The ever-shifting sands of Google’s search rankings are proving a challenging environment for brands. The search engine’s latest updates to its Panda and Penguin algorithms have again revised the criteria that determine which brands climb and which fall.
As a result, search engine optimisation (SEO) specialists are being told the best way to push a brand up the search rankings is to attract users organically with their content and avoid ‘link bait’, designed to drive up the number of click-throughs to a site.
Some have spectacularly fallen foul of the approach. Interflora was one high-profile casualty, having been penalised in Google’s search rankings for paying external websites to link to its own site.
“Google’s become so much smarter in the past 18 months. It has made such radical changes that everyone has had to wise up. You have to be more ‘natural’,” explains Mark Fleming, SEO and social media specialist at holiday company Kuoni.
Jim Clear, head of new channels and insights at healthcare provider Bupa agrees: “Since the Penguin algorithm update last year, Google is looking to clamp down on the use of link bait and seeking to encourage quality content.”
Although brands may take issue with the modifications, which have made it more difficult to achieve top-rate positions within the search engine, Fleming believes the changes are more credible for consumers. “If we think about Google in its simplest form, it’s trying to serve up the best result for the user. If it doesn’t do that, you’re going to go and use Bing or Yahoo! instead.”
In order to rank highly in natural search, the emphasis is now firmly on brands producing high-quality content and this is top of the agenda.
Bupa produces a variety of content relating to key products and services, such as health insurance and care homes, as well as health information supporting the company’s mission statement of enabling people to lead “longer, healthier, happier lives”. Agency LBi takes care of Bupa’s SEO, ensuring its original content helps to enhance the brand’s visibility and presence in search results.
“Although a joined-up search strategy is important for all brands across both SEO and [paid search advertising], at Bupa we see content production and successful distribution of this content across a range of properties and devices as increasingly important, especially as recent algorithm changes continue to encourage this,” explains Clear.
Likewise, Oliver Lloyd, chief executive of Great British Chefs – an online business that provides recipes, tips and ‘how to’ videos from top chefs – has put content at the centre of his strategy with impressive results. The business has 1,200 recipes across its website and apps, and has 220,000 followers on Google+ and 95,000 fans on Facebook.
“We put content out there, then we tweet about it, we post it on Google+ and on Facebook,” says Lloyd. “We also have content partnerships with brands like The Guardian and The Huffington Post.”
The start-up business launched in November 2011 and web traffic in the first quarter of 2013 was up 38 per cent versus the previous quarter.
“Simply put, it’s all about creating content that people want to share and talk about. What’s right at the top [in search results] is content that looks phenomenal. We don’t have a single recipe on our site that doesn’t have an amazing image. Google looks on our site and thinks ‘This is a multimedia site, with lots of unique content and high quality videos’.”
The strategy is paying off. Type ‘chocolate recipe’ or ‘cod recipes’ into Google and Great British Chefs comes up as number four and five respectively in natural search, beaten only by companies such as the BBC and The Guardian.
So how easy is it to create content that can compete with established media owners for first-page search results?
“Brands need to decide the space they want to own, to understand where they can reasonably deliver a meaningful piece of content. If you build the content in that space and it’s good, over time you will surface on Google,” says Lloyd.
Bupa’s Clear agrees that producing first-class, innovative content in a chosen field is vital to a brand’s success: “The growing importance of content production is seeing many brands changing their mindsets to think as publishers as well, which can of course be a challenge when competing for the same share of voice as more established media brands.
“Bupa’s heritage and healthcare leadership has given us permission to play in this space for a while but we’re always experimenting with additional new types of content to help; whether it’s with animations, health calculators or our recently launched virtual knee clinic.”
“It’s not to say we don’t all panic about algorithm updates,” adds Lloyd at Great British Chefs, “but if you’ve got a website that follows the basic rules of Google’s Webmaster tools and you do the things you’re supposed to be doing, it should look after itself.”
Even though the message is that brands should put the bulk of their efforts into ensuring their content is of maximum value to users, established SEO techniques still play a vital role and marketers are employing them as standard. Kuoni relaunched its website this year after spending two years on development, according to Fleming.
“With our old website, we were doing a lot of work trying to plug gaps, doing developments and trying to make it better for search engines, whereas the new website is about as good as it could possibly be in that regard.
“Moving forward, we can change our strategy. If a third of our time was spent looking at technical [website optimisation], a third at building content, and a third at PR and outreach, that technical section is reduced quite considerably now, so our focus can be on producing content.”
But it would be naive to think that simply producing good content does the SEO job on its own, says Clear. He argues that convincing other sites to link to your site is a vital component of any successful SEO strategy, while the power of sharing on social media also means brands’ content needs to appeal to the many and not just the few.
“Search remains a primary gateway to content and brand discovery, so ensuring that all content is optimised for SEO is still fundamental,” says Clear.
Sports retailer SportsDirect.com’s online team has aligned the entire web business behind organic search and content, and SEO is a fundamental part of that (see case study below). Online team member Emma Parker says: “Seventy-one per cent of people expect leading brands to be at the top of organic listings according to comScore, so it’s important that SportsDirect.com is in this space.
“SEO is the biggest driver to the website, reducing our dependency on paid media, so it’s very important to the overall marketing strategy,” she adds.
Even brands like Great British Chefs that champion the use of good content recognise the need to be tactical about search marketing. An example of this, says Lloyd, is its new infographic on sourcing cod.
“We’ve created a relevant piece of content to help consumers understand how to buy sustainable cod. We launched it a few weeks ago and it’s been tweeted 52 times. It’s linked to our cod recipes, which will reinforce the value of the cod recipes page and therefore move us up the search rankings for cod. That’s the kind of tactical marketing that’s the future. When you get to the point where you’re just overtly trying to optimise something [using SEO techniques alone], I don’t think it works.”
But it’s not just competitors in natural search that brands have to think about. The promotion of content that appears on Google’s own services has been in the spotlight recently, creating uproar among competitors such as Microsoft that say Google is giving its own platforms an unfair advantage. The claims led to a European Commission investigation into whether Google was abusing its dominant position in the market.
Google announced last month that it will more clearly label search results from YouTube, Google Maps and its other sites and display some search results from its competitors in close proximity to its own services. But the Microsoft-backed lobby group Initiative for a Competitive Online Marketplace was not impressed, arguing that “Google should implement the same ranking policy to all websites”.
It is clear that digital marketing is becoming an increasingly difficult world in which to compete, but it seems that marketers who effectively straddle the disciplines of SEO, content and social media are likely to triumph in search rankings. Close attention to quality is the surest way of beating the competition to the top spot.
Sports Direct has hundreds of retail stores around the UK, but with a large presence in bricks and mortar, the brand wanted to translate this to the competitive online space, in order to increase the visibility of its website.
Media planning and buying agency Arena worked with SportsDirect.com to identify how it could increase rankings on Google through both the technical and content aspects of the site. The strategy sought to increase visibility for a selection of terms that generate high search volume for the brand, focusing on four points:
- on-page optimisation to address technical problems;
- content optimisation to increase visibility of selected terms on the site;
- getting important bloggers to link to the site;
- tactical activity to enhance the site’s performance on particular search terms.
SEO is now the most important factor in Sports Direct’s online business performance, says the company. The results it achieved through its search optimisation include:
- visibility for Sports Direct increased by 66 per cent during 2012, and has gone up a further 9 per cent since January 2013, according to Search Metrics data;
- overall site traffic from organic search increased by 44 per cent in 2012 versus 2011;
- organic revenue increased by 19 per cent with orders increasing by 27 per cent year on year.
Paid search accounts for only 6 per cent of total clicks from search engines, according to research from GroupM UK carried out with Nielsen. Therefore performing well in organic or natural search is still an essential goal for an organisation. The question is: how?
Much has been written about tactics and tricks over the past few years, but there has been a substantial shift in search engine optimisation (SEO). Google is tightening up on many of the old tactics and as a result the SEO industry has shifted its focus towards content.
But the competition is incredibly tough; everyone is trying to do exactly the same thing. So, the real question is how to stand out from the crowd.
The answer is that first you need to know and understand your customers well. You need to know what they want, build something that directly provides what they want, and then constantly measure how well you provide it.
Relevance is key. This involves knowing and understanding not only your customers, but your potential customers and your competitors’ customers. It means a significant quantity of research.
Analytics helps too. Try to work out the sort of questions that customers and potential customers want answered. What kind of things are they looking for?
Now, with this understanding and knowledge, start experimenting with your content. Start small, measure the impact, learn, take another small step, measure it, learn again. One of the main advantages of such an approach is that you are constantly learning but your financial risk is minimised. Don’t be afraid to experiment – be creative and imaginative.
To use an analogy, the way I see ‘link bait’ – creating content purely to attract clicks and links – is that it’s like basing your marketing around sugary food. It’s costly and you get a short-term high, then the money runs out and the link bait wears off. What you’re aiming for is a healthy, organic-based diet, which allows you to build your marketing presence in a cost-effective and sustainable manner.
This isn’t to say that paid search doesn’t have a place – having a paid search strategy is also important. Let’s say you’re about to launch a new product. You want market saturation to capture as much traffic as you possibly can during the launch. To do that you need to be prominent in paid search at launch – content optimisation is a longer-term strategy.
So is quality content more important than optimising keywords and links? In a word, yes. Make sure you stand out from the crowd.
Content marketing has become a hot term over the past year, but this doesn’t mean companies should throw themselves into editorial and just produce material that looks nice and reads well. Like all aspects of marketing, goals and objectives should be set in advance of execution. This will determine the choice of tactics that are used.
SEO, as one tactic, has become more integrated into other marketing disciplines, from traditional and online PR through to social media and editorial. Content marketing, in its current context, simply refers to the bringing together of these different disciplines to help achieve marketing goals, which in today’s environment are often strongly connected to digital.
Content marketing and SEO are typically long-term strategies. For companies looking to gain instant results, or who are just starting up, paid search offers instant traffic and front-page visibility in search results. In addition, an increasing amount of space on the search engine results pages is being taken up with paid and sponsored links.
For some highly-competitive industries, companies have achieved first-page organic listings through years of diligent work, building up a body of quality content that has attracted a large number of natural links.
New players cannot expect to emulate this overnight, however those that invest intelligently in such a strategy, choosing realistic keywords to target, are likely to reap the dividends. Even then, research has shown that offering both paid and organic links on search engine results pages results in a higher total return on investment.
The golden rules of SEO are still the same, despite changes to search engine algorithms that have had a negative effect on the rankings of some companies. Google’s quality guidelines remain the first place to look for common-sense guidance. Following this advice is likely to have a more steady and sustainable effect on the bottom line than chasing the link-building tactic that happens to be flavour of the month.
Find out more in Econsultancy’s new report, From Content Management to Customer Experience Management, from Econsultancy.com