SEO Success: AIMCLEAR CTO Joe Warner on SERPs, Algorithms, Backlinks and Staying One Step Ahead

AIMCLEAR's CTO, Joe Warner presents, Searching for SEO Success

The line between success and utter confusion over Search can seem nearly invisible today. Marketers battle constant algorithm changes by the big engines. Companies duke it out in a daily street fight for SERP success. Meanwhile, back in the humble marketing department, a company’s own paid and organic strategies can work against each other. Challenging? Absolutely. Confusing? Yep. Frustrating? To say the least.

With executives demanding top ranking in SERPs (but not always backing up heavy demands with the money needed to support search campaigns), marketers face huge pressures to nail organic and paid Search now and long term.

Yep…no pressure there (sarcasm).

AIMCLEAR CTO Joe Warner is on the frontlines every day, advising search strategies for AIMCLEAR and clients. We caught up with Joe to get some of his insight on big challenges from algorithm changes to broken backlinks to halting paid/organic cannibalization.

AIMCLEAR (AC): For a while, it seemed SEO was becoming commoditized. Hit the right keywords, get authoritative links, maintain steady content and that was the battleground. But SEO seems to be a hot topic again where innovation and smart new thinking is crucial. What is your high level take on the state of SEO?   

Joe Warner (JW): SEO is in the midst of an exciting resurgence. We have many clients coming to us to revisit their current approach to SEO overall. It seems many companies perhaps got too complacent in their overall search strategy and they missed critical evolutions in search.

Marketers face a huge challenge today really keeping up with the big search engines – Google, in particular. We’ve been tracking and analyzing a number of significant algorithm changes by Google and other search engines. The algorithm changes in total require marketers to make big adjustments.

Overall, we see SEO being more competitive. One huge challenge is the fact that SEO strategy changes made today take longer to take effect than even a year or two ago. Here’s an example:  We used to orchestrate backlinks and could see the results within a few weeks. Now it can take months – even six months before meaningful changes become evident in the SERPs. It’s getting more challenging for SEOs to see a tangible benefit in rank from certain strategies that are deployed in search campaigns.

AC: Why are we seeing these delays in understanding SEO payoff? Is it all about algorithms? Is it the fact that the space is maturing? Too many competing strategies?

JW: SEO is sometimes as much art as it is science. It’s an area that lacks black and white certainty, because the big search engines’ algorithms are so closely held and guarded. From our analysis, the challenges seem to have more to do with Google’s algorithm and that their updating of ranking has slowed down compared to the past. It seems much more central to the engines and their ranking and not as much about what competitors might be doing when it comes to how long it takes for a strategy change to manifest itself in SERP positions.

AC: How can SEOs stay close to the curve — or at least know where the hell the curve is in the first place?

JW: SEOs need to have some sort of solid and automated rank tracking capability. Manual tracking doesn’t cut it. An SEO must be able to quickly and automatically see at the first level what their rank positioning is. Rank tracking tools make it easy to tell quickly whether a brand or terms are are moving up or down. As part of that, we also recommend implementing competitive rank monitoring. Knowing your own brand is fine, but it’s essential that SEOs monitor their own brand along with at least three competitors. Doing so gives a view into whether competitors are encroaching on a brand or perhaps industry issues are affecting competitors as well.

AC: With so many dynamics at play in the industry, is the chasm widening and SEOs who fall behind now will struggle even more to keep pace?

JW: It’s essential for SEOs to stay on top of industry changes. SEOs need to track what is going on so they can stay relevant, but even more important for visibility into the performance of their brand.

Even the most seasoned pro can get complacent and make changes they think are good or perhaps based on proven practices from a year or two ago. But without close, purposeful testing and monitoring to see if changes actually affect rank, it’s impossible to know for certain whether changes will have a positive or negative affect. And with the increasing lag between strategy change and rank change, SEOs need to gain as much insight as possible to build and execute the best possible strategy for their unique challenges.

AC: What other big issues you see out in the SEO landscape for clients?  

JW: Mobile. Mobile. Mobile. Some of the biggest issues we see have to do with algorithm changes that appear to be highly geared toward users accessing content via smartphones and other mobile devices.

Google has delayed its launch of a separate index for mobile versus desktop, while Google and others are bumping up the importance of certain mobile metrics, such as mobile responsiveness. It’s increasingly important to know how well pages render on different device types and sizes, as well as page load speed, which seems much more critical this year than ever. We now find ourselves working daily to optimize against the important mobile metrics.  

AC: There’s so much to keep track of, but are there tools out there to help search marketers?

JW: There are some exciting smart tools out there that brands are deploying, particularly the tools that offer rank tracking with some form of automated alerts, which are very helpful. We like tools such as Search Metrics and, who we’ve done some work for in recent months. Those are a couple of our favorites for monitoring rank position, server uptime, server speed and things like that.

The great thing about this industry is that for every new challenge that arises, a new service will crop up to address it. The more the big engines keep people guessing, the more automation we’ll see in tools to keep track of it all. But here’s the rub – human beings are still essential in figuring out what it all means and how to build a great strategy for success.

AC: Let’s turn to the actual website now. Many businesses operate with websites built in the Internet Stone Age (5-10 years ago). Rip-and-replace scares the hell out of companies, but what should marketers and brands consider about with their broader web strategies.

JW: The easiest and smartest scenario is to be on a platform that is readily upgraded. We have seen great success with platforms such as WordPress, Magento and others that have well established, upgradeable SEO plugins. Businesses stand a better chance of staying up with the latest and greatest that web commerce can provide if they have that kind of foundational element in place.

For those not on platforms that have plugins or are easily extendable, there are key elements that should be on the page itself, such as open graph tags, schema and other elements. If it’s not feasible to implement those types of code into a current system or the effort is too high to do so, then we definitely start looking at and recommending platform switches to a more plugin-friendly environment.

AC: Should a wholesale website reboot/rebuild be terrifying?

JW: Replacing or totally overhauling a website doesn’t have to be a nightmare. In terms of budget, which is always a huge consideration, the most significant factors include the amount of content involved and platforms used. For example, if a brand is moving to a new site within WordPress, the issues will primarily relate to layout and adding elements such as responsive design. In that instance, the number of pages isn’t as big of an issue because a brand can essentially migrate content to the new format.

Things get trickier, though, when brands move to an entirely different platform. The amount of content becomes a huge consideration, because that will ultimately make up a big chunk of the work — manually bringing content from a closed platform to a new one.

Like anything we face, the more that can be automated the better, such as exporting current content in some type of format that can be imported in or manually transferred.

Brands need to spend a lot of time figuring the right balance for them and whether it’s time to take the plunge to a new platform. While such a project can be a massive endeavor, the payoff can be great, particularly for brands that are on more archaic platforms.

AC: Quantity can work against brands today when it comes to what’s on their site. Should brands also consider “cleaning out the basement,” so to speak? Google doesn’t like massive content. They want relevant content… correct?

JW: A site rebuild is, without question, a great time to clean up the house. There is a fairly new SEO strategy that has to do with clearing out the old content and pulling non-relevant stuff down from the website. Typically, such a move can be frightening from an SEO standpoint, because a huge factor in SEO is the inbound link profile. When pages that generated external links are taken down and no longer exist, there is a longstanding school of thought that you can lose some of that longstanding SEO value

At the same time, though, sites become overly cluttered with pages and content that provide no other value to the site or user experience. That clutter can be harmful to SEO. Content removal has to be done very carefully. The best approach is done through redirecting old URLs using permanent redirects to other areas of the site. In some cases such a move can aggregate some of the value into better “compartments” within a website. Irrelevant content can be purged. But it’s critical to assess every page and every link to understand the value or lack thereof.

Be pragmatic. Purge what can and should be purged. Take exceptional care in not damaging the value of hard-crafted link strategies.

AC: Let’s talk about linking strategies and architectures. What are some of the cool things marketers can perhaps do differently with linking strategies to stay ahead in SEO?

JW: Marketers are definitely getting more savvy with the content they’re deploying and linking architectures.  

Backlink building, in general, involves looking for sites that have relevant content and then asking for them to link to your site. Historically there have been two approaches to streamline and focus that process: First, seek competitive backlink insights. We can find everyone who links to 1,2, 3 or more of a particular site’s competitors, but does not yet link to the site in question. Those likely are the easy targets for high value opportunities. Gaining those links usually requires a brand contact that site directly and acknowledge that competitors are listed and then ask for the same.  

A second, sometimes more successful approach, is broken backlink building. Marketers taking this approach have to go out and actually find websites that have one or more broken links to what should be relevant content on another site. Once again, we are talking about a laborious approach that requires a lot of 1:1 outreach. The great thing about broken backlink building, though, is it provides mutual benefit to both site operators. An undetected broken backlink is a bad thing for that existing content page. Pointing out broken links to the site owner and giving an easy link they can use to replace it can yield much higher conversion rate on link building outreach.

At the same time, broken backlink building allows brands to focus their hard work on selected, higher authority domains. Savvy marketers look at the broken backlink building opportunities to build meaningful inbound links – along with stronger relationships with authoritative sites.

Automated tools can help identify the opportunities, but we still need the manual outreach for success. Backlink building overall can be very laborious, but well worth the time and energy.

AC: In a perfect world, organic and paid strategies work together in perfect harmony. But we do not live and work in a perfect world. What are you seeing as friction between paid and organic?

JW: We actually see a lot of paid-organic cannibalization going on today, especially with the rollout of site links within paid ads, which make the paid ads even larger. We’ve seen increasing evidence of those site links and paid ads cannibalizing traditional brand-specific SEO traffic.

The cannibalization is sometimes tough to identify, though. We pay attention in Google Analytics to SEO traffic and paid traffic in parallel. Looking at the results, we can click into the paid traffic and see the keywords that are driving revenue.

We typically look for a few things in particular when identifying cannibalization. The trick is to identify the use of brand keywords where the searcher is clearly using the brand terms for navigation purposes. They type in a brand name in the Google search bar and hit enter. The searcher clearly knows where they want to go, but use Google to get them there. Typically that kind of traffic is really very SEO-heavy, because they know where they want to go, scroll down to see the page they want and then click.  

Here’s the cannibalization point: With paid ads now taking up more real estate on the search engine results, people don’t necessarily scroll through to the organic results. Instead, they see the site links in the paid results and click there. The friction between paid and organic becomes visible in Google Analytics when we track month-over-month and year-over-year comparisons and monitor changes in brand traffic.

The search cannibalization rears its ugly head when we can see a drop in SEO of X percent with a correlating boost in paid search results. When we dig deeper into the keywords, we can begin to see whether there is an increase in brand traffic hitting in paid versus organic.  

AC: What about competitors edging in on brand terms? Does that piggyback on the search cannibalization?

JW: It’s absolutely a related challenge for brands today and there are really important considerations relating to competitors trying to swipe traffic by bidding on brand terms. Sometimes competitors will bid on a specific company’s keywords. They can’t use those keywords in their creative, but they can bid on them. Here’s the challenge —  if a competitor starts bidding on your brand to swipe some of that navigational brand traffic, they pretty much force you to have an ad there.

On the upside, typically navigational traffic isn’t easily swayed to a different brand, because you’ll recall people doing navigational search know where they want to go. However, there are instances where that person may see the competitor and follow that pathway instead of going where they intended, which is why some companies bid on competitors’ terms.

The key is, when forced into having to have some cannibalization of your own terms, it’s a great opportunity to test whether you need to have site links enabled or not. Marketers can see pretty clearly whether traffic is going down due to the competitor. At that point, a marketer could then put in an ad without site links to see if it’s possible to recoup lost traffic on the paid side. If not, it’s an opportunity to turn on site links to help prevent competitors from stealing that traffic.  

Competitive bids and other challenges underscore the inescapable truth that companies need to understand the competitive landscape. We’ve seen many instances in which companies bid on their own brand terms while no competitors are bidding on the same. In such a case, the company is purely cannibalizing their own efforts for no reason.

Once again, automation plays a critical role — particularly on the paid ad side. Competitors may come in and out. They’ll bid and stop bidding. Looking at the data one time won’t suffice. Marketers need to keep tabs more more frequently and purposefully, particularly during busier times of the year. That’s when competitors are more likely to try to sneak in and steal that valuable traffic.

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