A Mature Digital Marketing Industry Provides SEO Opportunity For Small & Ambitious Businesses
As we approach the end of the year, I thought it would be worth reviewing 2013 — and discussing what opportunities lie ahead — from the perspective of a UK-based SEO with a diverse range of multinational clients.
This past year has unarguably been an exciting year for search marketing. We’ve seen Google take dramatic action to clean up its search result pages with its well-publicized Penguin and Panda updates, both of which are still being tweaked in ongoing updates.
This has resulted in a “clearing away” of lower quality sites using unethical SEO techniques and, therefore, a reward of greater visibility for brands “doing the right thing” online — much to the delight of ethical SEO agencies that play by the rules and focus on building relevancy, quality and long-term value for their clients.
The impact of this clearing-out, which has been particularly evident in the retail space, is profound, with better general discoverability for legitimate retailers over pure-play affiliate sites with domains to burn for short-term gain.
So, for SEOs running brand protection against knock-off retailers, life got a lot easier in 2013.
The UK has always been well positioned for technical, high-quality SEO agency support, with a number of world-class agencies rising above the substandard “SEO” of public imagination (and I do think we have a reputation issue as an industry). But European and US agencies have also really pushed the envelope in 2013, upping their game and delivering more technical, stats-led strategies using agile tools to drill down to the quick win opportunities that drive bottom-line revenue improvements for their clients.
As a result, forward-thinking businesses are particularly well positioned to take advantage of a number of multinational opportunities today that are present thanks to Google’s relentless focus on search quality.
Tools To Deliver Multinational Without Breaking The Bank
Arguably, there’s never been a better time in history to be a small brand looking to take on the big guns.
Google now offers tools (such as the hreflang sitemap) which allow small retail websites to roll out to new territories with minimal technical challenge and none of the negative SEO impact typically caused by duplication issues. (If you’re interested in the detail, I recommend this roundup on duplication.)
Of course, this advantage is by no means restricted to small sites, but small = agile, which typically means a competitive edge in getting changes implemented onsite.
So, you can now test new markets online in a way that has never been possible without significant technical and PPC budget. In fact, I’d argue that given the ease with which multinational e-commerce processing can be added to sites these days, your only question should be, “Can I reliably fulfill delivery?” If you can, there’s no reason not to be visible in a given target country right now.
I talk further about the SEO opportunity in this technique and its power to deliver a level playing ground across all brands — regardless of size — in a recent eConsultancy post.
In effect, all brands can be multinational. Smaller brands are agile enough that they can steal a march on their larger competitors by utilizing Google’s tools for huge multinational opportunity.
Challenges In Retail: Paying For Freedom
Two recent changes present a challenge to retailers using online as a key channel.
The first is Google’s migration of its shopping search service to paid-only back in February (in the UK, earlier for the US); the second is its dramatic removal of inbound search term data in its Web analytics package. Both require paid search (PPC) whereas before, they were vital tools provided to retailers for free.
Let’s take a look at the first of these.
Where Once There Was Free Traffic…
…now there is only paid.
Google Shopping was once one of the most economical search channels available. In fact, before it became Google Shopping, it was known as Google Base and inclusion could dramatically ramp up traffic for included retailers due to slow adoption.
All that was required was provision of a detailed and well-tagged feed with all items stocked for inclusion. In return, shopping results were regularly placed above #1 rankings for the highest competition search terms, driving huge quantities of traffic for the largest retailers.
Today, PPC budget must be allocated against the feed to retain inclusion. While still effective, this makes Google Shopping a more problematic feed to supply, as there is no control currently (though watch this space!), over how that spend is allocated across the feed. The unwary retailer could easily end up paying over the odds for clicks to low-value items that generate little or no profit margin.
Dynamically adjusting the feed’s listed items is a bootstrapped way of implementing control over the daily budget held against the feed, but more sophisticated bid strategies are required to really regain the power of this channel.
Ideally, stocking provisions and dynamic price control should be the only dynamic feed elements, removing items that are out of stock and synchronizing product price offers through to the SERP. Allowing standard PPC control over the feed bid strategy would allow for regional bid control, multi-device targeting options, product-specific CPCs and ad creative control and testing.
This is a challenging area for retailers, as the technical specifications are rapidly changing and no clear statement has been made by Google relating to its intentions with bid options. Watch this space is the watchword here.
There are clear options when considering the second challenge, however: Google’s removal of search term data from its referral strings.
The first, and most obvious option, is to use something other than Google Analytics — an analytics package that could potentially gather keyword data from a different source. However, there are incumbent issues there: if you’ve previously been relying on Google Analytics, then you’ll be losing comparative historical data.
Think that’s no big deal? Consider how different your retail volumes are in December when compared to January and you’ll hopefully appreciate how important it is to compare like-for-like when performing analysis.
There are some options to consider to replace the data Google is now removing:
- You can replace referrer search terms (and look at your SERP CTR) using Webmaster Tools data. However, this data is not a like-for-like replacement of the original referrer data and needs to be treated as such. For big retailers, it will only be a tiny drop in the ocean of their referrer terms.
- Use third-party tools to gather search term rankings (including those of your competitors). This can be difficult if your tool isn’t up to scratch, or if you’re monitoring a significant chunk of terms.
- Use analytics based on ISP data (though this is a very expensive option and so not practicable for smaller retail brands and also doesn’t solve the referrer string issue).
- Implement thorough (and expensive) PPC campaigns replicating all traffic driving terms to date to gain the equivalent data via paid search.
It is clear that the trend from both of Google’s changes indicates a determination to push search analysis and sophisticated traffic-capturing strategies further into its paid search offering. Businesses which have traditionally stayed clear of paid search would be well advised to revisit their decision and sharpen their paid search skills over the coming months.
The market boasts some fantastically successful online retailers, and the general industry trend shows that retailers are planning to further expand their online marketing efforts in 2014. This is particularly likely in the mobile and tablet space, where the overall level of marketing spend is at a lower density than the traffic opportunity due to the recent massive traffic and retail growth across both device types.
Combined with that trend, the further shift in the retail market into multi-device purchase paths (search at work on a desktop, go into a store and use a mobile for comparison, share the product pictures on the family tablet, etc) suggests that along with multinational opportunities for traffic growth, responsive Web platforms supported by a multi-device, multi-region paid search campaign will flourish in the new year.
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