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From our Depsters June 26, 2020

SEO today and beyond: chances and challenges for the industry


In an increasingly online culture, SEO maintains its importance; search plays a role in every shopper’s path to purchase and every client’s partner discovery journey. SEO never dies, it just changes. To get us up to speed on the latest Google updates, the best approach to SEO planning, and to discuss a broader attitude to online optimisation, Dept welcomed Google’s developer advocate Martin Splitt, Searchmetrics EMEA marketing director Lillian Haase and Dept Zurich’s head of SEO Simon Griesser.

What’s up in Search? 

Structured data

Martin began his presentation by explaining the recent updates to structured data on Google search engine results pages (SERPs). Sites can now add the structured data tag to information on their website to answer frequently asked questions. The tagged information appears in the search results as a drop-down feature, useful for the quick need to know answers that customers and clients may hit upon.

Martin cautioned against businesses using structured data as blatant advertising. As ever with Google guidelines, the aim is to provide the best possible online experience for Google users.

Another recent addition to Google SERPs, the Special Announcement, operates as a variation on the structured data update. Special Announcements are drop-down features designed for businesses to provide time-sensitive information related to the Covid-19 outbreak. Information such as closure notices, travel restrictions and shopping restrictions can be tagged, helping users find important information. This is a particularly helpful update as each country moves through the recovery and businesses need to show agility in keeping operating information up to date.

Website speed, the introduction of Core Web Vitals, and page experience updates

Crawling and indexing are a basic that your site needs to do well. Without it, Google’s review process of the site is elongated, delaying the effect of new improvements to the site’s SEO.

To give a more accurate understanding of site speed, Google started the Core Web Vitals initiative (CWV). New in Chrome, CWV is geared around user experience, aiming to measure the perception visitors have of how fast a site loads. This is an important distinction, as visitors bounce if they feel that the site is loading too slow.

There are plenty of metrics that measure page load speed; CWV aims to track the ones that play into visitor’s impression of page speed.

The first metric is Largest Contentful Paint time (LCP). How long does it take for the content to show up? By Google’s measurement, good is less than 2.5 seconds, 2.6-3.9 is room for improvement and more than 4 seconds, poor. No surprise that this is a key metric for page speed perception if the content takes time to appear visitors will assume there is an issue with the site.

The second CWV is First Input Delay (FID). How long does the site take to react to user inputs? Less than 100ms is good, 101-209ms could be better optimised, and over 300ms is poor. Many of us will have run into a multi-click situation, clicking on a button, receiving no response, clicking again and again, then watching as the site slowly reacts to each click.

Cumulative Layout Shifts (CLS) is the third and final CWV. When the user navigates a page, how much of the content is shifting unexpectedly? This is a common issue for feature-heavy websites, the slow loading of a video element leads to the paragraph a visitor was reading disappearing as the video eventually loads. Less than 10% shift in position is good, while over 25% is poor.

As a takeaway point, Martin recommended looking at the key problem drivers, the low hanging fruit that can make a quick and easy difference to the site load speed, such as text loading from external sources.

Page Experience Signal and Mobile-First Indexing

Page speed and mobile user experience are already used in ranking. These, plus the CWV will form the new Page Experience Signal, an update that will debut in 2021. AMP will no longer be a requirement for the top stories after this point.

In 2016, Google announced mobile-first indexing, reacting to the general public being mobile-first when using the Google search. Now, Google has set the date of September 2020 for the switch to mobile-first indexing for all sites.

This is an important shift and shows the importance of ensuring that every feature is well optimised for mobile. It also highlights the need to test the mobile crawling of sites, ensuring that the smartphone Googlebot can easily review the site.

In the short discussion following Martin’s presentation, he highlighted Google’s aim to be as transparent as possible. Google values developer feedback as new updates and documentation is released, enabling them to make sure the service is as apt as possible.

On the topic of delineating between sudden tidal shift core updates to the Google algorithm vs the long trailing of updates, Martin responded that if developers are running sites with a view to matching Google’s belief in good user experience, there is no reason to worry about sudden shifts. Following the guidelines should put developers in a good position when a new update appears as each change is part of a throughline for what Google aims to achieve with the search ranking algorithm, but wasn’t fully reflected in the current version.

Making effective SEO decisions 

In order to set up and effective SEO strategy, brands need to know what to prioritise. Lillian Hasse, who has over a decade of experience drew attention to the importance of time management. The ambition of major projects can lead to an overloaded schedule; budgets and time planning are important restrictions to keep in mind.

Having this awareness of management and of the fundamentals of SEO are useful as a department leader, but also as a team member that wants to support the decision making through the team.

The fundamentals haven’t changed

It’s a hot debate, but when thinking of the three key areas of SEO, content, technical and inbound links, the basic principles still apply. At the start of any project, can you define what the business is currently doing, and what the business should be doing in these three areas?

This requires interdepartmental cooperation. Work with the content team to create a plan that reflects the keyword research that you have done. This has the added benefit of improving the relevance of the content marketing team’s work, supplying the team with data on what potential readers are searching for online. For further information on establishing a content plan, check out Content Strategy in Real Life from Dept’s Sinead Clandillon, part of the #DeptTalksLive series.

When thinking of inbound links, remember that it is about quality, not volume. Links from trustworthy websites are worth much more than hundreds of sites that have no authority in their field.

As a supporting fundamental, always keep conversion optimisation top of mind. Getting more traffic is all well and good, but a well-optimised site means the visitor gets what they need out of their click. This fits with Google’s belief that great on-page experience leads to conversion as well as fitting the CWV.

Setting KPIs

Judging the success of an SEO project means setting clear KPIs that fit the campaign goal. Planners need to know what we’re talking about, beyond just keywords. A good way to think about this is in terms of short-term effect and long-term results. You can’t hit growth fast, but quick uplift activations are possible, small boosts that add up over time.

Setting KPIs also means communicating what is and isn’t possible with an SEO campaign. These projects take time, SEO is a long game. This needs to be clear from the outset to avoid any problematic exchanges around clients being unhappy with immediate results.

Looking at return on investment of SEO

Costs split along the idea of the cost of employees and the cost of tools. Cost management is one of the most important factors in any project, central to any decision making. If projects are overrunning, colleagues are overbooked, returns will start to be squeezed.

With clients, communicating that organic SEO is an investment is key. The long term value is there when looking at SEO, with PPC available to brands looking for an instant uplift.

Optimisation beyond Google

The final Speaker, Dept Zurich’s Head of SEO Simon Griesser, looked to broaden out how we think about SEO, beyond Google.

The first thought on any SEO project goes is about Google. This is understandable, we all know Google’s market share, typically 90% market share and up across North America and Europe. Fine for a first step, but there are reasons for looking beyond just Google.

Looking at Google’s competition

The heavy focus on Google means high competition. Scrapping for presence in Google search and the display network leads to high CPCs and CPMs. The lower competition areas on other search engines can be an opportunity for the businesses to explore. While 90% is a massive market share, the market itself is huge, every internet user relies on a search engine to navigate the web.

Search optimisation also applies to new networks, ensuring that discovery is possible across developing platforms like TikTok and Twitch. This is important to consider as synergies become available, making full use of interconnected content across different platforms, and the data stored in different channels.

The depth of Google’s offering

This extensive optimisation also applies to Google itself, as we start to think beyond search and about the breadth of data that companies can upload about their business opening times, their location and latest announcements (as demonstrated by structured data tagging).

International search engines, niche audiences and marketplaces

International companies must also broaden their SEO campaign planning beyond Google to search engines like Baidu and Yandex, giving them an opportunity to reach non-western markets. Considering Google’s lack of market share in China (around 2%) and the importance of China as a consumer market, getting to grips with Baidu and Sogou is a must.

Targeting a niche can also require this broader outlook. For businesses targeting an audience with concerns around data privacy, they may find more intent by optimising for DuckDuckGo, a search engine designed to protect user privacy.

Marketplace optimisation is also a key area to consider. As many shopper’s go-to e-commerce platform, understanding Amazon’s algorithms is an important factor for any e-commerce category. This is extra important considering Amazon’s proximity to the end of the funnel. Dept’s Amazon specialist agency Factor-A worked with Electrolux to optimise their appliances for Amazon, achieving a 17% higher click-through rate and a 68% increase in revenue, through a campaign that was around ⅔ organic Amazon optimisation.

Optimisation as a company-wide initiative

This requires cooperation between departments; companies must de-silo SEO and look to connect departments around the idea of optimisation. Look for thematic overlaps between the disciplines. For example, there are clear links between SEO and social media advertising links through the optimisation of a call to action.

When working on optimisation campaigns, always be thinking about the goals of the business and the level of maturity of the current marketing setup. Focus on the user, what they are looking for across the purchase journey, and how this evolves over time as the business expands.

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