We are living in the experience age. Coffee isn’t coffee anymore -- it is a caffeinated interactive experience. A mc-whopper and fries isn’t just a meal anymore, it is about to become a movie rental, dead cow, Atkins-friendly experience. Why is AD:TECH successful? It is not just a trade show with informational content, it is an interactive marketing experience.
Susan Bratton, AD:TECH’s conference chair, filled us all in on the details Monday morning. Nearly 4,000 attendees, a whopping 30 percent increase over last year’s show, proved once again that AD:TECH has staying power.
Trade shows come and go while online marketing trends shape the way we do business. If there is one thing AD:TECH does quite efficiently, it creates a universal online marketing encounter. While I won’t try to compete with the AD:TECH blog for play-by-play, I will share with you my AD:TECH experience.
The keynote experience
Unlike last year, when everyone got packed into (and out of) keynote sessions, this JD Events was well-prepared for the crowds with highly wired overflow rooms. Since every day had a keynote, I checked in on both main and overflow rooms and found comfort, convenience and dialed-in audio visual.
Of course, every day had a keynote. Allison Johnson, senior vice president of global brand and communications for Hewlett-Packard delivered Monday’s keynote address. She showed us a series of spots and techno grabs depicting HP’s quest for "brand love," via creating a series of brand experiences. The problem is, none of these experiences seemed to include online advertising. For example, coffee and technology coming together with music to create an experience? Nice thought, but where’s the online ad plan case study? Not to worry though, the AD:TECH audience brought "brand love" back to "online marketing love" with a heavy question and answer session.
Tuesday, on the other hand, found a very well-received and informed keynote from Peter Weedfald, Samsung Electronics America’s senior vice president of strategic marketing and new media. It was refreshing to hear from such a big brand that has thoughts like "all media planning starts with the Web." My personal Tuesday lunchtime roundtable discussion (with industry gurus Rob Graham and Leslie Laredo, the IAB’s Doron Wesley and Eyeblaster’s Masha Geller) agreed that Weedfald delivered his digital Darwinism theme very well. Weedfald’s thoughts on leveraging 1.5 billion impressions on more than 365 sites, while maintaining strict buying requirements, were on the list of key takeaways -- along with focusing on strategic partnerships and cross-platform optimization.
Now, if I can only find someone to help program my Samsung wireless phone.
Wednesday’s keynote was definitely worth sticking around for. I have said it before and I will say it again: never leave AD:TECH early. Patrick Vogt, Sony Electronics’ senior vice president and senior general manager, not only delivered key thoughts on using online marketing tools to help build Sony’s diverse business on the Web, the man actually credited the people on his team, by name, for their contributions to Sony’s success. Hats off to Patrick, and I have only one question for you: To whom should I address my resume?
One of Patrick’s key messages offered an odometer reading on the state of the online universe. In 1991, business was plugging along at 55 mph. By 1999, the industry was moving at 100 mph while high on the boom. Today, the industry is moving at 100 mph, but sober and focused.
The breakout session experience
As stated, trying to catalog the 30-plus sessions is best left to the bloggers. I made my way around all three days and found shiny happy marketers delivering sound advice, and noticed a big improvement in cutting down on sales pitches -- with the possible exception of the sponsored sessions, to which we can only say: You asked for it. Here are some of my favorite experiences from the sessions.
Monday’s uninspiring keynote was followed by a spectacular super session on leveraging broadcast and broadband. It was a great tribute to rich media content. Ed Davis from ESPN Motion illustrated a great trend in online/offline publisher brands -- developing unique content for the Web instead of repurposing broadcast content, which is a great way to build a better brand encounter. Of course, AtomShockwave lived up to its name delivering the "It’s so disgusting I have to look away experience" with an animated short called The Hangnail.
Highlighting the afternoon sessions and continuing with the rich media theme was a panel on the same topic with Dynamic Logic, Unicast and Eyeblaster. All of the presenters offered great case studies and supportive data. But my favorite quote in the all-too-critical, "How do I fund this?" section of our story came from Unicast’s Allie Savarino, who suggested rich media formats serve multiple purposes (awareness, response, etc.) so funding can be drawn from multiple sources. Excellent advice because, in the end, if you can’t find the money to fund your initiative, all the case studies in world will not help you.
On Tuesday morning, I found myself listening to the musings of Mike Windsor, chief executive officer of Ogilvy Interactive Worldwide, in a packed panel discussion for agencies on how to make money in interactive. Favorite thought from Windsor on initiating change: "Be persistent, almost to the point of harassment."
Another hot topic of discussion at my Tuesday luncheon roundtable was a morning session on The Taguchi method. Said method alleges a means of "testing thousands of campaigns in just a few experiments." While everyone seemed to grasp the idea, it sounded a bit too similar to a concept we were all intimately familiar with known as "testing creative."
Winding down the afternoon sessions was the always enlightening and entertaining Geoff Ramsey, delivering a S.W.O.T. analysis of media types. One attendee said, "Ramsey can take you through 90 slides of information, and you don’t feel like you are being dragged through it." I agree. Geoff pointed out that while ad spending increased more than 15 percent in cable and more than twice that in online last year, broad reach areas like broadcast spending remained flat or decreased slightly. Key takeaway: Targeted media spending is on the rise.
Wednesday was search day at AD:TECH. Jupiter’s Gary Stein led the first morning panel on search, and set the discussion table with data indicating search initiatives with large numbers of keywords were on the rise. Scott Skurnick, Circuit City’s manager of search and affiliate marketing delivered a one-two punch with the smartest approach to brand and response keyword bucketing I have seen to date.
The last panel of the show spot was a search roundtable featuring yours truly, Frederick Marckini, iProspect’s chief executive and technology officer, Kevin Lee, Did-It.com’s chief executive and David Karnstedt, Overture’s senior vice president and general manger of direct business -- all expertly moderated by our virtual parent figure, Barbara Cole, the Web Mamma. We discussed brand measurement and impact, but I have to say the high point of the discussion was a heated debate between Frederick and I on the effect that control (or lack thereof) of affiliate keyword bidding can have on your brand. We’ll come back to this debate later, count on it.
The trade show experience
Clearly, AD:TECH has outgrown the Palace Hotel, and Bratton promised a bigger, better venue next year. Just like last year, wading through the trade show floor was like trying to find matching pillow cases at a Macy’s white sale. I tried to fight my way through at least five times over the course of two days, and each time only made it though half way.
Of course, I am more than a little bit peeved the Business.com people passed on the big comfy leather couches this year. While they were quite accommodating with director’s chairs and great conversation, I missed my mid-afternoon naps on the sofa. Then again, the hard working, all business, no sitting, Did-It.com folks did not even bring chairs. You go guys.
The competition for trinkets and trash (aka shwag) along with gimmicks was hot. Sure, there were pens, retractable network cords and mints, but I have to offer my vote to the good people at Enhance for bringing a radio-controlled Enhance-branded Humvee give-away to the show. There is just no substitute for a well placed Hummer. Enhance also got my award for booth design with a complicated erector set- minimalist-industrial display architecture. AD:TECH bloggers voted Hotbar.com's flip flops as the winner, but they didn’t have my size -- which just goes to show you, no one weeps for the big-footed man.
The gathering experience
AD:TECH parties are now famous, and there is a heated competition at each event to one-up the next guy's party. I have arrived at the final -- and yet unsettling conclusion -- that I am now officially too old to battle daily bouts of cocktail flu, and I have an idea for next year’s shwag parade to include some kind of Ginkgo-Advil concoction. Just a thought.
Monday was the light night for my group. We checked out a smartly-done ValueClick bash, then visited the DoubleClick folks, and later I forgave the Business.com group for leaving out the big leather. Tuesday saw the bulk of the party action, as we went from loud, crowded venue (AtomShockwave) to peaceful discussion venue (Yahoo!), and later to hip, fly, train wreck venue.
Although I may never get invited to another Blue Lithium event, I’d like to offer some advice. All of the other parties we attended had a few things in common -- beverages on the house, polite staffing and, in some cases, short (as they are entitled) sales pitches. While I understand the gathering may have been well intentioned, I, along with my faithful companions, had little tolerance for sucking up to paid-by-the-hour velvet rope guardians in order to gain access to a cash bar and failed sales pitch. That is to say, stopping the party to attempt PowerPoint delivery may not have been the best delivery model for creating positive brand perception at that point. Just a suggestion.
The wrap-up experience
As the event came to a close, a few of the morning panelists, along with Susan Bratton, headed down for bite to eat before we went our respective ways. I polled the group of speakers and industry personalities for post mortem (agency after-campaign expression) takeaways and "what’s next for us" thoughts. While we pondered the happy return of venture capitalists to our scene, potential growth opportunities in behavioral inventory management, emerging technologies, and audiences beyond red, white and blue borders, our waiter approached with a provocative thought.
"Are you guys with the trade show that just left?" he asked.
"We certainly are" someone in our group replied.
"I just wanted to let you know, your attendees were the most polite group we have seen all year."
In an instant, someone else in the group said what we were all thinking, "That’s because we are all in a medium of underdogs. It’s part of the training when you are vying to stay in the game."
Moments later it occurred to me. While there are a lot of growth areas, the underlying theme of the week’s activities didn’t have much to do with who was buying what or new ways to serve ads. We are still the little guys in the advertising universe, but maybe our AD:TECH experience reminded us that we are one step closer to moving away from underdog and a step closer to superhero status.
With that in mind, I’ll send you off in the great Stan Lee, hero creator tradition. We are not going to be the underdogs for long true believers, the sky is blue, profits are up, costs are down and Web ad slinging is on its way up. Excelsior!
iMedia search columnist Kevin Ryan’s current and former client roster reads like a "who’s who" in big brands: Rolex Watch, USA, State Farm Insurance, Farmers Insurance, Minolta Corporation, Samsung Electronics America, Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Panasonic Services and the Hilton Hotels brands, to name a few. In his off-iMedia time, Kevin is director, market development at Wahlstrom Interactive. Ryan believes in sound guidance, creative thought, accountable actions and collaborative execution as applied to search, or any form of marketing. His principled approach and staunch commitment to the industry have made him one of the most sought after personalities in online marketing. Ryan volunteers his time with the Interactive Advertising Bureau, Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization and several regional non-profit organizations.
Business: 69 percent compared apples with apples
Everybody goes to conferences and a must-do is to find out how your efforts compare with others. That's a wonderful thing to do provided there's a level playing field. You may be comparing the 0-60 mph accelerations of a Ford F150 pickup and a Lamborghini. Easy, the Lamborghini wins. But if you compare carrying capacities or even mpg, the pickup wins.
Comparing your efforts to another company's without having all the details is a loser's game unless both businesses are using the same "out of the box" campaigns, and less than 0.5 percent of the businesses monitored were successful with out of the box solutions. These are not good odds. It's not that all the top scorers had custom designed efforts; it is that all of them customized their efforts according to their needs, goals, timelines, and budgets.
While everybody compared their results to their peers, 69 percent of the top performers worked to keep their eyes on the prize, and it paid off handsomely.
Social: 79 percent recognized that the bad was good
Red Skelton said, "I might as well love my enemies. After all, I made 'em." This philosophy held true in more than three-quarters of the most productive social efforts; let your detractors have their say, even if it's on your property.
There's a reason to this madness. People who share negatives on your site are doing it where you can see it and easily address it. The rest of your audience will see you responding and being proactive toward your detractors. This wins lots of points, especially among the undecided. You might even win over some of your detractors.
There have been several studies demonstrating that sites with only glowing comments lead to fewer conversions than sites with a mix of positive and negative comments. As in cooking, if you want something to taste sweet, add a pinch of salt.
How many pro and con comments are enough? The most successful efforts had a ratio of 4.6:1 pro to con. That ratio only considers the number of UGC. It doesn't consider size, author, audience, or any other factors.
Business: 80 percent didn't waste budget on shiny-object technology
One social marketing director told me, "We only added technology that our audience accepted. You can design your property so that it's completely whiz-bang or that it's very 'yesterday.' What matters more is, 'Will your audience accept it and use it?'" This marketing director had managed several bleeding-edge properties and learned that they get a lot of traffic but not necessarily business. People were coming to play, not to purchase.
Your audience is coming to your online properly to meet its goals, not yours. One of your purposes is to design your property so that the audience achieving its goals causes you to achieve your goals. Does your audience expect the latest whiz-bang? Then give it to them. Does your audience not care about the presentation provided that they can do what they want to do? Then make sure they can do what they want to do. Don't give them whiz-bang if whiz-bang stops or even slows them down.
Wise use of technology involves consistent use of technology. Don't fix what's working, just make it work better. This means, let people do what they want to do the way they know how to do it. Changing the rules midgame caused consumers to leave the field more often than not.
Eighty percent of the businesses that used technology wisely were successful. Seventy-seven percent of the businesses with failed social marketing efforts used technology because it was whiz-bang but didn't serve a recognizable marketing purpose.
Business: 80 percent chose tools that met their purpose
I first wrote about social marketing in 2006, back when it was called "WoM" and "Viral." There have been more social measurement tools on the market since then and definitely since this study started (2009) than there have been engagement tools in the past seven years. The one exception is -- you guessed it -- social engagement tools.
The most hilarious one of these (my opinion, this) was sent to me by a friend who asked me to comment. The company behind the tool defined engagement as, "People talking about this as a percentage of 'likes,'" then defined "talking" as a function of "the number of unique users who have generated a story about a page over the past seven days…" But we don't know the number of unique stories or if these generated stories were purchased by the company to promote their product/business/efforts/etc.
I must be the only one who's been approached to buy "likes," and recent research indicates that consumers know when a business is purchasing "likes," followers, and so on, and it's hurting businesses more often than not.
Determine what things are measurable that you can directly attribute to the campaign you designed. Now and only now, go find tools that can reliably, repeatedly measure those things.
Business: 90 percent had pragmatic approaches
All top social performers started with a well-thought out, well-reasoned pragmatic approach. They all had specific goals and knew how much leeway they were willing to give to achieve those goals. This was very important; they knew what their goals were -- they all had definable targets going in -- and how much slippage they'd allow themselves.
This planning gave some companies the ability to quit their campaigns before they were buried by them. You'd be surprised how many businesses decided to go social without doing sufficient research to know if a) it made sense for them, b) how they should do it (not every business should go social the same way), and c) when to pull out.
The best approaches had evidentiary trails that were defendable. An evidentiary trail is like a business plan in reverse. It explains where you've been, why you went there, and what caused you to move on. Evidentiary trails provide forensics, so you'll know what to do and what not to do in your next efforts.
"Defendability" means there were rational decisions, not gut reactions, for each step. Some approaches may fail, and defendable, evidentiary trails let you know how and why they failed, as well as how to avoid failure in the future.
Business: 90 percent thought "likes" were a fake metric
Every successful social effort involved rigorous, accountable metrics. When you consider the success of pragmatic approaches, you understand that successful efforts had to have reliable, undeniable, accountable metrics. You can't figure out when things are going sour without them.
Likewise, reliable daily snapshots allowed social marketing managers to do micro-adjustments. Micro-adjustments are like little, tiny course corrections you perform when you're steering your car down the highway.
These little, tiny adjustments keep you where you need to be at any given moment while you're on your way to your goal (social marketing success). Performing these little, tiny adjustments also helps you make smooth transitions from lane to lane or highway to off-ramp when the time is right. There are no violent adjustments that panic everybody in your car and in the cars around you. You get where you want to go safely and in good time.
Social: 95 percent trusted their communities
This is a sure-fire social marketing must-do that frightens marketers. It's easy to understand that fear if you're a marketer who delivers more hype than serviceable product.
But businesses that respect their social members and listen, respond, and act on worthy suggestions made by their audience are gold.
That gold comes in many ways and the most obvious is known by anthropologists and sociologists as "village elders." A synthesis of influencer and police, village elders are much better at recognizing unwanted voices and personalities and silencing them than any social marketing maven could be. The elders apply the network's power to keep people in line. If a business silenced antagonistic voices, they'd lose their audience in an internet heartbeat.
A recent study also indicated that trusted brand communities perform altruistically with the greatest efforts going to perpetuating the network. Given the current economy, this is understandable. Everything individuals traditionally place their trust in no longer seems trustworthy.
But people must trust to survive so that trust goes to like-minded individuals and where they gather becomes a safe place that must be protected at all costs. Brands providing trusted communities are filling that "safe place" need with a vengeance.
Social: 98 percent involved their audience in Q&A sessions
Management needs to engage the audience proactively periodically. It's great that you're reachable by your audience. How many times have you opened the door and solicited their feedback, their thoughts, and asked them what's working and what's not?
This used to be handled by companies that specialized in community development and product testing. Not so much anymore. Consumers like being valued much more than they like being handled. Your audience is out there and waiting. Make use of them and they'll love you for it.
It used to be that such proactive conversations were done once a year or so and were highly targeted to groups within the greater audience, a technique known as "pulsing." What we learned from pulsing in social networks is that regular, proactive conversations involving active, core groups kept the good vibes going through the entire network for much longer (3:1 factor) than the same conversations involving randomly selected audience members.
Business/social: 99 percent had everybody in the business participate
Companies may hire social teams or even chief social officers, and what keeps consumers coming back is the knowledge that there are real people -- people who mean something to the business, not just people assigned a role in the business' social effort -- on the network at given points in time. These can be "Chat to the CEO" sessions, "Ask R&D," brand sponsored "tweetups," and the like. Ninety-nine percent of the businesses that made their employees, from interns to management, accessible and (dare I say it?) vulnerable scored well in this three year study.
There are a lot of reasons for businesses' social efforts to fail and far fewer reasons for social successes. In the end, a good mix of social savvy and business sense generated the best performing social marketing efforts from 2009-2012.
On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.
"Muhammad Ali" image via Flickr.
25 percent of all marketing is now digital
It was reported by Gartner earlier this year that one out of every four marketing dollars is spent online. As more and more marketing dollars flow to online channels, the pressure mounts for digital advertisers to deliver. However, the same problems we've had for years -- inventory quality, consumer privacy concerns, inefficient and costly media execution -- continue to threaten the next wave of growth.
The good news is that online advertising has definitely proven that it can be a major driver of conversion activity and has secured a strong place within the overall media plan. But how will digital marketers need to evolve the industry in order to garner the next 25 percent of the advertising revenue?
Mobile device usage is now firmly on track to represent half of all website traffic
This shouldn't be shocking to anyone, but the knee-jerk reaction has somewhat been to wait and see. There seems to be some hope that technological innovation and changes in consumer device behavior will begin to slow their pace a bit so marketers can begin planning multi-year, multi-million marketing strategies on stable ground. However, marketers must overcome the inertia and jump in headfirst before their competitors figure out how to leapfrog them on the mobile battleground.
The second age of programmatic buying
It just needed a few years to get some momentum, and it's time for it to blossom and evolve. Now that marketers have had a few years to play with the tools, vet the data and media, and build some expertise, the appetite to take programmatic beyond standard ad units on remnant inventory is growing. There have been major moves to build programmatic pipes to premium inventory as well as figuring out how to scale automation to handle more impactful native ad formats.
With so much interest from buyers, there has been pressure on publishers to evolve their teams and internal processes to allow for more programmatic selling. Programmatic is turning the corner and is on a fast track to automating the buying and selling of any ad impression that could be sold this way.
The imminent death of the cookie
It's true. Apple, Microsoft, and Mozilla now all plan to launch browsers with default do not track settings that reject cookies or, at the very least, send out a signal that users does not want to be tracked. Many of the digital marketing technologies that track, measure, target, and retarget are absolutely tied to third-party cookies, and the loss of the cookie will impact almost every company -- be it brand, agency, publisher, or vendor. Unfortunately, cookies have been abused by a few bad apples over the years, which has sent consumer privacy advocates spinning.
Those abuses, along with the NSA scandals this year, have forced the issue, and more data is being sent behind encrypted walls. To survive, digital marketers need to figure out a new default tracking mechanism. Google announced recently that it is working on a solution to finally allow the anonymous tracking of consumers for advertising purposes, meaning that one company would own the gateway to this information. Either way, it's going to happen very quickly, and 2014 might see this major shift occur.
Speaking of Google, its two curveballs this year have altered the landscape of search engine marketing (SEM). This important channel -- including both paid and organic search -- has historically been the largest line item of digital marketing spend and biggest driver of online sales.
Google announced enhanced campaigns in February and forced all of its paid search advertisers over to this new approach in July. Whereas previously search marketers were able to split campaigns to target PCs, smartphones, and tablets with individualized budgets and bids, under the enhanced campaigns structure, keyword campaigns are automatically opted into PC and tablet targeting with an optional bid adjustment modifier for smart phones. This dramatic shift sends waves through the industry with paid search marketers having brought a surge of attention in 2013 to multi-device marketing.
Google began encrypting organic consumer search terms that led to site visits in 2012. Although this started by only blocking the terms from consumers signed into a Google account performing a search, over the last 18 months, the percentage of total keywords blocked from website analytics platforms began rising significantly late this year. Finally, in September, Google announced that 100 percent of keywords would show up as not provided. This has been a major blow to search engine optimization (SEO) as the core of these practices has been tracking keyword visitation. With almost half of all website visits originating from natural search terms, and Google representing almost 70 percent of that traffic in the U.S. and abroad, SEO practitioners had to utterly change their entire approach overnight.
The ongoing industry measurement discussion put the focus on actionable attribution in 2013. With more dollars coming into this space, there's more scrutiny and accountability than ever before on how we measure the performance of digital marketing. It seems that everyone believes that last-click isn't the right methodology, but the lack of standards around attribution has made it hard for advertisers to make the switch.
Ultimately, what everyone really wants out of multi-touch attribution is the ability to optimize marketing efforts to generate the highest return. For that to happen, attribution must evolve to become more actionable than it is today. Solutions must plug in to marketer buying and optimization platforms to bring automation both within the ad and in the online content owned by brands. We're getting close to realizing that vision, but it's not here yet.
A variety of industry factors came together to launch Facebook advertising into the stratosphere in 2013. In just over a year, Facebook's mobile ad offering rivals every established mobile ad network, and its Facebook Exchange (FBX) programmatic channel is one of the biggest players in the space. In fact, the social advertising category as a whole is beginning to emerge as a viable channel with YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and others launching more and more paid media opportunities.
Up until 2013, social marketing mainly centered on social media's promise to facilitate rich, engaging social conversations with consumers at scale via owned and earned media while paid media was a bit more of an afterthought. The unique targeting available (interests, connections, etc.) and the native ad formats that leverage the power of these platforms (Facebook promoted posts, sponsored tweets, etc.) will help marketers find new avenues to reach consumers at scale. Starting in 2014, marketers will be able to build complex, layered social advertising plans to take advantage of the evolving platforms offered by major social players.
Television and online video data
We've been watching television and online video data for years, and it's time for the marriage. The industry has never been closer than now for this vision to become a reality. There's just too much cost in developing fully separate high-quality sight, sound, and motion assets and too much value in crafting cross-device, sequential video campaigns for them not to be managed, planned, and executed together. It's all about reach and frequency with television, and online video fits very neatly into that model. This convergence of offline and online should end up moving more dollars to online video from the proportionally large television budgets.
It's possible that the convergence of offline and online video could help to bridge the gap between offline and online advertising. The impact on digital marketers would mean more fluidity between these budgets where online is at a record high of 25 percent, but that means there's still 75 percent of the dollars still on the table. The merging of television and online video is something every digital marketer should be rooting for.
Real-time becomes more real-timey
Many marketers haven't even considered a world where all channels have real-time components because it just seems that the industry is too far away from that concept. However, more opportunities are coming online for real-time marketing to exist.
All of programmatic isn't RTB (real-time bidding) enabled, but a lot of it is. For brands to be able to react in near real-time -- with consumers who are in-market and researching/browsing online -- is one of the most powerful differentiators to traditional, offline advertising. Take for example travel shoppers who might be in-market for just one or two days as they look for deals before finally booking their trip. Once these consumers send out the first in-market signals, the brands that have the marketing infrastructure to react quickly will have the best opportunity to make the sale.
Look to 2014 for technology providers and publishers to offer more solutions to get the industry closer to real-time marketing.
Location and proximity marketing will finally gain prominence
The rise of social and mobile as significant consumer trends opens up a whole new world for location and proximity marketing. Brands must collect and decrypt the signals about where a consumer is online and how far they are from a physical location in order to serve up the best mobile ad (and site) experience.
Although the tools to engage with this type of cutting edge marketing are still being evolved, 2014 will be a turning point for brands to mass adopt these tactics in order to fully take advantage of the mobile revolution. There are companies out there -- with major brick-and-mortar business models -- that have been desperately waiting for these innovations in order to reach consumers at scale so business can flourish.
Step 5: Are people finding and using the content?
This is where web analytics comes into play. What types of content -- and what pages in particular -- are the most and least popular on the site in question? Where do users spend time, and where do they go when they leave? Are they taking desired actions on a page, whether clicking to buy or to download a white paper or filling out a contact form? What search keywords and phrases bring them to the site? It's not enough that content is simply there. The numbers don't lie. They can reveal what's working, what's not, and help direct a strategy that supports more of the types of content users use and seek.
Step 6: Is it clean and professional?
Is page copy consistent in tone? Are spellings, punctuation, and grammar consistent and above all, correct? Are abbreviations and acronyms standard? If the site has a style guide, is it being followed? Are images captioned in a consistent manner, and properly placed/oriented on the page? Do hyperlinks follow any pre-designated rules (e.g., open a new page in a separate browser window)?
Step 7: Is content logically organized?
Does the site contain tacked-on pages that don't follow navigational structure? Does the overall navigation make sense? Are there redundancies, such as on the site below that lists "Personal Finance" as a separate section in the navigation, then again lists that section in a submenu under the heading "Money & Careers"?
Finally, when users visit a section, do they find what they expect to?
Greencince, a Netflix competitor, offers particularly good examples of badly organized content. Take the taxonomy and navigation of the following content sections, for example. Pity the user looking for new DVDs to rent who stumbles on newsletter archives, or the seeker of a back issue of the newsletter who lands on contests and giveaways. Both the naming of links and pages, as well as the navigational structure, are woefully misleading and off-kilter:
- New and Coming Releases > New on DVD > Newsletter archive page
- Dispatch Newsletter Archives > Greencine PR, Marketing, Events > Page lists contents and giveaways. (Far below the fold, it links to the same newsletters archived on the "New on DVD" page.)
- New to GreenCine > New to GreenCine > Actual listings of new/soon-to-be-released DVDs.
Step 8: Tone of voice
Every brand or business has a distinct voice that expresses its personality. Serious, irreverent, scholarly, authoritative; all are valid, but the tone, language, and mode of expression must be a fit, and must be consistent with the brand. This step evaluates the content's tendency to spill into multiple personality disorder.
Step 9: Keywords, metadata, and SEO
Are target keywords and phrases used on the site, and on appropriate pages in the most advantageous places? Are page descriptions and metadata used appropriately? Are images and multimedia files captioned? Is metadata employed to make them search-engine friendly? Are headlines optimized for search? Search engine optimization begins and ends with content, so evaluating to what extent content conforms to best practices in search is an essential part of an audit.
Step 10: Identify gaps
Conducting a content audit focuses so much attention on what's there that it's often too easy to overlook what's not there. An essential step in any audit is therefore to identify weaknesses, gaps, and content needs. A site may be rich in information on how to order, for example. But are issues surrounding shipping and order fulfillment adequately addressed? Is the press/media section strong on press releases, but weak on photos and video offerings? Does the company blog address company issues heavily, but general industry trends not at all? What's missing speaks volumes about the forward direction of a content strategy.
Step 11: Identify needed changes/actions
This is where the rubber hits the road. It's not enough to produce a giant spreadsheet. The goal is to define gaps and problems, as well as to identify strengths and develop specific recommendations for improvement.
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Hummingbird -- Sept. 2013: SEOs often talk about the concept of short-tail search queries and long-tail search queries. The idea is to separate search users into different groups to help better understand search intent and to identify, very broadly, where a particular user is in the purchase funnel. Typically, someone using three or fewer terms in a search query is near the top of the purchase funnel. With four or more terms, you probably have someone searching for something specific and closer to making a purchase. This is important because it helps shape SEO strategy and the content and information architecture for an e-commerce website. It's flawed because there is a lot of grey area. This line of separation is really an illusion and theoretically a single web page of content or a well produced product page for that matter could provide the best result for a related set of search queries, regardless of term length.
It's all about understanding search intent. It's a contextual problem and Google has this challenge as well. Hummingbird was very much a search engine infrastructure upgrade. It is not an algorithm update. This is Google's attempt to upgrade its search results for this aforementioned long-tail user and to address this contextual challenge. Google reports long-tail and extreme long-tail as the largest proportion of search queries, by far. It's trying to better understand the context of these searches and match web content and not just keywords in copy to provide better, more relevant and accurate search results. This could mean several things:
- Certain content may now be able to appear for a greater variety of search results, no matter the length of the search queries.
- Less effective, low quality content will get fewer organic impressions.
- Content which is created for the sole purpose of ranking for a particular search query may also realize fewer organic impressions because it lacks a certain amount of depth and context.
Penguin 2.1 -- Oct. 4, 2013: Matt Cutts, head of Google's webspam team, reported this as a minor tweak, but none-the-less relevant. Some reports have suggested certain websites penalized back in May from Penguin 2.0 saw a recovery. Others have reported increased ranking losses. As with all Penguin-related ranking changes, this one was targeting link spam and other manipulative linking practices.
What I said before bears repeating: Google has become increasingly sophisticated in its detection and filtering technology, so as long as SEO is important to your business, don't play with these matches (i.e. manipulative link schemes).
The relationship between all of the above
If you take a step back and look at the picture Google is painting here, one thing is clear: The value of an SEO strategy set on tactics involving direct manipulation of search results is becoming less effective. At the rate Google is churning out updates, a year from now these practices may be completely ineffective and obsolete. This is exactly what Google wants. They want inbound marketers and business owners to shift their primary focus away from Google and manipulative link and content schemes and concentrate this energy on each business' target market and to create the best products, services, and content possible. These websites will eventually rise to the top of Google organic search results while poorer quality websites and brands will become less competitive. The primary reason is because people naturally will link to and share socially useful content and products they truly love. The average web user is not going to link to, buy from, and/or promote a brand they don't trust or don't use.
This shows Google's commitment to the semantic web and their desire to truly understand content and conversations in the same way people understand one another, communicate with one another, and share things online naturally. We've seen this for years now with such developments like Knowledge Graph, support for Schema.org, and even the development of G+ as a legitimate social platform.
Stay tuned, as we will be discussing how to create a long-term SEO strategy for e-commerce business success.