Everything you need to know about visual search (so far)

Visual search is one of the most complex and fiercely competed sectors of our industry. Earlier this month, Bing announced their new visual search mode, hot on the heels of similar developments from Pinterest and Google.

Ours is a culture mediated by images, so it stands to reason that visual search has assumed such importance for the world’s largest technology companies. The pace of progress is certainly quickening; but there is no clear visual search ‘winner’ and nor will there be one soon.

The search industry has developed significantly over the past decade, through advances in personalization, natural language processing, and multimedia results. And yet, one could argue that the power of the image remains untapped.

This is not due to a lack of attention or investment. Quite the contrary, in fact. Cracking visual search will require a combination of technological nous, psychological insight, and neuroscientific know-how. This makes it a fascinating area of development, but also one that will not be mastered easily.

Therefore, in this article, we will begin with an outline of the visual search industry and the challenges it poses, before analyzing the recent progress made by Google, Microsoft and Pinterest.

What is visual search?

We all partake in visual search every day. Every time we need to locate our keys among a range of other items, for example, our brains are engaged in a visual search.

We learn to recognize certain targets and we can locate them within a busy landscape with increasing ease over time.

This is a trickier task for a computer, however.

Image search, in which a search engine takes a text-based query and tries to find the best visual match, is subtly distinct from modern visual search. Visual search can take an image as its ‘query’, rather than text. In order to perform an accurate visual search, search engines require much more sophisticated processes than they do for traditional image search.

Typically, as part of this process, deep neural networks are put through their paces in tests like the one below, with the hope that they will mimic the functioning of the human brain in identifying targets:

The decisions (or inherent ‘biases’, as they are known) that allow us to make sense of these patterns are more difficult to integrate into a machine. When processing an image, should a machine prioritize shape, color, or size? How does a person do this? Do we even know for sure, or do we only know the output?

As such, search engines still struggle to process images in the way we expect them to. We simply don’t understand our own biases well enough to be able to reproduce them in another system.

There has been a lot of progress in this field, nonetheless. Google image search has improved drastically in response to text queries and other options, like Tineye, also allow us to use reverse image search. This is a useful feature, but its limits are self-evident.

For years, Facebook has been able to identify individuals in photos, in the same way a person would immediately recognize a friend’s face. This example is a closer approximation of the holy grail for visual search; however, it still falls short. In this instance, Facebook has set up its networks to search for faces, giving them a clear target.

At its zenith, online visual search allows us to use an image as an input and receive another, related image as an output. This would mean that we could take a picture with a smartphone of a chair, for example, and have the technology return pictures of suitable rugs to accompany the style of the chair.

The typically ‘human’ process in the middle, where we would decipher the component parts of an image and decide what it is about, then conceptualize and categorize related items, is undertaken by deep neural networks. These networks are ‘unsupervised’, meaning that there is no human intervention as they alter their functioning based on feedback signals and work to deliver the desired output.

The result can be mesmerising, as in the below interpretations of an image of Georges Seurat’s ‘A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte’ by Google’s neural networks:

This is just one approach to answering a delicate question, however.

There are no right or wrong answers in this field as it stands; simply more or less effective ones in a given context.

We should therefore assess the progress of a few technology giants to observe the significant strides they have made thus far, but also the obstacles left to overcome before visual search is truly mastered.

Bing visual search

In early June at TechCrunch 50, Microsoft announced that it would now allow users to “search by picture.”

This is notable for a number of reasons. First of all, although Bing image search has been present for quite some time, Microsoft actually removed its original visual search product in 2012. People simply weren’t using it since its 2009 launch, as it wasn’t accurate enough.

Furthermore, it would be fair to say that Microsoft is running a little behind in this race. Rival search engines and social media platforms have provided visual search functions for some time now.

As a result, it seems reasonable to surmise that Microsoft must have something compelling if they have chosen to re-enter the fray with such a public announcement. While it is not quite revolutionary, the new Bing visual search is still a useful tool that builds significantly on their image search product.

A Bing search for “kitchen decor ideas” which showcases Bing’s new visual search capabilities

What sets Bing visual search apart is the ability to search within images and then expand this out to related objects that might complement the user’s selection.

A user can select specific objects, hone in on them, and purchase similar items if they desire. The opportunities for retailers are both obvious and plentiful.

It’s worth mentioning that Pinterest’s visual search has been able to do this for some time. But the important difference between Pinterest’s capability and Bing’s in this regard is that Pinterest can only redirect users to Pins that businesses have made available on Pinterest – and not all of them might be shoppable. Bing, on the other hand, can index a retailer’s website and use visual search to direct the user to it, with no extra effort required on the part of either party.

Powered by Silverlight technology, this should lead to a much more refined approach to searching through images. Microsoft provided the following visualisation of how their query processing system works for this product:

Microsoft combines this system with the structured data it owns to provide a much richer, more informative search experience. Although restricted to a few search categories, such as homeware, travel, and sports, we should expect to see this rolled out to more areas through this year.

The next step will be to automate parts of this process, so that the user no longer needs to draw a box to select objects. It is still some distance from delivering on the promise of perfect, visual search, but these updates should at least see Microsoft eke out a few more sellable searches via Bing.

Google Lens

Google recently announced its Lens product at the 2017 I/O conference in May. The aim of Lens is really to turn your smartphone into a visual search engine.

Google Lens logo, which looks like a simplified camera with a red and yellow outline, blue lens and green flash.

Take a picture of anything out there and Google will tell you what the object is about, along with any related entities. Point your smartphone at a restaurant, for example, and Google will tell you its name, whether your friends have visited it before, and highlight reviews for the restaurant too.

With Google Lens, your smartphone camera won’t just see what you see, but will also understand what you see to help you take action. #io17 pic.twitter.com/viOmWFjqk1

— Google (@Google) May 17, 2017

This is supplemented by Google’s envious inventory of data, both from its own knowledge graph and the consumer data it holds.

All of this data can fuel and refine Google’s deep neural networks, which are central to the effective functioning of its Lens product.

Google-owned company DeepMind is at the forefront of visual search innovation. As such, DeepMind is also particularly familiar with just how challenging this technology is to master.

The challenge is no longer necessarily in just creating neural networks that can understand an image as effectively as a human. The bigger challenge (known as the ‘black box problem’ in this field) is that the processes involved in arriving at conclusions are so complex, obscured, and multi-faceted that even Google’s engineers struggle to keep track.

This points to a rather poignant paradox at the heart of visual search and, more broadly, the use of deep neural networks. The aim is to mimic the functioning of the human brain; however, we still don’t really understand how the human brain works.

As a result, DeepMind have started to explore new methods. In a fascinating blog post they summarized the findings from a recent paper, within which they applied the inductive reasoning evident in human perception of images.

Drawing on the rich history of cognitive psychology (rich, at least, in comparison with the nascent field of neural networks), scientists were able to apply within their technology the same biases we apply as people when we classify items.

DeepMind use the following prompt to illuminate their thinking:

“A field linguist has gone to visit a culture whose language is entirely different from our own. The linguist is trying to learn some words from a helpful native speaker, when a rabbit scurries by. The native speaker declares “gavagai”, and the linguist is left to infer the meaning of this new word. The linguist is faced with an abundance of possible inferences, including that “gavagai” refers to rabbits, animals, white things, that specific rabbit, or “undetached parts of rabbits”. There is an infinity of possible inferences to be made. How are people able to choose the correct one?”

Experiments in cognitive psychology have shown that we have a ‘shape bias’; that is to say, we give prominence to the fact that this is a rabbit, rather than focusing on its color or its broader classification as an animal. We are aware of all of these factors, but we choose shape as the most important criterion.

“Gavagai” Credit: Misha Shiyanov/Shutterstock

DeepMind is one of the most essential components of Google’s development into an ‘AI-first’ company, so we can expect findings like the above to be incorporated into visual search in the near future. When they do, we shouldn’t rule out the launch of Google Glass 2.0 or something similar.

Pinterest Lens

Pinterest aims to establish itself as the go-to search engine when you don’t have the words to describe what you are looking for.

The launch of its Lens product in March this year was a real statement of intent and Pinterest has made a number of senior hires from Google’s image search teams to fuel development.

In combination with its establishment of a paid search product and features like ‘Shop the Look’, there is a growing consensus that Pinterest could become a real marketing contender. Along with Amazon, it should benefit from advertisers’ thirst for more options beyond Google and Facebook.

Pinterest president Tim Kendall noted recently at TechCrunch Disrupt: “We’re starting to be able to segue into differentiation and build things that other people can’t. Or they could build it, but because of the nature of the products, this would make less sense.”

This drives at the heart of the matter. Pinterest users come to the site for something different, which allows Pinterest to build different products for them. While Google fights war on numerous fronts, Pinterest can focus on improving its visual search offering.

Admittedly, it remains a work in progress, but Pinterest Lens is the most advanced visual search tool available at the moment. Using a smartphone, a Pinner (as the site’s users are known) can take a picture within the app and have it processed with a high degree of accuracy by Pinterest’s technology.

The results are quite effective for items of clothing and homeware, although there is still a long way to go before we use Pinterest as our personal stylist. As a tantalising glimpse of the future, however, Pinterest Lens is a welcome and impressive development.

The next step is to monetize this, which is exactly what Pinterest plans to do. Visual search will become part of its paid advertising package, a fact that will no doubt appeal to retailers keen to move beyond keyword targeting and social media prospecting.

We may still be years from declaring a winner in the battle for visual search supremacy, but it is clear to see that the victor will claim significant spoils.

4 under-the-radar UX flaws that are killing your conversion rate

As all business owners who operate an ecommerce website know, it can take a while to hit full stride in terms of conversion rate.

When results are underwhelming, the first instinct might be to make big changes across the board.

What a lot companies fail to realize is that a great deal of buying decisions take place subconsciously. Design errors can seem minuscule, but have a huge impact on the bottom line.

It’s very possible there are a number of UX flaws in your layout that are turning visitors off at first glance. Here are a few things you may have overlooked in your approach.

1. Lack of visual hierarchy

Web design is about so much more than just making a platform look pretty and appealing. The bulk of the process is about adhering to goal-based functionality. Using visual elements such as color, positioning, contrast, shape, size, etc. you can strategically organize the page so users get a strong impression of how important certain components are. Basically, it’s about where you want your customers’ eyes to be drawn to.

Here is MailChimp’s homepage:

Where is the first place your eyes went? Chances are, they went to the CTA in the center of the page. The button they’ve use is slightly offset from the rest of the color scheme and the message sticks out very prominently.

Based on the goals of your landing page, the desired action should be properly conveyed on the visual hierarchy scale and jump out to the visitor.

TechWyse did a case study on how certain landing pages attract attention. Here is the original landing page they used in the experiment:

Now, here is the landing page with a heat map of where visitors’ eyes were being drawn to:

You’ll notice that the place with the highest engagement was the vivid red “NO FEES” sticker. The problem with this is that it draws eyes, but has no click action or conversion related goal. Therefore, visitors are being diverted from the more important parts of the page.

A tool such as Zarget will help you identify the reading and scanning patterns of visitors to your site. It can also track browser interaction with moving and dynamic elements, as opposed to heat maps based on just snapshots (like the ones Crazy Egg gives you).

When you are designing landing pages, keep in mind your overarching objective for conversion. Is it to gain sign-ups? Promote a deal? Whichever you decide, be sure your visual hierarchy invokes the desired action and navigates users to a conversion.

2. Unclear value proposition

Keep in mind, not everyone wants to be sold to immediately. Showcasing your unique selling proposition right off the bat is a good way to entice visitors to see what you have to offer.

Your value proposition is what tells customers why they should choose you as opposed to the competitors. Regardless of what you sell, this needs to be apparent almost instantly. The widespread usage of Amazon makes this concept extremely vital to the setup of ecommerce websites. Why should a customer buy from you instead of the convenient retail giants?

The harsh truth of the matter is that a lot of online businesses struggle with clearly communicating their value proposition. Follow these steps when crafting yours:

  • Identify the need – The most important thing to convey is that you understand the customer’s primary need. The value proposition should start by recapping it.
  • Present the solution – This is where you need to highlight the main benefits of your service.
  • Show differentiation – This part requires a bit of finesse. Simply bashing a competitor is not the solution here. Instead, subtly address the common objections customers have within the industry and your unique way of solving them.
  • Provide proof – Lastly, it’s safe to assume that most customers will be skeptical of your brand messaging. With this in mind, it is always a smart move to validate your claims with proven recognition. Testimonials, case studies, and success stories are a great place to start.
  • Here is a great example from Less Accounting­:

    Their entire homepage is devoted to expressing their value proposition. They take a common issue of the industry and spell out how they work to solve the problem. Below the fold, they show a video success story as well as the big name companies their platform is compatible with for validation.

    A series of case studies conducted by Invesp found that a well-crafted value proposition can increase your conversion rates by 90 percent! In the vastly overpopulated ecommerce landscape, customers have no problem moving on to the next brand if your value proposition is murky.

    3. Subpar checkout process

    The checkout process is perhaps the most crucial piece of the ecommerce puzzle. Given that the average cart abandonment rate was 76.8 percent last year, it can be a very complicated design element to master. There is a plethora of reasons why people choose to abandon their carts:

    Basically, your goal should be to eliminate as many hoops as possible that the customer has to jump through in order to buy. Each step means another chance to reconsider. Simplicity is very important here.

    Now, having 1-click checkout options like Amazon may not be viable for all ecommerce platforms. But, there are many little design tweaks you can make and elements to add that will make the process easier.

    First of all, there should always be a function where the customer has the option to checkout as a guest. Most people know that registering for a website means they will be bombarded with spam.

    Also, be sure it’s very obvious what is in the shopping cart, as well as the total cost with all fees included. Here is an example of a cart from Asos:

    They clearly show the total cost of the items and provide options for shipping so the user will not be hit with any unexpected extras.

    Another great component to include is a progress indicator:

    Adding this to your design will make the process seem more organized with a clear funnel to a conversion.

    Everything you add to your ecommerce website ultimately leads to the checkout. If this section is poorly crafted, your conversion rate will suffer. Your choice of ecommerce platform will make all the difference – a customizable one like Shopify will ensure your shopping cart has the requisite functionality, without which the best design is meaningless.

    So while you put the best shopping cart systems in place, implement all that advice out there on how to improve your checkout process, and keep an eye on your analytics all the time to see if you’re meeting your conversion goals, how much of those 76.8% abandoned carts can you actually expect to recover?

    Neil Patel, co-founder of Crazy Egg, Hello Bar, and KISSmetrics, estimated the recovery rate at 10-30% in an article for Forbes. “The amount of sales that you can recover with rates like that really adds up,” he wrote.

    4. Obsolete website theme

    First impressions are everything in ecommerce. What is your first thought when you see this one?

    If your website looks like it was designed back in the 90’s, consumers can easily jump to conclusions like a) you’re no longer in business, and b) your website won’t keep their valuable information secure. Both will cost you credibility and turn potential buyers away in droves.

    Additionally, outdated websites do not typically fare well in the search rankings. Google updates their search algorithms hundreds of times a year, and values user experience over most other ranking factors. Rohan Ayyar, my fellow Search Engine Watch columnist and SEO guru, has this to say:

    “It’s common knowledge that Google conducts frequent usability studies and scores of experiments to improve their own products. That’s how serious they are about UX. Your website will sink rapidly down the SERPs if you continue to ignore usability.”

    Fixing your web design with a UX-first approach will require a bit of market research. Take a look at your competitor’s websites to get an impression of what is par for the course. Also, be sure you are keeping up with the latest trends in web design.

    For example, simplistic homepages that do away with text heavy content are being used more often these days to serve as a powerful introduction to a website. Here is Vera Wang’s homepage:

    The main focus of the landing page is a captivating video used for the first impression, rather than a wall of text leading to product listings.

    Ultimately, if your website appears outdated, you are leaving money on the table. No matter how great your content is, visitors will be turned off at first glance. However, using conventional web design standards and practices doesn’t mean you have to conform to the latest design trends or adapt your layout to it.

    Jeffrey Eisenberg, CEO of BuyerLegends.com, summed it up best when he advised webmasters to make their sites focus on “persuasion” instead of “conversion”:

    “The ability to achieve truly dramatic improvements in conversion rates still requires a shift in conventional thinking. Design teams need to understand that while the goal may be conversion, the practice must be persuasion.”

    This implies designers, developers, content creators and marketers will soon wind up on the same page in the not-too-distant future. In fact, the tools to help them do that are already here.

    For instance, UXPin helps business owners and marketers collaborate with their design teams to rapidly create wireframes and prototypes, from which the designers and developers can work towards a finished website that meets all the required functionality.

    Over to you

    Designing a website is not rocket science. However, finding the perfect balance of elements that result in a healthy conversion rate will likely take some experimentation. The key is to always be testing and optimizing.

    Each ecommerce platform will require different formulas for conversions. Don’t fall prey to these common blunders.

    The Guestblogalypse: How to Get Links Without Guest Blogs

    Guest blogs are a popular link-building strategy used by businesses all over the world. And until recently, many were relying on guest blogging as their primary source of earned links. But a diverse link profile is essential to maintain ranking. So how can businesses achieve this?

    “The landscape of SEO and link building is always changing, and today, the importance of building high-quality links has never been higher” – Paddy Moogan of Moz

    Guest posts are an easy and effective way to build earned links. But on May 25 2017, Google issued a warning to sites against excessive guest posting.

    “Lately we’ve seen an increase in spammy links contained in articles referred to as contributor posts, guest posts, partner posts, or syndicated posts,” Google stated.

    Google even followed up with a nice list of what violates favorable link earning . . .

    What are brands and businesses to do? Rely solely on natural link building through highly authoritative content? Well, this would be ideal for all. But let’s face it, this strategy may not be the most realistic given the vast amounts of content being produced daily and the difficulty of standing out from the crowd.

    Guest blogging can still be a part of your link earning strategy. However, it should not be your only strategy. It’s important to diversify your link profile so that it doesn’t constitute a large percentage of your backlink profile.

    Here are a few fantastic link opportunities you can put into motion today.

    1. Blogger Reviews

    If you have a product or service to leverage, you could leverage the blogger community to review your product, which can result in links. Even when bloggers disclose that you sent them free product to review, these reviews can earn in natural links when other bloggers learn about your products and decide to try, and review them!

    How do you find bloggers willing to whip up a review? Use the power of Google. Let’s say your product is rugged cell phone cases. Open your Google browser and type in “cell phone case product reviews.”

    You will see a wide-ranging list of sites that have done product reviews in your market niche. You can skip the Amazon reviews and the listicles. Look for the sites that focused on one product.

    Next, begin compiling a healthy list of bloggers that you could reach out to. Your outreach email should be very short, concise, and to the point. Here is an example that has worked well in the past . . .

    Hello (Blogger)

    I noticed your review of (similar product) and wanted to connect. I just launched a new cell phone case that is rugged, waterproof, and great for travel and sports enthusiasts.

    Presently it costs (dollar amount), but would love to send you a free phone case if you would happily review it and share it with your fans.

    I look forward to hearing from you.

    Sincerely,

    (Your name, website, and contact information)

    You may be wondering why there is no mention of a back link. Well, bloggers that do product and service reviews know the deal – typically there is no real surprise why you are giving them your product free, so there is no need to mention it.

    2. HARO

    HARO is a platform that provides journalists with a database of sources for stories (and an opportunity for sources to obtain media coverage).

    There are some that think HARO isn’t worth the time. However, there have been instances when this little link building gem has produced serious results. The key is to keep your query answers focused on your niche, product, or expertise.

    Once you have found a few HARO queries that fit your particular niche or expertise, you can send your detailed and expert insight. You will typically hear back from the journalists that are interested in your insight. The ones you will not get featured in, however, you will simply get no reply.

    3. Capitalize on Broken Links

    There are a lot of link opportunities if you know how to find broken links of businesses and companies in your industry. Here you will be looking for broken links on resource pages that will return a 404 message.

    First you will need to pull up the different resource pages in your niche, industry, or expertise. If your site were devoted to alternative health, you would use a variety of Google search strings to find these resources, such as:

    • “alternative health” + “resources”
    • “alternative health” + “recommended sites”
    • “alternative health” + “resource pages”

    Using these Google search strings will bring up results like . . .

    Next, you’ll want to identify the broken links. Here are 3 ways to find broken links:

    • Use a Chrome Extension such as Check My Links
    • Run that page through Screaming Frog
    • Use Xenu to check the page for broken links

    Once you find one, it’s time to email the site owner kindly asking to replace the broken link with your site’s URL. If the broken link is on a page referring to a particular article or resource, consider recreating a similar resource on your site so the link is natural and makes sense.

    You will be surprised how well this method works. No site owner wants a poor user experience, and getting rid of those broken links will make them happy you reached out.

    4. Discover Unlinked Mentions

    Another great way to easily earn links without toiling over guest blogging content for hours on end is to find unlinked mentions. When someone mentions your brand or business, you should get a link back right? Well, this is not always the case.

    You can, however, put on your link detective hat on and find those mentions and ask the site owners for a link. Online tools like BuzzSumo, MOZ, and Mention allow you to set up alerts for this tactic.

    The only downside is that you may need to sign up for a membership, or free trial to access this feature on most platforms. Nonetheless, it is a quick and easy way to earn links, especially if you had a piece of content go viral recently.

    5. Leverage Infographics

    Infographics are a highly shareable asset to any link building strategy, but many businesses and brands still fail to see the power they possess.

    You can pretty much create an infographic about anything. Infographics also have a very long shelf life for link building and are a fantastic way to differentiate yourself from the army of people offering free content.

    The first thing to do after you have infographic in hand is list it on infographic sharing platforms like . . .

    Visual.ly

    Infographic Journal

    Daily Infographic

    There are also a number of high authority news and blog sites you can list your infographic on as well . . .

    Fast Company

    The Huffington Post

    After you have submitted your infographics to the above sites, it is time to offer it to bloggers in your niche.

    Similar to blogger reviews, you will be reaching out offering a high value item they can share with their audience. If you have a robust social media following, be sure to mention that you will gladly share their post across all your social media networks as well.

    It is important to remember that building links the right way, to appease Google, is of great importance. You want to maintain a nice balance of do follow vs. no follow links, as well as a slow and steady link building strategy.

    Make sure you are using a mixture of strategies so that your link profile remains diversified. If guest posts are only one of several strategies you are employing, then you can continue to earn links without fear of seeing a negative impact on your organic traffic.

    The ultimate law of mobile site design: Entertain users and drive conversion

    Most consumers rely on their smartphones to make purchases and gain knowledge. In 2017, any business that lacks a mobile presence runs a serious risk of falling behind.

    But it’s not just about having a site – it needs to provide a good experience. According to Google, 29% of smartphone users will immediately switch to another site if it doesn’t satisfy their needs.

    Mobile users are goal-oriented, and they expect to find what they need from a responsive mobile instantly and easily. So punch up your conversion rates by designing your mobile site with the user’s intent and needs in focus.

    1. Homepage and navigation

    A homepage can serve as a promotional space and welcome page, but should provide users with the content they are searching for. A conversion focused homepage should tick off the following elements: concise CTAs, homepage shortcuts, minimal selling or promotions.

    Navigating on a smaller screen, it is easy for users to miss key elements on your homepage. Therefore it is advisable to put your calls-to-action where users will see them easily, such as occupying the bottom half or above the fold.

    Your call-to-action signifies the tipping point between conversion and bounce. To design calls-to-action that convert, optimize the copy and design, i.e. choice of words, color, size, fonts, etc.

    We understand the travails of losing our way in the mall or a mart? The same happens on mobile sites, the lack of navigation menus or location bars can hurt conversion. Mobile users expect to get back to the homepage with a single tap either through tapping your logo or clicking the home navigation menu. For best practices, use your logo as the homepage shortcut.

    Too often, ads and promotion beat the purpose of visiting a page and users get turned off. To entertain visitors and drive conversion, ads or promotional banners should be kept to the minimum and placed in a position which won’t affect the user experience.

    To place ads on your homepage, think like a user. What is the user trying to accomplish? Where will their attention be focused? How do I keep the page clean and uncluttered?

    By answering these questions, ad placement on your homepage will be a breeze and won’t need to negatively impact user experience.

    2. Commerce and reviews

    With an increased rate of digitization, users expect smooth mobile experiences when searching, reviewing and purchasing products. How can marketers and businesses increase their conversion rates while ensuring excellent mobile experiences for visitors?

    The answer lies in allowing visitors/users to convert on their own terms.

    For an ecommerce store, requesting that visitors sign up very early in the customer’s journey is a major turn off. Visitors will abandon a website demanding registration before they can continue, resulting in low conversion unless the site is an authoritative brand.

    For better results, allow visitors explore your site before requesting for registration and enable visitors purchase products as a guest. For mobile commerce sites, easy and quick should be the watchword when designing the checkout process.

    Best practices for mobile commerce include the availability of multiple payment options for commerce sites. Adding payments options such as Apple Pay, PayPal and Android Pay can boost conversion rates saving users the stress of inputting credit card information. For previous users, load and pre-fill their data fields for convenience in filling shipping information.

    Statistics show that 92% of consumers read online reviews before purchasing a product or doing business with a company. Meaning reviews are an important part of the decision-making process for consumers, include reviews on your web pages then allow filters be applied to these reviews. Filters such as “most recent reviews”, “most positive reviews” and “lowest ratings”.

    3. Site usability

    When it comes to mobile site design, every little detail matters. Details such as zooming, expandable images, transparency about the use of visitors data will aid conversion.

    According to studies, users found it easier to navigate a mobile-optimized website than desktop sites on smartphones. To ensure consistency, optimize every single page on your website for mobile devices, including forms, images, etc.

    Your search bar should be placed near the top of your homepage for users to search for specific products and ensure the first search results are the best. Remember to include filters on search results to narrow down users intent or preferences on your mobile site.

    Be careful not to label the link to your desktop site as full site. This might confuse visitors into thinking the mobile site is not fully featured causing them to opt for the full site, simply label the link to the desktop site as “Desktop Site” and link to the mobile site as “Mobile Site”.

    When optimizing a mobile site, remember to disable pinch to zoom on your images as this might affect the general site experience, calls-to-action will be missed and messages will be covered. Basically, upload images that are sized properly and will render perfectly on any device.

    Due to the nature of mobile devices, lengthy forms will hurt conversion when trying to gain leads. On surveys or multiple page forms, include a progress bar with upcoming sections at the top or bottom to guide users through the process.

    To aid or satisfy customers, implement auto-fill on forms for name, phone and zip code fields. For date and time fields, include a visual calendar as users might not remember dates for the next weekend but the visual calendar will stop users from leaving your page to use the calendar app.

    There are numerous resources on forms that include the use of calendars and other custom input fields, including Google forms, Xamarin Forms and FormHub.

    4. Technicalities

    While great design drives conversions, do not ignore the very foundation of your website. The following technicalities should be implemented and audited monthly.

    Implement analytics and track conversion on mobile and desktop
    Test your site as a visitor and load content in their intent
    Optimize and test your mobile site on various devices and browsers to ensure optimum performance
    Mobile ads should redirect to mobile sites, not desktop sites
    Check your site speed using Google speed tool
    Check for elements of Flash and remove them as they won’t render on iOS and slow on Android
    Submit your mobile site pages XML sitemap submitted to Google.

    Finally, run your website through Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test.

    5 UX best practices for a search engine focused website

    Irrespective of your industry, you rely on your website to build trust, build relationships, provide services, and sell products.

    Proper SEO will draw customers to your website, thereby improving your search rankings while UX helps a visitor to locate the needed information on your website and helps in starting a relationship with your prospective customer.

    Your website visitors have specific problems, and they use search engines to find the answers they seek. Once they locate a website that answers their questions, they expect to view the answers quickly and easily.

    This is why it is essential that SEO and UX complement each other to produce results. Simply put: SEO + UX = $.

    It is worthless and pointless to drive traffic to your site unless that traffic is qualified. Likewise, your website design is a waste of time if you don’t have any traffic to convert.

    Together, the focus of SEO and UX needs to be on the intent of your website visitors so that your business has a website that converts visitors into customers.

    The strategies discussed below identify 5 UX best practices for a search engine focused website.

    #1 Responsive and mobile-optimized

    If you look around any waiting room, restaurant or any other public place today, you’ll notice that most people are usually occupied with their phone. Statistics on consumer mobile usage by Smart Insights revealed that time spent on mobile devices has outgrown time spent on desktops by 51% to 42%.

    96% of Smartphone users have run into websites that were not designed for mobile devices. If a mobile user arrives at your website and your site isn’t optimized for mobile, that user is five times more likely to abandon the task and bounce off your site.

    Your website responsiveness should be given priority as Google has altered its algorithms to consider just how responsive your overall design is and reward mobile-optimized websites. This means that an irresponsive website will have difficulty ranking in search engine results.

    With more and more people making use of mobile devices, having a responsive website is easy and a must for great UX and SEO.

    #2 Optimize page speed

    Google has been very clear about the impact of page speed on its search engine ranking. Google has stated on a number of occasions that it includes page speed signals in its search algorithms. This indicates that improving your website speed will yield dividends when it comes to ranking on search engine.

    Slow web pages ruin customers experience because almost half of web users expect a site to load in 2 seconds or less. You can obtain a clear data on your web page speed performance with Google Analytics, Page Speed, YSlow, WebPagetest or Page Speed Insights.

    Slow web pages are not ideal from a UX and SEO perspective, as corroborated by Matt Cutts:

    “Speeding up websites is important — not just to site owners, but to all Internet users. Faster sites create happy users and we’ve seen in our internal studies that when a site responds slowly, visitors spend less time there. But faster sites don’t just improve user experience; recent data shows that improving site speed also reduces operating costs.”

    Below are some resources you can consult to learn how to optimize your website speed.

    • How to scale web design to improve page loading speed
    • How to optimize your page images to improve site speed
    • How to optimize your mobile site speed, Part 1, Part 2 & Part 3

    #3 Make use of rich snippets

    A rich snippet might be an image, review, video, or even an event calendar, embedded right there in the SERP listing. The initiative, of course, is to enrich the UX and to provide additional info right in the search result page, compelling the user to click on your webpage for more information.

    Website owners and marketing managers need to make use of any opportunity to lure internet searchers to click on their page instead of a competitor’s. With rich snippet, you can enhance your search results with add-ons like photos and rating, which help to draw the searcher’s eye as well as offering additional information.

    With numerous paid ads, image results, and other visually interesting elements competing for attention on the search results page, rich snippets can be that unique effect that attracts the eye and wins the click.

    Implementation of rich snippet can be done in two ways, as follows:

    • Adding microdata to the page HTML code
    • Making use of the structured data markup tool in webmaster tools (ideal for website owners who would prefer not edit HTML code)

    Very few brands implement rich snippets, so this undoubtedly is an opportunity for your website to stand out in SERPs, enhance UX and boost click-throughs.

    #4 Use Sensitive Navigation

    According to Google, “The navigation of a website is important in helping visitors quickly find the content they want. It can also help search engines understand what content the webmaster thinks is important…”

    When creating a new website or redesigning an existing one, you should consider your website’s navigation process. Website navigation can be used to enhance UX while being used to optimize for search engine also, you might choose between multiple pages or an infinite scroll across your web pages as seen on Inc.com and others.

    Designing a sensitive navigation not only improves your website UX but if applied properly can enhance your website conversion rate also. For example, bounce rate on Time.com dropped by 15 percent after they adopted continuous scrolling.

    If you have clear calls to action (CTA) working in connection with a user-friendly navigation, it will help to make it easier to drive your visitors through the goal funnels and avoid frustration for your website visitors who have to take avoidable steps to reach their final destination.

    #5 Support your content with graphics

    Good images in your content not only help to make your website content more attractive and informative, it also helps to create an aura essential for UX.

    Images help to deliver effective ideas to the user and attract interaction, and most SEO experts will tell you the benefits of optimizing your images for search as well.

    When your image and title is properly formatted with relevant keywords relevant to the content of each respective image, there will be an increased likelihood of them showing up when a related image search is carried out in search engines.

    For practical tips on how to make sure your images are properly search optimized, check out Christopher Ratcliff’s guide to optimizing your images for SEO.

    Conclusion

    It’s easy to blend SEO and UX to enhance your website’s performance, and it’s important to recognize that these two cannot work separately anymore, at least not with the same effectiveness.

    SEO will lead traffic to your site and help it attain a higher position on SERPs, however, it’s UX that will determine whether the traffic can be sustained and converted into customers.

    Thus, every site trying to improve its performance through UX and SEO should offer:

    • Attractive design that focuses on accessibility
    • Relevant, quality, and Informative content
    • Optimization of text and images to please both your site users and search engines
    • Simple and effective navigation and easy to use structure
    • Clear call-to-action, around both the users’ next clicks and around the desired conversion.

    Marketing with intent: The combined power of SEO and content

    If we can agree that the ultimate purpose of marketing is to attract attention and generate interest, then combining SEO and content marketing is a no-brainer for smart brands and marketers.

    SEO is all about creating brand visibility – it ensures that customers can find your website. Engaging content is what will make them click and stay on your website.

    SEO and content marketing, when combined effectively and intelligently, become an unbeatable one-two punch that defines the experience – and success – of your brand.

    Today’s digital world is insanely competitive; it’s always shifting and evolving. More than a billion websites are competing for the attention of today’s consumers. Millions of new pieces of content are generated every minute of every day – blog posts, whitepapers, infographics, videos, GIFs, social media updates, and much, much more.

    All of this is done in the hopes of influencing people when they are in the market to buy a product or a service. Customers are seeking out solutions on their own terms. They find brands using any number different devices, channels, and platforms. In fact, 66 percent of customers use more than one channel during the entire purchase decision journey.

    To meet and convert customer demand, it’s up to brands to be visible, be persuasive, and wow consumers at every possible micro-moment with amazing experiences. Content is the key to building these relationships. It should encourage readers to think deeply and it should invoke emotions.

    As much as people like to think their choices are based on logic or concrete facts, emotions and psychology are important parts of making decisions. People remember experiences, not text. That’s why stories resonate. Creating content and stories that resonate with an audience is key to content engagement.

    Content and SEO: One in the same?

    Because so much of the buyer’s journey happens via digital, brands must have content that is optimized, engaging, and reaching customers wherever they are. And to do this, marketers must optimize for intent.

    The types of searches users conduct can help marketers learn a lot about their intent. Searches typically fall into one of three types:

    • Navigational: The user knows a brand and uses Google or another search engines to find that specific website (e.g., “Microsoft”).
    • Informational: The user wants to learn something about a company, product, or service (e.g., “how much does Microsoft Word cost”).
    • Transactional: The user enters a highly commercial query, signalling that he or she is ready (or nearly ready) to buy a product or service and (e.g., “buy Microsoft Office 2016”).

    By combining SEO and content marketing efforts into one function, marketers can influence consumers whether they are in the discovery phase or purchase stage.

    According to new research from BrightEdge (my company) over 97% of digital marketers now believe that SEO and Content Marketing have become one and the same.

    SEO is vital to content discovery. Discovery tends to start via the organic search channel. Did you know that organic search:

    • Drives 51 percent of all visits to B2B and B2C websites
    • Has no direct media cost and extremely high returns
    • Impacts all digital marketing channels and offline sales
    • Builds brand awareness
    • Helps increase revenue?

    So it’s critical to identify keywords that demonstrate commercial intent. With this data, marketers can better understand the intent of customers and create and optimize intelligent content that is more likely to convert.

    Combining SEO and content isn’t just good in theory. Cross-channel marketing is helping marketers achieve a higher ROI. Integration results in higher conversion rates, engagement, customer retention, and brand advocacy.

    It’s critical to understand what will resonate with customers and help influence them during the decision-making journey. But to create the intelligent content that engages and converts, marketers need intelligent data. You need to know who your target audience is – their ages, demographics, locations, interests, habits, and preferences.

    How do you market with intent by combining SEO and content marketing into one function?

    Developing a powerful content optimization program takes time and careful planning, but there are five things marketers can do to establish a strong foundation.

    1. Know your audience

    Everything a brand does must revolve around the customer – the products, experience, and marketing strategy. Defining an audience allows marketers to create content on interesting and relevant topics that will grow loyal audiences and achieve business objectives.

    Yet, a surprising number of brands – 80 percent – say they don’t know their customers,

    Brands that intimately understand the motivations, pain points, and processes of their audience are best set up to deliver better and more impactful content that helps drive revenue, growth, and long-term sustainability.

    Here are three keys to marketing with intent to your audience:

    • See how people engage. Examine how customers consume and engage with your content. Identify what generates interest and results in people taking action. Adjust and optimize content as needed.
    • Think about the customer journey. Consider how customers engage with different types of content across channels and devices, at different stages, and in different states of mind. Understand conversion and buying behavior as customers move between devices (smartphones, tablets, and desktops).
    • Do ongoing customer analysis. What customers are interested in or desire today can quickly change. Performing regular analysis of customer-brand interactions. Listen and gather insights to keep up with the trends and continue delivering the right experiences.

    2. Have a purpose

    Just as a brand needs a mission statement – a stated aspirational or inspirational purpose for existing – content also must have a purpose. Every piece of content you create should have a reason for existing. Generally, the purpose of content is to inform, educate, persuade, entertain, or inspire.

    Keep purpose top of mind when developing a content strategy by incorporating the following:

    • The goal of creating and publishing content is to become a valuable resource and tell memorable stories. Incorporate customer pain points and interests into the content strategy and creation process. Also, remember these three Es:
      • Experiment: Try different content types.
      • Experience: Make your audience feel.
      • Engage: Keep them coming back for more.
    • Consistency: A brand’s voice should mimic the way its customers speak, whether it’s conversational, edgy, or professional. This voice should be consistent across all content, regardless of who creates it or where it’s published.
    • Goals: Set realistic and concrete goals for your content, whether it’s to drive awareness, organic search traffic and rankings, social engagement, conversions, or revenue.

    3. Create & optimize content

    After nailing down a target audience and a purpose, the next step is creating and optimizing content for maximum visibility. Failing to optimize content is a suicide mission. People who can’t find content, no matter how great it may be, can’t engage with that content – or the brand that created it.

    Every piece of content can always be improved through optimization, whether that content is for your website, social media, or email campaigns. Some tips:

    • Choose relevant topics: Content should be customer-centric, not brand- or business-centric. Topics should appeal based on demographics, behaviors, and interests.
    • Use the right keywords: Ditch the corporate jargon. Use words people actually use when searching for your products or services.
    • Map content to specific personas and purchase funnels: Customer journey mapping helps set up content for success from the start.
    • Mobile optimization: This is especially critical for mobile. Brands that fail to optimize for mobile get 68 percent less traffic.

    4. Combine quality & quantity

    Many marketers believe consumers are simply overwhelmed by all the content we’re creating. After all, U.S. adults consume an astounding 10 hours and 39 minutes of media every single day. According to Smart Insights, every minute 500 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube; nearly 150,000 emails are sent; nearly 1,500 new WordPress posts are published; 3.3 million new Facebook posts are published; and 448,000 new tweets appear on Twitter.

    This had led many marketers to one conclusion: focus on quality, not quantity. It makes sense in theory. After all, more content doesn’t usually mean better content.

    Yes, there is an enormous amount of content on the web in aggregate. Global Internet traffic is forecast to hit an unfathomable 2.3 zettabytes by 2020, according to Cisco.

    However, the average person has no desire to consume every piece of content that exists on the web. They want to consume intelligent content that is personalized, relevant, and helpful to them.

    • Does quality matter? Absolutely! Poorly crafted content is ineffective, won’t help you attain your goals, and can turn off potential customers.
    • Does quantity matter? Yes! Consistently telling stories and starting conversations with customers through memorable and compelling content helps keep brands top of mind.

    5. Measure results & iterate

    That which isn’t measured can’t be improved. Luckily, marketers have access to a wealth of real-time data to gain content performance insights and track metrics to determine ROI.

    Brands can learn from every content campaign, whether it failed or achieved its goals.

    • Content failures: Compare underperforming content to previously successful content (both your own and that of third parties). See where it falls short. Pay close attention to traffic, conversions, and revenue attributed to or influenced by content.
    • Content wins: Figure out what made your best content stand out. Try to replicate the success and turn anomalies into more regular occurrences.

    Below is a great framework on how best to approach SEO and content in your organization:

    Conclusion

    Optimization is critical to maximize the value of content. The right audience must be able to find the content. And the content must drive business results. Ensuring your content is search engine-friendly and optimized across the buyer’s journey is critical to the success of a combined content and SEO team.

    Google fined $2.7 billion by E.U. in anti-trust ruling

    Google has been fined a record $2.7 billion for a breach of E.U. anti-trust rules.

    The search giant was charged with giving “illegal advantages” to another Google product within search results in a case that started more than seven years ago. The case relates specifically to Google Shopping, Google’s increasingly profitable shopping comparison engine.

    This fine dwarfs the previous record fine for the abuse of a monopoly, doled out to Intel in 2009.

    The E.U. commission arrived at the figure by taking a percentage of Google’s revenue from its Shopping product across the 13 European countries in question since 2008.

    Should Google fail to comply with the terms set by the E.U. within 90 days, they will be fined 5 percent of the daily turnover of parent company, Alphabet.

    “What Google has done is illegal under EU antitrust rules. It denied other companies the chance to compete on their merits and to innovate. And most importantly, it denied European consumers a genuine choice of services and the full benefits of innovation,” stated Margrethe Vestager, the E.U. competition commissioner.

    The wider implications of this ruling

    The bigger questions now surround the precedent that this sets. There is a general consensus that the industry requires independent regulation, but that will be a lot trickier than it seems. Google would be loathe to reveal its closely guarded algorithms.

    Moreover, we are moving into an era where they may start to lose full transparency over the inner workings of their products.

    With Google – and all of its main competitors – moving their focus towards unsupervised machine learning algorithms, how exactly will they comply with these regulations? It may become impossible to prove the non-existence of bias in such a complex system in constant flux.

    The likes of Facebook and Amazon will surely see this as the E.U. making an example of Google. However, they may have cause for concern too.

    Google’s position as a search engine sets it apart, as consumers trust that the results have been ranked based on their quality. A 2014 study in India showed the persuasive power that Google holds, and this is one it is adjudged to have abused to the detriment of European consumers.

    Facebook and, in particular, Amazon, strive to dominate the e-commerce advertising market. Any potential abuses of their increasingly strong positions will be watched very closely, by both the E.U. and Google.

    Although companies like Amazon operate on different business models to Google, they are still moving towards a ‘machine learning first’ approach and will want to solidify their dominant position as the number one online shopping destination.

    With the E.U. taking such a firm stance now, it seems unlikely they will relent and accept that their algorithms are making unbiased decisions.

    What happens next?

    Google has the right to appeal, which could extend the case by another 5 to 10 years. Intel, for example, is still fighting its fine from 2009 in European courts. However, even if Google should choose to appeal, it will still need to provide proof that it has changed its business practices in line with the court’s ruling within 90 days.

    Google remains under investigation by the E.U. for giving similar advantages to two other Alphabet products, Android and AdSense.

    For more Google vs. the EU, check out our previous news story: When is a search engine not a search engine? When it’s Google, says the EU

    How featured snippets can be manipulated by private blog networks

    The sole purpose of a private blog network (PBN) is to leverage the authority of multiple sites under your control to boost rankings and authority of your main site.

    You might be thinking: didn’t Google do away with private blog networks years ago? Didn’t they remove all the authority from PBNs? The simple answer is yes – for the most part. But the truth is even if Google removed 90% of all private blog networks, it still leaves tens of thousands of them surfacing on the web with authority.

    So, if these sites still have authority, that gives them the ability to manipulate almost anything on the search engine results page (SERP). Take for instance the search term “Best Business Credit Card” and do a quick Google search. Chances are, the site you see ranking is the Simple Dollar.

    Many SEOs would never think a creditable site like the Simple Dollar would ever purchase backlinks, let alone have someone building links to their pages from private blog networks to increase the authority of these pages and acquire answer box results.

    A simple search using aHrefs will show you that this page has a high page rating (relative) and a high domain rating. The second callout I would look at here is the fact that there is a low number of referring domains in comparison to backlinks, which is typical for a large site like the Simple Dollar.

    Now, when you click the “Referring Domains” icon it will populate all the referring domains pointing to this page. Here are a few examples of private blog networks – although they don’t always look like this and are sometimes extremely hard to spot.

    • chwilowkiopole24.pl
    • debtandcredit.xyz
    • cashsuccess.xyz

    How do you spot a private blog network?

    Here are a few tell-tale signs that can give away a private blog network at work:

    • Too many links pointing externally when they only have a few inbound links
    • Multiple domains on the same IP block
    • Multiple domains linking to the same sites
    • Similarities in the domain name
    • High link to domain ratios

    Why PBNs are still effective (although you still shouldn’t use them)

    As I stated earlier in this article, Google has done a decent job at removing a lot of the junk from the web – and by junk, I of course mean private blog networks. As I have already pointed out, there are sites like the Simple Dollar that rank using PBNs to acquire an answer box result.

    I understand that it is tempting to go and hire a black hat link building service to build you links from private blog networks in hopes that you too will acquire the answer box like the competition did.

    Other than to state the obvious, the reason I would strongly recommend that people avoid using a PBN is while Google might not have caught them just yet, a future algorithm undoubtedly will. And when they implement this new algorithm, you will find yourself scrambling through all of your links one by one to avoid any further penalty by being associated with these types of sites.

    How black hat link builders can trick Google into thinking that their networks are legitimate

    Whether I’m at a speaking engagement or a client meeting, other link builders and trainees frequently ask me the same question: “Have you ever built black hat links?” The answer is always “Yes, tons!”

    When I first started link building, I would sell links to everyone all over the world. From C-Class IPs to Link funnels, writing scripts to function as humans, I sold it all. I had prices that ranged from $20 a link to packages of $1,700 for four links.

    Every time Google caught me, I found a workaround. Until it was all too much for me to maintain and I grew a conscience, which lead me to the white hat path. Just for the record, some of the best white hat link builders I have met were some of the best black hat link builders in a past life.

    I say all this not to boast, but to paint a picture: sure, you might trick Google for a period but when you get caught, everything comes crashing down and you’re left with nothing but angry clients.

    Acquiring links will be a key success metric for you to obtain Google featured snippets. Always go the route of looking at your competitor’s backlink profile first before you start building your own link plans.

    We are noticing with a number of our clients that 63% of the time, the person with a cleaner, more authoritative link profile gets the featured snippets.

    While there are many other factors that go into acquiring it, link building is by far the biggest factor we’ve seen above all others, which makes sense given it is still the largest contributing factor to the algorithm.

    The most effective ways to respond to negative reviews

    Customer reviews are one of the most important pieces of your marketing campaign, and research has indicated they may have significant impact on your ranking in search.

    In fact, 84% of consumers trust an online review as much as they would a personal referral. However, not all reviews are positive. At some point throughout the history of your business, you’re going to run into negative reviews.

    Fortunately, this doesn’t always have to be a bad thing – negative reviews can work in your favor as a business opportunity if you know how to react. Read below to learn the most effective ways to respond to negative online reviews.

    Stay positive

    Anyone who’s ever worked customer service knows how difficult it can be when a customer is attacking you. A negative review may get you upset, and as a human being your first instinct is to go on the defense, but that doesn’t mean you should become a keyboard warrior and attack the reviewer (unless you’re Wendy’s, of course, who recently spouted off Twitter battles with McDonald’s and customers alike). Unless you’re a multimillion-dollar fast food company, we don’t advise getting snarky.

    Approach all negative reviews with a calm, positive attitude. Let the customer know you’ve heard their concerns, but never point fingers. Even if you’re not in the wrong, you shouldn’t make the customer feel like the victim.

    It also doesn’t do you any good to simply ignore the review. The general public would prefer you respond than simply ignore the situation. Responding with a positive comeback will show that your business cares about its customers.

    Offer a solution

    Have you ever heard the phrase, “Sorry won’t cut it”? This is the case when you’re responding to negative comments or reviews. Simply offering an apology to your customer won’t do – a customer will want a solution to their problem. When you’re responding to a negative review or comment, let the customer know how you’ll fix the problem.

    Below is an example of a great response that offers a solution. A JetBlue customer tweeted that their in-flight TV was not working. JetBlue immediately responded with this:

    This response shows that JetBlue is empathetic towards their customer’s concerns. Then they follow up with an immediate solution.

    It’s safe to say this customer appreciated the time this company took to solve their problem in a timely manner. They instantly redeemed themselves and showed their customer’s happiness is their priority.

    Reiterate your company’s policies

    You may fear that a negative review will make your company look bad. This is only the case should you ignore the review entirely. When you respond to a negative comment, flip the negative to a positive. Use this as an opportunity to reiterate your company’s good qualities.

    For example, you can respond by saying, “We’re sorry you had a poor experience. We’ve been doing business for several years and most of our customers leave happy. We’re sorry we didn’t meet your expectations this time around.”

    Take the conversation offline

    When you receive a negative review online, you should always respond immediately on the same platform. This not only satisfies the original poster, it’s also a public place that all your potential customers will see.

    However, some things can’t be addressed online. Issues involving a customer’s personal information, for example, should be discussed in person or over the phone. When addressing these types of negative reviews, provide a direct contact for your customers.

    Taking the conversation offline shows that your business will go the extra mile to resolve any customer complaints or issues. However, you should only use this method for severe cases.

    Does your company have a customer service line? This can also be a great way to incorporate an offline conversation. In your response, give the customer the line to your customer service department to resolve any issues that can’t be taken care of online.

    Approach the customer as a real person

    We’ve all experienced the nightmare that is automatic bots. Calling into a customer service line and hearing a robot on the other end is one of the most frustrating situation a customer can go through. Consider this when you’re responding to your customers. Leave out all the industry jargon, and speak to them like they’re a real person – because they are!

    When you use plain language and speak to the customer as a human being, you’ll sound more genuine. Chances are, your customers will see you as a human as well, and not just as a business.

    Google has also taken measures to ensure that you, the business owner, isn’t dealing with automated customer reviews. This solution is called verified customer reviews, and I’ve previously written about ways that you can use the feature to come out on top.

    Ask for an update

    If you’ve responded to the customer’s review and solved the problem, don’t hesitate to ask for an updated review. Often times customers will take this upon themselves and either delete or update their negative review. Here’s an example of an updated review after an issue was solved:

    As you can see, many review sites, like Yelp, will show that this is an updated review. Once you’ve solved the customer’s issue, politely ask them if they’ll update the review online.

    Having trouble thinking of a nice way to ask? Once you’ve followed up with the customer, ask them something such as, “We appreciate your feedback, and would like other customers to know how we’ve solved your issue. Would you mind updating your review to reflect this?”

    Always make sure you thank them for their feedback, regardless if they update the review or not.

    The takeaway

    As soon as you see a negative review, your heart instantly sinks. But no matter how stellar your business is, you’re not going to make everyone happy. A few negative reviews won’t be the end of your business. Use these reviews as an opportunity to showcase your company’s outstanding customer service.

    The sooner you rectify any issues your customers have, the sooner you’ll build better rapport with your customer base.

    What tactics would you add to this list? Let us know the comment section below.

    Amanda DiSilvestro is a writer for HigherVisibility, a full service SEO agency, and a contributor to SEW. You can connect with Amanda at AmandaDiSilvestro.com.

    How JavaScript impacts page loading speed on mobile

    Screenshot shows BBC.com tested with PageSpeed Insights (as detailed in text).

    The effect of JavaScript on mobile web performance is twofold.

    One, it is the second largest contributor to webpage weight, behind images, thereby increasing download time; and two, once downloaded, the browser then needs to run the script, which can delay the downloading/rendering of other (perhaps more important) assets on the page.

    JavaScript (aka scripts or JS) is one of the triumvirate of technologies that make web pages (and web apps) work. The HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) controls the structure and content of the webpage; CSS (Cascade Styling Sheets) controls how the site looks on different devices; and JavaScript makes the page more interactive and dynamic.

    Scripts perform numerous functions on webpages such as loading ads, A/B testing, tag management (personalizing the page) or displaying an inline video player.

    Over the last five years, the total weight of pages sent to mobile devices has quadrupled to 2.2MB. Size matters because, in general, the more data that is sent over a mobile, or fixed, network the longer a page will take to load. More data, more seconds staring at an empty mobile screen.

    This suggests that images – which tend to take up more of the total kilobytes (KB) or megabytes (MB) of each page – are the main culprit. But this is not always the case.

    JavaScript could potentially have more of an impact on page performance than images. As Patrick Meenan, founder of the web performance testing site WebPageTest and software engineer at Google, explains:

    “Scripts are usually a (bigger) issue because of the time it takes to actually execute the script in addition to the download size, while images really only matter because of the download size. With mobile devices for example, it can take several seconds to run a script even after it has been downloaded.”

    It’s not necessarily JavaScript, per se, that is the problem, but how it is implemented: scripts can monopolize browser activity, blocking the download and rendering (displaying) of other content.

    “The problems are often compounded where the script is referenced in the page. The content after a ‘blocking’ script (as opposed to an async script) doesn’t exist, as far as the browser is concerned, until after the script has been downloaded and executed. When, as is commonly the case, scripts are put at the beginning of the page this means that the page will be completely blank until the scripts have downloaded and executed.”

    We will discuss below the difference between blocking, inline, synchronous (sync), asynchronous (async) and deferred scripts and how to fix JavaScript problems, but first we’ll look at how to spot issues.

    Testing for blocking JavaScript

    If you have tested your webpages using Google PageSpeed Insights (N.B. you should regularly test your mobile webpages using tools such as WebPageTest and PageSpeed Insights), chances are you have seen the following warning:

    ! Should Fix:

    Eliminate render-blocking JavaScript and CSS in above-the-fold content

    Your page has 8 blocking script resources and 7 blocking CSS resources. This causes a delay in rendering your page.

    None of the above-the-fold content on your page could be rendered without waiting for the following resources to load. Try to defer or asynchronously load blocking resources, or inline the critical portions of those resources directly in the HTML.

    The text and image above is from a Mobile PageSpeed Insights test on BBC.com conducted in February 2017.

    Note “above the fold” refers only to the part of the webpage which is visible on a mobile device, without scrolling, Google is not analyzing scripts on the rest of the page.

    The BBC is the world’s most popular English language news website, according to Alexa, so to put it in context we should also test the others in the top four. The results suggests two more publishers have similar issues with JavaScript. (The test also highlights CSS issues, but this is not the focus of the article):

  • BBC.com PageSpeed test (8 blocking scripts; 7 blocking CSS resources)
  • NYTimes.com PageSpeed test (0 blocking scripts)
  • ESPN.com PageSpeed test (2 blocking scripts; 3 blocking CSS resources)
  • CNN.com PageSpeed test (6 blocking scripts; 2 blocking CSS resources)
  • 4x growth in JavaScript use in five years

    Over the last five years the amount of JavaScript used on the average mobile page has almost quadrupled from 101KB in February 2012 to 387KB in February 2017. The number of requests (a request is the number of times a browser is required to download an additional piece of content or code) for different JavaScript files has increased from 8 to 21.

    This is clearly illustrated in the graph below from HTTP Archive. HTTP Archive tests the top 1 million sites several times every month using data from WebPageTest, and publishes trends and stats that are essential benchmarking for the performance of your site.

    For the top 1 million sites monitored by HTTP Archive, JavaScript accounts for 17.4% of page weight. JavaScript also accounts for 21 out of 93 total requests (22.6%).

    For some sites, particularly in the news space, JavaScript has a considerably larger share of page weight than the norm.

    The image below compares the breakdown by content type for the average site with BBC.com tested by HTTP Archive (15 February 2017):

    • The first thing to note is how impressively small the BBC page size is: 609KB v 2225KB.
    • The second thing to note is how small the combined size of the BBC images: 70KB v 1501KB.
    • The third thing to note is how proportionally large the scripts are: 458KB or 75.2% of total page size.
    • The fourth thing to note (not shown in the charts below) is that 39 (44.3%) of the BBC’s total 88 requests are scripts.

    Two pie charts compare the content breakdown of the average mobile site with the BBC. A much larger proportion of the BBC homepage is scripts.

    When you compare the test results of the top four English language news websites, it is remarkable how much smaller the BBC is than its rivals. It is a one-third to a half of the size, with two to three times less JavaScript.

  • BBC.com tested by HTTP Archive: Scripts 458KB (75.2%) of 609KB of total data; 39 JS requests (44.3%) of 167 88 total requests.
  • NYTimes.com HTTP Archive test: Scripts 1511KB (51%) of 2953KB of total data; 73 JS requests (43.7%) of 167 total requests. (N.B. NY Times has a dedicated mobile site at mobile.nytimes.com, which is not listed by HTTP Archive, which may deliver different results.)
  • ESPN.com HTTP Archive test: Scripts 1183KB (65.7%) of 1802KB of total data; 50 JS requests (47.2%) of 106 total requests.
  • CNN.com HTTP Archive test: Scripts 1484KB (68%) of 2182KB of total data; 67 JS requests (31.9%) of 210 total requests.
  • What is the effect on mobile page speed?

    So does it follow that the slim-line BBC site would load much faster than all its rivals?

    Err, no. On 15 February 2017, HTTP Archive recorded the following load times:

  • BBC.com: 18.3 seconds
  • NYTimes.com: 27.4 seconds
  • ESPN.com: 8.8 seconds
  • CNN.com: 31.5 seconds
  • So, the BBC is faster loading on a mobile device than CNN and the New York Times, but considerably slower than the (larger) ESPN.

    This is what the two sites look like on a mobile device. (The filmstrip is one of WebPageTest’s most visually compelling features, easily understood by any non-techie). Each frame represents 1 second. When the HTTP Archive test took place, for 9 seconds BBC.com mobile visitors saw nothing, while for 4 seconds ESPN visitors saw nothing.The image shows two filmstrips of the BBC.com and ESPN.com homepages loading on a mobile device.

    There could be many reasons why one website might be faster than another, such as server response times, use of content delivery networks (CDN), the impact of ad networks, inclusion of third-party data (common on news sites), or the time and place of the test (in this case California, USA).

    However, all other things being equal, it is possible that JavaScript could be a contributing factor. (Apologies for the hedging of bets). As noted above, BBC.com did receive more warnings for blocking scripts above the fold than the other news sites.

    Reducing reliance on JavaScript

    JavaScript is often used to perform tasks that cannot (easily) be done with HTML or CSS. As the W3C gradually add these features to the HTML or CSS standards and they are implemented by browsers, the JavaScript patch is no longer needed, as HTML/CSS is likely to be more efficient. A good example of this is responsive images.

    Alex Painter, Web Performance Consultant at NCC Group:

    “As a rule, it’s worth sticking to the principle of progressive enhancement – delivering a site that works without JavaScript and using scripts only for those extra features that can’t be done any other way.

    “Using JavaScript to render content can be expensive – it takes time to load and execute. So, for example, if you can use HTML and CSS to achieve the same result, that’s generally going to be faster.

    “When it comes to responsive images, for example, you can use media queries in CSS and picture/srcset in the HTML to deliver the right image for the viewport without having rely on JavaScript.”

    Choose asynchronous and deferred JavaScript over blocking and inline scripts

    There are a number of ways that JavaScript can be implemented on a webpage, including:

  • Blocking scripts are synchronous which means they have to be dealt with immediately and ahead of anything else. By default, all JavaScript is parser blocking. As the browser does not know what the script will do to the page, as soon as it meets a request (in the HTML file) to download a JavaScript file, it stops building the webpage, and does not continue until the file is downloaded and executed.
  • Inline scripts also stop the page build, but as they are included in the HTML, they do not need to be individually downloaded. However too large or too many inline scripts will bloat and delay the initial download of HTML file.
  • Asynchronous scripts allows the browser to continue parsing (analyzing the code and building the webpage), while the JavaScript file is downloaded. Including the async attribute in the HTML tells the browser that it doesn’t need to put everything on hold.
  • Deferred JavaScript – tells the browser to leave the execution of the JS file until after it has finished building the webpage, this is signified with the defer attribute.
  • Are blocking scripts ever justified?

    Patrick Meenan:

    “If the site functionality relies on the code, then it needs to be run as a blocking script so that it is ready before the page needs it. A very common case for this is tag managers and A/B testing platforms where the code will change the page. In other cases blocking is used when it will be more work to load the functionality asynchronously.”

    Reducing size of JavaScript files

    How big is too big? How many requests is too many?

    This will always be a balancing act.

    Patrick Meenan:

    “Since the browser will only load six requests at a time for each domain, if you have more than that it needs to request the rest after the first ones have completed, leading to longer times from the request/response delays.

    “Larger JavaScript files also take longer to parse and run (1ms for every 1KB of uncompressed JS is a reasonable estimate). All else being equal, if you have the same amount of JS in a lot of files it will take much longer to load than if the same amount of JS was in a single file.”

    Google recommends minification of JavaScript files using UglifyJS or Closure Compiler.

    For more on how to optimize the speed of your mobile site, check out our previous three-part series:

    • How to optimize your mobile site speed: Testing for issues
    • How to reduce the impact of images on your mobile site speed
    • How to optimize images for mobile: Implementing light, responsive, correctly-formatted images

    Andy Favell is Search Engine Watch’s columnist on mobile. He is a London-based freelance mobile/digital consultant, journalist and web editor. Contact him via LinkedIn, or on Twitter at Andy_Favell.