How to generate links that drive traffic, not just ranking

Links are a crucial element of search engine optimization, and columnist Kevin Rowe believes that long-term SEO success relies on building links that drive real traffic. The post How to generate links that drive traffic, not just ranking appeared first on Search Engine Land.

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The Complete Guide to Direct Traffic in Google Analytics

Posted by tombennet

When it comes to direct traffic in Analytics, there are two deeply entrenched misconceptions.

The first is that it’s caused almost exclusively by users typing an address into their browser (or clicking on a bookmark). The second is that it’s a Bad Thing, not because it has any overt negative impact on your site’s performance, but rather because it’s somehow immune to further analysis. The prevailing attitude amongst digital marketers is that direct traffic is an unavoidable inconvenience; as a result, discussion of direct is typically limited to ways of attributing it to other channels, or side-stepping the issues associated with it.

In this article, we’ll be taking a fresh look at direct traffic in modern Google Analytics. As well as exploring the myriad ways in which referrer data can be lost, we’ll look at some tools and tactics you can start using immediately to reduce levels of direct traffic in your reports. Finally, we’ll discover how advanced analysis and segmentation can unlock the mysteries of direct traffic and shed light on what might actually be your most valuable users.

What is direct traffic?

In short, Google Analytics will report a traffic source of “direct” when it has no data on how the session arrived at your website, or when the referring source has been configured to be ignored. You can think of direct as GA’s fall-back option for when its processing logic has failed to attribute a session to a particular source.

To properly understand the causes and fixes for direct traffic, it’s important to understand exactly how GA processes traffic sources. The following flow-chart illustrates how sessions are bucketed — note that direct sits right at the end as a final “catch-all” group.

Broadly speaking, and disregarding user-configured overrides, GA’s processing follows this sequence of checks:

AdWords parameters > Campaign overrides > UTM campaign parameters > Referred by a search engine > Referred by another website > Previous campaign within timeout period > Direct

Note the penultimate processing step (previous campaign within timeout), which has a significant impact on the direct channel. Consider a user who discovers your site via organic search, then returns via direct a week later. Both sessions would be attributed to organic search. In fact, campaign data persists for up to six months by default. The key point here is that Google Analytics is already trying to minimize the impact of direct traffic for you.

What causes direct traffic?

Contrary to popular belief, there are actually many reasons why a session might be missing campaign and traffic source data. Here we will run through some of the most common.

1. Manual address entry and bookmarks

The classic direct-traffic scenario, this one is largely unavoidable. If a user types a URL into their browser’s address bar or clicks on a browser bookmark, that session will appear as direct traffic.

Simple as that.

2. HTTPS > HTTP

When a user follows a link on a secure (HTTPS) page to a non-secure (HTTP) page, no referrer data is passed, meaning the session appears as direct traffic instead of as a referral. Note that this is intended behavior. It’s part of how the secure protocol was designed, and it does not affect other scenarios: HTTP to HTTP, HTTPS to HTTPS, and even HTTP to HTTPS all pass referrer data.

So, if your referral traffic has tanked but direct has spiked, it could be that one of your major referrers has migrated to HTTPS. The inverse is also true: If you’ve migrated to HTTPS and are linking to HTTP websites, the traffic you’re driving to them will appear in their Analytics as direct.

If your referrers have moved to HTTPS and you’re stuck on HTTP, you really ought to consider migrating to HTTPS. Doing so (and updating your backlinks to point to HTTPS URLs) will bring back any referrer data which is being stripped from cross-protocol traffic. SSL certificates can now be obtained for free thanks to automated authorities like LetsEncrypt, but that’s not to say you should neglect to explore the potentially-significant SEO implications of site migrations. Remember, HTTPS and HTTP/2 are the future of the web.

If, on the other hand, you’ve already migrated to HTTPS and are concerned about your users appearing to partner websites as direct traffic, you can implement the meta referrer tag. Cyrus Shepard has written about this on Moz before, so I won’t delve into it now. Suffice to say, it’s a way of telling browsers to pass some referrer data to non-secure sites, and can be implemented as a <meta> element or HTTP header.

3. Missing or broken tracking code

Let’s say you’ve launched a new landing page template and forgotten to include the GA tracking code. Or, to use a scenario I’m encountering more and more frequently, imagine your GTM container is a horrible mess of poorly configured triggers, and your tracking code is simply failing to fire.

Users land on this page without tracking code. They click on a link to a deeper page which does have tracking code. From GA’s perspective, the first hit of the session is the second page visited, meaning that the referrer appears as your own website (i.e. a self-referral). If your domain is on the referral exclusion list (as per default configuration), the session is bucketed as direct. This will happen even if the first URL is tagged with UTM campaign parameters.

As a short-term fix, you can try to repair the damage by simply adding the missing tracking code. To prevent it happening again, carry out a thorough Analytics audit, move to a GTM-based tracking implementation, and promote a culture of data-driven marketing.

4. Improper redirection

This is an easy one. Don’t use meta refreshes or JavaScript-based redirects — these can wipe or replace referrer data, leading to direct traffic in Analytics. You should also be meticulous with your server-side redirects, and — as is often recommended by SEOs — audit your redirect file frequently. Complex chains are more likely to result in a loss of referrer data, and you run the risk of UTM parameters getting stripped out.

Once again, control what you can: use carefully mapped (i.e. non-chained) code 301 server-side redirects to preserve referrer data wherever possible.

5. Non-web documents

Links in Microsoft Word documents, slide decks, or PDFs do not pass referrer information. By default, users who click these links will appear in your reports as direct traffic. Clicks from native mobile apps (particularly those with embedded “in-app” browsers) are similarly prone to stripping out referrer data.

To a degree, this is unavoidable. Much like so-called “dark social” visits (discussed in detail below), non-web links will inevitably result in some quantity of direct traffic. However, you also have an opportunity here to control the controllables.

If you publish whitepapers or offer downloadable PDF guides, for example, you should be tagging the embedded hyperlinks with UTM campaign parameters. You’d never even contemplate launching an email marketing campaign without campaign tracking (I hope), so why would you distribute any other kind of freebie without similarly tracking its success? In some ways this is even more important, since these kinds of downloadables often have a longevity not seen in a single email campaign. Here’s an example of a properly tagged URL which we would embed as a link:

https://builtvisible.com/embedded-whitepaper-url/?…_medium=offline_document&utm_campaign=201711_utm_whitepaper

The same goes for URLs in your offline marketing materials. For major campaigns it’s common practice to select a short, memorable URL (e.g. moz.com/tv/) and design an entirely new landing page. It’s possible to bypass page creation altogether: simply redirect the vanity URL to an existing page URL which is properly tagged with UTM parameters.

So, whether you tag your URLs directly, use redirected vanity URLs, or — if you think UTM parameters are ugly — opt for some crazy-ass hash-fragment solution with GTM (read more here), the takeaway is the same: use campaign parameters wherever it’s appropriate to do so.

6. “Dark social”

This is a big one, and probably the least well understood by marketers.

The term “dark social” was first coined back in 2012 by Alexis Madrigal in an article for The Atlantic. Essentially it refers to methods of social sharing which cannot easily be attributed to a particular source, like email, instant messaging, Skype, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger.

Recent studies have found that upwards of 80% of consumers’ outbound sharing from publishers’ and marketers’ websites now occurs via these private channels. In terms of numbers of active users, messaging apps are outpacing social networking apps. All the activity driven by these thriving platforms is typically bucketed as direct traffic by web analytics software.

People who use the ambiguous phrase “social media marketing” are typically referring to advertising: you broadcast your message and hope people will listen. Even if you overcome consumer indifference with a well-targeted campaign, any subsequent interactions are affected by their very public nature. The privacy of dark social, by contrast, represents a potential goldmine of intimate, targeted, and relevant interactions with high conversion potential. Nebulous and difficult-to-track though it may be, dark social has the potential to let marketers tap into elusive power of word of mouth.

So, how can we minimize the amount of dark social traffic which is bucketed under direct? The unfortunate truth is that there is no magic bullet: proper attribution of dark social requires rigorous campaign tracking. The optimal approach will vary greatly based on your industry, audience, proposition, and so on. For many websites, however, a good first step is to provide convenient and properly configured sharing buttons for private platforms like email, WhatsApp, and Slack, thereby ensuring that users share URLs appended with UTM parameters (or vanity/shortened URLs which redirect to the same). This will go some way towards shining a light on part of your dark social traffic.

Checklist: Minimizing direct traffic

To summarize what we’ve already discussed, here are the steps you can take to minimize the level of unnecessary direct traffic in your reports:

  1. Migrate to HTTPS: Not only is the secure protocol your gateway to HTTP/2 and the future of the web, it will also have an enormously positive effect on your ability to track referral traffic.
  2. Manage your use of redirects: Avoid chains and eliminate client-side redirection in favour of carefully-mapped, single-hop, server-side 301s. If you use vanity URLs to redirect to pages with UTM parameters, be meticulous.
  3. Get really good at campaign tagging: Even amongst data-driven marketers I encounter the belief that UTM begins and ends with switching on automatic tagging in your email marketing software. Others go to the other extreme, doing silly things like tagging internal links. Control what you can, and your ability to carry out meaningful attribution will markedly improve.
  4. Conduct an Analytics audit: Data integrity is vital, so consider this essential when assessing the success of your marketing. It’s not simply a case of checking for missing track code: good audits involve a review of your measurement plan and rigorous testing at page and property-level.

Adhere to these principles, and it’s often possible to achieve a dramatic reduction in the level of direct traffic reported in Analytics. The following example involved an HTTPS migration, GTM migration (as part of an Analytics review), and an overhaul of internal campaign tracking processes over the course of about 6 months:

But the saga of direct traffic doesn’t end there! Once this channel is “clean” — that is, once you’ve minimized the number of avoidable pollutants — what remains might actually be one of your most valuable traffic segments.

Analyze! Or: why direct traffic can actually be pretty cool

For reasons we’ve already discussed, traffic from bookmarks and dark social is an enormously valuable segment to analyze. These are likely to be some of your most loyal and engaged users, and it’s not uncommon to see a notably higher conversion rate for a clean direct channel compared to the site average. You should make the effort to get to know them.

The number of potential avenues to explore is infinite, but here are some good starting points:

  • Build meaningful custom segments, defining a subset of your direct traffic based on their landing page, location, device, repeat visit or purchase behavior, or even enhanced e-commerce interactions.
  • Track meaningful engagement metrics using modern GTM triggers such as element visibility and native scroll tracking. Measure how your direct users are using and viewing your content.
  • Watch for correlations with your other marketing activities, and use it as an opportunity to refine your tagging practices and segment definitions. Create a custom alert which watches for spikes in direct traffic.
  • Familiarize yourself with flow reports to get an understanding of how your direct traffic is converting. By using Goal Flow and Behavior Flow reports with segmentation, it’s often possible to glean actionable insights which can be applied to the site as a whole.
  • Ask your users for help! If you’ve isolated a valuable segment of traffic which eludes deeper analysis, add a button to the page offering visitors a free downloadable ebook if they tell you how they discovered your page.
  • Start thinking about lifetime value, if you haven’t already — overhauling your attribution model or implementing User ID are good steps towards overcoming the indifference or frustration felt by marketers towards direct traffic.

I hope this guide has been useful. With any luck, you arrived looking for ways to reduce the level of direct traffic in your reports, and left with some new ideas for how to better analyze this valuable segment of users.

Thanks for reading!

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What’s Your AMP Traffic Really Doing? Set Up Reporting in 10 Minutes

Posted by Jeremy_Gottlieb

The other day, my colleague Tom Capper wrote a post about getting more traffic when you can’t rank any higher. I was really pleased that he wrote it, because it tackles a challenge I think about all the time. As SEOs, our hands are tied: we’re often not able to make product-level decisions that could create new markets, and we’re not Google’s algorithms — we can’t force a particular page to rank higher. What’s an SEO to do?

What if we shifted focus from transactional queries (for e-commerce, B2C, or B2B sites) and focused on the informational type of queries that are one, two, three, and possibly four or more interactions away from actually yielding a conversion? These types of queries are often quite conversational (i.e. “what are the best bodyweight workouts?”) and very well could lead to conversions down the road if you’re try to sell something (like fitness-related products or supplements).

If we shift our focus to queries like the question I just posed, could we potentially enter more niches for search and open up more traffic? I’d hypothesize yes — and for some, driving this additional traffic is all one needs; whatever happens with that traffic is irrelevant. Personally, I’d rather drive qualified, relevant traffic to a client and then figure out how we can monetize that traffic down the road.

To accomplish this, over the past year I’ve been thinking a lot about Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP).


What are Accelerated Mobile Pages?

According to Google,

“The AMP Project is an open-source initiative aiming to make the web better for all. The project enables the creation of websites and ads that are consistently fast, beautiful, and high-performing across devices and distribution platforms.”

What this really means is that Google wants to make the web faster, and probably doesn’t trust the majority of sites to adequately speed up their pages or do so on a reasonable timeframe. Thus, AMP were created to allow for pages to load extremely fast (by cutting out the fat from your original source code) and provide an awesome user experience. Users can follow some basic instructions, use WordPress or other plugins, and in practically no time have mobile variants of their web content that loads super fast.

Why use AMP?

While AMP is not yet (or possibly ever going to be) a ranking factor, the fact that it loads fast certainly helps in the eyes of almighty Google and can contribute to higher rankings and clicks.

Let’s take a look at the query “Raekwon McMillan,” the Miami Dolphins second-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft out of Ohio State University:

Screenshot of mobile SERP for query "Raekwon McMillan"

Notice how of these cards on mobile, two contain a little lightning bolt and the word “AMP?” The prevalence of AMP results in the SERPs is becoming more and more common. It’s reasonable to think that while the majority of people who use Google are not currently familiar with AMP, over time and through experience, they will realize that AMP pages with that little icon load much faster than regular web pages and will gravitate towards AMP pages through a type of subconscious Pavlovian training.

Should I use AMP?

There are rarely any absolutes in this world, and this is no exception. Only you will know, based upon your particular needs at this time. AMP is typically used by news publishers like the New York Times, Washington Post, Fox News, and many others, but it’s important to note that it’s not limited to this type of entity. While there is an AMP news carousel that frequently appears on mobile and is almost exclusively the domain of large publishing sites, AMP results are increasingly appearing in the regular results, like with the Raekwon McMillan example.

I’m a fan of leveraging blog content on AMP to generate as many eyeballs as possible on our pages, but I’m still a bit leery about putting product pages on AMP (though this is now possible). My end goal is to drive traffic and brand familiarity through the blog content and then ultimately drive more sales as people are either retargeted to via paid or come back from other sources, direct, organic or otherwise to actually complete the purchase. If your blog has strong, authoritative content, deploying AMP could potentially be a great way to generate more visibility and clicks for your site.

I must point out, however, that AMP doesn’t come without potential drawbacks. There are strict guidelines around what you can and can’t do with it, such as not having email popups, possible reduction in ad revenue, analytics complications, and requiring maintenance of a new set of pages. If you do decide that the potential gain in organic traffic is worth the tradeoffs, we can get into how to best measure the success of AMP for your site.


Now you have AMP traffic — so what?

If your goal is to drive more organic traffic, you need to be prepared for the questions that will come if that traffic does not yield revenue in Google Analytics. First, we need to keep in mind that GA’s default attribution is via last direct click, but the model can be altered to report different numbers. This means that if you have a visitor who searches something organically, enters via the blog, and doesn’t purchase anything, yet 3 days later comes back via direct and purchases a product, the default conversion reporting in GA would assign no credit to the organic visit, giving all of the conversion credit to the direct visit.

But this is misleading. Would that conversion have happened if not for the first visit from organic search? Probably not.

By going into the Conversions section of GA and clicking on Attribution > Model Comparison Tool, you’ll be able to see a side-by-side comparison of different conversion models, such as:

  • First touch (all credit goes to first point-of-entry to site)
  • Last touch (all credit goes to the point-of-entry of session where conversion took place)
  • Position-based (credit is primarily shared between the first and last points-of-entry, with less credit being shared amongst the intermediary steps)

There are also a few others, but I find them to be less interesting. For more information, read here. You can also click on Multi-Channel Funnels > Assisted Conversions to see the number of conversions by channel which were used along the way to a conversion, but was not the channel of conversion.

AMP tracking complications

Somewhat surprisingly, tracking from AMP is not as easy or as logical as one might expect. To begin with, AMP uses a separate Analytics snippet than your standard GA tracking code, so if you already have GA installed on your site and you decide to roll out AMP, you will need to set up the specific AMP analytics. (For more information on AMP analytics, please read Accelerated Mobile Pages Via Google Tag Manager and Adding Analytics to Your AMP Pages).

In a nutshell, the client ID (which tracks a specific user’s engagement with a site over time in GA) is not shared by default between AMP analytics and the regular tracking code, though there are some hack-y ways to get around this (WARNING: this gets very technically in-depth). I think there are two very important questions when it comes to AMP measurement:

  1. How much revenue are these pages responsible for?
  2. How much engagement are we driving from AMP pages?

In the Google Analytics AMP analytics property, it’s simple to see how many sessions there are and what the bounce and exit rates are. From my own experience, bounce and exit rates are usually pretty high (depending on UX), but the number of sessions increases overall. So, if we’re driving more and more users, how can we track and improve engagement beyond the standard bounce and exit rates? Where do we look?

How to measure real value from AMP in Google Analytics

Acquisition > Referrals

I propose looking into our standard GA property and navigating to our referring sources within Acquisition, where we’ll select the AMP source, highlighted below.

Once we click there, we’ll see the full referring URLs, the number of sessions each URL drove to the non-AMP version of the site, the number of transactions associated with each URL, the amount of revenue associated per URL, and more.

Important note here: These sessions are not the total number of sessions on each AMP page; rather, these are the number of sessions that originated on an AMP URL and were referred to the non-AMP property.

Why is this particular report interesting?

  1. It allows us to see which specific AMP URLs are referring the most traffic to the non-AMP version of the site
  2. It allows us to see how many transactions and how much revenue comes from a session initiated by a specific AMP URL
    1. From here, we can analyze why certain pages refer more traffic or end up with more conversions, then apply any findings to other AMP URLs

Why is this particular report incomplete?

  • It only shows us conversions and revenue that happened during one session (last-touch attribution)
    • It is very likely that most of your blog traffic will be higher-funnel and informational, not transactional, so conversions are more likely to happen at later touch points than the first one

Conversions > Multi-Channel Funnels > Assisted Conversions

If we really want to have the best understanding of how much revenue and conversions happen from visits to AMP URLs, we need to analyze the assisted conversions report. While you can certainly find value from analyzing the model comparison tool (also found within the conversions tab of GA), if we want to answer the question, “How many conversions and how much revenue are we driving from AMP URLs?”, it’s best answered in the Assisted Conversions section.

One of the first things that we’ll need to do is create a custom channel grouping within the Assisted Conversions section of Conversions.

In here, we need to:

  1. Click “Channel Groupings,” select “Create a custom channel grouping”
  2. Name the channel “AMP”
  3. Set a rule as a source containing your other AMP property (type in “amp” into the form and it will begin to auto-populate; just select the one you need)
  4. Click “Save”

Why is this particular report interesting?

  1. We’re able to see how many assisted as well as last click/direct conversions there were by channel
  2. We’re able to change the look-back window on a conversion to anywhere from 1–90 days to see how it affects the sales cycle

Why is this particular report incomplete?

  • We’re unable to see which particular pages are most responsible for driving traffic, revenue, and conversions

Conclusion

As both of these reports are incomplete on their own, I recommend any digital marketer who is measuring the effect of AMP URLs to use the two reports in conjunction for their own reporting. Doing so will provide the value of:

  1. Informing us which AMP URLs refer the most traffic to our non-AMP pages, providing us a jumping-off point for analysis of what type of content and CTAs are most effective for moving visitors from AMP deeper into the site
  2. Informing us how many conversions happen with different attribution models

It’s possible that a quick glance at your reports will show very low conversion numbers, especially when compared with other channels. That does not necessarily mean AMP should be abandoned; rather, those pages should receive further investment and optimization to drive deeper engagement in the same session and retargeting for future engagement. Google actually does allow you to set up your AMP pages to retarget with Google products so users can see products related to the content they visited.

You can also add in email capture forms to your AMP URLs to re-engage with people at a later time, which is useful because AMP does not currently allow for interstitials or popups to capture a user’s information.

What do you do next with the information collected?

  1. Identify why certain pages refer more traffic than others to non-AMP URLs. Is there a common factor amongst pages that refer more traffic and others that don’t?
  2. Identify why certain pages are responsible for more revenue than other pages. Do all of your AMP pages contain buttons or designated CTAs?
  3. Can you possibly capture more emails? What would need to be done?

Ultimately, this reporting is just the first step in benchmarking your data. From here you can pull insights, make recommendations, and monitor how your KPIs progress. Many people have been concerned or confused as to whether AMP is valuable or the right thing for them. It may or may not be, but if you’re not measuring it effectively, there’s no way to really know. There’s a strong likelihood that AMP will only increase in prominence over the coming months, so if you’re not sure how to attribute that traffic and revenue, perhaps this can help get you set up for continued success.

Did I miss anything? How do you measure the success (or failure) of your AMP URLs? Did I miss any KPIs that could be potentially more useful for your organization? Please let me know in the comments below.

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How to Optimize for Google’s Featured Snippets to Build More Traffic

Posted by AnnSmarty

Have you noticed it’s getting harder and harder to build referral traffic from Google?

And it’s not just that the competition has got tougher (which it certainly has!).

It’s also that Google has moved past its ten blue links and its organic search results are no longer generating as much traffic they used to.

How do you adapt? This article teaches you to optimize your content to one of Google’s more recent changes: featured snippets.

What are featured snippets?

Featured snippets are selected search results that are featured on top of Google’s organic results below the ads in a box.

Featured snippets aim at answering the user’s question right away (hence their other well-known name, “answer boxes”). Being featured means getting additional brand exposure in search results.

Here are two studies confirming the claim:

  • Ben Goodsell reports that the click-through rate (CTR) on a featured page increased from two percent to eight percent once it’s placed in an answer box, with revenue from organic traffic increasing by 677%.
  • Eric Enge highlights a 20–30% increase in traffic for ConfluentForms.com while they held the featured snippet for the query.

Types of featured snippets

There are three major types of featured snippets:

  • Paragraph (an answer is given in text). It can be a box with text inside or a box with both text and an image inside.
  • List (an answer is given in a form of a list)
  • Table (an answer is given in a table)

Here’s an example of paragraph snippet with an image:

paragraph snippet image

According to Getstat, the most popular featured snippet is “paragraph” type:

Getstat

Featured snippets or answer boxes?

Since we’re dealing with a pretty new phenomenon, the terminology is pretty loose. Many people (including myself) are inclined to refer to featured snippets as “answer boxes,” obviously because there’s an answer presented in a box.

While there’s nothing wrong with this terminology, it creates a certain confusion because Google often gives a “quick answer” (a definition, an estimate, etc.) on top without linking to the source:

Answer box

To avoid confusion, let’s stick to the “featured snippet” term whenever there’s a URL featured in the box, because these present an extra exposure to the linked site (hence they’re important for content publishers):

Featured snippet

Do I have a chance to get featured?

According to research by Ahrefs, 99.58% of featured pages already rank in top 10 of Google. So if you are already ranking high for related search queries, you have very good chances to get featured.

On the other hand, Getstat claims that 70% of snippets came from sites outside of the first organic position. So it’s required that the page is ranked in top 10, but it’s not required to be #1 to be featured.

Unsurprisingly, the most featured site is Wikipedia.org. If there’s Wikipedia featured for your search query, it may be extremely hard to beat that — but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.

Finally, according to the analysis performed in a study, the following types of search queries get featured results most often:

  • DIY processes
  • Health
  • Financial
  • Mathematical
  • Requirements
  • Status
  • Transitional

Ahrefs’ study expands the list of popular topics with their most frequently words that appear in featured snippets:

words trigger featured snippets

The following types of search queries usually don’t have answer boxes:

  • Images and videos
  • Local
  • Shopping

To sum up the above studies:

  • You have chances to get featured for the terms your pages are already ranking in top 10. Thus, a big part of being featured is to improve your overall rankings (especially for long-tail informational queries, which are your lower-hanging fruit)
  • If your niche is DIY, health or finance, you have the highest probability of getting featured

Identify all kinds of opportunities to be featured

Start with good old keyword research

Multiple studies confirm that the majority of featured snippets are triggered by long-tail keywords. In fact, the more words that are typed into a search box, the higher the probability there will be a featured snippet.

It’s always a good idea to start with researching your keywords. This case study gives a good step by step keyword research strategy for a blogger, and this one lists major keyword research tools as suggested by experts.

When performing keyword research with featured snippets in mind, note that:

  • Start with question-type search queries (those containing question words, like “what,” “why,” “how,” etc.) because these are the easiest to identify, but don’t stop there…
  • Target informational intent, not just questions. While featured snippets aim at answering the user’s question immediately, question-type queries are not the only types that trigger those featured results. According to the aforementioned Ahrefs study, the vast majority of keywords that trigger featured snippets were long-tail queries with no question words in them.

It helps if you use a keyword research tool that shows immediately whether a query triggers featured results. I use Serpstat for my keyword research because it combines keyword research with featured snippet research and lets me see which of my keywords trigger answer boxes:

Serpstat featured snippet

You can run your competitor in Serpstat and then filter their best-performing queries by the presence of answer boxes:

Serpstat competitor research

This is a great overview of your future competition, enabling you to see your competitors’ strengths and weaknesses.

Browse Google for more questions

To further explore the topic, be sure to browse Google’s own “People also ask” sections whenever you see one in the search results. It provides a huge insight into which questions Google deems related to each topic.

People also ask section

Once you start expanding the questions to see the answers, more and more questions will be added to the bottom of the box:

More questions

Identify search queries where you already rank high

Your lowest-hanging fruit is to identify which phrases you already rank highly for. These will be the easiest to get featured for after you optimize for answer boxes (more on this below).

Google Search Console shows which search queries send you clicks. To find that report, click “Search Traffic” and then “Search Analytics.”

Check the box to show the position your pages hold for each one and you’ll have the ability to see which queries are your top-performing ones:

Google Search Console

You can then use the filters to find some question-type queries among those:

Search console filter

Go beyond traditional keyword research tools: Ask people

All the above methods (albeit great) tackle already discovered opportunities: those for which you or your competitors are already ranking high. But how about venturing beyond that? Ask your readers, customers, and followers how they search and which questions they ask.

MyBlogU: Ask people outside your immediate reach

Move away from your target audience and ask random people what questions they have on a specific topic and what would be their concerns. Looking out of the box can always give a fresh perspective.

MyBlogU (disclaimer: I am the founder) is a great way to do that. Just post a new project in the “Brainstorm” section and ask members to contribute their thoughts.

MyBlogU concept

Seed Keywords: Ask your friends and followers

Seed Keywords is a simple tool that allows you to discover related keywords with help from your friends and followers. Simply create a search scenario, share it on social media, and ask your followers to type in the keywords they would use to solve it.

Try not to be too leading with your search scenario. Avoid guiding people to the search phrase you think they should be using.

Here’s an example of a scenario:

Example

And here are the suggestions from real people:

Seed Keywords

Obviously, you can create similar surveys with SurveyMonkey or Google Forms, too.

Monitor questions people ask on Twitter

Another way to discover untapped opportunities is to monitor questions on Twitter. Its search supports the ? search operator that will filter results to those containing a question. Just make sure to put a space between your search term and ?.

Twitter questions

I use Cyfe to monitor and archive Twitter results because it provides a minimal dashboard which I can use to monitor an unlimited number of Twitter searches.

Cyfe questions

Once you lack article ideas, simply log in to Cyfe to view the archive and then proceed to the above keyword research tools to expand on any idea.

I use spreadsheets to organize questions and keyword phrases I discover (see more on this below). Some of these questions may become a whole piece of content, while others will be subsections of broader articles:

  • I don’t try to analyze search volume to decide whether any of those questions deserve to be covered in a separate article or a subsection. (Based on the Ahrefs research and my own observations, there is no direct correlation between the popularity of the term and whether it will trigger a featured snippet).
  • Instead, I use my best judgement (based on my niche knowledge and research) as to how much I will be able to tell to answer each particular question. If it’s a lot, I’ll probably turn into a separate article and use keyword research to identify subsections of the future piece.

Optimizing for featured snippets

Start with on-page SEO

There is no magic button or special markup which will make sure your site gets featured. Of course, it’s a good idea to start with non-specific SEO best practices, simply because being featured is only possible when you rank high for the query.

Randy Milanovic did a good overview of tactics of making your content findable. Eric Brantner over at Coschedule has put together a very useful SEO checklist, and of course never forget to go through Moz’s SEO guide.

How about structured markup?

Many people would suggest using Schema.org (simply because it’s been a “thing” to recommend adding schema for anything and everything) but the aforementioned Ahrefs study shows that there’s no correlation between featured results and structured markup.

That being said, the best way to get featured is to provide a better answer. Here are a few actionable tips:

1. Aim at answering each question concisely

My own observation of answer boxes has led me to think that Google prefers to feature an answer which was given within one paragraph.

The study by AJ Ghergich cites that the average length of a paragraph snippet is 45 words (the maximum is 97 words), so let it be your guideline as to how long each answer should be in order to get featured:

Optimal featured snippet lengths

This doesn’t mean your articles need to be one paragraph long. On the contrary, these days Google seems to give preference to long-form content (also known as “cornerstone content,” which is obviously a better way to describe it because it’s not just about length) that’s broken into logical subsections and features attention-grabbing images. Even if you don’t believe that cornerstone content receives any special treatment in SERPs, focusing on long articles will help you to cover more related questions within one piece (more on that below).

All you need to do is to adjust your blogging style just a bit:

  • Ask the question in your article (that may be a subheading)
  • Immediately follow the question with a one-paragraph answer
  • Elaborate further in the article

This tactic may also result in higher user retention because it makes any article better structured and thus a much easier read. To quote AJ Ghergich,

When you use data to fuel topic ideation, content creation becomes more about resources and less about brainstorming.

2. Be factual and organize well

Google loves numbers, steps and lists. We’ve seen this again and again: More often than not, answer boxes will list the actual ingredients, number of steps, time to cook, year and city of birth, etc.

In your paragraph introducing the answer to the question, make sure to list useful numbers and names. Get very factual.

In fact, the aforementioned study by AJ Ghergich concluded that comparison charts and lists are an easier way to get featured because Google loves structured content. In fact, even for branded queries (where a user is obviously researching a particular brand), Google would pick up a table from another site (not the answer from the brand itself) if that other site has a table:

Be factual

This only shows how much Google loves well-structured, factual, and number-driven content.

There’s no specific markup to structure your content. Google seems to pick up <table>, <ol>, and <ul> well and doesn’t need any other pointers.

3. Make sure one article answers many similar questions

In their research of featured snippets, Ahrefs found that once a page gets featured, it’s likely to get featured in lots of similar queries. This means it should be structured and worded the way it addresses a lot of related questions.

Google is very good at determining synonymic and closely related questions, so should be you. There’s no point in creating a separate page answering each specific question.

Related question

Creating one solid article addressing many related questions is a much smarter strategy if you aim at getting featured in answer boxes. This leads us to the next tactic:

4. Organize your questions properly

To combine many closely related questions in one article, you need to organize your queries properly. This will also help you structure your content well.

I have a multi-level keyword organization strategy that can be applied here as well:

  • A generic keyword makes a section or a category of the blog
  • A more specific search query becomes the title of the article
  • Even more specific queries determine the subheadings of the article and thus define its structure
    • There will be multiple queries that are so closely related that they will all go under a single subheading

For example:

Spreadsheet

Serpstat helps me a lot when it comes to both discovering an article idea and then breaking it into subtopics. Check out its “Questions” section. It will provide hundreds of questions containing your core term and then generate a tag cloud of other popular terms that come up in those questions:

Questions tag cloud

Clicking any word in the tag cloud will filter results down to those questions that only have that word in them. These are subsections for your article:

Serpstat subheadings

Here’s a good example of how related questions can help you structure the article:

Structure

5. Make sure to use eye-grabbing images

Paragraph featured snippets with images are ridiculously eye-catching, even more so than regular featured featured snippets. Honestly, I wasn’t able to identify how to add an image so that it’s featured. I tried naming it differently and I tried marking it as “featured” in the WordPress editor. Google seems to pick up a random image from the page without me being able to point it to a better version.

That being said, the only way to influence that is to make sure ALL your in-article images are eye-catching, branded, and annotated well, so that no matter which one Google ends up featuring, it will look nice. Here’s a great selection of WordPress plugins that will allow you to easily visualize your content (put together graphs, tables, charts, etc.) while working on a piece.

You can use Bannersnack to create eye-catching branded images; I love their image editing functionality. You can quickly create graphics there, then resize them to reuse as banners and social media images and organize all your creatives in folders:

banner maker bannersnack

6. Update and re-upload the images (WordPress)

WordPress adds dates to image URLs, so even if you update an article with newer information the images can be considered kind of old. I managed to snatch a couple of paragraph featured snippets with images once I started updating my images, too:

Images

7. Monitor how you are doing

Ahrefs lets you monitor which queries your domain is featured for, so keep an eye on these as they grow and new ones appear:

Monitor where you are being featured

Conclusion

It takes a lot of research and planning and you cannot be sure when you’ll see the results (especially if you don’t have too many top 10 rankings just yet) but think about this way: Being featured in Google search results is your incentive to work harder on your content. You’ll achieve other important goals on your way there:

  • You’ll discover hundreds of new content ideas (and thus will rank for a wider variety of various long-tail keywords)
  • You’ll learn to research each topic more thoroughly (and thus will build more incoming links because people tend to link to indepth articles)
  • You’ll learn to structure your articles better (and thus achieve a lower bounce rate because it will be easier to read your articles)

Have you been featured in Google search results yet? Please share your tips and tricks in the comments below!

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Site optimization or traffic optimization: Which delivers better results?

Knowing where to invest in online marketing is crucial for search marketers with limited budgets and resources. Columnist Jacob Baadsgaard explores whether you’re better off investing in higher-quality traffic or conversion optimization. The post Site optimization or traffic optimization: Which…

Please visit Search Engine Land for the full article.


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SEO Above the Funnel: Getting More Traffic When You Can’t Rank Any Higher

Posted by Tom.Capper

Normally, as SEOs, we follow a deceptively simple process. We identify how people are searching for our product, then we build or optimize pages or websites to match searcher intent, we make sure Google can find, understand, and trust it, and we wait for the waves of delicious traffic to roll in.

It’s not always that simple, though. What if we have the right pages, but just can’t rank any higher? What if we’re already satisfying all of the search volume that’s relevant to our product, but the business demands growth? What if there is no search volume relevant to our product?

What would you do, for example, if you were asked to increase organic traffic to the books section on Amazon? Or property search traffic to Rightmove (UK) or Zillow (US)? Or Netflix, before anyone knew that true online streaming services existed?

In this post, I’m going to briefly outline four simple tactics for building your relevant organic traffic by increasing the overall size of the market, rather than by trying to rank higher. And none of them require building a single link, or making any changes to your existing pages.

1. Conquer neighboring territories

This is a business tactic as well as an SEO one, but it’s worth keeping an eye out for reasonably uncompetitive verticals adjacent to your own. You have an advantage in these, because you already have a brand, a strong domain, a website to build upon, and so forth. New startups trying to make headway in these spaces will struggle to compete with a fairly low-effort execution on your part, if you judge it well.

Start by ideating related products. For example, if you’re a property listings site, you might look at:

  • Home insurance
  • Home valuation
  • Flat-sharing listings
  • Area guides

Once you’ve outlined your list (it’s probably longer than my example), you can do your basic keyword research, and take a look at the existing ranking pages. This is a bit like identifying keyword opportunities, except you’re looking at the core landing pages of a whole vertical — look at their Domain Authorities, their branded search volumes, the quality of their landing pages, the extent to which they’ve done basic SEO, and ask whether you could do better.

In the example above, you might find that home insurance is well served by fairly strong financial services or comparison sites, but flat-sharing is a weak vertical dominated by a few fairly young and poorly executed sites. That’s your opportunity.

To minimize your risk, you can start with a minimal viable version — perhaps just a single landing page or a white-labeled product. If it does well, you know it merits further investment.

You’ve already established a trusted brand, with a strong website, which users are already engaging in — if you can extend your services and provide good user experiences in other areas, you can beat other, smaller brands in those spaces.

2. Welcome the intimidated

Depending on your vertical, there may be an untapped opportunity among potential customers who don’t understand or feel comfortable with the product. For example, if you sell laptops, many potential customers may be wary of buying a laptop online or without professional advice. This might cause them not to buy, or to buy a cheaper product to reduce the riskiness.

A “best laptops under £500,” or “lightest laptops,” or “best laptops for gaming” page could encourage people to spend more, or to buy online when they might otherwise have bought in a store. Pages like this can be simple feature comparisons, or semi-editorial, but it’s important that they don’t feel like a sales or up-sell function (even though that’s what the “expert” in the store would be!).

This is even more pertinent the more potentially research intensive the purchase is. For example, Crucial have done amazingly for years with their “system scanner,” linked to prominently on their homepage, which identifies potential upgrades and gives less savvy users confidence in their purchase.

Guaranteed compatible!

If this seems like too much effort, the outdoor retailer Snow and Rock don’t have the best website in the world, but they have taken a simpler approach in linking to buying guides from certain product pages — for example, this guide on how to pick a pair of walking boots.

Can you spot scenarios where users abandon in your funnels because of fear or complexity, or where they shift their spend to offline competitors? If you can make them feel safe and supported, you might be able to change their buying behavior.

3. Whip up some fervor

At the opposite end of the spectrum, you have enthusiasts who know your vertical like the back of their hand, but could be incited to treat themselves a little more. I’ve been really impressed recently by a couple of American automotive listings sites doing this really well.

The first is Autotrader.com, who have hired well-known automotive columnist Doug Demuro from Jalopnik.com to produce videos and articles for their enthusiast news section. These articles and videos talk about the nerdy quirks of some of the most obscure and interesting used cars that have been listed on the site, and it’s not uncommon for videos on Doug’s YouTube channel — which mention Autotrader.com and feature cars you could buy on Autotrader.com — to get well into 7-figure viewing counts.

These are essentially adverts for Autotrader.com’s products, but I and hundreds of thousands of others watch them religiously. What’s more, the resulting videos and articles stand to rank for the types of queries that curious enthusiasts may search for, turning informational queries into buying intent, as well as building brand awareness. I actually think Autotrader.com could do even better at this with a little SEO 101 (editorial titles don’t need to be your actual title tag, guys), but it’s already a great tactic.

Another similar site doing this really well is Bringatrailer.com. Their approach is really simple — whenever they get a particularly rare or interesting car listed, they post it on Facebook.

These are super low-effort posts about used cars, but if you take a step back, Bring a Trailer are doing something outrageous. They’re posting links to their product pages on Facebook a dozen or more times a day, and getting 3-figure reaction counts. Some of the lesson here is “have great product pages,” or “exist in an enthusiast-rich vertical,” and I realize that this tactic isn’t strictly SEO. But it is doing a lot of things that we as SEOs try to do (build awareness, search volume, links…), and it’s doing so by successfully matching informational or entertainment intents with transactional pages.

When consumers engage with a brand emotionally or even socially, then you’re more likely to be top-of-mind when they’re ready to purchase — but they’re also more likely to purchase if they’re seeing and thinking about your products, services, and sector in their feed.

4. Tell people your vertical exists

I won’t cover this one in too much detail, because there’s already an excellent Whiteboard Friday on the subject. The key point, however, is that sometimes it’s not just that customers are intimidated by your product. They may never have heard of it. In these cases, you need to appear where they’re looking using demographic targeting, carefully researched editorial sections, or branded content.

What about you, though?

How do you go about drumming up demand in your vertical? Tell me all about it in the comments below.

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