Link building campaigns shouldn’t have a start-and-stop date — they should be ongoing, continuing to earn you links over time. In this informative and enduringly relevant 2018 edition of Whiteboard Friday, guest host Paddy Moogan shares strategies to achieve sustainable link building, the kind that makes your content efforts lucrative far beyond your initial campaigns for them.
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Hi, Moz fans. Welcome to Whiteboard Friday. I’m not Rand. I’m Paddy Moogan. I’m the cofounder of Aira. We’re an agency in the UK, focusing on SEO, link building, and content marketing. You may have seen me write on the Moz Blog before, usually about link building. You may have read my link building book. If you have, thank you. Today, I’m going to talk about link building again. It’s a topic I love, and I want to share some ideas around what I’m calling “sustainable link building.”
Now, there are a few problems with link building that make it quite risky, and I want to talk about some problems first before giving you some potential solutions that help make your link building less risky. So a few problems first:
I. Content-driven link building is risky.
The problem with content-driven link building is that you’re producing some content and you don’t really know if it’s going to work or not. It’s quite risky, and you don’t actually know for sure that you’re going to get links.
II. A great content idea may not be a great content idea that gets links.
There’s a massive difference between a great idea for content and a great idea that will get links. Knowing that difference is really, really important. So we’re going to talk a little bit about how we can work that out.
III. It’s a big investment of time and budget.
Producing content, particularly visual content, doing design and development takes time. It can take freelancers. It can take designers and developers. So it’s a big investment of time and budget. If you’re going to put time and budget into a marketing campaign, you want to know it’s probably going to work and not be too risky.
IV. Think of link building as campaign-led: it starts & stops.
So you do a link building campaign, and then you stop and start a new one. I want to get away from that idea. I want to talk about the idea of treating link building as the ongoing activity and not treating it as a campaign that has a start date and a finish date and you forget about it and move on to the next one. So I’m going to talk a little bit about that as well.
So those are some of the problems that we’ve got with content-driven link-building. I want to talk about some solutions of how to offset the risk of content-driven link building and how to increase the chances that you’re actually going to get links and your campaign isn’t going to fail and not work out for you.
I. Don’t tie content to specific dates or events
So the first one, now, when you coming up with content ideas, it’s really easy to tie content ideas into events or days of the year. If there are things going on in your client’s industry that are quite important, current festivals and things like that, it’s a great way of hooking a piece of content into an event. Now, the problem with that is if you produce a piece of content around a certain date and then that date passes and the content hasn’t worked, then you’re kind of stuck with a piece of content that is no longer relevant.
So an example here of what we’ve done at Aira, there’s a client where they launch a piece of content around the Internet of Things Day. It turns out there’s a day celebrating the Internet of Things, which is actually April 9th this year. Now, we produced a piece of content for them around the Internet of Things and its growth in the world and the impact it’s having on the world. But importantly, we didn’t tie it exactly to that date. So the piece itself didn’t mention the date, but we launched it around that time and that outreach talked about Internet of Things Day. So the outreach focused on the date and the event, but the content piece itself didn’t. What that meant was, after July 9th, we could still promote that piece of content because it was still relevant. It wasn’t tied in with that exact date.
So it means that we’re not gambling on a specific event or a specific date. If we get to July 9th and we’ve got no links, it obviously matters, but we can keep going. We can keep pushing that piece of content. So, by all means, produce content tied into dates and events, but try not to include that too much in the content piece itself and tie yourself to it.
II. Look for datasets which give you multiple angles for outreach
Number two, lots of content ideas can lead from data. So you can get a dataset and produce content ideas off the back of the data, but produce angles and stories using data. Now, that can be quite risky because you don’t always know if data is going to give you a story or an angle until you’ve gone into it. So something we try and do at Aira when trying to produce content around data is from actually different angles you can use from that data.
So, for example:
Locations. Can you pitch a piece of content into different locations throughout the US or the UK so you can go after the local newspapers, local magazines for different areas of the country using different data points?
Demographics. Can you target different demographics? Can you target females, males, young people, old people? Can you slice the data in different ways to approach different demographics, which will give you multiple ways of actually outreaching that content?
Years. Is it updated every year? So it’s 2018 at the moment. Is there a piece of data that will be updated in 2019? If there is and it’s like a recurring annual thing where the data is updated, you can redo the content next year. So you can launch a piece of content now. When the data gets updated next year, plug the new data into it and relaunch it. So you’re not having to rebuild a piece of a content every single time. You can use old content and then update the data afterwards.
III. Build up a bank of link-worthy content
Number three, now this is something which is working really, really well for us at the moment, something I wanted to share with you. This comes back to the idea of not treating link building as a start and stop campaign. You need to build up a bank of link-worthy content on your client websites or on your own websites. Try and build up content that’s link worthy and not just have content as a one-off piece of work. What you can do with that is outreach over and over and over again.
We tend to think of the content process as something like this. You come up with your ideas. You do the design, then you do the outreach, and then you stop. In reality, what you should be doing is actually going back to the start and redoing this over and over again for the same piece of content.
What you end up with is multiple pieces of content on your client’s website that are all getting links consistently. You’re not just focusing on one, then moving past it, and then working on the next one. You can have this nice big bank of content there getting links for you all the time, rather than forgetting about it and moving on to the next one.
IV. Learn what content formats work for you
Number four, again, this is something that’s worked really well for us recently. Because we’re an agency, we work with lots of different clients, different industries and produce lots and lots of content, what we’ve done recently is try to work out what content formats are working the best for us. Which formats get the best results for our clients? The way we did this was a very, very simple chart showing how easy something was versus how hard it was, and then wherever it was a fail in terms of the links and the coverage, or wherever it was a really big win in terms of links and coverage and traffic for the client.
Now, what you may find when you do this is certain content formats fit within this grid. So, for example, you may find that doing data viz is actually really, really hard, but it gets you lots and lots of links, whereas you might find that producing maps and visuals around that kind of data is actually really hard but isn’t very successful.
Identifying these content formats and knowing what works and doesn’t work can then feed into your future content campaign. So when you’re working for a client, you can confidently say, “Well, actually, we know that interactives aren’t too difficult for us to build because we’ve got a good dev team, and they really likely to get links because we’ve done loads of them before and actually seen lots of successes from them.” Whereas if you come up with an idea for a map that you know is actually really, really hard to do and actually might lead to a big fail, then that’s not going to be so good, but you can say to a client, “Look, from our experience, we can see maps don’t work very well. So let’s try and do something else.”
That’s it in terms of tips and solutions for trying to make your link building more sustainable. I’d love to hear your comments and your feedback below. So if you’ve got any questions, anything you’re not sure about, let me know. If you see it’s working for your clients or not working, I’d love to hear that as well. Thank you.
Back in the spring of 2017, I wrote that HTTPS results made up half of page-one Google organic URLs. In over three years, I haven’t posted an update, which might lead you to believe that nothing changed. The reality is that a whole lot changed, but it changed so gradually that there was never a single event or clear “a-ha!” moment to write about.
Now, in the fall of 2020, HTTPS URLs make up 98% of page-one organic results in the MozCast 10,000-keyword tracking set. Here’s the monthly growth since April 2017:
There was a bump in HTTPS after October 2017, when Google announced that Chrome would be displaying more warnings to users for non-secure forms, but otherwise forward momentum has been fairly steady. While browsers have continued to raise the stakes, there have been no announced or measured algorithm updates regarding HTTPS.
I scoff at your data!
So, why am I writing this update now? While the MozCast 10,000-keyword set is well-suited for tracking long-term trends (as it’s consistent over time and has a long history), the data is focused on page-one, desktop results and is intentionally skewed toward more competitive terms.
Recently, I’ve been gifted access to our anonymized STAT ranking data — 7.5M keywords across desktop and mobile. Do these trends hold across devices, more pages, and more keywords?
The table above is just the page-one data. Across a much larger data set, the prevalence of HTTPS URLs on page one is very similar to MozCast and nearly identical across desktop and mobile. Now, let’s expand to the top 50 organic results (broken up into groups of ten) …
Even at the tail end of the top 50 organic results, more than 92% of URLs are HTTPS. There does seem to be a pattern of decline in HTTPS prevalence, with more non-secure URLs ranking deeper in Google results, but the prevalence of HTTPS remains very high even on page five of results.
Does this increase in HTTPS prevalence at the top of the rankings suggest that HTTPS is a ranking factor? Not by itself — it’s possible that more authoritative sites tend to be more sensitive to perceived security and have more budget to implement it. However, we know Google has stated publicly that HTTPS is a “lightweight ranking signal”, and this data seems to support that claim.
You can’t make me switch!
I don’t know why you’re being so combative, but no, I can’t really make you do anything. If you’re not convinced that HTTPS is important when 97-98% of the top ten organic results have it, I’m not sure what’s left to say. Of course, that’s not going to stop me from talking some more.
When we focus on rankings, we sometimes ignore core relevance (this is a challenge in large-scale ranking studies). For example, having relevant keywords on your page isn’t going to determine whether you win at rankings, but it’s essential to ranking at all. It’s table stakes — you can’t even join the game without relevant keywords. The same goes for HTTPS in 2020 — it’s probably not going to determine whether you rank #1 or #10, but it is going to determine whether you rank at all. Without a secure site, expect the bouncer to send you home.
As importantly, Google has made major changes around HTTPS/SSL in the Chrome browser, increasingly warning visitors if your site isn’t secure. Even if you’re still lucky enough to rank without HTTPS URLs, you’re going to be providing a poor user experience to a lot of visitors.
There’s not much left between 97% and 100%, and not many blog posts left to write about this particular trend. If you’re not taking HTTPS/SSL seriously in 2020, this is your final wake-up call.
With so many customization options in your Google My Business profile, it can be tough to decide what to focus on. But when it comes to ranking on the SERP, there are actually only four GMB fields that influence where your business will land.
In this brand new Whiteboard Friday, MozCon speaker and owner/founder of Sterling Sky, Joy Hawkins, takes us through the fields she and her team has found do (and do not) effect rankings.
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Hello, Moz fans. My name is Joy Hawkins, and today I’m going to be talking about which Google My Business fields impact ranking in the local pack. At my agency, Sterling Sky, we do a lot of testing to try and figure out what things actually influence ranking and what things do not.
We’ve come to the conclusion that there are only four things inside the Google My Business dashboard that a business owner or a marketing agency can edit that will have a direct influence on where they rank in the local results on Google.
1. Business name
So to start us out, I’m going to start with the first thing that we found has impacted ranking, which is the business name. Now this is one that’s kind of frustrating because I don’t think it should have so much of an influence, but it does.
This year in the local search ranking factors study I actually put this as my number one. Of all the things that influence ranking, this one, in my experience, has the most weight, which is again unfortunate. So as a business owner, obviously you’re thinking, “I can’t really change my business name very easily”. If you do happen to have a keyword rich business name, you will see an advantage there.
But the real action item would be to kind of look to see if your competitors are taking advantage of this by adding descriptive words into their business name and then submitting corrections to Google for it, because it is against the guidelines. So I’m not saying go out there and add a whole bunch of keywords to your business name on Google. Don’t do that. But you should keep an eye on your competitors just to see if they’re doing this, and if they are, you can report it to Google using the Google business complaint redressal form.
Now one thing that’s kind of a tip here — it has nothing to do with Google — but we’ve seen the same thing on Bing, which doesn’t get talked about a whole lot, but on Bing you’re actually allowed to have descriptors in your business name, so go ahead and do it there.
No impact: Q&A
Now I’m going to switch over to something that we found has not influenced ranking at all, which is Q&A. I kind of shoved it over to the section over there because it’s not actually in the dashboard currently. There isn’t a Q&A section in there, but it is on the knowledge panel on Google, and it is something that you should get an email alert about if somebody posts a question to your listing.
So we did a bunch of testing on Q&A and found, despite putting random keywords and very specific things in questions that we posted and also in the answers, there was no measurable impact on ranking.
So, unfortunately, that is not one area where you can kind of manipulate ranking for your clients.
Moving on to the second thing that we have found influences ranking — categories. Categories might sound kind of simple, because you go and you pick your categories.
There are 10 that you can add on there, but one thing I want to point out is that Google has around 4,000 categories currently, and they keep adding categories, and then they also sometimes remove them.
So we have been tracking this month over month, and we usually find that there are about two to 10 (on average) changes every month to the categories. Sometimes they add ones that didn’t exist before. For example, we found in the last year there have been a lot of restaurant categories added as well as auto dealer categories. But there are also some industries like dentists, for example, that got a new one a couple of months ago for dental implants.
So it is something that you want to kind of keep track of, and hopefully we will have a resource published soon where we can actually log all of the changes for you.
No impact: services
Now moving on to another thing that does not impact ranking, we’ll move over here to services.
So the services section — at first glance it looks like an SEO dream. You can put all kinds of descriptive words in there. You can tell Google a lot about the different services you offer.
But we have found that whatever you put there has no actual bearing on where you rank. So it’s not something I would spend a lot time on. Also, it’s not very visible. Currently it’s not really visible on desktop at all. Then if you go onto a mobile device, it’s kind of hidden off to a tab. It’s not something we have found really has a lot of weight, so spend a few minutes on it, but it’s not something I would revisit quite often.
Then moving back to the things that do impact ranking, number three would be the website field.
So this is something where you do want to kind of think and possibly even test what page on your website to link your Google My Business listing to. Often people link to the homepage, which is fine. But we have also found with multi-location businesses sometimes it is better to link to a location page.
So you do want to kind of test that out. If you’re a business that has lots of different listings — like you have departments or you have practitioner listings — you also want to try and make sure that you link those to different pages on your site, to kind of maximize your exposure and make sure that you’re just not trying to rank all the listings for the same thing, because that won’t happen. They’ll just get filtered. So that is a section that I would definitely suggest doing some testing on and see what works best for you and your industry.
No impact: products
Now moving on to something that we have found did not impact rankings — products.
So this is a feature that Google launched within I think about a year or so ago. It’s available on most listings. They are actually slowly rolling it out at the moment to all listings with the exception of a few categories that don’t have it. This section is kind of cool because it’s very visual.
If you’re a business that offers products or even if you offer services, you can technically list them in this section with photos. One of the neat things about the products section is that they are very visible on the knowledge panel on both desktop and on mobile. So it is something you want to fill out, but unfortunately we have found it doesn’t impact ranking. However, it does have an impact on conversions for certain industries.
So if you’re a business like a florist or a car dealer, it definitely makes sense to fill out that section and keep it up to date based on what products you’re currently offering.
Then moving back to the final thing that we found: number four for what influences ranking would be reviews (which is probably not going to be shocking to most of you). But we have found that review quantity does make an impact on ranking.
But that being said, we’ve also found that it has kind of diminishing returns. So for example, if you’re a business and you go from having no reviews to, let’s say, 20 or 30 reviews, you might start to see your business rank further away from your office, which is great. But if you go from, let’s say, 30 to 70, you may not see the same lift. So that’s something to kind of keep in mind.
But there are lots of reasons as a business, obviously, why you want to focus on reviews, and we do see that they actually have a direct impact on ranking.
There was an article that I wrote a couple of years ago that is still relevant, on Search Engine Land, that talks about the changes that I saw when a whole bunch of businesses lost reviews and just watching how their ranking actually dropped within a 24 to 48-hour period. So that is still true and still relevant, but it’s something that I would also keep in mind when you’re coming up with a strategy for your business.
So in summary, the four things that you need to remember that you can actually utilize inside Google My Business to influence your ranking: first is the business name, second would be the categories, third would be the website field, and finally the review section on Google.
Thanks for listening. If you have any questions, please hit me up in the comments.
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The Internet can be a great connector, but sometimes, it acts as a barrier.
Your local business receives a negative review, and the slate-colored words on the bland white screen can seem so cold, remote. You respond, but the whole interaction feels stilted, formal, devoid of face-to-face human feelings, like this:
At least when a complaint occurs via phone, the tone of a customer’s voice tells you a bit more and you can strive to respond with an appropriate vocal pitch, further questions, soothing, helping, maybe resolving. Still, if you’re working off a formal script, the human connection can be missed:
It’s a win when a customer complains in person to your staff, but only if those employees have been empowered to use their own initiative to solve problems. Employees who’ve been tasked with face-to-face interactions but lack permission to act fully human when customers complain will miss opportunity after opportunity to earn the loyalty your brand would give almost anything to amass. Two people can be looking one another in the eye, but if one has to act corporate instead of human, too much formality ensures forgettable experiences:
What you really want as a local business owner is to have the power to turn those chilly black-and-white words on a review profile into a living color interaction. You want to turn one-way messaging into front porch conversation, with the potential for further details, vital learnings, resolution, and deeply informal human connection with a neighbor, like this:
Seventeen years into my journey as a local SEO, I’ve come to realize that my favorite businesses — the ones I’ve come to patronize with devotion — are the ones with owners and staff who treat me with the least formality. They’ve creatively established an environment in which I felt liked, heard, regarded, trusted, and appreciated, and I’ve responded with loyalty. It’s really a beautiful thing, when you step back and think about it.
For me, it’s small local farmers who epitomize informal neighborliness in business. They:
Do their best to grow high quality food
Know me by name
Know my dietary preferences
Let me roam around their properties for enjoyment’s sake
Trust me to pay via an honor system
Ask me if there’s additional produce I’d like them to grow
Want to know how I’m cooking their produce
Tell me other ways I might prepare their produce
Have nice conversations with me about a variety of topics
Am I describing a business here, or a friend? The line is blurry. I’ve hugged some farmers. Prayed for a few when they’ve had hard times. I may have first met them for monetary transactions, but we’ve built human relationships, and the entire way I relate to this sector is defined by how the farmers go about their business.
With a few exceptions, most local brands can work at building less formality and more neighborliness into their in-person customer service. Think about it. In most settings, your customers would enjoy being treated with the respectful interest and kindness that invites camaraderie.
But we hit a strange barrier when the medium is online reviews. If we learned to read and write in a formal school setting, we may unconsciously ascribe a certain stiffness to textual exchanges. We’re worried about getting lower marks for making a mistake, and we’re aware of being in front of a public audience in writing review responses. We’re missing vital communicative cues, like the facial expression of the customer, their tone of voice, and their body language.
On our side of the equation, we can’t shake hands, or physically demonstrate our willingness to help, or even signal our approachability with a smile.
To tell the truth, reviews aren’t a great substitute for in-person communication, but they are here to stay, and there’s a certain amount of fear on both sides of many transactions that builds up the layers of the barrier, like this:
What can be done to bring the two parties closer together, so that they are at least leaning over the same fence to talk?
Create a workflow for spotting single and aggregate review cues
The easiest way I know of to get started with a workflow surrounding reviews is via a very intuitive product like Moz Local. Basic components are built into the dashboard, offering a simple jumping off point into the complex world of reputation management.
The screenshot above shows a portion of the functions Moz Local offers for review management. The organization of the various data widgets create a bridge for getting closer to customers and engaging in real, meaningful dialogue with them in an atmosphere of goodwill, rather than fear. Let’s break it down by tasks.
1. Seek cues in single reviews with ongoing alerts
To enter into a conversation, you have to know when it starts. The right-side column of the Moz Local dashboard keeps a running feed of your incoming reviews on a variety of platforms, as well as incoming Google Q&A questions. On a daily basis, you can see who is starting a conversation about your business, and you can tell whether customers most recent customers were having a good or bad experience by looking at the star rating.
Make it your practice to click first on any review in this feed if it’s received a 3-star rating or less, and see how much information a customer has shared about the reason for their less-than-perfect rating, as in this fictitious example:.
Because the reviews are timestamped, you may have the ability to connect a customer’s poor experience with something that happened at your place of business on a specific day, like being understaffed, having an equipment failure, or another problem.
In fact, a second view in the dashboard makes it immediately obvious if the reviews you received on a particular day had lower star ratings than you’d like to see:
If you know a customer’s complaints can be tied to an issue, this gives you something more and better to say than just “I’m sorry,” when you respond. For example, broken equipment leading to a cold meal is something you can explain in asking the customer to let you make it up to them.
2. Seek cues in aggregated sentiment
Knowing whether you have just one customer with a single complaint or multiple customers with the same complaint is vital quality control intelligence. Very often, Google reviews are particularly brief in comparison to reviews on other platforms, and you need to be able to take a large body of them to see if there are shared topical themes. The Review Analysis widget in the Moz Local dashboard does exactly this for you:
In this view, you can see up to 100 of the most common words your customers are using when they review you, the percentage of the reviews containing each word, and the star rating associated with reviews using each word. You can toggle the data for each column.
In our fictitious example, the business owner could see that when food is served cold, it’s yielding very poor review ratings, but that, fortunately, this is a complaint contained in only 1.7% of total reviews. Meanwhile, the business owner could notice that 2% of reviews with a 3.8 star rating (only a moderately good experience) are revolving around the phrase “service”. The owner can click on each word to be shown a list of the reviews containing that term to help them identify what it is about the service that’s diminishing customer satisfaction.
The figures in the above screenshot are all pretty low, and likely represent only mild concerns for the business. If, however, the business owner saw something like this, that would change the narrative:
Here, 12.2% of the reviews mentioning the restaurant’s veggie burgers are associated with a very poor 2.0 rating. The owner would need to dive into this list of reviews and see just what it is customers don’t like about this dish. For example, if many of these reviews mentioned that the burgers lacked flavor, had bland condiments, or buns that fell apart, these would be cues that could lead to changing a recipe. Again, this would give the owner something genuine to say in response to dissatisfied customers. Ideally, it would lead to the customer being invited to come again for something like a free taste test of the new recipe.
Whatever details the review sentiment analysis function yields for your business, use it with the intention of having a two sided conversation with your customers. They complain, in aggregate, about X, you research and implement a solution, and finally, you invite them to experience the solution in hopes of retaining that customer, which is typically far less costly than replacing them.
3. Grade your business at a glance
These two views in the Moz Local dashboard allow you to analyze two key, related aspects of your business at a glance.
The Average Rating view is the fastest way to grade yourself on aggregate customer satisfaction. This example shows a business with little to fear, with 96% of customers rating the business at 4-or-more stars and only 4% having a three-stars-or-less experience. In terms of having happy customers, this fictitious company is doing a great job.
However, the Reviews Reply rate needs some work. They’re only replying to 1% of their overall reviews, 0% of their 2-to-5-star reviews, and only 21% of their 1-star reviews. The business is doing an excellent job offline, but unless they improve their online responsiveness, their average review rating could begin to decrease over time.
In sum, a workflow which investigates reviews singly and in aggregate tells the story or customer satisfaction across time, and gives the business owner a clearer narrative to tap into and write from in responding.
Make optimal response rates and two-way conversation your goal
As a local business owner, you have many demands on your time. That being said, my pro tip for you is to respond to every review you possibly can. There’s no scenario in which it’s smart to ignore a conversation any customer starts, whether positive or negative. Just as you wouldn’t ignore a percentage of your incoming calls or customers walking around your business, you shouldn’t ignore them online.
If thinking of reviews as a two-way conversation is a bit of new concept to you, consider that most review platforms enable people to edit their reviews for a reason: many of your customers think of the reviews they write as living documents, and are willing to update them to journal subsequent interactions that made a scenario better or worse. My own research has shown this to be true, and multiple studies have reached the conclusion that the majority of customers will continue doing business with brands that resolve their complaints.
This means that local businesses can manage a customer journey that follow this pattern for negative reviews, much of the time:
In black-and-white review land, this might look like this:
Or, when a customer is happy to begin with, offering extra incentives to come again while thanking the customer for taking the time to write their review could look like this:
Here, a conversation starter about salsa has been turned into a two-way dialog guaranteed to make the customer feel heard and valued. They’ve been invited back, their opinion has been solicited, and both the existing customer and all potential future customers reading Mary’s response can see that this is a restaurant with a lively, on-going relationship with its diners.
Takeaway: don’t just say “thanks” to every customer who positively reviews your business. Seek cues in their words that show what they care about and tie it to what you care about. Find common ground to further engage them and bring them back again.
How big of a priority are reviews, really?
I’ve consulted with so many local business owners over the years — everybody from beekeepers to bookkeepers. It’s a plain fact that all small business owners are extremely busy, and not all of them instantly take a shine to the idea of having a lot of little two-way conversations going on with their customers in their review profiles.
Statistics can change minds on this, when it comes to figuring out how much of a priority review analysis and management should be. Consider these findings from the Moz State of the Local SEO Industry survey of over 1,400 people involved in the marketing of local businesses:
Respondents placed aspects of Google reviews (count, sentiment, owner responses, etc.) as having the second greatest impact on Google’s local rankings.
90% of respondents agree that the impact of reviews on local pack rankings is real.
Nearly 14% of those marketing the largest local enterprises realize that more resources need to be devoted to review management. Yet, in another section of the survey, agency workers placed review management in a lowly 11th place in terms of something they are requested to help their clients with. Learn more about these trends by downloading the free State of the Local SEO Industry Report for 2020.
Statistics like these indicate that there is a maturing awareness of the vital role reviews play in running a successful local business. Management of all aspects of reviews deserves priority time.
Make a habit of reading reviews between the lines
Moz Local software will ensure you know whenever single reviews come in, and help you slice and dice review data in ways that tell customer service narratives in aggregate. If you’re already using this software, your first steps of reputation management are just waiting to be taken with ease and simplicity.
But to get the most of any review management product, you’ll need to bring a human talent to the dashboard: your ability to read between the lines of review text that can be brief, vague, sharp, and sometimes unfair.
With the exception of spam, there’s a real person on the other side of each text snippet, and for the most part, their shared desire is to be treated well by your business. Even if a review stems from a customer you can’t identify or one who communicates disappointment rudely, you can take the high road by making a mental image of yourself standing face-to-face with someone you highly value who is voicing a problem. Respond from that good place, with the conscious intention of improved neighborly communication and you may be pleasantly surprised by your ability to transform even the most dissatisfied person into a happier, more loyal customer.
I’ll close today with an excerpt of a very long real-world review which I’ve truncated. I’ve underlined the cues and the rewards I’m hoping you’ll spot and see as you strengthen your commitment to review management as a key component of your customer service strategy.
The new Moz Local plans — Lite, Preferred, and Elite — are designed to offer more features and flexibility to better meet the needs of local businesses and their marketers. Customers on any of the new plans can now monitor reviews via alerts, and depending on the plan, respond to reviews and take advantage of social posting. It’s never been more important to actively engage and listen to the needs and concerns of your current customers — and potential customers will take notice.
Now, whether that phrase takes you back to a simpler (maybe? I don’t know, I was born in the 80s) time of gold panning, Mark Twain, and metallurgical assay — or just makes you want some Velveeta shells and liquid gold (I also might be hungry) — the point is, there is a lot you can learn from analyzing search results.
Search engine results pages (SERPs) are the mountains we’re trying to climb as SEOs to reach the peak (number one position). But these mountains aren’t just for climbing — there are numerous “nuggets” of information to be mined from the SERPs that can help us on our journey to the mountaintop.
Earning page one rankings is difficult — to build optimized pages that can rank, you need comprehensive SEO strategy that includes:
Technical SEO audits
Projections and forecasting
Niche and audience research
Content ideation and creation
Knowledge and an understanding of your (or your client’s) website’s history
A ton of work and research goes into successful SEO.
Fortunately, much of this information can be gleaned from the SERPs you’re targeting, that will in turn inform your strategy and help you make better decisions.
The three main areas of research that SERP analysis can benefit are:
And competitive analysis.
So, get your pickaxe handy (or maybe just a notebook?) because we’re going to learn how to mine the SERPs for SEO gold!
Finding keyword research nuggets
Any sound SEO strategy is built on sound keyword research. Without keyword research, you’re just blindly creating pages and hoping Google ranks them. While we don’t fully understand or know every signal in Google’s search algorithm — I’m pretty confident your “hopes” aren’t one of them — you need keyword research to understand the opportunities as they exist.
And you can find some big nuggets of information right in the search results!
First off, SERP analysis will help you understand the intent (or at least the perceived intent by Google) behind your target keywords or phrases. Do you see product pages or informational content? Are there comparison or listicle type pages? Is there a variety of pages serving multiple potential intents? For example:
Examining these pages will tell you which page — either on your site or yet to be created — would be a good fit. For example, if the results are long-form guides, you’re not going to be able to make your product page rank there (unless of course the SERP serves multiple intents, including transactional). You should analyze search intent before you start optimizing for keywords, and there’s no better resource for gauging searcher intent than the search results themselves.
You can also learn a lot about the potential traffic you could receive from ranking in a given SERP by reviewing its makeup and the potential for clicks.
Of course, we all want to rank in position number one (and sometimes, position zero) as conventional wisdom points to this being our best chance to earn that valuable click-through. And, a recent study by SISTRIX confirmed as much, reporting that position one has an average click-through rate (CTR) of 28.5% — which is fairly larger than positions two (15.7%) and three (11%).
But the most interesting statistics within the study were regarding how SERP layout can impact CTR.
Some highlights from the study include:
SERPs that include sitelinks have a 12.7% increase in CTR, above average.
Position one in a SERP with a featured snippet has a 5.2% lower CTR than average.
Position one in SERPs that feature a knowledge panel see an 11.8% dip in CTR, below average.
SERPs with Google Shopping ads have the worst CTR: 14.8% below average.
SISTRIX found that overall, the more SERP elements present, the lower the CTR for the top organic position.
This is valuable information to discover during keyword research, particularly if you’re searching for opportunities that might bring organic traffic relatively quickly. For these opportunities, you’ll want to research less competitive keywords and phrases, as the SISTRIX report suggests that these long-tail terms have a larger proportion of “purely organic SERPs (e.g. ten blue links).
To see this in action, let’s compare two SERPs: “gold panning equipment” and “can I use a sluice box in California?”.
Here is the top of the SERP for “gold panning equipment”:
And here is the top of the SERP for “can I use a sluice box in California?”:
Based on what we know now, we can quickly assess that our potential CTR for “can I use a sluice box in California?” will be higher. Although featured snippets lower CTR for other results, there is the possibility to rank in the snippet, and the “gold panning equipment” SERP features shopping ads which have the most negative impact (-14.8%) on CTR.
Of course, CTR isn’t the only determining factor in how much traffic you’d potentially receive from ranking, as search volume also plays a role. Our example “can I use a sluice box in California?” has little to no search volume, so while the opportunity for click-throughs is high, there aren’t many searching this term and ranking wouldn’t bring much organic traffic — but if you’re a business that sells sluice boxes in California, this is absolutely a SERP where you should rank.
Keyword research sets the stage for any SEO campaign, and by mining existing SERPs, you can gain information that will guide the execution of your research.
Mining content creation nuggets
Of course, keyword research is only useful if you leverage it to create the right content. Fortunately, we can find big, glittering nuggets of content creation gold in the SERPs, too!
One the main bits of information from examining SERPs is which types of content are ranking — and since you want to rank there, too, this information is useful for your own page creation.
For example, if the SERP has a featured snippet, you know that Google wants to answer the query in a quick, succinct manner for searchers — do this on your page. Video results appearing on the SERP? You should probably include a video on your page if you want to rank there too. Image carousel at the top? Consider what images might be associated with your page and how they would be displayed.
You can also review the ranking pages to gain insight into what formats are performing well in that SERP. Are the ranking pages mostly guides? Comparison posts? FAQs or forums? News articles or interviews? Infographics? If you can identify a trend in format, you’ve already got a good idea of how you should structure (or re-structure) your page.
Some SERPs may serve multiple intents and display a mixture of the above types of pages. In these instances, consider which intent you want your page to serve and focus on the ranking page that serves that intent to glean content creation ideas.
Furthermore, you can leverage the SERP for topic ideation — starting with the People Also Ask (PAA) box. You should already have your primary topic (the main keyword you’re targeting), but the PAA can provide insight into related topics.
Here’s an example of a SERP for “modern gold mining techniques”:
Right there in the PAA box, I’ve got three solid ideas for sub-topics or sections of my page on “Modern Gold Mining”. These PAA boxes expand, too, and provide more potential sub-topics.
While thorough keyword research should uncover most long-tail keywords and phrases related to your target keyword, reviewing the People Also Ask box will ensure you haven’t missed anything.
Of course, understanding what types of formats, structures, topics, etc. perform well in a given SERP only gets you part of the way there. You still need to create something that is better than the pages currently ranking. And this brings us to the third type of wisdom nuggets you can mine from the SERPs — competitive analysis gold.
Extracting competitive analysis nuggets
With an understanding of the keywords and content types associated with your target SERP, you’re well on your way to staking your claim on the first page. Now it’s time to analyze the competition.
A quick glance at the SERP will quickly give you an idea of competition level and potential keyword difficulty. Look at the domains you see — are there recognizable brands? As a small or new e-commerce site, you can quickly toss out any keywords that have SERPs littered with pages from Amazon, eBay, and Wal-Mart. Conversely, if you see your direct competitors ranking and no large brands, you’ve likely found a good keyword set to target. Of course, you may come across SERPs that have major brands ranking along with your competitor — if your competitor is ranking there, it means you have a shot, too!
But this is just the surface SERP silt (say that five times fast). You need to mine a bit deeper to reach the big, golden competitive nuggets.
The next step is to click through to the pages and analyze them based on a variety of factors, including (in no particular order):
If the page is lacking in any, many, or all these areas, there is a strong opportunity your page can become the better result, and rank.
You should also review how many backlinks ranking pages have, to get an idea for the range of links you need to reach to be competitive. In addition, review the number of referring domains for each ranking domain — while you’re competing on a page-to-page level in the SERP, there’s no doubt that pages on more authoritative domains will benefit from that authority.
However, if you find a page that’s ranking from a relatively unknown or new site, and it has a substantial amount of backlinks, that’s likely why it’s ranking, and earning a similar amount of links will give your page a good chance to rank as well.
Lastly, take the time to dive into your competitor’s ranking pages (if they’re there). Examine their messaging and study how they’re talking to your shared audience to identify areas where your copy is suboptimal or completely missing the mark. Remember, these pages are ranking on page one, so they must be resonating in some way.
Successful SEO requires thorough research and analysis from a variety of sources. However, much of what you need can be found in the very SERPs for which you’re trying to rank. After all, you need to understand why the pages that rank are performing if you want your pages to appear there, too.
These SERPs are full of helpful takeaways in terms of:
Keyword research and analysis
Content ideation and strategy
And competitive analysis and review.
These golden nuggets are just there for the takin’ and you don’t need any tools other than Google and your analytical mind — well, and your metaphorical pickaxe.
The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the way we engage with local businesses. We’re ordering more food for delivery, spending more money in online shops, and checking for safety measures on the web listings of businesses of all kinds. But what do these new trends mean for the ways businesses market themselves online?
We asked five local SEO experts to zero in on the trends and tactics businesses across five industries should focus on to get ahead — and stay ahead — during this time.
1. 70% of local marketers reported marketing budget cuts due to COVID-19, leading marketers to focus even more on the most impactful local SEO campaign elements. Which three local search marketing tactics are delivering the most value for businesses right now, and why?
1. Detailed, recent reviews — especially on Google Maps, but preferably also on other sites.
2. Where applicable, a “telehealth”-type page that goes into great detail on what specific problem(s) the doctor or wellness profession can help with remotely.
3. A detailed page on every specific service, procedure, or condition the practice handles, each with a section that explicitly states whether a telehealth or similar “virtual” option is applicable to it.
1. Link building. A lot of businesses have a hard time getting quality links on their own, so when you have link building tactics at an agency that work, it can be a huge value add.
2. Optimizing internal linking structure on the business website. Most websites for small businesses are not structured properly, and making a few adjustments to internal linking can make fairly impressive changes in the search results. It also impacts both the local and organic search results, just like link building.
3. Localizing content on the website. Taking existing pages on a business’ website and optimizing them for city, county, or state queries can have really great impacts on both local and organic results. We’ve also seen great results from optimizing for “near me” queries.
For home services, identifying and reporting Google My Business spam/violations are the most impactful. Why? If you’re using accurate rank tracking and see that you rank #5 for a popular keyword in your target market BUT three of the listings above you are violating Google My Business guidelines, getting those listings updated or removed (depending on the violation) would move you up three spots. Knowing the Google My Business guidelines is crucial along with knowing how to spot violations.
The second most impactful marketing “tactic” is implementing and maintaining a review building strategy. You can’t outrank a sh*tty reputation.
The third most important marketing tactic is understanding who your customers are, where they live, how you can relate to them, and what they care about. From a strategic standpoint, the more information you have on your target customers, the more you’re able to get involved in the local community that they belong to. For local search, I’m of the opinion that Google wants to highlight popular companies from the offline world in the online world. Start focusing on building a better, LOCAL brand.
For restaurant and hotel listings in particular, there’s certainly a lot that can be done to stand out from other listings. With COVID, both categories have been impacted heavily. Many listings needed to either be marked as “Permanently Closed” or the newly created “Temporarily Closed”. Three tactics that are important to utilize right now include:
Effective attribute usage: There are now attributes in GMB for “Health & Safety” and “Service Options”. Both are extremely important right now, especially the mask-related attributes, which can give customers a lot of reassurance. The same goes for how hospitality businesses are operating with respect to whether there are in-store or pick-up options.
Google Post notices: Google Posts are an effective way of communicating important changes to operations. The COVID-19 update post is a great one to use because it never expires. But there is the downside that other posts are buried (COVID-19 posts are given prominence).
Proactive updates: For hotel listings, GMB can be a complicated space with how booking sites are deeply integrated into the UI. As COVID regulations change based on your location, details on these sites need to be kept updated quickly to reach customers and avoid negative experiences.
Make sure that your GMB listings use the COVID posts to share information about how you are keeping your clients safe. Our financial client created COVID landing pages for both personal and business accounts. This client saw a 95% increase in organic goal completions from February to March. There was also a 97% increase in organic goal completions YoY. Google posts that focused on coronavirus-related services and products have also performed well.
2. 75% of marketers agree that elements of Google My Business profiles (categories, reviews, photos, etc.) are local search ranking factors. Which three GMB elements do you recommend businesses focus on right now to influence their local pack rankings, and why?
Phil Rozek: Health and Wellness Services
Number one: reviews.
Number two: categories — particularly the “primary” category.
Number three: getting your “practitioner” GMB pages right, by which I mean you’ve got a detailed “bio” page serving as the GMB landing page, a primary category that reflects the practitioner’s specialty, and Google reviews for each practitioner from their patients.
Joy Hawkins: Legal Services
There are only four elements inside Google My Business that really impact ranking. Since the first one is the business name, I’d suggest focusing on the other three: Reviews, the page on your website you link the listing to, and the categories you choose. For example, in this article, I detailed the difference between the family lawyer category and the divorce lawyer category, and which keywords they correlate to.
Blake Denman: Home Services
Specifically for the home services industry, adjusting your primary category in Google My Business when seasons change. HVAC company? Winter is fast approaching, your primary category should be changed to a relevant heating category instead of your summer category, AC. Your primary Google My Business category is going to have more of a ranking improvement than secondary categories.
I hate to sound like a broken record, but take a look at all of your competitor’s listings for Google My Business violations. And finally, reviews are going to make or break your listing. If you haven’t implemented a review building strategy by now, you really need to get one set up ASAP.
Brodie Clark: Hospitality
As a starting point, opening hours and whether a listing is marked as permanently/temporarily closed are major influencers of local pack rankings. Each is key to showing up at all, but incremental increases can certainly be achieved with gaining a high volume of positive reviews and making sure both your primary and secondary categories are set effectively. With categories, a great place to start is completing a competitor analysis with GMBspy Chrome extension.
Amanda Jordan: Financial Services
Reviews are one of the most important ranking factors, as well as being important for improving conversions.
Second is the proximity to searchers — are there ATMs or branches that currently do not have GMB listings? New listings can help increase visibility in Google Maps.
Build local links. Now is a great time to work on link building. Try to find directories and organizations specific to your geographic location to join.
3. 90% of our survey respondents agree that GMB reviews influence local pack rankings. What advice can you offer businesses looking to maximize the value of reviews?
Phil Rozek: Health and Wellness Services
Stop going for easy, fast, drive-by email requests, and start trying to identify patients who might go into a little detail in their reviews. Lazy requests result in lazy reviews. At the very least, don’t send “Dear Valued Patient”-type requests by email, but ideally you also find a discreet way to ask in-person, with a follow-up email to come later. See my 2017 post on “Why Your Review-Encouragement Software Is a Meat Grinder”.
These days, more than ever, patients want to know things like what safety and hygiene procedures you follow, what wait times are like, whether the standard of care has changed, etc. Longtime patients are in the best position to write crunchy, detailed reviews, but you should encourage every patient to go into as much detail as they can. Try having a designated “review person” who knows a thing or two about any given patient, and will take a couple of minutes to make a personal and personalized request. Do it because you want “keywords” in your reviews, and because a five-star review that doesn’t impress anyone won’t help your practice much.
Joy Hawkins: Legal Services
Make sure you ask every customer for a review and come up with a process that is streamlined and easy to keep organized. We normally suggest using a paid platform for review management (we use GatherUp) because it can automate the process and send reminders to people who haven’t responded yet.
Blake Denman: Home Services
Figure out the best method for earning reviews. Test email, texting, and in-person requests from your team, physical cards with a bit.ly link, etc. Test each one for a few months, then switch to a different method. Test until you find the method that works best for your customers.
The other thing that really needs to be considered is how to get customers to write about the specific services they used when working with your company. Little prompts or questions that they could answer when you reach out will help customers write better reviews.
Brodie Clark: Hospitality
Getting reviews on GMB has never been easy. You can always try to take the manual route, but that’s impossible to properly scale. I rely on and recommend using GatherUp for hospitality business with multiple listings that need an integrated strategy to gather reviews effectively. The upside of using GatherUp is that you can capture first party reviews to use on your website or as an internal feedback mechanism.
Amanda Jordan: Financial Services
My number one tactic for reviews has always been to have an actual person ask for a review during key points in the customer journey. For example, an associate that helps someone open a checking account, a mortgage advisor who is helping a family refinance their home, etc.
4. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, 78% of local marketers agreed with Mike Blumenthal’s popularized concept that Google is the new homepage for local businesses. Do your observations and analytics data indicate that this concept is still correct? Has the role of websites for currently operational businesses grown or decreased as a result of the public health emergency, and what does that mean for those websites?
For casual, drop-in businesses, where customers or clients don’t need to do much research or make a big decision, I could see how maybe Google has made the SERPs an almost-suitable substitute for the homepage. That may also be true of medical practices to the extent they have current or returning patients who just want or need quick information fast on a practice they’re already familiar with. But when people’s health is at stake, they tend to dig a little deeper. Often they want or need to find out what procedures a practice does or doesn’t offer, learn more about the doctors or other staff, learn more about insurance and billing, or confirm what they saw in the search results.
Joy Hawkins: Legal Services
I agree that Google My Business is becoming a more important factor, as there are a ton of options that Google is pushing out due to COVID-19 that you can take advantage of.
I think it’s important, though, for people to realize that Google My Business is mainly there to provide the opportunity to share more about what your business does and provide ways for customers to contact you. Most of the fields inside Google My Business do not impact ranking. Traditional SEO factors are needed to make sure your business actually ranks on Google, and then Google My Business will help ensure those customers see the right information. Additionally, Google My Business has not replaced the need for a website — it’s simply another place that needs to be monitored and updated frequently.
Blake Denman: Home Services
Yes, Google My Business might be the first interaction people have with before (or needing) to go to your website. Websites are still really important — not just for traditional organic SEO, but for traditional SEO signals that influence Google My Business rankings, too.
Since the public health emergency emerged, we’re seeing an uptick in traffic to websites. Yes, you can add certain attributes to your GMB listing to address public health concerns, but people need more information. What kinds of protocols are you taking? How far out are you booked?
Brodie Clark: Hospitality
It really depends on the business type, but at the moment, many local businesses (especially in hospitality) are under a lot of pressure. This means they might not have the capacity to keep their websites updated or their GMB listings in check. So, they’re having to resort to food delivery services like UberEats — which has become far more mainstream in recent years, and I’m guessing there’s been an increase during 2020. And hotels, where I’m located in Melbourne, anyway, haven’t been able to operate for some time, but I probably wouldn’t be relying on their GMB listing to give the most up-to-date information.
Amanda Jordan: Financial Services
The role of the website has definitely grown for our financial clients. Websites are hubs for useful information, especially in the case of a crisis or for products and services that play a large role in your life. For many business categories, the information found on GMB listings is enough to get conversions. Consumers do significant research when choosing a financial product, and they need all of the information they can get to make a well-informed decision based on rates, fees, and policies.
5. Only 39% of marketers feel that Google’s emphasis on user-to-business proximity always delivers high-quality results. In the industry, does Google tend to prioritize proximity over quality for core search terms? Would you say they over-emphasize proximity in your experience?
Phil Rozek: Health and Wellness Services
That’s truest in saturated industries, in my experience. But in more specialized fields, or for more specific (niche) terms, Google doesn’t seem to fixate on proximity as much. To some extent that’s because it can’t: Google needs to go a little farther afield to grab enough relevant results to fill up a page or a 3-pack.
Joy Hawkins: Legal Services
Absolutely. Proximity is one of the main reasons why spam is a problem in the legal services industry. Marketing companies will create lead-generating Google My Business listings and be able to get them to rank simply based on having keyword-rich business names. They create them in mass so they rank when people close to them are searching (due to the proximity factor).
Here is an example of some of the spam we see in the legal services industry.
Blake Denman: Home Services
Proximity for certain types of industries (restaurants, coffee shops, dry cleaners, etc.) are great, but for others, like home industries, they are not. Most home service businesses should not be displaying their address since they are a Service Area Business, but this doesn’t stop some from keeping their address up to rank in that city.
Google does tend to prioritize proximity in the home services industry, unfortunately.
Brodie Clark: Hospitality
I think Google does a reasonable job at dialing up the proximity meter where necessary. If you were to pin keywords in a business listing name against proximity, keywords in the business name would win nine times out of 10. So in that instance, other signals should be dialled up further, but proximity may only be relevant in certain cases.
Amanda Jordan: Financial Services
Absolutely. With digital banking and the amount of trust we put into financial organizations, proximity isn’t a major factor when considering a financial service provider, but Google results don’t reflect that.
Proximity is a much bigger factor when you’re choosing a place to order takeout from than it is when you’re choosing who to trust with your 30-year mortgage. Reviews should definitely play a bigger factor than proximity for financial institutions.
6. 91% of marketers tell us they have a strategy in place for capturing featured snippet visibility in the SERPs. Which featured snippets should businesses focus on most, and why?
Phil Rozek: Health and Wellness Services
Focus on FAQs, particularly on your “service,” “treatment,” or “condition” pages. Focus on those sorts of pages rather than on blog posts or other purely informational resources, which generally are less likely to help bring you new patients.
Those FAQs and your answers, of course, should be specific to the service, treatment, procedure, or condition you describe on a given page. The questions should be phrased in the way your patients (or searchers) would phrase them, and your answers should be blurb-length and relatively simple.
Joy Hawkins: Legal Services
I have seen featured snippets for lots of really long-tail, commercial-intent keywords that probably shouldn’t have featured snippets. These can be really amazing sources of traffic if you get one of them (see photo below). Additionally, creating content around things like “can you sue for [insert information]” can be a great way to win featured snippets.
Blake Denman: Home Services
With more and more personalization coming into the SERPs, I believe that featured snippets will become more and more regionally specific. If you do a search for “new water heater cost” you see a featured snippet for Home Advisor. If a company that is local to me published content around the cost and installation, why wouldn’t Google serve that snippet to me instead of what is shown nationally?
Brodie Clark: Hospitality
Featured snippets are a topic that I write about regularly. When it comes to hospitality businesses, featured snippets can be a lower-end priority. According to the MozCast, featured snippets appear on ~9% of all SERPs in the ~10K MozCast query set. I would expect it to be lower than that for most hospitality businesses. Focus on the featured snippets that provide the highest return for your time, and ensure you’ve got a tracking strategy in place. I wrote a post recently that described a method for using Google Analytics and Google Tag Manager to capture these insights.
Amanda Jordan: Financial Services
We teach our financial clients to focus on educating their customers by making sure we research the right topics and provide the best possible answer. Paragraph, table, and carousel featured snippets are typically the types that we see financial websites achieving most often.
7. We saw an increase in the number of consultants advising clients about offline strategy, instead of keeping strictly to online SEO consulting. What can businesses be doing offline right now to strengthen their chances of success?
Phil Rozek: Health and Wellness Services
Don’t keep patients waiting anywhere close to how long they’d wait pre-COVID. Patients should think, “I wish it happened under better circumstances, but I do like that I don’t wait around as much as I used to.”
Make sure your patient-facing staff are always friendly, patient, and organized. Many practices get bad reviews online not because of the doctor(s), but because of complaints regarding staff. Yes, admins and other staff have a tough job, and no, patients aren’t always reasonable. Just the same, staff-patient issues can bring down a practice. Continually working with staff on soft skills is time well-spent.
Get to know more doctors or business owners outside of your field of practice. Occasionally they have great ideas that you can adapt to your situation, to your practice.
Joy Hawkins: Legal Services
I would focus on tactics offline that would increase branded searches on Google. Branded searches are one of the things we’ve found that correlate with your business getting a place label on Google Maps. Our study on this is releasing later this year.
Blake Denman: Home Services
Start focusing on building a BETTER. LOCAL. BRAND. I’ve come across websites that have a horrible backlink profile or haven’t updated their website since 2010, yet they rank prominently in their market — why? They have been involved in their local community for a long time.
If you know who your customers are and have dived into your affinity categories in Google Analytics, you will have a really good understanding of what your target audience cares about outside of your service.
Brodie Clark: Hospitality
Talk to your customers. Ask them questions and understand their concerns. Taking important conversations offline still plays an important role in your marketing strategy.
Amanda Jordan: Financial Services
Review strategies should include offline tactics. Community outreach and involvement are crucial. I would argue that anyone who is consulting about online reputation management should focus on the company’s reputation offline as well.
Every business is different and no tactic is one-size-fits-all. As with all good things in SEO, the key is testing. Whether you’re releasing a new product or service, upleveling your review management process, or changing the way you use Google My Business, we encourage you to try out some of these expert tips to see what will stick for your business.
Have a local SEO strategy that’s working well for your business, or want us to feature your industry in our next post? Let us know in the comments below.
When you publish new content, you want users to find it ranking in search results as fast as possible. Fortunately, there are a number of tips and tricks in the SEO toolbox to help you accomplish this goal. Sit back, turn up your volume, and let Cyrus Shepard show you exactly how in this popular and informative episode of Whiteboard Friday.
[Note: #3 isn’t covered in the video, but we’ve included in the post below. Enjoy!]
Click on the whiteboard image above to open a high-resolution version in a new tab!
Howdy, Moz fans. Welcome to another edition of Whiteboard Friday. I’m Cyrus Shepard, back in front of the whiteboard. So excited to be here today. We’re talking about ten tips to index and rank new content faster.
You publish some new content on your blog, on your website, and you sit around and you wait. You wait for it to be in Google’s index. You wait for it to rank. It’s a frustrating process that can take weeks or months to see those rankings increase. There are a few simple things we can do to help nudge Google along, to help them index it and rank it faster. Some very basic things and some more advanced things too. We’re going to dive right in.
1. URL Inspection / Fetch & Render
So basically, indexing content is not that hard in Google. Google provides us with a number of tools. The simplest and fastest is probably the URL Inspection tool. It’s in the new Search Console, previously Fetch and Render. As of this filming, both tools still exist. They are depreciating Fetch and Render. The new URL Inspection tool allows you to submit a URL and tell Google to crawl it. When you do that, they put it in their priority crawl queue. That just simply means Google has a list of URLs to crawl. It goes into the priority, and it’s going to get crawled faster and indexed faster.
Another common technique is simply using sitemaps. If you’re not using sitemaps, it’s one of the easiest, quickest ways to get your URLs indexed. When you have them in your sitemap, you want to let Google know that they’re actually there. There’s a number of different techniques that can actually optimize this process a little bit more.
The first and the most basic one that everybody talks about is simply putting it in your robots.txt file. In your robots.txt, you have a list of directives, and at the end of your robots.txt, you simply say sitemap and you tell Google where your sitemaps are. You can do that for sitemap index files. You can list multiple sitemaps. It’s really easy.
You can also do it using the Search Console Sitemap Report, another report in the new Search Console. You can go in there and you can submit sitemaps. You can remove sitemaps, validate. You can also do this via the Search Console API.
But a really cool way of informing Google of your sitemaps, that a lot of people don’t use, is simply pinging Google. You can do this in your browser URL. You simply type in google.com/ping, and you put in the sitemap with the URL. You can try this out right now with your current sitemaps. Type it into the browser bar and Google will instantly queue that sitemap for crawling, and all the URLs in there should get indexed quickly if they meet Google’s quality standard.
(BONUS: This wasn’t in the video, but we wanted to include it because it’s pretty awesome)
Within the past few months, both Google and Bing have introduced new APIs to help speed up and automate the crawling and indexing of URLs.
Both of these solutions allow for the potential of massively speeding up indexing by submitting 100s or 1000s of URLs via an API.
While the Bing API is intended for any new/updated URL, Google states that their API is specifically for “either job posting or livestream structured data.” That said, many SEOs like David Sottimano have experimented with Google APIs and found it to work with a variety of content types.
If you want to use these indexing APIs yourself, you have a number of potential options:
That’s talking about indexing. Now there are some other ways that you can get your content indexed faster and help it to rank a little higher at the same time.
4. Links from important pages
When you publish new content, the basic, if you do nothing else, you want to make sure that you are linking from important pages. Important pages may be your homepage, adding links to the new content, your blog, your resources page. This is a basic step that you want to do. You don’t want to orphan those pages on your site with no incoming links.
Adding the links tells Google two things. It says we need to crawl this link sometime in the future, and it gets put in the regular crawling queue. But it also makes the link more important. Google can say, “Well, we have important pages linking to this. We have some quality signals to help us determine how to rank it.” So linking from important pages.
5. Update old content
But a step that people oftentimes forget is not only link from your important pages, but you want to go back to your older content and find relevant places to put those links. A lot of people use a link on their homepage or link to older articles, but they forget that step of going back to the older articles on your site and adding links to the new content.
Now what pages should you add from? One of my favorite techniques is to use this search operator here, where you type in the keywords that your content is about and then you do a site:example.com. This allows you to find relevant pages on your site that are about your target keywords, and those make really good targets to add those links to from your older content.
6. Share socially
Really obvious step, sharing socially. When you have new content, sharing socially, there’s a high correlation between social shares and content ranking. But especially when you share on content aggregators, like Reddit, those create actual links for Google to crawl. Google can see those signals, see that social activity, sites like Reddit and Hacker News where they add actual links, and that does the same thing as adding links from your own content, except it’s even a little better because it’s external links. It’s external signals.
7. Generate traffic to the URL
This is kind of an advanced technique, which is a little controversial in terms of its effectiveness, but we see it anecdotally working time and time again. That’s simply generating traffic to the new content.
Now there is some debate whether traffic is a ranking signal. There are some old Google patents that talk about measuring traffic, and Google can certainly measure traffic using Chrome. They can see where those sites are coming from. But as an example, Facebook ads, you launch some new content and you drive a massive amount of traffic to it via Facebook ads. You’re paying for that traffic, but in theory Google can see that traffic because they’re measuring things using the Chrome browser.
When they see all that traffic going to a page, they can say, “Hey, maybe this is a page that we need to have in our index and maybe we need to rank it appropriately.”
Once we get our content indexed, talk about a few ideas for maybe ranking your content faster.
8. Generate search clicks
Along with generating traffic to the URL, you can actually generate search clicks.
Now what do I mean by that? So imagine you share a URL on Twitter. Instead of sharing directly to the URL, you share to a Google search result. People click the link, and you take them to a Google search result that has the keywords you’re trying to rank for, and people will search and they click on your result.
You see television commercials do this, like in a Super Bowl commercial they’ll say, “Go to Google and search for Toyota cars 2019.” What this does is Google can see that searcher behavior. Instead of going directly to the page, they’re seeing people click on Google and choosing your result.
This does a couple of things. It helps increase your click-through rate, which may or may not be a ranking signal. But it also helps you rank for auto-suggest queries. So when Google sees people search for “best cars 2019 Toyota,” that might appear in the suggest bar, which also helps you to rank if you’re ranking for those terms. So generating search clicks instead of linking directly to your URL is one of those advanced techniques that some SEOs use.
9. Target query deserves freshness
When you’re creating the new content, you can help it to rank sooner if you pick terms that Google thinks deserve freshness. It’s best maybe if I just use a couple of examples here.
Consider a user searching for the term “cafes open Christmas 2019.” That’s a result that Google wants to deliver a very fresh result for. You want the freshest news about cafes and restaurants that are going to be open Christmas 2019. Google is going to preference pages that are created more recently. So when you target those queries, you can maybe rank a little faster.
Compare that to a query like “history of the Bible.” If you Google that right now, you’ll probably find a lot of very old pages, Wikipedia pages. Those results don’t update much, and that’s going to be harder for you to crack into those SERPs with newer content.
The way to tell this is simply type in the queries that you’re trying to rank for and see how old the most recent results are. That will give you an indication of what Google thinks how much freshness this query deserves. Choose queries that deserve a little more freshness and you might be able to get in a little sooner.
10. Leverage URL structure
Finally, last tip, this is something a lot of sites do and a lot of sites don’t do because they’re simply not aware of it. Leverage URL structure. When Google sees a new URL, a new page to index, they don’t have all the signals yet to rank it. They have a lot of algorithms that try to guess where they should rank it. They’ve indicated in the past that they leverage the URL structure to determine some of that.
Consider The New York Times puts all its book reviews under the same URL, newyorktimes.com/book-reviews. They have a lot of established ranking signals for all of these URLs. When a new URL is published using the same structure, they can assign it some temporary signals to rank it appropriately.
If you have URLs that are high authority, maybe it’s your blog, maybe it’s your resources on your site, and you’re leveraging an existing URL structure, new content published using the same structure might have a little bit of a ranking advantage, at least in the short run, until Google can figure these things out.
These are only a few of the ways to get your content indexed and ranking quicker. It is by no means a comprehensive list. There are a lot of other ways. We’d love to hear some of your ideas and tips. Please let us know in the comments below. If you like this video, please share it for me. Thanks, everybody.
Interested in building your own content strategy? Don’t have a lot of time to spare? We collaborated with HubSpot Academy on their free Content Strategy course — check out the video to build a strong foundation of knowledge and equip yourself with actionable tools to get started!
With listing and reputation management so essential for local businesses — especially in 2020 — we’re introducing new Moz Local plans that give you more options for review monitoring, review management, and social posting, depending on your needs.
But consumers often rely on reviews of local businesses when deciding where to buy. High quality, positive reviews can improve your business visibility, and when you respond to reviews, it shows that you value your customers and their feedback.
The new Moz Local plans — Lite, Preferred, and Elite — are designed to offer more features and flexibility to better meet the needs of local businesses and their marketers. Our previous plans limited reputation management and social posting to only the top-tier plan, and we wanted to make these features more widely available.
Customers on any of the new plans can now monitor reviews via alerts, and depending on the plan, respond to reviews and take advantage of social posting. It’s never been more important to actively engage and listen to the needs and concerns of your current customers — and potential customers will take notice.
We also wanted to offer flexibility with respect to local business aggregator submissions. While all of the plans include Factual, US customers can choose to add the other two major aggregators if they desire broader reach.
The new plans will help you maximize your online presence and engage with consumers more easily. Here’s what’s new:
Preferred and Elite subscribers can also respond to reviews posted on Google, Facebook, and select directories through the dashboard. Your ability to respond quickly can be the difference between keeping a customer or losing them to your competition. When it comes to negative reviews, 40% expect a response either immediately or within 24 hours.
Preferred and Elite subscribers can share news, offers, and other content directly to Google, Facebook, and select directories from the dashboard.
For example, news posts can be shared on Facebook, and Questions & Answers and COVID-19 posts can be posted to your Google My Business page. Sharing news and offers enables you to engage proactively with consumers and attract new customers.
Local data aggregators
All three plans now include location data submission to Factual for broader location data distribution. Preferred and Elite subscribers in the US can add the other two data aggregators — Infogroup and Neustar Localeze — for $40 per year, per location.
The Elite plan includes a number of additional directories for listing management and location data distribution, such as Tupalo, Where To?, Brownbook, Opendi, iGlobal, Manta, and Cylex, to name a few. And each of the US, UK, and Canada plans include some local directories relevant to that region. For example, the US Elite plan includes Yellow Pages, Superpages, and DexKnows. A complete list can be found here.
The comparison grid below highlights the key features for each US plan. You can find all of the new US, UK, and Canada plans and pricing on our website.
How do these new plans impact current Moz Local customers?
If you’re a current Moz Local customer, you can either keep your existing plan or choose one of the new plans by clicking on “Change plan” and then “See plan options” in your Moz Local dashboard. Enterprise customers can contact their Account Manager to discuss the new plans.
Get started with Moz Local
The new Moz Local plans are designed to maximize your local online presence, increase consumer engagement, and enhance your visibility in local searches with minimal time and effort. You can get started with Moz Local for as little as $11 per month (billed annually). And if you want to learn more about best practices for listing and reputation management, check out our recent webinar on the ROI of Local Presence Management.
In a study of 2.1M searches and 766K videos, YouTube accounted for 94% of all video carousel results on page one of Google, leaving little room for competition.
Even the most casual video aficionado knows YouTube (acquired by Google in 2006). As a Google search user, you may even feel like you encounter more YouTube videos than videos from other sources, but does the data back this up?
A Wall Street Journal article in June 2020 measured a strong advantage of YouTube in Google search results, but that article focused on 98 hand-selected videos to compare YouTube to other platforms.
Using a set of over two million Google.com (US) desktop searches captured in early October 2020, we were able to extract more than 250,000 results with video carousels on page one. Most organic video results in 2020 appear in a carousel, like this one:
This carousel appeared on a search for “How to be an investor” (Step 1: Find a bag of money). Notice the arrow on the far-right — currently, searchers can scroll through up to ten videos. While our research tracked all ten positions, most of this report will focus on the three visible positions.
How dominant is YouTube?
Anecdotally, we see YouTube pop up a lot in Google results, but how dominant are they in the visible three video carousel results across our data set? Here’s a breakdown:
YouTube’s presence across the first three video slots was remarkably consistent, at (1) 94.1%, (2) 94.2% and (3) 94.2%. Khan Academy and Facebook took the #2 and #3 rankings for each carousel slot, with Facebook gaining share in later slots.
Obviously, this is a massive drop from the first to second largest share, and YouTube’s presence only varied from 94.1% to 95.1% across all ten slots. Across all visible videos in the carousel, here are the top ten sites in our data set:
Khan Academy (1.5%)
Note that, due to technical limitations with how search spiders work, many Facebook and Twitter videos require a login and are unavailable to Google. That said, the #2 to #10 biggest players in the video carousel — including some massive brands with deep pockets for video content — add up to only 3.7% of visible videos.
How about how-to?
Pardon my grammar, but “How to…?” questions have become a hot spot for video results, and naturally lend themselves to niche players like HGTV. Here’s a video carousel from a search for “how to organize a pantry”:
It looks promising on the surface, but does this niche show more diversity of websites at scale? Our data set included just over 45,000 “How to …” searches with video carousels. Here’s the breakdown of the top three sites for each slot:
In our data set, YouTube is even more dominant in the how-to niche, taking up from 97-98% of each of the three visible slots. Khan Academy came in second, and Microsoft (specifically, the Microsoft support site) rounded out the third position (but at <1% in all three slots).
Is this just a fluke?
Most of this analysis was based on a snapshot of data in early October. Given that Google frequently makes changes and runs thousands of tests per year, could we have just picked a particularly unusual day? To answer that, we pulled YouTube’s prevalence across all videos in the carousel on the first day of each month of 2020:
YouTube’s dominance was fairly steady across 2020, ranging from 92.0% to 95.3% in our data set (and actually increasing a bit since January). Clearly, this is not a temporary nor particularly recent condition.
Another challenge in studying Google results, even with large data sets, is the possibility of sampling bias. There is no truly “random” sample of search results (more on that in Appendix A), but we’re lucky enough to have a second data set with a long history. While this data set is only 10,000 keywords, it was specifically designed to evenly represent the industry categories in Google Ads. On October 9, we were able to capture 2,390 video carousels from this data set. Here’s how they measured up:
The top three sites in each of the carousel slots were identical to the 2M-keyword data set, and YouTube’s dominance was even higher (up from 94% to 96%). We have every confidence that the prevalence of YouTube results measured in this study is not a fluke of a single day or a single data set.
How level is the field?
Does YouTube have an unfair advantage? “Fair” is a difficult concept to quantify, so let’s explore Google’s perspective.
Google’s first argument would probably be that YouTube has the lion’s share of video results because they host the lion’s share of videos. Unfortunately, it’s hard to get reliable numbers across the entire world of video hosting, and especially for social platforms. YouTube is undoubtedly a massive player and likely hosts the majority of non-social, public videos in the United States, but 94% seems like a big share even for the lion.
The larger problem is that this dominance becomes self-perpetuating. Over the past few years, more major companies have hosted videos on YouTube and created YouTube channels because it’s easier to get results in Google search than hosting on smaller platforms or their own site.
Google’s more technical argument is that the video search algorithm has no inherent preference for YouTube. As a search marketer, I’ve learned to view this argument narrowly. There’s probably not a line of code in the algorithm that says something like:
IF site = ‘YouTube’ THEN ranking = 1
Defined narrowly, I believe that Google is telling the truth. However, there’s no escaping the fact that Google and YouTube share a common backbone and many of the same internal organs, which provides advantages that may be insurmountable.
For example, Google’s video algorithm might reward speed. This makes sense — a slow-loading video is a bad customer experience and makes Google look bad. Naturally, Google’s direct ownership over YouTube means that their access to YouTube data is lightning fast. Realistically, how can a competitor, even with billions in investment, produce an experience that’s faster than a direct pipeline to Google? Likewise, YouTube’s data structure is naturally going to be optimized for Google to easily process and digest, relying on inside knowledge that might not be equally available to all players.
For now, from a marketing perspective, we’re left with little choice but to cover our bases and take the advantage YouTube seems to offer. There’s no reason we should expect YouTube’s numbers to decrease, and every reason to expect YouTube’s dominance to grow, at least without a paradigm-shifting disruption to the industry.
Many thanks to Eric H. and Michael G. on our Vancouver team for sharing their knowledge about the data set and how to interpret it, and to Eric and Rob L. for trusting me with Athena access to a treasure trove of data.
Appendix A: Data and methodology
The bulk of the data for this study was collected in early October 2020 from a set of just over two million Google.com, US-based, desktop search results. After minor de-duplication and clean-up, this data set yielded 258K searches with video carousels on page one. These carousels accounted for 2.1 million total video results/URLs and 767K visible results (Google displays up to three per carousel, without scrolling).
The how-to analysis was based on a smaller data set of 45K keywords that explicitly began with the words “how to”. Neither data set is a randomly selected sample and may be biased toward certain industries or verticals.
The follow-up 10K data set was constructed specifically as a research data set and is evenly distributed across 20 major industry categories in Google Ads. This data set was specifically designed to represent a wide range of competitive terms.
Why don’t we use true random sampling? Outside of the textbook, a truly random sample is rarely achieved, but theoretically possible. Selecting a random sample of adults in The United States, for example, is incredibly difficult (as soon as you pick up the phone or send out an email, you’ve introduced bias), but at least we know that, at any particular moment, the population of adults in the United States is a finite set of individual people.
The same isn’t true of Google searches. Searches are not a finite set, but a cloud of words being conjured out of the void by searchers every millisecond. According to Google themselves: “There are trillions of searches on Google every year. In fact, 15 percent of searches we see every day are new.” The population of searches is not only in the trillions, but changing every minute.
Ultimately, we rely on large data sets, where possible, try to understand the flaws in any given data set, and replicate our work across multiple data sets. This study was replicated against two very different data sets, as well as a third set created by a thematic slice of the first set, and validated against multiple dates in 2020.
In a world where search companies are a dime a dozen and brands tout bland “unique selling propositions” that aren’t unique at all, how can you avoid drowning in the sea of sameness? What are you doing that’s any different from every other SEO firm?
In this article, you’ll learn how to find, activate, and articulate your competitive advantage. You’ll discover how to identify unique strengths and innovative offerings that equate to competitive advantage through real, working examples so you can bring them to life in search. And finally, you’ll get actionable tips and homework to help your business stand out.
The state of our industry
“SEO is dead.” Have you ever heard this eye-roller before? This is a common refrain in the search industry every time Google takes more precious real estate into its clutches and away from website owners, when our tactics become less impactful, when Google increasingly automates answers and paid search efforts, or as we watch the internet become inundated with “content for SEO” that’s drowning the best content out. It’s enough to make any search expert feel like it’s impossible to win.
But I argue that search and content marketing aren’t dead. Far from it. Google is still the main place people turn to for information and answers, and humans will continue to search. However, the industry is becoming increasingly commoditized, and it provides challenges and lessons that can change the landscape for our industry and many others.
I conducted an informal survey of more than 100 digital marketers around the globe, asking whether they believe our field is becoming commoditized. Of those, more than two-thirds said content marketing is moderately or highly commoditized, nearly 73% said the SEO industry is commoditized, and nearly three-quarters said the paid search space is becoming moderately or highly commoditized.
Barriers to competitive advantage
The trouble with the commoditization of an industry is that it makes it difficult for any business to stand out. It gets harder to stay competitive, which makes it harder for a business to grow. This isn’t entirely surprising, because achieving real, sustainable competitive advantage is no easy task.
The reasons people say it’s hard to stay competitive in their industry range from knowing what opportunity is available to own, to challenges being able to innovate rapidly enough, to internal barriers like buy-in or fear of risk-taking. According to my survey, some of the most common barriers to competitive advantage are:
Knowing what opportunity makes sense to try to own
Prioritizing billable client work over non-billable brand-building work
Time, bandwidth, and budget
An internal fear of or aversion to taking risks
Cultural challenges like buy-in
Overcoming customer perception of the brand’s position
Lack of focus and slowness in innovation
Competitive advantage is a changing, moving target
While the survey I conducted was limited to digital marketers, nearly every business vertical experiences commoditization and competition. Our client brands are fighting it, too. But without truly understanding competitive advantage — much less how to find, prove and defend it — we risk drowning in that sea of sameness. I’ll continue to use digital marketing professions like search and content as working examples, but know that the principles here can benefit you, your clients, and your business, regardless of industry. It could even help you assess your individual competitive advantage to help you land a dream job or get that big promotion.
What is competitive advantage?
There are a few traits professionals agree on, but the open-ended survey answered revealed a lot of disparity and confusion. Let’s try to clear that up.
Often when we talk about a brand’s competitive edge, we talk about mission and vision statements. But the sad truth is that many, many businesses are claiming competitive advantages in meaningless mission statements that aren’t competitive advantages at all. Let’s look at an example: “Profitable growth through superior customer service, innovation, quality and commitment.”
This is a commonly used example of a bad mission statement for many reasons – it’s vague with no specificity whatsoever, it has a long list of intangible advantages with no focus, and these things every business should probably be doing. These are table stakes. You could copy and paste any brand name in front of this. In fact, I found a dozen companies in just the first two pages of search results that did exactly this, even though this is heralded as a prime example of a meaningless mission statement.
And if the meaningless mission statement wasn’t persuasive enough, let’s also examine what many brands consider their “unique selling propositions.” I actually object to the “unique selling proposition” or “USP,” because it’s all about the brand. I much prefer “UCB,” or unique customer benefit, which puts the customer at the center, but I digress.
Let’s take a look at a few examples in the invoicing software space. In fairness, the brands below do list other benefits on their sites, and many are good, but this is often what they lead with. FreshBooks says they have invoice software that saves you time, Invoice2Go says they have time-saving features that keep you in control, and Sliq Tools can help you organize and speed up invoicing.
Saving customers time is important, but the problem is that none of these offerings aren’t unique. Nearly every invoicing software I looked at highlighted some version of speed, saving time, and getting paid faster. These are all valuable features, but what’s the benefit that’s going to make the customer choose you?
Let’s take a look at three more. Invoice Simple says you can invoice customers in seconds. Xero gives you a real-time view of your cash flow. Scoro says they can help you stop using and paying for six or more different tools.
These benefits are a lot more clear. Invoice Simple says they don’t just save you time, but they help you get invoices done in seconds. That specificity puts it over the edge. Xero’s real-time view of cash flow is incredibly important to businesses; the ability to see and make decisions from that information immediately is very valuable. And Scoro’s benefit of cutting back your tool stack really hit home. It’s very common for SMBs to add one tool at a time over time and then find that they’re drowning in accounting software, and maybe they’re making more mistakes or just losing time to keeping up with it all.
5 components of competitive advantage
Start with your “est.” Best. Fastest. Smartest. Cheapest. Most innovative. Most horizontally integrated. What is something that better delivers more value to customers, or comparable value for a better price? This is a great brainstorming exercise to ask yourself initially what you are or want to be best at. Keep in mind, maybe it’s not the “est” over all – maybe it’s the “est” for a specific segment of your audience or need state of your customer or even just a geographic region. But then you have to check those “ests” against a few criteria to ensure it’s really a competitive advantage.
Is your advantage unique? If anyone can claim the same thing, it’s not unique. Your advantage should serve a unique need, a distinct audience, or deliver your product or service in a unique way. Dig deep to find something specific and tangible that sets you apart from your competition.
A defensible advantage is a distinct, specific claim that is not generic or vague, and avoids superlatives. If you can copy and paste any brand name in place of yours, it’s not defensible. Make sure your unique benefit or advantage is clear and specific. Avoid superlatives and hyperbolic language that can’t be quantified in any way. The typical mistake I see is generic language that doesn’t paint a picture for customers as to what makes you special.
Meaningful competitive advantage should be lasting and endure over a long period of time. I frequently heard in the survey that people believe they have competitive advantage for being first to market with their type of service. That does confer some benefits initially, but once the market figures out there’s money to be made and little competition, that’s when they swoop in to encroach. First mover advantage is a competitive advantage for a while, but it is not a sustainable competitive advantage. If you can’t hold onto that competitive advantage for a while, it’s too short-term.
Something the customer feels is a greater value than competitors. If your customer doesn’t care about it, it’s not valuable, and thus it’s not a competitive advantage. What your business does isn’t solely defined by what you sell, but rather by what your customer actually wants. (And in the search business, that’s especially true – if people aren’t searching for it, it’s not valuable to the business.) Your customer has to feel that what you offer is a greater value than your competitors. That can be a product, service or feature at a comparable price that excels, or it can be a comparable product, service or feature at a better price.
Competitive advantage must be something you can bring to life in every aspect of your business. This is why typical CSR (corporate social responsibility) fails to be an adequate competitive advantage for many brands. They put a page on their website and maybe make a few donations, but they’re not really living that purpose from top to bottom in their organization, and customers see right through it. It can’t be a competitive advantage on the website that isn’t also reflected at the C-level, with your sales reps who work with customers, in your factories, and so on.
For all their flaws and my moral beef with Jeff Bezos, Amazon was unwavering in their commitment to fast, affordable shipping. That’s what turned them into the monolith they are today. People know that Ben & Jerry’s is vocal and activist in all aspects of what they do, and they live up to the promises they make.
A competitive advantage framework
One of the most important attributes to understand about competitive advantage is that it’s temporary. It’s a moving target, so you can never get too comfortable. The moment you identify your competitive advantage and you’re enjoying nice profit margins or share of voice in a space, competitors will start racing to take advantage of new learnings themselves. This leads to eventual parity among competitors, and the cycle starts again.
So you need to figure out where to evolve or re-invent to stay competitive. This is a handy little framework for finding, establishing, articulating and maintaining your competitive advantage. But note that this isn’t purely linear — once competitors encroach on your previous advantage you’re at risk of losing it, so be sure to look ahead to what your next competitive advantage can be OR how you can elevate and defend the one you already have.
Discover: tools to find your competitive advantage
Discovering what makes you different is half the battle. In an increasingly crowded and commoditized competitive landscape, how do you figure out where you can win?
The number one recommendation from my survey is to ask. Tools from formal surveys to in-depth interviews, to casual feedback forms and ad hoc conversations can reveal some very insightful advantages. The objective is to figure out why you over someone else. A few things you might ask them:
Why did you hire us over another firm?
Why did you hire another firm over us?
Why did you choose to leave us and switch to another firm?
Why do you continue to work with us after all these years?
Look for patterns. Your competitive advantage might be hiding in there — or insight into your competitor’s advantage.
Try listening quietly, too. Check conversations on Reddit, Nextdoor or relevant forums where people have frank dialogue about problems they need solutions to, people recommending for or against brands, people are likely to be honest when helping their neighbors.
You can also read ratings and reviews on popular sites like Amazon or Yelp. Granted, it’s easy to fake some of these, but look for patterns in what people say about your brand, your products and services, or your competitors. What are their common complaints? What do other brands do poorly or not at all, gaps that you can fill?
Getting experts with multiple perspectives in a room to workshop and brainstorm can also help uncover your competitive advantage. Evaluate your brand, your customers, your competition, the industry, new developments, and more. Also look beyond your own industry – often great ideas can come from entirely different verticals outside your own. Ask yourself hard questions about who you are, what you can commit to, and what you can follow through on to offer customers. I’ll share just two of many possible competitive advantage workshop tools below.
Conduct a SWOT analysis of your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats – do the same for competitors. This is best conducted with people across multiple disciplines to consider different angles. It’s also key to do your research – look as closely at competitors as you do your own brand.
Strengths are the powerful capabilities and value you bring to the table. Weaknesses are the gaps in your resources or offerings that might hold you back from being best in class. Opportunities are untapped or unexplored areas of potential growth. Threats are outside forces or external factors that put your business at risk – like economic downturn and susceptibility global pandemic, for example, or the entry of a disruptive new competitor.
Porter’s 5 Forces Model
The second tool I want to introduce is Porter’s Five Forces model. Most folks who attend business school will learn about this, but you can also read about it in Michael Porter’s book Competitive Advantage. It’s a method to analyze the competitive pressures on your business. His model asserts that these five forces determine how intense the competition is, and thus, how attractive it is to enter an industry based on profitability. But it’s also a very valuable critical thinking tool even if you’re already in the industry to figure out where you can compete and edge out the opposition.
The first force at the center of the model is competitive rivalry. What is the quantity, quality, and diversity of your competitors in the space? How fast or slow is the industry currently growing? What’s the growth potential in the future? Are customers typically loyal to a brand, or are they brand-agnostic, switching a round frequently in your industry?
Then we have to think about the toggle between new entrants into the market, or the threat of substitute products or services. For new entrants, is it an easy industry to enter, or are there high barriers to entry? A brand with high threat of new entrants (low barriers to entry) might be food trucks. With some good recipes, enough capital to set up a high cost to start up, and some elbow grease, you’re in business. But industries with low threat of new entrants (high barriers to entry) might be things like airlines. It’s very expensive to buy planes and hire qualified pilots, and it’s an industry loaded with government regulations.
For the threat of substitutes, is there a high quantity of other products or services on the market your customer can choose from? Is it easy or hard to switch brands? Also, could there be an entirely alternative solution or abstention? For example, perhaps an alternative to highly commoditized toilet paper would be an alternative solution like a bidet like Tushy. Or perhaps a makeup brand like Sephora faces “substitution” from people who choose to abstain from wearing makeup at all.
And finally, we have to think about how well suppliers can bargain and how well buyers can bargain with your company. Every company has a supply chain, even service businesses like digital marketing.For manufacturing companies, suppliers might be the raw materials or transportation providers. For digital marketing companies, suppliers might be technology companies or the talent you hire to do the work.
If demand is greater than supply – either due to quantity of suppliers, the unique needs you have for securing that talent (like GMO-free, organic, locally sourced ingredients from companies that donate money to offset their carbon impact), this force has high-pressure. But if the resources you need are a dime a dozen (PC laptops come to mind), bargaining power of suppliers is low.
End users and buyers are part of your supply chain too. If they can easily “bargain” by choosing other competitors or driving down costs through competition, you have high pressure here. If you’re truly the only player in the market, or one of few, who do what you do, then bargaining power of buyers is lower. Also consider the cost of someone switching to another company or a substitute.
Define: choose your competitive strategy
Once you have found the gap you want to fill, you need to choose your area of focus. Often we make the mistake of trying to be all things to all people all the time. Brands can’t pull this off in a sustainable way forever. If you are trying to be adequate at everything, it’s difficult to be great at anything.
While not impossible, it’s very difficult to maintain deep focus on things when you are spread too thin. My MBA professors told me that smart strategy isn’t just choosing what you will do, it’s also choosing what you won’t do. That has stuck with me ever since. We need to make hard choices about where to spend time, budget, energy and attention. To get truly great at something, and achieve competitive advantage, you need to set your sights on something specific.
One problematic example I heard from a big client was challenging our Paid and Organic Search teams to win at efficiency and return on ad spend, while also winning on volume and share-of-voice concurrently. Efficiency and ROAS focus on a selective approach to advertising on certain terms or topics to optimize for the most efficient acquisitions and cost savings, and it often results in a narrower reach but highly efficient use of advertising dollars. On the flip-side, focusing on volume or achieving the largest share-of-voice in a space typically requires casting a wider net, and that traffic may convert at a lower rate and profit margins and ROAS may be tighter.
Another common challenge is trying to be a company or person who is both broad and versatile, while also being deeply specialized. This isn’t absolutely impossible, but maintenance and upkeep becomes challenging over time. If your brand wants to be perceived as the most versatile brand that can adapt to anything or meet everyone’s needs, it’s difficult to also be the brand that is perceived as deeply specialized in a certain field.
Let’s use grocers as a working example. WalMart may be the generalist for being able to get just about anything you could possibly want in one place, while Natural Grocers might be the deeply specialized whole, organic, local foods shop. Far less variety and versatility, but you can be assured they hit on certain quality and sourcing criteria within their more curated selection.
Consider what that means for you as a business or an individual professional.
Examine your brand and narrow your focus.
Let’s walk through a few of the questions you can ask yourself to closely examine your brand and narrow your strategic focus on a clear competitive advantage.
What are the core activities that make up your business? Think about your core products or services, core audiences you serve, and core problems you solve.
Who are the people the brand was created to serve? Consider the individuals, decision-makers, customers or firms you serve. Are they in certain industries or job titles? Where do they get their information? How can you best reach them where they are?
What do your potential customers, or a specific segment of them, want or need? How does your brand, product or service solve that need? What do you enable them to do? What keeps them up at night? What problems do they have to solve or decisions do they have to make that you can help with? What are points of friction or frustration that you or your business are uniquely equipped to alleviate?
What do your customers value? According to a book called The Purpose Advantage by Jeff Fromm and his team, the business you’re in is defined by what the customer wants, not by what you’re selling. Reflecting on this question can help you identify a higher purpose for the company through the eyes of the customer.
When customers have a huge range of choices, why should they choose you? What would they do if you didn’t exist? You have to be able to answer the “why you” question with a unique and persuasive reason. If that doesn’t immediately jump out at you, try the “Five Whys” exercise. This is an iterative technique that helps you dig deeper on cause-and-effect relationships. You work your way backwards, asking “why” time and again until you get to the core.
Five Whys exercise
Let’s try a quick example of the Five Whys exercise. The Ordinary is a makeup company that sells affordable, back-to-basics skin care products is growing incredibly fast. In the three years since parent company Deciem launched the brand, they grew to nearly $300M in sales last year. Brand name recognition and sales volume have spiked.
Why? The brand is taking off with budget-conscious Millennials over 30 who take interest in skincare.
Why? None of their products cost more than $15.
Why? Their products have only the most essential active ingredients – avoiding parabens, sulfates, mineral oil, formaldehyde, mercury, oxybenzone and a bunch of other ingredients I can’t pronounce.
Why? This creates an affordable skin care regimen without scary unknown ingredients, all without animal testing, and without excess wasteful packaging.
Why? This hits on several core morals and values of the Millennial skin care audience who want to minimize their impact/footprint, but without paying a premium to do it.
Competitive advantage takes many forms
Once you have done the due diligence of truly reflecting on these questions, examine your answers. Look for clues and patterns and start to formulate a plan for which areas have the most unique value to your customers.
There are typically several avenues a brand can take to own a certain customer benefit, audience segment, industry, or price point. Here are a few clues to watch for in the patterns. Are you the most personalized brand in your space? Do you have an incredible community with loyal advocates and rich conversation that people want to be a part of? Brands like Moz and Tableau seem to have this advantage in their spaces. Do you have a reputation for constant innovation, rapid evolution, and generally outsmarting the competition or disrupting an industry? Tesla is iconic for its innovation. Also consider things like supply chain efficiencies, breadth or depth in certain markets, the ratio of cost to value, your ethics or commitment to certain causes, and more.
Write a brand statement
Now that you’ve done your due diligence, it’s time to boil it down to a simple brand statement to make it crystal clear what your competitive advantage will be. Please note that this should not be a simple exercise. If it’s too easy, be skeptical of whether you have truly found your competitive advantage. Put in the work. Writing these statements is hard and takes time. And you should expect to revisit and revise over time as your competitive environment and customer preferences evolve.
Using the brand The Ordinary, I drafted an example competitive advantage statement: We, The Ordinary, create high-performing, minimalist skincare products so that cost- and cause-conscious skincare enthusiasts can have an ethical, effective skincare regimen without paying a premium price.
Then, check your work. Pressure test your brand statement. Does it meet the five criteria for competitive advantage? If not, keep digging. And once you have a clear competitive advantage statement, be sure to connect and reconnect with that intention, time and again.
Demonstrate: living your competitive advantage
Now that you’ve discovered your potential competitive advantage and chosen where to focus, it’s time to bring it to life. The difference between the average brand which merely puts a mission statement on their website and a brand with true, sustainable competitive advantage, is whether they walk the talk in every single thing they do. It has to be consistent with your products and services. It has to happen at all levels of a company. It has to be true in every moment you communicate with customers.
Once again, we find ourselves pressure-testing the competitive advantage. Can you realistically live this across departments, offices, teams, roles, initiatives, processes, marketing efforts and everything in between? You can’t be casual about competitive advantage. You have to be obsessed. Let’s talk about some questions you should ask yourself to activate your competitive advantage in every respect:
How does this affect existing ways of working? What changes do you need to make to how you operate to live it fully? If you’re just now identifying your competitive advantage, which is totally ok!, you may have work to do in order to make sure it’s consistent across the organization.
What are some things you won’t do in support of your advantage? These could be things you choose not to focus on, or things you will actively avoid.
What team members can you bring together from across functions to activate this competitive advantage? Be sure to provide common language and targets for the team so you can all be united in action to drive better outcomes
How will you prove your commitment to the competitive advantage outside the organization? Your team from top to bottom needs to fully believe and commit to this mission. But your customers also need to believe in your mission. Ask yourself what proof looks like. How will everyone know you are in fact achieving the competitive advantage you claim?
What indicators can measure how you’re putting your competitive advantage to work in action? Make sure to define what “winning” looks like and establish a baseline for how you and the competition are doing. Create metrics and rewards that support the new purpose. Is it a high win:loss ratio of winning new business? A company size or revenue growth rate? Is it share-of-voice in an industry or among a certain audience segment? Is it perhaps retention of ideal clients and high referral rates? Know what you want to achieve, know how the competition currently measures up, and revisit these measurements regularly.
Defend: evolving your competitive advantage
Remember: competitive advantage is temporary. It’s a moving target, and that’s why it’s so difficult for brands to achieve and maintain. It’s important to understand the natural lifecycle of every business and industry.
The business lifecycle
I’ll reference the typical product lifecycle here — another MBA classic — and stretch it a bit to fit my point about defending competitive advantage.
When a new brand emerges with a new product, service, audience, or competitive advantage, much of the effort and investment is spent raising awareness and amassing your first customers. Then you start to build up preference for your brand and increase your market share. Competition may be lower at this stage, and you’re getting some scale, growing your audience. Then your steep growth trajectory starts to level off. The competition sees that you’re onto a good thing and they start cutting into your piece of the pie. You may fight it by adding more features, or perhaps you lower your price.
In a typical business, this is the point where sales may even start to decline. You have a choice here. You can maintain your existing service and try to rejuvenate it. You can cut costs to stay competitive, though that cuts into your profit margin and makes it less worthwhile. Or perhaps you decide to get out of the game entirely because it’s not financially attractive anymore.
Or, you can find new ways to achieve competitive advantage. You could explore new areas of expansion, or even completely reinvent yourself to renew your competitiveness. The cycle starts again, and once again you become the one that others want to catch up to.
Fight or flight or evolve?
You can only fight off the competition for so long doing the same things. Fighting isn’t always the answer. At some point you may need to evolve, and there are a few ways you might do that.
You can explore new markets – are there under-served or untapped audiences you can reach?
You can expand new, closely related product lines or services
You can add new features or innovations to your existing service or product.
Similarly can also and enhance and elevate existing benefits
You can cut costs to produce or ship and find economies of scale, which drives price down, and makes your parity product more valuable relative to price.
Or you can go through mergers and acquisitions (join forces) or even divest certain pieces of the business (stop offering) to be able to focus on a new competitive advantage.
This is hardly an exhaustive list, just a few thought starters on what evolution might look like if you are at this stage of your career, or if your business is at this point in its natural lifecycle.
In order to create, keep and defend sustainable competitive advantage long-term, evolution is necessary. Keep rooting out the opportunity for renewed competitive advantage and master the art of reinvention. If you can adapt and transform, you can compete and survive.