Friday, March 24, 2017

Five most interesting search marketing news stories of the week

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

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

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

Google Posts return – with GIFs and videos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Google to wind down Site Search by the end of 2017

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

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

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

Google told Search Engine Land in a statement:

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

Thursday, March 23, 2017

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

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

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

As one user explained on Reddit:

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

A mixed response from Home owners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The future of monetizing voice search?

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

Biometrics and neuroscience: The future of digital analytics?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why have we strayed from campaigns designed to shape emotion?

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

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

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

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

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

The challenge of measuring emotion online

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How are the tech giants approaching this?

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

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

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

Google and ‘Satisfaction Value’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From emotion to action, from action to habit

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will Google convince users to get on board?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How will Google rank these results?

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

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

Douglas went on to add:

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

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

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

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

Will Google offer paid placements?

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

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

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

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

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

What should we expect next?

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

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

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

How to create SEO-friendly content

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

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

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

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

Create original content

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

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

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

Optimize the title

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

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

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

Focus on structure

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

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

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

Use keywords

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

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

Moz Keyword Explorer

 

Aim for readability

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

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

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

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

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

Include internal and external links

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

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

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

Optimize images

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

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

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

How to optimise images for SEO

Focus on the user

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

What does your audience expect from you?

How can you enhance the user experience?

Does your site sabotage your content?

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

Takeaway tips

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

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