference to a normal crawler (like Screaming Frog) is that the correlational SEO tools do not display a fixed set of hard-coded recommendations.

Their recommendations are based on the statistical relevance of a factor for your target keywords. It is specific, instead of the “one-size-fits-all” approach of most crawlers.

pop1

pop1Page Optimizer Pro

Instead of telling your team “extend this blog post”, you can now tell them: “Extend this piece by 383 words, two images and one video. Make sure to use the exact match keyword twice in H3 and add the following keywords…” – knowing that it will move the needle, because this is what those websites on Page 1 have in common.

The New Kids on the Blog: The Rise of On-Page SEO Tools

The tools rising in popularity include:

  • CORA
  • Page Optimizer Pro
  • Website Auditor by SEO Power Suite
  • SurferSEO

I am not an affiliate of any of these tools, and this analysis is based on my practice of using these tools in my agency work throughout the last two years.

These tools vary on the amount of search results and ranking factors they measure. Some measure a handful of on-page SEO factors, some review LSI keywords with TF-IDF analysis, others up to 600 ranking factors, including backlinks.

What to Consider When Implementing a New On-Page SEO Tool

There are three factors I like to consider when implementing a new tool to my workflow.

For correlational SEO, they are:

  • Data and transparency
  • Recommendation quality
  • Usability

Think of all these tools as your most sophisticated keyword difficulty analysis ever.

If you believed in keyword density (percentage of keyword to total words within a page), it used to tell you “use the keyword more.”

Today’s tools not only tell you which specific ranking factors (headlines, images, bold, italics or lists) to optimize – they also tell you that those factors are most likely to have a positive impact on your rankings.

Data & Transparency

Firstly, CORA is the only tool that will not only review the first 100 search results (and therefore provide the deepest analysis of search results) but also show you the complete analysis. This includes every single website and the status of its optimization.

According to the SurferSEO website, they crawl the first 40 search results to make their on-page analysis.

SurferSEO and other tools will provide you with the recommendations but not the detailed report of your competitors. This means you won’t be able to reverse-engineer their math – and you will have to trust their recommendations without knowing the underlying data set.

CORA is also the only tool that measures more than 600 ranking factors. With CORA, you can even use APIs (e.g., to Ahrefs) and factor in backlinks (while the others are pure on-page SEO tools). It includes a unique in-depth task list which prioritizes the factors that appear to influence rankings the most.

The Rise of On-Page SEO Tools: Pushing the Frontiers of SEO & Content

The Rise of On-Page SEO Tools: Pushing the Frontiers of SEO & ContentCORA

CORA is the clear winner when it comes to data provided and the number of ranking factors measured.

All other tools focus on on-page SEO factors only. Mainly, they are reviewing the term frequency of:

  • The exact match keyword.
  • Variations of the target keywords.

But unlike keyword density, they measure the term frequency per relevant ranking factor such as headlines, paragraphs, bold, italics, lists, etc.

SurferSEO uses around 10 factor types and operates more like a classic crawler with a fixed list of factors for which they are publishing recommendations.

It’s similar to this: Website Auditor reviews 17 on-page factors.

Page Optimizer Pro correlates 29 factors that are chosen based on SEO research and single variable testing. You can review the tests behind their displayed factors in their blog. It also includes functionalities to review page layout, media types, and schema markup.

All tools offer a solution for contextual keywords as well. Page Optimizer offers a TF-IDF analysis, as does Website Auditor. SurferSEO calls them “prominent words”.

Using semantically-related keywords will help to increase topical relevance and make it easier for other natural language processing tools (and therefore, most likely, also Google) to understand the intent, topic, and concepts of your content.

Many SEO professionals have seen an increase in rankings from using keyword variations and semantically-related keywords appropriately.

Recommendation Quality

When comparing the recommendations of several tools, you will realize that they never return the exact same recommendations.

Some will tell you to add a keyword 2x to an H3, and the others will tell you 3x. How can that be, and what does it mean for your optimization?

Disclaimer: Perfect is the enemy of done. We are aiming for “good enough.”

Correlation is not proof. However, it allows us to understand those factors that have the highest probability of making us successful.

The goal is not to get an “A” or 100 percent in all of the tools. The goal is to knock out those optimizations that will easily put us ahead of the curve.

The Rise of On-Page SEO Tools: Pushing the Frontiers of SEO & Content

The Rise of On-Page SEO Tools: Pushing the Frontiers of SEO & Content

The first reason for different recommendations across tools is word count per page – and how it is calculated by the crawlers collecting HTML.

Crawlers such as Google (and these tools) review the source code of a website, not the visual front end that we enjoy as users.

This source code includes header, footer, body content, etc. The tools have different capacities of understanding raw HTML source code vs. rendering HTML.

Google indexes rendered content, so rendered solutions are more likely to be closer to what the Google crawlers are seeing, too.

CORA, for example, factors in all content, including header, footer and even developer comments by rendering HTML with embedded Chrome.

However, Page Optimizer Pro determines the word count per page by rendering HTML with a simple browser. Their word count result is similar to the results of SEOquake by SEMrush.

Other tools might be using raw HTML only.

Keep in mind that all the tools also calculate variations of your keywords and synonyms, as well as match words differently. Comparing the variations across tools is often like comparing apples and oranges.

Secondly, the recommendations are based on the data set with which you are comparing your website.

When using Page Optimizer Pro or Website Auditor (as well as the creators), the recommendation is to compare against pages of the same type. Compare inner pages with inner pages (not homepages), and product pages with product pages (not categories) and so on.

This means that you are comparing your page against 5 to 10 competitors of the same page type that are more successful than you.

In contrast, CORA factors in the first 100 search results of all page types, SurferSEO compares 40 search results, and thus the recommendations are normalized across content types by the size of the data set.

This is especially interesting for the TF-IDF analysis. TF-IDF allows us to understand how to use contextual keywords (LSI). TF-IDF is term frequency (keyword count) in a document times the keywords used in the entire set.

In Website Auditor’s TF-IDF and Page Optimizer Pro, we are manually choosing the competitors that we want to compare our website against. Our manual decisions may negatively affect the result calculated.

Website Auditor

Website AuditorWebsite Auditor

Thirdly, the quality of recommendations is based on the factors that are included in the tool and how they are prioritized.

Most importantly, the recommendations differ across the tools based on the underlying assumptions that the creators made about the importance of certain ranking factors.

Using the different tools, we are buying into the different SEO philosophies of the creators:

Which ranking factors should be included in the tool? Which ones are relevant for SEO?

SurferSEO and Website Auditor hard-code their recommendations (more like most crawlers and SEO plugins would do) and thus will return the same set of factors no matter which keywords are entered. We are not aware of the reasoning behind the included factors.

Page Optimizer Pro also has a fixed set of recommendations. However, they were chosen based on years of single-variable testing by the creators and are updated regularly to reflect the importance of them based on the latest research.

CORA includes more than 600 ranking factors, even hypothetical ones, and has no preference on the importance of them. This means the recommendations are solely based on the statistical relevance and will change for every keyword.

On a continuum from personal preference of ranking factors to statistical analysis, we would find: Website Auditor and Surfer SEO first, then Page Optimizer Pro and then CORA.

Usability

CORA is processing heavy and thus is a desktop application – as is Website Auditor (which is a website crawler with some great content tools). Page Optimizer Pro and SurferSEO are browser applications.

Website Auditor is my personal usability winner. It is fast, easy to use and intuitive. I can just plug in my domain, then the URL of the target page and keyword, and I will receive all the recommendations.

websiteauditor

websiteauditorWebsite Auditor

It is easy to see which competitors are being pulled in and include/exclude them from the analysis if needed (e.g., if they don’t have the same page type). I can plug several target keywords into the tool to get the complete analysis.

I work mostly with Website Auditor because I enjoy the process most.

surfer1

surfer1SurferSEO

The second best tool in terms of usability, I would say, is SurferSEO. It is the flat white of SEO tools – a sexy browser version, minimalistic and slick.

It allows for a quick high-level analysis and understanding what a page would need. It also looks good on a screen share with clients because it does not have the nerdy SEO feel that some of the crawlers have.

SurferSEO is competing with Page Optimizer Pro for the second place in my personal usability preference. I like how Page Optimizer Pro gives an overall score that we can track over time and see improvements.

pop2

pop2Page Optimizer Pro

I also find Page Optimizer Pro most handy and useful to brief my content writers. It returns a list of recommendations, including word count, media items to use and how to optimize on-page SEO factors.

I can see how, with a bit of training, this tool can be used on a day-to-day basis by a content writer team with low to intermediate SEO knowledge.

While CORA offers the most insights, it will need a detailed-focused SEO expert to interpret the output. Many functions are not self-explanatory, and the huge Excel files can be overwhelming at first.

winner1

winner1

And the Winner Is…

We have looked at:

  • Data and accuracy
  • Quality of recommendations
  • Usability

So, which one is the best on-page SEO tool?

The answer depends on your personal preferences, your role in the team, and for which part of your SEO process you are planning to use the tool.

It depends on your preference for:

  • Detailed data vs. overview
  • Statistical relevant recommendations vs. best case practices
  • Complex in-depth reports vs. easy usage and practical implementation

For a high-level overview, screen shares on a client call and live presentations to the team or other stakeholders, I recommend SurferSEO or Website Auditor.

They will make you look good. You will be able to justify a data-driven strategy – without looking like a complete nerd. Those tools make it easy to sell your recommendations – because you want to believe them.

But don’t forget that we don’t have any insight into their data collection or the priority they assign to the displayed rankings factors.

They are correlational SEO for beginners (at least for now) or sales/marketing people who don’t want to dig into every detail.

If you want your SEO and content team to make data-driven decisions, precise on-page SEO updates and use contextual keywords efficiently, teach them how to use Website Auditor or Page Optimizer Pro.

Working with Page Optimizer Pro will allow you to future-proof your keyword research and content planning. Your content briefings and content upgrades will be more specific than ever before, leveraging ranking factors that have proven their relevance in a series of in-depth SEO testing.

Page Optimizer Pro (or POP as insiders call it) makes your content creation truly data-driven and helps you to understand what successful websites are doing right.

If you are working on complex SEO campaigns in competitive niches, or if you simply want to really geek out on ranking success in 2019, CORA is your best bet.

While it is hard to use, it offers by far the best data and deepest insight. It is the only tool that is fully transparent and creates a fluid task list based on statistical relevance only.

So, are you…

  • An overview person trying to get an overview of the optimization needed for a page?
  • An SEO pro creating detailed content plans?
  • A writer looking to do on-page SEO right?
  • Or an SEO expert trying to dive in deep?

In any case, I highly recommend that you rethink your keyword research, content planning, and content creation. SEO professionals are studying Page 1, identifying winning strategies, and using them to their advantage. You should be, too!

Correlational SEO and the testing community has been busting many SEO myths in the last few years.

Using tools like Page Optimizer Pro and CORA will teach you to take nothing for granted – until you have some data to back it up. You are learning to understand what is working, no matter how controversial it may seem.

Use the power of these new on-page SEO tools and create truly data-driven content.

Happy ranking!

More Resources:


Image Credits

In-post Photo #1: Pexels.com
In-post Photo#2: Pexels.com
All screenshots taken by author, March 2019

How to Do PPC Keyword Research in 2019 by @amyppc

If you’re looking for the latest strategies in PPC keyword research, there’s something you should know: Google was never designed to be about keywords.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin said:

“My vision when we started Google… was that eventually you wouldn’t have to have a search query at all – the information would just come to you as you needed it.”

Google’s getting closer to that mission, and in 2018 it rebranded AdWords as Google Ads, dropping the “words” entirely. Many older keyword building methods are now outdated or defunct.

Today, there’s a new and easier way to handle PPC keywords, and it starts with a focus on users. To understand this new strategy and why it works better, it will help to know what’s different about the current search landscape.

Google’s Giving Less Weight to Keywords

Once upon a time, many algorithm updates ago, Google’s best chance of serving up relevant results was to match a user’s search terms with keywords on a page (or, in the case of paid ads, keywords in a list). A lot has changed.

Natural Language Processing Advancements

Last week, I did a Google search for a podcast episode. I couldn’t recall the episode number or name. But I remembered the gist of it, and Google knew what I meant.

Google matches a query to a listing that doesn't share words, but has the same meaning.

Google matches a query to a listing that doesn't share words, but has the same meaning.

Five years ago, Google wouldn’t have been able to deliver this result, but today Google’s natural language processing and AI have advanced far beyond simple word matching.

Google can now understand syntax, entities, sentiment, conversation, and context. Neural matching is being used for 30 percent of search queries. This makes it easier for people to get answers based on what they mean, not what they type or speak.

Personalization & Implicit Signals

Search for “dentist” and you’ll probably get a list of nearby dental offices. How does Google know to deliver those results (and not articles or definitions) without you even entering your city?

Google uses implicit queries (such as your location, search history, behavior, and demographics) to personalize the results you’ll see.

Combining your explicit queries (what you type or say) with implicit signals (who you are, where you are and what you’re doing) lets Google tailor the SERP with the most relevant answers, listings, and ads.

Taking the Keyword out of the Ad Serving Process

One of the driving forces behind Google Ads’ auction model is Ad Rank, which is based on factors like a keyword’s ad relevance.

But today, many ad formats that appear on Google Search don’t even have the option of bidding on keywords.

Campaigns for Dynamic Search Ads (DSA), AdWords Express / Smart Campaigns, Local Service Ads and Shopping Ads are completely keyword-less. They rely on your business type, products, or website to control when ads are served.

How to Do PPC Keyword Research in 2019

How to Do PPC Keyword Research in 2019

Google Changed How Match Types Work (or Don’t)

Google’s always been out to expand keyword coverage beyond the lists uploaded by advertisers. Here’s their official explanation for casting a wider net:

“There’s a good chance people are searching for your products or services with terms you haven’t discovered. Take deodorant, for example. Last year, we saw people search for deodorant in more than 150,000 unique ways. That’s a lot of different ways to say the same thing. But you shouldn’t have to manage an exhaustive list of keywords to reach these hygiene-conscious consumers.”

For more than a decade, Google let advertisers use broad match keywords to catch misspells and relevant variations of queries, while keeping tighter bid control with phrase and exact match types. This option has slowly been retired.

In the last few years, Google changed the function of exact match to include abbreviations, stemming, reordered words, function words, implied words, synonyms, and search intent:

screenshot of Google's table of exact match ad triggers

screenshot of Google's table of exact match ad triggers

Advertisers can no longer opt out of this coverage.

Now that exact match is behaving more like broad match, true exact coverage is lost. As the above Google quote implies, to show only for the exact query [deodorant], you’d have to add thousands of negative keywords.

With expanded keyword coverage implicit in every match type (like it or not), precise keyword control is no longer an option. Bloated keyword lists just add needless management complexity.

Google Lets Fewer Keywords Trigger Your Ads

Here’s a real screenshot from a keyword I created in June 2007:

Screenshot of Google Ads interface. The keyword [dr amy's dad] has 1 click, 1 impression, and spent $0.20.

Screenshot of Google Ads interface. The keyword [dr amy's dad] has 1 click, 1 impression, and spent $0.20.

The only impression came from my dad (it was part of a Father’s Day present), and he clicked the ad that led to a landing page with his gift.

Obviously, this keyword doesn’t work in 2019. Let’s look at why:

Low Search Volume = Inactive Keywords

Google marks keywords with few searches as “Low search volume,” which means they’re inactive and won’t trigger ads. According to Google:

“Keeping these keywords out of the ad auction helps Google Ads serve ads more efficiently and reduces the volume of keywords on our system.”

No Commercial Intent = No Ad

Around the time Google changed its Ad Rank calculation to weigh bids more heavily, it also updated Ad Rank to take into consideration the meaning of the query.

If this sounds complicated, think of it like this: Google’s trying to avoid delivering SERP experiences that feel spammy to users by restricting how often (and when) ads can show.

Even if advertisers are bidding on keywords, Google is less likely to serve ads if it believes the searcher is looking for information rather than a product or service.

Want to show your football t-shirt ads when someone searches “super bowl”? That’s not an option anymore. But you can show for “super bowl t-shirt” searches all day long:

Super bowl winner does not trigger ads in SERP. Super bowl t-shirts triggers 6 ads

Super bowl winner does not trigger ads in SERP. Super bowl t-shirts triggers 6 ads

Keywords that are unlikely to trigger a click (generating revenue for Google) aren’t worth its processing power. “Just in case” keywords are no longer eligible to serve ads and don’t benefit your account.

New & Improved Keyword List Building

All these changes add up, and Google Ads marketers now find themselves in unchartered waters. Today:

  • Fewer keywords trigger ads: keywords with low search volume or low commercial intent are DOA.
  • Fewer keywords are needed for coverage: by design, precise keyword control is gone.
  • Keywords are a smaller signal: Google uses search intent and implicit queries in selecting which ads to serve.

So how can we take advantage of the new keyword landscape?

There’s good news. While keyword research may be getting increasingly complex for SEO, it’s actually easier and faster now for PPC.

Here’s a user-first keyword research strategy that will improve your paid search campaigns and save you both time and money.

1. Define Your Goal for Paid Search

Don’t invest in PPC unless you know exactly how it will help to grow your business. I always like to remind advertisers:

“Paid search puts your best offer in front of your ideal audience when they’re most ready to take action.”

You’re not “buying traffic” or “buying keywords.”

You’re paying a premium to put your offer directly in front of people who are looking for it. What’s the offer your market is ready to say “yes” to (and take out their wallets for)?

2. Start with What’s Closest to the Money

Once you’ve defined the action your audience takes that drives leads and sales, you’ll identify who’s most ready to take that action.

We’re not making decisions about keywords yet, we’re making decisions about our audience and prospects.

In Breakthrough Advertising, Eugene Schwartz breaks out prospect awareness into five separate stages.

Applying stages of awareness to paid search, we can think of each stage as an electron shell – a nerdy analogy, but the best I could think of – with audiences increasing in size as we get further from the goal:

stages of awareness placed in electron shells to show volume and intent

stages of awareness placed in electron shells to show volume and intent

You can typically expect higher conversion rates and better performance from the “most aware” audience, so you’ll want to focus your efforts there first.

But you’ll eventually want to branch out – either because there’s not enough search volume for “most aware,” or you want to fill your customer pipeline.

3. Create Your Keyword Categories

Your next step is to start filling in keyword themes that support your audience’s stage of awareness.

This is not a one-size-fits-all exercise; you’ll bookend your categories based on the search volume, value, and specificity of your own products and services.

For example, “freelance copywriter” could be a product-aware term for a marketplace offering freelance copywriting services, but a problem-aware term for a copywriter specializing in long-form sales copy.

Most Aware

Your prospect already knows and wants your offer, and is ready to take action

  • Keyword types: your brand name, names of your products and services
  • Examples: verizon, cascade kennels, moto g5 plus, uber eats
  • Consider: If your audience is completely brand loyal or you have no PPC competition, being #1 organically may be enough. But if competitor ads appear above your organic listing, defensive brand bidding can keep you from losing sales and customers.

Product Aware

Your prospect knows what you sell, but hasn’t decided who to buy it from

  • Keyword types: your competitors, descriptions of product and services
  • Examples: airtable bidding on “smartsheet alternative,” samsung bidding on “moto g5,” emergency flood restoration
  • Consider: Competitor bidding can be expensive because your ad is less relevant to the query. It can still be effective, especially if your competitor’s brand has become genericized (i.e., jacuzzi, super shuttle). If the market is looking for products your competitor offers that you don’t, or they aren’t considering an alternative (i.e., Facebook), it makes less sense to bid on those brands.

Solution Aware

Your prospect is looking for a result, but isn’t aware of specific brands or services

  • Keyword types: features, outcomes, results
  • Examples:  shoes for heel pain, online guitar lessons,  reverse mortgage, sleep aids
  • Consider: There’s no hard line between product, solution and problem aware. You’re just grouping intent as it relates to your business.

Pain / Problem Aware

Your prospect is trying to solve a problem, and either doesn’t know how or is considering many solution categories

  • Keyword types: high-level problems, symptoms, desires or goals
  • Examples: kubernetes management, sell my house, joint pain, flight to denver, learn guitar
  • Consider: Problem aware keywords that don’t tie directly to your offer and don’t have “commercial intent” are less likely to trigger ads or drive sales. Stay anchored to your goal.

Table with stages of awareness and goals for paid search

Table with stages of awareness and goals for paid search

4. Define the Right Keywords & Research Questions

Now that you’ve got a general idea of the keyword themes to target and you know who’s most likely to take action, what’s left to research?

Plenty.

But the best research doesn’t come from blindly auto-generating or “stealing” large keyword lists. It comes from listening to your prospects and digging deep into your own offer.

Mine Your Customers’ Language

Google can solve for a lot of synonyms, but you need to know how your market is thinking about your services. Especially if they are in the problem-aware stage, they may not have the vocabulary to describe your offer the way you do.

Zero in on the exact language your audience is using with review mining. You can use review sites (Amazon, Yelp, G2Crowd, etc.) and your own user data (Hotjar, surveys, chats, transcriptions) to add to your keyword list and find new terms for each stage of the funnel.

Get Clarity on the Offer

It can be tough to get a clear understanding of the products you’re marketing, especially when the industry is highly specialized.

Landing pages can be vague or full of jargon, making it hard to know what problems the product or service solves.

To get a better handle on what the offer is about, try these sources for neutral, non-branded language and keyword themes:

  • Look up the company or product on Wikipedia or a comparison site (like CrunchBase). How do third parties describe the solution?
  • Enter the landing page or site URL into Google’s Keyword Planner. What does Google think the page is about? How can that inform your keyword strategy?
  • Use the SERPs (paid and organic listings) to see how publishers and competitors are describing key points about the offer.

Google's keyword planner shows keyword ideas for a website (hubpsot)

Google's keyword planner shows keyword ideas for a website (hubpsot)

Once you’ve got clarity on your offer and stages of awareness, you can also use keyword research tools to identify and fill in gaps in your coverage.

Beware of the ‘Buyer Intent’ Party Trick

You may have heard that there are keyword modifiers that signal buyer intent (or lack thereof).

For instance, terms like “how to open a bank account” or “best running shoes” are informational/consideration terms, while “open a bank account” or “buy running shoes” are decision/transaction terms.

The truth is that most of the time, people don’t explicitly state their intent with boilerplate modifiers.

Remember our super bowl example above?

Google used the words “winner” and “t-shirts” (not “learn” and “purchase”) to determine intent. Building keyword lists around standard “intent” modifiers only catches the outliers.

More importantly, the customer journey isn’t so binary.

If you search “luggage reviews,” read an article comparing luggage brands and find one you like, what’s your next step? You’d probably:

  • Click the brand’s link from within the article.
  • Start a new search with the name of the luggage brand (product/most aware).
  • Or visit the brand’s site directly.

You wouldn’t start your search completely over with “buy luggage” and click an unrelated ad.

Putting It All Together

Let’s see how our PPC keyword research strategy works from start to finish. We’ll use a (made up) massage therapy school in Utah as an example:

step by step progression of keyword research process

step by step progression of keyword research process

Doing keyword research this way speeds up your process and helps you reach your audience when they’re most likely to take action.

A Few Final Tips

  • Don’t use plain broad match keywords! Use advanced match types like modified broad match, phrase, or exact match to avoid wasting money on searches that are too irrelevant.
  • Group your keywords in tight themes. Google can match any ad with any keyword in the same ad group – it doesn’t automatically pick the best match! – so each ad group should be about one primary topic.

If you thought PPC keyword research meant you had to find 100,000 keywords to reach your audience: congratulations!

You can now let machine learning take over the grunt work of intent and keyword coverage, while you focus on strategy and searchers.

Coming Soon: Keyword Optimization

Once your keywords are live, the real fun begins. You can use the search term report to see the detailed performance of the actual search terms your audience is using (not just the keywords in your list).

The search term report will help you improve and curate your keyword list. But if you’re starting from scratch with keyword research, it’s unfair to suggest using a resource that doesn’t exist for you yet.

Use the steps from this article to build out your audience-focused PPC keyword list today. Then be sure to catch the companion article, How to Optimize Your Paid Search Keyword List, in May 2019.

More Resources:


Image Credits

All screenshots taken by author, March 2019

4 Deep Thoughts on Being a Provider & Partner by @navahf

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When I was younger, I had a plan in place for how my life would go:

  • I’d have my first kid by 25. That didn’t happen.
  • I’d be an English teacher with a partner who could handle the bills. Nope.
  • I’d have a big house with a maid who would do all the cleaning. I wish!

In short, I planned on being provided for and choosing dependence on someone else so that I could have things I thought I wanted.

Life has a funny way of taking unexpected turns – and I am blessed in the life I am leading. Here’s what actually happened:

  • I’m 30 with two ocicats and an adorable rescue pup (Chinook, Kiowa, and HK) – my husband and I will eventually adopt.
  • I’m a digital marketer who is responsible for most of the bills.
  • We live in a comfy house with a large yard, and my husband and I share household responsibilities (he’s the better cleaner, I own trash, laundry, and dishes).

There are several reasons why my “plan” didn’t work out, and I couldn’t be happier that my life took a different path.

Yet the shift from planned dependence to owned star power didn’t come overnight, nor is the life of a provider without trials and tribulations.

I had to shift my perspective to understand and appreciate my value.

This was a monumental task and I couldn’t have completed it as successfully without the many mentors who helped me unlock my potential. Chief among them is my husband who empowers me in all that I do.

These were the four major mindshifts that helped me appreciate where I am (instead of pining for where I thought I wanted to go).

Mindshift 1: Owning My Survival Instincts & Who/What Makes My Life Worth Living

Being a provider first and foremost means being a survivor and helping those you provide for survive.

Every hero’s journey includes a trip through hell, and emerging from whatever pain life has in store can empower you to even greater heights.

My hell came from having a forced medical withdrawal from my education degree and having to return home. I had to be provided for and I felt weak, useless, and alone.

Then I had a life-changing conversation with a relative in the PR industry. She asked me why I wasn’t in marketing. She saw in me what I had forgotten in myself: a creative, analytical, and mercantile mind.

I made the move to Boston 12 years ago, emerging from hell into confidence, pragmatism, and independence.

Survival often gets associated with self-preservation instincts (and in turn selfishness). I see survival as not only a preservation of the self but also preserving aspects of your life that make it worth living.

My husband may not contribute as much financially, yet what he does provide transcends monetary value. He’s my support system and provides stability in an otherwise stressful and chaotic world. He helped me find myself when I was lost, and is my partner in all things.

I provide for our household. He provides for our overall well-being.

Survival, ultimately, meant choosing to see my value and embracing how much I mean to those around me. These instincts took time to hone, but once achieved, the “burden” of being the main provider turns into a game of survival.

I believe in our ability to win.

Mindshift 2: Compromise Where I Can & Own What I Need

Being a provider means taking care of people. Being a survivor means taking care of yourself.

One of the hardest parts of being a provider for me is knowing where to draw lines so I can continue to provide for my family.

My job is empowering businesses to achieve the most profit possible.

Sometimes this requires a strategic data-driven touch. Sometimes it requires an empathetic friend who can help them transition from overwhelmed and underappreciated, to the celebrated hero of their brand.

My role also elevates trends in clients to our product, customer success, and leadership teams so we can provide better experiences and anticipate client needs.

I could not be more blessed in my career or the brand I serve.

I also acknowledge how draining it is to have so many relying on me at work, and how much I treasure that my husband owns most of the household items.

Yet that wasn’t always the case – there was a two-year period when he was struggling with his career and confidence. This knocked the energy out of him and despite knowing he should and wanting to, he wasn’t able to contribute to household tasks or income.

I thought I was serving him best by giving him the runway to find himself on his own. Yet as weeks dragged into months (and eventually years), I began to resent how much responsibility I had to own.

Eventually, I snapped and all the built-up frustration came flooding out in an unproductive tidal wave of rage and sadness.

We had stopped taking care of ourselves, so we couldn’t be good for each other or achieve what we needed to.

The conversation that followed put us back on a productive path. We worked together to purge the house of the clutter, filth, and junk that got in the way of our self-preservation tools (my workout equipment and his workshop).

This episode taught me the most valuable lesson of all: just because I’m the main financial provider, doesn’t mean I rule the house.

It does mean I’m entitled to call out when I feel overwhelmed and when I need my partner to help in other ways. It’s on me to let him know what I need, just like it’s on him to vocalize his needs.

True love and partnership happen when compromises on details are commonplace, and neither partner asks the other to compromise the self.

Mindshift 3: I Am Worth More Than My Paycheck

I come from a very financially driven family and used to equate my self-worth with how much money I made.

This is obviously a terrible attitude, but it’s seductive and incredibly hard to shake once it’s woven its way into your perspective.

These insecurities are amplified when you’re the main provider:

  • “How could I fail my family?”
  • “Why couldn’t I see that bill coming?”
  • “I’m an idiot, now what are we going to do?”

It’s easy to see this way of thinking is terrible when you’re not in the heat of a financial obstacle. Yet we seem to forget how much good we’re capable of achieving at the moment.

The first time I “beat” a financial pitfall, it became easier to free myself from those toxic thoughts.

My moment was overcoming an unfortunate misfiling of taxes that threatened to ruin our family.

As someone who never had a penny of debt, this was horrifying to me (especially because we only had my income at the time and were just able to cover regular expenses).

Then we learned about offers in compromise. We achieved salvation. We won.

Every time my mind tries to go back to feelings of inadequacy, I have this data point to hold onto. This “win” where the outcome could have significant negative repercussions, gives me the confidence to meet future challenges (instead of giving into despair and anxiety).

My feelings on financial success being directly tied to self-worth are a lot like my feelings on Quality Score (PPC joke): how well you’re doing financially can point to areas of your life that you may want to “optimize”, but ultimately the most important metric of your life is your happiness and your positive impact on people blessed to know you.

While it’s true every financial hiccup is stressful, it’s also a chance to “play the game of survival.”

If you’re the type of person who thrives under pressure, own that and revel in your ingenuity to get out of any bind.

If you’re risk averse and need plans in place, own your process and revel in the serenity that comes from stability.

The actual amount of money I earn and save is inconsequential – what matters is I am setting myself up to live a life predisposed to bring me happiness.

Sometimes that means sacrificing wants for needs, but it never means equating the value I bring to my paycheck.

Mindshift 4: I May Be A Provider, But That Does Not Define Me

I am more than the tasks I complete.

Being a provider isn’t an all-defining attribute, nor is it a badge to show off. It’s simply something I do among the many other things I do.

I like taking care of people and the “provider” tasks and skills bring me joy, but at my core, I love luxury and crave pampering.

Reveling in all that makes me function, as opposed to compartmentalizing certain parts as guilty pleasures, is the kindest thing I’ve ever done for myself.

I really appreciate the opportunity to share what being a provider means to me, and the opportunity to learn from others. If you ever want to chat – the door’s always open!

More Resources:

What Is Quality Score & Why It Matters

Quality Score can seem like a bit of a mystery to new search advertisers.

The promise of search advertising is that ads will be shown for selected keywords, so long as the advertiser is willing to pay for the resulting clicks.

But with thousands of advertisers vying for top rankings on the same keywords, there’s clearly more to it.

That’s where Quality Score comes into play.

Why does Google use Quality Score, how do they calculate it, and how can advertisers improve it?

I served on the Quality Score team for Google Ads (then AdWords) while I worked at Google, so let me shed some light.

What Is Quality Score?

Quality Score is Google’s measure of how relevant a keyword is. As soon as Google has enough data, keywords in an advertiser’s account are assigned a score between 1 and 10, with 10 being the best.

This number is a representation of the aggregate relevance of the keyword across the many auctions in which it participates. It is meant to guide advertisers but it is not used to rank ads.

Enable Quality Score columns to see the score next to each keyword

Enable Quality Score columns to see the score next to each keywordEnable Quality Score columns to see the score next to each keyword

What is used to rank ads behind the scenes of every ad auction, is the real-time Quality Score that takes a lot of additional factors into account.

While the 1-10 number helps advertisers gauge how good a job they are doing at choosing the right keywords, writing good ads, and driving users to helpful landing pages, it’s the real-time Quality Score that really matters.

The real-time Quality Score is more granular than a 1-10 number but it is not shared with advertisers because it fluctuates all the time and is different for every single search that happens on Google.

Why Google Uses Quality Score

All of that sounds complicated, so why does Google have Quality Score?

They use it to help show more relevant ads to users every time a search happens.

Google depends on revenue from advertising so they have a big incentive to make sure users find the ads interesting and click on them.

If they allowed low-quality ads to take up space that could be filled with more relevant ones, they’d make less money in the short term and risk alienating users in the long term.

While it can sometimes be a struggle to improve Quality Score, it is useful for advertisers too because they like getting the type of high-quality leads that are possible with Google Ads.

For those leads to keep coming, advertisers have to do their part in picking relevant keywords and writing compelling ads. And when they do, it can lead to big wins by reducing their CPCs.

How Quality Score Is Calculated

Google has so much data about how users interact with search results that they can use “big data” with machine learning techniques to come up with a measure of the expected relevance of every ad, keyword, and landing page relative to every search that happens.

That’s a mouthful, so it’s called Quality Score.

Rather than asking Google employees to judge the relevance of every keyword, a process that would be hugely time-consuming, subjective, and prone to errors, they use the principle of the “wisdom of the crowds” to assign Quality Score. Specifically, their algorithms monitor what users interact with on the search results page (SERP) to make predictions about future interactions.

At its heart, Quality Score is really a predicted click-through rate (CTR).

In the early days of Google Ads, before Quality Score, they used CTR to determine if keywords were low relevance and should be disabled, or pay more to get a good position in the ad auction.

Over time, as machine learning techniques became better, Google started to consider more factors when determining expected CTR and the term Quality Score was introduced to replace the CTR component that had been part of the ad ranking mechanism before.

So the simplest way to think about Quality Score is as a measure of how likely it is that users will click your ad for a particular keyword.

Why Quality Score Matters

Advertisers care a lot about their Quality Score because it is one of the factors used to decide:

  • Which ads are eligible to enter the ad auction.
  • How the eligible ads are ranked.
  • What actual CPC the advertiser needs to pay.

Entering the Auction

Google doesn’t want to show irrelevant ads and it’s easy to understand why. They charge advertisers primarily for clicks on their ads. If an advertiser uses a very high bid to hog a high position on the page with an irrelevant ad, it won’t get clicked on and Google won’t make any money.

Search advertising is a direct response advertising model and not a branding model.

For example, while a car manufacturer may think an ad for a new pickup truck would really resonate with someone looking up the score for the big game, that ad is unlikely to garner a click and hence is detrimental to Google Ads.

So when Google predicts a particular keyword to be very irrelevant and assigns it a very low Quality Score, that ad may not even enter into the auction for most searches.

On the flipside, having a high Quality Score ensures an ad is eligible to participate in more ad auctions so it moves on to the ranking step.

Ad Ranking

Once Google has selected the keywords and ads that are likely to be relevant for a search, those are entered into the ad auction.

This is a split-second auction where Google evaluates how much each one is bidding (max CPC), how relevant they are (QS), and what other factors like ad extensions may give a boost to the CTR.

Each ad gets a score and the resulting rank determines who gets their ad shown in the top slot, and who misses out on the first page of results.

Advertisers benefit from a higher ad rank because ads in higher positions tend to get more clicks and that means more leads and chances to make a sale.

CPC Discounting

The actual CPC an advertiser has to pay for a click is calculated based on the CPC they would need to maintain their rank above the next ad in the auction.

This discount is the reason most advertisers have an average CPC that is lower than their max CPC.

Advertisers benefit from a higher Quality Score because it means they have to pay less to maintain their position versus their next competitor. In effect, the higher the QS, the less they have to pay for the same click.

How to Improve Quality Score

You can improve Quality Score by improving the relevance of your keywords, ads, and landing pages.

To focus your efforts, start by looking at the relative score of the three subcomponents of quality score:

  • Expected click-through rate
  • Ad relevance
  • Landing page experience

The three subcomponents of Quality Score are shown when hovering over the status field for a keyword.

The three subcomponents of Quality Score are shown when hovering over the status field for a keyword.The three subcomponents of Quality Score are shown when hovering over the status field for a keyword.

The value for each component will be:

  • Below average.
  • Average.
  • Above average.

So this can guide you towards what to optimize.

Expected Click-through Rate

This is a measure of how likely your ad is to generate a click when the search term is exactly the same as your keyword. If it’s low, make sure the keyword is relevant to what you’re advertising.

Also consider that your ad may only be relevant in a limited number of cases.

For example, a dog walking service may sometimes be relevant for the keyword ‘dog’ however there are many searches a user might do including the word dog when they’re not looking for your service, but instead need a vet, dog food, or photos of dogs. This will negatively impact the CTR of the keyword and it may be time to consider adding more relevant keywords to the account.

If your keyword is relevant, but this score is low, try writing a stronger ad that is more compelling by highlighting its relevance to the keyword or by including a stronger call to action or unique value proposition.

Ad Relevance

This component measures how well the message in your ad matches the keyword. If this component is low, it may be because your ad groups cover too broad a range of themes.

A solution may be to split the ad group into smaller, more tightly themed ad groups.

For example, if you’re a pool contractor, keywords like “pool design,” “in ground pool construction,” and “pool renovation” may all be highly relevant, but when they are all in the same ad group where they share the same ad text, some relevance is bound to be lost.

By having too disparate a list of keywords grouped in one ad group, you can cause the ad that is shown to be too generic or about the wrong theme.

Don’t just rely on dynamic keyword insertion, but take the time to properly structure your account by building separate ad groups for each set of closely related keywords.

In the example before, each of the 3 pool related keywords is a different theme and should be in different ad groups.

Landing Page Experience

This final Quality Score component measures what happens after a user clicks the ad.

When searchers arrive on your landing page, are they happy they came or do they turn right around and leave?

If this component is too low, make sure that the landing page is closely related to what the user searched for and delivers on the promise in the ad.

Usually deep linking (i.e., linking to a specific landing page) is better than taking someone to the homepage.

Make it easy to use the landing page on both mobile and desktop devices. Make the page load fast and consider using an accelerated mobile page (AMP).

Offer unique and valuable content and treat the user’s data with respect.

Conclusion

Along with the bid, Quality Score is a major part of how Google decides which ads to show and how to rank them.

A good Quality Score can be just as beneficial as a high bid. In fact, ads with lower bids can beat those of higher paying competitors by having better relevance.

This makes PPC very appealing because it’s not just the biggest advertiser who always wins.

Monitor your Quality Score and tackle optimizations when a low Quality Score is holding you back from achieving your targets.

However, don’t get so bogged down with Quality Score that you lose track of the ultimate goal, which is to run an efficient business that makes a meaningful connection with new prospects through search marketing so that the people who work at the company make a good living, and users get their problems solved.


Image Credits

Featured Image: Paulo Bobita
All screenshots: Taken by author

Google Forgets to Announce a Major Change – SEO Community Disappointed by @martinibuster

Several years ago Google quietly stopped using the Rel=prev/next indexing signal. Google continued to encourage publishers to the indexing signal.  Years later Google tweeted an announcement that the indexing signal was no longer in use. The SEO and publishing community responded with disappointment and confusion.

Google Forgets to Announce a Major Change – SEO Community Disappointed

Google Forgets to Announce a Major Change – SEO Community Disappointed

What is the Rel=prev/next Indexing Signal?

Rel=prev/next was an indexing signal that Google advised publishers to use as a hint that a group of pages were part of a series of related pages. This allowed publishers to break up a document into several pages while still having the entire multi-page document considered as one document.

This was useful for long articles as well as for long forum discussions that can span to multiple pages.

Was it a Major Change?

From the perspective of web publishers it certainly felt like a major change. The indexing signal gave publishers the ability to help Google figure out complex site navigation.

Did Google Hope Nobody Would Notice?

There was no official announcement. Google simply issued a years late tweet.

Google removed the webmaster support page entirely and replaced it with a 404 response. No explanation.

Google Forgets to Announce a Major Change – SEO Community Disappointed

Google Forgets to Announce a Major Change – SEO Community Disappointed

Then Google updated the original blog post from 2011 to note that the guidance in the announcement was cancelled.

Google Forgets to Announce a Major Change – SEO Community Disappointed

Google Forgets to Announce a Major Change – SEO Community Disappointed

Publishers are Disappointed with Google

Under the leadership of Matt Cutts, Google endeavored to liaison with publishers to keep them updated on ways publishers could help improve their sites in a way that adhered to Google best practices.

This is why it came as a shock that Google had stopped using an important indexing signal and didn’t bother to tell publishers.

Google Encouraged Publishers to Use a Signal that Didn’t Work

As recently as January 2019, Google’s John Mueller was encouraging publishers to use the indexing signal, even though Google no longer used it.

In a Google Webmaster Hangout from January 2019, a publisher asked Google’s John Mueller about what he could to do force Google to show content from the first page of a paginated set of content instead of one of the inner pages.

John Mueller responded by affirming that Google tries to use the Rel=prev/next. He didn’t say that Google had already stopped using Rel=prev/next.

Mueller affirmed that Google was using it, even though Google had in fact been using it.

Here is John Mueller’s response:

“That’s something where we try to use rel next/previous to understand that this is a connected set of items.”

It may be that John Mueller did not know that it had been years since Google had used that indexing signal.

Many are Disappointed in Google

The SEO and publishing community responded in two ways. Some accepted the development quietly. But it seemed like most people were upset that Google had continued telling publishers to use something that Google had stopped responding to.

Dustin Woodard tweeted:

“Google stopped using rel=prev & next years ago, but forgot to tell the web. They claim users like single page. That’s like a librarian saying your book is somewhere in this unorganized library. Just look until you find it. “

Should You Take Down Existing Code?

Edward Lewis, a search marketer since 1995, noted that link prev-rel is a part of the HTML specification. So while Google may not be using them as a pagination hint, it is still a relevant HTML element and there is no need to take down existing code.

“Link Relationships (next, prev) have been in the HTML Specification long before Google finally read the instructions on how to use them.

So “Google Says” and now everybody is whining about the time they invested to setup their pages properly which should have been done to begin with. I wonder how many will now remove their link relationships just because “Google Says.”

Rel=prev/next Serves a Purpose

Others in the community noted that Rel=prev/next was an important tool for helping Google make sense of complex site architecture.

Alan Bleiweiss observed that some sites are highly complex. He remarked that he did not trust Google to automatically be able to sort out the complexity.

He commented:

“This is insanity. …If I’ve got 50 paginated pages in a single sub-category, on a site with 10 categories, and a total of 10 sub-categories, there’s no way I can trust Google to “figure it all out”.

“Google is a mess of an organization. The lack of consistency, cohesiveness, and reinforcing signals within their own organization ends up being reflected by the lack of consistency, cohesiveness, and reinforcing signals site owners, managers and team members put out when doing the work on individual sites.”

The Pragmatic Response

Cyrus Shepard was non-judgmental. He tweeted a proactive and pragmatic course of action.

Google Forgets to Announce a Major Change – SEO Community Disappointed

Google Forgets to Announce a Major Change – SEO Community Disappointed

We who work online are pretty much living in Google’s world. Google is the hand that feeds many publishers.

Yet it is, as Danny Sullivan called it, an ecosystem. Google thrives when publishers thrive.

Google Made More Linking Practices Less Effective at Manipulating Rankings by @MattGSouthern

In Google’s newly released webspam report, the company reveals how it dealt with link spam in 2018.

Link spam is one of three types of spam discussed in the report. Other standouts include spam on hacked sites and user-generated spam.

Here’s more about how Google fought those types of spam last year.

Link Spam

Link spam refers to any type of link building practice that violates Google’s webmaster guidelines.

Google stresses the value of links as a search ranking factor when explaining why it’s important to fight link spam.

“We continued to protect the value of authoritative and relevant links as an important ranking signal for Search.”

Egregious link spam is dealt with swiftly, Google says. A number of link building practices were even made less effective last year

Without getting too specific, Google says it “made a number of bad linking practices less effective for manipulating ranking.”

Lastly, Google touts its webmaster and SEO outreach efforts:

“Above all, we continued to engage with webmasters and SEOs to chip away at the many myths that have emerged over the years relating to linking practices.”

The best way to avoid getting penalized for link spam, Google explains, is to avoid building links primarily as an attempt to rank better.

Other ways Google fought webspam in 2018

Here’s a quick recap of other key highlights from the report:

  • Less than 1% of results visited by users are for spammy pages.
  • 80% reduction on the impact of user-generated spam on search users.
  • In 2018, Google received over 180,000 search spam user reports.
  • Google took action on 64% of the reports it processed.
  • Google sent over 186 million messages to website owners regarding their site’s appearance in search results.
  • Around 2%—or about 4 million—of the messages Google sent were related to manual actions.

Google Explains the Difference Between Neural Matching and RankBrain by @MattGSouthern

Google addressed some questions going around the SEO community as of late related to neural matching and how it’s used in search.

Danny Sullivan, via Google’s Search Liaison account, published a series of tweets explaining the difference between neural matching and RankBrain.

Here is an overview of what was shared by Sullivan.

How Google Uses Neural Matching

Neural matching helps Google better relate words to searches. It’s an AI-based system that has been in use since 2018.

Sullivan describes neural matching as a “super-synonym” system:

“For example, neural matching helps us understand that a search for “why does my TV look strange” is related to the concept of “the soap opera effect.” We can then return pages about the soap opera effect, even if the exact words aren’t used…”

In September 2018, Google stated that neural matching is used in 30% of searches.

It’s not known how widely used neural matching is right now, though it would be reasonable to assume its use has only expanded.

Sullivan’s description of neural matching closely resembles what my colleague Roger Montti wrote about it last year: What is Google’s Neural Matching Algorithm?

What is RankBrain?

RankBrain helps Google relate pages to concepts, even when the pages do not include the exact words used in a query.

It’s also an AI-based system which has been in use since 2016, two years before Google implemented neural matching.

There are theories which suggest RankBrain also takes into account user behavior signals, but those theories have been debunked.

So, to sum up, RankBrain relates pages to concepts and neural matching relates words to searches.

More Resources

Google Stopped Supporting Rel=prev/next in Search Indexing Years Ago by @MattGSouthern

Google finally decided to tell the search community that rel=”next” and rel=”prev” haven’t been used in years.

John Mueller from Google broke the news on Twitter earlier today:

Shortly after, the Google Webmasters account made an official announcement:

Google has long recommended using rel=prev/next markup when publishing a paginated series of web pages.

The markup would communicate to Google that the individual pages are all part of the same series.

Rel=prev/next markup also sent signals to Google about which page in the series is first, second, third, and so on.

Now, Google doesn’t support the markup at all.

For years (apparently) Google hasn’t been using signals from rel=prev/next when indexing content in search results.

What has Google been doing instead?

No More Rel=prev/next

Google has been indexing content as it’s found by Google’s crawlers, Mueller says.

In other words, web pages in a series are indexed the same as any other piece of single-page content.

As it turns out, publishers are good at sending the appropriate signals to Google without rel=prev/next.

Publishers can send signals to Google in other ways, such as linking to other pages of a series within the body content.

Think about how you would communicate to a searcher that the page they landed on is part 3 out of 5 in a series.

When the pagination is obvious to a reader it should be obvious to Google as well.

Another option is to create more single-page content instead of paginated content. Google says users prefer it, although multi-page content is still acceptable for search.

Google’s Shift from Answers to Journeys: What Does It Mean for SEO? by @jasonhennessey

From dog training to fidget spinners, when users look for information, they usually start their journey with a Google search.

It used to be that Google’s algorithm tried its best to give users the answers they were searching for. However, today, things aren’t that simple.

With concepts like user intent and the buyer’s journey becoming increasingly important, Google has revamped its algorithm in order to better understand what users are actually searching for when they type in a phrase or question.

But when Google announced their new update in 2018, no one expected that they would not only be changing their algorithm, but that they would actually be changing the way we think about user searches and search history altogether.

Enter Search Journeys.

Why the Change to Search Journeys?

With Search Journeys, Google uses AI to better understand the language that users use when they search.

That is, Search Journeys looks at context – and uses that knowledge to show users content that is most relevant to where they are at in their journey rather than simply giving them an answer to a question.

Google’s AI looks at where users have been, what they have searched for in the past, and what they are likely to look for or do next.

This challenges the way that we have previously seen web searches. It also reveals how Google uses prior search history in an entirely new way in order to present users with better, highly-tailored results.

The Problem with Answers

When users go to look something up online, they first go to their chosen search engine and type in what they want to know.

This could be “painting tips for beginners”, “family lawyer in pasco”, or “how to make a wicker chair”.

In the past, Google focused on giving users the best answer to their question. What was “best” was determined by a variety of factors, like keyword match, relevancy, proximity, and others.

Problem is, the old algorithm didn’t account for what a user meant to do. Rather, it simply tried to find the best fit (i.e., answer) to what they searched for.

Further, Google wasn’t predictive in what to show users next based on previous searches or where they were at in their “search journey”.

The Purpose of Following the User Search Journey

Now, Google knows that there can be a variety of things that users are looking for when they type in a given term, and that there can be many different stages to that process.

Here’s an example of a user’s Search Journey in action:

A user starts their search for a family law attorney in Pasco. They Google a few terms, like “family lawyer near me” and “best family lawyer in pasco”.

After visiting a few law firm websites, making a mental note of who to hit back later, they decide to think on it a bit.

A week later, they Google the same terms again.

Only this time, Google knows what websites they have visited and for how long. The algorithm knows that they aren’t really looking to explore new options, but are wanting to decide between the options they found in their first search.

So, Google may show the user reviews of the law firms they checked out already, or present them with content focused on how to hire a lawyer.

Already, we can see how this lines up with what we already understand about the buyer’s journey.

Users often start by looking for a solution to a problem, then they weigh their options, and then they are ready to buy.

With Search Journeys, Google’s algorithm uses user history to figure out where a user is at in their journey and then present them with content that fits.

How Do Google Search Journeys Work?

The introduction of Search Journeys was built upon a similar concept as Knowledge Graph – a technology that looked at the connections between people, places, things, and facts. However, Search Journeys added AI in order to understand how these connections are built and how they grow over time.

Basically, Search Journeys use this information to understand how user searches and intentions change the more users learn about a topic that they’re interested in.

Activity Cards

Search Journeys uses something called Activity Cards to remember articles and webpages that users have visited after searching a particular topic.

This Activity Card appears at the top of a user’s search feed. It shows users the webpages they have previously visited and how long ago it was that they last viewed the page.

This is so incredible from a user standpoint because it reminds users of what they searched for last and why it was of interest to them. Further, it gives Google important data for what content to present to users next.

But, there is so much more to Search Journeys than the flawless integration of previous search history into search feed. It helps Google generate results that are most likely to match where users are at in their journey – rather than simply presenting them with an answer to a question.

Google Collections

Along with Search Journeys and Activity Cards, Google has also developed what they call Collections.

Collections allow users to save information and content in a Collection in order to refer back to it later. It is similar to what Pinterest does with Boards, but on a much wider scale.

Users can save an article, webpage, or picture to their Collection. They can then visit the Collection later, rename it, edit it, delete anything they no longer want, and even share the Collection to others through a simple link.

Then, within the search results, Google will provide users with even more content relevant to what they have already saved. That’s because the algorithm now has more contextual information to understand where a user is at in their Search Journey.

Users are then presented with content that deepens their knowledge about the topics they are interested in.

What Does This Mean for SEO?

For SEO professionals and digital marketers, the introduction of Search Journeys presents a new way to understand search – primarily, the why behind what users search for.

It’s importance to map keywords to stages of the buyer’s journey, whether it’s the Information, Decision, or Buying stage.

Google Search Journeys use AI and advanced data to determine what stage users are at when they search for something.

For instance:

  • Are they looking for more information about how to solve a problem?
  • Are they ready to compare different solutions and make a decision about what’s best for them?
  • Have they decided on the best solution and now are looking to buy/sign up/hire?

Google’s AI technology is able to figure this out and show users content that matches what it is they are actually searching for and are ready to see.

But you don’t have to be an AI robot in order to apply this to your own SEO strategy.

There’s much to be learned from the introduction of Search Journeys – from how to conduct keyword research to creating content that matches where users are at in their journey.

Journey-Focused Keyword Research

Identifying the intent of the user has been an important part of the keyword research process.

That’s because it isn’t enough to simply consider what terms you are trying to get a website to rank for, but also which terms will draw in the most relevant, targeted and conversion-ready traffic.

Now, it’s worth considering the buyer’s journey.

Here’s how to do it.

While doing keyword research, you can categorize your keywords by type based on what stage the user is likely at when they are searching for that term.

The three main types are:

  • Informational.
  • Navigational.
  • Transactional.

Informational keywords align with the first stage of the buyer’s journey – where the user is aware that they have a problem and are seeking a solution.

These tend to be “know” keywords that lead them to informative content.

Examples:

  • “do I need a lawyer”
  • “family lawyer in waco”
  • “best family lawyer in waco”

Navigational keywords help users find a specific brand, product, or service. They are already aware of the options and now are trying to make a decision.

With Search Journeys, Google will likely show users content from websites that they have looked at previously.

Examples:

  • “bob johnson law firm reviews”
  • “bob johnson law firm”
  • “directions to bob johnson law firm”

Transactional keywords match the final stage of the buyer’s journey – when a user has done their research, explored their options, and is ready to buy, sign up, or hire.

These terms tend to include:

  • “apply”
  • “buy”
  • “discount”
  • “where to buy”
  • “schedule appointment”

We can deduce that Search Journeys can identify when a user has visited a website and is closer to the Buying stage. Google may then show them content that’s more transactional in nature – urging them to schedule a call, submit an application, or buy a product.

Examples:

  • “bob johnson free consultation”
  • “call bob johnson law firm”

Map Your Keywords to Each Stage

By categorizing your keywords based on these three types, you can better identify what kind of content to create around each term.

You can also be confident that you are drawing in users at each stage of the buyer’s journey.

That will help you avoid creating solely informational or solely commercial content (both of which happen quite often) and miss out on more conversion-ready traffic. The transactional keywords, in particular, help you draw in traffic that is most likely to convert.

Creating Content That Matches Where Users Are At

With Search Journeys in mind, SEO pros and website owners can create content that is uber aligned with what users are searching for – and even match it to each stage of the buyer’s journey.

Doing so will help content creators reel in users from each stage; those looking for informational content, those looking for navigational/commercial content, and those looking for transactional (“buying”) content.

Types of Informational Content

Informational content typically takes the form of blog posts that serve to help users learn something or solve a problem.

Targeting those more question-based terms, this type of content tends to be your ultimate guides, how-tos, and listicles.

Some examples of Informational content could be blog posts like:

  • How to Know if You Need a Family Lawyer
  • 10 Ideas for Remodeling Your Kitchen
  • Why You Aren’t Losing Weight with Crash Diets

Types of Navigational & Commercial Content

Navigational content draws in users that looking for a particular brand. Similarly, Commercial content can target branded terms, but also terms related to the industry, type of business, or category of product.

An example of Navigational content is a Contact Us page that targets “[brand name] directions” or even just the brand name itself.

Commercial content could target terms like “best law firm in Waco” or “trusted Waco family lawyer” with an optimized service page or landing page.

If you are doing SEO for a business, they should ideally rank for their own brand name. At the same time, focusing on Commercial terms will draw in users that are looking for a certain type of business rather than a specific brand.

Types of Transactional Content

Transactional content is the content that draws in the users that are most ready to buy. You will typically have less of this content, especially if you only have one or a few sales pages.

For ecommerce stores, this type of content will be particularly helpful. You can optimize your product pages for terms like:

  • “buy [product]”
  • “buy [products] online”
  • “[product] discounts”

Optimize for conversions and you are likely to increase sales through this type of content.

Applying ‘Search Journeys’ to Your SEO Approach

Search Journeys makes it apparent that Google cares about where users are at in their buyer’s journey when they search for content online – and so should you.

If you are simply targeting keywords to match intent or answer user questions, you could be missing out on conversions on certain steps of your funnel.

By categorizing your target keywords and creating content that matches each stage of the buyer’s journey, you have the opportunity to attract users that are:

  • Looking for information.
  • Weighing their options.
  • Ready to buy.

There are conversion points to be set at each stage, and then you can move users down your funnel.

Will you be considering Search Journeys when you next conduct keyword research?

More Resources:


Image Credits

Featured Image: Shutterstock, modified by author, March 2019