Why testing is more important than ever in SEO

With the lat­est updates to search in 2016, experts say SEO and dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing efforts should be root­ed in opti­miz­ing expe­ri­ences in order to gain effi­cien­cies and increase vis­i­bil­i­ty.

Lisa Lacy By Lisa Lacy. Join the discussion » 0 comments

Thanks to the updates we’ve seen in 2016, there’s a whole new lay­er of com­plex­i­ty in search. And that means test­ing – and track­ing – are more impor­tant than ever.

Here’s why brands should have their own inter­nal process­es in place, what the mobile index means for results track­ing – and whether these process­es should include each and every tee­ny, tiny site change.

Why testing and tracking are important…

For his part, Mar­cus Miller, head of SEO and dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing at agency Bowler Hat, said brands should absolute­ly have their own test­ing and track­ing process­es in place – as well as clear objec­tives.

This all has to come back to mar­ket­ing strat­e­gy and a clear under­stand­ing of what you are try­ing to get out of search,” he said. “Are you look­ing to raise brand aware­ness? Are you hop­ing to engage your audi­ence? Or, are you sim­ply look­ing for more leads or sales? Once you have clear goals for your SEO cam­paigns that are clear­ly aligned with your busi­ness objec­tives, then you can deter­mine the SEO KPIs that are rel­e­vant to your cam­paigns and then con­sis­tent­ly track these as [you] imple­ment your cam­paigns.”

Per Jason Parks, pres­i­dent of dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing agency The Media Cap­tain, the brands that take SEO seri­ous­ly have always had test­ing and track­ing in place.

Sim­ple changes like adding more qual­i­ty con­tent onto a web page, chang­ing a title tag or con­duct­ing a redi­rect can have big ram­i­fi­ca­tions. With­out test­ing, you’ll nev­er know whether or not you made the right move,” he said. “For track­ing, there are so many dif­fer­ent tools that can be used to mon­i­tor your progress, like Moz and SEM­rush. I believe track­ing is the sin­gle most impor­tant com­po­nent to be proac­tive with your SEO so you can detect trends and react based off of hun­dreds of key­word trends.”

David Attard from web ser­vices firm Dart Cre­ations agreed test­ing and track­ing should always be a core part of an SEO strat­e­gy, and that it often draws atten­tion to areas you may have yet con­sid­ered.

By track­ing which queries your pages are already rank­ing for… you can improve your arti­cle and opti­mize for spe­cif­ic key­words which you did not have in mind ini­tial­ly,” he added.

Monitor long-term trends

Brock Mur­ray, COO of SEO and PPC com­pa­ny seo­plus+, too, under­scored the impor­tance of track­ing – and not mak­ing any rash changes.

While it’s impor­tant to mon­i­tor dai­ly, look at the long-term trend, not day-to-day fluc­tu­a­tions. See­ing your rank­ings nose­dive out of the blue can be quite wor­ri­some, but more often than not, they bounce back just 24 hours lat­er,” he said. “As long as it is trend­ing in the right direc­tion in a weekly/monthly/yearly view, that’s what you need to look at. Mak­ing site adjust­ments out of pan­ic is nev­er advised, and con­stant tweaks, espe­cial­ly to impor­tant ele­ments like the title tag or home­page con­tent can con­fuse search­bots.”

As a result, Mur­ray said some­times doing noth­ing at all is the best strat­e­gy.

If you’re trend­ing down­ward, then it’s time to imple­ment a new strat­e­gy, be it SEO, con­tent or link build­ing, but give the strat­e­gy time to take effect,” he added. “Don’t just scrap it 48 hours lat­er because it isn’t work­ing yet.”

Dan Kurns, dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing asso­ciate at dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing agency Blue Com­pass, too, said his firm is con­stant­ly push­ing clients to devel­op inter­nal process­es for track­ing and opti­miz­ing SEO ele­ments.

It can be invalu­able to know what is dri­ving the most traf­fic from search and what maybe did not per­form as well,” he said. “The largest road­block we see with our clients is the time com­mit­ment SEO appears to require, but, in real­i­ty, tak­ing 20 min­utes to track traf­fic each week can pro­vide a sig­nif­i­cant amount of infor­ma­tion to your team.”

How­ev­er, Joel Swaney, direc­tor of SEO at dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing agency Nina Hale, not­ed while it is impor­tant for brands to have test­ing plans in place, the first ques­tion to ask is what should be mea­sured.

All mar­keters should have a mea­sure­ment strat­e­gy in place that tracks the per­for­mance of mar­ket­ing efforts based on company/department goals. How else would you know if your efforts are work­ing?” he said. “With a mea­sure­ment strat­e­gy estab­lished, mar­keters can then look at the per­for­mance of pri­or­i­ty KPIs indi­vid­u­al­ly or as a whole. If the con­tent or site is not meet­ing set expec­ta­tions, brands should have process­es in place to test, adjust, opti­mize and repeat.”

Accord­ing to Bri­an Niebler, direc­tor of SEO strat­e­gy at SEO firm Boost SEO, SEO is more in depth than ever before, so test­ing should be a par­tic­u­lar pri­or­i­ty for brands if they’re not where they want to be in organ­ic search rank­ings.

If you want to move up the lad­der with­in the search engines, you need to have plat­forms in place that allow you to test dif­fer­ent vari­ables over peri­ods [of] time and see what results stick. Then you can imple­ment these on your own brand’s pages,” he added. “This is why it’s always good to con­sult an SEO expert that has test­ing plat­forms already in place, rather than test­ing live on your own web­site. All too often I see busi­ness­es that are dis­ap­point­ed that they’re not rank­ing for a spe­cif­ic key­word, so they tweak the page sev­er­al dif­fer­ent times with the hope that it will help. In the end, it ends up back­fir­ing and they move fur­ther down in search results.”

Establishing Processes

And while busi­ness­es can always undo what they’ve done, many teams don’t have process­es in place to track the steps that they’ve already tak­en, Niebler not­ed.

If you don’t thor­ough­ly track move by move what you’re doing on your web­site and how rank­ings are fluc­tu­at­ing because of it, you may not have that track record of steps that you can undo,” he said. “Make sure there are sheets list­ing every change that is made so you can go back to square one if results don’t work out the way you want them to.”

Tom La Vec­chia, pres­i­dent of mar­ket­ing agency X Fac­tor Media, agreed test­ing is vital as brands need to mea­sure results for their cur­rent key­word tar­get­ing in order to attract traf­fic, as well as to retain and con­vert that traf­fic.

Indeed, Swap­nil Bhag­wat, senior man­ag­er at con­sult­ing firm Orches­trate Tech­nolo­gies, said using method­olo­gies such as A/B test­ing, many brands have under­tak­en new ways to test their hypothe­ses, extract­ing con­crete for­mu­las based on what actu­al­ly works for them.

Most lead­ing search engines have been rolling out advanced algo­rith­mic devel­op­ments that have impact­ed the desk­top SERPS while adher­ing to mobile-friend­ly guide­lines at the same time,” he said. “Yet, as con­ver­sion rates mat­ter the most, mak­ing per­cep­ti­ble aug­men­ta­tion to our con­tent and pages has already turned into a neces­si­ty.”

That being said, search com­plex­i­ty will only con­tin­ue to expand as time goes on, said Josh Pat­ter­son, senior SEO direc­tor at bou­tique agency Jel­ly­fish.

Not only should brands be look­ing at how the preva­lence of things like knowl­edge graph, quick answers, news and carousels can affect search per­for­mance spe­cif­ic to their indus­try, but also take the time to under­stand aspects like the con­tent for­mats search engines pre­fer, or how they appear to be under­stand­ing search intent for a giv­en set of queries,” he added. “For exam­ple, the query ‘2017 Hon­da Accord’ may return more research-focused results [where­as] the query ‘2012 Hon­da Accord’ may return results list­ing vehi­cles for sale. While report­ing suites can pick up on a base lay­er for some of these nuances, much of this can sim­ply come down to man­u­al dili­gence and analy­sis.”

What’s more, Joshua Ueber­gang, head of strat­e­gy at Shopi­fy opti­miza­tion agency Dig­i­tal Darts, not­ed there are nuances.

In con­ver­sion opti­miza­tion, you do not want to run sim­ple tests on a web­site when it gets one thou­sand vis­i­tors a month because of the 3+ month peri­od you’ll have to wait for to get sta­tis­ti­cal sig­nif­i­cance — and that’s for a good test. Gen­er­al­ly con­ver­sion experts agree 9 out of 10 tests fail,” he said.

Fur­ther, Ueber­gang said an algo­rithm update is like­ly to impact search results with longer peri­ods of test­ing and brands with low organ­ic pres­ence are like­ly to receive less ben­e­fit from test­ing com­pared to com­pa­nies with greater organ­ic pres­ences.

Mobile Index

At the same time, most search insid­ers agree mobile and desk­top results should now be tracked inde­pen­dent­ly.

I am big believ­er in gran­u­lar­i­ty in report­ing and if your desk­top and mobile rank­ings are out-of-line then you know there is some­thing that needs inves­ti­gat­ing,” Miller said. “Ulti­mate­ly track­ing mobile and desk­top rank­ings will pro­vide the intel­li­gence need­ed to inform your SEO cam­paigns in 2017 and beyond.”

And, for his part, Mic­ah Pratt, SEO strate­gist for insur­ance web­site Obrel­la, said, “Up until recent­ly, Google would crawl the desk­top ver­sion of a web­site and mim­ic mobile results off of that. Google is now using sig­nals it gets from crawl­ing mobile sites to rank…mobile [and] it will ulti­mate­ly be the rank­ing fac­tor for desk­tops. Until this is ful­ly rolled out, Google will be rank­ing mobile and desk­top sep­a­rate­ly. As SEOs, if we track per­for­mance sep­a­rate­ly now, when Google’s mobile index­ing is 100% rolled out, we can be aware of how it could impact desk­top per­for­mance and take nec­es­sary steps to improve.”

La Vec­chia agreed mobile/desktop rank track­ing should be sep­a­rate in the wake of the AMP roll­out.

I rec­om­mend invest­ing in an SEO soft­ware that can track both desk­top and mobile for your site,” Parks added. “Each week, when your reports come through, you can deter­mine if there is a major dis­crep­an­cy between desk­top and mobile rank­ing and then use the data to make changes so the dif­fer­ent ver­sions of your site rank con­sis­tent­ly.”

Fur­ther, Kurns said the mobile index means it will be even more impor­tant to opti­mize con­tent for both mobile and desk­top and track­ing how you rank for them sep­a­rate­ly will pro­vide even more options when devel­op­ing strat­e­gy or con­tent.

Just as you would mea­sure dif­fer­ent chan­nels and their impact on mar­ket­ing goals, device type should be a part of the mea­sure­ment strat­e­gy when it comes to search,” Swaney added. “With Google’s forth­com­ing mobile index update, device-type mea­sure­ment and track­ing will be more cru­cial than ever for meet­ing the needs of searchers on those devices.”

Accord­ing to Pat­ter­son, how­ev­er, it’s not quite that sim­ple.

Rank track­ing in gen­er­al can be both cost­ly and time-con­sum­ing to track and ana­lyze. This is only com­pound­ed when con­sid­er­ing track­ing across mul­ti­ple device seg­ments,” he said. “With the right sys­tem in place this can be fruit­ful, but some con­sid­er­a­tions should be made first.”

For starters, Pat­ter­son said brands should ask if their mobile expe­ri­ence dif­fers great­ly from the desk­top ver­sion.

If they are vir­tu­al­ly the same in terms of con­tent, pre­sen­ta­tion, etc. – e.g. respon­sive – mobile rank­ings may not dif­fer that much from organ­ic,” he said. “Sec­ond, does the search intent of some­one brows­ing for a par­tic­u­lar set of queries dif­fer from desk­top to mobile? For exam­ple, the query ‘Empire State Build­ing’ via desk­top may be of a more research-focused intent, while the same query on mobile may be look­ing for the address or direc­tions. If this is the case, sec­ondary rank track­ing for mobile may be a good con­sid­er­a­tion.”

For his part, Mur­ray said brands should track results inde­pen­dent­ly, but – sur­prise, sur­prise – if they track only one, it should mobile.

As desk­top is now a sec­ondary index, your absolute top pri­or­i­ty should be to have an opti­mized mobile pres­ence. Not only will [it] give you bet­ter results in the SERPs, it will deliv­er a bet­ter expe­ri­ence to users who are steadi­ly trend­ing to mobile-only brows­ing,” he said. “The switch to a mobile index should act as a swift kick in the rear to any brands in denial about the soon-to-be dom­i­nance of mobile search and brows­ing.”

Incremental Changes

Best prac­tices dic­tate brands should update their sites with new con­tent — and also track­ing its per­for­mance.

It can be easy to cre­ate con­tent and then leave it if it is cur­rent­ly per­form­ing well. This set-it-and-for­get-it men­tal­i­ty impacts a brand’s abil­i­ty to stay com­pet­i­tive,” Swaney added. “All SEO and dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing efforts should be root­ed in opti­miz­ing expe­ri­ences in order to gain effi­cien­cies and increase vis­i­bil­i­ty.”

In fact, Niebler said brands should always be track­ing every step that is made when it comes to con­tent and pages.

If you make changes on a page and search rank­ings plum­met in the next week, you need to have records of what was done so you can go back and make the tweaks you need to get it back to where it was,” he said. “On the oth­er hand, if you have a page with­in your busi­ness that brings in a major­i­ty of your traf­fic and ranks very well, I would con­tin­u­al­ly keep that page updat­ed through­out the year. Keep a fresh­ness fac­tor to it by updat­ing small snip­pets of the con­tent and show­ing that the page was updat­ed every few months. This will show Google that your page is still rel­e­vant to the cur­rent date.”

Because con­tent is – ahem – king, Pratt agreed brands should nev­er stop look­ing for ways to improve both well-per­form­ing and under­per­form­ing con­tent.

As SEOs, we should be work­ing close­ly with the con­tent strate­gist and rec­om­mend­ing con­tent updates,” he added. “This can include refresh­ing sta­tis­ti­cal data to [the] most time­ly, includ­ing con­tent sec­tions that fur­ther devel­op the main take­away of the page, pro­vid­ing addi­tion­al resources for con­sumers to use and so on.”

And, for his part, Pat­ter­son said fresh con­tent has always been seen as hav­ing a pos­i­tive influ­ence on search engine pref­er­ence.

As a gen­er­al best prac­tice, rou­tine­ly updat­ed page con­tent should always be a part of a well-round­ed SEO strat­e­gy,” he added.

Mur­ray, how­ev­er, said the advent of real-time updates has result­ed in a dou­ble-edged sword.

On the one hand, it’s great that on-site improve­ments can result in more imme­di­ate div­i­dends [in] the rank­ings. You aren’t frozen wait­ing for the next algo­rithm update to see if it worked,” he said. “On the oth­er hand…it makes it tempt­ing to over-opti­mize, fix what isn’t bro­ken, or swap out con­tent before it even has time to take effect. Only make incre­men­tal adjust­ments if they fit with your broad­er strat­e­gy and are actu­al­ly improve­ments, not just changes for the sake of change.”

And for his part, Miller not­ed the biggest change with recent algo­rithm updates is that it will be hard­er to tell if a cer­tain algo­rithm com­po­nent has had a neg­a­tive or pos­i­tive effect on your site.

His­tor­i­cal­ly, if Pen­guin or Pan­da rolled out on a giv­en date and your traf­fic fell you could do tar­get­ed analy­sis to iden­ti­fy the pages and search terms that were effect­ed, Miller said. Now, with these qual­i­ta­tive com­po­nents being real time with no fur­ther stat­ed updates then it will be hard­er to pin traf­fic drops to a spe­cif­ic com­po­nent of the algo­rithm. It will also be hard­er for the indus­try to do meta analy­sis of sites pos­i­tive­ly or neg­a­tive­ly effect­ed and as such it may be hard­er to know exact­ly what to do.

Miller, how­ev­er, said he sees this as a pos­i­tive.

Many busi­ness­es spend far too much time try­ing to chase the algo­rithm and find the SEO sil­ver bul­let. This often detracts from just doing great mar­ket­ing,” he said. “If you can focus on a strate­gic mar­ket­ing mind­set and always be look­ing to work with the search engines and pro­vide the best over­all expe­ri­ence for your users then you won’t have to wor­ry about fringe com­po­nents of an algo­rithm that is pri­mar­i­ly focused on help­ing peo­ple find the best results.”

Share your thoughts about SEO testing/tracking, or the intri­ca­cies of the mobile index in the com­ments below.

Lisa Lacy

Written by Lisa Lacy

Lisa is a senior features writer for Inked. She also previously covered digital marketing for Incisive Media. Her background includes editorial positions at Dow Jones, the Financial Times, the Huffington Post, AOL, Amazon, Hearst, Martha Stewart Living and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.

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