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SEO Gone Wild

Michael M. Murray
SEO Gone Wild Michael M. Murray

If you're an online marketer with an interest in search engine optimization, you need to heed this warning: slow down.

Too often, online marketers are so busy figuring out the perfect keyword or phrase that they lose sight of the overall strategy.

If you want to achieve high rankings, keep those positions and send traffic to your website (hopefully it's full of conversion opportunities), stick to the basics and pace yourself. In other words, take little steps with reasoned decisions. Don't resort to "SEO Gone Wild."

Keep in mind that the most critical elements to a website's ranking are the page title, content, links within content, META description and the site's popularity.

Keep it simple

Years ago, the problem was that people would try to play games with the search engines (some still do). For example, they'd match their font to the color of the webpage background. Or they'd throw 500 keywords in the META keyword tag.

Unfortunately, some marketers keep discovering new ways to "get an edge" that never delivers. Mostly, they keep trying the wrong tactics while smothering a good notion. Here are five approaches that just don't work well:

  1. Keyword overload: It's tough enough to place content the right way. So why make it more difficult by juggling more keywords than you can handle? Pick your priorities based on new products, margins and other market considerations.

  2. META bonanza: Some online professionals can't resist the lure of META tags -- especially obscure ones that don't affect rankings. Don't be fooled by anything other than the META descriptions. Search engines pay no or little attention to the META keyword set. If you can't resist (and I can't either at times), stick to a few keywords and make sure they're in the content.

  3. Programmers who need a leash: Some programmers think they're doing you a favor when they get creative with content. Make sure they listen to your true aims and needs. For example, check out their cascading style sheets (CSS) -- have they hidden any keywords in the layout settings?

  4. Clogged titles: Aim for a single search term in page titles or a few at most. If you clog the title space, the characters within each word may dilute the effectiveness of the primary keywords. You may rank for one or two terms; it's tough to rank for six in a row.

  5. All the wrong spaces: Websites are full of places you can place keywords -- all legitimate. OK, having keywords in a domain, folder name or page name can affect rankings. But do you have any idea how silly the URL begins to look when you add up all of those keywords and hyphens? Again, overload doesn't always achieve the desired rankings. In addition, some marketers seem fond of link attributes and image alt tags. Why does anyone fuss with these areas? Image alt tags may disrupt your page density goals. Besides, their influence on rankings is tiny.

Stay focused

We've seen desperate website owners go to other great lengths to boost rankings. In the end, they don't gain search engine visibility. One website had more than 2,000 keywords in a no frames tag. Traditionally, the tag was used to tell website visitors that their browser didn't support frames. Some experts began using the area to summarize a website or refer to a few internal links. From here, it just gets more and more bizarre.

Again, focus on basics like page titles and content. If you have decent link popularity, any strategy in these areas may pay off. Land a top 10 position on Google and then play with your alt tags -- one phrase and one tag at a time. Maneuvering links within a page can also make a difference.

As you run ranking reports and check cache dates, keep track of the copy and coding on the pages you've touched. Make note of your ranking and try something else. Incremental changes are best. Maybe your next move will be switching the order of your phrases in the page title or editing your page header text.

Search engine optimization is a tough craft. Occasionally, websites do okay even when designed without much SEO knowledge. A critical keyword in a few choice places can really go a long way. Usually, however, it takes a great deal of observation and intuition to understand how all of the elements (keywords, content, programming, links, et cetera) can work together.

Additional resources

For a comprehensive look at SEO ethics and other traps, register here for a complementary copy of "Taming the SEO Beast: Tips, Traps and Trends." Or, request "Reality Check: A Straightforward Guide to Keywords and Search Engine Optimization (SEO)."

Michael Murray is vice president of Fathom SEO, a Cleveland, Ohio-based search engine marketing firm. Clients include Eaton Corp., FedEx Custom Critical, Bissell, Little Tikes and Sauder. A member of SEMPO and SEO Consultants, he directed SEO health care and manufacturing studies and authored a white paper, "Search Engine Marketing: Get in the Game." Recently, Murray spoke at the national Search Engine Strategies Conference in Chicago; his presentation focused on "SEO Overkill."

Well, that's a good question. And the answer is everyone's favorite: it depends.

One of the problems with targeting based on narrow data fed through assumptions about action is that your results are only as good as the initial assumptions. And the problem with knowing how good those assumptions are is that you can never really know how good they are. You can only assume they are or are not based on actions that may only appear to have anything to do with the assumptions made in the first place. The truth of the matter is that our results satisfy two, possibly more, logical fallacies: "appeal to belief" (the notion that because enough people believe something to be so, it is so) and "questionable cause" (to conclude that one thing causes another simply because the two are associated on a regular basis).

Another problem is transparency. A senior media executive at an agency best known for its powerful branding for major companies says, "My main concern with [behavioral targeting] is the lack of auditing. There needs to be a third-party auditing system that rates efficacy of claimed behavioral targets so that if I have three nets on my media, each one can have a score as to how well they delivered on those behaviors."

The point is: how do I know a certain profile is a certain profile?

And finally, there is the possibility of overtargeting versus under targeting.

The specificity of the "levers one can throw," as Eric Porres of Underscore puts it, or the lack thereof, can create problems.

"The problem is the age-old 'embarrassment of niches' problem," he says. "Get too granular and you give up reach. Get too broad and you give up specificity."

There is no doubt that BT as a tactic is going to be a major part of our online media planning and buying future. As the media executive from the brand-focused agency says, "Behavioral targeting will probably be very important to our media plans, and the major stake holders in internet advertising certainly think [it is here to stay]," as is evidenced by this year's consolidations.

But will it ever remove the "X" from the "X-factor" of advertising? Probably not.

While it's typical to rely on numeric measures to articulate success or failure of an advertising campaign and the tactics deployed for it, sometimes those aren't always meaningful when determining behaviorally targeted media success or failure.

Behaviorally targeted media is itself a result of decision engines that must rely on an imperfect array of assumptions about what a machine-readable action, a single datum, signifies about the agent of action. That is, does a click by a guy on an automotive ad that is shown to him on a travel site -- shown to him because in the past seven days that guy visited five different pages relating to travel or that had travel-like content on them -- mean anything at all? Maybe it's just a click?

"As an industry, we are way too focused on clickthrough rates, and that type of thinking does not necessarily apply to behavioral targeting," notes Regina Sebring, vice president, channel management for Revenue Science.

Though at the same time, it is possible that when a person clicks on a behaviorally targeted ad, the advertiser can deduce that the clicker is already interested in whatever is being advertised. Behavioral targeting ostensibly eliminates the random clickers who might end up aggregated into a standard CTR. But a simple numeric focus doesn't allow for the kind of read of data one needs to commit in order to properly assess if a behavioral targeting tactic works or not. The approach ignores the same method of correlative interpretations that went into constructing a behavioral profile in the first place.

Sebring continues, "Just looking at CTRs is the wrong metric. When advertisers use behavioral targeting, they need to evaluate the campaign results from a holistic standpoint and not just their average CTR."

So, then, what else should you look at when determining the efficacy of behavioral targeting tactics?

When BT works, it works very well.

Eric Porres, COO of online media strategy agency Underscore Marketing, said that for client Bombardier Flexjet, a very high-end service providing private business air travel, BT was very successful, using both Tacoda and aQuantive's DrivePM (aQuantive's purchase by Microsoft this year for some $6 billion is another testament to the marketplace's belief that technologically driven advertising is where things are headed).

"When you're selling a multi-million [dollar] product, you need to weed out the aspirational traffic from the 'real' traffic, and BT profiling -- if properly executed -- can add that prequalification layer," says Porres. Doing something like that requires customizing a behavioral profile build, one of the advantages of behavioral targeting's technological foundation.

A leading Northwest, high-end auto franchise that wanted to drive traffic to its site to increase online sales leads looked to Revenue Science, another provider of behaviorally targeted services and media. To help achieve its objectives, Revenue Science created a customized targeting solution that included geo-targeting, site re-targeting and something they call "Auto Behaviorally Targeted Segments."
With the targeting scheme implemented by Revenue Science, according to the company, the franchise found a 60 percent increase in unique users who visited its website, a 54 percent increase in site visits overall and a 73 percent increase in page views. Looking at other metrics, none of which were articulated, the franchise was able to attribute a 29 percent increase in email leads. Its biggest life was found in its offline metric. The company realized a 98 percent increase in web-driven phone calls based on behaviorally targeted campaign.

The challenge, however, is defining "success" of behavioral targeting in a way that is appropriate to the tactic.

Her transparency builds familiarity and trust

Swift is a master of social media, from famously lecturing her record company about MySpace when she was 15 years old, to dominating Tumblr this year with her open and honest relationship with her fans. But it's not just that she's dedicated to these channels. It's her tone. She feels so real, so authentic to her fans. Namely, she doesn't act like the biggest pop star in the world. She acts like your best friend, someone who gets you, someone real who you can talk to. Marketers need to learn from this tone. On social media your brand needs to feel friendly and approachable. Brand equity is built through familiarity and trust -- any MBA knows this is a tenet of brand growth. However, no brand has more consistently executed this than Swift.

She uses every channel -- differently

Swift's social media dominance is truly incredible. She has more than 47 million fans on Twitter alone. And she's everywhere -- Facebook, YouTube, Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram, Vine, Line -- she has every channel covered. But what Swift understands is that these are unique tools. Swift doesn't broadcast the same post through all social media channels; She uses each one differently. On Twitter she's running a #taylurking campaign where she is searching out fans tweets about her, and then featuring them and responding to them directly. But on Tumblr, she is asking fans for help in setting up and designing her blog and posting longer, in-depth musings.

Across every social channel she uses, she is astutely aware of how those channels should be used and how fans on those channels interact with each other. Her social media marketing is distinct, relevant, and just plain right in every place. Brands need to start recognizing that their one-size-fits-all social media approach is out of touch in this hyper-personalized, increasingly fractured, digital world.

She says "no" when her brand is devalued

It's been difficult to escape recent news of Swift's decision to remove her music from Spotify. As one of the largest music streaming offerings (and streaming being one of the only music channels to show signs of growth), her decision has sent shockwaves through the industry. But as Swift explained in her op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal about the future of music (well ahead of her Spotify move), she says, "Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for."

Despite Swift's dominance in almost every conceivable social media and music channel, she determined that some channels simply do not add value to her brand. In fact, she has implicitly discovered where her brand is being devalued and has managed it accordingly, like any good brand manager does. In the content-is-advertising era, this is a valuable lesson for digital marketers. We are creating short films, original music, webisode series, mobile games, and countless other forms of online entertainment surrounding our brands. But we're giving it all away almost exclusively for free. We're not placing any value on the art that surrounds our brands, and that is a mistake.

Great content, like our core products, is valuable, and we should consider how to amplify that value in our digital marketing.

Her product is inspirational and unexpected

Swift has come a long way since "Teardrops On My Guitar" from her 2006 debut album. But she has consistently inspired her fans in unexpected ways. With "1989" she made many decisions, most of which were against the advice of her record label. She started with a record cover that masked half her face -- only showing her mouth and chin, understanding explicitly the mystery that it brought to the new record. With "Shake It Off," the lead single from "1989," Swift played on the conventions of music videos, playing the awkward "dork" in the midst of the trendy dance styles, and then brought in a group of fans to dance at the end of the video.

In the video for "Blank Space," Swift surprised fans again, this time playing a revengeful, crazy jilted-lover, a distinct polarization of the Swift known to hash out her relationship troubles in brooding song lyrics, not crazy-girlfriend antics. And at the end of the video, she promotes an app companion, a "cinematic interactive musical experience" that allows fans to virtually explore the mansion and find secret objects. Marketers can learn from Swift's self-awareness, and to play with the conventions of their brand. We could learn how to integrate consumers into our brands in more inspirational and unexpected ways.

She makes smart partnerships

With "1989," Swift was positioned to make almost any brand partnership that could propel her record sales to the next level, including global emerging markets where she has room to grow. But Swift showed constraint with her partnerships. There was no U2 blunder with Apple iTunes, or a single sponsorship that overshadowed her product. But Swift made two key moves that helped build her brand and grow her audience. In one, she partnered with American Express to bring the American Express Unstaged Swift Blank Space Experience, giving fans everywhere a never-before-seen, 360-degree immersive music video experience. This unique digital content offering allowed Swift to bring a first, in digital, to the American Express Unstaged program.

Her partnership with NYC & Company, New York City's official marketing and tourism organization, saw her take the role of Global Welcome Ambassador for the city, aligning her lead track off "1989," "Welcome to New York," with New York City's official campaign for the city. Swift's partnership connected her new album, officially, to arguably one of the most well-publicized cities in the world. New York City will be working with Swift to focus on digital channels in social media and video content for online.

Smart, strategic partnerships that perfectly align brand values are the goal of any digital partnership. Swift takes it to another level, and gets digital amplification that connects with her audience in new ways.

She's a master at maintaining magic and mystery in her brand

One thing Swift understands, and consistently delivers on, is maintaining the magic and the mystery in her brand. She knows that audiences today are motivated by the "surprise" in the relationship, as she puts it. Swift says: "In the YouTube generation we live in, I walked out onstage every night of my stadium tour last year knowing almost every fan had already seen the show online. My generation was raised being able to flip channels if we got bored, and we read the last page of the book when we got impatient. We want to be caught off guard, delighted, left in awe."

But she also doesn't show too much. She still keeps an air of mystery about her and maintains aspects of her strategy, career, and personal life behind locked doors, achieving a balance for her brand.

How are you bringing surprises into your brand relationship with your fans? What do you need to do to make your digital marketing fresh, new and interesting to your audience today -- a tonal shift on social, a new surprising piece of video content, an unexpected fan contest? Make it magical and inspire your audience -- and break records like Swift!

Jeff Roach is the Chief Strategy Officer & Group ECD of digital youth engagement agency, Fuel.

On Twitter? Follow Fuel at @FuelIndustries and iMedia at @iMediaTweet.


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