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.”
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.
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.”
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.