Bill Sebald – Search Engine Land News On Search Engines, Search Engine Optimization (SEO) & Search Engine Marketing (SEM) Fri, 21 Sep 2018 16:20:48 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.6.3 How e-commerce can compete for informational queries by optimizing for intent /how-e-commerce-can-compete-for-informational-queries-by-optimizing-for-intent-305431 Tue, 18 Sep 2018 13:44:43 +0000 /?p=305431 How do you optimize for search intent? Here's a look at how Google may return informational queries to relevant e-commerce pages and how you can optimize on-page content for 'intent.'

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For as long as search engine optimization specialists (SEOs) have been working with Google, they’ve been thinking about the best ways to optimize for user intent.

Each search made by a human is an action denoting a need. In our minds, we know what kind of answers we need. The query (keyword) is our best guess toward surfacing that information. Once we click Google’s submit button, we’re expecting Google to impress us.

On the other side, Google understands it’s their burden to essentially read our minds. If they can’t impress us, even when our queries are poor, they’ll lose their market share (and ad revenue).

Some searchers are savvier than others when it comes to their query choices. Some search broadly (which is why they often refine their searches quite routinely). Others enter in long natural-language questions or fragmented but detailed queries. In performing keyword research, the arrangements of keywords run the gamut. A part of understanding your searcher is understanding the style of query they most commonly use.

Drilling into intent

SEOs have divided search types into categories:

  • Most popular.
  • Navigational.
  • Informational.
  • Transactional.

I like to use these categorizations as the beginning of classifying intent. I’m not aware of Google using the same classifications, but it certainly seems like they are using something similar today.

Take a query like “electric guitar string gauge.” You might suspect the person entering this into Google is seeking information on the tonal qualities of different guitar string gauges. However, in previous years, Google wasn’t great at matching the right content with the query intent and usually returned an e-commerce page. As a digital marketer trying to drive traffic to an e-commerce page, I would use this lack of sophistication to my advantage and reinforce the category page at the basic keyword level.

But Google has grown. We see Google working harder at matching intent to query. Performing the electric guitar string gauge search today presents a mix of informational and transactional results. The search engine result pages (SERPs), powered by each of Google’s “new-and-improved” algorithms, now show more variety. This makes SEO a bit harder to predict, and it requires more time for study than ever before.

Let’s look at the SERPs

Let’s look at the search result pages for “duvet cover.” Historically, I would have expected to see this keyword treated only as a transactional term, but here, ranking first is an informational landing page from a brand, Crane & Canopy:

According to SEMrush, this page on Crane & Canopy’s website is not as strong as its #2 competitor (Bed Bath & Beyond) by all SEO metrics. Yet, here it is.

Why? I believe it’s because the content is considered a good match to the perceived intent of the search. In Google’s belief, the query “duvet cover” is more about gaining information, to which Crane & Canopy wisely built a page to satisfy the query.

Bed Bath & Beyond stuck with the old school vending-machine style category page. No frills, no expertise, authoritativeness, trustworthiness (EAT) and no innovation.

This isn’t an e-commerce trend. Let’s look at a more B2B-flavored keyword: “customer relationship management” (CRM). In September 2017, this query would pull up the default CRM destination pages for expected player platforms Salesforce, Hubspot and others who made great investments in their SEO and brand development.

But if you look at the search results today, it’s clear Google believes anyone searching for CRM is looking for information about types of CRM technologies rather than looking for specific CRM platforms like Salesforce. Now “what is a CRM” landing pages are dominating the SERPs for the CRM query.

Once you become aware of how Google responds to search terms, you’ll start to pick up on cases like this all the time. This indicates that SERP analysis has to play a bigger role in your day-to-day SEO work.

Why is this happening?

When Hummingbird was released in 2013, we knew Google was getting better at understanding intent. These new search models, plus improvements in personalization and the eventual implementation of AI demonstrate this.

It also falls right in line with Zero Moment of Truth (ZMOT). This principle, by Google, is the research phase. This is where shoppers are seeking information to feed their buying decisions. They put it best in this article by Google:

We saw that people are increasingly making these decisions at the Zero Moment — the precise moment when they have a need, intent or question they want answered online. These questions can be anything from “Which brand of diapers will help my baby sleep through the night?” to “What toothpaste is going to make my smile brighter?” or “What will remove crayon marks from my wood dining table?” A brand that answers these questions at just the right time scores a double win: It helps improve a consumer’s life and stands to gain a competitive advantage over brands that don’t.

If this is the principle Google is using, it explains the lean toward a well-targeted, content-rich piece like we saw with Crate & Canopy versus the Bed Bath & Beyond example.

The content trend in e-commerce

Back in 2010, I wrote an article on SEL called How To SEO A Vending Machine. Granted, it’s a bit old at this point, but I’m still surprised at the amount of bland “vending machines” that still populate the web. If there’s one industry that hasn’t grown at the pace of the internet, it’s e-commerce in general. And this is disappointing, not just from a potential revenue perspective, but also for online shoppers.

Amazon gets it; on its product pages, I find answers to virtually any question I can ask. I believe this is a key reason Amazon continues to dominate results and win loyalty.

I’ve worked on SEO with more than a hundred large e-commerce websites, so I understand the challenges toward progress. There are many hands in the cookie jar and many layers of management involved in making changes on an e-commerce site, which is why many creative experiments stall in development hell.

There are also technology issues for many webstore platforms. They aren’t generally built for content. Instead, they are built to show the thumbnails and flawlessly transfer products into a checkout funnel. (I assume this is why the Crate & Canopy page is on a completely product-free standalone page).

But some are breaking through. Amazon aside, it’s very interesting to see retailers doing more than the standard e-commerce copy at the bottom of the category page. We all know that old tactic by now. That’s copy written for Google and not people. Surely, Google knows that as well. We can do better.

Here are a few callouts from online retail-based websites:

Example 1 – Category-page content. Zappos is an example of a website that straddles old school e-commerce optimization and something a little more interesting. Some of their brand pages put content front and center. When I searched for “what is the quality of Aerosoles shoes,” I was shown this e-commerce page.

In this case, reading about Aerosoles, you are getting answers to some of the possible questions shoppers are asking of Google. If you subscribe to the ZMOT concept, then how perfect is this marriage of content and commerce? Very.

Granted, I would argue that this copy could go a lot further in being valuable to the shopper, but it’s a start. It’s also front and center. In fact, I recently performed a small study which showed users preferred this format over the legacy format.

Example 2 – The affiliates take on the category page. Affiliates have always been at the forefront of SEO. I often see affiliate sites structured in clever e-commerce and content ways.

The blog Equipboard, which I found using a “best guitar cable” query, is a good example.

It contains articles and valuable information with products available to buy. As a guitarist, I can vouch for the integrity of the content. I don’t doubt that SEO is the underpinning of this particular article, but it’s well-written and accurate enough to be considered expert, authoritative and trustworthy (E-A-T).

Granted, it’s driving traffic to another site, but if this site owner wanted to fulfill orders, given the depth and quality of content on the page, it imparts enough trust it could easily do so.

Example 3 – Custom collections. If you can’t create a content hub in your category page design, then maybe you can let your product selections do some of the heavy lifting.

When I searched “Frank Zappa’s guitar gear,” the first e-commerce result was from Reverb.

This was a very clever category page! While there was a huge opportunity to write a Wikipedia-esque entry on Frank’s gear (versus the handful of sentences here), it was still interesting to see a collection that not only answered my question but also gave me an opportunity to make a purchase. That is really nice product segmenting.

Notice the link to non-webstore content. Reverb is not afraid of cross-linking to some really useful content. As a Frank Zappa fan, I spent a good amount of time reading that content, which only endeared me to Reverb even more.

Historically, there has been a fear that allowing a user to leave the products is dangerous. But these days, as the shoppers mature, I believe content only secures the sale.

Easier said than done

I know this can be scary, but take chances with your templates and copy. To boost your attractiveness to informational queries, you need to spend more time on the research and writing phase on your webstore. In e-commerce, we are always looking for a way to scale, as time is money and e-commerce stores have a lot of expenses.

Sadly, I don’t have encouraging news on this front. SEO has gotten much harder and the SEO investment has grown significantly. If you have a low SEO budget in a competitive space and see your competitors optimizing so they rank well, you may want to seriously consider revisiting your expectations.

I still find very low SEO investments among e-commerce companies but wonder about their longevity given the complexities of SEO. If you cannot afford the investment, I recommend you look at where your competitors are lacking and “do better” on your website. You may never be able to afford to boil the ocean, but you can certainly make a few really strong waves here and there. This is where a competitive audit should give you direction.

Conclusion

Could I be wrong? The examples I’ve shown as winners for informational queries are more content-heavy; perhaps it’s not so much about intent, but just better rankings because of content? I don’t believe this is the case. Instead, I believe it’s more of a case of “what you are saying” versus “just saying anything.”

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An answer box experiment (my journey into known and unknown factors) /answer-box-experiment-journey-known-unknown-factors-270948 Thu, 23 Mar 2017 13:46:00 +0000 http:/?p=270948 Many SEOs have sought to obtain placement within a featured snippet or answer box in the search results pages, but how does one achieve that? Contributor Bill Sebald shares his experiment in pursuing the answer box.

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Disclaimer: I’m sharing my experience below without making any claims. I’m simply sharing my observations in hopes the SEO industry might be able to further test with me. Remember, correlation does not imply causation. 

I’m fascinated by Answer Boxes. You know, these things:

While Answer Boxes go back several years, they have become more prevalent in recent years. I read several great posts last year on what characteristics correlate with receiving this “gift” from Google. To name a few:

Why do I call it a gift? Despite initial fears that this feature would reduce the need to click through on search results, Answer Boxes often seem to drive traffic when attached to a strong-performing keyword. I’ve seen it firsthand with our clients, as well as noticing my own behavior when I see one as a Google user. I click them all the time (depending on the answer, of course).

Google looks at several signals and presumably assigns a weight and bias to each (further substantiated by a recently published patent). The web page with the most proper scores in each category, when rolled up, receives the coveted Answer Box. It’s like the recipe for brewing an IPA — grain, hops, yeast, water and sugar must be present. If yeast is lacking, your beer has no chance. If hops are lacking, you have a lower shot at being a highly ranked beer. So the Answer Box may just be finding the optimal mix — at least, the mix that is the best among the others ranking on the first page.

I constantly experiment with the my company website, www.greenlaneseo.com. So, I dug for keyword phrases (via SEMrush) that pull up Answer Boxes and discovered that one of our blog posts could be a consideration:

I wrote a post a while back about index bloat, and how to manage it. However, Google had chosen Advanced Web Rankings’ post for its Answer Box. I became jealous.

As a test, using all the material I studied from the above posts, I wanted to see if I could steal this Answer Box. It’s a “paragraph” Answer Box, so I approached it using what the SEO industry has collectively learned about these specific types of answers. Enjoy my process!

1. First attempt: The basics

While Google doesn’t require the on-page content to be in question-and-answer form, it sure seems to be correlated with Answer Box placement. So, I made sure the question, “What is index bloat?” was properly posed and answered on our web page.

My writing style is not always the most concise, so I tightened up the lead paragraph to attract Google (hopefully without ruining its human value). I made the leading paragraph a stronger, more direct answer in hopes to influence Google.

I also went full-in on the use of a header tag. I made an H1 that matched the target keyword phrase, “what is index bloat.” Additionally, I made sure the content was in a proper <p> HTML format.

Once all these changes had been made, I went to Google Search Console to submit it to the index (Fetch as Google > submit to index).

I waited a few weeks, but no dice. Some have seen changes occur in a matter of hours upon submitting to the index, but I was not that lucky.

2. Second attempt: Natural language analysis

I struck out on my first attempt, so I had to start thinking outside the box.

I started to analyze not only the content that was being used in the Answer Box, but also the whole copy on the victorious Advanced Web Rankings page. Post-Hummingbird, we know Google has raised their ability to understand text outside of keyword presence. So maybe my page was not yet triggering Google’s (still elementary) comprehension? Perhaps Advanced Web Rankings won Google over not because of the actual value of their content, but due to their word selection? Maybe I was giving Google’s comprehension level a bit too much credit.

I decided to run their page through a natural language processor. AlchemyAPI has a tool for that, which resulted in the following output:

In addition to Alchemy, I used Google’s own Natural Language Processor API. I thought that one might have a little more synergy with Google’s decision-making.

(By the way, both tools have free trials on their respective websites.)

I focused heaviest on entities, keywords, concepts and relations. I emulated and implemented what I saw, hoping to enrich my content and appeal more to Google. I found that in doing this, I actually improved the copy. (To be honest, this is a technique I’ve been doing for a while.)

Once I felt the copy was enhanced, I Fetched as Google again and waited. Still no dice. After two weeks, I accepted defeat again.

3. Third attempt: Manufacturing freshness, AKA the long shot

I was still trying to find clues. What else was different between my page and the winning page? Well, the Advanced Web Rankings post was fresher, as judged by the publish date notated in the SERPs. They wrote their post more recently than I wrote mine. If Google used age as a factor (which is feasible), could I trick Google into thinking my article was newer? Could that help?

So, I updated the post’s publish date to be more recent than any of the competing pages. Admittedly, it was pretty hacky, but all in the name of experimenting! Google is now displaying the new date in the SERPs, but they probably know that’s not the true age of the post. No success here, but I really didn’t expect Google to be this naïve. Good on you, Google.

4. Fourth attempt: Title tags, AKA getting desperate

At this point, I felt like I had covered everything suggested in other posts, so I went “old school” with nothing to lose. I tweaked the title tag to match the H1 tag and contain the actual question in full. In this day and age, I’m still surprised to see how powerful the title tag can be sometimes. So, maybe it was a factor that could be the final nudge?

I updated the title tag and once again submitted the new URL to Google Search Console’s Fetch as Google.

In less than 10 minutes, my title tag was live in the SERPs. That’s remarkable! Using Chrome in Incognito mode, I not only saw my new title tag with new (and accurate) cache date, but also saw an improved ranking. I’m always surprised by Fetch as Google — sometimes it’s nearly instant, and sometimes it has virtually no noticeable effect.

A one-spot-better ranking is not what I was after, however; so once again, I had to accept failure. It was starting to feel like my years of internet dating.

5. Fifth attempt: Operation link building

I really didn’t have any more ideas at this stage. Could it have something to do with a signal that hasn’t been well documented or explored? Perhaps the architecture of the domain as a whole? Page speed? Surely not the meta keywords tag!

What about backlinks? That would make some sense — after all, links are a traditional (and often strong) SEO signal. Using Ahrefs, I pulled some link metrics for these pages:

  • http://www.advancedwebranking.com/blog/finding-fixing-index-bloat-guide/ — 93 backlinks, 8 referring domains
  • https://www.greenlaneseo.com/blog/how-to-find-and-fix-index-bloat-issues/ — 3 backlinks, 3 referring domains

Yikes. I was outnumbered here. So, I asked some friends to help me with my experiment.

To boost on links, I asked for a simple “whatever you choose” anchor text link directly to the post, on a healthy domain and relevant page. I asked my friends not to click on the results (to weed out user metrics as a factor). I also asked them to Fetch as Google to hurry the experiment along. Thanks to John-Henry Scherck, Ian Howells, Jon Cooper, Nicholas Chimonas, Zeph Snapp, Marie Haynes, Sean Malseed, and James Agate, I received eight links.

(Since I know it’s going to be asked, the links were all on various DAs, with nothing too great and nothing too small. All white-hat sites.)

After about three days following the final link add, something magical happened. The elusive Answer Box finally appeared.

At this point, we need to pause our story. Could it be a coincidence? A small algorithm tweak? Other factors? Most certainly. Remember above where I said correlation does not always imply causation? This is where we need to put that statement into play. Nonetheless, it’s an interestingly timed observation.

In order to get a little closer to the truth, I bugged my same link-granting friends to remove the link. They obliged, and the following resulted about three weeks later. The Answer Card was given back to Advanced Web Rankings.

Putting it all together

I don’t want to spread misinformation into the industry. I’m not saying links are the magic ingredient. This is merely a potential clue worth further investigation.

If Google does rank on several signals and grants Answer Boxes based on a specific mix (e.g., my beer recipe example at the beginning of this post), then perhaps links really are an ingredient we haven’t truly factored yet. It could explain why some sites with more links could still not get the Answer Box, simply because it’s not a priority signal. Possibly it’s just a signal that, in this case, influenced a tie-breaker.

Hopefully, you found this journey of triumph and failures useful, and a path towards winning your own Answer Cards. I’m very interested to see the conversation continue in the comments, and even more interested to see if anyone can improve on these findings.

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How To SEO A Vending Machine /how-to-seo-a-vending-machine-59388 /how-to-seo-a-vending-machine-59388#comments Tue, 21 Dec 2010 22:10:32 +0000 http:/?p=59388 If you were visiting a new city, you would hope your travel agent would suggest restaurants with good atmosphere, good service, and good variety—not a vending machine at a gas station. Google wants to be a good travel agent. When you perform a search, you’re really asking Google to present a choice that is perfectly […]

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Vending machines

If you were visiting a new city, you would hope your travel agent would suggest restaurants with good atmosphere, good service, and good variety—not a vending machine at a gas station. Google wants to be a good travel agent. When you perform a search, you’re really asking Google to present a choice that is perfectly suited to your interests and needs. We call them search engines, but we really want them to be magic. We don’t want Google to give us a hassle, or a plethora of options to sift through—we want answers. We want Google to read our minds and make life easier.

Google updates it’s natural search algorithms hundreds of times a year to help meet these expectations. As SEOs and business owners, it is our job to help Google with this burden. It’s expected that the more our intentions are amiable, the more likely Google will take our hints. The more we push against Google, the less likely we’ll have any long term natural search success.

The ecommerce space is already pretty tricky, full of technical obstacles (sometimes due to some less intuitive dynamic platforms), ROI goals, and plenty of competition. With Google’s ongoing evolution, it’s important to take an honest look at your online store. Is it merely a vending machine? Think about it—a vending machine gives us a window into a flat product collection. We’re also given buttons for selecting a particular product, and a mechanical payment system. The most exciting part of this shopping experience is waiting for the delivery of the product. As far as good experiences go, this is pretty low on thrills. There typically is no better way to “connect” with a vending machine. Browse, choose, pay, wait, receive and walk away. Will you return? Probably not, unless it’s your last convenient choice.

Google’s algorithms look for the contextual relevance, trust and authority that it just can’t get from vending machine type website. If this lo-fi experience is the only thing you’re providing your online customers, you’re likely not pulling in the amount of natural search success you could be obtaining. The shopping experience benefits when it becomes more stimulating and personal. No matter what they’re in the market for—from food, to clothing, to hardware—a consumer is happier with their purchase when they’re engaged. Search engines know this. Since they’re already bringing the traffic to you and making themselves part of the equation, they want to benefit from the customer’s happiness as well.

I like to equate it to my local Hallmark store. When I go in to buy that last minute Mother’s Day card, the store is routinely full of customers engaged in different activities. Most are also last minute shoppers. Some are privately browsing through cards, while others are openly communicating. Some will be talking to the staff to get recommendations, while others may be sharing thoughts with other shoppers—usually quite vocally. No censorship. Even the physical layout of the store helps guide me to the particular areas where the products I’m looking for are located. It’s very logical. No matter the intent or level of engagement, the customer is literally housed in an environment that’s helping to stimulate their purchase.

Vending machines don’t provide this three-dimensional feeling—not even close. A vending machine can add fancy video touch screens and imagery, but though it might be warming up customer connectivity, it isn’t efficiently changing the experience. Online, you can add beautiful graphics or Facebook or Twitter links to your online vending machine, but that’s only a step in the right direction. This won’t help influence Google.

Get your customers talking through your site. Get them engaged. Give them plenty of good things to read. Don’t make them look very hard for it either. If you won’t add HTML text to your webpage (because you think it’s ugly, or takes too long to write and implement), then you’re refusing to give Google what they need. That’s a huge mistake.

If you are thinking, “wait—this sounds a lot like usability,” you’d be right. Today’s SEO is extremely integrated with usability and appearance. In e-commerce, SEO is more than just rankings and traffic. Or even revenue and ROI. It’s the full experience from the initial search. Today Google is providing webpage snapshots. An SEO needs to be involved in the look and feel of the page (and that snapshot); in the end, it all becomes a component of the clickthrough rate.

How To Transform A Vending Machine Into A Store

Navigation is always important. Granted, your internal search may be the most used tool on your site, but for those who prefer to browse, they’re very interested in your navigation. Is it robust and concise at the same time? Are you providing other avenues of custom navigation on specific pages? Take advantage of the highly visible real estate on your site and create link blocks when you want to help target your most relevant products (spending time in your analytics can give you a great sense of what’s important to your customers). Sub navs or link blocks are great for both search engine crawls and conversion rates.

Text is your chance to communicate with customers and search engines. Don’t hide it. Let it live. Let it breathe. Tags only get you so far, and help you more with the actual clickthrough. Once the customer is in your store (presumably on the best landing page), it’s still the job of modern SEO to move them through the sales funnel. Keep them engaged so they don’t click back within 2 seconds and refine their search. Part of dominating the search engine result pages is keeping your searchers from seeing your competitors.

Social content is huge. But customers have a sort of “social icon blindness” when it comes to Twitter or Facebook buttons. If you’re going to have a Facebook and Twitter account, or any social account for that matter, make sure you emphasize why these pages exist. Create a reason to be followed and friended, and hammer it home on your site. But even better than having open dialogue on other sites is having open dialogue on your own site. If you have a product, give the customers a chance to engage with it. Open forums for conversation—and not just with reviews. Ask customers to send in pictures of themselves using or wearing the products. Let them create the product shots. Let them touch and feel it, and give them the power to share with your other customers their experiences. If it’s negative, don’t worry—in many cases negative conversations convert very well. What one person considers a bust, another considers a find.

In the end, the best suggestions for your store are going to come from you. You know your customers, and you know your products. Don’t stop brainstorming on cool things to entice a shopper. Maybe they won’t all be hits, but something is bound to pay off better than what you have now.

Photo: DaraKero_F

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