The Internet Marketing Driver: Glenn Gabe's goal is to help marketers build powerful and measurable web marketing strategies.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

.htaccess for Windows Server: How To Use ISAPI Rewrite To Handle Canonicalization and Redirects For SEO


ISAPI Rewrite, .htaccess for Windows Server.If you’ve read previous blog posts of mine, then you know how important I think having a clean and crawlable website structure is for SEO. When performing SEO audits, it’s usually not long before the important topic of canonicalization comes up. Canonicalization is the process of ensuring that you don’t provide the same content at more than more URL. It’s also one of the hardest words in SEO to pronounce. :) If you don’t address canonicalization, you can end up with identical content at multiple URL’s, which can present duplicate content issues. And you don’t want duplicate content. For example, you don’t want your site to resolve at both non-www and www, at both http and https, using mixed case, having folders resolve with and without trailing slashes, etc.

In addition to handling canonicalization, you also want to have a system in place for handling 301 redirects. A 301 redirect is a permanent redirect and will safely pass PageRank from one URL to another. This comes in handy in several situations. For example, if you go through a website redesign and your URL’s change, if you remove campaign landing pages, if you remove old pieces of content, etc. If you don’t 301 redirect these pages, you could end up paying dearly in organic search. Imagine hundreds, thousands, or millions of URL’s changing without 301 redirects in place. The impact could be catastrophic from an SEO standpoint.

Enter ISAPI Rewrite, .htaccess for Windows Server
So I’m sure you are wondering, what’s the best way to handle canonicalization and redirects for SEO? If you conduct some searches in Google, you’ll find many references to .htacess and mod_rewrite. Using mod_rewrite is a great solution, but it’s only for Apache Server, which is mainly run on linux servers. What about windows hosting? Is there a solution for .net-driven websites?

The good news is that there is a solid solution and it’s called ISAPI Rewrite. ISAPI Rewrite is an IIS filter that enables you handle URL rewriting and redirects via regular expressions. It’s an outstanding tool to have in your SEO arsenal and I have used it now for years. There are two versions of ISAPI Rewrite (versions 2 and 3) and both enable you to handle most of what .htaccess can do. Actually, I think so much of ISAPI Rewrite, that it’s the topic of my latest post on Search Engine Journal.

So, to learn more about ISAPI Rewrite, the two versions available, and how to use it (including examples), please hop over to Search Engine Journal to read my post.

ISAPI Rewrite: Addressing Canonicalization and Redirects on Windows Server

GG

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Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Domain Strategy and SEO – Build Strength in Natural Search While Minimizing Security Risks


Domain Strategy and SEO.Do you know how many domains your company or clients are using? Are they building SEO power to one domain or splitting that power across ten? Do they use an excessive amount of subdomains or are they siloing content on their core website? From a security standpont, is there sensitive content sitting on test servers freely available to competitors? These are all important questions to explore, and how you address these questions can end up having a strong impact on your SEO efforts.

Don’t Overlook Domain Strategy
I’ve written extensively about SEO technical audits here on my blog, and how I think they provide the most SEO bang for your buck. There are a lot of important issues you can identify when performing an audit, including problems with indexation, canonicalization, navigation and internal linking, sitemaps, content optimization, etc. But there’s another important aspect to technical audits that is sometimes overlooked – Domain Strategy. Developing a solid domain strategy helps build the foundation for your overall SEO efforts. For example, would you rather have twelve domains with a few thousand inbound links per domain or one domain with 25K inbound links? Should your blog be hosted on your core domain or be on its own domain? Are you using 35 subdomains to organize content? Do you even need to use subdomains?

Don’t skip domain strategy. It’s too important to ignore. :)

And that’s why it’s the focus of my latest post on Search Engine Journal. I cover what domain strategy is, why it’s important, and I provide real-word situations I’ve come across during audits where developing a domain strategy was desperately needed. So head over to Search Engine Journal and read my post now! If you have comments or questions, feel free to post them either on Search Engine Journal or back here on my blog.

Domain Strategy – A Critical Component to SEO Technical Audits

GG

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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

SEO and AJAX: Taking a Closer Look at Google’s Proposal to Crawl AJAX


Taking a closer look at Google's proposal for crawling AJAX.Last week at SMX, Google announced a proposal to crawl AJAX. Although it was great to hear the official announcement, you had to know it was coming. Too many web applications are using AJAX for Google to ignore it! After the news was released, I received a lot of questions about what the proposal actually means, how it works, and what the impact could be. There seemed to be a lot of confusion, and even with people in the Search industry. And I can understand why. If you don’t have a technical background, then Google’s blog post detailing the proposal to crawl AJAX can be a bit confusing. The mention of URL fragments, stateful pages, and headless browsers can end up being confusing for a lot of people, to say the least. And if you’ve never heard of a headless browser, fear not! Since it’s close to Halloween and I grew up near Sleepy Hollow, I’ll spend some time in this post talking about what a headless browser is.

So based on my observations over the past week or so, I decided to write this post to take a closer look at what Google is proposing. My hope is to clear up some of the confusion so you can be prepared to have your AJAX crawled. And to reference AJAX’s original slogan, let’s find out if this proposal is truly Stronger Than Dirt. :)

Some Background Information About SEO and AJAX:
So why all the fuss about AJAX and SEO? AJAX stands for asynchronous JavaScript and xml, and when used properly, it can create extremely engaging web applications. In a nutshell, a webpage using AJAX can load additional data from the server on-demand without the page needing to refresh. For example, if you were viewing product information for a line of new computers, you could dynamically load the information for each computer when someone wants to learn more. That might sound unimpressive, but instead of triggering a new page and having to wait as the page loads all of the necessary images, files, etc., the page uses AJAX to dynamically (and quickly) supply the information. As a user, you could quickly see everything you need and without an additional page refresh. Ten or more pages of content can now be viewed on one… This is great for functionality, but not so great for SEO. More on that below.

Needless to say, this type of functionality has become very popular with developers wanting to streamline the user experience for visitors. Unfortunately, the search engines haven’t been so nice to AJAX-based sites. Until this proposal, most AJAX-based content was not crawlable. The original content that loaded on the page was crawlable, but you had to use a technique like HIJAX to make sure the bots could find all of your dynamically loaded content. Or, you had to create alternative pages that didn’t use AJAX (which added a lot of rework.) Either way, it took careful planning and extra work by your team. On that note, I’ve yet to be part of project where AJAX developers jump up and down with joy about having to do this extra work. Based on what I explained above, Google’s proposal is an important step forward. But there just had to be a better solution.

What is Google’s Proposal to Crawl AJAX?
When hearing about the proposal, I think experienced SEO’s and developers knew there would be challenges ahead. It probably wasn’t going to be a simple solution. And for the most part, we were right. The proposal is definitely a step forward, but webmasters need to cooperate (and share the burden of making sure their AJAX can be crawled). In a nutshell, Google wants webmasters to process AJAX content on the server and provide the search engines with a snapshot of what the page would look like with the AJAX content loaded. Then Google can crawl and index that snapshot and provide it in the search results as a stateful URL (a URL that visitors can access directly to see the page with the AJAX-loaded content).

If the last line threw you off, don’t worry. We are going to take a closer look at the process that’s being proposed below.

Getting Your AJAX Crawled: Taking a closer look at the steps involved:

1. Adding a token to your URL:
Let’s say you are using AJAX on your site to provide additional information about a new line of products. A URL might look like:

example.com?productid.aspx#productname

Google is proposing that you use a token (in this case an exclamation point !) to make sure Google knows that it’s an AJAX page that should be crawled. So, your new URL would look like:

example.com?productid.aspx#!productname

When Google comes across this URL using the token, it would recognize that it’s an AJAX page and take further action.

2. The Headless Browser (Scary name, but important functionality.)
Now that Google recognizes you are using AJAX, we need to make sure it can access the AJAX page (and the dynamically loaded content). That’s where the headless browser comes in. Now if you just said, “What the heck is a headless browser?”, you’re not alone. That’s probably the top question I’ve received after Google announced their proposal. A headless browser is a GUI-less browser (a browser with no graphical user interface) that will run on your server. The headless browser will process the request for the dynamic version of the webpage in question. In the blog post announcing this proposal, Google referenced a headless browser called HTMLUnit and you can read more about it on the website.

Why would Google require this? Well, Google knows that it would take enormous amounts of power and resources to execute and crawl all of the JavaScript being used today on the web. So, if webmasters help out and process the AJAX for Google, then it will cut down on the amount of resources needed and provide a quick way to make sure the page gets properly crawled.

To continue our example from above, let’s say you already provided a token in your URL so Google will recognize that it’s an AJAX page. Google would then request the AJAX page from the headless browser on your server by escaping the state. Basically, URL fragments (an anchor with additional information at the end of a URL), are not sent with requests to the server. Therefore, Google needs to change that URL to request the AJAX page from the headless browser (see below).

Google would end up requesting the page like this:
example.com/productid.aspx?_escaped_fragment=productname
Note: It would make this request only after it finds a URL using the token explained above (the exclamation point !)

This would tell the server to use the headless browser to process the page and return html code to Google (or any search engine that chooses to participate). That’s why the token is important. If you don’t use the token, the page will be processed normally (AJAX-style). If that’s the case, then the headless browser will not be triggered and Google will not request additional information from the server.

3. Stateful AJAX Pages Displayed in the Search Results
Now that you provided Google a way to crawl your AJAX content (using the process above), Google could now provide that URL in the search results. The page that Google displays in the SERPs will enable visitors to see the same content as if they were traversing your AJAX content on your site. i.e. They will access the AJAX version of the page versus the default content (which is what would normally be crawled). And since there is now a stateful URL that contains the AJAX content, Google can check to ensure that the indexable content matches what is returned to users.

Using our example from above, here is what the process would look like:
Your original URL:
example.com/productid.aspx#productname

You would change the URL to include a token:
example.com/productid.aspx#!productname

Google would recognize this as an AJAX page and request the following:
example.com/productid.aspx?_escaped_fragment=productname

The headless browser (on your server) would process this request and return a snapshot of the AJAX page. The engines would then provide the content at the stateful URL in the search results:
example.com/productid.aspx#!productname

Barriers to Acceptance
This all sounds great, right? It is, but there are some potential obstacles. I’m glad Google has offered this proposal, but I’m worried about how widespread of an acceptance it’s going to gain. Putting some of the workload on webmasters presents some serious challenges. When you ask webmasters to install something like a headless browser to their setup, you never know how many will actually agree to participate.

As an example, I’ve helped a lot of clients with Flash SEO, which typically involves using SWFObject 2.x to provide alternative and crawlable content for your flash movies. This is a relatively straightforward process and doesn’t require any server-based changes. It’s all client side. However, it does require some additional work from developers and designers. Even though it’s relatively painless to implement, I still see a lot of unoptimized flash content out there… And again, it doesn’t require setting up a headless browser on the server! There are some web architects I’ve worked with over the years that would have my head for requesting to add anything to their setup, no pun intended. :) To be honest, the fact that I even had to write this post is a bad sign… So again, I’m sure there are challenges ahead.

But, there is an upside for those webmasters that take the necessary steps to make sure their AJAX is crawlable. It’s called a competitive advantage! Take the time to provide Google what it wants, and you just might reap the benefits. That leads to my final point about what you should do now.

Wrapping Up: So What Should You Do?
Prepare. I would spend some time getting ready to test this out. Speak with your technical team, bring this up during meetings, and start thinking about ways to test it out without spending enormous amounts of time and energy. As an example, one of my clients agreed to wear a name tag that says, “Is Your AJAX Crawlable?” to gain attention as he walks the halls of his company. It sounds funny, but he said it has sparked a few conversations about the topic. My recommendation is to not blindside people at your company when you need this done. Lay the groundwork now, and it will be easier to implement when you need to.

Regarding actual implementation, I’m not sure when this will start happening. However, if you use AJAX on your website (or plan to), then this is an important advancement for you to consider. If nothing else, you now have a great idea for a Halloween costume, The Headless Browser. {And don’t blame me if nobody understands what you are supposed to be… Just make sure there are plenty of SEO’s at the Halloween party.} :)

GG

Related Posts:
The Critical Last Mile for SEO: Your Copywriters, Designers and Developers
Using SWFObject 2.0 to Embed Flash While Providing SEO Friendly Alternative Content
6 Questions You Should Ask During a Website Redesign That Can Save Your Search Engine Rankings
SEO, Forms, and Hidden Content - The Danger of Coding Yourself Into Search Obscurity

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Monday, September 28, 2009

SEO Technical Audits - A Logical First Step for Improving SEO Results


SEO Website Audits, Why Extensive Technical Audits Are Critically Important.When I begin assisting new SEO clients, I typically start each engagement by completing a thorough SEO technical audit. Actually, I believe technical audits are so important that it's rare for me not to complete one. The reason is simple. An extensive audit identifies the strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities that a client has in natural search. It’s essentially a full analysis of a website and it takes into account several key factors that impact organic search. Needless to say, it's an important part of my seo services.

When speaking with new clients about natural search, I often refer to the four pillars of seo, including structure (a clean and crawlable structure), content (ensuring you have the right content and that it’s optimized), links (inbound links are the lifeblood of seo), and analytics (ensuring you track and analyze your natural search efforts). Then I typically jump back to pillar one and explain that without a clean and crawlable structure, you’re dead in the water. You can essentially forget about the other three pillars if your content can’t be crawled and indexed... For example, I was helping a site that already had over 1.3 million inbound links, yet the site ranked for almost no target keywords. The site had a massive structural problem, which was wreaking havoc on a number of important factors for SEO. The site could have built another 1.3 million links and nothing would have changed. The structure and architecture needed to be addressed before any impact would be seen. That’s a good example of when a technical audit was desperately needed (and you better believe I started one quickly to identify all of the barriers present on the site.)

The Core Benefits of an SEO Technical Audit
SEO technical audits yield several key benefits for clients looking to improve their results in natural search. The first benefit is that the audit yields an actionable remediation plan, which is a deliverable that documents each of the findings from the audit (along with how to address each issue.) To me, it’s one of the most important deliverables in SEO (especially in the beginning phases of an SEO engagement.) The remediation plan enables clients to fully understand where their website (or network of websites) stands SEO-wise. They get a lay of the land, understand the core problems impacting their website, and identify key opportunities in natural search (some of which can be tackled immediately). For example, I once helped a website jump from 250K pages indexed to 1.1 million in less than a month based on relatively painless changes to the site’s structure. That opened up a massive amount of content that was essentially hidden from the search engines. Without the audit, they probably would have stayed at 250K pages indexed and missed a huge opportunity…

Another benefit is that the audit helps build an SEO roadmap, which is a critical plan for how a client is going to achieve its goals in natural search. You know where the site stands, what needs to be addressed, what the key opportunities are, and how long each step will take. Working directly with a client’s team (executives, marketers, programmers, designers, copywriters, etc.) you can map out the necessary steps to remediate the site and expand your efforts. Everyone should have a solid feel for what needs to completed, and every person on the team is involved. In case you haven’t read my previous posts, I typically refer to a company’s team of developers, designers, and copywriters as The Critical Last Mile for SEO. Without their input and cooperation, you’re going to have a heck of time getting things done and seeing success.

What Can You Learn From an SEO Technical Audit?
Extensive audits produce a wealth of knowledge about the website in question. Although there are some people that might want to charge the (SEO) hill without conducting a thorough audit, I think that's a dangerous proposition. Thorough research and analysis are critically important when trying to determine obstacles in natural search. Without fully understanding what you are facing, you risk wasting time, a massive amount of effort (from everyone involved), burning through budget, and all while producing little results. Don’t charge the hill without a solid plan in place.

So, what can you find when performing a technical audit? To answer that question, let’s take a look at a hypothetical situation. Imagine you’re a VP or Director of Marketing that has a serious SEO problem. How important would finding the following things be for you?

Your SEO website audit revealed:

* Your company was using seven domains, and splitting your content across all of them. All seven have built up their own amount of SEO power (and none of them are very powerful).
* A website redesign was just completed, but without a proper migration strategy in place. This left thousands of pages, and possibly hundreds of thousands of inbound links, in limbo.
* Your website just added a killer web application, but that same application is hiding 90% of your content.
* Your website houses 750 videos across 30 categories, but none of them are indexed and ranking.
* Your navigation is half as robust as it needs to be, and uses several 302 redirects to link to each page.
* Every campaign landing page you launch disappears after the campaign ends (wasting thousands of powerful links.)
* Your new product pages are beautiful, but they contain a heavy amount of flash content and almost no text. And to add insult to injury, your flash content isn’t even optimized.
* 600 pages on your website are optimized the same exact way.
* Your site contains 200 pages, but over 2000 are indexed. Huh? What does that even mean?
* Your 404 page looks great, but it issues 200 codes (telling the engines the pages in question loaded successfully).
* At any given time, thousands of URL’s can change, wasting all of the SEO power they have built up over time.

I can keep going here... and you can probably start to see why I think SEO technical audits are so important. :) You never know what you’ll find, and many times these little gremlins are severely impacting your natural search efforts. Without conducting an extensive audit, you might only identify a small percentage of the problems impacting the website. That could leave the most important, and deepest structural problems hidden and unaddressed. And those deeper structural problems might be causing 90% of your SEO issues. By tackling only 10% of your problems, you might not make a dent in your efforts and performance in natural search.

SEO Audit Details: Deliverables, Cost, and Length of Time
In case you are wondering what a technical audit looks like, the deliverable is typically a PowerPoint presentation. Using PowerPoint enables you to provide visuals, screenshots, callouts, etc. It also works well when you need to present to larger groups of people. There are times a Word document will suffice, but unless you're audience is extremely familiar with the technical aspects you will be referring to in the remediation plan, I recommend going with PowerPoint. The length of time for completing an audit (and subsequent cost) completely depends on the size and complexity of the website. For example, larger, more complex sites might yield a 70 or 80 slide deck where smaller websites might yield 25-30 slides. I’ve seen audits completed in less than a week and others that take 6-8 weeks to complete. It makes sense if you think about it. You might have one website that has fewer than 50 pages and another site that has millions of webpages… The two presentations might look very different.

A Critical Component: The Analyst Completing Your Audit
It’s important that you find a consultant or agency that matches well with your business, industry, and the type of content you provide. You definitely don’t want to spend time and money on an audit that produces little results. So it's important that you choose a consultant or agency that can produce a remediation plan that's technically sound, thorough, and actionable. Find out how many audits the agency or analyst has completed. Find out which verticals they have focused on, and then ask for results based on their audits. For example, if you're a small business, find out if the SEO focuses on SMB's and local search. If you have expanded internationally, then ask if the SEO understands international SEO. If you focus on video, make sure the SEO has in depth experience with Video SEO. If you have 10 million webpages, then find out the largest website the consultant has worked on. You get the picture.

A quick example: All technical audits are not created equally:
I was asked to analyze a website last year and give the site a score for SEO (0-100, where 100 was be the best possible SEO situation). Before presenting my findings, I was told that the site was previously audited and was given a score of 75%. I was pretty shocked to hear that score. I had given the website a score of 35%. From my perspective, the site needed serious help… There's a big difference between the two scores, right? But, there’s also a reason the company had chosen to have a second audit performed. They weren’t seeing results after the first was completed. A score of 35% was accurate and we quickly were able to identify projects to tackle and develop a roadmap.

Unfortunately, technical audits that provide a shallow or incomplete view of your website can be dangerous. That type of audit could yield what I call “the snake oil effect”. That’s when internal employees become desensitized to SEO, don’t believe it can actually work, and focus their attention on less powerful initiatives. Think about it, if you’re an executive that allocated significant budget for several SEO efforts but never saw results, then your view of SEO will probably be skewed. Don’t let that happen! Natural search is too important.

The Most SEO Bang for Your Buck
If you are unhappy with your natural search results and you are determining where to begin, don’t overlook the power of an SEO technical audit. As I mentioned above, an audit can yield a detailed remediation plan in a relatively short amount of time. The remediation plan can yield a roadmap for your efforts, which can include projects that improve your overall SEO performance (including crawlability, indexation, content optimization, rankings, and targeted traffic.) That’s why I consider technical SEO audits a logical first step for most companies. It can provide serious SEO bang for your buck.

GG

Related Posts:
6 Questions You Should Ask During a Website Redesign That Can Save Your Search Engine Rankings
The Critical Last Mile for SEO, Your Designers, Developers, and Copywriters
SEO, Forms, and Hidden Content - The Danger of Coding Yourself Into Search Obscurity

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Tuesday, September 08, 2009

SEO, Forms, and Hidden Content - The Danger of Coding Yourself Into Search Obscurity


How forms and web applications can hide content from the search engines.When I perform a competitive analysis for a client, I often uncover important pieces of information about the range of websites they are competing with online. Sometimes that information is about traffic, campaigns, keywords, content, inbound links, etc. There are also times I uncover specific practices that are either beneficial or problematic for the competitor. For example, they might be doing something functionality-wise that could be inhibiting the overall performance of the site. If I do uncover something like that, I usually dig much deeper to learn more about that problem to ensure my clients don’t make the same mistakes. So, I was analyzing a website last week and I uncovered an interesting situation. On the surface, the functionality the site was providing was robust and was a definite advantage for the company, but that same functionality was a big problem SEO-wise. Needless to say, I decided to dig deeper to learn more.

Slick Web Application Yielding Hidden Content
As part of the competitive analysis I was completing, I came across a powerful web application for finding a variety of services based on a number of criteria. The application heavily used forms to receive information from users. The application included pretty elaborate pathing and prompted me to clarify answers in order to provide the best recommendations possible. After gathering enough information, I was provided with dozens of targeted service listings with links to more information (to more webpages on the site). So you might be thinking, “That sounds like a good thing Glenn, what’s the problem?” The problem is that the web application, including the robust form functionality, essentially hid all of the content from the search engines. In this case, we are talking about more than 2000 pages of high quality, high demand content. I say “high demand”, because I completed extensive keyword research for this category and know what people are searching for. Unfortunately for this company, the application yielded results that are simply not crawlable, which means the site has no chance to rank for competitive keywords related to the hidden pages. And by all means, the site should rank for those competitive keywords. For those of you asking, “but isn’t Google crawling forms?” I’ll explain more about that below. For this application, none of the resulting content was indexed.

Losing Visitors From Natural Search and Missing Opportunities For Gaining Inbound Links
Let’s take a closer look at the problem from an SEO standpoint. Forms often provide a robust way to receive user input and then provide tailored information based on the data collected. However, forms can also hide that content from the search engine bots. Although Google has made some strides in executing forms to find more links and content, it’s still not a perfect situation. Google isn’t guaranteeing that your forms will be crawled, it limits what it will crawl to GET forms (versus POST), and some the form input is generated by common keywords on the page (for text boxes). That’s not exactly a perfect formula.

Using forms, you might provide an incredible user experience, but you might also be limiting the exposure and subsequent traffic levels to your web application from natural search. I come across this often when conducting both SEO technical audits and competitive analyses for clients. In this case, over 2000 pages of content remain unindexed. And if the content is not indexed, then there is no way for the engines to rank it highly (or at all).

The Opportunity Cost
Based on the keyword research I performed, a traffic analysis of competing websites, and then comparing that data to the 2000 pages or so of hidden content, I estimate that the site in question is missing out on approximately 10-15K highly targeted visitors per day. That additional traffic could very easily yield 300-400 conversions per day, if not higher, based on the type of content the site provides.

In addition to losing targeted traffic, the site is missing a huge opportunity to gain powerful inbound links, which can boost its search power. The content provided (yet hidden) is so strong and in demand, that I can’t help but think the 2000 pages would gain many valuable inbound links. This would obviously strengthen both the domain’s SEO power, as well as the power of the specific pages (since the more powerful and relevant inbound links your site receives, the more powerful it is going to become SEO-wise.)

Some Usability Also Hindered
Let’s say you found this form and took the time to answer all the questions. After you completed the final steps of the form, you are provided with a list of quality results based on your input. You find the best result, click through to more information, and then you want to bookmark it so you can return later. But unfortunately you can’t… This is due to the web application, which doesn’t provide permanent URL’s for each result. Yes, the form is slick and its algorithm is great, but you don’t have a static page that you can bookmark, email to someone else, etc. How annoying is that? So if you want to return to the listing in question, you are forced to go back through the form again! It’s another example of how SEO and usability are sometimes closely related.

SEO and Forms, A Developer's Perspective
I started my career as a developer, so I fully understand why you would want to create a dynamic and powerful form-based application. This specific form was developed using asp.net, which utilizes postback (where the form actually posts back information to the same page). The URL doesn’t change, and the information submitted is posted back to the same page where the programmer can access all of the variables. Coding-wise, this is great. SEO-wise, this produces one URL that handles thousands of different pieces of content. Although you might have read that Google started crawling html forms in 2008, it’s a work in progress and you can’t guarantee that all of your forms will be crawled (to say the least…) On that note, you should really perform a thorough analysis of your own forms to see what Google is crawling and indexing. You might be surprised what you find (good or bad). So, the application I analyzed (including the forms) isn’t being crawled, the URL never changes, the page optimization never changes, and the content behind the form is never found. This is not good, to say the least.

If I were advising the company using this application, I would absolutely recommend providing another way to get the bots to all of this high quality content. They should definitely keep their robust web application, but they should also provide an alternative path for the bots. Then they should optimize all of those resulting webpages so they can rank for targeted queries. I would also disallow the application in robots.txt, blocking the bots from crawling any URL’s that would be generated via the form (just in case). With the right programmer, this wouldn’t take very long and could produce serious results from natural search…

The Most Basic SEO Requirement: Your Content Needs to be Found In Order to Rank
It sounds obvious, but I run into this problem often as I perform SEO technical audits. Your killer content will not rank just because it’s killer content. The content needs to be crawled and indexed in order to rank highly for target keywords. In this case, the site should definitely keep providing its outstanding functionality, but they should seriously think about the search implications (and provide an easy way for the bots to find optimized content.)

The bad news for my client's competitor is that I believe they aren’t aware of the severity of the problem and how badly it’s impacting their natural search traffic. However, the good news for my client is that they know about the problem now, and won’t make the same mistake as their competitor. That’s the power of a competitive analysis. :)

GG

Related Posts:
6 Questions You Should Ask During a Website Redesign To Save Your Search Engine Rankings
The Critical Last Mile for SEO, Your Copywriters, Designers, and Developers

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Monday, August 24, 2009

The 4 Pillars of e-Commerce Excellence, Why Amazon.com Has Earned the “First In Mind” Advantage


The Pillars of e-Commerce Excellence and Amazon.comWhen I work on e-Commerce optimization projects, I often take clients through several examples of what I consider to be e-Commerce excellence. While I go through this process, it usually doesn’t take long before I mention Amazon.com. Amazon consistently exceeds my expectations with selection, ease of use, access, security, and customer service. I've written previously about how strong Amazon is, including a post last year about mobile e-Commerce. I explained how Amazon blurred the line between making a purchase via your browser and your mobile device. It's just another example of how Amazon goes above and beyond to ensure customers can access, browse and purchase across devices. So, after placing yet another order with Amazon late last week, I started to think about the reasons I visit Amazon over other e-Commerce websites. I also started to think about how those reasons apply to other websites (and possibly yours).

Here’s a quick, yet important question you should ask yourself (and yes, I understand that every website can’t be like Amazon):

In your industry, are you the knee-jerk reaction for buying online?

It's such a basic question, but can mean the difference between thousands or millions of dollars in revenue… Do customers think of your business first when they need to buy something? For me, Amazon is often the first website that comes to mind, and there are several reasons for this. As I was writing down the core reasons that I buy at Amazon so much versus other websites, I noticed that I was inadvertently listing the pillars of e-Commerce excellence. More on this shortly.

An Impromptu Friday Afternoon e-Commerce Purchase
Last Friday I needed to buy something quickly. I was in between meetings and only had a few minutes. Literally the first business that came to mind was Amazon.com. I could have purchased the item at a number of websites, but Amazon was my knee-jerk reaction. I also could have stopped on my way home, but Friday evening and New Jersey traffic don’t mix well, to say the least. So I opened up a new tab in Firefox, accessed the website, searched for the product, visited the product detail page and added it to my cart. I then quickly checked out and completed the purchase in less than 90 seconds. From an e-Commerce perspective, that's simply outstanding. I closed the tab, received a confirmation email and was back on another conference call. Then, less than two hours later, I received a shipment notification.
{Update: I just received my order on Monday afternoon using standard shipping. Simply outstanding.}

OK, remember the pillars I mentioned above? Let’s take a look at each pillar of e-Commerce excellence and how Amazon has successfully achieved a first-in-mind advantage.

The Pillars of e-Commerce Excellence:

1. Accessibility and Simplicity
Amazon.com makes it easy to access their website across devices. Amazon also makes it simple to find products, read reviews, view product information, check technical specs, find out what other people have purchased, etc. On Amazon, I'm able to visit the site, search for what I need quickly, and view all of the necessary information in order to make a purchase decision. There are no hoops to jump through, and I don’t necessarily need to be in front of my computer to buy something.

2. Speed and Organization
Amazon.com loads fast, provides an easy to navigate organization of categories, which is almost unnecessary based on how good their on-site search is. Amazon’s search functionality enables you to easily search within their main categories. It’s fast and provides outstanding search results. Product detail pages on Amazon provide a thorough breakdown of valuable information. Note, I said thorough and not elegant and I’ll explain more about that soon. As I explained earlier in the post, I can make a purchase in less than 90 seconds. I can always quickly find what I need, add it to my cart and then check out in a flash. My order is always quick to arrive, but that’s included in another pillar below. A quick recap of pillar #2: Fast, fast, fast, and fast. :)

3. Trust and Security
Security is a big concern in e-Commerce, and it will only become a bigger concern as time goes on and technology progresses. For e-Commerce managers, a lack of security and trust can become a horrible barrier to conversion. However, if you can have prospective customers feel confident that their security is first and foremost, then you can reap great rewards revenue-wise. I always feel 100% confident when I’m buying at Amazon. If you put yourself in the mind of a consumer (and not a marketer), you can quickly understand how people browse through sites and what might be a problem conversion-wise. Some questions pop up like “who owns this site?”, “how long have they been around?”, “where are they located?”, “what happens if I need to return something?”, “how secure is this website?” …so on and so forth. The more you build trust, the easier it is for a person to click “Buy now” or “Proceed to Checkout”. Personally, I don’t even think about security when I’m on Amazon. That’s how much trust they have built up with me. I’ll cover my points system later in the post.

4. Communication and Customer Service
I’m not sure there is anything more frustrating than buying something and then having to jump through hoops to track the order, view order information, contact customer service, or return merchandise. It’s definitely a problem with buying online, and rightfully so based on some e-Commerce operations. Amazon makes it easy for customers to find any information they need, from invoices to tracking information to returns. Simply clicking on Your Account brings you to self service screen that enables you to handle a wide range of customer service tasks. Amazon knew this was important, and knew it could also save them money (a lot of money). Amazon empowers customers to handle various account related tasks by themselves. By far, it’s the fastest and most cost-effective way to handle this. Again, they make it easy for me to want to buy from them...

The Self Service Account Screen on Amazon.com:
Amazon.com Account Screen

The Glenn Gabe Virtual Points System
You may not think about it this way, but you probably have a points system too. Every time I deal with a company and have a good experience, they earn virtual points in my mind. During an average experience, no points are awarded. During a negative experience, several points are deducted, and it depends on how serious the problem was to know how many points should be deducted. Over the years, Amazon has earned a mountain of virtual points. In fact, it has earned so many G-Squared points, that it has earned rollover points. That’s right, it means Amazon could actually screw up a few times, and I would probably still go back. And unlike my friends at AT&T, my G-Squared rollover points don’t expire. ;-)

A Quick Tangent About Website Design and Conversion:
For those of you that obsess about ultra-slick web design, head over to Amazon.com now. Amazon is pretty well known for their continual e-Commerce optimization. From a design standpoint, their pages are relatively plain, they are text-heavy, and it seems like images are thrown around the page. But let me tell you, they convert! They provide all of the necessary information in order to convert browsers into buyers. The pages load fast and have valuable segments of information that push you closer and closer to buying. It proves you don't need crazy functionality or a beautiful design to be a leader in e-Commerce. My advice is to optimize for conversion, and not for awards. :)

Strive for e-Commerce Excellence
So yes, Amazon is the proverbial knee-jerk reaction when I need to buy something online. And I’m sure it won’t surprise you to know that Amazon is probably the knee-jerk reaction for thousands of other people too. But they deserve it and have quite a few G-Squared rollover points to play with.

Here are some quick takeaways:

1. In your industry, is your business the knee-jerk reaction for buying online? If not, which company is? What can you do to get closer?

2. How does your business fare when it comes to the four pillars of e-Commerce excellence I listed above? Can you improve any of the areas quickly while developing a plan to tackle the others?

3. Are your customers writing blog posts about your business like the one I just wrote about Amazon.com? How can you get them to become company evangelists?

Now that you know how I feel about Amazon, I’d like to hear about your favorite companies or e-Commerce websites? Why are they your knee-jerk reaction for buying online?

GG

Related Posts:
Mobile e-Commerce, How Amazon.com blurs the line between web and mobile purchase

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Thursday, September 11, 2008

Mobile eCommerce, Amazon.com Blurs the Line Between Web and Mobile Purchase


Mobile e-Commerce and Amazon.com, Buying From Your Mobile Device.It’s 7:17AM and I just caught the express train from Princeton to New York City. This morning will be a little different, though. I won’t be doing what I typically do during a trip into Manhattan like browsing the latest blog posts and articles about internet marketing, writing new blog posts or using Twitterberry to Tweet on Twitter. {Try and say that 5 times fast!} No, this morning I am going to test the limits of the mobile web. That’s right, I’m going to buy something from my Blackberry! Yes, I know that’s bold… You might be wondering if buying something on your mobile device is seamless yet? Not consistently. Is it something completed often? Definitely not. I’d actually argue that some people don’t even know it’s possible. In addition, many companies unfortunately haven’t made the effort to ensure that your mobile buying experience is easy. This translates into a lack of user trust. And when you have a lack of user trust, people won’t act (or in this case, buy). But there’s an exception to every rule and that exception is Amazon.com when you are referring to mobile e-commerce. I was ridiculously impressed with my mobile purchase the other day. Let’s explore why.

Buying from Amazon.com on the Train
Bryan Eisenberg just released his latest book, Always Be Testing and I’ve been dying to buy it. But, I haven’t had time to buy it from home and I’ve been cranking away at work so my train ride would be the perfect opportunity to make the purchase. That is, if I could successfully make a purchase using my Blackberry, which is easier said than done. Based on my experience testing mobile e-commerce, I was fairly certain that I would run into some glitch along the way, whether that was on my end or on the retailer’s end. So I logged onto Amazon.com in search of Bryan’s latest book, and let me tell you…I was blown away. Amazon has obviously gone to great lengths to make my mobile buying experience as seamless as possible. Let me briefly explain each step of the experience that impressed me.

1. The Basics, A Mobile Version of the Website
As I hit the website, Amazon displayed their mobile version of the website, which is optimized for mobile devices. The site was formatted for my mobile browser and streamlined my visit. Imagine having to load all of the typical Amazon content on your mobile browser…that wouldn’t be good and would be a barrier for many potential customers.

2. Search
The search box was front and center on mobile Amazon. I entered, “Always be testing” and received a nicely formatted, easy to read listing of books. Bryan’s book was the first result. Like I said earlier, easy.

3. Book Detail Page
Then I was taken to a streamlined product detail page. A buy now button was front and center, along with the details of the book. I could easily read editorial reviews and customer reviews, which I thought would be tedious on my Blackberry. It wasn’t. I could also add the book to my watchlist, if needed. Clicking on a review took me to the full customer review with easy navigation back to the detail page.

**And by the way, the pages on the site loaded ridiculously fast (and I’m comparing that to my typical mobile load times).

4. The checkout process…
...was darn smooth. I was able to log into my account and move through the checkout process quickly. Within a few minutes and a few screens, I had ordered my book. I also received the same outstanding correspondence that Amazon typically provides with standard web purchases. And I felt extremely confident that the order went through and that I would receive my book quickly about Google Website Optimizer. And I did…2 days later.

This was by far my best mobile e-commerce experience yet. Actually, it was so good that it’s hard to make a distinction between a typical web buying experience and Amazon’s mobile buying experience. Amazon blurred the line between web and mobile which is not easy to do. They deserve great recognition for this!

Amazon, keep making this easy for us…
And here’s the core point of my blog post. If you make your mobile e-commerce experience seamless, fast, and efficient for customers, then you’ll have a new and powerful opportunity for increasing sales. This is an extremely important point as more and more companies focus on mobile e-commerce and as devices and their capabilities grow. Seriously, as soon as you sit down on the train and look around, everyone has their smartphones out. Talk about an opportunity. :-)

In closing, if you’re a marketer, ask yourself the following questions:
1. Are you ready for mobile customers?
2. Can your site handle mobile purchases?
3. How much revenue are you losing by not having a mobile-ready e-commerce website?
4. Are competitors eating your lunch mobile-wise?

These are important questions that you should bring up to senior leadership at your organization. And when you bring this up, what’s the easiest way to demonstrate the power of mobile e-commerce? Just take out your mobile device and visit Amazon.com, and then compare it to your mobile buying experience. Believe me, I think they’ll get it. ;-)

GG

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Monday, June 02, 2008

Web Analytics and Tracking Offline Conversions | Why I Wouldn’t Want to be the Email Marketing Manager at Toys R Us


Tracking Offline Sales That Originate Online, Toys R Us Email MarketingMaybe that’s a bit harsh, so let me explain. I’m sure it’s a good job and that the person running email marketing enjoys what he/she does, but there is an inherent issue with that position that would drive me absolutely crazy... So, why wouldn’t I want to be the email marketing manager at Toys R Us? It has to do with sales attribution, tracking offline conversions, and what I’ve witnessed first hand over the past 6 months. Let’s start off with some background information.

Let’s Define Sales Attribution:
The definition of sales attribution is the process by which you assign credit (in this case revenue) to a particular sales channel. If you are using a web analytics package on your e-commerce website (and I hope you are), then sales attribution enables you to break down your revenue by channel (email marketing, paid search, organic search, banner advertising, etc.) to gauge how your marketing campaigns are performing.

Receiving the Email and Then Visiting the Store…
I receive email marketing from Toys R Us frequently (being a parent of 2 young children). If something piques my curiosity, I sometimes click through to the website and browse around. That’s good for Toys R Us and their email marketing manager. But…I almost always buy offline, and that’s not so good for the email marketing manager. Now, I’m sure the person running email marketing wants the best for the company and a sale is a sale, but that specific sale won’t be attributed to the email campaign that sparked the transaction. Do you see where I’m going with this? How would you like it if someone else (or department) always took credit for your hard work? Back to why I purchase toys offline. I think you have to be a parent to understand why I almost always buy offline at a Toys R Us store. You see, it’s actually a blast to visit the store with your kids. And, when weekends sometimes feel like a marathon for parents, it’s a much needed break. The only way I would buy from Toy R Us online is if the store near us didn’t have something I desperately needed in stock (and that’s not often). It’s ironic for me…since I buy everything online, but toys seem to be a different story.

Web Analytics and Sales Attribution
Typically, an email marketing campaign is tagged specifically to be tracked in a web analytics package. This is done via tracking parameters added to the links in the email marketing creative you receive. The tracking variables are appended to the URL in the querystring. To see what I’m talking about, check out the following link from an email I received from Lands End this past weekend.

An email link tagged with tracking variables:
http://www.landsend.com/ix/mens-clothing/index.html?tab=1&cm_mmc=usnews-_-usnews_060108_fs_core-_-topnav-_-menstab

Lands End is using Coremetrics (a web analytics package that I am extremely familiar with). The tagging you see in the querystring will enable the web analytics package to attribute the sale to the email marketing I received on Sunday. Based on what I just showed you, I’m sure you can see why tracking online campaigns is much easier to do than offline campaigns (and why it’s much faster to report). You can track each campaign at a granular level and obviously make decisions based on your reporting to improve campaign performance in the future. That said, you still have a problem with tracking offline conversions that started online (like I explained earlier with receiving an email and then visiting the store.) So, as the sales roll in at the store, the poor email marketing manager back at headquarters won’t really be able to attribute that revenue to his or her campaign. Sure, you can guess that the email drove a certain amount of revenue, but you can’t say for sure… Unfortunately, there aren’t many ways around this issue (for now). However, there are some ways to attempt to capture the sale and attribute it correctly and I’ve listed two ideas below.

Some Ideas for Attributing Sales for Offline Transactions That Originate Online:

1. Include a printable coupon in your email.
If you can provide a printable coupon in your email creative, then you might entice a customer to bring it to the store. If the coupon is used, then you can attribute the sale to your email marketing campaign (as long as your systems can communicate with one another). This is not a new technique and it requires a customer to take a few extra steps, but it can help you attribute the sale to your campaign. Hey, every dollar counts when you’re running that channel, right?

2. Have your cashiers ask the question at checkout.
Now, this is definitely not foolproof, since it’s based on human behavior, but it might work for you. Let’s list a few potential problems… The cashier may never ask the question or ask much less frequently than you want. The customer may not tell the truth or shrug off the question. Let’s face it, relying on people to track your sales is not optimal.

Let's Help The Email Marketing Manager at Toys R Us!
So, can you see why I wouldn’t want to be the email marketing manager at Toys R Us? I can’t imagine how many sales are attributed to other channels. That would drive me nuts! But, we can help... If you’ve received an email from Toys R Us, but visited the store to make your purchase, list the date and dollar amount below. Maybe the email marketing manger can import this data into his/her web analytics package and finally get credit for a job well done!

I’ll start:
May 25th, $72.10

GG

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Site Search in Google Analytics, One More Weapon in Your Analytics Arsenal


Site Search Analysis in Web AnalyticsIf you run an e-commerce website, then you already know how important site search is to your business. As websites grow more complex, visitors love to use site search to find products on your website. So, how good of a job does your site search do at connecting visitors to the products that they are looking for? Did you pause? :) In my opinion, site search analysis is a key component to understanding customer behavior and can greatly help enhance your online business. Google Analytics recently launched its Site Search functionality and I wanted to give an introduction to the functionality and reporting now available.

Why is Site Search Analysis Important?
I’ll give you the quick answer… Because visitors on your site are giving you a lot of feedback about how you handle their questions, but unfortunately, the feedback isn't given directly to you. If you were a salesperson in a retail store, you would get immediate feedback, right? “Excuse me Glenn, I’m looking for an HD TV from Samsung. Can you point me in the right direction?” You would obviously know how well you directed that person or how well your store could handle the request (i.e. you might not even carry Samsung HD TV’s.) On a website, you don’t hear the feedback, you don’t immediately know which “aisle” visitors traveled down, and you might not know how much revenue came from that query. This is where site search analysis can greatly help your efforts. And, you can take action relatively quickly based on the data. Again, this will be an introduction to keep the post from being 15 pages long…but I plan to write more about this in future posts. Let’s jump in…

Finding Site Search in Google Analytics:

Clicking Site Search in Google AnalyticsFirst, I’m assuming you have set up site search in your profile. It’s very easy to do and you can find instructions from Google here. Once you are logged in, click the Content tab in the left side navigation, and then click Site Search. You will be taken to the Overview page, where you are provided with several options. Let’s start with the most obvious report for site search, the actual keywords that your visitors are entering on your website.

Search Terms (or Keywords) Used on Your Website:
Click the link under Site Search for Search Terms to view all of the keywords that visitors are using on your website. Cool, right? Do they match what you thought were the top searches? I’m sure there are some surprises… This is a great way to get a top level picture of what people are looking for on your site. Let’s quickly look at some of the key metrics on this page (Note, I will not cover all of the metrics in this post…)

Screenshot of the Search Terms Report:
Click on the image below for a larger version:
Viewing search terms (keywords) in Site Search

Total Unique Searches - This is the logical starting point. You can easily see the hot keywords on your website and then drill into them when you want to view more detailed reporting.

% Search Exit - What a great metric! This is the percentage of people that exited immediately from the search listings after searching for that keyword. It's very similar to bounce rate and it's a great red flag indicator. Imagine you see a 90% search exit rate for a keyword that matches a product you have! Why is that happening? A quick search on your site could possibly reveal the problem. Then go and fix it immediately! :)

% Search Refinements - Or the percentage of people that refined their search keywords after searching for a specific keyword. This reveals a lot about how your visitors search for products. You will love this metric if you plan on making site search enhancements… More on this later. For example, a visitor might start with HD TV, but then refines their search as follows:
HD TV --> Samsung HD TV --> Samsung HD TV LCD

Revenue Anyone?
And of course you can click the tabs for Goal Conversion and E-Commerce at any time to view revenue per keyword or your site conversions per keyword (like newsletter signups, RSS subscriptions, etc.)

Drill Into Your Top Keywords:
You can click any keyword to drill into more detailed reporting. One of my favorite reports is the Search Navigation report, which you can find by clicking the Analyze dropdown once you drill into a specific keyword. Click Analyze and then select Search Navigation. This will show you the page that visitors started their search on (using that keyword), and then where they ended up. You need to click a page on the left and then Google Analytics will show you the page that visitors ended up on (the destination page). You may find some interesting results, like visitors ending up on pages that you would rather them not end up on given their specific search! For example, if someone searches for Samsung HD TV and they end up the Digital Cameras page, you would want to take a hard look at how that happened…

Screenshot of the Search Navigation Report:
Click on the image below for a larger version:
Search Navigation in Site Sarch


Search Term Refinement:
You can also use the Analyze dropdown to select Search Term Refinement, which will enable you to see how visitors refined their searches after first searching for the selected keyword. Using the example I listed above, you might see that visitors started with HD TV, then added a manufacturer Samsung HD TV, and then added a screen type like Samsung HD LCD TV. The way visitors search may be completely different based on the categories of products you sell. You might end up refining your search functionality by category to enhance your visitors’ experience and to maximize sales.

Screenshot of the Search Term Refinement Report:
Click on the image below for a larger version:
Search Term Refinment in Site Search


0 Search Results
Interested in knowing which search terms result in a 0 search results page? This is not built into GA, so finding this takes an extra step. I typically start by finding high % search exits and then hit the e-commerce website in question to see the results. For example, if you see a 90% exit rate after the search for LG HD TV, you might want to check it out. Finding keywords like this can help you determine problematic search results (like if you really had LG HD TV’s!) It can also help you determine possible new product additions. If you don’t carry LG HD TV’s and you have a lot of visitors searching for them, you might want to consider adding them, right? You get the point!

Site Search Usage - Let’s take a step back and look at the usage reporting.
Click the Usage link under Site Search in the left navigation. You can see the number of visits to your site that utilized site search versus not using site search. Then you can use the dropdowns to analyze additional metrics. For example, use the dropdown to show revenue so you can see how much money was generated by visitors using site search. Or, you can view number of transactions from site search versus visitors not using site search. On the right side, you can view a pie chart based on visit type (visits with or without site search). For example, use the right dropdown to view time on site (for visitors who used site search versus not using site search). The Usage reporting is a great way to see how much value your site search is providing your business.

Screenshot of the Site Search Usage Report:
Click on the image below for a larger version:
Search Usage in Site Search Reporting


Which Destination Pages Performed the Best?
By clicking the Destination Pages link under Site Search in the left navigation, you can view all of the pages that visitors were taken to after searching for a keyword. You can quickly use the dropdown to view metrics for that destination page, such as revenue, total unique searches, complete orders, conversion rate, % search exits, etc. This is a great way to look at top performing pages versus poorly performing destination pages. For example, you might be able to find certain elements, calls to action, visuals, etc. from a top performing page that you can apply to poorly performing pages. You can also drill into each page to see the keywords that led to the page. And, you can still use the dropdown up top to view key metrics (now by keyword versus destination page).

Start Pages
To view the pages where searches on your website originated, click Start Pages under Site Search in the left navigation. So, why did searches originate from these pages? Is there something you can do to enhance certain pages? Do any of those pages also have a high bounce rate or exit rate? You can click any of the start pages to view the search keywords that visitors entered while on that page. For example, you might find a category landing page with searches for products not listed on that landing page (even though they are part of that category). If you see enough of a demand for certain products or subcategories, you might try adding them to the landing page. Remember, you want to connect your visitors with the products they are looking for as quickly as possible. If you can take a barrier away, like having to search for the product, then do it. Small adjustments might reap great rewards.

Site Search Trending
The last set of reporting I’m going to cover is Site Search Trending, which can be found under the Site Search tab in the left navigation. By clicking the link for Trending, you can easily see data over time for key metrics in site search. Using the Trending dropdown at the top of the report, you can view visits with search, % search exits, % search refinements, search depth, etc. Keep in mind, this reporting is top level and not for specific searches. It will give you an overall snapshot of how your site search functionality is working. For example, let’s say you’ve had a slight problem recently with visitors not being able to easily find your search box. So you made some changes to its location and want to see if that change affected the percentage of visitors using site search. This is a great report for finding information like this… The trending graph enables you to easily view data over time. That was just a quick example, but I wanted to make sure you understood that Trending was at the site level when looking at this report.

Moving forward with Site Search Analysis…
I hope this post helped introduce Site Search Analysis in Google Analytics and gets you excited about digging deeper. Let’s face it, if someone is searching for products on your site, you don’t want to lose them… To use the retail sales analogy I explained earlier, visitors who are using site search are actually giving you feedback. The problem is that they aren't directly giving the feedback to you! You need to channel their approval or frustration through your site search reporting within Google Analytics (or other web analytics packages). It can help you reveal what’s working and what’s not working. You might be surprised what you find!

GG

Related Posts:
* Analyzing Your Holiday Email Marketing Campaigns Using Google Analytics
* The Referring Sites Report in Google Analytics : Know the Value of Websites Linking to You
* A Review of Google Analytics v2

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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Making Sense of Blog Bounce Rate


Understanding Blog Bounce Rate This is the fourth post in my series on Bounce Rate, which is one of my favorite metrics in web analytics. Many online marketers are concerned with Bounce Rate, which makes a lot of sense since you can learn a lot from this metric… I've recently received many questions about Bounce Rate and how it relates to blog posts, so I thought it would be a good idea to address this topic in a post of my own. Let’s call it “adding context to your blog's bounce rate”.

There are 4 components to this post:
1. Your Blog Philosophy and Goals
2. Your Writing Style and How It Matches the Drivers of Your Readers
3. Related Content
4. Track and Learn

Your Blog Philosophy and Goals:
Determine the goal for your blog. BEFORE you start to analyze bounce rate for your blog posts, you should think about your overall blog philosophy and determine your goals. For example, is your goal to educate readers and to answer questions, are you trying to generate a large readership, will your blog help you sell products or services, is it a key mechanism for getting people to contact you, are you interested in building high search engine rankings, etc? Clearly understanding your goals will help you bring context to the bounce rate of your blog posts. To give a quick example, if your goal is to provide breaking news to your readers, then bounce rate might not be as important as you think. Why? Well, if someone finds your blog post about the latest widget update and they quickly visit the post, check out the breaking news, and then leave, is that bad? No, but that’s technically a bounce. Or, if they find your blog post and immediately choose to subscribe to your RSS feed, is that good or bad? It all depends on your goal... So, stop reading this post for a few seconds and think about the goal of your blog. Then write it down on a sticky note and place that on your desk somewhere you can easily see it. We’ll be referring back to it shortly.

The Angle of Your Blog Posts and the Key Drivers of Your Readers:
Now, let’s take a look at some different types of content and how they match up with the key drivers of your readers. There are a lot of reasons why people visit blog posts and you should try and understand your readers as much as possible in order to provide the best possible experience for them, which in turn, should lead to supporting the goal of your blog. Again, we need to bring context to your bounce rate situation. Note, there are obviously many types of blog posts, but the ones listed below are based on my experience helping clients and working on my own blogs.

Different Types of Blog Posts and Their Effect on Bounce Rate (based on my experience)

1. Educational Posts (Teaching Your Readers Something of Value)
Blog posts that teach your readers something of value. If you know that your readers want to learn something from you, then you have a great chance to provide additional educational content on your blog that would interest them. The key here is to understand what specific topics your readers are interested in based on your analysis, then write high quality posts that focus on that topic, and then provide links to relevant content on your blog. If you understand what your readers want to learn, then there's a good chance they will consume a lot of content on your blog that relates to that topic. And, they will appreciate it…finding your blog a great source of information about an important topic for them.

Educational Posts = Excellent Chance of Low Bounce Rate

2. Focused Entertainment and Isolated Stories
Bill Maher Throws Audience Member Out and Receives over 2000 diggs for it. Some readers simply enjoy finding interesting posts, even if they are very focused and/or isolated. They might love funny blog posts, shocking or disturbing blog posts, unique stories, entertaining posts, misc. facts, weird photos, parodies, etc. If you provide blog posts like this, you might notice higher bounce rates for that specific content. It’s not that readers don’t like you or your posts, it’s just the nature of the content. That said, you still might notice a lot of activity and links (which is a good thing). Think about it, let’s say someone is on digg and clicks through a story to view a video of Bill Maher kicking people out of his audience. You wrote a great post about what happened and how this affects journalists that work in Live TV. You might notice a high bounce rate with this type of post, since the focus might be on finding and watching the video and not on the blog or blog author in question. At this point, look at the sticky note I told you to create a few minutes ago and see how it matches up with the goal of your blog… You might have built 1000 links to your blog from that one post, but no RSS subscriptions. Is that good or bad? Good for organic search, but bad for building readership. Again, it depends on your goal...

Focused Entertainment = Good Chance of High Bounce Rate, but More Eyeballs and Links

3. Product and Service Reviews
Blog posts that provide product or service reviews. Providing reviews based on your expertise is a great way to build a loyal following. The beauty of the web (and blogging and social media), is that you can find reviews from normal, everyday people who will typically give you an honest opinion of a product or service. Readers interested in reviews tend to also follow related content until they have the confidence to make an informed decision. For example, if you review an iPhone and then also review a Blackberry Curve, there’s a great chance readers looking for this type of content will read both posts (as long as you let them know the additional content is there!) More on this later. It makes sense if you think about it. Put yourself in their shoes…you are about to spend a few hundred dollars, you aren’t sure if it’s right for you, and you just found a person like you providing a real-world review without marketing spin. There's a reason that Word of Mouth Marketing (WOM) is as hot as it is now.... Just make sure you find the right blogger…

Product or Service Reviews = Excellent Chance of Low Bounce Rate

4. Blog Posts that Benchmark
Blog posts that benchmark. We’ve all wanted to find blog posts explaining the best way to do something, right? (whether it's for business or personal use) For example, some visitors may be looking for the best way to launch a new business or the best way to improve their golf game. These readers are looking to find the best methods in the industry (whatever industry you are writing about), they want to know which is the best company or who is the top person, how they do it, and how to reproduce that effort in their own life. For example, someone may find your post about how to best run a fundraiser. This type of reader will be more apt to check out related posts, such as how to best organize your fundraising team, which marketing methods work best, and the top venues in your region to hold the fundraiser kickoff. You get the picture…

Benchmarking = Good Chance of Low Bounce Rate

5. Keep Me Posted
Breaking news on your blog.This type of content involves providing quick posts about something you just learned about. For example, when Google Analytics recently announced a series of upgrades, many bloggers who are focused on web analytics wrote quick posts letting their readers know. These posts might show a higher bounce rate than others. Again, it makes a lot of sense… you are quickly letting people know about breaking news so they will probably check out your post quickly and be on their way. You can definitely gain a following by doing this, since you are the source of new information, but you can’t expect these posts to be sticky. That said, these readers might subscribe to your feed, since you keep them posted. :-)

Benchmarking = Good Chance of Higher Bounce Rate, but High RSS Subscriptions

Note, there are obviously additional types of posts and drivers for blog readers, but I’ll keep this post manageable and stop here. Again, these are based on my experience. The main point is to understand the angle of your posts and how these posts match up with what your readers are looking for (what drives them to read blog posts).

The Anti-Bounce
Providing related content is the anti-bounce rate. There is a common thread that’s been running throughout this post…related content. For bloggers that are just starting out, unfortunately, you'll need to write faster. ;-) Once you've created great content on your blog, the next step is to analyze your web analytics and then provide killer content that’s relevant to key posts on your blog. The third step is to make sure readers can find your related content! This can be done in several ways:

Ways to Provide Related Content:
1. Inline Links, or links within the blog post content (my favorite)
2. A list of related posts at the end of the blog post in question
3. Tagging your posts
4. Utilizing your sidebar to provide additional links
5. Providing search functionality

Each of these techniques can work, but I’m a bigger fan of inline links, links below your post, and tagging. In my opinion, inline links actually provide better context for the reader, but that’s just my opinion. For example, I’ve also written blog posts about how to lower your bounce rate. This inline link gives my readers some context.

A Quick Note About Tracking Outbound Clicks and Content Navigation
Tracking outbound clicks and content navigation in your web analytics package. Using your web analytics package, you should definitely track as much as you can to determine behaviors that affect your bounce rate and consumption of blog content. For example, if you track outbound clicks, you can see which external links your readers find most important. This can help you determine which topics are hot and possibly what to focus on in future posts. For example, if you wrote a post about how to better your golf score and you notice a lot of readers clicking on a link to Dave Pelz's Short Game Bible, then maybe your next post should focus on the short game (your golf game within 100 yards). Simple example, but you get the point! BTW, reading Dave's books lowered my golf score by 10 strokes. :)

Web Analytics Note: Google Analytics will soon support tracking of outbound clicks natively. This will make your life a lot easier... rather than manually tagging each outbound link!

Content Navigation is also important to analyze. This is where you can target a blog post in your analytics package and view how visitors got to that specific post and then also view where they go after reading the post. So, you might see 60% of the visitors to a blog post landed on that blog post (the first interaction with your site in a session). Then 80% of those readers went to related posts, 10% bounced, and 10% subscribed to your RSS feed. Viewing content navigation can help you determine how readers behave on your site in relation to the type of blog post you provide.

It’s All About Context
In closing, it’s hard to simply look at Bounce Rate for your blog without understanding the other factors involved. You need context. A high bounce rate a on a blog post might actually make sense, as weird as that sounds. If you start by mapping out a goal for your blog, pay attention to how you write your posts, understand how that matches the drivers of your readers, provide related content easily within your blog posts, and track everything at a granular level, then you can begin to understand blog content and reader behavior. Phew, that’s a mouthful!

Now, in the spirit of this blog post, definitely check out the other posts that are part of my Bounce Rate series! :-)

* Bounce Rate and Exit Rate

* Why is My Homepage Bounce Rate So High?

* 5 More Ways to Lower Your Bounce Rate and Increase Your ROAS

GG

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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

5 More Ways to Lower Your Bounce Rate (and Increase Your ROAS)


5 Ways to Lower Your Bounce Rate and Increase Your ROASWith robust web analytics packages in place, you have the ability to see which campaign landing pages are working for you and which ones aren’t. Bounce Rate has received a lot of coverage recently and I’ve also received a lot of questions about it. Why? Well, theoretically, if you can lower your bounce rate on a campaign landing page, you have a greater chance of converting visitors. That leads to more revenue, a higher Return on Ad Spend (ROAS) and happy executives. :-)

On that note, don’t let an online marketing consultant or agency tell you that Return on Ad Spend (ROAS) isn’t important. That’s a classic example of someone not wanting to be accountable for the online marketing budget you will be handing them. Sure, there are other factors that come into play, but if you will be handing a consultant or agency tens of thousands of dollars per month in ad spend, then you should expect a return on that ad spend. If a consultant or agency won’t focus on how much revenue they will generate based on your ad spend (if that's your goal), run, don’t walk…and never look back. :-0

Back to my post! There are many things you can do to help lower your bounce rate and I have listed 5 additional ways below. So without further ado:

1. Listen to Your Customers
What a crazy idea, right? ;-) I know sometimes online marketers want to leverage their web analytics packages for everything, but there is so much you can learn from your customers and visitors. So, how do you reach out to them? How about using on-site surveys, tapping into your customer advisory board, or leveraging focus groups? This is one of the reasons I believe your in-house email list is so important…you can leverage your list to gain critical feedback. For example, what information are they looking for, in what order, how much information is too much, do reviews matter, or will video make a difference. I can’t emphasize enough how important this is so don’t be afraid to interact with other PEOPLE!

2. Use Multivariate Testing
Based on the feedback you receive from your customers and visitors (see above), you can start to craft your multivariate test for your campaign landing pages. Note, I explained how you can leverage multivariate testing using Google Website Optimizer in another post so I won’t go into detail on how to set up your test here. So, based on customer feedback, choose your landing page elements, create several versions of each element, and launch your test to scientifically determine the best combination of elements in order to decrease bounce rate and increase conversion. I can hear more sales coming in already. ;-)

3. Provide a Clear Internal Linking Structure
Let’s face it, sometimes people aren’t specifically interested in what you are selling on your campaign landing page. But, you don’t need to lose that traffic and revenue. You might have other items they are interested in and you need to let them know those other products are there. Using a clear navigation and linking structure, you can make sure those visitors don’t bounce and that they easily find the additional information. For example, you can provide a well structured right sidebar with related links. You can also provide related links below your product and pricing information.

For example, if someone visits your campaign landing page for HD TV’s and she doesn't see a 42" Plasma on the page (but you actually have 5 models that are elsewhere on the site), she might bounce! However, if you provided a right sidebar link that says "view other models by size and type", you might be able to lower your bounce rate and increase your conversion rate. This is a simple example, but you get the point!

4. Pay Attention to Your Creative Layout
We all know that there are many ways you can lay out a campaign landing page. We also know that certain visuals, colors, calls to action, and functionality impact conversion differently (based on a number of factors). When you are marketing a product or service, the right creative layout can be critical to increasing conversion. Your actual landing page layout will completely depend on your target market, your products, your pitch, and any additional information that can help drive sales. For some products, your landing page may need to contain interactivity using flash or ajax, but other products may need more text content to build credibility in the buyer’s mind. Some elements that you can consider testing are more product visuals on the page, better imaging functionality (pan and zoom), customer reviews, video (if it makes sense for your product), a wizard to help customers choose the right version of your product, etc. Then you can use multivariate testing to optimize the page content to increase conversion (see above).

5. Drive High Quality Traffic to Your Site (OK, not such an easy task...)
Who cares if you get 50,000 visitors from an online marketing campaign if 75% of those visitors bounce. You should analyze your traffic sources to see where you are getting the highest quality visitors from. Look for red flags…like a site you are advertising on that sends traffic yielding a high bounce rate and low conversion rate. Also, ensure you set goals for sales, registrations, rss subscriptions, etc. Make sure you understand where traffic is coming from and what those visitors are doing on your site. Track as many variables as you can so you can make educated decisions down the line.

For example, you might find that a recent email marketing campaign yielded lower traffic numbers than your paid search campaign, but higher revenue and registrations. In addition, you might find that 60% of the people from your paid search campaign bounced. You would obviously want to take a hard look at your paid search campaign to see why this is happening. Are you targeting the right keywords, is your landing page throwing off visitors, or is it the wrong product selection. You might find that minor changes can yield a much higher Return on Ad Spend (ROAS).

In closing, there are many things you can do to help lower your bounce rate. It’s definitely hard work, but can yield great results. My recommendation is that you start small, review your results and then expand your efforts. Little by little, you can start to optimize your landing pages and increase the effectiveness of your campaigns. So what are you waiting for? Stop reading this post and get moving! :-)

GG

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Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Bounce Rate and Exit Rate, What is the Difference and Why You Should Care


The Difference Between Bounce Rate and Exit Rate in Web AnalyticsOver the past year, I’ve received more and more questions about two important metrics in web marketing, Bounce Rate and Exit Rate. It seems there is some confusion about differences between the two, why they are important, what they tell you, and how to improve them. So, I decided to write this post to demystify them a bit.

The Definition of Bounce Rate and Exit Rate
Let’s start with some definitions. The definition of Bounce Rate is the percentage of visitors that hit your website on a given page and don’t visit any other pages on your site. For example, John views an organic search listing, clicks through to your site, and then leaves your site without visiting any other pages. He bounced. You can learn more about lowering your bounce rate here.

The definition of Exit Rate is the percentage of visitors that leave your site from a given page based on the number of visits to that page (or pageviews in some cases). Sounds similar to Bounce Rate, doesn’t it? There’s a difference, though. The visitor who exits might have visited other pages on your site, but just exited on that specific page. For example, John views an organic search listing, clicks through your site, reads a blog post, then clicks the About Us link. After finding out more about your company, John clicks the contact us link and fills out a contact form. He then exits your site. The contact us page is where he exited. In contrast, if he simply visited the site via organic search and left without visiting any other page, it would have been a bounce. Make sense?

Why are Bounce Rate and Exit Rate Important?
Both metrics are important and can help web marketing people glean insights from the data, but they are definitely used differently. Bounce Rate is extremely important for determining how your landing pages perform as compared to visitor expectations. For example, if you run paid search campaigns, then you know the importance of testing a landing page (optimizing the landing page). I find that bounce rate at the aggregate level doesn’t tell you very much (site level bounce rate), but I find that bounce rate at the page level is extremely useful. It actually makes a lot of sense if you think about it. For example, if you are driving paid search visitors to your landing page selling Coffee Makers {OK, it’s 5AM and I’m tired :-)}, and you have a 70% Bounce Rate on that page, you’ve got a problem. Why are that many visitors bouncing after clicking through your paid search ad and landing on a page that theoretically should be highly targeted? This is actually the fun part…digging into the data, optimizing the page, and using multivariate testing to lower your bounce rate and to increase conversion. As you can see, bounce rate can help you determine how well your landing pages perform (which directly affects revenue and ROAS).

In my opinion, Exit Rate is more important for determining which page in a process isn’t performing up to expectations. For example, if you have mapped out scent trails on your site (ala Persuasion Architecture), and you find visitors are exiting the site on a webpage that clearly is a stepping stone to a more important page, then you should probably take a hard look at that page’s content. Are the calls to action not compelling enough? Does the page provide content that throws off visitors? Is there a technical issue with the page? Does it take too long to load? So on and so forth. Note, that for specific processes like cart checkout, you should use funnel analysis, but analyzing exit rate for more open ended processes works well (like targeting a type of buyer and providing a scent trail for them to get to a registration form.)

Different Yet Important
As you can see, both metrics are very different, but both are important. My recommendation is to start analyzing Bounce Rate and Exit Rate for key pages and processes on your site. I would begin with a focused effort, like a landing page that receives a lot of paid search traffic (for Bounce Rate) and possibly a lead generation process on the site for Exit Rate (if you have one). I won’t cover the process of optimizing your content in this post, but you can read an introduction to multivariate testing using Google Website Optimizer to learn more about website testing. I believe multivariate testing is a critical component to increasing conversion and lowering bounce rate for your key landing pages. It can help you increase revenue without adding one more new visitor to your site. Intriguing, isn’t it? :-)

In closing, who thought that bouncing and exiting would be an interesting topic in marketing? ;-) Addressing Bounce Rate and Exit Rate can help you meet customer expectations, which can lead to higher conversion rates (whether that means sales, registrations, RSS subscriptions, etc.) There is one more point worth mentioning… although you can learn a lot from both Bounce Rate and Exit Rate, don’t forget about qualitative data. During your optimization process, ASK YOUR CUSTOMERS AND VISITORS about your key landing pages via surveys, focus groups, phone calls, etc. You may be too close to the content to see what’s wrong and you would be amazed to read and hear what actual visitors have to say.

GG

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