SEO 2009: Adapt or Die
Ian Lurie Dec 29 2008
There’s a meteor headed our way. Plug your ears, sing LALALALALALA all you want. It won’t change a thing.
Google’s about to make search engine optimization (SEO) into marketing, for good. How? They’ve been slowly adding user behavior to their ranking algorithm. Bet on far bigger changes after January 1st.
I won’t go into the many painful technical details of how I’ve arrived at this conclusion. If you want to know, Twitter me and I’ll cheerfully bore you to extinction.
Here’s what’s you need to know:
Organic Click-Thru Rate Will Matter. A Lot.
The organic click-thru rate (CTR) is going to affect rankings more than before. In English, ‘organic CTR’ is the percentage of people who click on your unpaid search listing versus those who see it and don’t click. So, if 10 people search for ‘rubber baby buggy bumpers’, and 5 click on your listing, then you have a 50% organic CTR:
A higher organic CTR will tell Google you’re more relevant and authoritative for that search query.
What you need to do: Improve your organic clickthru rate
- Write a good description tag. The description tag is the summary text that shows up in your search ‘snippet’. A good, compelling description tag will encourage more folks to click.
- Write a good title tag. The title tag shows up at the top of your search result listing. A well-written title tag will also persuade more folks to click.
- Freeze. If you go and start clicking furiously on your site in the search results in an attempt to improve your rankings, you’re… well… mentally challenged. Google’s figured that one out. See the next item for that information.
Time On Site Will Matter. Even More.
Time on site after search (TOSAS – you heard it here first) is the amount of time someone spends on your web site after they click on an unpaid Google search results. The amount of time folks spend on your site after clicking a Google search result is also more and more important:
I’ve been tracking organic search traffic for client web sites over the last year. Sites with improved time on site saw improved organic search traffic within months of their improved time on site. During that time, those sites weren’t conducting any SEO and saw no improvement in link popularity. Their content wasn’t stale, but they weren’t writing their brains out, either. All 5 sites were 1-2 years old. The only thing they improved? Usability. Time on site.
What you need to do: Clarify your offer, and watch your analytics
- Make sure your description and title tag sync up with the page to which they belong. You want improved time on site? Give people what they expect when they click on your listing in the search results.
- Track your organic landing pages. Every page on your site is a potential organic landing page. Search engines pick the page they’ll list in the rankings – you don’t. Those pages are your organic landing pages. So watch the pages that draw search traffic and backtrack. Figure out the keywords that are generating traffic to those pages. Then adjust those pages so they make sense in context of those keywords.
- Use your analytics. Watch time spent on each organic landing page. Test those pages, obsessively. Find the best combination of headline, copy, layout and offer. Then do it again.
Don’t start whining that this isn’t SEO. It is now. Get used to it.
Social actions will matter, too.
This one’s been evident for a while: Search engines are also adding bookmarking, stumbles, Diggs and other information into the equation. If you can get more folks to add your site to their Google Notebook, or promote it to the top of Google Searchwiki, or bookmark your site on Del.icio.us, then yeah, your ranking’s going to probably improve a bit.
Rankings will matter. Even less.
Bruce Clay may have gone a bit far when he said rankings are dead. They’re maimed, but definitely still alive.
But rankings don’t matter. They are, at most, a means to an end. And with personalized search, rankings will be harder and harder to consistently track. Instead, track:
- Traffic from organic search. How many visitors are you getting from organic search results?
- Keywords generating traffic. What keywords are generating that traffic? Are they branded (meaning they include your brand name) or non-branded?
- Bounce rate from organic search visits. How many visitors from organic search look at one page and leave without clicking to another page? The more folks that leave, the higher your bounce rate. A high bounce rate is bad.
- Conversion rate. Hard to believe, but what really matters is sales, and leads and stuff.
It’ll be harder to spam the search engines. For a while.
It’s harder to fake behavioral triggers. You can bookmark the hell out of your site, of course, but that’s not going to be enough to tilt the algorithm in your favor. You’re going to have to (gasp) deliver real value to your audience.
However, the first company to hire 1000 people around the world to all carefully click, browse, bookmark and otherwise generate apparently legitimate traffic to a site will probably prompt the major search engines to once again tweak their algorithms, adding some new ranking factor, and ruining it for the rest of us.
What you need to learn.
If you’re an SEO professional or The Person Who Got Stuck With SEO, you’d better add a few skills to your tool belt:
- Usability. Don’t confuse this with design. Google doesn’t give a flying poop if your site looks nice.
- Analytics. You’d better be good at analyzing how long folks spend visiting your site, and how to improve it.
- Writing. I don’t mean the act of pressing keys on a keyboard. I mean the act of making yourself understood when pressing those keys.
Does this mean content’s gone? Woo hoo! No more writing!!!
Search engines still care about content, link authority, visibility and the like. They’re just adding these behavioral hallmarks to the equation.
Plus, if you write crappy content or just never update your site, visitors will click through to the site, then bounce back to Google, lowering your TOSAS and killing your rankings.
So it’s still about the content.
While researching this post, I spent a lot of time poring over Google patent applications. The best plain English description of the patent that caught my interest (and a few other people’s), is SEOMOZ’s nifty explanation.
I also read a whole bunch of different forum threads where lots of smart people were discussing comments made by Bruce Clay about the death of rankings. The best thread I found was on the Cre8asite Forums.
And, I plumbed the depths of my extremely messed up, travel- and kid-addled head. So don’t be a lemming: Read what I’ve written, check your own assumptions, and then let me know what you find. I’ll pull those findings together here.
This article is only about Google, but trust me, it applies to every major search engine. If you think Yahoo! and Live won’t immediately race to match Google feature-for-feature, you’re insane.
Ian Lurie is CEO and founder of Portent Inc. He's recorded training for Lynda.com, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Forbes.com and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, SIC and ad:Tech. Follow him on Twitter at portentint.He also just published a book about strategy for services businesses: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle. Read More