Would you like more traffic to your website?
Of course you do. I have yet to meet a business owner who doesn’t.
And yet, most small business owners aren’t doing any search engine optimization for their websites. Only 28% of them – about one out of every four – do any search engine optimizationat all.
If you’re in this group of owners who aren’t doing any SEO, maybe it’s because you’re worried it will be too technical. Or you don’t trust the advice you’ve gotten before.
Or maybe you’re leery about changing your website just to please a search algorithm bot. Good SEO involves making some changes for the bots, but your site visitors should figure into this, too.
How people behave on your website – how they interact with it (or not) – effects how well your site does in the search results.
This makes a lot of sense in the broader view. After all, Google is obsessed with delivering the best results for each search. So is it any surprise that they’re watching how people behave on your site? That they’re ranking your site based on whether visitors seem to like what they see – or not?
These “user engagement metrics” may not be as influential as other search ranking signals (link inbound links and proper on-page SEO), but they do affect your site’s rankings.
How people interact with your website helps your real live visitors, too. If real human beings like your website, they’re more likely to place an order or go to your physical store.
So as you take a look at these different ways to measure user engagement, think about the search engine algorithms. But more importantly, think about how your website visitors will respond. On that point, you and Google are perfectly aligned:
You both want to deliver the best possible experience for everyone who comes to your site.
- Dwell time (aka “long clicks”).
This is a measurement of how long someone stays on your website’s pages. The more time someone spends on your website (the longer the dwell time), the better your pages will perform in the search engine rankings.
Here’s an example of how it works:
Say someone does a quick search for “Belize vacations.” They see your Belize vacations page among the results. They like what your listing says, so they click through. They like what they see enough to stay on your page for twelve whole minutes.
When they’re done reading that page, they go back to the search results and try a competitor’s page. They don’t like what they see there, and click back to the search results in just 30 seconds.
Google’s algorithm monitors and remembers that interaction. If your pages consistently keep people on them for longer than average, the algorithm will adjust the search results to favor your site. This happens on a page-by-page basis, but the performance of individual pages also contributes to how Google ranks your website as a whole.
Here’s the key takeaway: The longer people stay on your website pages, the higher your pages will appear in the search engine rankings.
That’s why dwell time matters.
So now that you know about this, what can you do to improve your pages’ dwell times? Here are a few ideas:
- Don’t alienate visitors right out of the gate. Namely, have a website that
- Loads in 2 seconds or less
- Looks attractive
- Is easy to scan (few people read closely online)
- Is easy to understand
- Add an embedded video or two.
Many visitors will prefer the video, and will stay on a page longer if there is one. There’s also evidence that the Google algorithm is partial to pages that have at least one piece of multimedia content on them.
- Experiment with interactive content like quizzes, polls, and calculators.
- Make sure your page is laser-focused on what visitors expect to get from it. In other words, match the content of your page to the keywords people are using to find it.
- Click-through rate.
If you’ve done any email marketing, you’ll be familiar with this term. But for SEO, “click-through rate” refers to how often people click through to a page from search results pages.
- Return visits.
How often do your website visitors come back? According to Brian Dean of Backlinko, Google does consider returning visitors in its algorithm.
Not sure how many of your website visitors are coming back. You can find out if you’ve got Google Analytics installed. Log into your account and go to Audiences > Overview. Look for the blue and green pie chart.
What’s a good percentage of return visits? Really, all that matters is you out-perform your competitors on this metric. But according to HubSpot, “A healthy rate of repeat visitors is about 15%.”
- For local sites: Driving Directions and Clicks-To-Call Metrics.
I’m lumping these engagement metrics under one point because both of these measurements tie into how users interact with your Google local listing. And because local results are a different animal than regular search results.
That’s why there’s a different ranking factors study for Local SEO.
Here are the results from it:
For right now, we’re most interested in the “Behavioral Signals.” As you can see in the pie graphs, these are not the most important ranking signals for either the Local Pack or for Localized Organic Rankings. But behavioral signals do play a role.
The Moz ranking factors study specifically says “Google is paying attention to things like dwell rate, click-through rates, driving directions, and clicks-to-call metrics.”
We’ve talked about dwell rate, and click-through rates happen in the SERPs (not on your site) so we’re interested in driving directions and clicks-to-call metrics.
As you’ve probably guessed, both of these metrics are mobile-based. Driving directions are almost always used from a mobile device, and by definition, click-to-call actions happen on mobile phones.
- Leaving a comment.
This only applies to blog posts, of course. But you do want to encourage people to leave a comment on your blog posts. And you definitely don’t want to turn off comments entirely. If you’re worried about spam comments, use a plugin like Akismet, which protects tens of thousands of blogs from the spam comment bots.
- If they share your page on social media.
There’s been some dispute about this, but the matter is mostly settled: Social signals boost search results. So if your visitors happen to tweet or share your pages on Facebook, that will help your rankings.
These social signals aren’t as powerful as links, but they can help. So consider asking your site visitors to share your posts on social media. Or actively recruit your employees to share new content to their social media accounts.
It also helps to have active Twitter, Facebook accounts (and a company LinkedIn page) associated with your account according to Backlinko. Google figures that real companies will have a decent following on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. It’s a reasonable guess, right?
- They subscribe to your RSS feed.
Google owns Feedburner, so it makes sense that they’d value this metric. Again, this is not anywhere near as powerful a ranking signal as inbound links or your on-page SEO, in fact, you might think of it as a third-tier ranking signal. But it can give your rankings a nudge.
As search engines get more sophisticated, they become more sensitive to user behaviors and preferences. We’re no longer dealing with algorithms that can be fooled by keyword stuffing and artificial link schemes.
But it continues to be obsessed with the primary goal of search: To deliver the best possible result for every query.
If your site can be that best result, and you can demonstrate it to the algorithm through these engagement signals, you won’t have to worry about getting enough organic search traffic. Or about getting penalized in the next algorithm update.
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.
Getting the most out of an SEO campaign is all about measuring the results — everything comes down to data. Examining KPIs sheds light on what’s working and what’s not. That’s all well and good for most metrics like keyword rankings, organic search traffic, referring domain volume and so on. We have plenty of tools and data to do just that. However, there’s one particular SEO metric that’s impossible to measure but incredibly important.
Measuring The Unmeasurable
The unmeasurable metric I’m referring to here is — drum roll — brand signals. Brand signals contribute to your business’s credibility and authority. When I say brand signals, I mean going beyond just signals in the technical sense and looking closer into the actual perception of your brand in the mind of the user. I’m talking about going deep into the essence of how people truly perceive your brand.
Unfortunately, there’s no section on Google Analytics that tells you this straight up. You’ve got to do some digging. So how do you measure what your audience thinks about your brand and how much equity you carry? How do you measure the unmeasurable and make tactical brand mention measurements?
Here are a few ways to connect the dots:
I’m going to start with the absolute basics. While direct traffic doesn’t enable you to measure the number of brand mentions per se, it can give you a reasonable idea of how your brand equity is growing. That’s because the vast majority of direct traffic consists of visitors either typing in your URL directly or bookmarking your site on their browser, both of which are obvious indicators of brand knowledge and a receptiveness to your brand.
While there are other instances of direct traffic that essentially boil down to data “not being provided,” the volume your site receives should allow you to make an initial assessment. Any change in direct traffic is an indicator of changes to your brand awareness. In other words, a spike in direct traffic tends to mean an increase in brand awareness and vice versa.
Branded Terms In SERPs
A bit of research with Google search can also lend some insight. It’s very simple, but it should give you a good idea of what the current state of your brand equity is like. For starters, you’ll want to enter your brand name. Ideally, you will appear in the No. 1 organic position or close to it. That’s a good sign.
If you’re a local business, you’ll also want to enter a targeted keyword phrase and a local term. For my company NAV43, an example would be “digital advertising agency Toronto.” Popping up in the local three pack is ideal, but appearing near it is good as well. For instance, we’re ranked fifth overall in organic search results beneath the local three pack.
These two simple searches should give you a better idea of what overall user knowledge is like.
Addressing The Aspect Of Perception
Now it gets a little trickier. How can you measure perception in the mind of the user? Perhaps the most obvious route is to simply examine social media follower volume and growth. This can provide some level of insight, but let’s take it one step further and really get into the crux of the matter. What you really need to find out is how many people are talking about your brand and what they’re saying.
One of my favorite ways to quickly generate some tangible data is to use BuzzSumo. Just type in your brand name to see how many people are sharing your content and how many people are talking about your brand.
According to Search Engine Land, “88% of consumers trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations.” So you can bet that the quantity and overall sentiment of your customer reviews heavily impact your brand equity.
This is especially true for local brands, where a few negative comments can potentially kill your foot traffic. Taking a look at some of the major customer review sites such as Google My Business, Yelp and so on should give you a bird’s eye view of things.
Finally, you can learn a lot by monitoring the volume of mentions your brand receives along with the context. One of my favorite tools for this is Mention. This aptly named platform allows you to monitor your brand’s reputation online and provides real-time updates whenever something is said.
It also includes a scoring system that lets you know how much influence someone has when mentioning your brand. For instance, praise from someone with 100,000 followers would carry much more weight than someone with only 100. There are, of course, several other platforms that offer similar services, which you can find out about here.
Brand signals are an extremely important SEO metric and contribute to the success (or failure) of your company in several different ways. Although they’re not measurable in the conventional sense like many other elements of SEO, you can still get a baseline reading with these techniques and work your way up from there.