10 Point Plan: Search

by Jon Fortgang Search Laboratory

Ian Harris, Founder and CEO at Search Laboratory, highlights 10 issues shaping the sector in 2016

  1. AMP expected to improve the user experience

Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) are set to change the way that users access information via a mobile device, and have been heavily pushed by Google. This open source initiative will dramatically improve the performance of mobile web, allowing a much faster browsing experience in which pages will load instantly. AMP will create a much more clinical experience by the use of image carousels, maps, social plug-ins and data visualisations. This will have a significant impact on advertising in particular.

  1. Answer boxes will change content marketing

You may have noticed within the SERPs that an information box is now available with a short description of your search term. Google’s answer boxes have become a great opportunity for content to receive a significant increase in search visibility. In order to be featured in the answer boxes, you must create content which has the user in mind, is relevant to the topic or theme, and is clearly presented in a ‘how-to’ method or by using bullet points. The feature’s rise in prominence has become one of main talking points of 2016 so far. More information about optimising content for Google’s Rich Answer box can be found here.

  1. Keep on top of link profiles

According to Gary Illyes from Google, real-time Penguin is just around the corner and is expected to have an immediate roll-out. This means that Google will not have to manually refresh the algorithm, but will continue to search for good and bad links in a real-time environment. Therefore it is important to regularly audit link profiles, take action on any potential bad links and update your disavow file regularly. That will mean that if a link is removed or disavowed, the algorithm will recognise the fact quickly. However, this may mean that negative SEO could become more of a threat. Originally, Google stated that this update would arrive at the end of 2015. At the time of writing it still hasn’t arrived so be prepared for its implementation.

  1. Always be looking to improve content

While numerous search quality updates have been confirmed by Google, there are many left unconfirmed which have been aptly named ‘Phantom’ by the SEO community. The latest Phantom update was released in November and research has highlighted that it seemed to be focused on user engagement. After the update was released, it was found that a number of sites were losing quality due to poorly designed content. High-quality content is incredibly valuable for user engagement and the perception of the site.It is recommended that you perform regular audits, and keep an eye on how people are interacting with the pages on your site.

  1. Links are still an important factor

The latest study by Backlinko is the third correlation study in a row which shows that links are still hugely important. The study highlighted that the number of domains linking to a page correlated with rankings more than any other factor. It was also found that pages with the highest number of backlinks generally ranked the best in Google. We know that such a complex and multi-layered algorithm will never be reverse engineered with simple correlation studies, but they do give us some insight into how different signals are changing over time.

  1. More insightful tracking

We’re moving beyond simply relying on the standard set of online metrics based on a basic last-click attribution model – or at least, we should be if we want to truly assess the value of paid search activities. Some of this is pretty well established already, some not so much. We’re talking assisted conversions and conversion path analysis to better understand the customer journey; cross-referencing data sources to estimate customer lifetime value and new customer acquisition rates; the tracking of phone leads and sales; cross-device tracking; and even factoring in the value of physical store visits that have been driven by online activities. This would be modelled on data from sources including Google Maps, GPS location and wi-fi signals. This is likely to be an up-and-coming area of analysis in 2016.

  1. Using user data to find trends

Don’t neglect the wealth of user data now available within Google AdWords. While the fundamentals of a well-optimised set of keywords and ads in a sensible structure remains pivotal, there are lots we can do to capitalise on what we know of user behavioural trends. That means setting bid adjustments based on the time of day (or week, or month) depending on when site visitors are most likely to convert. Similarly, by location (anywhere from the country to the postcode-level), the type of device being used, demographic data such as gender and age, and whether they’ve been to your website before – and if they have, how they’ve interacted with you on those occasions.

  1. Share your data with your team

Ensuring that your digital marketing teams are sharing the fruits of their labours can reap wonders. On a day-to-day level, this could just be letting your SEO team know which keywords are proving most effective at driving revenue through PPC; or make sure the PPC team know where you dominate the SERPs for own-brand terms, so you can maybe save money by pulling back spend on those keywords. More interestingly, it might be programmatically scripting increases in PPC bids to coincide with your existing TV advertising slots, or targeting an online banner campaign to target users on their mobile devices when they are physically in the neighbourhood of one of your billboards.

  1. Getting more out of Shopping Ads

Shopping Ads are going to be a cornerstone of any ecommerce paid search marketing effort, where it’s not uncommon to see them responsible for delivering half of all PPC revenue. Until 2014, retailers could rely on increased traffic growth coming from Google’s continuation to push this ad format’s prominence in the SERPs. Now saturation point has more-or-less been reached, and competition has never been higher. From this point onwards, the further value from Shopping is only going to be extracted by retailers optimising their feeds to edge ahead of the competition: testing alternative product images, ensuring the titles and descriptions are written in accordance with best practices and ensuring that accurate, up-to-date and quality data is being used at all times.

  1. Getting ads right

Google’s recently announced that it is significantly changing the SERPs by removing adverts on the right-hand side of the page. This is a major change and it is recommended you monitor the impact this has on your paid search campaigns and optimise them accordingly if fluctuations in performance are witnessed. Look carefully for changes in cost-per-click (CPC), click-through rates (CTRs) and be prepared that more updates are likely in future too, as Google continues to test new layouts across mobile, desktop and tablets.