What are the big areas of opportunity, what's changed, and what's stayed the same?
SEO as a marketing discipline is going through a growing pain of sorts. There's been a lot of talk lately about the terminology we use in the industry to describe our work, notably "The Brand of SEO and the Trend of Inbound Marketing" and "The Industry Case For and Against SEO."
It's an important debate to have, and no doubt, will be a continual discussion within the industry. But more importantly, it makes me ask questions about what role SEO should play today.
SEO remains a very important channel. Increasingly, public relations teams, social media managers, and brand managers are thinking strategically about SEO when they run their campaigns. Search as a marketing vehicle has steadily risen in demand.
Search also happens to be one of the most efficient, ROI-focused, and measureable channels in the history of marketing.
We all know SEO is important. But what specifically should we be using SEO for in 2012? What are the big areas of opportunity, what's changed, and what's stayed the same?
Search Attribution: Giving Proper Credit
In most attribution studies, the tendency is to undervalue SEO. It's a complex problem, to be sure, but can be "thin sliced" by simply looking at the macro data.
My colleague Mark Ballard's analysis of the retail industry has shown that 63 percent of all search orders had a single touch of either PPC or SEO and just 10 percent of all search orders had both a PPC and SEO touch.
Startling data. But what does it mean?
Please read the above link to get a deeper look at this, but the key thing to remember is that brand and non-brand segments behave very differently. We often refer to brand search as "navigational," being that the searcher is actively looking for a specific entity. In distinction, we refer to non-brand search as "competitive," being that the searcher isn't specifying a brand and is instead looking at a category, product, or piece of information.
The bottom line is that competitive search is where you want to play. Navigational search results are often credited in aggregate with competitive results, clouding the picture. While we most often encounter this on the paid side, we see marketers making the same mistakes on the organic side. Competitive, non-branded SEO is what it's all about, and where the focus of your ROI should be placed.
Knowing that about two-thirds of all search orders had a single touch (in retail, the focus of our analysis), it becomes clear that while SEO and PPC integration are essential, the two channels also need to stand on their own two feet. Companies must do both disciplines well, then share learnings cross-channel to inform each respective campaign. With so much independence of traffic, this data also validates other studies we've done on PPC and SEO that showed little cannibalization.
What Really Matters With Mobile SEO
Google has a history of being flaky about mobile SEO, so it was refreshing this week when Bing came out with a strong recommendation for responsive design (a single URL to serve all content, mobile, or web). The problem is that answer is not ideal. The best approach to mobile is a hybrid model that caters content delivery to the specific needs of the user. In some cases, having dedicated, mobile-specific sites and content is the right thing to do.
Regardless of the technical approach, what's important with mobile is how it impacts the bottom line. And our data has shown that mobile devices have vastly different conversion rates.
While the Kindle Fire has jumped to third place in terms of overall tablet traffic (closely tied with Android), it still represents a tiny fraction of marketshare compared to the iPad's 88 percent. More importantly, however, is that conversion metrics by device show the iPad far out-performing any other tablet device (and the iPad is very competitive with desktop in this category). The Kindle Fire performs poorly for a tablet, with a conversion rate roughly 76 percent lower than the iPad.
Depending on your users and target market, the iPad may be the device to focus on. That simplifies technology decisions, at least until things change, which might be a while.
Social and the Link Graph
All signs (so far) point to Google failing to create meaningful adoption in Google+. There, I said it.
"Social is not a product. Social are people, and those people are on Facebook."
The truth distilled clearly by this ex-Googler's daughter when he showed her Google+.
Sure, his perspective is clouded by his new alliance with Microsoft. But boy is it telling, and surely adds to the mounting negative views out there from very influential folks.
Not helping is the latest data from Pew Internet, which is also compelling: two-thirds of searchers view personalized results as a bad thing.
While Google hasn't struggled with reach - now boasting over 90 million Google+ users - it has struggled with adoption and engagement. The average time a Google+ user spends on the site: about three minutes per month. The average time a user spends on Facebook: over six hours.
Google is desperate to create a social graph (it's now calling Google+ a "layer") that will augment, or maybe someday even replace, the link graph and PageRank model. Google seeks to understand not just content, but also relationships, people, authors, authorities, and influencers. It wants the PageRank of people!
The problem is, Facebook already has this data, and to a lesser extent, so does Twitter. Google+ is late to the party. Instead of creating adoption through innovation and embracing what users want, or even partnering, it is cramming Search Plus Your World down users' throats.
Here's the irony: having said all that, having a Google+ brand page is today an absolute requirement. When someone "circles" your brand page in Google+, that can dramatically change the SERP and their results (in your brand's favor). The same is true for personal accounts and authors.
Google+ has become a mandate within Google. Therefore, it's become a mandate for SEO.
Search (and the web more generally) is going toward HTML5 and microformats. Author profiles and other rich snippets are already appearing in competitive SERPs and new schemas are popping up all the time. Fancy HTML5 annotations now help with SEO pagination and international region targeting.
Then there's Panda, which above all else puts the focus on user metrics. Do what you can do to engage users, to lure them into clicking on your organic result, and to keep them on your site and give them a reason to come back.
We've entered a new era of SEO, and no matter what we choose to call it, it's an exciting place to be.
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Adam is president of RKG, a data-driven digital marketing agency with leading service and technology solutions in paid search, SEO, display, attribution, social media, and comparison shopping.
Prior to joining RKG, Adam was president and founder of the boutique SEO agency AudetteMedia, which served premier brands including Zappos, Amazon, Gannett, Kroger, HSN, Charming Shoppes, University of Phoenix, Michelin, Wolters-Kluwer, and many others.
Adam has been active in the search marketing industry since the late '90s and is a frequent speaker at premier industry events including SMX and SMX Advanced, Searchfest, SES, BlueGlass, MozCon, and Pubcon.
He has been a regular contributor to Search Engine Land and Search Engine Watch, and has served as technical editor for Wiley/Sybex publications such as, "SEO: An Hour A Day". You can follow him at @audette.
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