Friday, January 19, 2018

Get 2018 started with an updated multi-channel digital marketing strategy

Did you know that 15 years ago the average consumer used two touch-points when buying an item, while consumers today run through an average of almost six touch-points?

This means that reaching new customers has become significantly more complex. With new platforms and channels still emerging, consumers have more and more choices and are demanding greater attention from brands trying to reach them.

The concept of multi-channel digital marketing has gained popularity among digital marketers over the last few years as brands and agencies have realized that one-off campaigns targeting potential customers on only one channel at a time no longer cut it.

In this article, we will examine updated multi-channel digital marketing tools and effective strategies; but before we do, let’s clarify what multi-channel marketing actually means.

What is multi-channel digital marketing?

“Multi-channel marketing is the implementation of a single strategy across multiple channels or platforms, thus maximizing opportunities to interact with prospective customers,” according to digital marketing agency Emarsys.

While as marketers we try to best predict how and where our customers might interact with us, giving them a choice — a say in the matter — leads to higher conversions. This requires casting a wide net of orchestrated touch-points and repeating your brand message across various channels, but ultimately improves your chance to raise customer awareness and let the message sink in to actually have an effect.

Let’s take a look at a handful of channels that effectively support a multitude of touch points and provide your customers with choice in selecting their preferred channel.

Social media

The advantage of social media is that it can be utilized as both introductory (initial interest) as well as retargeting channel leading a new customer further down the sales funnel.

Eyeballs through content

Facebook is a fantastic method to fill the top of your funnel with visitors.  Whether you amplify content or gain people’s attention through Facebook live or other multimedia ads, it’s crucial to think about what your target customer might be interested in and then tailor content to their desires.

This doesn’t mean that you should advertise for your product right in the article or video, but rather cover topics that might interest potential customers and ultimately lead to your product page. At the top of the funnel, the goal is to create that first touchpoint which will enable you to start marketing to them through other channels, particularly email and remarketing.

Generating leads

Another helpful Facebook tool comes in handy at this stage of the sales funnel, especially if you run an ecommerce business — it’s called Dynamic Product Ads. These ads “automatically promote products to people who have expressed interest on your website, in your app or elsewhere on the internet,” according to Facebook.

You can even upload your product catalog to Facebook and after setting up the campaign, the social network will handle the rest (such as matching people with the right product).

Email

While social media is very effective as both introductory and retargeting channel, emails are most effective when retargeting potential customers.

Chances are that by the time someone has provided their e-mail address, you have some idea of what they are interested in and looking for, thanks to your “eyeballs through content” campaign as discussed above. So crafting effective e-mails addressing their potential pain points should be a little easier now.

Crucial to making e-mail marketing successful is to make sure its content aligns with your overall campaign message. A recent case study confirmed that “Coordinating messaging across channels resulted in reaching customers who were 22% more likely to purchase than those only reached by email.”

AdWords

You can craft AdWords campaigns to function at the top, middle, and bottom of the funnel.  At the top, you can create broad match modified campaigns focusing on identifying exactly what keywords people search for in your space.

As part of your exploratory campaigns, you can also look for lateral keywords of interest that can help you understand exactly what your audience is looking for.

At the middle of the funnel, you have people who are interested in the products or services you are offering so you serve them the most targeted ads.  Traditional AdWords campaigns tend to belong to this stage of the funnel.  At the bottom of the funnel, you can use AdWords remarketing to continue creating additional touchpoints after consumers have visited your site.

Smart marketers use AdWords Ad Extensions to include interactive and clickable information right on top of the ad, such as coupons, phone numbers, and text message extensions. Making these marketing tools available right inside the ad can cut down significantly on the number of steps in your sales funnel.

By clicking on the coupon, for example, customers could be enticed to walk right into a physical location to pick up the product they are getting a discount on. Clicking on the phone number or text extension, on the other hand, could connect them directly to customer service, who in turn can answer any remaining questions and, thus, increase purchase intent.

SMS/Text messaging

Speaking of text messages: retargeting potential customers is not restricted to e-mails and Google AdWords. Text messaging (SMS) is another way — and an increasingly popular one — to lead consumers further down the sales funnel.

Let’s say your Facebook or Twitter ad asked potential new customers to “opt-in,” which they did using their social media accounts. Most social networks now require mobile phone numbers when users first sign up. This information will be available to you as well if you are setting up ads through these social networks.

You now have the opportunity to text your lead and interact with them on a channel that has so far not been saturated by marketers. It also provides a much more intimate environment, which could help build trust.

You can easily set up text message campaigns with tools like Autopilot and TextMagic; and you should, too, because text message opens are as high as 99% among mobile users. Key is to let potential leads opt in voluntarily as opposed to being contacted via text out of the blue. Also, a good next step might be asking for permission to set up a phone call to continue the conversation.

Text messages can also be useful when sending out reminders for live events or webinars, which some of your new customers might have signed up for, but are about to miss because they forgot putting it in their calendars.

Putting it all together

As you can see, none of the marketing tools listed above are particularly effective in this day and age if you keep them isolated. Google AdWords can lead to customer service conversions; social media can lead to email and text message opt-ins; email in turn can be reinforced by text messages, which could lead back to customer service.

That’s why a consistent brand message as well as consistent quality of content, service, and customer experience across all channels is essential. Future customers should get a sense of familiarity at every turn of the sales funnel if you are to build a trustworthy relationship with them.

Coordinating this rather significant number of communication channels seems like a daunting and expensive task; but don’t worry, even with a low budget you can implement these multi-channel marketing strategies.

One final thought: all the marketing in the world is for naught if you do not measure and analyze key data. This includes customer profile characteristics (like demographics and psychographics) and customer behavior to narrow down your target audience.

In addition to this data, keeping track of conversion rates between the various platforms will help you measure success and create a continuously more effective multi-channel digital marketing strategy.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

10 Google updates you may have missed

Google rarely stands still. In fact, the search giant claims to tweak its search algorithms at least 3 times per day.

Some of these updates are bigger than others, and the past month has brought an unprecedented wave of newsworthy enhancements.

Just yesterday, for example, the industry was abuzz with the news that Google would officially be using page speed as a ranking factor in its mobile search algorithm from July.

Not all of Google’s updates make a huge splash, however, and as a result some of them might have slipped under your radar. To help out, we’ve rounded up the 10 recent Google updates that are most likely to impact search marketers.

1. 16 months of Search Console data(!)

Perhaps the most common request from SEOs to Google over the past few years has been to add more historical data to Search Console. The 3-month limit has always been a hindrance to SEO performance analysis, particularly as we have come to rely on Search Console for query-level data.

After a period of beta testing, Google has now released a new version of Search Console, replete with 16 months of historical data. It will be rolled out slowly over the coming months, but many are already seeing the changes live in their dashboards. The historical data will soon be available via the Search Console API, too.

To say this has been greeted positively in the industry would be an understatement.

There is more to the new Search Console than additional data, however. The new Index Coverage report provides insight into the URLs Google has indexed from your site, along with explanations of any indexation issues. The ability to filter and segment data to a much more granular level than before will be a hugely beneficial addition.

The Issue Tracking feature will also enable users to identify any indexation problems and share action items directly with team members.

Finally, Search Console is bringing all the functionality SEOs need to analyze and impact performance.

2. Real-world data in PageSpeed Insights

Google announced last week that its PageSpeed Insights tool will now use real world data, taken from the Chrome User Experience report. This move addresses perhaps the biggest drawback with PageSpeed Insights. Although the report’s intention (to reveal how quickly a URL loads) is an important one, its execution has been lacking, as its findings do not show how quickly a page loads for actual users.

That has led many in the industry to use other resources for their page speed checks, including the Chrome User Experience report API.

Google has made clear exactly how the new PageSpeed Insights improves on older iterations:

  • The Speed score categorizes a page as being Fast, Average, or Slow. This is determined by looking at the median value of two metrics: First Contentful Paint (FCP) and DOM Content Loaded (DCL). If both metrics are in the top one-third of their category, the page is considered fast.
  • The Optimization score categorizes a page as being Good, Medium, or Low by estimating its performance headroom. The calculation assumes that a developer wants to keep the same appearance and functionality of the page.
  • The Page Load Distributions section presents how this page’s FCP and DCL events are distributed in the data set. These events are categorized as Fast (top third), Average (middle third), and Slow (bottom third) by comparing to all events in the Chrome User Experience Report.
  • The Page Stats section describes the round trips required to load the page’s render-blocking resources, the total bytes used by the page, and how it compares to the median number of round trips and bytes used in the dataset. It can indicate if the page might be faster if the developer modifies the appearance and functionality of the page.
  • Optimization Suggestions is a list of best practices that could be applied to this page. If the page is fast, these suggestions are hidden by default, as the page is already in the top third of all pages in the data set.

Given the importance of page speed for mobile users, particularly in light of Google’s upcoming Speed Update algorithm change, this update will be a very significant one.

It will also provide better awareness of the stages of URL loading, which will help SEOs to communicate their desired changes to other audiences.

This has felt like an area in need of more technical specificity for some time, with many page speed reports spitting out little more than vague platitudes about “reducing JavaScript”. The introduction of metrics like “DOM Content Loaded” to a broader range of marketers can only be a positive development.

3. Meta description character limit increased 

The humble meta description has been given its biggest update for a considerable number of years.

Google confirmed to Search Engine Land in December that the potential snippet length has increased to 320 characters, although this does not mean that all sites will receive this extra space.

Nonetheless, there is evidence that there has been a general increase across the board in snippet length.

Rank Ranger, a tool that can track search results page features, showed a very notable rise in the average meta description length in December:

meta length

Of course, this will lead marketers to question whether they should re-write their descriptions, and what the new character limit should be.

One answer comes from Dr. Pete Meyers at Moz, who recommends a limit of 300 characters based on his recent research. That seems a useful rule of thumb, as Google has provided little insight into exactly how it decides where to truncate a snippet.

meta moz

In essence, Google wants to provide meta descriptions that reflect the changed nature of search results pages, and the devices on which people access them.

The new character limit is not, in and of itself, reason to re-write descriptions across a website. It does, however, open up the possibility of some experimentation to try and gain a competitive advantage.

The fundamentals of crafting meta descriptions remain the same; we just have more space in which to apply these best practices now.

4. New custom intent audiences

Google made a host of AdWords-based announcements in the run-up to the holidays. There is rarely a shortage of new features within the AdWords environment, but the release of new custom intent audiences was of particular interest.

These audience lists allow marketers to add a much greater level of detail to their targeting of new customers via the Google Display Network (GDN), through the creation of audience segments based on topics or keywords.

Even GDN novices will be able to introduce new prospects to their brand, as Google’s machine learning technology will analyze searcher data and automatically generate lists of users that would be open to hearing about a particular brand or product.

Anthony Chavez, director of product management for AdWords, said of the new feature:

“There are two flavors of custom intent audiences. In one variation, advertisers can create their own based on topics and URLs that people who are likely to be interested in their products read about and visit. The second variation is machine-learning based and automated.”

This also chimes with the recent moves to make search advertising a more comprehensive discipline that encompasses upper funnel tactics, as well as the tried and tested lower funnel tactics that have driven its phenomenal success.

Due to the ongoing competition with Facebook (plus the emerging threat from Amazon and Pinterest) for digital ad dollars, Google is investing heavily in new ways to provide value for marketers.

5. Rich results testing tool

Search engine results pages (SERPs) have come a long way from their early, text-only iterations.

This has created opportunities for marketers to engage with their audience through a multitude of media formats in the SERPs, but it has created some confusion too.

Not only are there different ways to mark up data, there are also plentiful different types of information that can be shown in the search results. Google has moved to categorize all of these under the umbrella term ‘rich results’ and the new testing tool (currently in beta) will reveal whether a specific URL is equipped to display rich snippets.

rich_results

Admittedly, Google does offer the following, comprehensive set of caveats to the tool’s current form:

beta

The limitations are currently listed as:

This test currently supports only the following rich result types:

  • Job posting
  • Recipe
  • Course
  • Movie

Even with all of those points in mind, we should view this a step towards a much more accessible entry to rich results for all marketers.

6. Voice search raters guidelines

The Search Quality Raters Guidelines are one of the most fascinating and transparent resources if we want to understand Google’s methodology for ranking search results.

Published on the Google Research Blog, the updated guidelines now include pointers for evaluating results on what Google terms “eyes-free technology.” The core focus here is the growth in Google Assistant interactions, underpinned by a realization that this new way of searching needs a way way of assessing the relevance of results.

 

The dimensions that are considered to be of particular importance for voice results are:

  • Information satisfaction: The content of the answer should meet the information needs of the user.

  • Length: When a displayed answer is too long, users can quickly scan it visually and locate the relevant information. For voice answers, that is not possible. It is much more important to ensure that we provide a helpful amount of information, hopefully not too much or too little. Some of our previous work is currently in use for identifying the most relevant fragments of answers.

  • Formulation: It is much easier to understand a badly formulated written answer than an ungrammatical spoken answer, so more care has to be placed in ensuring grammatical correctness.

  • Elocution: Spoken answers must have proper pronunciation and prosody. Improvements in text-to-speech generation, such as WaveNet and Tacotron 2, are quickly reducing the gap with human performance.

As we move towards new search interfaces, whether on the go or in the home, directives from Google make for invaluable reading. The full list of guidelines can be found here.

7. New rules for review extensions in AdWords

Google has been trying to find the right balance with its reviews in both paid and organic listings. Although genuine customer reviews are helpful for consumers, some third-party platforms can be filtered by brands to highlight only the positive scores in search results.

A lengthy list of restrictions has been published and Google made the following announcement:

Review extensions will no longer show with ads starting January 2018.
In February 2018, review extensions will be deleted along with their performance data. To save this data, download an extensions report by going to Extensions on the Ads & extensions page in AdWords. If you’d like to continue showing more information with your ads, we recommend using sitelinkscallouts and structured snippets extensions.
This is likely to affect the majority of paid search marketers and it follows the search giant’s attempts to clean up reviews in organic listings. The onus is on brands to provide a more transparent reflection of customer feedback if they want reviews to return to their PPC ads.

8. Google My Business allows video uploads

Google My Business now allows both merchants and customers to add videos of up to 30 seconds in length. Importantly, business owners can also flag videos that they deem to be irrelevant or unhelpful.

Image result for google my business videos

How it works:

  • Videos will appear in the overview tab of the Google My Business Dashboard
  • Customer uploaded videos can be found in the ‘customer’ tab
  • Merchant uploaded videos can be found in the ‘by owner’ tab
  • All videos can be viewed together in the ‘videos’ tab
  • After upload it could take up to 24 hours for the videos to appear. Once live, they will display where local photos do.

Google has also stated that native mobile support for this feature will follow in the near future.

9. Webmaster videos return

After a lengthy hiatus of about 3 years, Google has brought back its Webmaster Video series – now called ‘SEO Snippets’.

These short videos, hosted on YouTube, will tackle the most common questions from the Webmaster Forums. Within the last month, the series has already tackled topics including the eternal ‘sub-domain or sub-folder’ question, dealing with multiple H1 tags, and the impact of fixed penalties on SEO performance.

10. Google to vet premium YouTube content

Google has been under significant pressure to ensure that YouTube ads appear alongside relevant content over the last year. The controversy that followed the story of major brands’ ads appearing alongside extremist content damaged Google’s revenues and reputation, albeit not irreparably so.

Facebook has faced a similar struggle and it is one with no easy resolution. Monitoring the quantities of content uploaded to these sites every second is an uphill task, but Google is betting on the combination of people and technology to rebuild trust in YouTube ads.

All content that is promoted via the premium ‘Google Preferred’ advertising channel will be reviewed by a team of over 10,000 moderators and AI-driven technology that helps to root out inappropriate content.

There is a significant distance to travel before major brands trust YouTube to the same extent that they trust TV, but Google is taking measures to ensure that its highest-paying customers have some level of reassurance.

Related image

Although many of these headlines have made waves in the industry, even the most vigilant search professional would be forgiven for missing a few during such an increased period of activity.

Moving into 2018, the rate of progress in our industry is accelerating and marketers have more tools at their disposal than ever before to improve search performance.

What does Google’s “Speed Update” mean for mobile?

Yesterday, Google announced a major upcoming change to its mobile ranking algorithm.

In a short blog post entitled ‘Using page speed in mobile search ranking’, it explained that starting in July 2018, page speed will officially be a ranking factor for mobile searches.

The catchily-named “Speed Update” (a feat of inventive naming on a par with “Assistant”) is set to only affect “pages that deliver the slowest experience to users” and, in Google’s words, will only impact a “small percentage of queries”.

However, given that Google processes around 3.5 billion search queries per day (per Internet Live Stats), a “small percentage” can still amount to a lot of websites.

So for any website owners and SEOs who might be concerned about how this affects them, let’s examine what we know about the update so far, and what it means for mobile SEO.

Speed as a ranking factor: coming to a mobile update near you

Google has used page speed as a ranking factor on desktop since April 2010, but although having a fast mobile site has always stood companies in good stead for ranking well in search, it hasn’t been an official ranking factor in Google’s algorithm until now.

However, this announcement is far from coming out of left field. As far back as June 2016, Google webmaster trends analyst Gary Illyes confirmed that the next mobile algorithm update from Google would use page speed as a ranking factor.

Google has also frequently emphasized the importance of speed in mobile user experience in its advice to webmasters, and Google initiatives like Accelerated Mobile Pages and Progressive Web Apps have aimed to furnish site owners with the tools to make their websites fast and streamlined on mobile.

The “Speed Update” announcement doesn’t give all that much new information about how website owners should improve their sites in order to rank well on Google, but here’s what we do know:

  • Speed Update will mainly impact the websites which deliver the “slowest experience” to users, although Google hasn’t given a benchmark by which webmasters can judge whether or not their site falls into this category.
  • It applies regardless of the technology used to build the page – so it would still apply to, say, AMP websites. If an AMP website for some reason delivers a slow experience, this would impact on its ranking.
  • Content relevance still trumps speed. In Google’s words, “The intent of the search query is still a very strong signal, so a slow page may still rank highly if it has great, relevant content.”
  • Google wants developers to “think broadly about how performance affects a user’s experience of their page and to consider a variety of user experience metrics.” This means user experience matters as well as speed – we’ll come back to that in a bit.
  • There is no tool or notification that will tell webmasters whether their site is being affected by the update, but Google recommends using Chrome User Experience Report, Lighthouse or PageSpeed Insights to evaluate a page’s performance.

Spotlight on mobile user experience

As highlighted earlier, the language used by Google in its blog post indicates that the search engine is looking at not just speed, but overall mobile user experience with this update.

Google went so far as to spell this out in a Q&A with Search Engine Land, saying that, “The intent of the signal is to improve the user experience on search.”

In other words, site owners who want to score highly here need to pay attention to more than just page load time. This is underscored by Google’s recommendation of the Chrome User Experience Report as a tool to evaluate webpage performance in light of the update.

A lot of improvements to mobile page speed also improve the wider user experience on mobile – for example, videos and audio set to autoplay are annoying and inaccessible to users, and also slow the page down by loading unnecessary content – meaning that site owners can kill two birds with one stone.

Other steps that site owners can take to improve mobile UX include disabling annoying full-page pop-ups and interstitials (which Google is liable to penalize anyway) and implementing a slimmed-down, task-based design that allows users to quickly navigate to the functionality they need.

Above all, a mobile website should enable users to efficiently accomplish what they came there to do, without being bogged down by unnecessary bells and whistles. If you achieve this, you should be able to stay on the right side of the Speed Update algorithm both in terms of page performance and in terms of mobile experience.

Here are some more guides we’ve published that will help you get to grips with mobile SEO, site speed and UX ahead of the July update:

Mobile SEO

Mobile site speed

Mobile UX

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Search advertising vs. display advertising: Which delivers the best returns?

Whether you’re a newbie or a seasoned vet, determining if you should use search advertising or display advertising for your marketing campaign is tough.

Use the wrong channel and you potentially ruin the maximum success of your whole campaign.

Thankfully, there are ways to decide which is the best for your business and which will generate the most conversions.

Display advertising

Display advertising is everywhere online. Every website you visit has ads that showcase products for sale. But have you ever noticed you keep seeing the same ads on your social media feeds and the like?

That’s because display advertising tracks a user’s behavior in order to put the right ads in front of the right customers. Display ads are also sometimes known as banner ads, like this one:

Major advantages

Brand awareness

In order to properly utilize display advertising, you need to understand its purpose. In short, display ads are great for driving brand awareness because, generally, these types of ads are found in a place a potential customer may be found.

For example, if a customer is on a website for vegetarian recipes, a display ad that may show up would be an advertisement for a health food store. The customer may not be aware of this type of store, but the ad would drive awareness. Marketers generally gather this information by studying customer behaviors, demographics, and previous search histories.

Retargeting

Let’s say a user has visited your website but hasn’t converted. Display ads give you the opportunity to pull those users back in with retargeting. Your display ad reminds the user about your brand; thus improving the chance of them converting. Check out our ‘5 remarketing strategies to prep for Q4‘ to learn more about retargeting as a whole.

High volume

Display ads may promote your brand to the right people, but they also have high visibility. When you use display ads, they’re also being shown to customers who may not have thought to look for your products or services (even if they’re not part of your demographic).

Even if you’re not targeting an audience, they’ll still see your business in front of them.

Search advertising

Search advertising, or pay-per-click (PPC) advertising, is an easy, low-budget way to reach the right audience. You’re able to control who sees the ads with nearly instant results. The PPC ads are shown directly on search engine websites after a keyword or phrase has been searched.

For example, here’s two PPC ads that might show up at the top of a Google search:

Major advantages

Qualified leads

A PPC campaign, done effectively, boosts traffic to your website and drives higher conversions. This is because customers are actively searching for keywords that result in seeing your PPC ads, so long as their keywords match your product or service. PPC ad campaigns generally drive higher click-through rates than display ads because of qualified leads.

Measurable data

Google AdWords is not only the place to setup your search advertising campaign, but it makes it easy to track how well your PPC campaign is doing. Simply pull up your AdWords account, choose the Campaigns tab, and choose “Keywords.” This shows you exactly how well customers are responding to your keywords and phrases.

Budget-friendly

If you’re just starting out or starting your campaign on a lower budget, PPC may be the best bang for your buck. With a PPC campaign, you’re not paying for the ads unless a user has clicked on them—hence their name.

This means, if you’re choosing and bidding on keywords that are relevant to your product or service, the users are most likely qualified leads, resulting in higher conversion rates.

It’s a great way to test what works before moving on to more time-intensive marketing strategies like SEO and content.

Determining factors

Now that you’re aware of the major differences between search and display advertising, consider some of the factors that you should take into account before making a decision.

Search volume

What are your potential customers searching for? Are they already actively looking for the products you’re selling? Here’s where Google AdWords helps yet again. Use this tool to determine if the keywords you’re using are high volume.

If relevant keywords for your business are showing as high competition keywords, your best bet is to start with a PPC campaign. Here’s an example using the keywords “health foods.”

Awareness

Brand awareness is another determining factor when deciding. The first question you should be asking: How many people are aware of your brand already? If you’re looking to increase brand awareness, display ads are your best bet. However, a search campaign can also benefit from brand awareness, especially if your campaign focuses on brand-specific keywords.

Type of services or products

Certain ads may not bring you the highest ROI right away depending on the type of product or service you’re offering.

For example, services like towing, locksmiths, and doctors (also known as “urgent” services) are all services that users will specifically look for, and need, quickly. Using a display ad to advertise may not be the most beneficial if your service is something potential customers may need immediately.

However, this doesn’t mean your services wouldn’t benefit from a display ad—it just won’t be as beneficial to the customer in their time of need.

Mobile first

Did you know that almost 60% of searches are done on a mobile device? Typically, search ad campaigns are better equipped at handling mobile searches.

For example, a user may search for a service on their mobile device, which means they won’t be scrolling through a website. They’ll choose the first ad that comes up, and that’s generally going to be a PPC ad.

The takeaway

When you’re starting a new campaign, it’s not always easy to identify which type of advertising to use. Factors such as your budget, your search volume, and your main goal are only some of the things you should consider before choosing one.

Sometimes, it’s in your best interest to utilize both platforms to maximize your ROI. Using both at the same time means you’re reaching customers at different points in the customer journey, which may be a huge payoff for you in the end.

What has worked for you when it comes to search versus display advertising? Let us know your thoughts and your story in the comment section below!

 

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

Facebook kills off news: Publishers panic, try to remember how to do SEO

By now you’ve no doubt heard the news that’s been shaking up the internet since late last week.

But in case you just came back online after a week-long internet blackout, here’s what’s happening: on Thursday 11th January, Facebook announced a major change to the way posts are ranked in News Feed.

In order to promote more “meaningful” interaction with friends and family, Facebook said that it would “prioritize posts from friends and family over public content … including videos and other posts from publishers or businesses”.

In general, brands have not tended to rely on Facebook for traffic since it dramatically reduced the organic reach of branded content a little over three years ago, forcing brands to pay for reach or go elsewhere for traffic. However, publishers have long been the exception to that rule, with Facebook acting as a huge – and vital – source of referral traffic to publishers’ websites.

This has led many publishers to plan their strategy and output directly around Facebook (see: the much-derided media “pivot to video”, which was driven in large part by Facebook). But Facebook’s announcement of Thursday has put paid to all of that – or at least, put a big dent in the potential traffic that publishers can earn from its platform.

Deprived of referral traffic from Facebook, will publishers be turning en masse back to SEO to restore their fortunes? Let’s look at some of the broader industry shifts underpinning this change, and what it means for the importance of search for publishers.

Trading places: Google is back on top for referral traffic

The truth is that Facebook’s referral traffic to publishers has been in decline for some time now. According to data from digital analytics company Parse.ly, the percentage of external traffic that Facebook provides to publishers decreased from 40% to 26% between January 2017 and January 2018, while Google’s rose from 34% to 44% over the same period.

This means that in a direct reversal of 2015, when Facebook rocked the industry by overtaking Google as a source of referral traffic for publishers, Google is now back in the number one spot. And this all happened before Facebook’s News Feed announcement even took place.

Publishers have also been seeing more traffic from Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) than Facebook equivalent Instant Articles, another situation that reversed itself over the last year. According to Parse.ly, publisher traffic from AMP increased from 4.72% in January 2017 to 11.78% in November 2017, while Instant Articles declined from 10.31% of publisher traffic in January down to 8.54% in November.

When Facebook overtook Google for referral traffic back in 2015, this seemed to herald the dawn – or perhaps the zenith – of a new age of social sharing and publishing, in which social media was the new search.

At a Content Marketing Association Digital Breakfast in June 2016, veteran digital journalist Adam Tinworth remarked that social networks had taken over the search engine’s traditional role of “finding something to read” online. As a result, Google and other search engines moved into more of an “answer engine” role, moving away from search towards a single, definitive answer to users’ queries.

So with Google back on top for referral traffic, are we seeing a return to the status quo?

The Google-Facebook merry-go-round

In fact, Google and Facebook’s continual back-and-forth is the status quo. They have been chasing each other around in circles for years now, each taking it in turns to try their hand at the other’s specialist area.

Google experimented with social networking; Facebook became the go-to place to find content. Both launched lightning-fast takes on the mobile web – Accelerated Mobile Pages and Instant Articles – in 2015 with a global roll-out in 2016. Now, Facebook is returning to its “roots” of showing you what your family and friends are up to, while the latest updates to Google’s smart assistant indicate that Google is moving back into surfacing content.

Google and Facebook: Destined to chase each other in circles for eternity
(Image by monstreh, available via CC0)

In other words, this is just the most recent step in a dance that has been going on for more than 10 years. Facebook might have ceded some ground to Google in the realm of referral traffic to publishers, partly in a bid to rid itself of the fake news scandal that has dogged it since mid to late 2016.

However, the two continue to vie for dominance in countless other areas, such as artificial intelligence, smart home hubs, digital assistants, and advertising. Facebook continues to drive its investment in online video, encroaching on Google-owned YouTube’s territory, while Google recently announced a new foray into social publishing with Google Stamp.

At the height of the fake news controversy, Google and Facebook’s names frequently appeared side-by-side, with both companies accused of peddling false information to their users and perpetrating the “filter bubble” that allows fake news to thrive.

As a result, some have speculated that Google might now follow in Facebook’s footsteps and take steps to distance itself from publishers.

However, Google is already taking action – or at least appearing to take action – against fake news on its search engine by implementing ‘fact-checking’ labels, partnering with the International Fact-Checking Network to combat misinformation, and purging questionable overseas websites that mask their country of origin from Google News.

Unless there is another significant wave of backlash over fake news to force Google’s hand, it seems likely that Google will take the “win” over Facebook and avoid jeopardizing its relationship with publishers – particularly given its recent moves to become more publisher-friendly by supporting paywalled content.

Meanwhile, publishers need to work out how to reconfigure their online strategy with Facebook much less in the picture. Will we be seeing a newfound reliance on SEO and search marketing?

Publishers: time to learn from SEO

Publishers are about to find themselves in the very same position that brand marketers found themselves at the end of 2014, when Facebook announced that it was killing off organic reach for brand Pages. Just like publisher referral traffic now, brand Page reach had been in steady decline for some time, and the Facebook announcement only confirmed what many already suspected was coming.

At the time, brands were forced to abandon a marketing model that relied on free promotion from Facebook pages with hundreds of thousands of Likes, and instead pay for advertising or go elsewhere for their traffic. Sound familiar?

The situation with publishers is therefore nothing new, but is still a huge blow for media organizations who have developed a “social-first” strategy over the years and rely on Facebook as a primary source of traffic.

Following the news that Google had overtaken Facebook as a source of referral traffic, Adam Tinworth blogged: “Business models dependent on Facebook growth are dead in the water, unless you can afford to buy that growth.

“Publishers will need a renewed focus on SEO — especially those that have been social-first.”

Writing for The Drum, founder and managing director of 93digital, Alex Price, observed that Facebook was following Google in “placing its long-term bet on quality [content]”, singling out Facebook-driven publications like 9GAG, Unilad and The Lad Bible as most likely to suffer from the change.

“If I were them, I would be thinking hard about the teams of people I employ to churn out social media content and how sustainable that now is.”

He added that publishers would need to focus on retention and repeat visits to drive long-term value, and optimize the experience of their website, particularly on mobile, in order to build a sustainable source of revenue in the post-Facebook age.

Publish quality content, increase engagement, optimize for mobile… if you’re in SEO, this list will be starting to sound very familiar. It’s a mantra that the search industry has been repeating for years.

High-quality publishers are likely doing most of these things already, so their task will be to ramp up those efforts while diversifying their sources of traffic beyond Facebook. This will stand them in good stead on the search engine results page and beyond.

For lower-quality social publishers, things might not be so easy. After all, these publications evolved specifically to cater to a social sharing environment, which will soon no longer exist.

Much like the brand Pages of yore with hugely inflated Like counts, publishers will need to figure out how to deliver a message of real value to consumers, or risk disappearing altogether.