How URL hijackers are disrupting banks’ PPC campaigns

I usually write about search marketing, analytics and conversion optimization, but I felt it was important to share a discovery I made recently.

I noticed a major phishing scam hijacking the paid search ads of financial and banking companies on brand keywords. The activity was discovered by an alert I received from BrandVudu, a third-party risk compliance and brand protection tool.

The alert uncovered paid search ads that look like official bank or credit card brand ads, but when a consumer clicks the ad, the landing page is a phishing website.

In this example the tactic follows this pattern:

1. An ad is triggered on brand or brand-plus searches for popular bank and credit card keywords (e.g., brand + “ login” or “low APR credit card offers”)

2. The ad contains a display URL for the financial institution, and therefore appears genuine and official.

3. Consumers who click on the ad are misdirected to a phishing site which attempts to get the user to call a phone number. After this the following events take place:

  • The site claims that malware has been downloaded onto the user’s machine, along with a troubling pop-up, and loud sound effects including warning bells.
  • The user is directed to call 844-813-5760 or 800-646-0707, which identifies the virus as the ZEUS virus, in order to get assistance from either Apple or Microsoft support.
  • In some cases, the pop-up or the tab can be easily closed. In other cases, the entire computer screen is blocked by the warning message and the only way to get out of it, if you are a Windows user, is to use Task Manager to kill your browser program.
  • The landing page looks like the below, depending on whether you are a Mac or Windows user:
  • BrandVudu identified the following URLs where consumers are being directed. These URLs seem to rotate daily, with new URLs being used every few days:

    Destination URL
    Landing Page
    Date Detected
    Knowdailyhoroscope.com
    majorwarnings.online/alert/chrome_win
    March 6, 2017
    Freedictionarydefinition.com
    virushelp.xyz/alert/chrome_win

    March 6, 2017
    clickingads.online

    helpvirus.xyz/alert/chrome_win
    March 2, 2017
    thesaurus-dictionaryonline.com

    pc-helps.xyz/network7026/chrome_win
    March 2, 2017

    Source: BrandVudu

    Why aren’t these scams being caught?

    Misleading ads are a problem, as evidenced by the 2016 Bing Ads Quality Review showing millions of ads needing to be blocked. You would think that popular malware solutions would find these phishing scams and alert users, right?

    I thought the same thing, but a scan of the above Destination URLs using several top malware scanners revealed green “all-clear” good grade for each site.

    The phishing sites are fooling the scanning companies by misdirecting the scanner to a legitimate URL. When they’re visited by a crawler used by malware scanner tools, they usually send users to the actual financial institution website. Scans are performed and land on the legitimate site, therefore a good grade is returned.

    Specifically what happens is the phishing site performs a check on the visitor and sends the visitor in one of two directions:

    • If the visitor is an anti-virus scanner or ‘crawler’, the visitor is pushed to the proper financial institution landing page or other real site, which looks legitimate and fine; or
    • If the visitor is a person (i.e. using a detectable browser), then the phishing site directs the user to the malware phishing site.

    This misdirection is the likely culprit as to how the phishing scam can circumvent the search engine’s own audit checks.

    The financial implications for bank advertisers

    While you might view this simply as a nuisance to be expected in the world of online ad fraud, the implications are in fact much more serious. Financial institutions could potentially be subject to regulatory inquiries plus the erosion of good will in their brand names.

    The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), for example, is the government watchdog that makes sure financial ads are not taking advantage of consumers. They’ve been very active in the last two years, filing multi-million-dollar lawsuits against offenders.

    Further, the lawsuits are made public, so even if advertisers can pay the fine, they suffer a huge black eye in the press with already wary consumers.

    Takeaway

    If you are on the paid search team of a financial institution, government site, or credit card company, it is recommended that you take the following steps to ensure your ads are not being attacked:

    • Use a third-party risk assessment tool to monitor your brand and brand plus keywords. There are many options for this; I used information from BrandVudu for this article. Other tools include The Search Monitor, iSpionage and AdGooroo
    • Report issues to the search engine’s trademark compliance team for immediate take down
    • Document your findings to protect against an audit by a regulatory agency.

    If you are reading this article and you are a search engine e.g. Google or Bing, your editorial teams may need additional tools to catch these scams.

    6 tips for creating content to capture short attention spans

    How images help you beat your readers' attention span

    It’s not easy nowadays to win over your audience in an abundance of online content, and the short attention span of human beings isn’t making things any easier.

    It’s always a challenge to make your content stand out, but this doesn’t mean that you should be discouraged from creating it.

    As the average human attention span has dropped to just 8 seconds, however, how can you make content that captures your audience’s attention before it’s gone?

    Learn your audience

    This is the first thing that will help you beat the readers’ attention span. It is very important to understand your audience, as this will help you create more relevant content for them.

    Here are some tips for understanding your audience:

    • Analyse your existing content and the response it received
    • Monitor your channels and the readers’ reactions to your content
    • Measure the time spent on your site
    • Bounce rate is another metric that indicates whether your content is appealing to your audience
    • Perform keyword analysis to devise new ideas that are relevant for your audience
    • Monitor your competitors’ content and find the gaps that you can fill in.

    Focus on structure

    Having well-structured content helps readers to stay longer on your page. It’s not just the quality of the content that maintains readers’ interest, but also the way you present it.

    A clear and organized structure makes it less strenuous for readers to digest your content, so remember to:

    • Organize your content into paragraphs
    • Don’t create lengthy sentences that make reading harder
    • Use headings to divide up longer chunks of text
    • Use lists and bullet points to facilitate quick reading (like this!)
    • Add takeaway tips at the end of your content to help readers digest the most important parts.

    Use images

    As with a good content structure, images make reading a page more appealing.

    From the header or feature image that offers an introduction to the topic (which may also be the image used on your social shares), to the additional images included throughout the text, images help to separate one section from another in the most engaging way.

    They also help the eyes relax from a long sequence of text (which might otherwise be a little dull to read), while making it easier for the brain to process what it just read.

    Moreover, images can offer additional value with the use of quotes, stats, or even tips that facilitate quick reading. These images can double as shareable content on your readers’ social feed, giving you more mileage from your content.

    Don’t hold back from long-form content

    You might assume that a short attention span will require an equally short piece of content for consumption. This is not always the case, as well-executed long-form content is still a valuable asset to your blog.

    Provided that you’re adding value to a topic they find interesting, length should not discourage your readers from consuming your content. Remember that long-form content doesn’t have to be boring: structure and images can contribute to make the reading experience easier.

    In fact, according to Orbit Media Studios, blog content is getting longer year by year. In 2016 the average blog post length was 1054 words – up from 887 words in 2015.

    This is a good reminder for all of us that there’s no need to be afraid of longer content. All you need is to focus on relevance and a good user experience to keep people engaged on the site.

    Involve different types of content

    If you want to appeal to a wider audience, then you might have to experiment with different types of content. There’s no need to limit your creativity to plain text, especially if you can include other formats like:

    • Infographics
    • Presentation slides
    • Video
    • Podcasts
    • GIFs

    Every type of content serves its own goal, and all of them can enhance your message.

    For example, if you want to turn a complicated concept into a simpler analysis, then a visually​ appealing infographic​ can be useful.

    If you want to find new ways to repurpose your content, then you can turn a blog post into a presentation, a video, or a podcast.

    These allow you to promote your content across new platforms and reach the right audience with the right type of content. And many of these content formats are more engaging to time-starved audiences than a text-based post.

    After all, content marketing is all about being creative with your content and its distribution.

    Use social proof

    If you’re wondering how social proof can convince your audience to spend more time on your site, here’s an example of how it can work in practice.

    We all have more chances to read the content that our friends, or our favourite influencers, share on their social feeds. This is due to the trust that we’ve built up with them, and the belief that their approval serves as the credential we need to visit a page.

    This can become even more important if it’s about a page that we haven’t visited in the past.

    It’s not a bad idea to build relationships with other people to ensure that our site’s content reaches more people. This way the connection becomes more genuine and there are more chances for new readers to actually pay attention to our content.

    Creative Ways to Use Instagram Albums for Your Business https://t.co/KjmVcgfXAT via @jenns_trends | Terrific! 💡🎨📸#fbbriefing

    — Mari Smith Ⓜ️ (@MariSmith) March 25, 2017

    Get rid of distractions

    If you want to maintain your readers’ attention while reading your content, you have to test your page for any distractions.

    It’s easy for the reader’s eye to be distracted by a pop-up, a shiny sidebar, or even untidy formatting. That eye-catching banner ad might be doing its job extremely well – and it may also be competing with your content for attention.

    Content success is all about focusing on the reader and the browsing experience. That’s why it’s always useful to switch sides and visit your pages from time to time as a reader.

    What do you notice first?

    Are you willing to spend enough time to read the content?

    Is there something you need to change?

    Takeaways

    It’s useful to keep in mind that the shorter the attention span, the bigger the challenge to appeal to your audience.

    This doesn’t mean that your content can’t win your audience over. All you have to is to keep in mind some tips for making it more appealing:

    • Use a short and descriptive headline
    • Create a clear structure
    • Include images to separate blocks of text
    • Experiment with different types of content
    • Consider the use of social proof to build trust with the audience
    • Be as relevant as possible
    • Don’t underestimate the importance of quality content – whether long or short-form.

    Five most interesting search marketing news stories of the week

    Welcome to our weekly round-up of all the latest news and research from the world of search marketing and beyond.

    This week, the mysterious “Google Posts” feature has made another return to the SERP, this time with GIFs and videos – could it be here to stay?

    Plus, why marketers aren’t investing in the hottest new technologies as much as you might think; and Google announces a new type of search product with “shortcuts in search”, which could mean big changes for SEO and paid search.

    Google Posts return – with GIFs and videos

    Google launched its “Posts” initiative during the US presidential election last year to relatively little fanfare.

    Dubbed an “experimental new podium”, Google Posts has since come and gone from the SERP several times, each with as little explanation as the first. Now it has reappeared in searches for several US sports teams, including the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees – complete with GIFs and videos.

    Clark Boyd took a look at the new incarnation of Google Posts this week and considered what Google could be seeking to accomplish with the feature.

    Google’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’ ad could be the future of paid voice search

    Google sparked a small firestorm last week when reports surfaced that its intelligent assistant device Google Home had delivered what appeared to be an unsolicited advertisement to unsuspecting owners: a plug for the new ‘Beauty and the Beast’ live-action film.

    Al Roberts took a look at the reactions to what Google denies was an ad, and considered whether this could potentially be the future of “voice PPC”.

    Google announces “shortcuts in search” – can it get users on board?

    Google announced this week the launch of “shortcuts in search“, a new means of discovering quick answers to information via a set of tappable shortcuts within its Android app.

    But will this initiative take off, what will it mean for SEO, and how will Google manage to integrate paid ads into this new search experience? Clark Boyd examined the new feature on Search Engine Watch and considered how it could impact search rankings, what paid placements might look like, and whether Google can get users on board.

    Despite the hype, most marketers not investing in hot new technologies

    Fear of missing out, or FOMO, apparently isn’t a concern for marketers when it comes to new marketing technologies.

    According to a survey conducted as part of OnBrand Magazine’s State of Branding Report 2017, marketers are well aware of the new technologies that are expected to be important to their brands in coming years, but the majority aren’t rushing to invest in them before they’re fully-baked.

    Of the more than 550 marketing executives and brand managers OnBrand Magazine surveyed, 65% have no plans to invest in new technologies like 360-degree video, virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), chatbots and beacons in 2017.

    So why aren’t marketers interested in these new technologies just yet? Al Roberts looked into the reasons why marketers are holding back from investing in newer innovations at the moment – and what it is they’re spending their money on instead.

    Google to wind down Site Search by the end of 2017

    Search Engine Land reported this week on the news that Google is due to sunset its Site Search product by the end of 2017.

    Google Site Search, as it says on the tin, is an internal site search product which is powered by Google’s search technology, and is charged by monthly query volume.

    Site owners who have been using Site Search up until now will be encouraged to move onto either Google’s ad-powered Custom Search product, or its new Cloud Search.

    Google told Search Engine Land in a statement:

    We are winding down the Google Site Search product over the next year, but will provide customer and technical support through the duration of license agreements. For GSS users whose contract expires between April 1st and June 30th, 2017, we are providing a free 3-month extension with additional query volume to allow more time for them to implement the necessary changes to their site.

    Is Google’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’ ad the future of paid voice search?

    Google sparked a small firestorm last week as reports surfaced that its intelligent assistant device Google Home had delivered what appeared to be an unsolicited advertisement to unsuspecting owners.

    The reports first emerged on Reddit and Twitter, where users who own Google Home devices posted that Google slipped in an ad for Disney’s new Beauty and the Beast movie.

    As one user explained on Reddit:

    This morning while I was getting ready for work, I did my usual “Okay Google, good morning”. After information about the time and weather, my google home said something along the lines of “By the way, Beauty and The Beast opens in theaters today. In this version, Belle is the inventor. Sounds more like it to me.”

    A mixed response from Home owners

    Not surprisingly, many of the Google Home owners who heard the ad were not pleased. “Why in hell would I ever pay someone else to advertise to me, in the privacy of my own home no less?” one Twitter user asked.

    “Wow, Google. You were doing so much better than Siri. Then you just threw that all away. Siri may suck right now at many things, but at least I know that Apple will never inject her with ads,” a Redditor wrote.

    Other comments suggested that some consumers would no longer consider purchasing Google Home based on the presence of advertising.

    But according to Google, the ad wasn’t an ad. First, a spokesperson told Business Insider, “This isn’t an ad; the beauty in the Assistant is that it invites our partners to be our guest and share their tales.”

    Later, as video of the ad playing made the rounds, Google followed up with another statement.

    “This wasn’t intended to be an ad. What’s circulating online was a part of our My Day feature, where after providing helpful information about your day, we sometimes call out timely content. We’re continuing to experiment with new ways to surface unique content for users and we could have done better in this case.”

    Unfortunately for Google, if it walks and talks like an ad, it’s probably going to be considered… an ad. At least by consumers and the media.

    The future of monetizing voice search?

    Of course, Google is one of the most powerful ad companies in the world, so the fact that it experimented with an audio ad on Google Home isn’t exactly surprising.

    As more and more consumers interact with devices that have intelligent assistants, such as Google Home and Amazon Echo, it’s natural that companies in the digital advertising ecosystem are going to be interested in experimenting with audio ads, which could be a killer app for monetizing these devices.

    For Google, the interest is potentially necessary. After all, if more and more consumers come to search for information through voice-based intelligent assistants instead of screen-based devices, it could have a negative impact on Google’s other ad products, especially AdWords.

    New Beauty & the Beast promo is one way Google could monetize Home. cc: @gsterling @dannysullivan pic.twitter.com/9UlukSocrO

    — brysonmeunier (@brysonmeunier) March 16, 2017

    There has been some speculation in the search industry about whether we might see a transition to a “SERP-less search” as voice search becomes more mainstream.

    In this eventuality, there has always been the question of what might happen to paid search, and how search engines would monetize the new SERP-less landscape. Well, we may have just found the answer to that question.

    In spite of Google’s denials that the Beauty and the Beast product placement was an ad, we could be looking at – or listening to – the future of paid voice search.

    A version of this article, ‘Has advertising arrived on Google Home?’ originally appeared on our sister site ClickZ.

    Biometrics and neuroscience: The future of digital analytics?

    Closeup of magnifying glass near ruler and pen on paper background with business chart

    Advertising has always been about emotions. Emotions lead to actions and, as such, influencing emotions is the most effective route to influencing actions.

    Actions, in turn, become habits, and these habits are the driving force that creates global brands. Marketers have never hesitated to exploit this relationship – in fact you could even argue that it’s the job of a marketer to do so.

    But we aren’t capable of influencing everything that drives human behavior. In his classic 1895 work on human psychology, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, Gustave Le Bon wrote:

    “The greater part of our daily actions are the result of hidden motives which escape our observation.”

    This holds true today, and it unsettles us as digital marketers. The utopian message that underpins our industry is that everything is measurable, with Google AdWords the gold standard bearer in this regard.

    Le Bon’s statement is a truism that haunts Facebook, which offers a new form of engagement between consumers and brands, but has been plagued by measurement scandals of late.

    Google’s great success has always been in that accurate measurement of actions, and the easily calculable positive ROI that CMOs crave.

    Facebook brings that paradox inherent in the quotes from Le Bon and Bernays back to the fore in our industry, as it simply isn’t sufficient to measure actions alone on Facebook.

    Google is not immune to these criticisms, either. We have seen this in quite sensationalist terms recently, with Google’s YouTube and Display Network coming under fire for a lack of control on their placements.

    This is all the more shocking because we feel let down when the realization hits home that, within current technological restraints, perfect targeting and measurement aren’t quite within our grasp.

    Why have we strayed from campaigns designed to shape emotion?

    In digital marketing – particularly in search – the truth is that we have never really aimed to shape emotions in our audiences. We understand that emotion is an important driver, but it lends itself more readily to what some dismiss as ‘fluffy metrics’. Therefore, this lies outside the realm of the cold, hard numbers that we take to represent the ineluctable truth of campaign success or failure.

    This makes sense, placed in context. As a direct response mechanism, search comes into play once the work to shape emotions has already been done. To be successful, we need to make optimal use of those efforts (TV campaigns, for example), or make up for branding shortfalls, to maximize sales.

    That role is slowly changing, and in fact it must do so, if the same companies who managed Google PPC campaigns are now planning to engage in Facebook, Pinterest or Snapchat advertising.

    Although all are driven by the auction-based bidding systems that PPC specialists have come to master, the core aspect that will determine the fate of each campaign is an element we have focused on much less in the past: creative assets.

    To date, we have come to understand what behavior is, but we still don’t understand why consumers take the actions that they do.

    The challenge of measuring emotion online

    Leaving aside the ongoing battle between Facebook and Google over data ownership, notably the difficulties in sharing data across their reporting platforms, the fact of the matter is that we will never be comparing apples to apples when we assess these two rivals.

    Put simply, the most successful Facebook campaigns manage to shape emotions through great creative, and drive actions through intelligent targeting.

    However, even with that in mind, until it cracks measurement Facebook will not be able to overtake Google as the digital advertiser’s go-to platform. Reliable tracking and measurement are non-negotiable aspects of a digital campaign, no matter how great the possibilities may be for using more aspirational creative messaging.

    Applying a rational framework to an irrational interaction will inevitably and invariably come up short, but it’s the best we have. Measuring the subconscious is an undeniably complex task, but it is of pressing significance as brand spend slowly permeates its way into digital channels.

    Just 5% of content attracts 90% of total digital engagement, so clearly we’re getting this wrong so far. In fact, 95% of all content out there is getting single-digit views.

    That level of inefficiency is unsustainable, so we simply need to get better at understanding our audience.

    Whoever manages to resolve this paradox could gain access to significant branding budgets, so it should be no surprise that the usual suspects are investing heavily in this area.

    How are the tech giants approaching this?

    The approaches taken by Google, Apple and Facebook fall broadly into two camps: biometrics and neuroscience.

    Progress has been swifter in the former camp, but we should not surmise from these advancements that biometrics alone will provide the answers we seek.

    Biometrics techniques measure physical characteristics (pupil dilation and facial expressions, for example), while neuroscience is the study of brain functions and patterns of brain activity. Both tasks are Herculean, but the big tech companies are more likely to make notable gains with biometrics in the short-term.

    Google and ‘Satisfaction Value’

    Google is planning to incorporate biometrics techniques into its search algorithms, which will also be driven by reinforcement learning.

    SEO by the Sea reported on a very interesting patent last year, which contains this image:

    This is a crudely-drawn example and perhaps reflects how long Google still have to go in this field, but it is still both a mixture of exciting and disconcerting. Google has termed this metric ‘satisfaction value’, and the measurement of facial expressions will no doubt be viewed in some quarters as overly intrusive.

    Google’s Jeff Dean made the following comments to Fortune magazine, which shed some further light on what is going on here:

    “It is like in a board game where you can react to how your opponent plays. Eventually after a whole sequence of these actions you get some sort of reward signal.

    An example of a messier reinforcement learning problem is perhaps trying to use it in what search results should I show.

    There’s a much broader set of search results I can show in response to different queries, and the reward signal is a little noisy.

    Like if a user looks at a search result and likes it or doesn’t like it, that’s not that obvious.”

    It’s not that obvious, but it could be discernible if Google had access to more data and more sophisticated technology in this field.

    The patent also reveals that Google aims to make use of other biometric parameters, including eye twitching, facial flushing, heart rate, body temperature, and blink rate.

    As with all such moves, we can expect this to happen incrementally, to the extent that consumers may not even notice these features slowly make their way into their daily lives.

    Biometric measurement is just phase one, of course. Facial expressions are limited and open to interpretation, so Google and its rivals will be looking for a further level of confirmation before using this as conclusive evidence.

    Neuroscience may ultimately provide the answers to the eternal questions of what really drives people to take actions, but this field understandably will take longer to arrive at those conclusions.

    Google is certainly not alone in investing heavily in this area. Just last year, Apple acquired Emotient, a tech company that uses artificial intelligence to infer emotions from facial expressions.

    The stage has been set and, given Apple and Google’s respective shares of the smartphone market, once the technology has been mastered, its mainstream adoption will occur quickly – maybe even surreptitiously.

    From emotion to action, from action to habit

    It is worth considering the vast array of data sources already at our disposal, along with the hardware and software that seek to unite this into one unified view. The average consumer is in possession of products built by exactly the same companies that seek to harness their personal information for commercial gain.

    If tracking and measurement catch up with these developments, there may come a time in the not-too-distant future when reporting dashboards and planning documents pay heed to metrics that go far beyond estimated CTR and CPM, to assess the anticipated emotional reaction their creative assets will attract.

    That is an alluring prospect and is one that allow our industry to develop significantly, with the possibilities for click fraud reduced and the rewards for useful content increased.

    For now, it would be fair to surmise that digital marketers do not refuse to acknowledge the role of emotion in driving actions; it is rather the case that we have made a rod for our own back by insisting on the measurability of everything we do. Until emotion becomes measurable as a contributor towards improved performance, this area may remain an untapped source of creative inspiration.

    However, with the collective might of Google, Facebook and Apple, fed by the hastening effect fierce competition has on progress, we may soon enter a fascinating and illuminating era for digital marketing.

    The culmination of this process could ultimately see us deliver on the goal of measuring the motives which have, thus far, escaped our observation.

    Can Google get users on board with “shortcuts in search”?

    Google announced yesterday the launch of “shortcuts in search”, which will allow Android users (only in the US, for now) to access quick answers on a range of topics with the touch of a button.

    Fittingly, Google has termed these “tappable shortcuts” and they will lead searchers to instantaneous information on dozens of topics, including sports, restaurants, local amenities, and entertainment.

    The new feature is available within the Google app in the US, although users will have to upgrade the app to the latest version before the shortcuts are accessible.

    As Google continues its relentless release of new mobile-first products, this announcement is entirely aligned with the search engine’s strategy to keep pace with – and anticipate – trends in user behavior.

    Tappable shortcuts lend themselves to a search experience that is more open-ended in nature than traditional Google queries. Notably, they also remove a fundamental element of the Google experience: either typing or voicing a query.

    In a wider ecosystem that now includes maps, the knowledge graph, and structured data, it is understandable that Google has chosen to make this move now. With the addition to their fold of hardware like Google Home and the Pixel smartphones, combined with an upgraded Assistant on all Android phones, Google seems closer than ever to unifying the digital user journey.

    The following (very short) video was also released yesterday to demonstrate how ‘shortcuts in search’ will work:

    But will this initiative take off, what will it mean for SEO, and how will Google manage to integrate paid ads into this new search experience?

    Will Google convince users to get on board?

    The first phase will be to convince its vast user base to transition across to this way of discovering information.

    The actual functionality underpinning this change has not been updated; it is merely a more streamlined way to surface information. Google Now has offered access to many of these features for some time, but user behaviors can be slow to change.

    One could even suggest that this launch is Google giving a nudge to the public to show them just how much is possible through their products now.

    At SMX West yesterday, Google’s Jason Douglas summarised one of their core objectives as simply trying to find the “easiest way to help the user get things done.”

    No doubt, achieving that goal would go some way to convince people to take the small step of updating an app.

    A mass migration of users to this app would have myriad benefits for Google. By keeping users enclosed within its own ecosystem of information, Google gains access to their data and, just as crucially, keeps those users out of Facebook’s grasp.

    With machine learning at the core of everything Google does now, all of that data will only serve to improve the accuracy of search results, and those improved results will convince users to stay on the app.

    How will Google rank these results?

    This is an important question for SEO professionals, although it is a little early to answer it conclusively. Its degree of importance will also, of course, depend on just how many users elect to search by tapping on shortcuts.

    Intriguingly, Jason Douglas implied at SMX West yesterday that as part of the wider Actions on Google initiative, consumers will be able to set preferences, not just on their sports teams or favorite restaurants, but also on the brands they like most.

    Douglas went on to add:

    “We’re trying to decide now how sticky those preferences should be. In some cases, you can set some preferences in the app. We’re trying to learn as we go. For shopping, is it convenience or best price that matters most? There are a lot of new ranking and quality challenges.”

    The ramifications of that statement could be far-reaching, and it is understandable that Douglas chose to equivocate slightly on these points, refusing to take a definitive stance on such an important point.

    Nonetheless, it is certainly plausible that user ‘preferences’ on certain brands would factor into personalized organic search results.

    The advice to SEOs in that eventuality is as trite as it is true; all we can do is create great content and exceptional user experiences to ensure we make our way onto the preferred brands list.

    Will Google offer paid placements?

    Google has been open in stating that this new environment presents a huge challenge to its paid search business. Voice search is best suited to providing just one answer, which leaves little room for paid placements.

    The inherent complexities for an auction-based bidding model like AdWords in this scenario are subtle and difficult to disentangle, but this is especially true if users state an overt preference for one brand over another.

    For example, if a user has selected Kayak as a preferred flight aggregator over Skyscanner, how would that affect the price each would have to pay to rank first on that user’s travel searches? How would Google factor that into its auctions, at a grand scale?

    If Skyscanner did choose to pay an inflated rate for first position, how would that sit with the user, who no doubt would recall selecting Kayak as their preferred brand?

    These are challenges that Google is all too aware of, but there can be little doubt that ultimately, they will find a way to monetize this trend if it does take off.

    What should we expect next?

    We should expect any attempts to monetize this to be tentative at first – especially in the wake of the opprobrium raised by the recent ‘Ads on Google Home’ fiasco.

    That said, Google’s decision to make these updates has been driven by what it foresees to be a new way of discovering information.

    Therefore, we can first expect Google to entice users to use its new range of hardware and software through their ubiquity and ease of use, before making those first forays into transforming its paid search model to an interaction that no longer requires a user to search.

    How to create SEO-friendly content

    Good content is important, but it also needs to rank high on SERPs if you want to reach a wider audience with it. Here’s how to create search engine-friendly content.

    Quality is always important when producing new content, but it’s the SEO that can boost your efforts of reaching a target audience.

    SEO-friendly content doesn’t have to be difficult or time-consuming, provided that you understand how on-page SEO can work alongside your content.

    Here’s how to create content that both your audience and search engines will enjoy.

    Create original content

    There’s no point in creating new content if it’s not authentic enough to stand out. Even if you come up with an idea from a different source, it’s still up to you to offer your unique perspective that will add value to the particular topic.

    Copyscape is a plagiarism checker that can help you test your site’s content for its originality. Duplicate content, by and large, is not appreciated by search engines and it won’t help you rank higher in SERPs.

    If you find it difficult to come up with new content ideas, here are 21 quick ways to find inspiration for your next topic.

    Optimize the title

    Your headline is among the first things that users will come across when carrying out a search. This makes them important, and it’s useful to brainstorm as many variations as you can until you land on the best candidate.

    Using your focus keyword in the headline can also be a good idea, but don’t try too hard to include it. Use power words and avoid redundancy to create a clear and appealing result. Aim for a headline of 55-60 characters, as this is what Google will display on the SERP.

    Also, make sure that your URL is relevant to the title, rather than a sequence of numbers that only makes it more complicated.

    Focus on structure

    It’s not just the content, but also its structure, that helps search engines decide on the results they’ll display first. Thus, a clear structure with headings and paragraphs that facilitate reading are preferred both from a user perspective and also from a search perspective.

    Headings also help search engines get a quick overview of your content, which is why it can be beneficial to feature your focus keyword at least once.

    Whether you follow the structure of H1 to H6, or simply add H2 and H3 headings at relevant points throughout the text, consistent structure in your pieces of content is appreciated.

    Use keywords

    Keywords are less often used nowadays as the first signal to indicate what your post is about, but they are still helpful to offer an overview of the topic you’re focusing on.

    Keyword research is still useful when trying to decide on the most interesting topics for your audience. Keywords can still be part of your content, provided that they are added in context and at the right balance. There’s no need to sacrifice the quality of your content to include more keywords, as keyword stuffing can lead to the opposite of the result you want.

    Moz Keyword Explorer

    Aim for readability

    The readability of your content has to do with the simplicity of its language, the lack of grammatical or syntactical errors, and the sentence structure.

    Online readability tests allow you to learn the “reading age” someone needs to understand your content, and they depend on:

    • sentence length
    • number of syllables per words
    • frequency of passive voice

    Despite the different readability formulas, you can still gain valuable insights on your writing that become even more useful if you want to target a wide audience.

    Is your content suitable for the audience you want to target?

    Include internal and external links

    Internal links can help you prove your authority in a particular field by creating a logical sequence from one post to the other. This may lead to a series of posts that offer additional value, making it easier for search engines to understand your key topics.

    External, or outbound, links indicate that you are well aware of the topics you’re writing about, to the extent that you’re ready to use further sources to support your content. It’s more useful to link to reputable sources, as these links have bigger credibility.

    Beware, excessive linking, either internal or external can lead to the exact opposite results. Make sure that every link serves its own purpose in your content.

    Optimize images

    The optimization of your images provides an additional opportunity to show up in search results, this time in image search.

    As visual content becomes more and more prominent, it cannot be left out of SEO. Luckily it’s not time-consuming to optimise your images. All you have to do is keep in mind a few simple tips:

    • Always keep the file name relevant
    • Be careful with the file sizes, as they affect the page speed
    • Don’t forget to add alt text, or else a title for your image
    • Think like a user when naming your images
    • Focus on quality images and avoid generic ones

    How to optimise images for SEO

    Focus on the user

    Every piece of content should have the user in mind. This also applies to SEO. You can’t create your next piece of content, or carry out keyword research, without knowing your audience.

    What does your audience expect from you?

    How can you enhance the user experience?

    Does your site sabotage your content?

    All the questions above can be answered by paying closer attention to your site, your content, and your target audience. Google rewards pages that focus on user experience, so never underestimate the power of the user.

    Takeaway tips

    If you want to create SEO-friendly content, here’s what you need to remember:

    • Focus on user intent
    • Be authentic
    • Come up with the best headlines for your content
    • Pay attention to the content’s structure
    • Use keywords wisely
    • Edit, proofread and aim for readability
    • Use both internal and external links to add further value
    • Optimize all your images to gain new opportunities for search ranking.

    The SEO benefits of using WordPress to publish your content

    Creating and launching a fully-fledged website is not enough to get your brand noticed by itself.

    In order to improve your online visibility, you will need to carry out SEO (search engine optimization) practices.

    If you want to achieve a higher ranking on Google and other search engines, you’ll need to get serious about search engine optimization. Luckily, if you use WordPress as your Content Management System (CMS), there are a number of in-built features that make optimizing your content for search significantly easier.

    So what is it that makes WordPress such a strong platform for SEO? Let’s take a look.

    1. Permalink Structure

    Permalinks are the permanent URLs for your web pages, posts, categories and tag archives. It is the web address used to link to your individual blog post and web page. By default, permalinks look something like this:

    http://mysite.com/p?=17

    This structure makes it difficult for search engine crawlers to read and index your web pages and posts. That means you will need to make it more accessible for both search engines and we visitors.

    Fortunately, WordPress allows you to customize your URL permalinks for each of your posts and pages, adding a clear description of your page’s content as well as any relevant keywords – this makes your URL structure search-engine friendly.

    To change your default permalink URLs, you will need to go to Settings → Permalink. You can change it either using /post-name/, or /category/post-name. You can also set it using date and name, but I would prefer you to use “Post Name” to optimize your permalink structure for search engines. The custom permalink URL structure will look something like this:

    http://mysite.com/%postname%/

    Tip: After creating a custom permalink structure, make sure you save all the changes.

    2. Easy to create SEO-friendly titles

    The “title tags”, or the title of a blog post, is one of the crucial aspects when it comes to getting a better ranking on search engine result pages. The title tags not only tell search engines what your web page is all about, but also leave the first impression on the people who see your post title in the search results.

    Since search engines focus more on the initial words of the titles, make sure you add your keywords at the start of your title tag – this will help you rank better. So, WordPress allows you to optimize your title tags for SEO using the All-in-One-SEO-Pack plugin:

    After installing this plugin, you will need to access your WordPress admin panel → go to Settings → All in One SEO Pack and add the following:

    • Post Title: %post_title%
    • Page Title: %page_title%

    This will help you create unique, engaging, relevant, and search engine friendly title tags for your site, which in turn increase your CTR as well as page views.

    3. Creating unique Meta Descriptions for SEO

    A meta description is a snippet of content that you can see under the page link within a Google search result page. It gives a brief summary of your blog post or a web page to both the search engine bots as well as web audiences. This will help you get better ranking on SERPs.

    It means that creating unique, engaging and search engine friendly meta descriptions for all your posts and pages can improve your visibility across search engines, and can also help you get a higher click-through rate.

    The default WordPress settings makes it easy for you to optimize your meta descriptions for Google and other search engines. Better yet, you can use the Yoast SEO plugin or All in One SEO Pack to automatically create SEO-friendly meta descriptions for your WordPress site.

    4. It’s easy to generate an XML Sitemap in WordPress

    WordPress allows you to create and submit an XML sitemap easily to search engine webmaster tools. An XML sitemap allows you to tell Google and other search engine bots about all your web pages and posts exist on your site. It simply allows search engine crawlers to read and index your site quickly and easily.

    Luckily, WordPress offers a ton of plugins that can help you generate an XML sitemap for all your pages, posts, custom post types, categories, and tags. You can use Yoast SEO, or Google XML sitemap plugins to let search engines better index your WordPress site.

    For an example: We are using Yoast SEO plugin to generate an XML sitemap for your WordPress site. After installing and activating the plugin, you will need to enable the XML Sitemaps. To do that, go to the SEO → XML Sitemaps and click on the checkbox to enable this functionality.

    Make sure you configure it and save the settings. This will generate the sitemap for your WordPress site.

    5. Use of categories and tags

    The main purpose of categories and tags are to help web visitors navigate your blogs quickly and easily, which in turn, help you get a better search ranking (if used properly). In a nutshell, categories are the table of contents for your blog, while tags are the index that helps a search engine to interpret your blog’s subject matter with ease.

    Both the categories and tags help you create a better structure and allow Google to notice it while indexing the blog posts of your WordPress. So, make sure you have all the subcategories, and have a well-structured post to make it as easy as possible for search engine crawlers to “read” your content.

    To add categories, you will need to go to the Posts → Categories and Tickets → Labels.

    Ensure that you use the best tricks to optimize the categories and tags in WordPress for SEO.

    6. Simple and clean code

    The code behind WordPress is simple and clean, allowing search engine bots to index your site with ease. Since it is an open source platform, you will see constant modifications in terms of security, performance, and functionalities to let Google and other search engines to position your site higher up the SERP.

    Although WordPress already performs well in this particular area, making sure that you install well-coded themes and plugins to ensure the high quality of your WordPress site.

    7. Optimization of Images for SEO

    If you want to drive more web traffic towards your site, then you can’t overlook image optimization. It is one of the crucial aspects of good SEO.

    Image optimization is all about creating engaging, relevant image titles and alt text so that you will get better visibility on Google and other image search engines. WordPress makes it easy to add titles and alt text to your images when you upload them to its CMS, so that image optimization is simply a matter of filling in the right fields.

    8. Linking to related posts

    Allow search engines to crawl your older posts quickly and easily using the related posts plugin. It is a great WordPress plugin that can help you add a link to related posts within your new content, thereby increasing your SEO capabilities with ease.

    The plugin makes it incredibly simple to add related posts to your blog posts and pages, re-ordering related posts via drag and drop functionality, without generating a single piece of code.

    Other key points on WordPress SEO:

    (a) Since Google loves fast-loading websites, WordPress makes it easy for you to optimize the speed of your site by:

    • Compressing the CSS and JS files
    • Minimizing HTTP requires
    • Optimizing image file sizes
    • Using Caching
    • Use of CDN services
    • Upgrading the core WordPress, installed themes and plugins on a regular basis.

    (b) WordPress enables you to create a new page with fresh, updated and improved content to help you get better ranking on SERPs.

    (c) It’s easy to tweak the slug of an old version of a post to post-name-original.

    Wrapping up

    If you use WordPress as your Content Management System (CMS), these tips should hopefully help to you use it in the most effective way to boost your search ranking.

    All you need to do is understand the out-of-the-box WordPress SEO functionalities and how get the most out from them, and you can drive quality traffic towards your website.

    Google Posts: GIFs and Videos published directly to SERPs

    To relatively little fanfare, Google launched its “Posts” initiative during the US presidential election campaign last year.

    The launch was accompanied by a landing page that labeled this “an experimental new podium”. That same landing page remains live, unchanged, and with the same call to action at its conclusion to “Join the Waitlist”.

    Google Posts seemed to be a stripped-back version of Google+, devised with the intention of at least maintaining some of the functionality of a social network after sunsetting Google+.

    The main premise of Posts had ostensibly been to work as a one-way social platform, where brands or individuals could publish (and be indexed instantly), but without the requisite mechanisms to allow the audience to engage in conversation with the poster or ‘like’ the update.

    Since that tentative launch, Posts has perennially appeared in and disappeared from the SERPs in various guises, each time with very little fanfare. It initially appeared to be being trialed by a select few small businesses, then was spotted during Google I/O the following May, being used to publish live conference updates directly to the SERP.

    A few months after that, Google Posts reappeared in search results for a charter school in New York, KIPP NYC, and then disappeared again. Each time, users have remained in the dark about whether a fully-fledged roll-out of Google Posts might be on the horizon, and nothing much has happened in this space to justify the tag ‘experimental new podium’. However, that may be set to change.

    I noticed during a routine search for [red sox] that gifs were autoplaying within the knowledge graph sidebar, both on desktop (as in the screenshot below) and also on mobile.

    This is particularly eye-catching and is in line with numerous other Google initiatives to bring a sense of vitality and immediacy to its results, most notably in the shape of Accelerated Mobile Pages and the decision to allow emoji in select organic results.

    Although the Posts initiative itself is not new and nor is its inclusion within search results, there is a clearly-labeled ‘New’ box in the top right of this section to alert users of a change.

    The same was observed for [yankees], so at least Google shows no clear bias in that sense:

    This has been spotted by others in the last few weeks, although it does seem that is being rolled out in a piecemeal fashion.

    The two entities that appear to be taking part in this partnership with Google are Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League, as seen in the screenshot below in a search for the ice hockey team [new york rangers]:

    If it’s new, what has changed?

    GIFs were also spotted in SERPs on a few occasions when Google+ was up and running, but again this was isolated to a few brands, and it was clear that this was being pulled from their own Google+ account.

    What is most noteworthy in this instance is that these results may not be showing up as a result of direct action from each individual sports team.

    It is therefore worth assessing the source of the posts to ascertain whether brands will be expected to update their feed on an ongoing basis.

    This is quite vital if we want to know where this platform could go in future, as it helps us define whether this is a streamlined social media network (more in line with Twitter than Facebook) or more of an automated content syndication platform.

    Back to the Red Sox example for further investigation.

    First of all, clicking on an individual post, as it appears within the SERP, opens up a larger window containing the image or GIF. As you can see from the screenshot below, this is all contained within the same results page:

    Clicking on the ‘More’ link leads to the original post which, intriguingly, is hosted on MLB.com rather than the Red Sox Google Posts page.

    As such, this could be a welcome boon for brands like Major League Baseball, who will undoubtedly receive increased traffic. This will be of great interest to publishers, as there is the tantalising possibility of a new avenue to get their content in search results, should the initiative go mainstream.

    The Red Sox ‘profile page’ is really just a feed of images and external links to more in-depth content – all of which are hosted on MLB.com.

    This arouses the suspicion that the functioning of Google Posts is changing, especially as this seems to be the case across all MLB teams. The same is also true of many ice hockey teams, which link out to NHL.com from all of their posts.

    As a result, it is plausible that the partnership here is between the sites hosting the content (MLB.com, NHL.com) and Google, with the individual sports teams acceptant beneficiaries of the increased engagement.

    In the initial announcement about Posts, the selling point was said to be that individuals or brands could publish directly to Google. That requires a certain complicity; one would have to take action to set this process in motion by posting content via Posts, whether fully-formed or just a link to an external site.

    In our coverage from March 2016, we noted that a few small businesses had been given access to Google Posts. There didn’t appear to be much in the way of consistent rationale for choosing these particular businesses over others, although their feeds are all still live.

    The fact that the links from the Red Sox are invariably from one website suggests that Google is automatically pulling these links through to its search results when they go live on MLB.com. This differs from the small business accounts, which are composed of unique updates written for Google Posts.

    This demonstrates an important and telling distinction from the original functioning of Posts, and could be one with far-reaching implications.

    What is Google seeking to accomplish through Posts?

    The reasons for doing this are self-evident.

    Eric Schmidt was very public in admitting that the company “missed the boat” on social media, their only real foray into the market being their overdue and (in hindsight) always-doomed Google+.

    That is a substantial missing piece in the jigsaw for a company that is competing with Facebook to maintain its digital advertising dominance.

    Speed is of the essence, as indicated by the growing presence of AMP pages in search results.

    Of course, it stands to reason that having brands publish directly on a Google platform is of great benefit to the search giant, as it has a significant task on its hands to crawl, index, cache, and serve everything that is published on the web instantaneously.

    Moreover, one reason for using Google+ as a content distribution platform in the past was simply that it led to faster indexing. If Posts can offer the same benefit, especially if updates about a brand are pulled automatically from relevant websites, there will be a clear use case for most companies.

    What could this mean for businesses and marketers?

    The results pages are crowded as it is, so the addition of GIFs could only serve to intensify the battle for consumers’ attention spans. However, as always, we can expect Google to test this in detail before taking the plunge and releasing the functionality to the masses.

    One concern is that Google may give prominence to these results over other social networks, notably Twitter, in order to ensure its own success. Perhaps the reason for such a tentative entry into this space is the hope of avoiding another newsworthy social media misstep, should the initiative fail to take hold.

    The waitlist for Google Posts has been open for quite some time now, after all, but very few companies are active on the platform. Either demand is suspiciously low or (more likely) Google is taking its time on this one.

    That said, any opportunities to increase organic traffic are very welcome nowadays, and that could be what Posts comes to offer us.

    For now, we can only join the waitlist and patiently look forward to an invitation to start Posting.

    Five most interesting search marketing news stories of the week

    Welcome to our weekly round-up of all the latest news and research from the world of search marketing and beyond.

    This week, Mobile World Congress confirms that mobile video is massive; Pinterest has launched its new Lens visual discovery tool to the US; and Target’s stock has reached a two and a half year low, despite being confirmed as the most effective marketer in retail.

    Meanwhile in the UK, Google has come under fire over its advertising appearing next to extremist material; and Chinese search giant Baidu has released an AI-powered transcription app.

    Mobile video is massive at Mobile World Congress

    The annual Mobile World Congress in Barcelona recently drew to a close, but industry pundits and publishers are continuing to analyze the the discussions and product demonstrations that were held over the Congress’ four days.

    One thing that the Mobile World Congress confirmed, says ClickZ mobile expert Andy Favell, is that mobile video is the most important trend in marketing at the present moment.

    If video is the new mobile (Facebook CEO Zuckerberg told shareholders in February 2017 that the company was going “video-first” because “video is a megatrend on the same order as mobile”), then mobile video is the giant honeypot.

    And publishers, broadcasters, social media, content creators and creative/digital agencies are swarming all over it.

    In his column for ClickZ, Favell examines the continued rise of native advertising in the context of video, why brands are falling in love with video, the impact of data and whether brands and agencies need to rethink video production.

    Pinterest launches its Lens visual discovery tool to the US

    As we’ve reported on Search Engine Watch in recent months, Pinterest is continuing to evolve into a force to be reckoned with in visual search, and its future business model clearly seems to revolve around the ability to help users discover visual ideas using its platform.

    To that end, Pinterest has just launched the long-awaited Lens, a visual discovery tool that works by using a person’s smartphone camera to detect an object and find visually similar items on Pinterest.

    Search Engine Watch contributor Clark Boyd took the new tool for a test drive to see how well it works in practical terms, and what this might mean for visual search.

    Target is confirmed as the top digital retail marketer – so why is it struggling?

    According to the newly-released The Best Digital Marketers in E-Commerce report, produced by Internet Retailer, Target is the most effective marketer in online retail.

    The reports scored how effectively each ecommerce brand marketed itself across email, paid search, organic search and social media marketing, and Target Corporation walked away with the crown thanks to its use of up-to-the-minute marketing tools, and use of customer data to target (ha, ha) its marketing.

    So why, then, has Target missed earnings expectations and seen its stock reach a two and a half-year low? Al Roberts looks into why, despite having developed an effective digital marketing engine, Target has been forced to cut into margins, and still isn’t driving sufficient foot traffic to its physical stores.

    British advertisers pull Google ads over extremist content

    Google has come under fire in the UK and seen a number of British advertisers withdraw their business over the past couple of days, after it emerged that their advertising was appearing next to extremist material online.

    The British government, the Guardian newspaper and Channel 4 are among those who have pulled advertising from Google and YouTube in the wake of the discovery, and Google has been summoned for discussions in the Cabinet Office to reassure the government on how it plans to deliver “the high quality of service government demands on behalf of the taxpayer.”

    Isba, an organization representing some 450 British advertisers, also called on Google to review its advertising policies.


    Image by Personeelsnet, available via CC BY-SA 2.0

    At the heart of the controversy is programmatic advertising, which automates the process of buying and selling advertising online, but can result in advertising material appearing in unforeseen places. Late last year, a number of brands and groups – including Kellogg, U.S. Bank and the Anti-Defamation League – discovered that their advertising was being displayed on the extremist “alt-right” website Breitbart News.

    Baidu launches AI audio transcription app SwiftScribe

    Baidu, the Chinese internet giant and China’s answer to Google, is making artificial intelligence its focus for 2017.

    In February China’s National Development and Reform Commission appointed Baidu to lead a new AI lab, and in the same month, Forbes wrote that “Baidu is currently considered to be pack leader amongst the Chinese internet giants as they race to develop and deploy machine and deep learning technology.”

    This week we are beginning to see the fruits of Baidu’s labor, as Baidu announced the launch of SwiftScribe, a web app which uses AI to help people transcribe audio recordings more quickly.

    A blog post by Baidu Research announcing the tool called SwiftScribe “a breakthrough in AI-powered transcription software”, and claimed that it had the power to cut transcription time down by 40 percent.

    “The core technology powering SwiftScribe is Baidu’s speech recognition engine, Deep Speech 2. Its neural network, which is trained on thousands of hours labeled audio data, learns to associate sounds with certain words and phrases. In addition to advanced ASR technology, we designed intuitive shortcut keys and innovative human-computer interaction to solve the problem of discontinuity, one of the biggest obstacles users face when transcribing.

    SwiftScribe was designed for anyone who does transcription regularly – freelancers, transcriptionists working for transcription service companies, and data entry specialists. Because of its wide user base, SwiftScribe has the potential to positively impact a range of industries that benefit from transcription, including medical and healthcare, legal and law enforcement, business, media, and others.”