Effective content marketing for financial services

Financial freedom by Morgan (meddygarnet) on Flickr

With all the research suggesting that 2014 will be another big year for content marketing, it’s important to review how content can be used effectively in your specific sector. In this article I will review content marketing approaches for financial services, a sector I’m involved with.

Each industry sector has its own unique traits and idiosyncrasies and financial services is certainly no different. In fact, due to the complex nature of many financial products, the challenges of creating engaging content and an increased focus on compliance and regulation, one can argue that content marketing for financial services companies is a particularly tricky discipline to master.

Nevertheless, despite the challenges that exist within financial services there are also considerable opportunities that content marketing can exploit if planned and executed effectively.

I would suggest that the steps for establishing a content marketing process is very much the same as it is for any other business but with a few exceptions in certain areas to support, and make the most of, the particular characteristics of a financial services organisation.

Start with strategy and planning

As a financial services organisation, it’s important to be clear from the outset as to how content and content marketing can and should be used at your business. Whilst there will always be an opportunity to be bold and imaginative, you’ll need to assess your company’s appetite for ‘risk’ and what you may/ may not be prepared to do. Start by answering the following questions:

  • What is content? And what does ‘content marketing’ mean to us?
  • Who is our audience?
  • What are our competitors doing?
  • How can content support our business and marketing goals?
  • How can content be integrated into other areas of marketing and the wider business?
  • How will content be sourced, managed and created?
  • How will content marketing efforts be measured?

One of the important, early steps in the content marketing process is to build a business case for investment. This will help not only help gain budget but also buy-in from various teams and departments from across the company.

Benefits of content marketing for financial services

The obvious, stand-out benefits of content marketing for financial services is consistent with the wider market and include:

  • Builds brand awareness and craft your brand ‘story’
  • Drives positive results from organic search rankings and traffic
  • Fuels social media marketing efforts
  • Supports advertising, PR and outreach
  • Drives purchases

Craft an outline framework for your content marketing strategy:

  • 1. Set your core goals and objectives
  • 2. Conduct a competitor analysis of direct and indirect competitors
  • 3. Define your audience and target markets
  • 4. Integration
  • 5. Policies and guidelines
  • 6. Content calendar

* This will be particularly important for reputation management and compliance purposes.

Content calendar

Once you’ve defined a clear strategy and formed an agreement on how content will be used to support your wider marketing and business goals, it’s time to begin creating your content calendar.

Map out broad themes

Start by considering the key financial trends throughout the year. As a rough guide, this could look like:

  • January – February – debt consolidation; winter holidays
  • March – April - ISA season; spring and Easter holidays
  • May – July - home improvements; wedding season; summer holidays
  • August – September - New car purchases; back to school
  • October – December – Christmas planning and spending

Drill down into the detail

By outlining the broad trends for the year, you can then start to drill down into more detail and define the various topics for each week and month of the year.

For example, for the month of January this could look like:

January:

Week 1:

  • New years resolutions – building better money habits
  • Pay off your debts vs. saving

Week 2:

  • What did the nation bought this Christmas?
  • How to improve your credit score

Week 3:

  • Best ways to manage your finances
  • Insuring against a cold snap

Week 4:

  • Money saving advice for winter breaks
  • Winter travel tips

Decide on the most appropriate content types

Once you have a good idea of the main themes and topics, it’s time to begin thinking about thetypes of content to be used.

It’s important to remember that the medium itself should never take the lead. For example, there’s been a wayward obsession with infographics for the past few years, with the flawed assumption that an infographic in itself will drive interest and engagement.

What gets attention is the combination of great data, design and story. An infographic may not always be the most effective type of content for the theme or topic you’re trying to talk about. It may instead be a video, article, case study or guide, so all option should be considered.

The key is to consider the message and target audience it’s aimed at and choose the most appropriate type of content to connect with them. Some of the most popular types of content for financial services include:

  • Written articles and blog posts
  • Tools and calculators
  • Videos
  • Guides and e-books
  • Infographics and data visualisations

Consider using something like this Content Matrix to generate content ideas based on:

  • 1. Where your target audience is in the user journey
  • 2. What are you trying to achieve as a business

Content Marketing Matrix by Smart Insights

Build your content hub

So, with all the new content you’re producing, where is it going to go?

When we consider the traditional marketing funnel, we can see that users/ buyers are likely to be in one of three different stages:

The marketing funnel

This means that content can be used across your website, as well at outposts, for example social media sites and blogs, depending on what stage the customer is likely to be in and the objective of the piece of content.

However, as a starting point I would always advocate the creation of a central, branded content hub within your website. This is a place where your audience can access and interact with your content and where you can integrate, syndicate and distribute the content to other areas of your website and beyond.

What is a content hub ?

A content hub can take on any number of different guises, including:

  • An online news section
  • A blog
  • A digital customer magazine
  • A resource centre

As a financial services organisation, it’s important to consider carefully the type of content hub you use. As with the individual pieces of content, your audience and objectives should lead your decision.

A number of different financial services organisations have approached the concept in a range of different, imaginative ways:

Case study – Sainsbury’s Money Matters

Sainsbury's Money Matters

Sainsbury’s have created a blog within their website with content providing tips, ideas and information on a range of relevant topics.

Key features:

  • Content is broken into six main categories to help users easily navigate to the most relevant content: Family, Home, Travel, Future, Tips and Competitions.
  • There is a range of content types, including articles, tools and data visualisations/infographics to help bring information to life.
  • Sainsbury’s have created a ‘Family Blogger Network’, enabling guest bloggers and writers to post content on Money Matters and generate both exposure for themselves and great content for Sainsbury’s Bank.

Case study – MoneySuperMarket’s News and Community

MoneySuperMarket News and Community

MoneySuperMarket have developed a vast news and community section with hundreds of articles, videos and podcasts on a diverse range of topics.

Key features:

  • Content is divided into a number of different areas, including News, Videos, Popular, Editor’s Choice and Press Releases. There is also a regular ‘Focus On’ section which MoneySuperMarket uses to take a look at a particular product or feature, for example a balance transfer deal or mortgage rate.
  • The content on the ‘News and Community’ section is geared towards seasonality. For example from February to April there’s a clear focus on ISAs.
  • Every article has a date, category and author associated with it and MoneySuperMarket have ensured that each author has a Google+ profile, enabling them to use Google’s authorship mark-up and enhance their present within organic search results.

MoneySuperMarket authorship mark-up search result

Managing compliance considerations

As alluded to earlier in the post, compliance and regulatory concerns are an important consideration for all financial services marketing, which includes organic and paid search, social media and content marketing.

Financial Conduct Authority

Every financial organisation will manage compliance in a different way and some may be stricter than others in their observation and interpretations of the guidance provided by the regulatory bodies. In the UK, the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA)  regulates financial firms providing services to consumers, with their remit focused on maintaining the integrity of the UK’s financial markets and ensure that financial products and services meet consumers’ needs.

One of the potential stumbling blocks for many content marketers in financial services will be around the concept of financial promotions. This is defined by the FCA as:’An invitation or inducement to engage in investment activity’.

Whilst most content marketing activity may not be seen as a ‘financial promotion’ by the marketer, it’s important to understand and abide by the FCA’s definition of a ‘financial promotion’ and ensure that content is:

  • Stand-alone compliant - where a reference to a rate or deal is quoted, for example, you cannot expect the consumer to click a link to find out more information. This has to be clearly stated and referenced within the same web space or page.
  • Risk warnings are prominent- this might sometimes mean that the risk (e.g. ‘Your home may be repossessed if you do not keep up repayments on your mortgage’is as clear and prominent as any promotional message this relates to.
  • Not misleading- that messages are not false, overly ambiguous and relevant for the target market.

As part of any content production process, it’s therefore wise to keep the in-house or outsourced compliance team for your organisation on-side and give them the ability to review and feedback at various stages of the process. Whilst it may not be preferable to have compliance involved at the brainstorming stage, for example, it is recommended that compliance have sight of content:

  • Once initial ideas and topics have been decided to ensure that nothing causing a serious breach is being proposed.
  • Following input from wider stakeholder groups, e.g. product marketing, PR, social media and SEO
  • As a final sign-off prior to going live.

A version of this post was originally published on Smart Insights on 4th March 2014. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure!


Three top digital marketing priorities for 2014

SEO, content and social media

So, 2014 is well and truly up and running! Christmas and New Year feel like a lifetime ago, we’re all back into our normal work routines and everyone’s marketing teams have finished planning for the year ahead.

Now that the dust has settled from a hectic month of predictions and expectations from across the blogosphere, I’ve had a proper chance to really consider my digital marketing capabilities and where I’ll be focusing my efforts over the next 12 months.

If we consider both econsultancy’s andSmart Insights’ survey results of the major trends in digital marketing for 2014, it’s clear that there are a number of common topics and areas that are high on digital marketers’ priority lists this year.

Smart Insights digital marketing trends 2014

Econsultancy/ Adobe digital marketing trends 2014

Whilst customer experience and personalisation stand out from econsultancy, both survey results show consistencies in social, big data, content marketing and mobile.

Unsurprisingly, these results correlate strongly with the broad themes I’ll be looking to work on and develop this year. However, for the purpose of this post I’m going to look in more detail at specific areas within these themes:

Stay on top of SEO trends

There were some big changes in the world of SEO in 2013, most notably from Google. Whilst the world’s largest search engine continued to roll out more Panda and Penguin updates, in September Google
announced the introduction of a completely new search algorithm, called Hummingbird, which is aimed at improving conversational/ semantic search to help understand users’ intent.

With 2013 also being the year that (Not Provided) hit 100% for many sites, and only this month an announcement from Matt Cutts that guest blogging is on the way out as an SEO tactic, Google has certainly shaken things up, prompting a rethink in strategy, tactics and analytics for many SEOs and digital marketers.

Key areas of focus:

Semantic search - With the introduction of Hummingbird, semantic search will play an increasingly important role in SEO. And this move to more conversational search will provide websites with the opportunity to create a variety of different types of content to answer specific questions and queries that will rely on the long-tail as much as higher volume head terms.

Rich snippets - 2013 saw the continued growth in rich snippets and structured data within the SERPs. Google is continually trying to contextualise search results for users and therefore authorship, product reviews/ratings (primarily using Schema.org) and local SEO will become an important tactic in 2014 from strengthening visibility within the SERPs and improving click-through rate.

Analytics - As mentioned above, Google’s move to 100% secure search has made things quite tricky for SEO analysis and reporting. Whilst there are ways of identifying keyword level data, in order to create really meaningful analysis using standard web analytics software, analysts will have to become much more creative and smarter in order to effectively idenitfy how search engine optimisation efforts are improving quality organic search traffic, conversions and sales.

Define a clear content strategy

Content and content marketing has been a hot topic for a number of years and this trend is unlikely to change in 2014. With search engines placing more and more emphasis on (quality) content as a ranking factor, and social media marketing continuing to attract attention of a wide range of demographics, I consider content to be the ‘glue’ that binds these two disciplines.

In order to execute content marketing effectively, marketers need to have a clearly defined content strategy so they can determine the direction they are looking to take. The content strategy will act as the roadmap for all content marketing efforts, outlining the key audience groups, competitors, resource considerations and measures of success.

Key areas of focus:

Formulate an integrated content strategy - To be successful in 2014, a content strategy should be created both to set the direction for content creation and syndication and to establish a process for introducing rigour and a level of quality around content production. The content strategy should be integrated across multiple areas of the business, including corporate communications, marketing, PR and brand.

Types of content - Article marketing used to be popular, as was guest posting and testimonials. And then came infographics. What will be the content de jour in 2014? It’s important to consider a range of different types of content and the value they can deliver. Every piece of content should be created with a clear objective in mind and a consideration as to how it will be used and what it can achieve.

Content planning - It’s important to plan what content you’ll be creating and where it will be hosted, both on-site and beyond. A content plan will ensure that the right content can be scheduled and produced for the right audience, at the right time. However, it’s also important for the plan to be agile and the inclusion of space to account for newsjacking opportunities.

The inbound marketing funnel

Create a strong, varied social presence

Whilst the dizzying allure of social media has diminished since its heights in the early part of the decade, social media still has a very big and important role to play digital marketing and is something I believe will be important to focus on in 2014.

However, instead of being managed as a separate function, it’s likely that social media will continue to be integrated into different areas of the business and permeate many different roles and positions. For example, just as social media now plays a more important role in SEO (although Google maintains that social signals may not directly benefit rankings, there is an indirect benefit from building engaging, valuable social identities that drive qualified traffic), with an increased focus on content and content marketing in 2014 it will continue to be a primary distribution channel for big and small brands alike.

Key areas of focus:

Focus on what works for you (and your audience)? - With the emergence of exciting, new challenger social networks, such as Instagram, SnapChat and Vine, it’s easy to forget about the continued development of established platforms such as facebook, Twitter and Google+. In 2014 it’s important therefore to have a presence of a blend of social platforms that best fit your brand values and the audience you wish to connect with.

Engage with influencers - In the early days of the social media boom, many brands were obsessed with growing the number of likes and followers they had across their social networks. But as businesses continue (and rightly) demand clear evidence of ROI from their social media efforts, more sophisticated methods of measuring success will be necessary.

As with SEO and content marketing, there should be more focus on quality over quantity. To really understand the ROI of social media, brands must begin identifying, engaging and reaching out to influencers to amplify their efforts and measure the conversations, interactions and leads that may be generated as a result.

Mobile - Some argue that mobile is now more important than desktop.

GOV.UK traffic stats for desktop, mobile and tablet

With mobile devices contributing an ever-increasing amount of website traffic, mobile will play a stronger role across social media as well as SEO and content. So in 2014 it’s worth considering how your social presence, and the way you engage and post messages, look and feel across mobile otherwise you could alienate an increasingly large section of your audience.

As mentioned at the start of this post, there are a number of key themes and trends to be aware of in 2014 and it’s likely that some will play a more significant role than others depending on the type of business you have and the sector you’re in. It’s also possible that some will be more influential than others as the year progresses whilst other new trends emerge.

The key will be to stay on top of the trends in what is already a very fluid and changeable area of marketing and be flexible enough to adapt wherever possible to stay ahead – or just keep up – with the competition.


My three words for 2014

Three doors by Tony Hisgett

It’s that time of year again when I choose three words to define the year ahead and guide me through the next twelve months. It’s a tradition that Chris Brogan started a few years ago and something I’ve continued since I began in 2011.

Whilst New Year resolutions are all well and good, many are doomed to fail, often becuase they are either too vague or completely unrealistic (e.g. “I will give up chocolate completely in 2014!”). However, although I will be making a list of New Year resolutions, I’ll be using my three words as more of an overarching guide for my behaviours and actions in 2014.

Before I unveil my three words for 2014, I’d like to look back and review my three words for 2013:

Inquisitiveness

Being inquisitive ensures that we stay alert to change and are able to spot and leverage new opportunities.

In 2013 I tried to remain inquisitive by not only reading and keeping up-to-date with information specific to my job and industry but also from a variety of other sources completely unrelated to what I do for a living.

For example, I read essays from The New Yorker, articles from Fast Company and watched and listened to presentations from TED about all kinds of topics to keep my inquisitive levels up.

My hope is that by remaining curious about the world around me I can take learnings from what others are doing that can be integrated into my own life.

Imagination

Albert Einstein once said that imagination is more important knowledge and it’s something that’s always resonated with me. As human beings we have the ability to create endless possibilities using our imagination and it’s the key to many of the great innovations and developments the world has seen.

To keep my imagination alive in 2013 I tried to remain inquisitive (see above), stay as open-minded as possible and learn about how people within the arts and sciences think and act to make the most of their imaginations.

In 2013 I also read my first fiction book since 2010. For three years I’d been so immersed in non-fiction and studying my craft that I’d forgotten the joy and benefits of really good, imaginative storytelling. I find that great fiction allows one to see first-hand what the power of imagination can produce.

Expertise

Developing a craft takes time, hard work and effort. To see a craftsman in action, be it a carpenter, tailor, artist or musician, is truly a thing of beauty.

Last year I attempted to develop my expertise by reading more quality content from a wide range of sources. These included great articles and studies from the Harvard Business Review, super blog posts from opinion leaders and classic books by authors including Malcolm Gladwell and the late Stephen R. Covey.

I also worked on my expertise by writing, notably on my own blog and externally for Smart Insights. I find that writing forces me to think deeply and analytically about a topic. Plus the thought that hundreds – maybe even thousands – of people might see what I have to say means that I have to produce content to as high a standard as possible.

 

Although the three words I set each year are specific to a particular year, all the previous ‘three words’ (which have included Create/Ship/Improve and Focus/Confidence/Energy) are still extremely meaningful and something I will continue to use to help guide and shape my life.

However, for 2014 my three words to live by are:

Network

Whether online or offline, I believe it’s important to develop networks of trusted friends, allies, colleagues and fellow enthusiasts to stay in touch with changing trends and to progress as an individual.

Whilst I developed my expertise in 2013 by researching, reading and watching other experts on my own, to truly develop as a person and as a marketer I need to work more with others and to contribute more to groups and networks. By doing this I’ll be able to develop my expertise as, improve my inquisitiveness and imagination and hopefully add value to other people’s lives, too.

Exercise

When I say ‘exercise’, I am referring to the focused improvement of both physical and mental skills and abilities.

Physical exercise is a common New Year’s resolution but often fails once the initial excitement in January wears off. Goals are often vague and focus is soon lost. However, I will be making sure that my physical exercise goals are SMART and measured intermittently throughout the year to ensure I remain focused on exactly what I want to achieve.

I will apply the same structure to my mental exercise. To continue refining my craft and expertise, I will set goals based around what I want to read (both fiction and non-fiction), write, research and apply in my day-to-day life, both professional or personal.

Relax

There is always a danger that we can become consumed by the amount of noise and distractions omnipresent within our hectic lives. There is always so much to do, so much we need to be achieving to stay ahead of the curve and to reach the next milestone.

Whilst I do want to achieve good things in my personal and professional lives, I have learnt that sometimes I need to relax in order to take stock and reflect on where I am and what I may need to do next. Time needs to be taken to appreciate appreciate and enjoy what we’ve already got.

So as hard as I’m planning to work this year, I’m also going to take time to stop and relax. Maybe that way I’ll be more refreshed so I can continue taking on new challenges with enthusiasm and commitment!


Google Webmaster Tools vs 100% (Not Provided)

Google Webmaster Tools
Earlier this Autumn, Google made the step that many SEOs and digital marketers were fearing: the encryption of all organic search traffic. The dreaded (Not Provided) had already been creeping up steadily, but now it’s approaching 100% making it impossible to see in the original SEO reporting in analytics which keywords from Google are driving visits and converting.

Whilst we can argue about the rights and wrongs of this change, it means that we can no longer access organic keyword-level data in our web analytics solutions, such as Google Analytics and Adobe Sitecatalyst. This data is extremely valuable to digital marketers, since it allows us to:

  • Find opportunities to improve the performance or ranking of a particular page
  • Identify what keywords are driving traffic to a website or page
  • Demonstrate how an increase in SEO efforts have improved rankings
  • Understand how searchers perceive our brand, content and website
  • Unearth new keyword opportunities

So, where can we go to get hold of keyword-level data in order to continue working on some of the tasks listed above?

There are a number of potential solutions and in this post, I’m going to focus on one of the options – the Google Webmaster Tools SEO data which is also available in Google Analytics if you enable integration between two accounts.

Google Webmaster Tools

One of the solutions we can use to get hold of the remaining keyword-level data available to us is Google Webmaster Tools:

We can access this data by going to Search Traffic -> Search Queries or in Google Analytics see this support post from Google which explains how to set up integration with Google Webmaster Tools (GWT).

Google Webmaster Tools

Limitations of Google Webmaster Tools SEO data

One thing to note up-front is that the keyword-level data available from Webmaster Tools is less accurate than anything we could ever get from Sitecatalyst or Google Analytics.

You need to be aware of these limitations and explain them to clients or colleagues when presenting your data:

Nevertheless, Webmaster Tools is not as inaccurate or useless as some suggest and in a world where we have limited keyword-level data from elsewhere, I believe it’s important that we embrace what we can get from a free tool that and can provide some very valuable insights.

Plus, an added benefit is that you can now access Webmaster Tools search optimisation data directly from Google Analytics so that web data from Google can be consolidated in one play.

Setting up Google Analytics data to analyse the GWT data has additional benefits in that you can apply secondary dimensions for country where visits originated or different types of SEO traffic, e.g. from images or mobile as shown below:

Google Analytics data

What does the search queries report provide?

Search queries report - homepage

The search queries report provides a range of information that can be used to evaluate organic search performance and identify any specific areas that might need to be looked at further.

The main elements of the report include:

  • Queries: The total number of search queries for which pages of your site was shown in organic search over a given period of time.
  • Impressions: The number of times pages from your site appeared in search results.
  • Clicks: The number of times a user clicked your site’s listing in search results for a particular query.
  • CTR: The percentage of impressions that resulted in a click to your site.
  • Average position: The average top position of your site on the search results page for a given query.
  • Top pages: This tab shows the top pages of your site appearing in organic search results.

As you can see, in addition to ‘Queries’, Webmaster Tools also provides extra insight in the form of CTR, impressions and average position data for each query, all of which can produce a more rounded view of performance.

As well as forming an understanding of what your audience is interested in, by looking at queries that also contains impression data, average ranking and CTR, when traffic falls you’ll be able to get a better idea as to whether this is due to ranking issues or seasonality (see more here).

Queries

With the lack of keyword-level data available from standard analytics tools, you can now start to make an assessment of what keywords are performing well for your site, what you would expect to see doing well and any anomalies that are standing out. This data can give you a baseline to measure performance and begin to set actions in place for optimisation.

Take some time to review the summary of the top performing queries as well as drill down into specific, individual keywords to get an idea of how you’re performing for each term:

Search queries drill-down report

This data will provide insight into which pages are ranking for those terms and help you to further develop your content strategy.

For example, as well as assessing the performance of your existing content for targeted keywords, you can also identify other keywords with good potential that could be integrated into new content, such as articles, blog posts, videos or infographics.

Click through rate

Click through rate (CTR) can be really helpful for identifying where meta data could be improved.

For example, although a search term may be ranking quite highly, if the CTR is low this may indicate that the title tag, description or any additional structured data, e.g. Schema.org, could be tidied up and improved.

Average position

Although they are approximations, Google provides average positions for all the different keywords in the query report.

This offers some interesting data that can help you see how your keywords are performing and their impact on traffic.

Average position can also be used to track rankings over time. As you put more effort into optimising the content and structure of your website, you can monitor ranking fluctuations month-on-month to assess your SEO efforts.

Top landing pages

The ‘Top pages’ report allows you to evaluate which content and pages across your site are getting the most impressions and clicks and enables you to look for new opportunities for improvement:

Top landing pages report

For example, the data in this report may indicate that there are pages within your site that are ranking on page 2 or lower and yet receive a large amount of impressions or have a good CTR.

Using this insight, you can adjust your SEO strategy and optimise these pages to help improve their performance within the SERPs.

Assess performance over time

Use the ‘with change’ feature to track your performance over time:

Assessing performance over time

This feature is useful if you want to assess your SEO efforts, especially after the launch of a new product or piece of content to see if your updates are effective, or even to track how search engine algorithm updates or changes may be impacting your average rankings and conversions.

Summary

With the 100% encryption of keyword-level data in our web analytics solutions, it’s important that we look for other opportunities to retrieve whatever keyword data we can in order to improve our content and SEO efforts.

Whilst the data available from Google Webmaster Tools may not be as accurate or helpful as that we could previously derive from Google Analytics, the tools does provide a wide range of interesting and very useful insights to help us assess how our sites are performing and the actions we can take to make further improvements.

A version of this post was originally published on Smart Insights on 5th December 2013. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure!


Why ‘aggressive’ link-building isn’t sustainable

Link Building is no longer needed for PR Now by Mark Kens

I recently stumbled across a link-building services site that proudly announced on its homepage that it can build links so that businesses could “focus on getting richer” instead of “wasting time and energy building links”.

There are two things about this statement that bother me:

1. Outsourcing link-building is fraught with potential problems. You’re putting your faith in a third-party who may be deploying all kinds of dodgy tactics in order to build links that may ultimately impact your business
2. Link-building isn’t “a waste of time and energy”. Search engines value quality over quantity when it comes to links and you don’t need to build hundreds a month. Most of all, link-building can be fun, productive and very beneficial for a business.

Perhaps I’m being naive, disillusioned or just a bit silly, but whenever I see an ad or promotion from someone claiming that they can build thousands of links, at scale, from ‘high authority’ sites for a nominal fee, my heart sinks a little. As a creative digital marketer I can’t help but think we can do a lot better than this and should be aspiring to a higher level of quality in our marketing.

Don’t chase an algorithm that’s constantly changing

Following a series of algorithm updates from Google over the past two years, creating mediocre content and/or manipulating links in order to generate better rankings has made these SEO tactics a lot less effective.

Whilst I empathise with smaller businesses who can not rely on the authority of a big brand name to boost search visibility, I don’t believe that ‘chasing the algorithm’ with spammy tactics has ever been a good way of doing business. It just feels cheap and shady and tarnishes the good work carried out by the vast majority of the SEO community.

Earn your way to organic search success

Search engine optimisation is a form of earned media marketing, meaning websites have to earn the right to appear highly in search engines by having a relevant site and/or piece of content for any given related search phrase. Any attempt to trick a search engine algorithm in order to gain (perceived) authority is not a sustainable route to success. You’re betting that the algorithms will remain constant and consistent whilst all the evidence suggests that they will continually evolve in order to improve the quality of their listings.

Focus on the SEO factors that you can control

Although organic search gives websites an opportunity to generate ‘free’ clicks to their content, it takes time, effort and focus to build a legitimate, sustainable presence. It’s important not to optimise a website based on how the algorithm is believed to work today. Optimise a website based on what your customers are looking for and consider these main factors:

Website structure

Make sure that all on-site SEO best practices are put in place and related pages link naturally to one another so that authority can flow throughout the site. The structure should allow humans and search engines to intuitively navigate around the site.

User experience

Websites shouldn’t be built and structured with only ‘SEO’ in mind. I say ‘SEO’ because search engine optimisation isn’t just about keywords, meta data and link-building anymore. It’s also about creating a user experience that effectively meets the requirements of the customer.

When looking at website structure, it’s also important to consider design, user journeys and the devices (PC, tablet, mobile) customers are most likely to use when accessing your site.

Great content

Aggressive link-building companies use content to generate links. But it is the quality of content they use that I question. Hiring external agencies to build content for your company and brand is risky. Only you and your closest partners will know what really works for your site and customers.

Content can come in many forms, shapes and sizes but it’s important that content is:

  • Relevant to your company/ brand
  • Credible
  • Useful
  • Engaging
  • Informative
  • Educational

 

As with any worthwhile in life, there is no short-cut and this applies to SEO, content creation and effective use of social media – it takes time, effort and commitment. There is no silver bullet to success.


The true benefits and value of Google authorship

Typewriter B/W....now write the story by geishaboy500

As search continues to advance, the concept of authorship and identity will grow in importance. Many opinion leaders believe that over time websites will begin to be ranked based not just on the keywords they contain and the inbound links they attract but also the people and authors behind the content being produced.

Earlier this year, Google’s former CEO Eric Schmidt stated:

“Within search results, information tied to verified online profiles will be ranked higher than content without such verification”.

At the time, some commentators suggested that this statement was proof of ‘AuthorRank’, a situation where Google will give certain pieces of content a rankings boost based on the author of that content.

However, whilst there’s no definitive evidence to suggest that AuthorRank is in effect now, authorship mark-up is in place and may well play a part in any potential AuthorRank developments in the years ahead.

Developing a richer search experience

It’s already becoming clear that Google is using authorship to develop a richer search experience. By associating real people with content, we’re starting to see the end of the ‘faceless web’ and the beginning of more personalised search results based on the social connections and preferences of the user.

Authorship results

Whilst Google+ is Google’s ‘identity platform’, it’s important to stress that other sites including Twitter and Facebook, for example, may also be used to identify content producers within search results. However, for the purpose of this post I’ll be focusing primarily on Google and their efforts to develop an effective authorship programme.

So what are the advantages of authorship?

Authorship provides a number of advantages for both content consumers and producers alike. For content producers, authorship provides a number of unique advantages, including:

Increase Google’s understanding of your online profiles

As search engines have progressed, so have the various ways in which SEOs have attempted to ‘game’ their algorithms. At first it was about keyword stuffing before the manipulation of links became common practice. For years links have been used as a signal of authority – more links = more authority.

However, this isn’t always the case and so Google are attempting to use authorship to help them serve up results based on more trustworthy signals in addition to links, such as +1s, likes, mentions, comments, citations and associations.

Building a genuine profile, with a history and body of work, is very difficult to pretend – it takes time, effort and commitment. So if you take the time to focus on producing quality work, content can be accurately linked to a trustworthy profile resulting in an increase in the accuracy and reliability of search results for users and higher rankings and better click-through rates for the content producers.

Increase click-through rate from search results

By using Google authorship, content producers will allow Google to display their author information in search results and give them an opportunity to stand out from the crowd.

The Power of Mental Fortitude authorship search result

Research shows that rich snippets within search results helps improve click-through rate (CTR) and further studies indicate that associating a (good) picture with your Google+ profile can help boost CTR from search results as part of authorship mark-up.

 

For content consumers, effective use of authorship also provides a number of advantages that savvy content producers can benefit from:

Adds credibility, context and meaning to content

I’m a big fan of Mitch Joel’s work. Over a long period of time I’ve read Mitch’s blog posts, articles and book as well as listen to his excellent weekly podcast. I’ve developed a deep admiration for his style, craft and experience and therefore rely on his opinion and insight.

So when I come across a piece of content from Mitch I immediately feel a sense of quality in what I’m consuming based on my knowledge about him. I’m not reading just any old post about thought-leadership. It’s a post about thought-leadership from someone I know has the knowledge, intelligence and professional background to talk confidently about this subject.

Provides a visible reputation behind content creators

Whether you’re logged in to Google or not, search results for certain topics will show an author’s profile picture next to a search listing if the author has chosen to link the published content to their Google+ profile.

For example, if someone were to search for ‘SEO best practices’ they might see the following results:

Search result for 'seo best practices'

Whilst any of these results might be suitable, if the searcher is familiar with my work, for example, through my blog, Smart Insights or from a professional event, they may feel more confident that the content I’ve produced will answer their question rather than the other results (and of course the opposite is true if they don’t trust my opinion – reputation works both ways!).

Logging in to Google personalises search results

Searches are becoming increasingly personalised, especially for those that are logged in to Google. Search results are taking account of sites have been visited most frequently and content that’s been +1ed and favourited.

Authorship is playing an important role for those developing a following on Google+. For example, when I search for a subjects when signed in to Google, results are sometimes personalised and content prioritised based on my social connections on Google+.

Claim your identity!

There a number of great advantages to using Google’s authorship mark-up so make sure you claim your identity and get started.

Focus on becoming a known, credible topic expert of the subjects you’re passionate about and build your online profile and manage your reputation across multiple platforms.

A version of this post was originally published on Smart Insights on 16th October 2013. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure!