What’s behind the trend towards private search engines?

Recently on Search Engine Watch, we rounded up six newcomers to the search engine landscape that are worth keeping an eye on for the future.

Each new search engine takes a slightly different approach to searching the web, but there is one trait that many of the recent ones have in common: private, secure searching.

Oscobo, WhaleSlide, Gyffu and GoodGopher are just some of the non-tracking, private and secure search engines that have been launched in the last two or three years, joining more well-established engines like StartPage, DuckDuckGo, Mojeek and Privatelee.

Is this cluster of private search engines just a passing fad, or is it indicative of an increasing trend among users towards secure, private search? And if so, what does this mean for more mainstream search engines like the all-seeing Google?

I spoke to leading figures at three private search engines, both new and established – Gabriel Weinberg, founder and CEO of DuckDuckGo, Robert Beens, CEO of StartPage, and Robert Perin, co-founder and Managing Director of Oscobo – to find out why they thought more and more people could be turning to private search, and what the ramifications are for the wider industry.

Why launch a private search engine?

All three search engines whose leaders I spoke to came to the industry at very different times: StartPage was originally founded as Ixquick in 1998, and made the transition to private search in 2006; DuckDuckGo was founded in 2008; and Oscobo officially launched at the beginning of 2016.

For StartPage, the decision to become a private search engine was taken when the company noticed the sheer amounts of user data that it was accumulating and not using, and made a conscious decision to get rid of it.

For Beens, who led the initiative for StartPage to become a private search engine, it was a way for StartPage to distinguish itself in an already competitive industry, and the business case for this decision outweighed the benefits of any potential income from selling user data.

“From a business perspective, [monetizing our users’ data] makes absolutely zero sense. The only thing that sets us apart from bigger search that do monetize people’s user behavior is the fact we don’t. That’s what attracts people to us. It’s true that the revenue we make on our ads is far less than what others tend to make – so be it. It’s what makes us unique.”

Beens couldn’t have known for sure, as early as 2006, whether his gamble on a private search model was going to pay off in the long run, but he was looking for a point of distinction from Google, which was already dominant by then. “I thought that it would give us a differentiator in a difficult market at the moment. It’ll make us stand out. I’m proud of doing that.”

Beens believes that Google, along with most tech companies, has a “blind spot” when it comes to privacy – providing an opening for other search engines to compete in spite of Google’s attractive search product. His decision also gave StartPage the prestigious title of being the first search engine in the world to offer private search.

Notoriously pro-privacy search engine DuckDuckGo was also created because founder Gabriel Weinberg was looking to improve on what Google was doing, though he didn’t initially set out to create a company around his search tool. He told Forbes in an interview that he “backed into” search – “I didn’t think about it from a business perspective at the time.”

Now, however, DuckDuckGo is keen to tout the fact that it doesn’t track its users as a key selling point, along with what it believes is a cleaner, more fun design and a better overall search experience.

Robert Perin, meanwhile, was aware when he launched Oscobo in 2016 that there were already other private search options out there for people to use. He and co-founder Fred Cornell therefore decided to differentiate themselves by going local – focusing initially on a UK audience, to distinguish Oscobo from US-centric search engines like DuckDuckGo – before broadening their approach to include other countries.

A former employee at BlackBerry, Perin was inspired to develop a private search engine when he realized just how much technology was encroaching onto our everyday lives, particularly with the advent of mobile.

“Technology is creeping into our lifestyles – we carry our mobile phones around with us everywhere we go. The next step is the Internet of Things – you look at remotely-controlled heating and lighting, which can be used to analyze someone’s electricity consumption, but also to know what time they’re going home. If that data is being shared with everyone, it can be manipulated to any degree.

“Search has gone from being a relatively harmless tool to being an almighty and powerful tool. It’s the starting point for the internet. And as technology creeps into our homes and our lives, we have to hold back how much data is being handled.”

Why are people using private search?

Do people use private search purely because of concerns about data privacy? Edward Snowden’s NASA spying revelations are often pointed to as a watershed moment for people wanting to switch to private search engines. But while this is undoubtedly a significant driving factor, there is a variety of other reasons why people would opt to search privately.

DuckDuckGo’s Gabriel Weinberg points out that using a search engine which doesn’t tailor its results to the user can allow them to break out of the “filter bubble” that many users of mainstream search engines are trapped in.

“Use of a private search engine enables you to escape the “filter bubble,” where results are filtered based on what a search engine thinks it knows about you, such as your political ideologies,” he told Search Engine Watch.

“This echo chamber is extremely pernicious in a search context where you expect to receive unbiased information. Unfortunately, with other [non-private] search engines, that’s not the case.”

Robert Perin believes that tech-savvy users who know about the scope of Google’s data collection use private search to escape ‘Big Brother’, or because of ethical concerns about the amount of data being stored, even if they’re not sure how it’s being used.

Image by Patrick Barry, available via CC BY-SA 2.0

The average, non-technical person, however, is more likely to be persuaded by an argument such as dynamic pricing – in which pricing levels are adjusted based on a user’s perceived ability to pay. The prospect of unlimited choice, he says, is also a powerful one – the idea that your search results won’t be limited based on decisions that you happen to have made in the past.

“If you went to a restaurant and you were handed a menu with nothing but steaks on it, because last time you ate a steak, therefore they presume you just want a steak – you’d be kind of annoyed by that!” Perin laughs.

“And with the larger search engines, because they’re doing profiling on you, you’ll just get shown what they think you want, and also what is more beneficial to them that you click on. So it is a limited choice, in that sense.”

Is this a trend that’s growing, as evidenced by the number of new search engines that allow users to search privately?

“Absolutely,” says Robert Beens of StartPage. “There are all sorts of search engines jumping on the bandwagon, who want to get a share of that [private search] market – it’s a market that’s definitely growing.

“We’re not against it – competition is always good.”

“Privacy is both mainstream and growing fast,” agrees Gabriel Weinberg, pointing to the increasing traffic numbers on DuckDuckGo as evidence of this trend in action. DuckDuckGo passed the 10 million searches per day milestone in 2015, and is closing in on the 20 million mark, with an average of around 19 million searches daily in December 2017.

“Most people still aren’t aware there is a search engine out there that doesn’t track them, though as the word continues to get out, usage of DuckDuckGo continues to increase,” says Weinberg.

“The amount of people who care about their data privacy is by no means a small number and this group is certainly not niche. 24% of US adults currently are concerned enough about their online privacy to take significant actions to try to protect it.”

DuckDuckGo’s growing traffic over time

The cost of convenience

But there’s a trade-off between the privacy and security of using private search engines and the convenience and accuracy which come from using a search engine that learns from your data and personal preferences.

Users of mainstream search engines have become accustomed to this level of uncanny, ‘mind-reading’ accuracy, and while it might be unsettling at times, they’re still unwilling to give it up even for the sake of data privacy. I asked my interviewees whether private search engines that don’t track user data can provide the same level of tailored searching as those who do.

“Most of the personalization that people want from a search engine is actually localization, like getting local weather or restaurant info,” says Gabriel Weinberg.

“We can provide those results without tracking our users because approximate location information is sent automatically with the search request, which we can use to give you relevant answers, and then immediately throw that information away without ever storing it.

“We believe you can switch to DuckDuckGo and protect your data without compromising on results.”

Oscobo’s Robert Perin admits that users might have to work a little harder to get the results they want when using a private search engine, but that ultimately, the differences aren’t huge.

“We give algorithmic results, based on just the words that you typed in,” he says.

“Searching for ‘cheap mobile phone’ doesn’t say, ‘Oh! He likes Apple – only show him the Apple ones.’ It’s going by what you’ve written. If you do want to see Apple phones, then you’ll need to type in ‘cheap iPhones’. It’s a little less intuitive, perhaps, than what we’re used to – but how much harder do you really have to work?”

“It’s a question of habits and convenience. How much of a hassle is it to have to retype ‘Hilton hotel Paris’ instead of typing ‘H-i-l’ and having the search completed for you? Is that a massive, massive benefit that’s worth selling your identity for?

“And also, what’s the cost? I think when people realize what the cost of convenience is, then they change.”

Robert Beens of StartPage agrees that once people become aware of the extent of the data tracking that takes place online, they are likely to want to change their habits.

“If you give me five minutes to talk to people, I can convince them to use a private search engine.

“But the personal data market exists below the surface – no-one knows about it, and it takes a fairly technical level of understanding to know what’s going on. So it takes education and awareness of the facts behind data tracking, and then people can make a conscious choice to use one or the other.”

What does this mean for Google and SEO?

If there is indeed a steadily snowballing trend towards the use of private search engines, is this going to impact on mainstream, user-tracking search engines like Google and Bing further down the line? And what about SEO? Do SEOs need to start worrying about optimizing for private search engines?

Well, no. While the approach that DuckDuckGo, StartPage, Oscobo and others take to data privacy is different to Google and Bing, the search technology that underpins them is often the same as those used by mainstream search engines. Robert Perin refers to Oscobo as a “Bing/Yahoo feed”, while StartPage gets its results from Google.

DuckDuckGo draws its search results, particularly Instant Answers, from a wider range of sources including Wikipedia and DuckDuckBot (its crawler); but it also has an agreement in place with Bing, Yahoo and Yandex in which these search engines provide results without any user data being exchanged.

Private search engines see this as an opportunity to provide users with the best of both worlds – the accuracy of more advanced search technology, with the anonymity and security of private searching.

As for repercussions for Google, Perin is skeptical about whether a trend towards private search will make a difference to Google, which is unlikely to do anything meaningful to give up the reams of user data on which it relies for so much of its revenue. (According to Investopedia, about 90% of Google’s entire income stems from advertising).

Infographic: 25 Percent of Global Ad Spend Goes to Google or Facebook | Statista Source: Statista

“Ultimately, I think they’ll do everything they can to keep as much data as they can, because that’s where the value is.”

Perin emphasizes that Oscobo isn’t looking to disrupt mainstream search engines with what it does. “Our aim wouldn’t be to shake [Google] up; it’s to give people an alternative.”

Robert Beens echoes this, stating, “The choice is free. If people want an alternative, we want to be there with the best product that we can have.”

How much should SEO cost?

How much should you be paying for SEO services?

This subject can be a real minefield, so we first recommend some quick background reading of Jayson DeMers’ commentary from 2015 on how much time SEO should take, and also Clark Boyd’s recent article on choosing the right SEO agency.

All read up? Great, let’s get cracking.

Determining a price for a service like SEO is unlike buying a product with a set amount of industry standard component parts and an easily distinguishable utility, which tends to allow for a tighter range of pricing.

The price associated with an SEO campaign can be determined by a significant amount of factors: what work has been conducted previously? What internal resources are available to support the campaign? How competitive is the industry? What are the goals of the campaign?

These are but a handful of the types of factors involved. As a result, putting a cost on SEO can sometimes feel akin to a ‘how long is a piece of string’ scenario.

(Twice half its length, in case you were wondering).

In an attempt to give some quantifiable measures, Jason DeMers estimated that SEO campaigns could require between 12 and 104 hours per month, which is a rather large range, especially with no indication of price per hour.

It is the unfortunate truth that it would be irresponsible to give an exact answer as to how much you should be paying for SEO: the real answer is that no one size fits all. This is demonstrated by the range of pricing shown by North Star Inbound’s survey into enterprise SEO.

We therefore need to ask key questions which will allow us to hone in on a range of pricing for an SEO campaign, from which you should be able to make a more educated decision.

Is SEO a viable marketing channel for you?

According to research by BrightEdge in 2014, more half of the traffic to an average brand’s website comes from organic search. But you don’t need a study to tell you that. You probably use a search engine every single day.

As such, there is a decent chance that SEO is indeed a viable marketing channel for you. However, you should still do some initial calculations to understand if you should be investing in SEO. This is particularly poignant for businesses that are either trying to create a market, or are operating in a fledgling industry where there may not be established search traffic.

Use a combination of keyword research tools, click through rate percentages, conversion rates and net margins to understand what the likely monetary benefit would be if you were to gain your coveted relevant top spots in the SERPs.

This exercise will also demonstrate a maximum budget at which point (purely from a revenue generation point of view) the investment will not deliver an ROI or will start to result in diminishing returns, at which point layering in alternate marketing channels to your strategy may become a better option.

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Are you being offered £200 per month with guaranteed first place rankings in a competitive industry quickly? Sure.

The problem is that the phrase ‘do it cheap, do it twice’ doesn’t quite explain the potential impact of this situation. The result of bad SEO doesn’t stop at lost marketing budget and time.

The potential ramifications of cheap, spammy SEO are much worse. Not only may you have to undo all of the work previously conducted but should you feel the fury of, say the salty cold slap of a Penguin-related Google penalty, your website may become near invisible in the SERPs for a considerable amount of time.

Scaremongering over.

Speak to more than one agency

In the end, as with a lot of things in the world, you can pay whatever you want to. As an example, most coffee shops charge in the region of a couple of pounds for a coffee but there are those that charge hundreds of pounds for a single cup of the brown stuff. It is the same for SEO.

That is why it is important to speak to a number of agencies so that you are able to get an understanding of the price ranges and also what each agency is offering in return for your money. It’s also just good due diligence.

Ignorance is not bliss

Another unfortunate fact about the SEO industry: people get their fingers burnt by agencies all the time. That may not be a popular statement to make, but it is the truth. Don’t get me wrong – there are lots of awesome agencies out there, but making sure you instruct one of the awesome ones can be tricky.

We would highly recommend ensuring that someone in your business has a solid understanding of SEO basics so that the correct questions can be asked during the tender process. Identifying what you are trying to achieve and what is required in order to provide an ROI is a good starting point, from which you can dive into the campaign strategy with your prospective agencies.

Over the course of your tender process you should get a clearer understanding of what the general consensus is for your campaign strategy and also highlight red flags if they appear. For a concise list of questions to ask, please see Clark Boyd’s article.

Select what’s right for you

One thing is for sure: good SEO ain’t cheap. The aforementioned survey from North Star Inbound demonstrated that campaigns can range from below $1000 per month to $20,000+ (with over a quarter of those surveyed in the $20,000+ per month bracket).

The point is though that for some businesses paying over $20k per month would be suicide; the search market may not be large enough to warrant such expenditure or the business might not have sufficient marketing budget set aside.

On the other hand, for a business that requires a $20,000+ monthly retainer in order to get the required results, paying $2000 per month just won’t cut it. To fall back on yet another phrase, it’s horses for courses.

So where does that leave us? Hopefully closer to a process by which you can assess how viable an SEO campaign would be for your business.

You may not have an exact price upon which to go out to the market, but as I mentioned earlier, SEO isn’t quite that simple. What this article should help you do, along with other articles on Search Engine Watch, is identify which bracket you sit in according to your own requirements and subsequently narrow down selecting an an agency to work on the campaign.

The price range will likely provide you with a floor at which it is clear that you would not get the desired results, and also demonstrate where the point of diminishing returns is.

How to future-proof your SEO for 2018

We’re (frighteningly!) almost to the end of the year, and with just a couple of weeks left in December, it’s time to start preparing for what SEO might look like in 2018.

A little while ago, we highlighted our seven SEO trends for 2018 that you should be watching out for. But what practical steps should you be taking with your SEO to prepare for next year?

In this article, I’ll break down some key trends you should be preparing for in 2018, and what you can do to future-proof your SEO for the year ahead.

Let’s dive into it.

Voice search and digital assistants

As Tereza Litsa wrote in our 2018 trends article, we can expect voice search and digital assistants to reach even greater prominence in 2018.

Digital assistants in people’s smartphones have been around for a while, but their accuracy has greatly improved over the past couple of years as natural language search improves, to the point where search increasingly resembles a fluid and intuitive conversation. This is important for widespread adoption.

Add to that the fact that a new legion of smart home hubs from Google, Amazon, Apple and others is being installed in people’s homes (think how many of your consumers might be getting a 2nd generation Amazon Echo or an Echo Plus for Christmas), and it’s crucial to optimize for voice search if you want to stay competitive.

Here are some basic principles to adhere to when optimizing for voice search and digital assistants:

Optimize for natural language queries – long-tail keywords, full sentences and questions

Although keywords are still important, people are searching less with disconnected individual keywords like “Barack Obama age” and more with full questions like “How old is Barack Obama?”

To optimize for these, think about the questions you want your website to surface for, and search them to see how well you rank. Can you produce Q&A-style content that will answer these types of queries? Consider also producing content with a slightly more conversational tone that will match the way that people are phrasing their queries.

Aim for the featured snippet

Featured snippets have long been known as “position zero” on the SERP, but with voice search they become even more crucial. If a search result for a voice query has a featured snippet, that’s what will be read aloud to the user as the answer to their question.

Incorporating a numbered or bullet point list or table with the key points of your content can help your chances of grabbing a featured snippet, as can creating Q&A style content.

Optimize for actions and apps

People don’t just ask questions to their digital assistants; they also give them commands, like “search for [keyword] on [app]”, so think about ways to optimize for these.

If you do have an app, deep linking or app indexing will allow users to access it via search, and thus via their digital assistants. Apple has already produced SiriKit, which will enable your iOS and watchOS apps to work with Siri – an important future-proofing move for the advent of Apple’s HomePod.

For a deeper dive into voice search optimization, check out the following guides:

  • The continuing rise of voice search and how you can adapt to it
  • Top tips on voice search: Artificial intelligence, location and SEO
  • Optimizing for voice assistants: Why actions speak louder than words
  • How to optimize featured snippets for voice search

Linkless link-building

This one might seem like a contradiction in terms, but let me explain. Link-building is still a valuable tactic for SEO: we recently looked at a study on enterprise SEO strategy which found that small businesses are particularly likely to benefit from link-building as an SEO strategy.

But link-building for SEO also isn’t as simple as it used to be even a few years ago, with Google algorithm updates like Penguin and Fred cracking down on sites with poor link profiles, and Google issuing warnings to bloggers over freebie links.

To future-proof your SEO for 2018, therefore, you need to do two things: focus on quality, long-term link-building, and learn to appreciate the value of linkless backlinks. Here’s how.

Cultivate long-term relationships for quality backlinks

In a presentation at Brighton SEO this year, Greg Gifford espoused the value of building real-world relationships in order to score backlinks that your competitors can’t get. He was talking about local SEO, but while this might be especially true for local SEO, it’s key for SEO on a broader level as well.

The enterprise SEO study that I mentioned earlier found that PR is by far the single most effective link-building tactic for businesses of all sizes (though for small businesses, guest blogging was almost comparable). Good PR and outreach can allow you to build invaluable relationships with those quality publications that will give your site a ton of referral authority.

Even if you don’t manage to score a backlink, a mention will go a long way – read on to find out why.

Track and build linkless mentions

Search engines are increasingly able to associate mentions with brands, and use them as a trust signal to determine a site’s authority.

At SMX West 2016, Duane Forrester, former Senior Product Manager at Bing, asserted that Bing figured out how to associate mentions without a link “years ago”, and SEO experts have noticed a patent by Google which indicates Google has long been doing the same.

So along with your regular backlink monitoring, make sure you invest in a web monitoring tool that can help you track mentions of your brand, as well as focusing on PR, reputation management, brand awareness and online reviews.

For more on this, check out:

  • The collision between PR, content and SEO: How to make it work for you
  • How to create a kickass link-building strategy for local SEO

Mobile-first indexing

Google’s long-awaited mobile-first index is already being rolled out, so if you aren’t already mobile-first in your approach to SEO, you need to be in 2018.

Mobile traffic (traffic on smartphones, tablets and similar devices) has already outstripped desktop traffic and is continuing to climb, which means that it’s a fair assumption that users who reach your site will be on a mobile device, and possibly searching on the go.

Here’s how you can be prepared.

Be fast

Speed is of the essence in SEO regardless of device, but it’s even more crucial on mobile, as mobile users have been shown to be considerably less patient when waiting for sites to load. Be sure to test for issues with your mobile site speed, and be aware of the things that can bloat your site and slow it down, like images and JavaScript.

Design for context

Google has been emphasizing for some time in its search quality evaluator guidelines that mobile users approach their searches with a radically different context to desktop users.

While someone on a desktop computer is likely to be searching in a limited number of settings (in the office, at home or possibly in a café), mobile users can be absolutely anywhere.

Therefore, a truly future-proof mobile website will be able to respond to user context. This sounds futuristic, but there are already subtle ways that this can be accomplished, particularly with m-commerce websites. For more on how to achieve this, check out why mobile commerce sites should be designed for context.

Set up AMP, Instant Apps or Progressive Web Apps

Thanks to Google’s recent drive towards improving user experience on the mobile web, brands now have several options for a streamlined, hyper-fast mobile app or site. If you’re already confident that your mobile site or app provides an optimum experience, then stick with what you have; but if you’ve been looking to upgrade, consider implementing one of these options.

  • Accelerated Mobile Pages: Google’s “lightning-fast” mobile web solution has been hit and miss with SEOs since its launch in February of last year, but Google is still keen to push it and has continued to implement upgrades to make it faster and more engaging.
  • Android Instant Apps: Android Instant Apps are apps that can be shared and accessed via a link without a full download, combining some of the advantages of mobile websites with an app experience.
  • Progressive Web Apps: PWAs are an “app-like” take on the mobile web which can function offline and be pinned to a home screen, incorporating some of the advantages of apps into a mobile website.

Here are some more guides that will help you get your mobile SEO into shape:

  • Mobile-First Indexing: Everything we know, and how it could affect you
  • Google’s mobile-first index: How to prepare your business
  • Mobile SEO: The 3 areas that really matter for SEO performance
  • The 5 best tools to develop a mobile-first SEO strategy

AI and machine learning

If 2017 confirmed one thing, it’s that the old days of discrete, name-able Google algorithm updates are behind us. Google’s Gary Illyes confirmed as much in a flippant keynote at Brighton SEO in which he stated that Google makes two to three updates to its ranking algorithm per day, 95-98% of which are “not actionable for webmasters”.

The reason for this is due to Google’s increasing use of AI and machine learning in its ranking algorithms. Google’s algorithms are no longer a set of clearly-defined rules set down by humans, but a constantly learning and fluctuating entity.

This, of course, has thrown webmasters and SEOs into a spin about how, exactly, they can optimize for artificial intelligence.

We’ve addressed this in a number of recent articles on Search Engine Watch, and the overriding message is: don’t worry about “optimizing for RankBrain” or “optimizing for AI”. If you stick to fundamental SEO best practices, you’ll be fine. Gary Illyes spelled this out in his Brighton SEO keynote:

Every single update that we make is around quality of the site or general quality, perceived quality of the site, content and the links or whatever. All these are in the Webmaster Guidelines. When there’s something that is not in line with our Webmaster Guidelines, or we change an algorithm that modifies the Webmaster Guidelines, then we update the Webmaster Guidelines as well.

Basically, if you publish high quality content that is highly cited on the internet – and I’m not talking about just links, but also mentions on social networks and people talking about your branding, crap like that … Then you are doing great.

And fluctuations will always happen to your traffic. We can’t help that; it would be really weird if there wasn’t fluctuation, because that would mean we don’t change, we don’t improve our search results anymore.”

Some further reading and sage advice:

  • How does RankBrain work and what does it mean for search marketers?
  • Here’s how RankBrain does and doesn’t impact SEO
  • Pump the brakes: SEO and its sweeping statements

General tips for future-proofing your SEO

In this article I’ve explored how you can optimize for specific trends that will likely be prominent in 2018, but there are also general actions you can take that will future-proof your SEO regardless of what year it is, and what trends shape the industry.

  • Mark up your website with Schema.org markup to help search engines interpret your content
  • Get on top of technical SEO (including mobile technical SEO), and use a web crawler tool to regularly check for issues
  • Transition to using intelligent content, which can adapt to any device, and align your content and SEO
  • Improve your site speed as much as possible
  • Mobile, mobile, mobile!
  • Make sure you also keep on top of off-page SEO and your wider web presence
  • Familiarize yourself with our comprehensive guide to Google ranking factors, which covers all the major points you need to hit to rank well on Google.

The Google AdWords training courses you need ASAP

Much as Google has become synonymous with the Internet, AdWords has become synonymous with marketing.

The search engine giant’s advertising platform is, without a doubt, one of the most integral parts of any online advertising campaign. In fact, for every $1 spent on digital advertising, 42 cents goes to an AdWords campaign.

That being said, regardless of whether you’re a first-time AdWords user or a seasoned online marketer, getting the right training—and certification—can make or break your online advertising efforts.

So if you want to be fully trained in how to use AdWords to its best effect, here are the courses you need ASAP.

Google’s Academy for Ads

Where better to start learning about AdWords than from its creator? When you join Google Partners, which you’ll need to do if you want to get your AdWords Certification, you gain access to libraries of free AdWords training modules with Google’s “Academy for Ads.”

There are several learning paths you can follow, each focused on a different aspect of AdWords, including (but not limited to):

AdWords fundamentals (good for certification training). This includes advertising on Google’s Search, Display, and Shopping networks.
DoubleClick by Google
Advertising on YouTube, advertising apps, and mobile advertising.

The courses are specifically designed to help you pass the AdWords Certification exams, but can also be taken as quick refreshers on best practices when it comes to advertising with Google.

The modules are interactive and provide the information in an easy-to-understand manner, making the courses a great starting point for someone who’s new to AdWords. From ad creation to bidding strategies, keyword selection to trademark infringement, Google Academy for Ads covers all you need to know to set up a successful AdWords campaign.

Udemy: Ultimate Google AdWords Course – Stop SEO and Win with PPC

Udemy is an online repository for people interested in teaching and learning about a virtually endless range of topics—AdWords being one of them.

You can take video-based courses from a number of AdWords experts, some for free and others for a low price (usually around $12 each). Each course is structured like a college class, complete with a series of lectures and assignments for you to complete.

Udemy is a nice option because there’s a course for everyone. Some courses are broad, covering just the AdWords basics, and others are much more focused, covering topics like emotions and ad creation, mobile app advertising, and even as specific as video advertising for dance and yoga businesses.

The highest rated AdWords course on the site can be found here, though it was last updated in January 2017 – let’s hope a 2018 refresh is on the way!

Lynda: Google AdWords Essential Training

Similar to Udemy, Lynda is another online community where teachers and learners come together in the pursuit of knowledge. Lynda’s different from Udemy in that it’s a subscription-based service (with Udemy, you pay by the course).

This means you can potentially get more training for your money by using Lynda, as long as you’re dedicated to setting aside a few hours each week for your AdWords classes.

With Lynda, you can take video-based AdWords courses taught by industry leaders, ranging in topic and timespan. Courses on more focused topics, such as AdWords budgeting tips, are just 5 minutes long.

Other, more extensive courses, like those better suited for AdWords beginners, could last up to 3 hours, but can be completed on your own time. Lynda’s most popular general AdWords course is Google AdWords Essential Training.


If you’re prefer learning in a face-to-face environment or are looking to interact and collaborate with other people (in person), LunaMetrics offers the AdWords training you need. LunaMetrics facilitates conference-type events in cities across the U.S., open to anyone with the time (and budget—these courses aren’t cheap) to attend.

The greatest advantage of signing up for one of LunaMetrics’ multi-day AdWords trainings is the collaboration and networking available to you at the event. You’ll meet people from all different industries, with different levels of AdWords expertise, to bounce ideas off and maybe learn a few new tricks.

This is an especially good option if you’re able to attend on a company-sponsored basis because of the professional connections you’ll make and again, the steep price point (right now it costs around $500 to attend the 5-day AdWords training).

WordStream PPC University

WordStream is a Mecca for online advertisers—the online firm offers guidance to assist with all aspects of online marketing. WordStream’s PPC University comes equipped with a wide variety of free AdWords training modules.

If you’re new to AdWords, you can work your way through WordStream’s PPC 101 and 102 courses, which feature lessons written in a blog-style format that makes it feel like you’re learning from a real person and not a dry textbook. These lessons get into the jargon AdWords experts rely on and cover everything you need to know for a well-rounded AdWords education.

There are also webinars you can attend to expand your AdWords knowledge in a collaborative environment. Take some time to explore WordStream’s site, as you’ll probably find even more opportunities for learning about AdWords and online advertising in general.

Perry Marshall’s Ultimate Guide to Google AdWords

Perry Marshall is a well-known and respected member of the online marketing community. He’s been using AdWords since it was first released in 2002, and is a leading expert on the platform.

In his continued impartation of online advertising knowledge to the masses, Marshall has released his fifth edition of the Ultimate Guide to Google AdWords. This book comes at a low cost and includes free trainings from WebSavvy‘s founder, Mike Rhodes. There’s a chapter for everything, including up-to-date AdWords strategies and functionalities.

Marshall’s book is nice to have on-hand when you’re creating or editing your campaigns, serving as a reference point when you find yourself in an AdWords conundrum.

Quick refreshers

If you’re experienced with AdWords and looking to refresh your knowledge of the platform (or are a beginner just looking for a general idea of what AdWords is about) you may not need to commit the time and money required for the aforementioned trainings. You can start with the following, relatively broader, guides and infographics on the topic:

Google AdWords: The Beginner’s Guide from Search Engine Watch
From Beginner to Pro: 21 Free AdWords Tutorials from Agency Analytics
How to Use Google AdWords from WordStream
12 Steps for Improving Your Google Adwords from Smart Insights
5 Successful B2B AdWords Best Practices for Any Company from Search Engine Land
8 Best Practices for Using Google AdWords from SalesFusion
The takeaway

The AdWords training that’s right for you may not consist of just one course or education provider. Finding the format that works for you will require some exploring and experimenting on your own.

Each training provider requires a different amount of time and monetary commitment, so make sure you’re realistic about what your schedule and budget can accommodate for.

But most of all, remember to have fun and get excited about the future success of your AdWords campaigns. AdWords is your key to the world of online advertising, and when you know how to use it correctly, your business will thrive.

Amanda DiSilvestro is a writer for No Risk SEO, an all-in-one reporting platform for agencies. You can connect with Amanda on Twitter and LinkedIn, or check out her content services at amandadisilvestro.com.

How to use Google Trends for SEO


Google Trends, first launched in 2006, provides marketers with invaluable insights into how people search on the world’s most popular search engine.

In its earlier guises, Trends (or Insights for Search, as it was previously known) was a rather static resource, updated only on an infrequent basis with fresh data.

Over time, the power of this service has been tapped in new and enlightening ways.

For example, a study undertaken using Trends data by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz and written up in the New York Times in 2014 found, “Parents are two and a half times more likely to ask “Is my son gifted?” than “Is my daughter gifted?””

Such newsworthy incidents revealed the richness of Google Trends as a data source to the wider public. People’s underlying attitudes, desires, and beliefs start to come to the fore when they communicate with a search engine.

As the megalomaniac founder of a fictional search engine puts it, while discussing the data at his disposal, in the 2015 science-fiction movie Ex Machina:

You see, my competitors, they were fixated on sucking it up and monetizing via shopping and social media. They thought that search engines were a map of what people were thinking. But actually they were a map of how people were thinking.

Both of these examples – one real, one imagined – highlight exactly why Google Trends is so valuable for search marketers.

It is the closest we have to a synthesis of market research and SEO data. With its ability to segment trends by geography, product category, content topic, and date, it allows us to go much broader in our analysis than traditional SEO tools ever could.

With Trends’ recent expansion into News, Shopping, Images, and YouTube, it seems the perfect time to revisit and refresh the many ways in which this powerful tool can help your SEO efforts.

First, some housekeeping

If you are relatively new to Google Trends, there are a couple of things to bear in mind when you look at the data visualizations.

First of all, Google Trends data is adjusted to make visual comparisons between different data sets easier for users. Google offers the following to explain for its methodology:

“Search results are proportionate to the time and location of a query:

  • Each data point is divided by the total searches of the geography and time range it represents, to compare relative popularity. Otherwise places with the most search volume would always be ranked highest.
  • The resulting numbers are then scaled on a range of 0 to 100 based on a topic’s proportion to all searches on all topics.
  • Different regions that show the same number of searches for a term will not always have the same total search volumes.”

In practice, this means that we end up with graphs like the below, showing trended data on a scale from 0 to 100:

Furthermore, a note is applied to all graphs that look back to before 2016, as Google made a significant update to the collection of data at this point. This can cause some unexpected jumps in graphs at the beginning of 2016, but the overall trends still provide a good guide to the historical demand for a topic.

Now, onto the tips.

How you can use Google Trends for SEO

Keyword research

Keyword research seems the most obvious SEO-based use for Trends, but it is often overlooked in favor of Keyword Planner and the other industry-standard tools.

In fact, it serves as the perfect complement to these platforms, bringing to light patterns that they cannot reveal.

Trends will suggest new keywords based on different criteria to those employed in Keyword Planner. For example, it highlights related search queries (using the example of “dogs” again) that have very recently risen in popularity, as we can see in the screenshot below:


Clearly, these will require a sense check before you add them straight to your keyword list. As stated before, we really can learn something about the human condition from Google Trends.

There will also be some outliers (in this case, the Watch Dogs video game), as Google groups together a lot of related sub-topics under the aegis of the main categories.

Nonetheless, these examples do show how frequently this tool can provide unexpected ideas.

It is also reflective of how the readily available nature of fresh data on Trends can add vital, new elements to a keyword list.

This is significant as we move beyond simple keyword matching and into an age of semantic relevance. Building out a keyword list that contains the spectrum of audience demand for your products is no longer a luxury; it is a pre-requisite for performing well.

Moreover, if SEOs can target trending queries before they peak, competition will be lower and potential rewards will be greater.

For those that would like to examine the data outside of the platform, there are numerous R and Python packages that can make calls via the Google Trends API.

This allows users to download queries in order to manipulate and visualize the data. One such package for R, (gtrendsR), is explained in more detail in this handy blog post.

Combined with a versatile plotting package like ggplot2, this approach opens up a new level of functionality to Google Trends data for SEO research.

Compare search trends across Google search engines

The addition of filters for News, Shopping, Images, and YouTube to Google Trends has opened up a wide range of new SEO research opportunities.

These can be accessed from a drop-down menu at the top of the results page.


Image search data in available from 2008 to the present day and it should prove a very valuable source of inspiration for SEOs.

Not only is image search responsible for a huge amount of queries already, but it is also an area of focus for Google as it aims to fend off threats from the likes of Facebook, Amazon, and Pinterest.

Once more, we can segment the data by sub-region or city and there are suggestions for related image search queries too:


It is also possible to compare these search trends across two different queries, due to the manner in which Google processes and displays the data. In the example below, I have set the filter to show the trends for “cats” in the US and for “dogs” in the UK:


We can therefore say that image searches for dogs in the UK are more popular than image searches for cats in the US, in relative terms, even though this would likely not be the case in absolute terms.

On YouTube, the eternal cats versus dogs battle lives up to its fiery reputation, with a much narrower gap between the two search topics:


Trending queries are highlighted here too, which should give us even more reason to keep visiting Google Trends for our research:


Assess and predict seasonal peaks

Perhaps the most common use of Google Trends for SEO is the analysis of peaks and troughs in consumer demand.

To cite a simple, but illustrative, example of how this works, we can look at the search query [olympics]:


We see significant worldwide peaks every four years for the summer Olympics, with the winter equivalent attracting another (if smaller) increase two years later each time.

In this example, history tells us that we are about to see another peak in demand for [olympics] very soon, but that insight alone does not translate into much.

Firstly, we don’t know the size of the opportunity in absolute terms, as Trends provides only relative values.

However, if we cross-reference what we see in Trends with the data we have from Keyword Planner, we can start to understand what a value of 100 on this chart means in real terms.

Admittedly, Keyword Planner data is indicative at best, but we may also have data from AdWords campaigns. This can at least guide us towards a predicted search volume for the upcoming Olympics.

Of course, it seems very intuitive that a major event will lead to more searches for the event’s name. Nonetheless, if we take this same approach and apply it to less predictable industries, such as fashion for example, Trends can help you to identify keywords before the competition does so.

This is supplemented by Trends’ use of real-time data to suggest new topics.

Trending topics for reactive content

One of the most useful aspects of Google Trends is the access it provides to real-time search data. There are plenty of content marketing and SEO technologies out there, but none can provide data as reliable as the information Google serves from its own databases.

These can be accessed directly from the Google Trends homepage:


Clicking on a story will then lead to a selection of featured articles, plus a detailed breakdown of search interest and published articles over the past 24 hours:


The analysis goes further still by showing search interest by state, related queries, and related topics:


This should be a go-to resource for anyone that produces reactive content, whether for their website, social media, or elsewhere.

Another interesting way to work with this data is to take the URLs that are listed as featured articles and use an SEO tool like Ahrefs or SearchMetrics to source the keywords that the page ranks for.

This provides insight into how quickly a page can be indexed and ranked, along with the quantity of semantically related queries one page can rank for in a short period of time. More than anything, this can help us understand how Google processes and prioritizes fresh content.

Killer demand gen strategy, Part 3: Facebook advertising

If you’ve been keeping up with this series, you’ve got your audience defined and designed creative to match. You’ve constructed smart Google Display Network campaigns to get those users pouring into your funnel.

Now let’s talk some of the most powerful targeting capabilities of all.

In addition to advertising on the GDN, Facebook is a platform you must use to reach your target personas. Facebook’s audience targeting capabilities are among the most effective you can access.

You can target interests, behaviors and a variety of demographic information to get in front of your ideal audience.

Explore Facebook’s targeting options

Think about the personas you have created and begin choosing the audience targeting available within Facebook that will help engage those users. For example, let’s say you’re selling luxury home décor. One of your personas is female, between the ages of 30-40, likes home décor, and is affluent. You would then pick targeting as relevant as possible to get in front of these users.

One example would be:

Additionally, you can layer further information onto your personas – for example, some of them might like celebrity gossip. Leverage Facebook’s audience narrowing and layer it on to test how it impacts performance. See below:

In addition to leveraging Facebook’s native audience targeting capabilities, consider leveraging 3rd-party data audiences from companies like Axciom or Datalogix.

These companies can provide you with rich data that can be highly relevant to your personas – and help you develop new ones.

Take advantage of Lookalikes

Lookalike targeting is another great way to identify the right types of audiences and leverage Facebook’s thousands of data points to get in front of them.

First, look at your customer list and identify different ways you can segment those customers into groups of identifiable characteristics. For example, you can segment out your highest-LTV audiences, different categories (e.g. furniture categories, high-AOV purchasers, etc.).

Then upload these customer lists into Facebook, which will leverage its algorithm to serve your ads to audiences that mimic your seed lists in characteristics, behaviors, and traits.

A reminder: use tailored creative to these audiences. If you’re serving ads to lookalike audiences of your high-AOV purchasers, show creative with more high-end products to match their purchase behavior.

Another great way to get in front of relevant users is to leverage lookalikes as a base audience and then add in persona layers. For example, you may think about having an LAL of 5% and layering on celebrity gossip as a narrowing layer.

This makes your base audience similar in characteristics and traits to your customers, and it allows you to refine the audience to more closely match some of the personas you have built out.

Additionally, when creating your audiences, keep an eye on size. You will almost always want to leverage Facebook’s oCPM (Optimized CPM) tool, which requires an audience size of at least 400K to reach people, collect conversion data, and optimize towards users who are likely to convert.

As you know, a lead gen marketer’s work is only beginning when the leads are captured; there’s a long and winding road from lead to conversion, which will require a whole new series to address. But the above strategies should ensure that you’re working from a healthy foundation of leads.

The highs and lows of enterprise SEO: Which strategies paid off best in 2017?

As we come to the end of 2017 and embark on the inevitable dozens of review articles looking back over the past year of search, it’s as good a time as any to reflect on SEO strategy.

What are the greatest challenges being faced by the industry as a whole? What have been the biggest successes? What are companies of different sizes setting as their top priorities for SEO strategy – and how well is it paying off?

To find out, link-building and content marketing agency North Star Inbound, in partnership with seoClarity and BuzzStream, set out to “take the temperature” of enterprise SEO.

They surveyed 240 SEO specialists across the USA from both in-house and agency teams, in a bid to discover how and where enterprise SEO teams are spending their budgets, their most pressing issues, their biggest stumbling blocks, their perception of their own success, and more.

The results shed an intriguing light on what different companies consider to be most important about SEO, how they go about tackling those issues, and which SEO tactics pay the greatest dividends – particularly in terms of how these findings vary across businesses of different sizes, and between in-house and agency SEOs.

So what were the key findings, and what do they mean for the way that SEO is being carried out in 2017-8?

Resources for enterprise SEO: What are they, and where are they going?

How much of a company’s budget and workforce typically gets allocated to SEO? And where do enterprise SEO teams primarily focus their time and attention?

Unsurprisingly, larger companies tend to outspend smaller firms when it comes to SEO, but the study found that companies’ SEO budgets cover the whole range – meaning there is definitely no “magic number” for SEO spend.

The good news (at least for SEOs!) is that the most popular budget was also the largest: 27% of respondents reported that they had a monthly budget of more than $20,000 for SEO. Close to a fifth of companies (19%) had between $5,000 and $10,000 to play with, while a very similar percentage (18%) were allocated less than $1,000.

Perhaps surprisingly, 11% of large companies (with 500+ employees) fell into this bracket – though of course, it’s not just about what you spend on SEO, but how you spend it.

What about people power? The study found that the most common size of SEO team is 2 to 5 members – regardless of the overall size of the company. Two fifths of respondents surveyed (42%) reported working in an SEO team of 2 to 5, while close to a third (32%) had 6 or more people in their team. Nearly a quarter of companies (23%) said that the responsibility for SEO falls on a single person.

Regardless of resources, companies seemed to broadly agree on their priorities for SEO. When asked to rank four areas of SEO in order of priority, respondents from companies of all sizes reported that their top priority was technical SEO.

Second, third and fourth priorities were – again regardless of company size – content development, traffic analysis, and link building, respectively.

But maybe enterprise SEOs should be putting more emphasis on link-building, as survey respondents overwhelmingly described it as the most difficult SEO strategy to execute. Well over half of respondents (58%) ranked it top out of a list of eight, with small companies (with 1-100 employees) feeling the pain most of all.

Why is link-building proving such a tough nut to crack? Let’s look at how enterprise SEOs are tackling link-building.

All about link-building

Well over half of survey respondents reported that link-building was their most difficult strategy to execute, although there were some noticeable variations by size. 68% of small companies rated link-building as the most challenging part of SEO, followed by 62% of medium-size companies and 42% of large companies.

But the difficulties associated with link-building aren’t preventing SEOs from investing in it. 85% of respondents, across all business sizes, reported that they will be maintaining or increasing their link-building budgets this year.

Large companies were most likely to be maintaining their link-building budgets, with 49% reporting they would be keeping their budget for link-building “about the same”, while small companies were most likely to be increasing their budget.

Link-building can be done in a huge number of ways, but there were clear frontrunners for the most effective strategies. SEOs from small, medium and large firms all reported that public relations is their most beneficial tactic for link-building, though for small company SEOs, guest posts came a very close second.

Other effective strategies included infographics (third-most effective for large companies of 500+ employees), local citations/directories (which came in third for small companies), and resource links (which ranked third for medium-sized companies, joint with local citations).

Paid links and comments were universally rated as the least effective strategies by all respondents, though this may also be due to a lack of employing these tactics in the first place – Google penalizes almost all types of paid links, and discourages systematic blog commenting as a method of link-building.

Which companies have been seeing the most success with link-building as an SEO strategy? When asked to rate their most successful strategy over the past 12 months, respondents overwhelmingly pointed to technical on-site optimization: 65% of large companies, 67% of medium-sized companies and 53% of smaller firms rated it as their most effective SEO tactic.

For small companies, blogging and link-building follow close behind, with 35% of SEOs from small firms reporting success with blogging for SEO, and 33% reporting that link-building was their most successful tactic. This was not so for large companies, for whom link-building ranked a distant 6th out of 7 SEO strategies, with just 14% saying it was their most successful strategy.

We know that small firms are more likely to have increased their budgets for link-building in the past year, so perhaps this extra resource towards link-building is making all the difference. But this is something of a chicken-and-egg style conundrum: are small companies allocating more budget towards link-building because it’s successful, or are they successful with link-building because of the extra budget?

Small companies are also more likely to be employing local-level link-building tactics such as local directories or citations. Link-building at a local level can be highly effective when carried out correctly, so perhaps this added emphasis on local SEO is making the difference for enterprise SEOs at small firms.

Finally, which KPIs are SEOs using to track their success with link-building? The favored metrics are Moz Domain Authority and Page Authority, together with the number of linking root domains (both used by 52% of SEOs).

The relevance of the linking page is third-most-used at 47%, while Majestic’s “Trust Flow” metric trails behind on 27%.

Agency vs in-house: Who’s winning at SEO?

Of the 240 SEO specialists surveyed for the study, two-thirds were in-house SEOs, while the remaining third worked for an agency. What differences in approach and outlook did the survey find between these two groups?

When it comes to organizational challenges, agency and in-house SEOs differ slightly on what they consider to be the most pressing issues. Agency SEOs are more likely to encounter challenges with finding SEO talent (44% reported this as their most challenging obstacle) or demonstrating ROI (41%).

For in-house SEOs, developing the right content was their most pressing obstacle (reported by 42% of respondents), while demonstrating ROI was again a key challenge, faced by close to two-fifths of in-house SEOs (37%). Agency SEOs were least likely to struggle with allocating the right resources, with only 18% reporting this as a top organizational challenge, while in-house SEOs struggled least with securing budget (21%) but were more likely to encounter challenges in allocating it (31%).

But the real differences came in the way that agency and in-house SEOs perceived their own success. Agency SEOs were vastly more likely to be confident about their own success: 40% of agency respondents rated themselves as “Successful – we’re absolutely crushing it” compared with just 13% of in-house SEO teams.

However, perhaps in-house SEOs are just modest, as almost half (49%) rated their SEO success as “Positive – we’re doing well enough” (versus 39% of agency SEOs).

In-house SEOs were also more likely to report being “frustrated” with their SEO outcomes (the lowest possible rating) than agencies – 8% of them gave their SEO efforts this rating, compared with only 3% of agency respondents.

Key takeaways

What do the findings from the study tell us about the state of enterprise SEO? While SEO will always depend somewhat on the individual circumstances of an organization, there are some broad conclusions we can draw from the data.

  • SEO as a discipline appears to be well-resourced overall, demonstrating that companies consider SEO a branch of marketing worth investing in. The challenge is therefore more often deciding how and where to allocate those resources, rather than a lack of resources.
  • Technical SEO is a top priority and a top source of success for enterprise SEOs, while companies seem less sure of where they stand with link-building. Many are putting budget into it without necessarily being satisfied with or confident in the results.
  • While some SEO mainstays (like technical on-site SEO) are effective regardless of company size, the effectiveness of SEO strategies often depends on the size of a company, with smaller companies seeing much more success with strategies like blogging than larger organizations.
  • Agency SEOs are much more likely to feel confident in their SEO success than in-house teams, in spite of reported difficulties with securing the right talent for SEO. However, both in-house and agency SEO teams face difficulties with proving the ROI of SEO, showing perhaps that this perceived success can be difficult to translate into hard numbers for the benefit of the higher-ups.

Highlights from TechSEO Boost: The key trends in technical SEO

Although most search conferences contain some sessions on technical SEO, until now there has been a general reluctance to dedicate a full schedule to this specialism.

That is an entirely understandable stance to take, given that organic search has evolved to encompass elements of so many other marketing disciplines.

Increasing visibility via organic search today means incorporating content marketing, UX, CRO, and high-level business strategy. So to concentrate exclusively on the complexities of technical SEO would be to lose some sections of a multi-disciplinary audience.

However, the cornerstone of a successful organic search campaign has always been technical SEO. For all of the industry’s evolutions, it is technical SEO that remains at the vanguard of innovation and at the core of any advanced strategy. With an average of 51% of all online traffic coming from organic search, this is therefore not a specialism that marketers can ignore.

Enter TechSEO Boost: the industry’s first technical SEO conference, organized by Catalyst. Aimed at an audience of technical SEOs, advanced search marketers and programmers, TechSEO Boost set out to be a “technical SEO conference that challenges even developers and code jockeys”.

Though the topics were varied, there were still some narrative threads through the day, all of which tie in to broader marketing themes that affect all businesses. Here are the highlights.

Towards a definition of ‘Technical SEO’

Technical SEO is an often misunderstood discipline that many find difficult to pin down in exact terms. The skills required to excel in technical SEO differ from the traditional marketing skillset, and its aim is traditionally viewed as effective communication with bots rather than with people. And yet, technical SEO can make a significant difference to cross-channel performance, given the footprint its activities have across all aspects of a website.

The reasons for this discipline’s resistance to concrete definition were clear at TechSEO Boost, where the talks covered everything from site speed to automation and log file analysis, with stops along the way to discuss machine learning models and backlinks.

Though it touches on elements of both science and art, technical SEO sits most comfortably on the scientific side of the fence. As such, a precise definition would be fitting.

Russ Jones, search scientist at Moz, stepped forward with the following attempt to provide exactly that:

This is a helpful step towards a shared comprehension of technical SEO, especially as its core purpose is to improve search performance. This sets it aside slightly from the world of developers and engineers, while linking it to the more creative practices like link earning and content marketing.

Using technology to communicate directly with bots impacts every area of site performance, as Jones’ chart demonstrates:

Some of these areas are the sole preserve of technical SEO, while others require a supporting role from technical SEO. What this visualization leaves in little doubt, however, is the pivotal position of this discipline in creating a solid foundation for other marketing efforts.

Jones concluded that technical SEO is the R&D function of the organic search industry. That serves as an apt categorization of the application of technical SEO skills, which encompass everything from web development to data analysis and competitor research.

Technical SEO thrives on innovation

Many marketers will have seen a technical SEO checklist in their time. Any time a site migration is approaching or a technical audit is scheduled, a checklist tends to appear. This is essential housekeeping and can help keep everyone on track with the basics, but it is also a narrow lens through which to view technical SEO.

Russ Jones presented persuasive evidence that technical SEO rewards the most innovative strategies, while those who simply follow the latest Google announcement tend to stagnate.

Equally, the sites that perform best tend to experiment the most with the latest technologies.

There are not necessarily any direct causal links that we can draw between websites’ use of Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP), for example, and their presence in the top 1000 traffic-driving sites. However, what we can say is that these high-performing sites are the ones leading the way when new technologies reach the market.

That said, there is still room for more companies to innovate. Google typically has to introduce a rankings boost or even the threat of a punishment to encourage mass adoption of technologies like HTTPS or AMP. These changes can be expensive and, as the presentation from Airbnb showed, fraught with difficulties.

That may go some way to explaining the gap between the availability of new technology and its widespread adoption.

Jones showed that the level of interest in technical SEO has increased significantly over the years, but it has typically followed the technology. We can see from the graph below that interest in “Technical SEO” has been foreshadowed by interest in “JSON-LD.”


If SEOs want to remain vital to large businesses in an era of increasing automation, they should prove their value by innovating to steal a march on the competition. The performance improvements that accompany this approach will demonstrate the importance of technical SEO.

Everyone has access to Google’s public statements, but only a few have the ability and willingness to experiment with technologies that sit outside of this remit.

Without innovation, companies are left to rely on the same old public statement from Google while their competitors experiment with new solutions.

For more insights into the state of technical SEO and the role it plays in the industry, don’t miss Russ Jones’ full presentation:

TechSEO Boost 2017: The State of Technical SEO from Catalyst

Automation creates endless opportunities

The discussion around the role of automation looks set to continue for some time across all industries. Within search marketing, there can be little doubt that rules-based automation and API usage can take over a lot of the menial, manual tasks and extend the capabilities of search strategists.

Paul Shapiro’s session, ‘Working Smarter: SEO automation to increase efficiency and effectiveness’ highlighted just a few of the areas that should be automated, including:

  • Reporting
  • Data collection
  • 301 redirect mapping
  • Technical audits
  • Competitor data pulls
  • Anomaly detection

The above represent the fundamentals that companies should be working through in an efficient, automated way. However, the potential for SEOs to work smarter through automation reaches beyond these basics and starts to pose more challenging questions.

As was stated earlier in the day, “If knowledge scales, it will be automated.”

This brings to light the central tension that arises once automation becomes more advanced. Once we move beyond simple, rules-based systems and into the realm of reliable and complex automation, which roles are left for people to fill?

At TechSEO Boost, the atmosphere was one of opportunity, but SEO professionals need to understand these challenges if they are to position themselves to take advantage. Automation can create a level playing field among different companies if all have access to the same technology, at which point people will become the differentiating factor.

By tackling complex problems with novel solutions, SEOs can retain an essential position in any enterprise. If that knowledge later receives the automation treatment, there will always be new problems to solve.

There is endless room for experimentation in this arena too, once the basics are covered. Shapiro shared some of the analyses he and his team have developed using KNIME, an open source data analysis platform. KNIME contains a variety of built in “nodes”, which can be strung together from a range of data sources to run more meaningful reports.

For example, a time-consuming task like keyword research can be automated both to increase the quantity of data assessed and to improve the quality of the output. A platform like KNIME, coupled with a visualization tool like Tableau or Data Studio, can create research that is useful for SEO and for other marketing teams too.

Automation’s potential extends into the more creative aspects of SEO, such as content ideation. Shapiro discussed the example of Reddit as an excellent source for content ideas, given the virality that it depends on to keep users engaged. By setting up a recurring crawl of particular subreddits, content marketers can access an ongoing repository of ideas for their campaigns. The Python code Shapiro wrote for this task can be accessed here (password: fighto).

You can view Paul Shapiro’s full presentation below:

TechSEO Boost 2017: Working Smarter: SEO Automation to Increase Efficiency & Effectiveness from Catalyst

Machine learning leads to more sophisticated results

Machine learning can be at the heart of complex decision-making processes, including the decisions Google makes 40,000 times per second when people type queries into its search engine.

It is particularly effective for information retrieval, a field of activity that depends on a nuanced understanding of both content and context. JR Oakes, Technical SEO Director at Adapt, discussed a test run using Wikipedia results that concluded: “Users with machine learning-ranked results were statistically significantly more likely to click on the first search result.”

This matters for search marketers, as advances like Google’s RankBrain have brought machine learning into common use. We are accustomed to tracking ranking positions as a proxy for SEO success, but machine learning helps deliver personalization at scale within search results. It therefore becomes a futile task to try and calculate the true ranking position for any individual keyword.

Moreover, if Google can satisfy the user’s intent within the results page (for example, through answer boxes), then a click would also no longer represent a valid metric of success.

A Google study even found that 42% of people who click through do so only to confirm the information they had already seen on the results page. This renders click-through data even less useful as a barometer for content quality, as a click or an absence of a click could mean either high or low user satisfaction.

Google is developing more nuanced ways of comprehending and ranking content, many of which defy simplistic interpretation.

All is not lost, however. Getting traffic remains vitally important and so is the quality of content, so there are still ways to improve and measure SEO performance. For example, we can optimize for relevant traffic by analyzing our click-through rate, using methods such as the ones devised by Paul Shapiro in this column.

Furthermore, it is safe to surmise that part of Google’s machine learning algorithm uses skip-gram models to measure co-occurrence of phrases within documents. In basic terms, this means we have moved past the era of keyword matching and into an age of semantic relevance.

The machines need some help to figure out the meanings of phrases too, and Oakes shared the example of AT&T to demonstrate query disambiguation in action.


Machine learning should be welcomed as part of Google’s search algorithms by both users and marketers, as it will continue to force the industry into much more sophisticated strategies that rely less on keyword matching. That said, there are still practical tips that marketers can apply to help the machine learning systems understand the context and purpose of our content.

JR Oakes’ full presentation:

TechSEO Boost 2017: Fun with Machine Learning: How Machine Learning is Shaping Google and Technical SEO from Catalyst

Technical SEO facilitates user experience

A recurring theme throughout TechSEO Boost was the relationship between SEO and other marketing channels.

Technical SEO has now sprouted its own departments within agencies, but that can see the disciplined sidelined from other areas of marketing.

This plays out in a variety of scenarios. For example, the received wisdom is that Google can’t read the content on JavaScript websites, so it is the role of SEO to reduce the quantity of JavaScript code on a site to enhance organic search performance.

In fact, Merkle’s Max Prin posited that this should never be the case. The role of an advanced SEO is to facilitate and enhance whichever site experience will be most beneficial for the end user. Often, that means working with JavaScript to ensure that search engines understand the content of the page.

That begins with an understanding of how search engines work, and at which stages technical SEO can make a difference:


Prin also discussed some useful technologies to help pinpoint accessibility issues, including Merkle’s fetch and render tool and the Google Chrome Lighthouse tool.

Another significant area in which technical SEO facilitiates the user experience is site speed.

Google’s Pat Meenan showcased data pulled from the Google Chrome User Experience Report, which is open source and stores information within BigQuery.

His research went beyond the reductive site speed tests we usually see, which deliver one number to reflect the average load time for a page. Meenan revealed the extent to which load speeds differ across devices, and the importance of understanding the component stages of loading any web page.

The load times for the CNN homepage showed some surprising variation, even between high-end smartphones such as the iPhone 8 and Samsung Galaxy S7 (times are in milliseconds):


In fact, Meenan recommends using a low- to mid-range 3G smartphone for any site speed tests, as these will provide a truer reflection of how the majority of people access your site.

Webpagetest offers an easy way to achieve this and also highlights the meaningful points of measurement in a site speed test, including First Paint (FP), First Contentful Paint (FCP), and Time to Interactive (TTI).

This helps to create a standardized process for measuring speed, but the question still remains of how exactly site owners can accelerate load speed. Meenan shared some useful tips on this front, with HTTP/2 being the main recent development, but he also reiterated that many of the existing best practices hold true.

Using a CDN, reducing the number of HTTP requests, and reducing the number of redirects are all still very valid pieces of advice for anyone hoping to reduce load times.

You can see Pat Meenan’s full presentation below:

TechSEO Boost 2017: Making the Web Fast from Catalyst

Key takeaways from TechSEO Boost

  • Technical SEO can be defined as “any sufficiently technical action undertaken with the intent to improve search performance.”
  • Automation should be a central concern for any serious SEO. The more of the basics we can automate, the more we can experiment with new solutions.
  • A more nuanced understanding of Google’s information retrieval technology is required if we are to achieve the full SEO potential of any website.
  • HTTP/2 is the main development for site speed across the web, but most of the best practices from a decade ago still hold true.
  • Improving site speed requires a detailed understanding of how content loads across all devices.

You can view all of the presentations from TechSEO Boost on Slideshare.

This article was originally published on our sister site, ClickZ, and has been republished here for the enjoyment of our audience on Search Engine Watch.

PPC budget strategy: Tips for success on a limited budget

You don’t need a large budget for an effective PPC strategy. Here’s how to maximize the success of your PPC campaigns regardless of the size of your budget.

The budget of a PPC campaign can play an important role in its performance. However, it doesn’t guarantee successful results without a proper planning first.

It’s common to believe that the bigger the budget for your PPC campaign, the better the results. But small businesses, or those without a lot of resource to allocate to PPC, may not always have the option of increasing budget. So how can you be as successful as possible with what you have?

This article will set out how you can manage your PPC strategy in a way that maximizes the benefits of your budget, no matter what its size.

Note: This article is an updated version of John Gagnon’s excellent piece, PPC Budget Strategy 101, and incorporates several of his insights.

Set clear goals for your campaign

Forward planning is critical when getting started with PPC. Having a pre-defined outcome for your paid search campaign will help you to avoid over-spending and incurring unexpected extra costs, so the first step is to set your goals.

Decide on what you’d like to achieve with your campaigns and how you’re going to achieve it.

Estimate your budget

Once you’ve set your goals, it’s time to decide on the initial budget that you’d like to use for your campaigns.

The first question is to decide on the number of leads that you’d like to gain through PPC. The answer should be aligned with your available resources and the goals you set in the last step.

The next step is to make sure that you’ve clearly defined what counts as a lead for your business before you start calculating the CPA (cost-per-action) to expect.

Wordstream has presented this process in a graphic that explains how your expectations for the number of leads and the conversions can help you determine your PPC budget.

For example, if your client goal is to gain 250 new ones per month and your current close rate is 15% with a cost of $25/lead, you will need a budget of $41,666 per month to generate 1,667 PPC leads.

In this case, a quick solution is to use your budget in campaigns that involve lower CPA to increase your chances of higher success.

Be strategic with the allocation of your budget

The next step is to aim for an improved CPA. A cost-efficient CPA helps you become more strategic with your PPC campaigns, and allows you to determine the most effective ads to apply your budget to.

If you want to lower the CPA, then you need to:

  • Increase your conversion rate (CVR), and
  • Decrease your cost per click (CPC).

By focusing on the best performing ads and lowering your CPA, you can spend your budget more wisely.

As always when calculating ROI, the higher the revenue when compared with expenditure, the better the investment.

You might now be wondering what steps you can take to increase your CVR, or decrease your CPC. If so, read on for some tips on how to do exactly that.

Perform keyword research

Carrying out in-depth keyword research should help you spot the best opportunities to reach your audience.

A keyword list has to be thorough, relevant and dynamic. You want your list to include the most popular keywords that resonate with your target audience, but also long tail keywords that offer a great opportunity for more specific targeting.

To calculate the effectiveness of your keyword bidding strategy, you can follow this formula:

Keyword searches x CTR = Estimated traffic

For example, 1,500 monthly searches x 4% click-through rate = 60 visits per month.

This way you can analyze both the search volume, but also the cost per click to decide if it brings you closer to your goals.

A good tip to maximize the effectiveness of your campaigns with a limited budget is to continually review the performance of your keywords.

By analyzing your keywords during the campaign, you can determine whether or not they’re effective – and if not, you can re-allocate your budget to avoid wasting resources on keywords that don’t work.

Focus on targeting

Taking a closer look at campaign targeting can save you money while improving the relevance of your ads for your audience.

If your campaign is only interested in driving leads from one specific location, for example, you can geo-target your PPC campaign to avoid wasting spend on targeting a global audience.

Geo-targeting increases the chances of success for your campaign if you want to focus on local marketing to drive conversions.

Moreover, keyword targeting should help you pay for the ads that work better for your business. There’s no need to pay for broad match keywords or competitor keywords that only waste your budget. By adding them as negative keywords, you can focus on the most effective ones to increase the conversions.

Improve your Quality Score

Your AdWords Quality Score affects both your cost per click, but also the conversions. Google considers the Quality Score of significant importance, and your CPA depends on it.

If you are aiming for a lower cost per action, then you need to ensure that you improve your Quality Score.

The best ways to do so are to:

  • Create relevant ads for your target audience
  • Focus on the right keywords
  • Keep your ad groups organised and structured
  • Refine your landing pages to be helpful and relevant to each ad
  • Focus on ad copy to improve your CTR
  • Build your AdWords account performance to improve your reputation

The good thing about the Quality Score is that once you start building your reputation, you’ll be able to save money on keyword bids. This way, you can rank higher without necessarily spending more than your competitors.

It’s also useful to revisit your ad groups from time to time to keep the ones that work better. Focus on the most successful ad sets and stop investing your budget in the ones with low conversions.


It’s not the budget that determines the success of your campaign, but your strategy. Your PPC budget strategy is all about focusing on the best-performing ads while constantly reviewing performance to make sure you are allocating resources in the most effective ways.

If you feel limited by your budget, it’s useful to start small and expand your reach once you’ve learned which strategies work best for your business.

A good understanding of the target audience, relevant keywords and a structured PPC strategy can help you maximize the potential of your campaign even on a small budget.

What is an AdWords Quality Score and how can you improve yours?

If you’re trying to master PPC, you need a firm understanding of your AdWords Quality Score.

Your Quality Score in AdWords plays a significant role in determining the cost, effectiveness and success of your PPC campaigns.

But what is it, and how can you improve yours?

What is a Quality Score?

Quality Score is essentially what it says on the tin: Google’s own rating of your ads, including the quality and relevance of both the keywords and ads. It is about how good your ad is at meeting the customer’s needs, and this means providing both relevance and value. SEO experts will be more than familiar with those words, and the same principles apply to PPC ads.

For information on how to find your Quality Score and its component scores, have a read of this handy Google guide. You can now also view historical quality score data so you can track how your quality score has changed, as well as other more detailed insights into your score.

Why does Quality Score matter? First and foremost, Quality Score has a significant influence over the cost of your campaigns, determining how much you pay for each click. In short, a higher quality score will mean higher ad rankings and lower costs. By lower costs we mean lower cost per click and lower cost per conversion. Now I’ve got your attention!

There are a variety of factors that go into determining a quality score and, similar to SEO, no one can be absolutely certain of which factors are more influential than others. However, through a bit of detective work and a healthy dose of savvy common sense, we can get a pretty good idea.

Keyword relevance

The first step towards improving your Quality Score is to get the initial keyword research phase correct. Always focus on the most appropriate keywords for your campaign in order to improve relevancy (we’re going to be saying this word a lot). Remember to also consider long-tail keywords, as these can bring significant traffic that is highly targeted.

Identifying the most relevant keywords is not enough; you also need to organize them into effective groups that can be used for individual campaigns. Avoid having too many broad ad groups, as these can lower your Quality Score. Instead, establish smaller, targeted ad groups, as these will contribute towards an overall more successful campaign.

Set up this phase of the campaign correctly and you’ll be in a much better position to improve your quality score. With targeted ad groups, you will more effectively be able to reach the exact audience that is most likely to be searching for what you are providing. Get this part right and the rest should flow naturally.

As part of this, be sure to exclude negative keywords that could be unnecessarily draining your budget. Failing to do so could lower your click-through rate and therefore damage your Quality Score.

Landing page experience

We could dedicate an entire blog post to optimizing your landing pages, but for the sake of this article, the key point to remember is – you guessed it – relevance. You’re going to be bored silly by this word if you make it to the end of this post, but we keep mentioning it for good reason.

The process of clicking through from the ad to the landing page should provide a cohesive experience that links the user seamlessly from their initial search query to the conversion. Your landing page is an essential part of this process and it is therefore crucial to follow best practices for optimizing landing pages, as follows:

  • Relevant, original content
  • Transparency and trustworthiness
  • Clear navigation and strong UX / UI
  • Mobile friendly
  • Quick load speed
  • Ensure no broken links

Having a good landing page is not just necessary to please Google: it will also improve your conversion rate, which is the ultimate goal.


The general consensus is that click-through rate (CTR) is the most influential factor in determining Quality Score. Afterall, it is a valuable indication of how appealing and helpful your ads are to search engine users.

Some find it easier to focus on improving the CTR, rather than the quality score, as it is a little more transparent in terms of the contributing factors.

One of the key factors in improving CTR is the ad copy. Ensure it is enticing and to the point. Make searchers want to click on your ad over the other ads being displayed. You may need to do a bit of trialling and testing to find out what works best, but just remember one crucial point: relevance! (Bet you didn’t see that one coming…)

This encompasses both relevance to the search term and also to the landing page. For example, if your keyword is “seo agency london” and your ad makes no mention of SEO, then your score will be lower. It’s good old-fashioned common sense.

Furthermore, there is no point writing ad copy that you know will improve click-through rates, if it has no relevance to your landing page. This may give you a high click-through rate but it will leave you with virtually no conversions and these are the most important end goals in terms of campaign success and ROI.

You may want to consider pausing keywords with both a low CTR (