They get better rankings with fewer links. They get “penalized” for improper conduct, only to resurface a few weeks later.
Small brands, on the other hand?
Never get the benefit of the doubt. Need to earn twice as many links. And never resurface. Ever.
And this is only accelerating. It’s only getting more pronounced.
So much so, that there’s virtually nothing else you should focus on in 2018, besides building a brand. Big brands will get showcased in the SERPs. And small companies will be left in the dust.
SERPs Are Changing Dramatically
Google is known for tinkering. Thousands of times a year.
But it isn’t just the algorithm updates we should pay attention to. The cause and effect of layout adjustments also changes user behavior.
For example, featured snippets have been on the rise.
Moz found that they’ve risen from 5.5 percent to 16 percent in just two years. But they recently saw a 10 percent decrease in featured snippets in a matter of four days.
So, what happened?
The knowledge panels got a serious boost in visibility, for starters. Search terms like “Graphic Design,” that once had featured snippets, now have gone full knowledge panel:
And all those related searches above have it now, too. Even a generic search for “travel” will net you this:
Moz also found a 30 percent increase in knowledge panels for SERPs without a featured snippet in the first place.
So what’s happening?
Google is trying to answer the query. With content from other people. Without requiring them to click to view the source.
Where searches for “travel” would once net travel-based blog posts or definitions on branded sites, Google now pulls data directly into the SERPs.
And most of that content is coming from huge brands and definition-based sources like Wikipedia.
That means the pool of helpful content is narrowed down to a few big players.
People don’t have to click on an organic listing to get information anymore. And currently, only one brand is being featured in a given knowledge panel.
Spoiler alert: It probably isn’t you.
Less and less people are clicking on actual search engine listings now. We’re currently at a 60/40 split.
Only 60 percent of searches on Google results in a click. That’s 40 percent generating zero clicks. And smarter people than me expect that to hit 50 percent soon.
And for smaller fish trying to swim past the reef, that’s bad news.
Google’s implementation of the Knowledge Graph is solving user problems without the need to click. And the majority of brands ranking in the knowledge panels are the big ones.
That means less traffic, fewer clicks, and more importantly: less organically-driven sales.
Brand Recognition Is Critical to Getting Clicks
Do me a favor real quick:
Perform a basic test right now on Google. Perform an obscure, long-tail search for an industry keyword and analyze the SERPs.
What do you see? What sticks out instantly?
HubSpot. Search Engine Journal. Marketo.
bestmarketingblogger.com? Not so much.
Even if bestmarketingblogger.com is ranking #1, you’re probably going to skip right over it to a familiar site.
Just like you’d choose Coca-Cola over your local grocery store’s generic version.
Brand recognition is a powerful thing. Powerful enough for you to skip on Google’s top ranking post. Powerful enough to drive a more expensive sale.
We can’t help it. We’re creatures of habit.
We do what feels comfortable. What we know and what we can trust.
For example, a Nielsen study found that global consumers are far more likely to buy new products from brands that are familiar.
Sixty percent of consumers would rather buy new products from a familiar brand that they recall, rather than switching to a new one.
Take this “basketball shoes” sponsored search result for an example:
Which shoe would you buy? Probably Nike.
They’re a familiar brand that’s known for producing high-quality basketball shoes. Plus they’ve got Lebron and Kobe and Jordan.
Champion on the other hand? C’mon, son.
The Champion shoe could be cheaper. And you’re still more likely to click on Nike, first.
Trust is one of the most important factors in making a purchase decision. And it’s no different when it comes to organic search results.
You’re going to click on what you know and trust. And that all comes down to branding.
For example, with this SERP below, nearly every article is the same.
“XX SEO tips for small businesses.” The content is virtually the same. Meaning clicks are going to come down to one thing:
Does Forbes instantly stand out in your mind as a popular source of information? They get the click. Even though it has nothing to do with their content quality (another spoiler: It’s not good).
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Research from Search Engine Land and Survey Monkey again proves this underlying trend. They surveyed over 400 consumers on one specific question:
What is most important in helping you decide which results to click on in a search engine search?
According to their data, nearly 70 percent of U.S. consumers said they look for a “known retailer” when deciding what search results to click on.
The stronger the brand recognition, the higher the odds of generating clicks. Which means the higher the odds of getting the sale.
SERP CTR Is Beginning to Outperform Rankings
Ranking number one doesn’t mean what it used to anymore.
The stats I referenced above prove that’s not the case anymore.
If nobody knows who you are, you aren’t generating 30+ percent of the organic clicks. The content might be amazing. But you’re a nobody. So nobody’s giving you a chance.
SERP CTR is becoming more important than traditional rankings, too.
And in fact, SERP CTR likely has an impact on rankings.
While links and content are the top two direct ranking factors, SERP CTR is creeping up as an indirect factor.
Check out this tweet from Rand Fishkin of Moz:
That’s evidence of Google analyzing search queries and clicks to see what content users preferred.
No click on the first position? That’s a signal to Google that it’s not performing like a top piece of content.
More clicks might, in fact, result in a rankings boost.
And WordStream’s own data just backed this up, finding that the more your pages beat the expected organic CTR for a query, the more likely they are to appear higher in organic listings.
But when you don’t have the luxury of brand awareness, people don’t see your content until they click. So they really don’t know how amazing it is.
And sadly, they probably never will:
The vast majority are clicking because of brand recognition, not content strength.
It’s the same with digital advertising and purchase behavior too. Brand aware users are 2x more likely to purchase from you.
If HubSpot is two spots below you, you can bet that the lion’s share of “your” traffic is being stolen.
Those fancy headline hacks and meta description tweaks can improve your CTR, sure.
Going against the grain and producing clickbait-esque headlines might get you a 1-2 percent increase:
But not enough to have a big impact.
Not enough to take your traffic and double it.
Small changes won’t net massive results.
If they did, we’d all be dominating the competition, and I wouldn’t be writing this post.
Simply A/B testing or changing a button color won’t do it either.
Large-scale changes are needed to produce better SEO results.
Branding is the only way to do it, and it’s the most viable SEO strategy on the market today.
Focusing on branding will help drive higher click-through rates in organic SERPs, which correlates with higher conversion rates.
A fantastic, cheap way to put this into practice is using cheap social ads to drive brand awareness.
Facebook has the cheapest CPM out of any advertising platform ever created.
You can get away with spending $1 per day, reaching up to 4,000 new users with brand awareness ads.
That’s roughly 120,000 new faces coming across your brand monthly for just $30.
There’s no cheaper way to build brand awareness than with social ads.
Use them to drive traffic to your latest content and build a brand reputation in the process.
Branding is an investment in your company’s future. Sure, the effects won’t be instant.
But when your organic traffic is declining, and brands are starting to overpower you, you’ll wish you’d invested in it sooner.
Google has given brands preferential treatment for years now.
And that preferential treatment only increases with each minor and major update.
It’s a vicious trap where the rich keep cruising, and the poor keep drowning.
Branding is our only hope for conducting better SEO in 2018.
The vast majority of consumers cite brand recognition as driving clicks and sales.
And that means those typical organic CTR graphs are a heaping pile of BS.
Brand recall drives more clicks and sales than positioning.
As Google SERPs shift more toward favoring big brands, it’s time for smaller brands to invest more of their SEO budget and strategy into building a memorable brand.
If you really want to improve your Google AdWords’ results, perform these three maintenance tasks and watch your CTR skyrocket.
There are three crucial Google AdWords checks you should do regularly that ensure your pay-per-click (PPC) campaigns remain healthy.
1. Ongoing management: checks.
This part of managing accounts is relatively easy to carry out and is essential if the rest of your AdWords work is to be effective. There are three things you want to measure in this step:
The first step to any success in any business system is deciding what measurement is going to tell you that your business is, in fact, running like it should. Setting up conversion tracking is simple, but it’s also easy for things to break down. If you’re using code on key pages to measure conversions, check regularly to be sure the code is still present and installed correctly.
Also, check the conversion process itself to ensure no glitches have cropped up. Working tracking code on your “thank-you” page is pointless if the lead-capture form is broken. Make sure these pieces of your funnel are installed and functioning.
The settings inside your AdWords account aren’t likely to change without your noticing. But, don’t take this for granted, especially if you’re not the only person administrating your campaign. Keep a written record of your settings and occasionally check them to be sure nothing’s been moved, adjusted, paused or unintentionally reset.
Start by looking for obvious glitches such as broken formatting or dead links. Then take a high-level view and ask whether you’re matching the right landing page to the right ad copy. Does what you promise in the ad get delivered in the landing page? Is the connection between the two obvious to the visitor? Is there a better landing page you could be using?
2. Ongoing management: optimizing.
“Outliers” is a term made popular by Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers: The Story of Success. It refers to fringe elements that, in some way, behave differently than everything else. The “outliers” in AdWords are the campaigns, ad groups, keywords, ads or placements that perform significantly better — or significantly worse — than everything else.
You could spend your time optimizing every last element of your PPC campaigns, but that’s not smart. Go for your outliers first. The goal is simple: Increase the good outliers, and decrease or fix the bad ones. If you have a particularly high-performing keyword, for instance, you might want to raise the bid and get more impressions, clicks and conversions. If you have a poorly performing keyword, try lowering the bid or even removing it from the campaign altogether.
Before you reach for the “nuke” button, however, ask whether you can improve the bad keyword by writing a better ad or building a better landing page for it. Sometimes your worst player can turn into your star player.
3. Ongoing management: expansion.
Once your AdWords account is well-optimized, think expansion: more impressions, more clicks and more conversions. With PPC, you can never have too much of a good thing.
There are a number of different ways you can expand an account.
- Start with new keywords. The search query report is a goldmine for this information. (To access this, look under the Dimensions tab, and in the “View” drop-down box, select “Search Terms.”) This shows you the actual search terms people typed in that Google chose to show your ad for. Look for common phrases that aren’t yet in any of your ad groups. Add them in.
- Look in the Opportunities tab for Google’s list of additional keyword suggestions. This section is useful for finding new ideas, but beware: Don’t be too quickly sucked into Google’s insistence that the best thing you can do is increase your maximum bids. There’s a time and place to raise bids. Don’t do it in kneejerk response to Google’s pestering.
- Pay regular visits to Google’s Keyword Planner. We also recommend third-party applications like SpyFu, SEMrush and WordStream. Go digging there on a regular basis to find new keyword ideas.
- Try aiming for the top positions. When your ad moves to the top of the page above the organic results, the positive difference in click-through rate (CTR) is massive. Use your “Top vs. Other” report to see this spelled out in hard numbers.
Display campaigns with vibrant ads that show everywhere
- Never assume that the performance of your display campaign ads has hit its ceiling. Keep testing new ads, especially image ads and try to beat your best CTR. You can often get a quick win just by testing a vibrant new image or a new headline.
- If you’re using a managed placement campaign, look around for new sites where you can feature ads. If you’re using contextual targeting, look for new keywords or topics you can introduce that will expand the range of sites where your ads can show.
- Experiment with different targeting methods. If you’re only using managed placements, give contextual targeting a try and vice versa. And if you’re not using remarketing, this should be at the top of your idea list.
You may be the best in your business or practice but, without search engine optimization, you’re either average or a nobody in your field.
As digital marketing consultant Alex Chris writes, “Search engine optimization or SEO is a set of rules for website (or blog) owners to follow for the proper optimization of their websites to improve their search engine rankings.” He also added that “millions of users per day are using the internet to look for answers to their questions and solutions to their problems.”
With a proper SEO guide, any website and business can grow into one of the most trusted brands on the internet.
Unfortunately, there are some issues with SEO that you should know about before you hire an expert. In Bob Sakayama’s article “When SEO Failure Results in Google Penalties or Rank Suppression,” he pointed out that the professionals are the ones who often trigger most of the severe Google penalties. In short, these “experts” who were hired to prevent such problems from happening in the first place are the ones who really trigger the penalties. If that is the case, why should we even consider the idea of hiring an SEO expert? In my years of experience in the search engine optimization industry, there are many factors that can trigger penalties due to the constant changes in rules. Whether you’re an optimizer or a website owner, you should know the factors that can cause serious problems in the long run.
We can live with owner-triggered rank issues because they won’t affect your established traffic, rankings and profit the way penalties would. On the other hand, Google penalties can ruin your business. There are many different types of penalties; you could get a penalty for unnatural (spam) links to your site or an over optimization anchor text penalty from using a piece of software to build links. You could also be penalized for using the same exact content from another website or using a keyword too many times on a page, which is known as “keyword stuffing.”
Penalties are also due to the constant changes in the rules. With the rapid changes, most SEO agencies can’t keep up with the latest improvements. Most optimizers are passive which is bad because you can’t make proper adjustments in time. Here are some tips for beginners and old professionals on what to look out for to avoid a penalty from Google.
Unnatural Links To And From Your Website
If we take a look at the link schemes section of Google’s Quality Guidelines, we’ll find out that any links made by an SEO with the intention to manipulate a website’s ranking are clear violations of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. In short, unnatural links to your site can get your website in trouble.
Google also warns about unnatural links from your site. Google is now capable of determining natural links from unnatural links. It focuses on links that act as editorial votes for a site. If you somehow manipulate links from your site, there’s a high chance you’ll receive a penalty. My firm recently helped water filtration company AquaOx (which I am a partner in) recover from a major Google penalty. The previous SEO company used a link-building software to create unnatural links from the website. Unfortunately, the company got caught and the site was pushed far down in the search engines to page 10. We had to go through a list of links, tag the ones that were really bad and disavow those links in Google Webmaster tools. Our next move was to build high-quality links from the site. Once Google noticed our cleanup operation, the search engine made some adjustments in the search rankings. Although penalty recovery is not a quick process by any means, the accomplishment is rewarding.
Publishing Keyword-Heavy Content
Spamming keywords into compelling content is an old trick that used to work for many SEO agencies. Unfortunately, Google made the competition tougher with its frequent changes. My personal belief is that the search engine prefers a website with about 2% of the content being keywords. If it is annoying for users to read unnatural keywords in a website’s content, the same thing is true with the search engine. Website owners or SEO companies should keep track of their keyword count by using keyword counting tools. In my practice and belief, high-quality content does not need many keywords to rank higher in Google. Avoid many of the top 10 Google penalties by investing in other tactics like proper keyword research and keyword placement instead of spamming with keywords.
Spammy Structured Data Markup
Although schema markup (structured data markup) can boost your search engine content discovery and make other improvements, this strategy can get you slammed by Google. A spammy structured data markup can potentially hurt your site as you will receive penalties from the search engine. The best way to avoid structured data markup penalties is by following the rules set by Google. You can either adhere to the guidelines of the search engine or use a structured data testing tool. Either one is better than getting into serious trouble.
Deliberately Cloaking Web Pages For SEO Or CTR Purposes
Cloaking web pages for your personal interest is a big crime against Google. Cloaking is where one version of the site is shown to search engine spiders and a different version is shown to the user viewing the site. Once caught, your site will face serious challenges and issues. The search engine discourages any form of manipulation to level up the game and keep the credibility of websites on the search result.
Being penalized isn’t the end of the world for website owners, though. There are ways to get your website back on track. As a professional SEO, my first recommendation would be to look for the right people for the job.