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Rewriting the Beginner’s Guide to SEO

After a short break, we’re back to share our working draft of the Beginner’s Guide to SEO with you! This one was a whopper, and we’re really looking forward to your input. Giving beginner SEOs a solid grasp of just what technical optimization for SEO is and why it matters — without overwhelming them or scaring them off the subject — is a tall order indeed. We’d love to hear what you think: did we miss anything you think is important for beginners to know? Leave us your feedback in the comments!


Technical Optimization

Basic technical knowledge will help you optimize your site for search engines and establish credibility with developers.

Now that you’ve crafted valuable content on the foundation of solid keyword research, it’s important to make sure it’s not only readable by humans, but by search engines too!

You don’t need to have a deep technical understanding of these concepts, but it is important to grasp what these technical assets do so that you can speak intelligently about them with developers. Speaking your developers’ language is important because you will likely need them to carry out some of your optimizations. They’re unlikely to prioritize your asks if they can’t understand your request or see its importance. When you establish credibility and trust with your devs, you can begin to tear away the red tape that often blocks crucial work from getting done.

Pro tip: SEOs need cross-team support to be effective

It’s vital to have a healthy relationship with your developers so that you can successfully tackle SEO challenges from both sides. Don’t wait until a technical issue causes negative SEO ramifications to involve a developer. Instead, join forces for the planning stage with the goal of avoiding the issues altogether. If you don’t, it can cost you in time and money later.

Beyond cross-team support, understanding technical optimization for SEO is essential if you want to ensure that your web pages are structured for both humans and crawlers. To that end, we’ve divided this chapter into three sections:

  1. How websites work
  2. How search engines understand websites
  3. How users interact with websites

Since the technical structure of a site can have a massive impact on its performance, it’s crucial for everyone to understand these principles. It might also be a good idea to share this part of the guide with your programmers, content writers, and designers so that all parties involved in a site’s construction are on the same page.

1. How websites work

If search engine optimization is the process of optimizing a website for search, SEOs need at least a basic understanding of the thing they’re optimizing!

Below, we outline the website’s journey from domain name purchase all the way to its fully rendered state in a browser. An important component of the website’s journey is the critical rendering path, which is the process of a browser turning a website’s code into a viewable page.

Knowing this about websites is important for SEOs to understand for a few reasons:

  • The steps in this webpage assembly process can affect page load times, and speed is not only important for keeping users on your site, but it’s also one of Google’s ranking factors.
  • Google renders certain resources, like JavaScript, on a “second pass.” Google will look at the page without JavaScript first, then a few days to a few weeks later, it will render JavaScript, meaning SEO-critical elements that are added to the page using JavaScript might not get indexed.

Imagine that the website loading process is your commute to work. You get ready at home, gather your things to bring to the office, and then take the fastest route from your home to your work. It would be silly to put on just one of your shoes, take a longer route to work, drop your things off at the office, then immediately return home to get your other shoe, right? That’s sort of what inefficient websites do. This chapter will teach you how to diagnose where your website might be inefficient, what you can do to streamline, and the positive ramifications on your rankings and user experience that can result from that streamlining.

Before a website can be accessed, it needs to be set up!

  1. Domain name is purchased. Domain names like moz.com are purchased from a domain name registrar such as GoDaddy or HostGator. These registrars are just organizations that manage the reservations of domain names.
  2. Domain name is linked to IP address. The Internet doesn’t understand names like “moz.com” as website addresses without the help of domain name servers (DNS). The Internet uses a series of numbers called an Internet protocol (IP) address (ex: 127.0.0.1), but we want to use names like moz.com because they’re easier for humans to remember. We need to use a DNS to link those human-readable names with machine-readable numbers.

How a website gets from server to browser

  1. User requests domain. Now that the name is linked to an IP address via DNS, people can request a website by typing the domain name directly into their browser or by clicking on a link to the website.
  2. Browser makes requests. That request for a web page prompts the browser to make a DNS lookup request to convert the domain name to its IP address. The browser then makes a request to the server for the code your web page is constructed with, such as HTML, CSS, and JavaScript.
  3. Server sends resources. Once the server receives the request for the website, it sends the website files to be assembled in the searcher’s browser.
  4. Browser assembles the web page. The browser has now received the resources from the server, but it still needs to put it all together and render the web page so that the user can see it in their browser. As the browser parses and organizes all the web page’s resources, it’s creating a Document Object Model (DOM). The DOM is what you can see when you right click + “inspect element” on a web page in your Chrome browser (learn how to inspect elements in other browsers).
  5. Browser makes final requests. The browser will only show a web page after all the page’s necessary code is downloaded, parsed, and executed, so at this point, if the browser needs any additional code in order to show your website, it will make an additional request from your server.
  6. Website appears in browser. Whew! After all that, your website has now been transformed (rendered) from code to what you see in your browser.
Pro tip: Talk to your developers about async!

Something you can bring up with your developers is shortening the critical rendering path by setting scripts to “async” when they’re not needed to render content above the fold, which can make your web pages load faster. Async tells the DOM that it can continue to be assembled while the browser is fetching the scripts needed to display your web page. If the DOM has to pause assembly every time the browser fetches a script (called “render-blocking scripts”), it can substantially slow down your page load.

It would be like going out to eat with your friends and having to pause the conversation every time one of you went up to the counter to order, only resuming once they got back. With async, you and your friends can continue to chat even when one of you is ordering. You might also want to bring up other optimizations that devs can implement to shorten the critical rendering path, such as removing unnecessary scripts entirely, like old tracking scripts.

Now that you know how a website appears in a browser, we’re going to focus on what a website is made of — in other words, the code (programming languages) used to construct those web pages.

The three most common are:

  • HTML – What a website says (titles, body content, etc.)
  • CSS – How a website looks (color, fonts, etc.)
  • JavaScript – How it behaves (interactive, dynamic, etc.)

HTML: What a website says

HTML stands for hypertext markup language, and it serves as the backbone of a website. Elements like headings, paragraphs, lists, and content are all defined in the HTML.

Here’s an example of a webpage, and what its corresponding HTML looks like:

HTML is important for SEOs to know because it’s what lives “under the hood” of any page they create or work on. While your CMS likely doesn’t require you to write your pages in HTML (ex: selecting “hyperlink” will allow you to create a link without you having to type in “a href=”), it is what you’re modifying every time you do something to a web page such as adding content, changing the anchor text of internal links, and so on. Google crawls these HTML elements to determine how relevant your document is to a particular query. In other words, what’s in your HTML plays a huge role in how your web page ranks in Google organic search!

CSS: How a website looks

CSS stands for cascading style sheets, and this is what causes your web pages to take on certain fonts, colors, and layouts. HTML was created to describe content, rather than to style it, so when CSS entered the scene, it was a game-changer. With CSS, web pages could be “beautified” without requiring manual coding of styles into the HTML of every page — a cumbersome process, especially for large sites.

It wasn’t until 2014 that Google’s indexing system began to render web pages more like an actual browser, as opposed to a text-only browser. A black-hat SEO practice that tried to capitalize on Google’s older indexing system was hiding text and links via CSS for the purpose of manipulating search engine rankings. This “hidden text and links” practice is a violation of Google’s quality guidelines.

Components of CSS that SEOs, in particular, should care about:

  • Since style directives can live in external stylesheet files (CSS files) instead of your page’s HTML, it makes your page less code-heavy, reducing file transfer size and making load times faster.
  • Browsers still have to download resources like your CSS file, so compressing them can make your web pages load faster, and page speed is a ranking factor.
  • Having your pages be more content-heavy than code-heavy can lead to better indexing of your site’s content.
  • Using CSS to hide links and content can get your website manually penalized and removed from Google’s index.

JavaScript: How a website behaves

In the earlier days of the Internet, web pages were built with HTML. When CSS came along, webpage content had the ability to take on some style. When the programming language JavaScript entered the scene, websites could now not only have structure and style, but they could be dynamic.

JavaScript has opened up a lot of opportunities for non-static web page creation. When someone attempts to access a page that is enhanced with this programming language, that user’s browser will execute the JavaScript against the static HTML that the server returned, resulting in a web page that comes to life with some sort of interactivity.

You’ve definitely seen JavaScript in action — you just may not have known it! That’s because JavaScript can do almost anything to a page. It could create a pop up, for example, or it could request third-party resources like ads to display on your page.

JavaScript can pose some problems for SEO, though, since search engines don’t view JavaScript the same way human visitors do. That’s because of client-side versus server-side rendering. Most JavaScript is executed in a client’s browser. With server-side rendering, on the other hand, the files are executed at the server and the server sends them to the browser in their fully rendered state.

SEO-critical page elements such as text, links, and tags that are loaded on the client’s side with JavaScript, rather than represented in your HTML, are invisible from your page’s code until they are rendered. This means that search engine crawlers won’t see what’s in your JavaScript — at least not initially.

Google says that, as long as you’re not blocking Googlebot from crawling your JavaScript files, they’re generally able to render and understand your web pages just like a browser can, which means that Googlebot should see the same things as a user viewing a site in their browser. However, due to this “second wave of indexing” for client-side JavaScript, Google can miss certain elements that are only available once JavaScript is executed.

There are also some other things that could go wrong during Googlebot’s process of rendering your web pages, which can prevent Google from understanding what’s contained in your JavaScript:

  • You’ve blocked Googlebot from JavaScript resources (ex: with robots.txt, like we learned about in Chapter 2)
  • Your server can’t handle all the requests to crawl your content
  • The JavaScript is too complex or outdated for Googlebot to understand
  • JavaScript doesn’t “lazy load” content into the page until after the crawler has finished with the page and moved on.

Needless to say, while JavaScript does open a lot of possibilities for web page creation, it can also have some serious ramifications for your SEO if you’re not careful. Thankfully, there is a way to check whether Google sees the same thing as your visitors. To see a page how Googlebot views your page, use Google Search Console’s “Fetch and Render” tool. From your site’s Google Search Console dashboard, select “Crawl” from the left navigation, then “Fetch as Google.”

From this page, enter the URL you want to check (or leave blank if you want to check your homepage) and click the “Fetch and Render” button. You also have the option to test either the desktop or mobile version.

In return, you’ll get a side-by-side view of how Googlebot saw your page versus how a visitor to your website would have seen the page. Below, Google will also show you a list of any resources they may not have been able to get for the URL you entered.

Understanding the way websites work lays a great foundation for what we’ll talk about next, which is technical optimizations to help Google understand the pages on your website better.

2. How search engines understand websites

Search engines have gotten incredibly sophisticated, but they can’t (yet) find and interpret web pages quite like a human can. The following sections outline ways you can better deliver content to search engines.

Help search engines understand your content by structuring it with Schema

Imagine being a search engine crawler scanning down a 10,000-word article about how to bake a cake. How do you identify the author, recipe, ingredients, or steps required to bake a cake? This is where schema (Schema.org) markup comes in. It allows you to spoon-feed search engines more specific classifications for what type of information is on your page.

Schema is a way to label or organize your content so that search engines have a better understanding of what certain elements on your web pages are. This code provides structure to your data, which is why schema is often referred to as “structured data.” The process of structuring your data is often referred to as “markup” because you are marking up your content with organizational code.

JSON-LD is Google’s preferred schema markup (announced in May ‘16), which Bing also supports. To view a full list of the thousands of available schema markups, visit Schema.org or view the Google Developers Introduction to Structured Data for additional information on how to implement structured data. After you implement the structured data that best suits your web pages, you can test your markup with Google’s Structured Data Testing Tool.

In addition to helping bots like Google understand what a particular piece of content is about, schema markup can also enable special features to accompany your pages in the SERPs. These special features are referred to as “rich snippets,” and you’ve probably seen them in action. They’re things like:

  • Top Stories carousel
  • Review stars
  • Sitelinks search boxes
  • Recipes

Remember, using structured data can help enable a rich snippet to be present, but does not guarantee it. Other types of rich snippets will likely be added in the future as the use of schema markup increases.

Some last words of advice for schema success:

  • You can use multiple types of schema markup on a page. However, if you mark up one element, like a product for example, and there are other products listed on the page, you must also mark up those products.
  • Don’t mark up content that is not visible to visitors and follow Google’s Quality Guidelines. For example, if you add review structured markup to a page, make sure those reviews are actually visible on that page.
  • If you have duplicate pages, Google asks that you mark up each duplicate page with your structured markup, not just the canonical version.
  • Provide original and updated (if applicable) content on your structured data pages.
  • Structured markup should be an accurate reflection of your page.
  • Try to use the most specific type of schema markup for your content.
  • Marked-up reviews should not be written by the business. They should be genuine unpaid business reviews from actual customers.

Tell search engines about your preferred pages with canonicalization

When Google crawls the same content on different web pages, it sometimes doesn’t know which page to index in search results. This is why the tag was invented: to help search engines better index the preferred version of content and not all its duplicates.

The rel=”canonical” tag allows you to tell search engines where the original, master version of a piece of content is located. You’re essentially saying, “Hey search engine! Don’t index this; index this source page instead.” So, if you want to republish a piece of content, whether exactly or slightly modified, but don’t want to risk creating duplicate content, the canonical tag is here to save the day.

Proper canonicalization ensures that every unique piece of content on your website has only one URL. To prevent search engines from indexing multiple versions of a single page, Google recommends having a self-referencing canonical tag on every page on your site. Without a canonical tag telling Google which version of your web page is the preferred one, http://www.example.com could get indexed separately from http://example.com, creating duplicates.

“Avoid duplicate content” is an Internet truism, and for good reason! Google wants to reward sites with unique, valuable content — not content that’s taken from other sources and repeated across multiple pages. Because engines want to provide the best searcher experience, they will rarely show multiple versions of the same content, opting instead to show only the canonicalized version, or if a canonical tag does not exist, whichever version they deem most likely to be the original.

Pro tip: Distinguishing between content filtering & content penalties
There is no such thing as a duplicate content penalty. However, you should try to keep duplicate content from causing indexing issues by using the rel=”canonical” tag when possible. When duplicates of a page exist, Google will choose a canonical and filter the others out of search results. That doesn’t mean you’ve been penalized. It just means that Google only wants to show one version of your content.

It’s also very common for websites to have multiple duplicate pages due to sort and filter options. For example, on an e-commerce site, you might have what’s called a faceted navigation that allows visitors to narrow down products to find exactly what they’re looking for, such as a “sort by” feature that reorders results on the product category page from lowest to highest price. This could create a URL that looks something like this: example.com/mens-shirts?sort=price_ascending. Add in more sort/filter options like color, size, material, brand, etc. and just think about all the variations of your main product category page this would create!

To learn more about different types of duplicate content, this post by Dr. Pete helps distill the different nuances.

3. How users interact with websites

In Chapter 1, we said that despite SEO standing for search engine optimization, SEO is as much about people as it is about search engines themselves. That’s because search engines exist to serve searchers. This goal helps explain why Google’s algorithm rewards websites that provide the best possible experiences for searchers, and why some websites, despite having qualities like robust backlink profiles, might not perform well in search.

When we understand what makes their web browsing experience optimal, we can create those experiences for maximum search performance.

Ensuring a positive experience for your mobile visitors

Being that well over half of all web traffic today comes from mobile, it’s safe to say that your website should be accessible and easy to navigate for mobile visitors. In April 2015, Google rolled out an update to its algorithm that would promote mobile-friendly pages over non-mobile-friendly pages. So how can you ensure that your website is mobile friendly? Although there are three main ways to configure your website for mobile, Google recommends responsive web design.

Responsive design

Responsive websites are designed to fit the screen of whatever type of device your visitors are using. You can use CSS to make the web page “respond” to the device size. This is ideal because it prevents visitors from having to double-tap or pinch-and-zoom in order to view the content on your pages. Not sure if your web pages are mobile friendly? You can use Google’s mobile-friendly test to check!

AMP

AMP stands for Accelerated Mobile Pages, and it is used to deliver content to mobile visitors at speeds much greater than with non-AMP delivery. AMP is able to deliver content so fast because it delivers content from its cache servers (not the original site) and uses a special AMP version of HTML and JavaScript. Learn more about AMP.

Mobile-first indexing

As of 2018, Google started switching websites over to mobile-first indexing. That change sparked some confusion between mobile-friendliness and mobile-first, so it’s helpful to disambiguate. With mobile-first indexing, Google crawls and indexes the mobile version of your web pages. Making your website compatible to mobile screens is good for users and your performance in search, but mobile-first indexing happens independently of mobile-friendliness.

This has raised some concerns for websites that lack parity between mobile and desktop versions, such as showing different content, navigation, links, etc. on their mobile view. A mobile site with different links, for example, will alter the way in which Googlebot (mobile) crawls your site and sends link equity to your other pages.

Breaking up long content for easier digestion

When sites have very long pages, they have the option of breaking them up into multiple parts of a whole. This is called pagination and it’s similar to pages in a book. In order to avoid giving the visitor too much all at once, you can break up your single page into multiple parts. This can be great for visitors, especially on e-commerce sites where there are a lot of product results in a category, but there are some steps you should take to help Google understand the relationship between your paginated pages. It’s called rel=”next” and rel=”prev.”

You can read more about pagination in Google’s official documentation, but the main takeaways are that:

  • The first page in a sequence should only have rel=”next” markup
  • The last page in a sequence should only have rel=”prev” markup
  • Pages that have both a preceding and following page should have both rel=”next” and rel=”prev”
  • Since each page in the sequence is unique, don’t canonicalize them to the first page in the sequence. Only use a canonical tag to point to a “view all” version of your content, if you have one.
  • When Google sees a paginated sequence, it will typically consolidate the pages’ linking properties and send searchers to the first page
Pro tip: rel=”next/prev” should still have anchor text and live within an <a> link 
This helps Google ensure that they pick up the rel=”next/prev”.

Improving page speed to mitigate visitor frustration

Google wants to serve content that loads lightning-fast for searchers. We’ve come to expect fast-loading results, and when we don’t get them, we’ll quickly bounce back to the SERP in search of a better, faster page. This is why page speed is a crucial aspect of on-site SEO. We can improve the speed of our web pages by taking advantage of tools like the ones we’ve mentioned below. Click on the links to learn more about each.

  • Google’s PageSpeed Insights tool & best practices documentation
  • GTMetrix
  • Google’s Mobile Website Speed & Performance Tester
  • Google Lighthouse

Images are one of the main culprits of slow pages!

As discussed in Chapter 4, images are one of the number-one reasons for slow-loading web pages! In addition to image compression, optimizing image alt text, choosing the right image format, and submitting image sitemaps, there are other technical ways to optimize the speed and way in which images are shown to your users. Some primary ways to improve image delivery are as follows:

SRCSET: How to deliver the best image size for each device

The SRCSET attribute allows you to have multiple versions of your image and then specify which version should be used in different situations. This piece of code is added to the <img> tag (where your image is located in the HTML) to provide unique images for specific-sized devices.

This is like the concept of responsive design that we discussed earlier, except for images!

This doesn’t just speed up your image load time, it’s also a unique way to enhance your on-page user experience by providing different and optimal images to different device types.

Pro tip: There are more than just three image size versions! 
It’s a common misconception that you just need a desktop, tablet, and mobile-sized version of your image. There are a huge variety of screen sizes and resolutions. Learn more about SRCSET.

Show visitors image loading is in progress with lazy loading

Lazy loading occurs when you go to a webpage and, instead of seeing a blank white space for where an image will be, a blurry lightweight version of the image or a colored box in its place appears while the surrounding text loads. After a few seconds, the image clearly loads in full resolution. The popular blogging platform Medium does this really well.

The low resolution version is initially loaded, and then the full high resolution version. This also helps to optimize your critical rendering path! So while all of your other page resources are being downloaded, you’re showing a low-resolution teaser image that helps tell users that things are happening/being loaded. For more information on how you should lazy load your images, check out Google’s Lazy Loading Guidance.

Improve speed by condensing and bundling your files

Page speed audits will often make recommendations such as “minify resource,” but what does that actually mean? Minification condenses a code file by removing things like line breaks and spaces, as well as abbreviating code variable names wherever possible.

“Bundling” is another common term you’ll hear in reference to improving page speed. The process of bundling combines a bunch of the same coding language files into one single file. For example, a bunch of JavaScript files could be put into one larger file to reduce the amount of JavaScript files for a browser.

By both minifying and bundling the files needed to construct your web page, you’ll speed up your website and reduce the number of your HTTP (file) requests.

Improving the experience for international audiences

Websites that target audiences from multiple countries should familiarize themselves with international SEO best practices in order to serve up the most relevant experiences. Without these optimizations, international visitors might have difficulty finding the version of your site that caters to them.

There are two main ways a website can be internationalized:

  • Language
    Sites that target speakers of multiple languages are considered multilingual websites. These sites should add something called an hreflang tag to show Google that your page has copy for another language. Learn more about hreflang.
  • Country
    Sites that target audiences in multiple countries are called multi-regional websites and they should choose a URL structure that makes it easy to target their domain or pages to specific countries. This can include the use of a country code top level domain (ccTLD) such as “.ca” for Canada, or a generic top-level domain (gTLD) with a country-specific subfolder such as “example.com/ca” for Canada. Learn more about locale-specific URLs.

You’ve researched, you’ve written, and you’ve optimized your website for search engines and user experience. The next piece of the SEO puzzle is a big one: establishing authority so that your pages will rank highly in search results.

news-google

The Ultimate Cheat Sheet for Taking Full Control of Your Google Knowledge Panels

They say you can’t squeeze blood out of a turnip, but when the turnip (and your biggest potential competitor) is Google, the lifeblood of the local business locations you market could depend on knowing where to take control.

As Google acts to confine ever-more stages of the local consumer journey within their own interface, local enterprises need to assume as much control as possible over the aspects of the Google Knowledge Panel that they can directly or indirectly influence.

This cheat sheet is your fast track to squeezing the most you can out of what Google is still offering.

How Google changed from local business benefactor to competitor

It may not come naturally, at first, to think of Google as a competitor. For many years in the local space, their offering of significant free screen real estate to any eligible local enterprise was like a gift. But, in their understandable quest for maximum profitability, Google is increasingly monetizing their local product, while at the same time giving more space to public sentiment when it comes to your brand’s reputation.

As this trend continues, your business needs to know which features of the Google Knowledge Panel that appear when searchers seek you by name can be controlled. You’ll also want to know which of these features has the most potential to influence rankings and consumers. We’ll explore both topics, as follows.


Core features on most Google Knowledge Panels

Different industries have different Knowledge Panel features, but the following graphic and key represent the elements that commonly pertain to most business categories. Each numbered feature will be described and designated as controllable “yes” or controllable “no” in the accompanying key. Some features will be labeled controllable “partly”, with notes explaining that designation. You will also discover pro tips for best practices, where appropriate.

1.) Photos & videos

When clicked on, this takes the user to both owner and user-generated photos in a set. Photos significantly impact CTR. Photos must be monitored for spam.

On mobile, there is a separate tab for photos, beyond the initial profile images.

Pro Tip: Videos can also be posted to your photos section, but try to post more than 2 videos so that you’ll get a separate mobile video subtab.

Controllable?

Partly; this is both an owner and crowdsourced element.

2.) Maps

When clicked on, this takes the user to the Maps-based Knowledge Panel accompanied by map with pin. Be sure your map marker is correctly placed.

Controllable?

Partly; owner can correct misplaced map marker, but users can submit placement edits, too.

3.) Exterior photo

When clicked on, this takes the user to an interactive Google Street View visual of the business.

*On mobile, no separate space is given to exterior photos.

Controllable?

Partly; owner can correct misplaced map marker.

4.) Business name

This must reflect the real-world name of the business and be formatted according to Google’s guidelines.

Pro Tip: If your enterprise is a Service Area Business, like a plumbing franchise with no storefronts, your name should match what appears on your website.

Controllable?

Yes; owner provides, though public can edit.

5.) Maps star

When clicked on, this gives users the option to either save the location to their map, or to view the location on Maps. Very little has been published about this easily overlooked feature. Users who star a location then see it as a star in the future on their maps. They are a form of “lists.” It might be posited that a business which many have starred might see some form of ranking boost, but this is speculative.

*On mobile, there is no Maps star. There is a “save” icon instead.

Controllable?

No.

6.) Website button

When clicked on, this takes the user to the website of the company. In multi-practitioner and multi-location scenarios, care must be taken that this link points to the right URL.

Pro Tip: Large, multi-location enterprises should consider pointing each location’s Knowledge Panel to the right landing page. According to a new study, when both brand- and location-specific pages exist, 85% of all consumer engagement takes place on the local pages (e.g., Facebook Local Pages, local landing pages). A minority of impressions and engagement (15%) happen on national or brand pages.

Controllable?

Yes; owner provides, though public can edit.

7.) Directions button

When clicked on, this takes the user to the Maps-based widget that enables them to designate a starting point and receive driving directions and traffic alerts. Be sure to check directions for each location of your enterprise to protect consumers from misdirection.

Controllable?

Partly; owner and the public can report incorrect directions.

8.) Review stars and count

The star portion of the section is not an average; it’s something like a “Bayesian average.” The count (which is sometimes inaccurate), when clicked, takes you to the separate review interface overlay where all reviews can be read. Review count and sentiment are believed to impact local rankings, but the degree of impact is speculative. Review sentiment is believed to highly impact conversions.

Pro Tip: While Google is fine with your business asking for reviews, never offer incentives of any kind in exchange for them. Also, avoid bulk review requests, as they can result in your reviews being filtered out.

Controllable?

Partly; owner can encourage, monitor, thumb up, and respond to reviews, as well as reporting spam reviews; public can also flag reviews as well as thumbing them up.

9.) Editorial summary

This is generated by Google via unconfirmed processes and is meant to provide a summarized description of the business.

Controllable?

No.

10.) Address

For brick-and-mortar businesses, this line must display a genuine, physical address. For service area businesses, this line should simply show the city/state for the business, based on hide-address settings in the GMB dashboard.

Controllable?

Yes; owner provides, though public can edit.

11.) Hours

When clicked on, a dropdown displays the complete hours of operation for the business. Care must be taken to accurately reflect seasonal and holiday hours.

Controllable?

Yes; owner provides, though public can edit.

12.) Phone

This number must connect as directly as possible to the location. On desktop, this number can be clicked, which will dial it up via Hangouts. A business can add more than one phone number to their GMB dashboard, but it will not display publicly.

*On mobile, there is no phone number displayed; just a call icon.

Pro Tip: The most popular solution to the need to implement call tracking is to list the call tracking number as the primary number and the store location number as the additional number. Provided that the additional number matches what Google finds on the website, no serious problems have been reported from utilizing this strategy since it was first suggested in 2017.

Controllable?

Yes; owner provides, though public can edit.

13.) Suggest an edit link

This is the most visible vehicle for the public to report problems with listing data. It can be used positively or maliciously.

Controllable?

No.

14.) Google Posts

Introduced in 2017, this form of microblogging enables businesses to post short content with links, imagery, and video right to their Knowledge Panels. It’s believed use of Google Posts may impact local rank. Each Google post lasts for 7 days, unless its content is designated as an “event,” in which case the post will remain live until the event ends. Google Posts are created and controlled in the GMB dashboard. Google has been experimenting with placement of posts, including showing them in Maps.

Pro Tip: Posts can be up to 1500 characters, but 150–350 characters is advisable. The ideal Posts image size is 750×750. Images smaller than 250×250 aren’t accepted. Posts can feature events, products, offers, bookings, phone numbers, 30-second videos, and links to learn more. Images can contain text that can prompt users to take a specific action like visiting the website to book an appointment, and early days experiments show that this approach can significantly boost conversions.

Controllable?

Yes.

15.) Know this place?

When clicked on, this feature enables anyone to contribute attribution information to a place. A wizard asks the user a variety of questions, such as “does this place have onsite parking?”

Pro Tip: Google has let Top Contributors to its forum know that it’s okay for businesses to contribute knowledge to their own Know This Place section.

Controllable?

Partly; both owner and public can add attribution via this link.

16.) Google Questions & Answers

Introduced in 2017, this crowdsourced Q&A functionality can be contributed to directly by businesses. Businesses can post their own FAQs and answer them, as well as responding to consumer questions. Q&As with the most thumbs up appear up front on the Knowledge Panel. The “Ask a Question” button facilitates queries, and the “See all questions” link takes you to an overlay popup showing all queries. This is becoming an important new hub of social interactivity, customer support, and may be a ranking factor. Google Q&A must be monitored for spam and abuse.

Controllable?

Partly; both owner and public can contribute.

17.) Send to your phone

Introduced in 2016, this feature enables desktop users to send a place to their phone for use on the go. It’s possible that a place that has been sent to a lot of phones might be deemed popular by Google, and therefore, more relevant.

*On mobile, this option doesn’t exist, for obvious reasons.

Controllable?

No

18.) Review snippets

This section of the Knowledge Panel features three excerpts from Google-based reviews, selected by an unknown process. The “View all Google reviews” link takes the user to an overlay popup featuring all reviews. Owners can respond to reviews via this popup or the GMB dashboard. Review count, sentiment, velocity, and owner response activity are all speculative ranking factors. Reviews must be monitored for spam and abuse.

Pro Tip: In your Google My Business dashboard, you can and should be responding to your reviews. Surveys indicate that 40% of consumers expect businesses to respond, and more than half expect a response within three days, but it’s best to respond within a day. If the review is negative, a good response can win back about 35% of customers. Even if you can’t win back the other 65%, a good response serves to demonstrate to the entire consumer public that your business is ethical and accountable.

Controllable?

Partly; both owner and public can contribute.

19.) Write a Review button

This is the button consumers click to write a review, leave a star rating and upload review imagery. Clicking it takes you to a popup for that purpose.

*On mobile, this is formatted differently, with a large display of five empty stars labeled “Rate and Review.”

Controllable?

No.

20.) Add a Photo button

This button takes you to the photo upload interface. Third-party photos must be monitored for spam and abuse. Photos are believed to impact CTR.

*On mobile, this CTA is absent from the initial interface.

Controllable?

Partly; brands can’t control what photos users upload, but they can report inappropriate images.

21.) View all Google reviews

This link brings up the pop-up interface on desktop containing all of the reviews a business has received.

Pro Tip: Enterprises should continuously monitor reviews for signs of emerging problems at specific locations. Sentiment analysis software is available to help identify issues as they arise.

Controllable?

Partly; brands can’t control the content reviewers post, but they can control the quality of experiences, as well as responding to reviews.

22.) Description

After years of absence, the business description field has returned and is an excellent place to showcase the highlights of specific locations of your enterprise. Descriptions can be up to 750 characters in length.

Pro Tip: Do call out desirable aspects of your business in the description, but don’t use it to announce sales or promotions, as that’s a violation of the guidelines.

Controllable?

Yes.

23.) People Also Search For

This section typically shows brand competitors, chosen by Google. If clicked on, the user is taking to a Local Finder-type view of these competing businesses, accompanied by a map.

Controllable?

No.

24.) Feedback

This link supports suggested public edits of the Knowledge Panel, which Google can accept or reject.

Controllable?

Partly; brands can’t control what edits the public suggests. Brands can use this feature to suggest edits, too, but there are typically better ways to do so.


Additional features on some Google Knowledge Panels

Some industries have unique Knowledge Panel features. We’ll list the most common of these here:

Price summary

This is meant to be an overview of general pricing.

Controllable?

Partly; this is both an owner and crowdsourced element.

Lengthier editorial summary

Shown in addition to showing the category of the business, this editorial summary is created by Google by unconfirmed processes.

Controllable?

No.

Menu link

A somewhat complex feature, these can link to third-party menus, or can be generated directly by the owner in the GMB dashboard for some businesses.

Controllable?

Partly; owner can control the menu URL and content in some cases.

Reviews from around the web

This features a rating summary and links to relevant third-party review sources, determined by Google.

Controllable?

Partly; owners can’t dictate which 3rd parties Google chooses, but they can work to build up positive reviews on featured sources.

Critic reviews

These are chosen by Google, and stem from “professional” review platforms.

Controllable?

No.

Popular times

This information is drawn from users who have opted into Google Location History. It’s meant to help users plan visits. It’s conceivable that this could be utilized as a ranking factor.

Controllable?

No

Booking

This “see schedule” button takes the user to Maps-based display of the company’s schedule, with the ability to reserve an appointment.

Controllable?

Yes

Groupon ads

This controversial element found on some Knowledge Panels appears to feature Groupon being allowed to advertise on brands’ listings without owner consent.

Controllable?

No

Local business URLs

There are a variety of additional URLs that can either be added to the GMB dashboard or stem from third parties. These URLs can represent menus, ordering, booking, reservations, and product searches.

Controllable?

Partly; owner can add some additional URLs, but some come from 3rd parties

Google Messaging

This is Google’s live chat feature that lets clients directly message you.

Controllable?

Yes

Hotel Knowledge Panels

Hotel Knowledge Panels are practically a completely different animal. They can offer much more detailed booking options, more segmented review sentiment, various ads, and deals.

Controllable?

Mostly; owners have a variety of features they can enable, though some are out of their control.

Prioritizing Google Knowledge Panel features for maximum impact

Every location of an enterprise faces a unique competitive scenario, depending on its market. What may “move the needle” for some business locations may be relatively ineffectual in others. Nevertheless, when dealing with a large number of locations, it can be helpful to have a general order of tasks to prioritize. We’ll offer a basic list that can be used to guide work, based on elements that most important to get right first:

✓ Guidelines

Be sure all listings are eligible for inclusion in Google’s product and adhere to Google’s guidelines, both for the listings, themselves, and for reviews.

✓ Duplicates

Identify duplicate Google My Business listings using Moz Check Listing or Moz Local and handle them appropriately so that ranking strength isn’t being divided up or thwarted by multiple listings for the same location.

✓ NAP

Create a spreadsheet containing company-approved name, address, phone number and website URL data for each location and be sure each Google listing accurately reflects this information.

✓ Category

Without the right primary category, you can’t rank for your most important searches. Look at the category your top competitors are using and, if it’s right for you, use it. Avoid repetition in category choices (i.e. don’t choose both “auto dealership” and “Toyota dealership”).

✓ Map markers

It may seem obvious, but do an audit of all your locations to be sure the Map marker is in the right place.

✓ Reviews

Acquire, monitor and respond to reviews for all locations on a daily basis, with the goal of demonstration accessibility and accountability. Reviews are part-and-parcel of your customer service program.

✓ Images

Images can significantly influence clickthrough rates. Be sure yours are as persuasive and professional as possible.

✓ Posts

Make maximum use of the opportunity to microblog right on your Knowledge Panel.

✓ Ability to implement call tracking numbers

Analysis is so critical to the success of any enterprise. By using a call tracking number as the primary number on each location’s Knowledge Panel, you can glean important data about how users are interacting with your assets.

✓ Q&A

Post and answer your own company FAQ, and monitor this feature on a regular basis to emphasize the accessibility of your customer support.

✓ Product/service menus

Where appropriate, a thorough menu deepens the experience a user can have with your Knowledge Panel.

✓ Bookings

Depending on your industry, you may find you have to pay Google for bookings to remain competitive. Alternatively, experiment with Google Posts image text to pull users from the Knowledge Panel over to your own booking widget.

✓ Attributes

Add every appropriate attribute that’s available for your business category to deepen Google’s understanding of what you offer.

Summing up

Each element of a Google Knowledge Panel offers a different level of control to your Enterprise, from no control to total control. Rather than worry about things you can’t manage, focus on the powers you do have to:

  1. Create positive real-world consumer experiences by dint of your excellent customer service
  2. Prompt consumers to help you reflect those experiences in your Knowledge Panel
  3. Monitor, track, and interact with consumers as much as possible on your Knowledge Panel
  4. Publish rich and accurate information to the Knowledge Panel, knowing that Google wants to retain as many users as possible within this interface

Local enterprises are in a time of transition in 2018, moving from a past in which the bulk of customer experiences could be controlled either in-store or on the brand’s website, to a present in which Google is successfully inter-positioning itself an informational and transactional agent.

Google wants your Knowledge Panel to work for them, but with the right approach to the elements you can control, you still have a significant say in how it works for you.

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What to Do with Your Old Blog Posts

Around 2005 or so, corporate blogs became the thing to do. Big players in the business world touted that such platforms could “drive swarms of traffic to your main website, generate more product sales” and even “create an additional stream of advertising income” (Entrepreneur Magazine circa 2006). With promises like that, what marketer or exec wouldn’t jump on the blog bandwagon?

Unfortunately, initial forays into branded content did not always dwell on minor issues like “quality” or “entertainment,” instead focusing on sheer bulk and, of course, all the keywords. Now we have learned better, and many corporate blogs are less prolific and offer more value. But on some sites, behind many, many “next page” clicks, this old content can still be found lurking in the background.

This active company blog still features over 900 pages of posts dating back to 2006

This situation leaves current SEOs and content teams in a bit of a pickle. What should you do if your site has excessive quantities of old blog posts? Are they okay just sitting there? Do you need to dosomething about them?

Why bother addressing old blog posts?

On many sites, the sheer number of pages are the biggest reason to consider improving or scaling back old content. If past content managers chose quantity over quality, heaps of old posts eventually get buried, all evergreen topics have been written about before, and it becomes increasingly harder to keep inventory of your content.

From a technical perspective, depending on the scale of the old content you’re dealing with, pruning back the number of pages that you put forward can help increase your crawl efficiency. If Google has to crawl 1,000 URLs to find 100 good pieces of content, they are going to take note and not spend as much time combing through your content in the future.

From a marketing perspective, your content represents your brand, and improving the set of content that you put forward helps shape the way customers see you as an authority in your space. Optimizing and curating your existing content can give your collection of content a clearer topical focus, makes it more easily discoverable, and ensures that it provides value for users and the business.

Zooming out for a second to look at this from a higher level: If you’ve already decided that it’s worth investing in blog content for your company, it’s worth getting the most from your existing resources and ensuring that they aren’t holding you back.

Decide what to keep: Inventory and assessment

Inventory

The first thing to do before accessing your blog posts is to make sure you know what you have. A full list of URLs and coordinating metadata is incredibly helpful in both evaluating and documenting.

Depending on the content management system that you use, obtaining this list can be as simple as exporting a database field. Alternatively, URLs can be gleaned from a combination of Google Analytics data, Webmaster Tools, and a comprehensive crawl with a tool such as Screaming Frog. This post gives a good outline of how to get the data you need from these sources.

Regardless of whether you have a list of URLs yet, it’s also good to do a full crawl of your blog to see what the linking structure looks like at this point, and how that may differ from what you see in the CMS.

Assessment

Once you know what you have, it’s time to assess the content and decide if it’s worth holding on to. When I do this, I like to ask these 5 questions:

1. Is it beneficial for users?

Content that’s beneficial for users is helpful, informative, or entertaining. It answers questions, helps them solve problems, or keeps them interested. This could be anything from a walkthrough for troubleshooting to a collection of inspirational photos.

These 5-year-old blog posts from different real estate blogs illustrate past content that still offers value to current users, and past content that may be less beneficial for a user

2. Is it beneficial for us?

Content that is beneficial to us is earning organic rankings, traffic, or backlinks, or is providing business value by helping drive conversions. Additionally, content that can help establish branding or effectively build topical authority is great to have on any site.

3. Is it good?

While this may be a bit of a subjective question to ask about any content, it’s obvious when you read content that isn’t good. This is about fundamental things such as if content doesn’t make sense, has tons of grammatical errors, is organized poorly, or doesn’t seem to have a point to it.

4. Is it relevant?

If content isn’t at least tangentially relevant to your site, industry, or customers, you should have a really good reason to keep it. If it doesn’t meet any of the former qualifications already, it probably isn’t worth holding on to.

These musings from a blog of a major hotel brand may not be the most relevant to their industry

5. Is it causing any issues?

Problematic content may include duplicate content, duplicate targeting, plagiarized text, content that is a legal liability, or any other number of issues that you probably don’t want to deal with on your site. I find that the assessment phase is a particularly good opportunity to identify posts that target the same topic, so that you can consolidate them.

Using these criteria, you can divide your old blog posts into buckets of “keep” and “don’t keep.” The “don’t keep” can be 301 redirected to either the most relevant related post or the blog homepage. Then it’s time to further address the others.

What to do with the posts you keep

So now you have a pile of “keep” posts to sort out! All the posts that made it this far have already been established to have value of some kind. Now we want to make the most of that value by improving, expanding, updating, and promoting the content.

Improve

When setting out to improve an old post that has good bones, it can be good to start with improvements on targeting and general writing and grammar. You want to make sure that your blog post has a clear point, is targeting a specific topic and terms, and is doing so in proper English (or whatever language your blog may be in).

Once the content itself is in good shape, make sure to add any technical improvements that the piece may need, such as relevant interlinking, alt text, or schema markup.

Then it’s time to make sure it’s pretty. Visual improvements such as adding line breaks, pull quotes, and imagery impact user experience and can keep people on the page longer.

Expand or update

Not all old blog posts are necessarily in poor shape, which can offer a great opportunity. Another way to get more value out of them is to repurpose or update the information that they contain to make old content fresh again. Data says that this is well worth the effort, with business bloggers that update older posts being 74% more likely to report strong results.

A few ways to expand or update a post are to explore a different take on the initial thesis, add newer data, or integrate more recent developments or changed opinions. Alternatively, you could expand on a piece of content by reinterpreting it in another medium, such as new imagery, engaging video, or even as audio content.

Promote

If you’ve invested resources in content creation and optimization, it only makes sense to try to get as many eyes as possible on the finished product. This can be done in a few different ways, such as sharing and re-sharing on branded social channels, resurfacing posts to the front page of your blog, or even a bit of external promotion through outreach.

The follow-up

Once your blog has been pruned and you’re working on getting the most value out of your existing content, an important final step is to keep tabs on the effect these changes are having.

The most significant measure of success is organic organic traffic; even if your blog is designed for lead generation or other specific goals, the number of eyes on the page should have a strong correlation to the content’s success by other measures as well. For the best representation of traffic totals, I monitor organic sessions by landing page in Google Analytics.

I also like to keep an eye on organic rankings, as you can get an early glimpse of whether a piece is gaining traction around a particular topic before it’s successful enough to earn organic traffic with those terms.

Remember that regardless of what changes you’ve made, it will usually take Google a few months to sort out the relevance and rankings of the updated content. So be patient, monitor, and keep expanding, updating, and promoting!

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Local Search Ranking Factors 2018: Local Today, Key Takeaways, and the Future

In the past year, local SEO has run at a startling and near-constant pace of change. From an explosion of new Google My Business features to an ever-increasing emphasis on the importance of reviews, it’s almost too much to keep up with. In today’s Whiteboard Friday, we welcome our friend Darren Shaw to explain what local is like today, dive into the key takeaways from his 2018 Local Search Ranking Factors survey, and offer us a glimpse into the future according to the local SEO experts.

Click on the whiteboard image above to open a high-resolution version in a new tab!

Video Transcription

Howdy, Moz fans. I’m Darren Shaw from Whitespark, and today I want to talk to you about the local search ranking factors. So this is a survey that David Mihm has run for the past like 10 years. Last year, I took it over, and it’s a survey of the top local search practitioners, about 40 of them. They all contribute their answers, and I aggregate the data and say what’s driving local search. So this is what the opinion of the local search practitioners is, and I’ll kind of break it down for you.

Local search today

So these are the results of this year’s survey. We had Google My Business factors at about 25%. That was the biggest piece of the pie. We have review factors at 15%, links at 16%, on-page factors at 14%, behavioral at 10%, citations at 11%, personalization and social at 6% and 3%. So that’s basically the makeup of the local search algorithm today, based on the opinions of the people that participated in the survey.

The big story this year is Google My Business. Google My Business factors are way up, compared to last year, a 32% increase in Google My Business signals. I’ll talk about that a little bit more over in the takeaways. Review signals are also up, so more emphasis on reviews this year from the practitioners. Citation signals are down again, and that makes sense. They continue to decline I think for a number of reasons. They used to be the go-to factor for local search. You just built out as many citations as you could. Now the local search algorithm is so much more complicated and there’s so much more to it that it’s being diluted by all of the other factors. Plus it used to be a real competitive difference-maker. Now it’s not, because everyone is pretty much getting citations. They’re considered table stakes now. By seeing a drop here, it doesn’t mean you should stop doing them. They’re just not the competitive difference-maker they used to be. You still need to get listed on all of the important sites.

Key takeaways

All right, so let’s talk about the key takeaways.

1. Google My Business

The real story this year was Google My Business, Google My Business, Google My Business. Everyone in the comments was talking about the benefits they’re seeing from investing in a lot of these new features that Google has been adding.

Google has been adding a ton of new features lately — services, descriptions, Google Posts, Google Q&A. There’s a ton of stuff going on in Google My Business now that allows you to populate Google My Business with a ton of extra data. So this was a big one.

✓ Take advantage of Google Posts

Everyone talked about Google Posts, how they’re seeing Google Posts driving rankings. There are a couple of things there. One is the semantic content that you’re providing Google in a Google post is definitely helping Google associate those keywords with your business. Engagement with Google Posts as well could be driving rankings up, and maybe just being an active business user continuing to post stuff and logging in to your account is also helping to lift your business entity and improve your rankings. So definitely, if you’re not on Google Posts, get on it now.

If you search for your category, you’ll see a ton of businesses are not doing it. So it’s also a great competitive difference-maker right now.

✓ Seed your Google Q&A

Google Q&A, a lot of businesses are not even aware this exists. There’s a Q&A section now. Your customers are often asking questions, and they’re being answered by not you. So it’s valuable for you to get in there and make sure you’re answering your questions and also seed the Q&A with your own questions. So add all of your own content. If you have a frequently asked questions section on your website, take that content and put it into Google Q&A. So now you’re giving lots more content to Google.

✓ Post photos and videos

Photos and videos, continually post photos and videos, maybe even encourage your customers to do that. All of that activity is helpful. A lot of people don’t know that you can now post videos to Google My Business. So get on that if you have any videos for your business.

✓ Fill out every field

There are so many new fields in Google My Business. If you haven’t edited your listing in a couple of years, there’s a lot more stuff in there that you can now populate and give Google more data about your business. All of that really leads to engagement. All of these extra engagement signals that you’re now feeding Google, from being a business owner that’s engaged with your listing and adding stuff and from users, you’re giving them more stuff to look at, click on, and dwell on your listing for a longer time, all that helps with your rankings.

2. Reviews

✓ Get more Google reviews

Reviews continue to increase in importance in local search, so, obviously, getting more Google reviews. It used to be a bit more of a competitive difference-maker. It’s becoming more and more table stakes, because everybody seems to be having lots of reviews. So you definitely want to make sure that you are competing with your competition on review count and lots of high-quality reviews.

✓ Keywords in reviews

Getting keywords in reviews, so rather than just asking for a review, it’s useful to ask your customers to mention what service they had provided or whatever so you can get those keywords in your reviews.

✓ Respond to reviews (users get notified now!)

Responding to reviews. Google recently started notifying users that if the owner has responded to you, you’ll get an email. So all of that is really great, and those responses, it’s another signal to Google that you’re an engaged business.

✓ Diversify beyond Google My Business for reviews

Diversify. Don’t just focus on Google My Business. Look at other sites in your industry that are prominent review sites. You can find them if you just look for your own business name plus reviews, if you search that in Google, you’re going to see the sites that Google is saying are important for your particular business.

You can also find out like what are the sites that your competitors are getting reviews on. Then if you just do a search like keyword plus city, like “lawyers + Denver,” you might find sites that are important for your industry as well that you should be listed on. So check out a couple of your keywords and make sure you’re getting reviews on more sites than just Google.

3. Links

Then links, of course, links continue to drive local search. A lot of people in the comments talked about how a handful of local links have been really valuable. This is a great competitive difference-maker, because a lot of businesses don’t have any links other than citations. So when you get a few of these, it can really have an impact.

✓ From local industry sites and sponsorships

They really talk about focusing on local-specific sites and industry-specific sites. So you can get a lot of those from sponsorships. They’re kind of the go-to tactic. If you do a search for in title sponsors plus city name, you’re going to find a lot of sites that are listing their sponsors, and those are opportunities for you, in your city, that you could sponsor that event as well or that organization and get a link.

The future!

All right. So I also asked in the survey: Where do you see Google going in the future? We got a lot of great responses, and I tried to summarize that into three main themes here for you.

1. Keeping users on Google

This is a really big one. Google does not want to send its users to your website to get the answer. Google wants to have the answer right on Google so that they don’t have to click. It’s this zero-click search result. So you see Rand Fishkin talking about this. This has been happening in local for a long time, and it’s really amplified with all of these new features Google has been adding. They want to have all of your data so that they don’t have to send users to find it somewhere else. Then that means in the future less traffic to your website.

So Mike Blumenthal and David Mihm also talk about Google as your new homepage, and this concept is like branded search.

  • What does your branded search look like?
  • So what sites are you getting reviews on?
  • What does your knowledge panel look like?

Make that all look really good, because Google doesn’t want to send people to your new website.

2. More emphasis on behavioral signals

David Mihm is a strong voice in this. He talks about how Google is trying to diversify how they rank businesses based on what’s happening in the real world. They’re looking for real-world signals that actual humans care about this business and they’re engaging with this business.

So there’s a number of things that they can do to track that — so branded search, how many people are searching for your brand name, how many people are clicking to call your business, driving directions. This stuff is all kind of hard to manipulate, whereas you can add more links, you can get more reviews. But this stuff, this is a great signal for Google to rely on.

Engagement with your listing, engagement with your website, and actual humans in your business. If you’ve seen on the knowledge panel sometimes for brick-and-mortar business, it will be like busy times. They know when people are actually at your business. They have counts of how many people are going into your business. So that’s a great signal for them to use to understand the prominence of your business. Is this a busy business compared to all the other ones in the city?

3. Google will monetize everything

Then, of course, a trend to monetize as much as they can. Google is a publicly traded company. They want to make as much money as possible. They’re on a constant growth path. So there are a few things that we see coming down the pipeline.

Local service ads are expanding across the country and globally and in different industries. So this is like a paid program. You have to apply to get into it, and then Google takes a cut of leads. So if you are a member of this, then Google will send leads to you. But you have to be verified to be in there, and you have to pay to be in there.

Then taking a cut from bookings, you can now book directly on Google for a lot of different businesses. If you think about Google Flights and Google Hotels, Google is looking for a way to monetize all of this local search opportunity. That’s why they’re investing heavily in local search so they can make money from it. So seeing more of these kinds of features rolling out in the future is definitely coming. Transactions from other things. So if I did book something, then Google will take a cut for it.

So that’s the future. That’s sort of the news of the local search ranking factors this year. I hope it’s been helpful. If you have any questions, just leave some comments and I’ll make sure to respond to them all. Thanks, everybody.

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The Guide to Building Linked Unstructured Citations for Local SEO

When you’ve accomplished step one in your local search marketing, how do you take step two?

You already know that any local business you market has to have the table stakes of accurate structured citations on major platforms like Facebook, Yelp, Infogroup, Acxiom, and YP.

But what can local SEO practitioners do once they’ve got these formal listings created and a system in place for managing them? Our customers often come to us once they’ve gotten well underway with Moz Local and ask, “What’s next? What can I do to move the needle?” This blog post will give you the actionable strategy and a complete step-by-step tutorial to answer this important question.

A quick refresher on citations

Listings on formal directories are called “structured citations.” When other types of platforms (like online news, blogs, best-of lists, etc.) reference a local business’ complete or partial contact information, that’s called an “unstructured citation.” And the best unstructured citations of all include links, of course!

For example, the San Francisco branch of a natural foods grocery store gets a linked unstructured citation from a major medical center in their city via a blog post about stocking a pantry with the right ingredients for healthier eating. Google and consumers encounter this reference and understand that trust and authority are being conveyed and earned.

The more often websites that are relevant to your location or industry link to you within their own content, the better your chances of ranking well in Google’s organic and local search engine results.

Why linked unstructured citations are growing in importance right now

Link building is as old as organic SEO. Structured citation building is as old as local SEO. Both practices have long sought to influence Google rankings. But a close read of the local search marketing community these days points up an increasing emphasis on the value of unstructuredcitations. In fact, local links were one of the top three takeaways from the 2018 Local Search Ranking Factors survey. Why is this?

  1. Google has become the dominant force in local consumer experiences, keeping as many actions as possible within their own interface instead of sending searchers to company websites. Because links influence rank within that interface, most local businesses enterprises will need to move beyond traditional structured citations to impress Google with mentions on a diverse variety of relevant websites. While structured citations are rightly referred to as “table stakes” for all local businesses, it’s the unstructured ones that can be competitive difference-makers in tough markets.
  2. Meanwhile, Google is increasingly monetizing local search results. A prime example of this is their Local Service Ads (LSA) program which acts as lead gen between Google and service area businesses like plumbing and housekeeping companies. Savvy local brands (including brick-and-mortar models) will see the way the wind is blowing with this and work to form non-Google-dependent sources of traffic and lead generation. A good linked unstructured citation on a highly relevant publication can drive business without having to pay Google a dime.

Your goal with linked unstructured citations is to build your community footprint and your authority simultaneously. All you need is the right tools for the research phase!

Fishing for opportunities with Link Intersect

For the sake of this tutorial, let’s choose at random a small B&B in Albuquerque — Bottger.com — as our hypothetical client. Let’s say that the innkeeper wants to know how the big Tribal resort casinos are earning publicity and links, in the hopes of finding opportunities for a smaller hospitality business, too. *Note that these aren’t absolutely direct competitors, but they share a city and an overall industry.

We’re going to use Moz’s Link Intersect tool to do this research for Bottger Mansion. This tool could help Bottger uncover all kinds of links and unstructured linked citation opportunities, depending on how it’s used. For example, the tool could surface:

  • Links that direct or near-direct competitors have, but that Bottger doesn’t
  • Locally relevant links from domains/pages about Bottger’s locale
  • Industry-relevant links from domains/pages about the hospitality industry

Step 1: Find the “big fish”

A client may already know who the “big fish” in their community are, or you can cast a net by identifying popular local events and seeing which businesses sponsor them. Sponsorships can be pricey, depending on the event, so if a local company sponsors a big event, it’s an indication that they’re a larger enterprise with the budget to pursue a wide array of creative PR ideas. Larger enterprises can serve as models for small business emulation, at scale.

In our case study, we know that Bottger is located in Albuquerque, so we decided to locate sponsors of the famous Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. Right away, we spotted two lavish Albuquerque resort-casinos — Isleta and Sandia. These are the “big fish” we want our smaller client to look to for inspiration.

Step 2: Input domains in Link Intersect

We’re going to compare Bottger’s domain to Isleta and Sandia’s domains. In Moz Pro, navigate to “Link Explorer” and then select “Link Intersect” from the left navigation. Input your domain in the top and the domains you want to mine link ideas from in the fields beneath, as depicted below.

Next to Bottger’s domain, we’ve selected “root domain” as that will show us all competitor links who haven’t linked to us at all. We’re also going to select “root domain” on the resort domains, so we can see all of their backlinks, rather than just links to particular pages on their sites.

Moz’s Link Intersect tool will let you compare your site with up to 5 competitors. It’s totally up to you how many sites you want to evaluate at once. If you’re just getting started with link building, you may want to start with just one domain, as this should yield plenty of link opportunities to start with. If you’ve already been doing some link building, you have more time to dedicate to link building, or you’d just generally rather have more options to work with, go ahead and put in multiple domains to compare.

Step 3: Find link opportunities

Once you’ve input your domain and your competitor(s) domains, click “Find Opportunities.” That will yield a list of sites that link to your competitors, but do not link to you.

In this example, we’re comparing our client’s domain against two other domains: A (Isleta) and B (Sandia). In the “Sites that intersect” column, you will see whether Site A has the link, Site B has it, or if they both have it.

Step 4: The link selection process

Now that we have a list of link ideas from Isleta and Sandia’s backlink profiles, it’s time to decide which ones might yield good opportunities for our B&B. That’s right — just because something is in a competitor’s link profile doesn’t necessarily mean you want it!

View the referring pages

The first step is to drill down and get more detail about links the big resorts have. Select the arrow to expand this section and view the exact page the link is coming from.

In this example, both Sandia and Isleta have links from the root domain marriott.com. By using the “expand” feature, we can see the exact pages those links are located on.

Identify follow or no-follow

You can use the MozBar Chrome plugin to view whether your competitor’s link is no-followed or followed. Since only followed links pass authority, you may want to prioritize those, but no-followed links can also have value in the form of generating traffic to your site and could get picked up by others who do eventually link to your site with a follow link.

Select the MozBar icon from your browser and click the pencil icon. If you want to see Followed links, select “Followed” and the MozBar will highlight these links on the page in green. To find No-Followed links, click “No-Followed” and MozBar will highlight these links on the page in pink.

Common types of links you’ll see in the profiles of local business websites

If this is your first foray into link building for local businesses, you may be unfamiliar with the types of sites you’ll see in Link Intersect. While no two link profiles are exactly the same, many local businesses use similar methods for building links, so there are some common categories to be aware of. Knowing these will help you decipher the results Link Intersect will show you.

Types of links and what you can do with them:

Press releases

Press release sites like PRweb.com and PRnewsire.com are fairly common among local businesses that want to spread the word about their initiatives. Whether someone at the business won an award or they started a new community outreach program, local businesses often pay companies like PRweb.com to distribute this news on their platform and to their partners. These are no-followed links (don’t pass link authority aka “SEO value”) but they can offer valuable traffic and could even get picked up by sites that do link with a follow link.

If your competitor is utilizing press releases, you may want to consider distributing your newsworthy information this way!

Structured citations / directories

One of the primary types of domains you’ll see in a local business’ backlink profile is directories — structured citation websites like yellowpages.com that list a business’ name, address, and phone number (NAP) with a link back to the business’ website. Because they’re self-created and not editorially given, like Press Releases, they are often no-followed. However, having consistent and accurate citations across major directory websites is a key foundational step in local search performance.

If you see these types of sites in Link Intersect, it may indicate your need for a listings management solution like Moz Local that can ensure your NAP is accurate and available across major directories. Typically, you’ll want to have these table stakes before focusing on unstructured linked citations.

News coverage

Another favorite among local businesses is local media coverage (or just media coverage in general — it’s not always local). HARO (Help a Reporter Out) is a popular service for connecting journalists to subject matter experts who may be valuable sources for their articles. The journalists will typically link your quote back to your website. Aside from services like HARO, local businesses would do well to make media contacts, such as forming relationships with local news correspondents. As news surfaces, they’ll start reaching out to you for comment!

If you see news coverage in your competitor’s backlink profile, you can get ideas of what types of publications want content and information that you can provide.

Local / industry coverage

Blogs, hobby sites, DIY sites, and other platforms can feature content that depicts city life or interest in a topic. For example, a chef might author a popular blog covering their dining experiences in San Francisco. For a local restaurant, being cited by this publication could be valuable.

If you see popular local or industry sites in your competitor’s backlink profile, it’s a good signal of opportunity for your business to build a relationship with the authors in hopes of gaining links.

Trade organizations

Most local businesses are affiliated with some type of governing/regulating body, trade organization, award organization, etc. Many of these organizations have websites themselves, and they often list the businesses they’re affiliated with.

If your competitor is involved with an organization, that means your business is likely suited to be involved as well! Use these links to get ideas of which organizations to join.

Community organizations

Community organizations are a great local validator for search engines, and many local businesses have taken notice. You’ll likely find these types of organizations’ websites in your competitor’s backlink profile, such as Chamber of Commerce websites or the local YMCA.

As a local business, your competitors are in the same locale as you, so take note of these community organizations and consider joining them. You’ll not only get the benefit of better community involvement, but you can get a link out of it too!

Sponsorships / event participation

Local businesses can sponsor, donate to, host or participate in community events, teams, and other cherished local resources, which can lead to both online and offline publicity.

Local businesses can earn great links from online press surrounding these groups and happening. If an event/team page highlights you, but doesn’t actually link to benefactors/participants, don’t be shy about politely requesting a link.

Scholarships / .edu sites

A popular strategy used by many local businesses and non-local businesses alike is scholarship link building. Businesses figured out that if they offered a scholarship, they could get a link back to their site on education websites, such as .edu domains. Everyone seemed to catch on — so much so that many schools stopped featuring these scholarships on their site. It’s also important to note that .edu domains don’t inherently have more value than domains on any other TLD.

If your business wants to offer a scholarship, that is a great thing! We encourage you to pursue this for the benefit it could offer students, rather than primarily for the purpose of gaining links. Scholarship link building has become very saturated, and could be a strategy with diminishing returns, so don’t put all your eggs in this basket, and do it first and foremost for students instead of links.

Other businesses

Businesses may sometimes partner with each other for mutually beneficial link opportunities. Co-marketing opportunities that are a byproduct of genuine relationships can present valuable link opportunities, but link exchanges are against Google’s quality guidelines.

Stay away from “you link to me, I’ll link to you” opportunities as Google can see it as an attempt to manipulate your site’s ranking in search, but don’t be afraid to pursue genuine connections with other businesses that can turn into linking opportunities.

Spam

Just because your competitor has that link doesn’t mean you want it too! In Link Intersect, pay attention to the domain’s Spam Score and DA. A high spam score and/or low DA can indicate that the link wouldn’t be valuable for your site, and may even harm it.

Also watch out for links generated from comments. If your competitor has links in their backlink profile coming from comments, you can safely ignore these as they do not present real opportunities for earning links that will move the needle in the right direction.

Now that you’re familiar with popular types of local backlinks and what you can do with them, let’s actually dig into Isleta and Sandia’s backlinks to see which might be good prospects for us.

Step 5: Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery

Both the Albuquerque Marriott and Hilton Garden Inn link to Isleta and Sandia on their “Local Things to Do” pages. This could be a great prospect for Bottger! In many cases, “things to do” pages will include lists of local restaurants, historic sites, attractions, shops, and more. Note how their addresses are included on the following pages, making them powerful linked unstructured citations. Bottger hosts fancy tea parties in a lovely setting, which could be a fun thing for tourists to do.

Isleta and Sandia also have links from a wedding website. If Bottger uses their property as a wedding venue, offers special wedding or engagement packages, or something similar, this could be a great prospect as well.

Link Intersect also yielded links to various travel guide websites. There are plenty of links on websites like these to local attractions. In the following example, you can see an Albuquerque travel guide that’s broken up by category, “hotels” being one of them:

Isleta and Sandia also have been featured in the Albuquerque Journal. In this example, a local reporter covered news that Isleta was opening expanded bingo and poker rooms. This seems to be a journalist who covers local businesses, so she could be a great connection to make!

Many other links in Isleta and Sandia’s backlink profiles came from sources like events websites, since these resorts are large enough to serve as the venue for major events like concerts and MMA matches. Although Bottger isn’t large enough to host an event of that magnitude, it could spark good ideas for link building opportunities in the future. Maybe Bottger could host a small community tea tasting event featuring locally sourced herbal teas and get in touch with a local reporter to promote it. Even competitor links that you can’t directly pursue can spark your creativity for related link building opportunities.

And let’s not forget how we found out about Isleta and Sandia in the first place: the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta! Event sponsors are featured on an “official sponsors” page with links to their websites. This is a classic, locally relevant opportunity for any Albuquerque business.

Step 6: Compile your link prospects in Link Tracking Lists

If you’re thinking, “This sounds great, but it also sounds like a lot of work. How am I ever going to keep track of all this?” — we’ve got you covered!

Moz Pro’s “Link Tracking Lists” was built for just this purpose.

In Link Intersect, you’ll see little check boxes next to all your competitors’ links. When you find one you want to target, check the box. When you’re done going through all the links and have checked the boxes next to the domains you want to pursue, click “Add to Link Tracking List” at the top right.

Since we’ve never done link building for Bottger before, we’re going to select “Create New List” from the dropdown, and label it something descriptive.

Make sure to put your client’s domain in the “target URL” field. For Step 3, since we’ve just selected the links we want to track from Link Intersect, those will already be populated in this field, so no further action is needed other than to click “Save.”

We’ll come back to Link Tracking Lists when we talk about outreach, but for now, all you need to know is that you can add the desirable competitor links (in our case, links from Isleta and Sandia) to Link Tracking lists straight from Link Intersect, making it easy to manage your data.

Step 7: Find out how to connect with your link prospects

Now it’s time to connect the dots: how do you go from knowing about your competitor’s links to getting those types of links for yourself?

There are three main ways you can get unstructured linked citations to your local business’ website, and those categories are what’s going to dictate the strategy you need to take to secure that opportunity for yourself.

  1. Self-created: Self-created links are like voting for yourself, so sites that accept these types of submissions, like Yelp.com, will NoFollow the link to your business’ website. Visitors are still referred to your website through that link, but the link doesn’t pass authority from Yelp.com to your domain. You should only get authority from a website if they link to you on their own (what Google calls “editorially placed” links). Neither NoFollow nor Follow links are inherently good or bad on their own. They are just intended for different purposes, and it’s the misuse of followed links that can get you in trouble with Google. We’ll talk more about that in a later section titled “Avoiding the bad fish: Risks of ignoring Google’s link scheme guidelines”
  2. Prompted by outreach: In many cases, people won’t know about your content until you tell them. These links are editorially placed by the site owner (not self-created), but the site owner was only made aware of your content because you reached out to them.
  3. Organically earned: Sometimes, you get links even without asking for them. If you have a popular piece of content on your site that receives lots of traffic, for example, people may link to that on their own because they find it valuable.

Since this tutorial is about proactively pursuing link opportunities, we’re going to focus on unstructured linked citations types one and two.

Articles

If your competitor has been featured in an article from say a local journalist or blogger, then your outreach will be focused on making a connection with that writer or publication for future link opportunities, rather than getting the exact link your competitor has. That’s because the article has already been written, so it’s unlikely that the writer will go back and edit their story just to add your link.

The one exception to this rule would be if the article links to your competitor, but your competitor’s link is now broken. In this scenario, you could reach out to the writer and say something like, “Hey! I notice in your article [article title] you link to [competitor’s link], but that link doesn’t seem to be working. I have similar content on my website [your URL]. If you find it valuable, please feel free to use it as a replacement for that broken link!”

Sometimes the contact information of the writer will be right next to the article, itself. For example:

If there’s no email address or contact form in the writer’s bio, you can usually find a link to one of their social media accounts, like Twitter, and you can connect with them there via a public or direct message. If you live in a small, tight-knit community, you may even be able to meet with the author in person.

Press releases

If you notice your competitors are issuing a lot of press releases and you want to try that out for yourself, you’ll likely need to sign up for an account, as these are a primarily self-serve platform. Most quality press release sites charge per release, and the price can differ depending on length.

Citations / directories

You’ll either want to sign up for a citation service like Moz Local that distributes your data to these types of listings programmatically, or if you do it manually, you’ll want to find the link to create your listings. Please note that your business may already be on the directory even if you haven’t set up a profile. Before creating a new listing, search for your business name and its variants, your phone number, and current and former addresses to see if there are existing listings you can claim and update.

Business websites

Most businesses will make it easy to contact them. If you’re trying to contact another business for the purpose of proposing teaming up for a co-marketing opportunity, look in their footer (the very bottom of the website). If there’s no contact information there, search for a “Contact Us” or “About” page. You may not find an email address, but you may be able to find a contact form or phone number. Below is an example from Albuquerque Little Theater, where they have contact information on the right and advertising information in the top navigation for businesses that are interested in taking out ads in their printed show programs. Not an unstructured linked citation, but a great way to get your business known to the community!

Organizations

Most organizations will make it easy for those who want to join, unless they are more exclusive or invitation-only. In the event that you do wish to get involved in an invitation-only organization that has no public-facing contact information, try viewing a member list and seeing if there’s anyone you know. Or maybe you know someone who can introduce you to one of the members. Genuine connections are key for this type of organization.

Step 8: Writing a good outreach email (for unstructured linked citations requiring outreach)

Outreach emails are necessary when the link opportunity you’re pursuing isn’t a link you could create yourself, or if the link source is one where you can’t make face-to-face contact with decision-makers. One of the most important questions you should be asking yourself for these opportunities is, “Why would this website link to me?”

Here’s how Bottger might go about sending an outreach email:

Greeting that matches the nature of the outreach target “Hey Jill!” might be fine when outreaching to the author of a blog, while “Hello Ms. Smith” might be better for more professional outreach.
Introduction Give a brief summary of who you are, what you do, and your interest in contacting them. For example: “I work with Bottger Mansion, a historic Bed & Breakfast in Old Town Albuquerque. I found your page about Albuquerque activities — you’ve really captured a lot of what Albuquerque has to offer!”
The ask, and the value add This is where you’ll actually ask for the link. It’s a good idea here to add value. Don’t just ask for something; offer to give something back!

To continue the same example: “As long-time residents of Old Town, we’d love to provide you with a comprehensive list of activities in the city’s historic district! We feel an Old Town Activities list would be a great addition to your page. Bottger Mansion regularly hosts high tea, for example, which we’d love to let more people know about with a spot on your list!”

Close Wish them well, thank them for their time, and sign off. Make sure that it’s easy for them to find information about you by including your full name, title, organization, and website/social links in your email signature.

Don’t be afraid to get on the phone, either! Hearing your voice can add a human element to the outreach attempt and offer a better conversion rate than a more impersonal email (we all get so many of those a day that ones from people we don’t know are easy to ignore).

And remember that local businesses have a particular advantage in accruing unstructured linked citations. Lively participation in the life of your community can continuously introduce you to decision-makers at popular local publications, paving the way towards neighborly outreach on your part. Learn to see the opportunities and think of ways your business can add value to the content that is being written about your town or city.

Step 9: Tracking your wins

Next-to-last, we’re going to jump back to Link Tracking Lists for a second, because that’s going to come in extremely handy here. Remember when we created the list with Sandia and Isleta’s links that we were interested in pursuing? Those will now show up when we go to Moz Pro > Link Explorer > Link Tracking Lists.

Every time Bottger successfully secures a link that they’ve added to their Link Tracking List, the red X in “Links to target URL?” column will turn blue, indicating that the site links to Bottger’s root domain. If we were pursuing links to individual pages, and a link prospect linked to our target page, the red X would turn green.

Another handy feature is the “Notes” dropdown. This allows you to keep track of your outreach attempts, which can be one of the trickiest parts about link building!

Avoiding the bad fish: Some words of caution before you get started

Before starting this process for yourself, familiarize yourself with these four risks so that your fishing trip doesn’t result in a basket of bad catches that could waste your resources or get your website penalized.

1. Risks of a “copy only” strategy

Link Intersect can be amazingly helpful for discovering new, relevant link opportunities for your local business, but link builders beware. If all you ever do is copy your competitors, the most you’ll ever achieve is becoming the second-best version of them. Use this method to keep tabs on strategies your competition is using, and even use it to spark your own creativity, but avoid copying everything your competitors do, and nothing else. Why be the second-best version of your competition when you can be the best version of yourself?

2. Risks of a “blindly follow” strategy

Comparing your site’s backlink profile with your direct competitors’ backlink profiles will return a list of links that they have and you don’t, but don’t use Link Intersect results as an exact checklist of links to pursue. Your competitors might have bad backlinks in their profile. For example, avoid pursuing opportunities from domains with a high Spam Score or low Domain or Page Authority (DA/PA). Learn more about how to evaluate sites by their Spam Score or DA/PA.

They might also have great backlinks that aren’t the right opportunity for your business, and those should be avoided too! Do you remember Isleta and Sandia’s links for events like MMA matches? If Bottger were to blindly take those resorts’ link profiles as directives, they might think they have to host a fight at their B&B, too!

Take what you find with a grain of salt. Evaluate every link opportunity on its own merit, rather than deeming it a good opportunity simply because your competitor has it.

3. Risks of an “apples to oranges” strategy

Choose the domains and pages you want to compare yourself against wisely. As a small local B&B, Bottger wouldn’t want to compare their backlink profile to that of Wikipedia or The New York Times, for example. Those sites are popular, but not relevant in any way to the types of unstructured linked citations Bottger would want to pursue, such as links that are locally relevant or industry-relevant.

In other words, just because a site is popular doesn’t mean it will yield relevant unstructured linked citation opportunities for you. Here in this tutorial, we’ve outlined one potential use-case for Link Intersect: finding unstructured linked citations your local business competitors have. However, this is not the only use for Link Intersect. Instead of comparing your site against competitors or near-competitors, you could compare it against:

  • Sites or pages about your locale (ex: sites like https://www.visitalbuquerque.org/ or http://www.albuquerqueoldtown.com/). This could yield locally relevant unstructured linked citation opportunities.
  • Sites or pages about your industry (ex: sites like http://www.paii.com/ or http://lodgingmagazine.com/). This could yield industry-relevant unstructured linked citation opportunities.

If you know what types of links you’re trying to find, choosing sites to evaluate against your own should be a lot easier, and yield more relevant opportunities.

4. Risks of ignoring Google’s “link schemes” guidelines

If you’ve never embarked on link building before, we encourage you to read through Google’s quality guidelines for webmasters, specifically its section on “Link schemes.” If you were to distill those link guidelines down into a single principle, it would be: don’t create links for the purpose of manipulating your site’s ranking in Google search. That’s right. Google doesn’t want anyone embarking on any marketing initiatives solely for the purpose of improving their ranking. Google wants links to be the natural byproduct of the quality work you’re doing for your audience. Google can penalize sites that participate in activities such as:

  • Buying links that pass PageRank (“followed” links)
  • Excessive “you link to me and I’ll link to you” exchanges
  • Self-created followed links that weren’t editorially placed by the site owner

This underscores that the activities that are just good business, like being involved in the local community, are also the ones that can produce the links that Google likes. Sites owners might need a little nudge, which is why we’ve included a section on outreach, but that doesn’t mean the links are unnatural. Unstructured linked citations should be a byproduct of the good work local businesses are doing in their communities.

In conclusion

At Moz, we’re strong believers in authenticity, and there is no better pond for building meaningful marketing relationships than the local one. Focusing on unstructured linked citations can be viewed as a prompt to grow your community relationships — with journalists, bloggers, event hosts, business associations, and customers. It’s a chance for a real-world fishing trip that can reel in a basket of publicity for your local brand beyond what money can buy. Your genuine desire to serve and build community will stand you in good stead for the long haul.