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  • Search Marketers Need to Evolve: Google is Rewarding Marketing Strategists

    Posted by RonGarrett

    In the last three years at Distilled, I have sold approximately $5 million in marketing services to over 100 businesses. Initially, the vast majority of the business I sold was in search, but over time it has evolved to encompass different facets of marketing because we are now headed towards a hyper-competitive future. In order for our industry to continue to thrive, we need to set ourselves apart. I wanted to share some of my experience in how I was able to overcome some of the challenges our search industry is facing when it comes to competing in this post-Hummingbird, post-Penguin, post-(not provided) environment. I've found that it is extremely important to:

    • Know what questions to ask when you have the opportunity to pitch at the executive level.
    • Know why you're investing in specific marketing channels (i.e. if I invest $x,xxx in this channel for y number of months, I can anticipate z amount of traffic and revenue).
      • The goal is to invest first in the channels that you are most confident will generate the greatest increases in traffic and revenue in the short-term. Once you achieve this, your client has validation to request more budget internally to develop more long-term, less immediate-ROI driven activities. 

    For many years now, search marketing has been a wide open market, with more business to go around than we have known what to do with. Brand after brand has recognized their need for help with search visibility, but they have not necessarily been clear on what that would entail. This led to the gold rush of search.

    While many larger agencies were focused on media buying, creative, and television campaigns, the digital landscape was taking form with SEO, PPC, social, display, conversion rate optimization, email marketing, outreach (PR for the web), and much more. We as search marketers know there is a massive opportunity to be had as the digital landscape continues to mature, but whether it is ours for the taking remains to be seen. In order for us to survive, search marketers need to become more well-versed into all digital marketing channels and gain a concrete understanding of when it is appropriate to invest into some of them.

    The combination of secure search (not provided), Google's continual innovation upon their ability to crawl and understand both the web and search behavior (with Hummingbird being the most recent example), their successful moves against scalable link building tactics (Penguin and manual penalties), and an overall increase in competition will push search marketers down either of these two paths:

    1. Become less and less white-hat over time, constantly looking for ways to justify the means for scalable tactics
    2. Jump ship to broader digital marketing roles and bury the SEO hats (example: Director of Marketing, Marketing Strategists, Brand Strategist, Content Strategist, Product Manager etc.) to grow revenue/traffic over time on different marketing channels.

    Given the picture I have described above, I want to provide you with a framework with supporting examples for how you, the search marketer, can better get more of the resources you will need in order to pursue path 2. 

    Search marketing challenges: a top-level look

    Change is hard, especially at the pace required to be successful digital marketers, but Google, competing agencies, and the competition of brands on the web are forcing our hands as search marketers to pick our paths quickly and adapt.

    Let's start off by taking a closer look at some of the macro trends that add complexity to our jobs:

    Google is a business

    SEOs are dependent on a third-party platform that provides them with no proprietary information and gives them no advantage. The reality is that as Google's ranking algorithm becomes increasingly complex, what exactly the right recommendation is for any given site becomes more ambiguous. Google simply isn't in the business to support SEOs; they're in the business to build the best technology in the world, so that they continue to attract the greatest number of users and generate the greatest amount of revenue. If SEOs continue to chase the algorithm, they'll simply continue down a rabbit hole of becoming dependent on short-term tactics that at best, have no longevity, and at worst, damage the core of a business.


    Not provided

    Not provided impacted how SEOs were able to directly attribute their work to organic growth. It has brought challenges not only to reporting, but also to how the previous work SEOs did was valued within an organization. With the advent of not provided, different marketing departments within an organization such as content, SEO, PR, and creatives can all justify that their work is what led to organic traffic growth. This makes it difficult for any organization to invest significant budget into SEO.



    Penguin sent a very clear signal to SEOs that many of the link building tactics they were reliant on in the past were not only no longer effective but could even provide long-term damage to the bottom line of a business. Recovering from Penguin and any algorithmic update is uncertain, difficult, and extremely expensive. It also forced SEOs to step back and assess whether a tactic that might work today may also be detrimental to the site in the future.


    Although Hummingbird may not appear to have significantly impacted search results at an initial glance, the reality is that the underlying algorithm has changed to become much more adept at understanding semantics. Hummingbird, in combination with not provided, indicates that a continued emphasis on keyword-focused strings is not sustainable. Future SEO initiatives cannot be siloed into keyword research, keyword-focused landing pages, and building links to those keyword-focused pages; wider context-based approaches are required.

    Google crawlers handling technical challenges

    As Google implements more updates to its underlying search algorithm, it has also become capable of resolving (for better or for worse, depending on the circumstance) many of the technical issues that SEOs used to manually correct on their own, whether it be duplicate or keyword-stuffed meta titles/descriptions, mobile alternative issues, resolving 302 redirect issues that were meant to be 301s, etc. The reality is that barring very specific technical issues on a site (penalty, migrations, development of new processes/capabilities on the back-end), the "low-hanging fruit" of on-page SEO will shrivel.

    Actionable ways for search marketers to get more buy-in at the beginning to execute a broader marketing strategy

    The only way to execute the broader marketing tactics that will benefit search (e.g. dedicating resources to creating content, improve the UX of the site) is to say the right things to the right people. In this era of not provided and Penguin/Panda/Hummingbird, we need to be involved in much more overarching marketing goals/objectives in order to stay relevant, have budget, and become a priority for the organization.

    1. Get in front of key stakeholders. Then, ask the right questions. 

    There are several key stakeholders who can impact the work you do, the budget you get, the visibility your work gets, and the amount of internal resources you can utilize. They tend to be the CMO, Director of Marketing, and VP of Sales (especially if marketing is a purpose of lead-gen). The biggest challenge most individuals have when they are granted an opportunity to pitch to the executive team is how to ask the right questions that will demonstrate their expertise in not just a specific marketing channel, but how your marketing efforts will positively impact a business's bottom line.

    Image source

    For example, below are the type of questions I ask executives based on their specific position within the organization.

    CEO: High-level business picture

    • Is this the only brand you own? Do you have a group of brands you own and operate? Does this brand we are discussing today have a parent company?
    • How many years has the company been in business?
    • Is the company a privately held company or publicly traded company?
    • What is your business's unique value proposition?
    • Who are your major competitors in this space?
    • What are the company's most important business milestones/goals over the next 12-24 months?
    • What is the business's 10-20 year goal?

    CFO: High-level financial picture

    • Is the company bootstrapped (self-funded) or loan/venture funded? If loan/venture funded, what implications will this have on our engagement or your milestones?
    • Is the company profitable?
    • How long has the company been profitable?
    • What is the company's annual revenue? (This is easy to find if the company is public.)
    • What has the company's year-over-year growth been for the past 3-5 years?
    • What are the company's most important financial milestones/goals over the next 12-24 months?

    VP of Sales, CMO/VP of Marketing: High-level growth picture

    • Do you have a sense of the Total Addressable Market (TAM) of your businesses category / niche? (How much revenue opportunity is there in your space?)
    • How much of the TAM would you say your company currently controls?
    • What was the initial growth strategy of the business when the company first started, and why?
    • How has your growth strategy evolved over time?
    • What do you see as the major factors that contributed to your growth (when you first started and now)?
    • Do you foresee those same factors continuing to play a role over the next 3-5 years? The next 5-10 years?
    • What internal teams or external agencies played a huge role in that growth or success?
    • How long has your company been gaining market share? By how much YoY? If losing, by how much YoY?
    • What have been your most effective channels for growth to date?
    • What have been your least effective channels for growth to date?

    Director of Marketing: A more granular look into growth strategy/plans

    • How does your company set goals and strategy around growth, expansion, and optimization of your business? Who does that? How often do you revisit this? Who sits in on this conversation from the marketing department?
    • How does your business determine how much money each year you invest into the growth and expansion of the company?
    • How much did the marketing department invest into growth last year (including all of the channels)?
    • Has the amount you've invested into growth over the years fluctuated a lot or stayed pretty consistent? Why?
    • How much of your marketing budget do you invest into offline vs. digital per year?
    • Has the amount of money you've invested into digital fluctuated much year to year? Where do you attribute most of the fluctuation in spend to?
    • How much of your digital marketing budget went to paid channels vs. other?
    • Have you already or do you have plans to acquire companies to support your growth?

    2. Convert bad project requests into great briefs

    Here are the most typical reasons I have seen companies offer when requesting services from a search marketing agency:

    1. We want growth of traffic/conversions through our site.
    2. We are about to make a big change and we don't want to lose traffic.
    3. We need to recover our traffic.
    4. We need your help to debug this problem we are experiencing.
    5. We would like you to do some research and help us make a decision (provide your expert opinion).
    6. We need your help to track, measure, and report on the impact of our efforts.

    Clients often ask for the wrong things for a number of reasons:

    • They don't have enough first-hand experience with growing search visibility, or they have unrealistic expectations on how long this process would take for how much budget.
    • They focus too much on the industry jargon they've read over the years. Or,
    • They just do not have a deep enough understanding of what the business goals and objectives should be and why.

    There is nothing wrong with this, but we should not let it stop us from focusing on the things that matter most. Business equates to revenue, and revenue increases lead to more confidence in your skill set.

    For a specific example, if a client comes to you and asks you for links, reframe the conversation by asking them why they want links. Most clients ask for links for the following reasons:

    • Links are important to increase the domain authority of the site and the probability you can rank for highly competitive keywords, which increases the organic traffic that will go to my site.
    • Links are quantifiable/measurable (I've gotten x number of links in y amount of time for z price).

    In this sample scenario, I would respond by saying links are an output you receive when you create great content. In order to deliver great content, you need to first start by understanding the data you have on-hand (via their CRM, customer surveys, their analytics, and their existing internal resources). The first step is for us to gain access to all this information in order for us to assess the potential opportunity this channel has on your business.

    It is critical that you train your clients to talk in terms of business goals, objectives, and KPIs because that is the only opportunity in which they will allow you to determine the marketing strategy, rather than you becoming their outsourced vendor for a variety of different marketing activities like link building.

    3. Research and know which channels to invest in

    Once you have a concrete understanding of the business's goals, objectives, and KPIs, it's the search marketer's job to determine which specific marketing channels are the ones the client should be investing in. Is the goal to generate the quickest possible ROI in the least amount of time? CRO. Is the goal to understand product-market fit? Then perhaps paid search is the best medium. Is the goal to build a community and brand awareness? Creative content + PR + social media.

    It's crucial to prioritize the specific marketing channels and activities that are most aligned with the company's business goals, while simultaneously also being the channels you feel the most confident will deliver the highest likelihood of ROI for your client. The reason is because whenever a client first signs with an agency, the first 6 months are the trial period. The client has taken a risk by partnering with an agency and they want to ensure that it's a good fit, that you follow your word, and that you're able to deliver results. Essentially, they're determining whether you are a good long-term partner for them.

    Once you're able to deliver meaningful results that are aligned with the client business goals and objectives, you've passed the trial period. After that, the client is much more likely to opt for longer-term, higher-budget activities because you've successfully demonstrated your knowledge and expertise in marketing. Bigger budgets often times mean larger access to resources, which again significantly increases the chances that you will be building a long-term, meaningful relationship with your client.


    Clients want you to succeed in helping them achieve their marketing goals, but they will be selective about when and how they spend their time getting you what you need. We, as search marketers, need to get better at identifying the channels that will increase the probability of success during the first 6 months of the campaign, while demonstrating our ability to think critically by asking the right type of questions and gaining the important knowledge that will give us what we need to be successful at the beginning of the project.

    Fight the urge to think that if I see success you will be rewarded later on. Although that sentiment is mostly true, if you don't get enough of what you need to be successful in the first half of the project, you may not get to a point where you can create enough value to justify them keeping you around for follow up work. For instance, if you agree to build links for a client, it's highly likely you'll always be perceived as a link building vendor to the client. Great search marketers don't just plan to be successful, they plan for all of the scenarios that could keep them becoming successful and structure in solutions to position them for an optimal outcome. This means we need to build a concrete understanding of how different marketing channels integrate with search and understanding when it is appropriate to invest into which channels. We can no longer operate in solely a search silo; ironically, in order for us to survive the future of search, we need to broaden our scope and play a much more strategic digital marketing role for us to generate returns in search for clients. 

    Sign up for The Moz Top 10, a semimonthly mailer updating you on the top ten hottest pieces of SEO news, tips, and rad links uncovered by the Moz team. Think of it as your exclusive digest of stuff you don't have time to hunt down but want to read!

  • 10 Smart Tips to Leverage Google+ for Increased Web Traffic

    Posted by Cyrus-Shepard

    This time, it's about engaged traffic.

    While checking our stats here at Moz, we noticed that while visits sent to us from Facebook keep decreasing, traffic from Google+ has started to appear significant by comparison.

    While not everyone has an audience active on Google+, the number of people who interact socially with any Google products on a monthly basis now reportedly exceeds 500 million.

    What's different about Google+ is that beyond the direct social visits as seen above, Google offers marketers the opportunity to interact with visitors through many more touch points, including YouTube and directly in search results. This means that for visitors who engage with you through Google+, the potential traffic channels multiply

    For this method to work, it requires that your visitors actually engage

    Facebook and Twitter experts know this and perfected their engagement craft over several years. Engagment with Google+ means a new set tactics and best practices. These are areas that I consistently see otherwise expert brands fall short and miss easy opportunities.

    Let's discuss supercharging our Google+ engagement.

    1. Headlines, every time

    The more users notice your Google+ posts, the more likely they are to engage. The challenge is to stand out in a sea of thousands of posts. 

    First things first. Unlike other social platforms, Google+ posts act more like mini blog posts, and every post needs a headline. Not only does adding a header help your post stand out, but Google uses the first words of your post in two different ways:

    1. They incorporates your headline into the title tag of the post
    2. The headline is typically what displays in Google search results

    Adding the right headline can help your post stand out in search results, and can greatly influence the number of people who both notice and click through to your content.

    Use a headline, every time.

    2. Formatting for attention

    Easily break up your long blocks of text with formatting to make your posts simpler to read and skim. This allows you to communicate more clearly and makes your text more accessible.

    In addition to adding bold to your headline, copy and paste the formatting cheats below to help compose a post that stands out from the rest.

    G+ Formatting Cheats:

    *This is a Bolded Headline*

    _ Italic_

    Mix and match styles: _*Bolded Italic*_

    Numbered List:
      *1.* Point One
      *2.* Point Two
      *3.* Point Three

    Bulleted List:
      • Point 1
      • Point 2
      • Point 3


    #hashtag1 #hashtag2

    How it Looks:

    3. Use your words

    Google+ is a both a visual and a text medium, so make them both count!

    Don't be afraid of writing longer posts. Instead of simply posting a link to your latest blog posts and hoping for the best, add a summary of your important points. Explain why this is important. Give people additional context as to why they should click and share.

    Personal example of Google+ posts where I embraced the long-form:

    The few minutes it takes to jot down your thoughts could result in multiple reshares and thousands of additional eyeballs on your content.

    4. Use your images too

    The vast majority of top posts on Google+ use images. In fact, the most popular post I've personally ever shared was a simple animated GIF.

    For increased shareability, it's usually best to upload your own photo.

    By default, Google+ tries to include an image for any URL that you share. Unless you define the right Open Graph images and the proper social meta tags, the images are often not ideal, or are sized wrong.

    When you upload your own image, the image links to the full-size version, not the URL you want to share. In this case, don't forget to include a link to the URL in the text.

    5. Smarter sharing > targeted

    Most people set their post to "public," thinking this gives them maximum exposure. In fact, there is a much more effective way to gain exposure to your top content, as long as you don't abuse it.

    By also adding your circles and select individuals to your share settings, this triggers a notification for those users that you've shared a post directly with them. 

    Used smartly, these notifications can greatly influence the amount of activity on a post.

    Warning: When targeted sharing is used too often, it turns spammy.  Be careful what you share. 

    Only choose your very best, most important posts.

    Amazingly, Google+ also allows you to notify people in your circles via email when you share. In order for this to work, the individuals must have their email notifications set up correctly. Be extra careful with this function, as it can turn people off fast!

    6. The mighty, mighty #hashtag

    Twitter and Facebook have made us accustomed to hashtags, but Google+ uses them in entirely different ways to organize and recommend content.

    Google uses hashtags and semantic analysis to form relationships between topics. For example, consider this hashtag search for #linkbuilding. Notice the related topics Google associates with link building:

    These associations aren't random. In fact, Mark Traphagen demonstrates how you can "teach" Google these relationships by tagging your own posts.

    By default, Google often adds hashtags automatically to any post with sufficient text. Best practice is to add your own relevant hashtags at the end or within the body of each post.

    7. Find the followed links

    The followed link on Google+ has gone the way of the dodo.

    When Google+ was born, it was a bonanza for links, and seen as an SEO paradise. Since that time, Google has replaced most equity passing followed links with nofollow, which pass no link equity. This includes profile links, "contributor to," and shared URLs.

    There is one exception. Public +1's remain followed.

    For now, whenever a visitor +1s your content without sharing it to their stream, this results in a followed link as long as the visitor has +1's set to "public."

    This could be an oversight, or Google could remove these followed links soon.

    While the value of +1s for SEO has been debated again and again, this may be the last remaining place that a +1 may actually pass link equity.

    8. Leverage Google+ comments

    I'm sort of in love with the Google+ commenting system. 

    Much like Facebook's popular commenting plugin, you can embed Google+ comments on your own blog. What makes this so powerful is when visitors leave a comment, they are given the option of sharing your post to their own Google+ followers. 

    This can greatly increase engagement among these users and their followers.

    Officially, Google+ comments are only supported for Google's own Blogger platform. Fortuneatly, clever folks have devised a number of plugins and solutions for Wordpress, Drupal, and more.

    9. +Post Ads: the future of social engagement?

    Google's +Post Ads offer an interesting premise: take your most successful Google+ posts and turn them into ads that show all over Google's massive display network.

    This exposes your posts to more people who otherwise would not have interacted with your brand on Google+ alone. This interaction drives more social sharing, and the sharing can continue after the paid promotion is over.

    For example, if you are a car manufacturer, you could target your Google+ posts to appear on auto parts websites.

    While still early in adoption, +Post Ads present a unique opportunity for businesses to attract customers at different stages of the buying cycle, and then keep those customers engaged through social media.

    While the jury is still out if +Post Ads will be effective, it will likely take some time for marketers to learn how to effectively leverage this channel.

    10. Interactive posts

    Interactive Google+ posts allow you to perfectly customize how your content is shared, but they also allow you to prompt your social audience to take a specific action.

    Google maintains an impressive list of actions which you can automatically embed into your post. These include:

    • Watch a video
    • Sign up for a newsletter
    • Reserve a table at a restaurant
    • Open an app
    • ...and about 100 more.

    Mike Arnesen wrote up a good overview of getting started with Interactive posts, or you can find more at the Google Developers blog.

    Building your influence 

    Google+ isn't so much a social media platform like Twitter and Facebook, but an identity platform that works with Google to connect across all our different devices and web services.

    This means that while sites like Facebook and Twitter can still deliver traffic to your website, Google+ is so integrated across so many platforms that it has many more places to touch potential visitors. Business that build up their audience base today potentially position themselves to collect bigger rewards in the future.

    Do you receive traffic from Google+? Is it a part of your social strategy? Let us know in the comments below.

    Sign up for The Moz Top 10, a semimonthly mailer updating you on the top ten hottest pieces of SEO news, tips, and rad links uncovered by the Moz team. Think of it as your exclusive digest of stuff you don't have time to hunt down but want to read!

  • Getting hreflang Right: Examples and Insights for International SEO

    Posted by DaveSottimano

    Most of us will remember the days in SEO where geotargeting was nearly impossible, and we all crawled to the shining example of as our means of showcasing what the correct search display behaviour should be. Well, most of us weren't Apple, and it was extremely difficult to determine how to structure your site to make it work for international search. Hreflang has been a blessing to the SEO industry, even though it's had a bit of a troubled past. 

    There's been much confusion as to how hreflang annotations should work, what is the correct display behaviour, and if the implementation requires additional configuration such as the canonical tag or WMT targeting.

    This isn't a beginner- or even intermediate-level post, so if you don't have a solid feel for hreflang already, I'd recommend reading through  Google's documentation before diving in.

    In today's post we're going to cover the following:

    1. How to check international SERPs the right way
    2. What should hreflang do and not do
    3. Examples of hreflang behaviour
    4. Important tools for the serious international SEO
    5. Tips from my many screw-ups, and successes 

    Section 1: How to check international SERPs the right way

    I've said this once, and I'll say it again: Know your Google search parameters better than your mother. Half the time we think something isn't working, we don't actually know how to check. Shy of having an IP in every country from which you want to check Google results, here is the next best thing:

    For example, if want to mimic a Spanish user in the US:

    Or if I want to impersonate an Australian user:

    If you want a full list of language/country codes that Google uses, please visit the  Google CCTLDs language and reference sheet. If you want the Google docs version go here, or if you want a tool to do this for you, check out Isearchfrom.

    Section 2: What should hreflang do and not do

    hreflang will not:

    1. Replace geo-ranking factors: Just because you rank #1 in the US for "blue widgets" does not mean that your UK "blue widgets page" will rank #1 in the UK.
    2. Fix duplicate content issues: If you have duplicate copies of your pages targeting the same keywords, it does not mean that the right country version will rank because of hreflang. The same rules apply to general SEO; when there are exact or nearly exact duplicates, Google will choose which page to rank. Typically, we see the version with more authority ranking (authority can be determined loosely by #links, TBPR, DA, PA, etc.).

    You might be wondering about duplicate content and Panda, which is a valid concern. I personally haven't seen or heard of any site with international duplicate content being affected by Panda updates. The sites I have analyzed always had some sort of international SEO configuration, however, whether it was WMT targeting or hreflang annotations.

    Hreflang will:

    1. Help the right country/language version of your cross-annotated pages appear in the correct versions of *google.*

    Section 3: Examples of hreflang behaviour

    Case 1:


    <head> hreflang, 302 redirect on homepage, and subdomain configuration

    Sample of hreflang annotations:

    <link href="" hreflang="en-us" rel="alternate" title="CNN" type="text/html"/>
    <link href="" hreflang="es" rel="alternate" title="CNN Mexico" type="text/html"/>

    What should happen according to the targeting? is seen in EN-US and any Spanish queries should display

    What actually happens?

    Take a look at the US results for yourself

    Take a look at the US results for yourself.

    Take a look at the Mexican results for yourself.

    Let's try to explain this behaviour:

    • actually 302's to; this is regular SEO behaviour that causes the origin page URL to display in search resuls and the content comes from the redirect. 
    • is not the right answer for "es" (Spanish language) IMO, because it's the Mexican version and should be annotated as "mx-es" ;) 
    • Since exists and seems to have worldwide news, I would use this as the "ES" version.
    • Cross hreflang annotations are missing, so the whole thing isn't going to work anyways ......

    Case 2:


    <head> hreflang, language/country variations and duplicate content

    Sample of hreflang annotations:

    *FYI - I've shortened this for simplicity

    x-default -

    en_GB -

    en - href

    What should happen according to the targeting?

    X-default for non annotated versions, GB page should display in

    What actually happens?

    Let's try to explain this behaviour:

    • One thing you may not notice is that the EN, X default, and GB version are almost entirely duplicate (around 99%). Which one should the algorithm choose? This is a good example of hreflang not handling dupe content.
    • The GB version doesn't display in UK search results, and the rankings are not the same (US ranking is higher than UK on average). The hreflang annotation is using the underscore rather than the standard hyphen (EN_GB versus EN-GB)
    • They use a self-referencing canonical, which, contrary to some beliefs, has absolutely no effect on the targeting

    Case 3:


    <head> hreflang, subdomain & cctld, country targeting and x-default

    Sample of hreflang annotations:

    <link rel="alternate" hreflang="en-gb" href="" />
    <link rel="alternate" hreflang="x-default" href="" />
    <link rel="alternate" hreflang="en-us" href="" />
    <link rel="alternate" hreflang="fr-fr" href="" />

    What should happen according to the targeting? should appear in GB and all other queries other than EN-US and FR-FR where each respective subfolder should appear.

    What actually happens?

    See the Canadian results for yourself

    See the American results for yourself

    See the French results for yourself

    Let's try to explain this behaviour:

    • Perfect example of perfect implementation - you guys & gals working with Musicradar are pretty great. You get the honorary #likeaboss vote from me :)
    • One thing to notice is that they double list the EN-GB page also as the X-default
    • The English sitelink in the French results is pretty weird, but I think this is the perfect situation to escalate to Google as their implementation is correct as far as I can tell.

    Case 4:


    XML sitemaps hreflang, subfolders, rel canonical and dupe content

    Sample of hreflang annotations:

    <xhtml:linkhreflang="en-US" href="" rel="alternate"/>
    <xhtml:link hreflang="en-CA" href="" rel="alternate"/>
    <xhtml:link hreflang="en-PH" href="" rel="alternate" />

    What should happen according to the targeting? should appear in the US, should appear for Canadian - English queries ( and should appear in Google Philippines for English queries.

    What actually happens?

    Check out the Canadian results for yourself

    Check out the Philippines results for yourself

    Let's try to explain this behaviour:

    • All 3 homepages are almost exactly identical, hence duplicate content
    • The Canadian version contains <link rel="canonical" href="" /> - that means it's being canonicalized to the main US version
    • The Philippines version does not contain a canonical tag
    • Google is choosing which is the right duplicate version to show, unless there is a canonical instruction

    Section 4: Tools for the serious International SEO


    • Reliable rank tracker that can localize: Advanced Web RankingMoz, etc...
    • Crawler that can validate hreflang annotations in XML sitemaps or within <head>: The only tool on the market that can do this, and does it very well, is Deepcrawl.

    Other nice-to-haves:

    1. Your own method of "gathering" international search results on scale. You should probably go with proxies.
    2. Your own method of parsing XML sitemaps and cross checking (even if you use something like Deepcrawl, you'll need to double check).
    3. Obvious, but worth a reminder: Google webmaster tools, Analytics, access to server logs so you can understand Google's crawl behaviour.

    Section 5: Tips from many screw-ups and successes

    1. Use either the <head> implementation or XML sitemaps, not both. It can technically work, but trust me, you'll probably screw something up - just stick to one or the other.
    2. If you don't cross annotate, it won't work. Plain and simple, use Aleyda's tool to help you.
    3. Google says you should self-reference hreflang, but I also see it working without (check out If you want to play safe, self reference; we don't know what Google will change in the future.
    4. Try to eliminate the need for duplicate content, but if you must, it's okay to use canonical + hreflang as long as you know what you're doing. Check out this cool isolated test which is still relevant. Remember, mo' dupes, mo' problems.
    5. Hreflang needs time to work properly. At a bare minimum, Google needs to crawl both cross annotations for the switch to happen. Help yourself by pinging sitemaps, but be aware of at least a 2-day lag.
    6. You can double-annotate a URL when using X-default, in case you were afraid to. Don't worry, it's cool.
    7. Make sure you're actually having a problem before you go ranting on webmaster forums. Double check what you're seeing and ask other people to check as well. Check your Google parameters and personalized results!
    8. You can 302 your homepage when you're using a country redirect strategy. Yes, I know it's crazy, yes, a little bird told me and I throughly tested this and didn't see a loss. There's 2 sites I know of using this, so check them out: The GuardianRed Bull.

    Closing, burning question: You might be asking yourself, how the heck did he find so many examples? Or maybe not, but I'm going to tell you anyway.

    My secret sauce is, and if you didn't know about this beautiful site, I hope that gives me a free t-shirt or something for telling you.

    I find most SEOs who know about the tool are using it for useless stuff like meta tags (this is my own opinion), but what it really should be used for is reverse engineering things like hreflang and to find working examples. For example, a footprint you might use is hreflang="en-us" and you'll find a tonne of examples.

    Here's a few to get you started:

    That's it folks, hopefully you've learned a thing or two. Good luck in your international adventures and  feel free to say hi on Twitter. :)

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  • Getting Branded Searches Right - Whiteboard Friday

    Posted by randfish

    Ranking for branded keywords is obviously quite a bit easier than for unbranded terms, but it takes some thought. We don't just want to send everyone through our homepages; it's far better to send them to the page that best answers their query. In today's Whiteboard Friday, Rand covers four steps to be sure you're setting things up the right way.

    For reference, here's a still of this week's whiteboard!

    Video Transcription

    Howdy, Moz fans, and welcome to another edition of Whiteboard Friday. Today I'm going to talk a little bit about getting your branded search terms right. Branded search is very important, because when people perform branded queries -- your brand name plus some other modifier, some noun, some information they're seeking around your company and your brand -- you want to make sure you show up correctly in the search engines.

    One of the challenges here is that, as SEOs, a lot of the time we think about trying to target queries that can bring us new traffic, which often means unbranded searches, things where people haven't yet decided what brand they're going with. But branded search is incredibly important. It actually makes up a huge amount of volume of Google and Bing and Yahoo's total search queries.

    Here I performed a search for ZIIIRO Watches. I'm wearing one of their watches. I like them a lot. They have a weird spelling. It's Z-I-I-I-R-O Watches. If you searched for ZIIIRO Watches a few months back, their website was a little funky. In fact, most of the internal pages weren't crawlable.

    I remember when I performed a search for ZIIIRO Watches, the only page that actually mentioned that they were a watch company, I think it was either their about or contact page would show up. That was the first page that ranks for ZIIIRO Watches. That's not ideal.

    What you really want to rank there is either their homepage or their products page that lists all their watches. Those are the two things that I could potentially see as being valuable, and if it were me, I'd particularly want the watches page to be ranking, especially if they're expanding into other items beyond just making watches.

    Now what you want here as a brand, when people perform branded types of queries, is the most relevant, useful page to answer queries about that specific thing. That's why I said if I were the brand manager at ZIIIRO or if I were the SEO at ZIIIRO, what I would want is my watches page there rather than my homepage. The reason I want that is because getting to that information as quickly, as fast as possible is likely to have the best impact on both my SEO and on how the visitors will perform.

    If I list my homepage there, I'm asking visitors to make one more step to figure out my navigation system and get to my watches page, or whatever page it is on my website. I don't like forcing that step. I want them to get right there. Generally speaking, that can help with things like pogo sticking. It can help with time on page and engagement. It can help with conversion rate optimization. It's just the best way to drive traffic through search.

    The second thing, you want a title and description right here that's going to really earn that click. Contact ZIIIRO Watches, phone, address, email form, that's awful, right? That doesn't entice me. Even if I did want to get in touch with them, what I really want there is if I put "ZIIIRO phone number" or "Contact ZIIIRO" or "ZIIIRO Help," "ZIIIRO Support," what I want to see is something like "Contact ZIIIRO and get immediate help. You can email us, call us, or one click to fill out our form and get responses in 24 hours or less."

    That's what I want the description right there to say. It creates the action, the desire for me to click that, and the indication that I'm going to get what I want.

    The other thing that I really like doing is making sure that the headline on the page itself, once I reach whatever page this is, I really want that headline, the big thing that comes up bold at the top, to closely match. It doesn't have to mirror exactly what the title says, but to closely match that title so that I never get that experience of a searcher clicking and then going, "Wait a minute. This isn't the page I thought I was about to get."

    That's a bad experience. That's why I try and make those match up. Then the description as well, that intent should match.

    Finally, the last thing that I urge folks to do here is to have internal links that point to the pages that are most likely to guide the searcher's next few steps. If I know that the next steps in a visitor's journey from the watches page are often to check things out by price group, or to check things out by color, or to check things out by types of, I don't know, wristband or whatever it is, I want to make sure that those links are very prominent and easy to access on the page that I'm showing them here.

    What you don't want to do is let the wrong pages show up here, like we have in this ZIIIRO example. I can actually walk you through a process, step by step, of ways that I would actually urge every SEO to go through this process either once a year, or once a redesign, and find all the pages that might be ranking for branded queries that you don't intend to be ranking there, that you wish weren't ranking there, and how to change those up.

    Step one, you need to get a list of your branded terms and phrases. This used to be easier than it is today, thanks to keyword not provided. But still, we are lucky that not provided is only 90% of your Google search traffic.

    There are those 10% of queries we can get some of our branded search queries through there. You can do a filter inside of Google Analytics by performing a search on the referring keywords. Or you can also do this in Moz Analytics, if you set up a branded rule for your keywords.

    Bing provides you keywords as well. Bing powers and Yahoo searches as well. In the U.S., that's about 20% of searches or so. In Europe, obviously much less. But you can get some keyword data there.

    You can use auto suggest and related searches, meaning I start typing "ZIIIRO" here, and I hit the spacebar and I see what else populates. By the way, the auto suggest tends to work better on Google's homepage if you set up "don't auto send me to the search results page." You can sometimes see more search suggest on the Google homepage than you can on the results pages.

    You can use related searches, which is a box down at the bottom. If I were to scroll to the bottom of the results, I'd generally see a box down here that says "related searches" and five, six, seven, eight different queries that I could look at there.

    You can also use your internal search query data, of course. You can use things like Google AdWords, the AdWords keyword tool. The challenge there is with a lot of low volume searches, which many of the longer tail stuff in the brand tends to be lower volume, it can be challenging to figure those out via something like AdWords.

    Step two, we're going to depersonalize and search. We're going to take the keyword that we're looking for -- in this case ZIIIRO Watches -- and we're going to form a search query just like this, "". Why am I looking in New Zealand? I'll tell you in a sec. "search?q=ziiiro+watches&GL=US".

    Why this weird search query format? Well, what's happening here is that if I go to and I search for ZIIIRO Watches, I can add something like "&PWS=0" to the end of my search query, which will depersonalize the results, but it won't remove the geographic bias.

    What I really want to see is no geographic bias when I'm performing these searches. To do that, I take myself out of the country, out of the U.S., into New Zealand, and then I put myself back in the U.S., thus removing any personalization that comes from geographic biasing. You can do this with
    .ca,, dot whatever. It doesn't actually matter. I like generally doing it with a country code that matches the language you're searching in, though.

    By the way, when you do this, if you do it in a new incognito window, meaning you're not logged in, you don't generally have to worry about also adding "PWS=0" to remove personalized results.

    If applicable, go to step three. Applicable meaning you need to localize. If I'm searching, for example, and I want to see how this looks in Seattle, Washington versus Portland, Oregon versus San Diego, California or Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, I can actually use the "&near" parameter at the end of a query like this to see what it looks like in a specific geography.

    You don't have to, by the way, go out to New Zealand to do that. You can just search in regular .com. Then I can see what search results for people near Seattle, Washington, or I think you can also now use near equals a ZIP code if you want to get that granular.

    Then your job is simply to list the non-ideal results and start fixing them one by one. So I take a list of these keywords that I've got, a list of any of the search results that I didn't particularly like, and I prioritize based on how much traffic I'm either getting for that keyword, how much search traffic that landing page is receiving, or how much the estimated volume might be in something like AdWords.

    Now I've got a prioritized list that I can run through and say, "All right, got to fix this one. These three look good. Got to fix this one. These four look good." For that process, you can refer to some other Whiteboard Fridays that I've done on how to get the right result ranking for the search query term you're looking for. Generally speaking, it's not going to be that hard when it's a branded search term.

    All right, everyone. Hope you've enjoyed this edition of Whiteboard Friday, and we'll see you again next week. Take care.

    Video transcription by

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  • Content-Gap SEO: A Potentially Untapped Opportunity

    Posted by randfish

    NOTE: This post is mostly theoretical, but I hope potentially helpful and worthy of discussion.

    Over the last few years, and particularly since the advent of Hummingbird, I've noticed Google becoming more nuanced about the content it ranks, even for queries where they don't have lots of data on what users click, what they engage with, what they ignore, and their behavioral habits around a search (related searches, usage patterns before/after the query, etc.).

    My theory is that this new intelligence presents a dramatic opportunity for marketers and content creators who can identify the patterns and spot queries where critical questions may lie unanswered.

    Historically, much of what we'd see from Google's rankings could be explained through a few big factors:

    • Links
    • Domain Authority
    • Keyword Matching
    • Relevance
    • Freshness (and, certainly during Google's partnership with Twitter, social signals)

    We know Google's become more complex, but even from 2010-2012, I'd say the vast majority of searches' rank ordering could be explained with elements contained in these broad categories.

    Today, I'm observing a lot of rankings that seem to connect with brand signals, user/usage data, and a far more nuanced consideration of links, authority, and relevance, but perhaps most uniquely, and especially in queries that have information-gathering intent, there seems to be a set of ranking signals related to what I'll call "relevance to alternative searcher intents."

    I'll try to illustrate this with an example. Here's a query for " space pen" in Google US (non-personalized with geo-biasing removed):

    There's three potential popular "intents" that searchers have around this query.

    1. Those seeking Fisher's branded Space Pen
    2. Those seeking to learn about the oft-repeated myth around the supposedly costly development of the Space Pen by NASA when Russian cosmonauts used pencils
    3. Those seeking the Spacepen framework for Coffeescript

    And Google's done a nice job recognizing those unique intents and populating the SERPs appropriately with results to answer all three. Historically I'd have called this "QDD" or "Query Deserves Diversity" (something I  first wrote about way back in 2008). 

    But actually, I think we've seen an evolution from the raw "diversity" inputs (which, in my opinion, mostly revolved around combinations of click behavior in the SERPs and search modification behavior, i.e. people searching for "space pen" then refining to search for "space pen coffeescript") to a model that has more sophistication.

    That more sophisticated model might be better illustrated with this query for " most flavorful steak" (also Google US, non-personalized, non-geo-biased):

    There are multiple intents around this query, but they're far more subtle than those for "Space Pen." Searchers are likely seeking things like a description of the various types of cuts, information about what makes a steak taste better, perhaps some interesting types of steaks they haven't heard of previously or why certain cuts are more expensive than others. 

    What's remarkable is how Google has made shifts in queries like this in the last couple years. If I performed this query in 2012 (which I'm fairly sure I did, but sadly didn't screenshot), I would have seen a lot more keyword-matching and a much more singular focus on articles that specifically mentioned "flavorful" (or fairly direct synonyms thereof) in the title and headline. Actually, it would look a lot more like  Bing's results (no offense to them; these results are actually quite good, too, just far more keyword match-focused):

    Today, from Google, I'm getting a broader interpretation of the true intent(s) behind the use of the adjective, "flavorful."

    There's results that touch on expensive cuts of steak, of types of beef itself (like Wagyu & Kobe), on what makes a steak more flavorful, and there's a site showing up (Niman Ranch) that seems totally out of place when you look at the link numbers, but makes a lot of sense as a highly co-cited brand name. For reference, here's a  basic keyword difficulty report for the phrase:

    My opinion (and this is pure, unvarnished, speculation) is that Google's using inputs like:

    • Relationships between words, phrases, concepts, and entities to get closer to an understanding of language and an evaluation of the content quality itself
    • Patterns detected in how authoritative pieces write about/mention the keywords
    • User and usage data signals that look at multiple sessions, multiple queries, and identify patterns of searcher satisfaction (possibly using machine learning)
    • Topic modeling that tries to identify terms and phrases that are associated with diversity of opinion and topical focus so there's an element of finding not just useful information, but potentially new and interesting information, too

    I don't believe these are overwhelming signals today. Links are still very powerful. Domain authority is still clearly influential. But for a lot of what I'm seeing in the end of the chunky middle and into the long tail of the keyword demand curve, I think there's an opportunity for marketers to perform some content gap analysis and win rankings without needing the quantities of links & authority otherwise required.

    Here's my strawman concept for starting out with some Content-Gap SEO (and hopefully y'all can rip into and improve upon it in the comments):

    Step One: Identify the keywords you're targeting that fit in the backside of the chunky middle and long tail.

    Step Two: Prioritize your list based on the terms/phrases you believe will be most valuable (and remember that doesn't always mean highest search volume).

    Step Three: Starting from the top, write down 4-6 types of intent and/or pieces of unique information that you believe searchers might have/want when performing each query.

    Step Four: Perform the query in Google, and look through the top 10. Do you see results that answer all of the intent/info types you wrote down? Write down how many are missing (including 0 if everything's already fulfilled).

    Step Five: Use your number as a potential prioritizer for the creation of new content or the modification/addition of content to existing pages. Then watch and see if Google feels the same way and begins rewarding you for this.

    While this process is speculative and my theories are, too, I will say that I have talked to and emailed with a lot of folks in the SEO field of late who've talked over and over about the surprise they've had from purely content-based rankings and rankings improvements. I might be wrong about a lot of the details, but I'd be willing to bet that there's something new going on in how Google analyzes and rewards pages that provide the right kind of content.

    For marketers who can identify the patterns, find the content gaps, and fulfill them, I believe there's opportunity to rank without having to pound nearly the same levels of external links at your pages.

    Looking forward to the discussion!

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