How Google Plus Could Change SEO

Google's new social network attracted attention from SEOs and the media before it went live. Now that Google+ has been in use for a couple of weeks, some of these early adopters have been wondering how it might change the face of SEO and Google's search results. Let's take a closer look.

The key point about Google+ is that its various functions and services collect information from users. Google can use this information to fine tune things so that it delivers results more in line with what you'd like to see when you use its search engine. Not coincidentally, Google can also use this information to deliver more relevant, targeted ads, which will lead to more profits both for the search engine and its advertisers.

To better understand this picture, let's take a look at the kind of data Google might garner from Google+ users. Brian Chappell covers this topic well. He mentions seven data points from Google+ that could help Google with its search algorithm.

Chappell starts with Google Circles. These are a way to sort your contacts and put them in particular groups. It's a great addition to social networking, as it allows you to designate certain people as co-workers, family, friends, etc. You can create new circles and name them yourself. So if you belong to a hiking club and create a circle you've labeled “hiking club,” you've indirectly indicated to Google that these people are interested in hiking. Too specific? Chappell actually takes a more general view of Google Circles, seeing them as a vote for a person, just like links are a vote for a website. He thinks it could give Google a better understanding of “the influencers within its network.”

The second item Chappell points to is the Google+1 button. As with Facebook, you can apparently +1 a lot of things. When a status update, image, web page, or what have you has received a lot of pluses from visitors, it would be natural to assume it's trusted and authoritative in some way. As Chappell rightly points out, however, the feature could easily fall prey to manipulation, as so many other potential metrics have in the past.

It's the third item Chappell mentions, though, that might affect Google's algorithm the most. It's called Google Sparks. Sparks basically lets you add interests and delivers links related to those interests. You can then share those links with one (or presumably more) of your circles and even chat about them. In reporting on Sparks, Barry Schwartz thought it was fairly limited, as it didn't contain much information in which he was interested, and seemed to mirror Google News. Hopefully, that will change as time goes on. Chappell sees Google Sparks as giving the search engine another level of targeting. “If Google can understand your interests then they can interpret the weight of your voting abilities on given subject matters.” All of a sudden, Google knows how much a +1 from you means when you give it to a hiking site – and that it probably means more than if you give it to, say, a musical instrument store.

Blog SEO Begins on the Home Page

It's easy to get so caught up in posting fresh content for your blog that you forget to take care of one very important page: your blog's home page. You might be surprised by how much authority and how many links – and visitors – this page can attract if you optimize it properly.

Scott Cowley brought this to my attention in a post for Search Engine Journal. Many blog home pages don't have much content of their own beyond each day's new posts, which makes optimization a challenge. So what can a blogger do?

Well, let's start with the title of your blog. Cowley noted that most blogs just use some variation of “Company X Blog” as their title. That might be okay if you're focused on branding, but it's not very descriptive; in fact, it's kind of boring, which may be the last thing you want if you're trying to attract visitors from the search engines. Picking a highly-competitive title like “SEO Blog” isn't necessarily the right answer, either.

So what should you put in your title? Michael Martinez uses a very simple description of what his blog is all about in his title: SEO Theory and Analysis. You can take the same approach, but you need to do some keyword research. What topic do you want to make the focus of your blog? Do you even want to call it a “blog”? If you're writing a blog that gives step-by-step descriptions of how to code smartphone applications, for instance, you could use words like “tips,” “hacks,” “tools,” “how-tos,” “tutorials,” and more. Cowley encourages you to “Get creative with a thesaurus” to find “less-competitive, more attainable words.”

Next, plan to optimize everything on your blog's home page that you'd ordinarily optimize on every other page. This means paying attention to your blog's title tag, H1 tag, body content, and internal links pointing to the page. You might have to add a few code tweaks to pull this off, because, as Cowley observes, most blogs aren't set up to optimize the home page as you would a normal page.

The title tag and meta description should be a breeze; you can easily use keywords there. But what about the H1 tag? You'll probably need to add one above your regular posts. You can give it something very short and descriptive that won't detract from the rest of the page. Likewise, internal links shouldn't be too much of an issue. Any writer worth their salt can come up with a sensible and creative way to link an article to a blog's or site's home page, especially when they're covering the field of SEO.

The sticking point for blog home page optimization, however, is content. Most blog home pages don't feature much static content. Post pages, on the other hand, give you hundreds of words with which to work SEO magic. Regular bloggers often put their static content in an About Me page. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, but that's not where your posts will get read, and hardly anybody will link to it. You need to get some static content on your blog home page, where it will do some good.

So how do you accomplish this? Cowley notes two different techniques. One way is to build a sidebar into which you incorporate static content. If you do that, however, that content will show up on every page, not just your blog's home page. That amounts to an unacceptable dilution of your SEO effort.

So forget about the sidebar. Instead, consider adding a block of text that comes just before or just after your most recent posts on your home page. Make sure you code it so that the text shows up ONLY on your blog home page, and not on any other page of your site. Cowley observes that not many bloggers are doing this, “but it enhances the SEO in a way that an optimized title tag alone can't.”

You can use this static content to talk about the topics you plan to cover. For example, “This blog will document my journey as I attempt to learn one new craft every week for a year and use every one of them to embellish one dress.” (Okay, I get crazy ideas sometimes). You can talk about your background, dreams, hopes, approach to your blog...anything that's relevant.

Don't go on for too long, however. You really hope that your visitors will want to read and keep up with your new posts, so the point of this static content on your blog (beyond the obvious SEO purpose) is to whet their appetite for your posts. Cowley linked to one example he described as “awkward.” I checked it; at almost 300 words, it seemed overly long and set off my “keyword stuffing” meter. But you can look at it as a starting point of sorts, upon which you can improve.

You might want to try various different lengths and phrasing to see what works best. Having read Cowley's example, if I were doing this for my own blog, I'd shoot for around 200 words in two to three short paragraphs, and try to use my chosen keywords no more than twice per paragraph. (Cowley's example used their chosen keyword a minimum of 10 times, and I'm not counting all of the phrases that were clearly derivations of the keyword). I'd keep it for at least a month or two, do some analytics, and then decide if I want to tweak things. That's one of the truths about SEO: nothing is static forever, not even static content. Still, this is one piece of static content that should help the rest of your (dynamic) blog.

List of HTTP status codes

HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP) response status codes. This includes codes from IETF internet standards as well as unstandardised RFCs, other specifications and some additional commonly used codes. The first digit of the status code specifies one of five classes of response; the bare minimum for an HTTP client is that it recognises these five classes. Microsoft IIS may use additional decimal sub-codes to provide more specific information, but these are not listed here. The phrases used are the standard examples, but any human-readable alternative can be provided. Unless otherwise stated, the status code is part of the HTTP/1.1 standard.

The following is a list of HTTP status codes
100— Continue
101— Switching Protocols
200— OK
201— Created
202— Accepted
203— Non-Authoritative Information
204— No Content
205— Reset Content
206— Partial Content
300— Multiple Choices
301— Moved Permanently
302— Found
304— Not Modified
305— Use Proxy
307— Temporary Redirect
400— Bad Request
401— Unauthorized
402— Payment Required
403— Forbidden
404— Not Found
405— Method Not Allowed
406— Not Acceptable
407— Proxy Authentication Required
408— Request Timeout
409— Conflict
410— Gone
414— Request-URI Too Long
500— Internal Server Error
502— Bad Gateway
503— Service Unavailable
504— Gateway Timeout
505— HTTP Version Not Supported

Compare Paid and Organic Search Clicks

Everyone knows that search engine optimization and search engine marketing are two different animals. Some companies even have separate teams in charge of SEO and SEM. But if you do, and your two teams don't communicate, you could be leaving money on the table.

Matt Lawson explains this point well in an article for Search Engine Land. It's not too unusual that some keywords which perform well for organic search aren't tapped into for search ads – and likewise, some keywords that get great click-through rates with AdWords ads are nowhere to be seen in stats for organic search clicks. What's going on here?

It could be that one team is thinking in a slightly different direction. It's possible that some outside event unknown to either team affected searches. Any one of a number of variables could explain the difference in keyword performance. But the point is, this kind of disparity can indicate a missed opportunity. So how can you tell if this is happening with your search engine campaigns?

You'll need to do some heavy data crunching. If your company is really big enough for two separate teams, you're probably targeting millions of keywords. It would take forever to go through every single one and compare statistics. So Lawson recommends focusing on “the high-volume and top converting search queries in each channel.” Once you've limited your universe of data to the top performing search queries for the SEO team and the SEM team, you need to look at their performance against each other.

To evaluate the performance of these keywords for SEO and SEM, Lawson recommends a metric he calls “Paid Click Percentage.” To get this number for each of your keywords, “match raw query search terms across paid and organic search results, sum the total clicks, and calculate the paid clicks as a percentage of that total,” Lawson explains.

For example, let's take the search term “suede jacket.” Say you're running an AdWords campaign that uses that keyword, and you get 1,000 click-throughs in a month on your ads that utilize that keyword. You also get about 200 click-throughs in the same time frame from searchers who use that term and go to your site from the organic results rather than an ad. Add the two together, and you get 1,200 clicks – which is a little more than 83 percent.

Using the paid click percentage, you'll be able to tell at a glance which keywords are performing well in AdWords, but not attracting organic clicks – and vice versa. Ideally, if you have the data in a form that can be manipulated, you should start by filtering for a paid click percentage higher than a certain number. Lawson's example uses 75 percent as the cutoff.

Now here's an interesting point worth considering: most searchers still lean a little more toward organic results than ads. What does this mean? If you find that a particular keyword shows up with a high paid click percentage, that means it's probably nowhere in the organic search results. At the very least, it probably isn't on the first page; that's a near-certainty, in fact, if you're getting no organic clicks on the term. This tells your organic search team that there are terms for which they might consider adding content or otherwise optimizing, so that your website gets a stronger presence for those keywords in the organic results.

This can also work the other way, however. Lawson gave an example in which the term “acme marathon jacket” received hundreds of clicks from organic search, but none from paid search ads. What was going on here? Your first thought might be that the SEM team hadn't considered targeting that keyword with ads, but it's potentially more complicated than that. As Lawson notes, “the paid search campaign might be missing the keyword 'acme marathon jacket,' the keyword bid might be below the minimum first page bid, or the keyword may have a low quality score.” Whatever the case, the SEM team will need to figure out what's going on and correct the situation.

Now that you see how crunching the data and getting a meeting of minds between your SEO and SEM teams can help you spot holes in either campaign, it's time for the next steps. These involve action plans on the parts of both teams to plug those holes, and setting up the next meeting between the two teams. You can't hold this meeting as a one-time thing, any more than you can do SEO just once and forget about it. You need to get these two teams communicating and working together to get the most out of both your SEO and SEM campaigns. Good luck!

Google Takes Social Search Worldwide

Google announced that it has expanded the availability of its Social Search. Launched officially in October 2009 in just the United States, now searchers worldwide will be able to use it. The search giant noted that it will start making Social Search available in 19 languages, with more to come.

So what exactly is Social Search? It's one of Google's answers to Facebook – or at least a way to introduce social factors into search. It only works when you're actually signed in to your Google account. Basically, it's a way to make online content from your friends more visible to you in the search results.

The example Google likes to use to show how it works involves a searcher planning his next vacation with Google searches. He decides he wants to take a camping trip, and when he searches on camping trips, he finds a tweet partway down the page from a friend of his who just came back from Yosemite. He knows it's from his friend, because he can see a thumbnail image next to a sentence under the search listing that identifies who sent it.

So our vacation planner's next search is Yosemite. This time he's looking for campsites, and he finds a link that takes him to a friend's Flickr account, where she's posted images from the place she camped when she went to Yosemite last year. He decides that it looks like a great place to camp...and coincidentally remembers that he needs to get a new camera for the trip.

So he searches for a good camera for outdoor photography, and finds a Blogger blog result. He doesn't recognize the name at first, but hovering over the person's name reveals that he's been following her Twitter feed; she's a professional photographer. So he visits her blog to find out which camera she recommends.

Google notes that if you're not seeing very many Social Search results, you can expand and improve them in a number of ways. You can create a Google profile and connect your other public profiles from social websites, such as Twitter and Flickr, to your Google account and profile. You can also add links to your own public content, such as your Blogger blog. Subscribing to interesting content and following interesting people in Google Reader will also enrich your Social Search experience.

Social Search results are unique to the searcher, because every searcher has a slightly different constellation of contacts. These results may rank anywhere on the page; Google places them according to their relevance to your search. As Google explains in a blog entry, “Social search results are only visible to you and only appear when you choose to log in to your Google Account. If you’re signed in, Google makes a best guess about whose public content you may want to see in your results, including people from your Google chat buddy list, your Google Contacts, the people you're following in Google Reader and Buzz, and the networks you’ve linked from your Google profile or Google Account. For public networks like Twitter, Google finds your friends and sees who they’re publicly connected to as well.”

Google News Lets Users Drop Blogs

If your blog depends on traffic from Google News, you need to know about some changes the search engine made to its popular service. With the new options it gives to Google News readers, you might experience a serious decrease in visitors.

Danny Sullivan noted the change over at Search Engine Land, complete with pictures. Google News users can go to their settings page and control the quantity of results they get from certain sources. These sources are Blogs and Press Releases.

By default, Google set everyone using the service to see a “Normal” quantity of results from blogs and press releases. But users can choose to see “none,” “fewer,” or “more” results from each of those sources. What does this mean for publishers?

That's a good question, but it's difficult to answer without asking others. The first one that comes to mind is, “what is a blog?” Sullivan pointed out that Google started classifying some news sources as blogs more than a year and half ago. But what rules do they follow to determine that a particular source is a blog?

If the rules for Google News and Google Blog Search are consistent with each other, then anything with an RSS feed would count as a blog. That can't be right, though, because lots of newspapers have taken to using RSS feeds to get the word out about new articles – and not just opinion pieces, either. The New York Times boasts an RSS feed, and permits comments on many of its items. That doesn't make the site a blog, though some of its pieces do fall under that classification (and Google designates them as such).

There's a larger concern that goes with the potential for misclassification – one that Sullivan implies but never explicitly states. It's the assumption that Google News readers, given a choice, will opt to see fewer news sources that are blogs and press releases. They may even opt to see no blogs or press releases. While that may not turn out to be true, it's a valid concern. When I want the basic facts, I read news; when I want analysis and entertainment, I read blogs. If I'm trying to catch up with what's happening in the world, seeing lots of blogs can get in the way.

On the other hand, this doesn't mean that I would actively opt to see fewer blogs when I'm browsing Google News. Google actually labels blogs as such in Google News results, with the word “blog” in parentheses next to the name of the story's source. Both of these appear discreetly under the headline. That lets me decide on the spot which way I want to experience a story: as if it came from Dan Rather, or Jon Stewart.

Despite the stories we've all seen about some blogs getting to the heart of a news item or scandal that the regular press declined to report on (or got wrong), and the praised sometimes heaped on “citizen journalists,” many bloggers still fight for respect. Really, that's as it should be; not all bloggers hold themselves to the high standards of journalists (not all journalists do, either, but I digress). If Google calls you a blog on its Google News service, then, does that make you a second-class news source in the eyes of your potential audience? Worse, with this new option, will they not even see your content at all when they read Google News?

That's certainly possible. Fortunately, there may be something you can do about it, if you think your site has been erroneously labeled a blog in error. Sullivan pointed to a form that publishers can use to report an issue with how the search engine has classified their content. If you're not happy with how Google views your content, it's certainly worth a try. Sullivan noted that Google has long classified his site as a blog, but this latest move makes him not want to be painted with that brush any longer, “especially when we are arguably also a news source.”

Whatever you decide to do, if you're a publisher, you may want to pay closer attention to your traffic over the next few months. Watch both the level of traffic and from where it's coming. If Google labels you a blog, and you see a decline in traffic from Google News, the new option could be playing a role.

What PPC and SEO Have in Common

If you've been doing website promotion for a while, you know that organic search and pay-per-click search ads are two different things. The techniques you use to get to the top of organic search (SEO) are not the same ones you use to get your PPC ad displayed at the top of the results. Or are they?

Mike Moran, writing for Search Engine Guide, noted that the differences used to be much greater than they are today. I don't have his depth of experience; he's been working on search engine technology since the 1980s, while I've only been covering Internet-related technology since 1997. Still, that's long enough to have seen – and reported on – a number of major changes, to say nothing of the gradual evolution of pay-per-click ads.

Like Moran, I was around when the first pay-per-click search ads came out. Not the first ones from Google, but the first ones, period. They were created by a now-defunct search engine whose marketing model was based entirely around paid search; in other words, it offered no organic results. At the time, most observers thought it was crazy. Clearly, results that had been bought and paid for by advertisers would be inferior to those that had to be earned, and no searcher would want that when better alternatives sat a click or two away!

But then a funny thing happened. Yahoo bought the paid search engine, and built a marketing department around it. Google saw what was happening, and built their own version of pay-per-click marketing, called AdWords (and AdSense, too, but we're focusing on advertisers here, not publishers). They visually separated the paid listings from the organic ones, so all searchers would know which ones were which. And at first, the paid search results fulfilled expectations – that is, they appeared to be less relevant to searches than the organic listings. Over time, though, that changed.

How did that happen? Well, companies seeking to promote their websites learned what search engines were looking for to put them at the top of the results. Early SEO practices gamed the system, almost to the point that paid results might be more relevant. Think about it: if an advertiser is paying for every visitor who clicks on their ad, they won't want that ad to show unless the traffic clicking on it is likely to convert. That means whatever the site is offering had better be relevant to the search term and the ad.

That's only one element at work, however. Google changes the rules regularly by tweaking its algorithm, so the same old SEO tricks don't keep working. But it also changed the rules for pay-per-click ads. Oh, you still need to bid on what you're willing to pay for each click. But now Google looks at how often your ad is clicked, and if it isn't clicked often enough, it might not place your ad in the number one slot – even if you bid high enough. Google also looks at the landing page for your ad, to judge its relevance. As Moran observes, what was on this page once made no difference; now it matters.

What does this mean? It means that promoting your site with PPC has gotten very similar to doing it with SEO. Consider this: if you want your site to appear well in the organic search results, and you're using white hat practices, then you're trying to create the right content to appear for the right keywords. You want searchers to believe, when they click through to your site, that they've landed in the right place to solve whatever problem inspired them to do the search.

Thanks to the series of changes Google has made to pay-per-click search ads in recent years, you need to do the same thing with your PPC campaign. You need to make sure that your ad and your landing page match the keywords you're aiming for, regardless of the bid you place. In fact, matching very closely could actually save you some money. As Moran notes, “If you've figured out how to put the searcher first in organic search, you can apply that same lesson for paid search. That's far more likely to pay off than increasing your bids.”

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