Tuesday, March 31, 2015

5 Trends to Watch in the Mobile-First Search Era

New figures from eMarketer reflect the growing mobile momentum with estimates that mobile advertising spend will be double that of desktop by 2017, and by 2019, mobile will account for 72 percent of total digital ad spend.
This should come as no surprise as mobile is topping list of where consumers are spending their time. Late last year, comScore reported that 60 percent of time online is spent on mobile, the majority of activity happening within apps.
Shifting audience behavior is dictating a refocusing of search strategy. Early this year, I wrote that 2015 should be considered "the year of the consumer," and as it stands, the modern consumer demands a mobile-first strategy.
In this forward-thinking mobile world, let’s look ahead to the five key mobile trends to watch.

1. Google’s Emphasis on Mobile Friendliness

Mobile search rankings are about to get a bit friendlier. On April 21, Google will be expanding its ranking signals to account for mobile friendliness. While there’s been no indication of responsive design being valued over mobile-specific sites, it’s clear that for marketers who have neither, the time is nigh to make a move. Weigh the pros and cons of your mobile-friendliness approach – and play nice, as Google says this change will have a "significant impact" on search results.

2. Bing’s Mobile Moves

Starting March 23, Bing ads rolled out an upgrade to Unified Device Targeting. Just like Google’s shift to Enhanced Campaigns, this Bing update will mean campaigns will target all devices by default. If there’s any lesson we learned the first time around it’s to stay active in monitoring and optimizing your bid adjustments accordingly.
Beyond device targeting, Bing has also indicated the forthcoming introduction of mobile app extensions to help marketers drive further discovery and installs in the vast app marketplace.

3. The App Explosion

Speaking of apps, discovery is only one part of the game. To really benefit, you must have the tools in place to measure and track beyond the install. This is how you’ll be able to grow customer lifetime value in the mobile era.
The sheer number of available apps is creating fragmentation in the market, even when it comes to search activity. Today’s mobile consumer seeks speed and convenience and specialty apps that cater to specific needs (think Yelp) are the thing to watch. Yahoo is also trying to capitalize off in-app activity by offering its own SDK to integrate Yahoo Search within apps.

4. The Native Play

The mobile format, with its infinite scroll, is highly conducive for a seamless integration of in-stream advertising. Not only does native represent a contextually friendly and engaging experience but it also seems to sparkle with inventory possibilities in an otherwise limited mobile search-scape.
As mobile and native merge, look no further than Yahoo Gemini, a one-stop shop for mobile search and native advertising.

5. The Intrinsic Connection of Mobile and Local

We can’t talk about mobile-first without mentioning the implication for local search as well. Recent research from the Local Search Association found that the majority of U.S. adults turn to mobile when searching for locally focused information.
When thinking local-mobile, of course there are the relevant extensions – location and click to call – but it’s more than just that. There are designated call-only campaigns, local inventory on Google Shopping, and opportunities with apps. These capabilities and opportunities are growing and strengthening.
Having a mobile presence can no longer be seen as a competitive advantage for an advertiser but rather serve as a marketing staple. Now more than ever, it pays to be an agile marketer who can embrace the mobile mindset.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

5 Ways of Rethinking Your Referral Traffic

So you have a site, now what? Well, one of the first things you need to do is drive traffic to it, but how? What if you have a site with traffic, what can you do to better drive users to your pages?
In the past we could rely on Google organic and paid to generate most of our site traffic, but not anymore. While organic is still your highest-quality traffic, what if it goes away overnight? And while paid is helpful in generating specific conversions around keyword searches, in the end you are often just renting those visitors. So if you want to stay relevant today, we need to rethink our concepts of referral traffic as it looks much different today than it did even one or two years ago.
Here are five tips on creating a more perfect referral traffic profile and avoiding mistakes that could cause you pain.

1. Reliance on Social Media

Often we see sites that get a lot of their traffic from social media. If your site is one of those sites, congratulations - that is not the easiest code to crack. You have done good things.
Social traffic is a positive signal. It means your site is being shared and talked about. It means your site has relevancy to your user base. However, it is imperfect traffic and a strategy that is unsustainable on its own. Why is this?
First, if you are relying too heavily on your social media presence for traffic and the site you are getting that traffic from decides to change a factor that takes away that traffic, you have little recourse. There is really nothing you can do. Well, you can pay, but that requires more money and time, which following a loss of large amounts of traffic, you might now have to invest.
Second, unlike organic visitors, social media users are typically "one and done." They see something they like, they head in, they read, they head out.
While this can be an excellent method for long-term brand building, it is not your best traffic source for in-depth or lengthy visitor engagement. Some will like what they see and come back, but not as many when they find you by other efforts.
So while there is nothing wrong with this as a part of your comprehensive plan, you want to be careful of relying on social media at the expense of more relevant and engaged traffic such as organic search. In addition, if these sources suffer declines, you can more readily address the issues on other channels than you can with social.
Mostly, just make sure you are not ignoring other avenues for bringing users in to the site.

2. Reliance on Google Organic

Just as you can be overly reliant on social media, you can also be too reliant on Google organic. While organic search is your best traffic referrer in terms of engagement, site stickiness, and returning visits, if you accidentally trigger an algorithm negatively and it takes a slap at your site, well you might wake up with a cliff dive on your analytics and a sunken feeling in your stomach.
While it is very important to spend a lot of your time cultivating your organic visits, it is not a safe bet to rely on Google for that traffic alone. The most important thing you can do is diversify your traffic and find multiple generative and reliable sources.

3. Reliance on Google and Facebook

Many sites rely on these two sources are their primary traffic-drivers. Be careful if these are the only two. Don’t rely so much on Facebook or organic SEO that you forget to continue to diversify your traffic profile. Your traffic referrals are a delicate balance of visits from paid, organic, social, syndication, etc.
The most important thing you can do in this day of Google is to make sure you have built up as many positive traffic sources as make sense for your business. This way if you lose in Google or Facebook today, you can start cranking up the traffic in other areas tomorrow.

4. Organic Is Still King

Organic traffic is not just Google, though we typically think of that first. It can also be Bing, Duck Duck Go, and Yahoo, or even a contest or event. Whatever your organic source, the users are likely to be more engaged and user intent is typically going to be more aligned with your site content. While Google organic should and will be the largest organic referrer, building up your alternative referral sources will help protect you from getting hit in one area or another.

5. Watch Out for the Bots

Semalt, Buttons-For-Websites, and other bots visit your site and show up in your analytics. These referrals are not real humans, but bots meant to send traffic back to its owner by you clicking on the referrals in your analytics. There is no reason to support this traffic and there is no reason to not get rid of it. There are several methods for doing this, however Jon Henshaw of Raven Tools has the most comprehensive post explaining the issue and how to get rid of it.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

3 Signs Your SEO Campaign Is Dying – and How to Fix It

SEO is a long-term strategy to gain more visibility and more traffic for your online brand, but accurately measuring the effectiveness of that strategy can be challenging. Many of the benefits of SEO, such as increased brand visibility, are qualitative and therefore hard to measure, and even objective metrics like inbound traffic can be subject to random variation and become difficult to interpret.
After you’ve maintained an SEO strategy for more than a few months, however, you should have enough information to form meaningful conclusions from your data. Most importantly, you’ll be able to check in regularly to see if there are any red flags that signal something is wrong with your campaign. These red flags can be hard to spot initially, but if you know what to look for, you should have no problem detecting them and taking corrective action immediately.

1. A Sharp Drop in Organic Traffic

Organic traffic is a metric referring to the number of people who found your site through search engines, and it’s one of the best metrics we have to measure the effectiveness of an SEO campaign. To measure your organic traffic, log into Google Analytics and click on "Acquisitions." Here, you’ll see a breakdown of how many visits your site received from organic sources, referrals, social media, and direct visits.
You can click into the organic visits to gain some extra details on the sources of your organic traffic, but the main number is the one we’re most concerned with. Keep an eye on it on a monthly — if not weekly — basis. While you should be seeing some long-term growth patterns, what you really want to look for is any sharp drop. For example, if you’re used to seeing 1,000 hits a week and that inexplicably drops to 200, you might have a major problem on your hands.

2. Stagnant Growth or Decline for More Than Two Months

Like I mentioned, the goal here is to see long-term growth. If you check back on a consistent basis, month after month, you should see an overall pattern toward increased traffic. That being said, organic search behavior is anything but predictable, and random factors beyond your or Google’s control could artificially leave you with a tough month or a brief stagnation. If you notice one month in particular doesn’t result in growth, don’t panic.
However, if your campaign remains stagnant for two months or more, you might have a serious problem. What you want to see is steady, measurable growth in organic visits — if you’re hovering around the same figures or if you start to see a decline, consider it a red flag. There are instances where multiple months of consistent traffic don’t necessarily mean your SEO campaign is failing, but you don’t want to take the gamble by keeping things the same for another month.

3. A Sharp Drop in Keyword Rankings

Keyword rankings aren’t nearly as important as they used to be. There was a time when keywords meant everything to SEO, and getting one to rank highly meant you had found success. Today,keywords are less pivotal; since Google deciphers user queries based on intent, rather than keyword phrases, your ranks are much more fluid. It’s far more important to have relevant, quality content than it is to have content based around certain keywords.
However, your rankings are still a valuable metric to measure because they can indicate the health of your campaign. Keep a handful of keywords as your targets to measure, and check your ranking on them every once in a while (once a month for most campaigns, or once a week for more aggressive campaigns). If you notice your rankings falling on a majority of those keywords, this is a red flag for your campaign.

Tracking Down the Culprit

Let’s imagine that you’ve found one of these red flags. What does that mean for your campaign? It means something is off in your strategy, and it’s interfering with your ability to increase your search visibility. It can be difficult to track down the exact cause of this downturn, especially since it could be multiple factors working together, but it’s important to identify the source.

Over-Optimized Content

Are you writing your content with one or a handful of keywords at the forefront? Are you recycling content or using old topics just so you can push more content on your site? If so, you could be over-optimizing, which could be leading to lower ranks. Write fresh, original content on new topics on a regular basis instead.

Poor Link-Building Strategy

Bad link-building tactics are the most common culprit of poor SEO campaign performance. Google’s Penguin algorithm update was launched to penalize such schemes as buying links, building too many links, and building links on irrelevant or low-authority websites. Instead of participating in schemes to manipulate your way up the rankings, try to earn your links through publishing high-quality content and relationship building.

Bad or Missing Reviews

Today’s local search incorporates information from your business all over the Web. If your information is missing from important local directory sites (like Yelp or TripAdvisor), or if you seem to be getting lots of bad reviews, your ranks and search visibility could tank.

Missing Peripheral Elements

Neglecting another important tactic or platform in your SEO campaign can also lead to poor performance. For example, if you don’t use social media or if you aren’t incorporating guest blogging, your results could suffer.
Once you’ve discovered a red flag that your SEO campaign is in trouble, it’s important to take corrective action as soon as possible. Identifying the source is only the first step of the process; you’ll have to work for days or weeks to repair the damage left in the wake of your flawed strategy or one-time mistake. The best course of action is to maintain a solid, high-quality SEO strategy to begin with; as long as you’re adhering to Google’s best practices and working with user experience as your main priority, you shouldn’t ever expect to see one of these red flags.

Monday, March 16, 2015

More Than 80% of HTTPS URLs Display as HTTP in Google

According to a recent small-scale analysis, more than 80 percent of HTTPS URLs are not showing up in Google's search results, said Gary Illyes, a webmaster trends analysts at Google, in a post on Google+ this morning.
Despite being eligible for indexing - many of the HTTPS URLs don't have any crawl issues and don't have a noindex - these links are being displayed as HTTP URLs because of webmaster configuration.
"[The URLs] can't become canonical because website owners don't tell us about them. They use the HTTP variant in their sitemap files, in the rel-canonical and rel-alternate-hreflang elements, even though the HTTPs version works mighty fine," Illyes wrote.
If a site supports HTTPS - to which Google gave a ranking benefit back in August - Illyes recommends using them.
Have you told Google about your HTTPS URLs?

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Translating Your Articles for Link-Building

Editorial websites seldom cite or link to articles from competitors in the same industry, but foreign competitors don’t seem to have that problem. Some smart travel, tech, and fashion sites have already discovered that their foreign peers love to reuse their content, especially when they make it easy by translating their articles for those sites. Are you already sharing your content with the world?

Competitors Are the Most Relevant Sites

The best link partners are relevant to a broad scope of keywords that you want to rank for. In many cases your direct competitors rank for those keywords, but they will seldom link to you. Even when you have a great industry scoop, they will try to find another (less conflicting) source to cite.
Being perceived as a competitor and having a lot of overlap in each other’s services is bad for link-building. It is much easier to get someone’s links when you look innocent and non-threatening. A small foreign blog or big foreign authority doesn’t target the same audience and business model, so they fit that profile. But why would any site link to something that their readers probably don’t even understand?

Example From a Tech Site

News sites about smartphones need daily updates to captivate their audience. This is very labor-intensive and during some periods there is very little to report on. Updates from other countries are a welcome addition, especially when they come free.
To use this to your advantage, you can do the following: Summarize your German article about cell phone usage in Germany into an English article. Include the URL of your own German article as the original "source." By publishing this article, sites can make their visitors think they roam the entire Internet to provide them with the best information.
Because editors may be lazy, you need to rewrite your article each time it is published. To my personal surprise, more than 60 percent of the sites we contacted were interested and we had to write a lot of versions of our first article. We could easily reuse the same contacts for many articles and after expanding to other languages, this became the main link-building strategy for a German cell phone site. Apparently, any phone topic could be used for link-building, just by adding some German trend information. Where the German public (normal readers) didn’t seem that interested in those trends, foreign partners gladly cited our articles.

This Works in Many Industries

Any industry with global markets and local trends can use this strategy. Especially when visitors don’t regularly read foreign articles, redistribution of foreign media works wonders. An article in a different language is perceived as a more exceptional find, but even discoveries in the same language make a news site seem more in touch with the world. Especially when they exemplify the differences between the foreign market and their own public. Their links are often still relevant enough for a great ranking boost in Google.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Natural Search’s Growth Explosion, and What It Means for SEO in 2015

Big news for marketers – we always knew that SEO was a strong channel for growth, but the evidence for how fast natural search is growing isn’t always as easily found as it is for paid channels.
In a study of more than 50 brands and 1.1 billion natural search visits across 2014, we found growth stories that will come as no surprise to SEOs and owned media enthusiasts, but might catch others in the digital space off-guard.

Natural Search Is a Tremendous Growth Channel

The big news and number up front: The average SEO-engaged brand saw its natural traffic rise by 19.8 percent year-over-year in 2014.
This lift well outpaced paid search, which a separate benchmarking study show grew at a healthy, but lower 9 percent YOY.
Natural search also well outpaced growth that we saw at a total site level. Natural search drove 21 percent of total site traffic in 2014, well up from 18.1 percent in 2013.
Not only does this show a pretty sharp lift in natural search growth in 2014 compared to other channels, but it’s also helpful to know what share of your site’s traffic should be coming from natural search.
Of course, there are differences depending on the vertical and kind of site. Financial and insurance brands saw lower growth than other verticals – closer to what we saw in terms of PPC growth. Pharmaceuticals and health care, on the other hand, topped 70 percent year-over-year growth.
This difference in performance extended to organic search’s contribution levels. Natural search represented more than 50 percent of total site traffic for travel sites, but closer to 17 percent for lead generation-based sites.
However, one thing was clear across all categories: The volume of traffic from natural search is not slowing down, and in nearly every case is growing faster than other digital marketing channels.

Natural Search Is a Huge Force for Driving Conversions, Whether It’s Leads or Online Purchases

Conversions from natural search – whether purchases at an online store, opening an account, or filling out a contact form – were up an impressive 27 percent compared to 2013. Growth was especially strong for e-commerce websites, with an average natural conversion growth rate above 40 percent - a great sign for retail marketers in 2015 that consumer confidence and purchasing power are back on the rise.
Growing so quickly, compared to an already impressive growth rate for traffic, pushed the average conversion rate for natural search up about 6 percent. This lift stacks up well against other channels; overall, conversion rates for natural search were shown to be 50 percent higher than for sites as a whole.
Conversions from natural search even got more valuable in 2014, with the average e-commerce order value growing 8.5 percent compared to 2013, while total site average order values slipped about 4 percent.
Natural search isn’t just growing traffic. It’s driving qualified traffic to websites of all stripes, which is converting at a higher rate and providing more value than the other channels and tactics that brands typically engage in.

What It Means for 2015

First, the obvious: Brands who aren’t engaged in SEO at any level, and especially those relying on just paid search for a presence in search results, are missing out on a tremendous source of qualified visits who are in a mood to consume your content and purchase your products.
Brands who are actively working to improve their natural search have a deep well of growth potential coming into 2015.
However, search engines aren’t making our jobs any easier.
Greater use of mobile devices makes the experience that we are optimizing most frequently – the desktop – less relevant for our consumers. Our data indicate that there’s a 58/42 split between desktop and mobile site visits coming from natural search, compared to 63/37 just a year ago.
Not only does that mean a need to gear your site experience more toward a phone or tablet user (a 60/40 split), but a need to think increasingly of the content needs of your customers when they’re on the move, rather than sitting behind a laptop or desktop screen.
Google has also promised more moves in its SERPs later this spring around mobile optimisation, calling out and boosting sites that have a good mobile experience, and punishing the rankings of those that don’t.
Search engines themselves are changing, and looking to provide answers rather than lists of websites that may have your answer. Those direct answers and deeper insights are becoming richer, more frequent, and are swallowing up real estate previously owned by paid and natural search. The only brand vertical that saw its natural search contribution levels drop from 2013 to 2014 was travel. It’s no coincidence that this drop happened the same year that Google integrated flight pricing into its search results, and enhanced its hotel search experience with anything from pricing to carousel results.
Google and Bing are becoming apps rather than search engines, and making your site the answer to customers’ questions will take more than typical SEO tactics. Semantic markup, a robust presence on Wikidata when it takes over from Freebase this summer, and making your content richer and more Hummingbird-friendly will all determine how well you thrive in the new world that Google and the search engines have planned for us.
Staying ahead of engine behavior and measuring up to your customers’ expectations will drive even bigger results for you in 2015.

Monday, March 9, 2015

How to Leverage Infographics to Generate Links and Social Signals

One of the most difficult aspects of SEO is attracting links for industries that are typically considered "dry" or "boring." How do you create content that is compelling, sexy, and generates the emotional response required for people to share on their site, or via social media? Hint, hint: think VISUAL.
Infographics are a fantastic way to generate visibility for industries that may struggle to attract links and social shares. People LOVE visual content, especially when it tells a story. A well-designed, attractive infographic can offer doors that 1,000 guest blog or outreach requests can’t. Combine social amplification with blogger and media outreach, and watch your social shares and links increase naturally.


This infographic, with more than 16,000 views on Visual.ly, generated hundreds of links for a health client.

Beyond the Literal

If you sell rugs, do NOT create an infographic about different types of rugs. Think laterally, not literally, and find interesting angles to explore that are relevant to your industry while being of interest to casual Web surfers.
For example, you could create an infographic about color theory, decor, and how these impact family dynamics. With this infographic you could reach out to home improvement sites announcing your infographic and requesting them to share it.
Here’s an infographic created for a site that offers home decor products.
When creating your infographic, don’t just share statistics. Tell a story with your infographics so that your visual content both attracts and informs. In the infographic above, we are teaching about the different baguas, how a home should be separated into distinct spaces, and other important feng shui principles. How much more engaging is this than an article explaining this with mere words? Think of the emotions that create a positive impact, and make sure your infographics contain those elements.

Create a Content Strategy Around Your Infographic

Most marketers who work with infographics simply share the infographic on their site with an embed code, and hope for it to get picked up. Many hope, and wait, in vain.
A more effective approach is to proactively reach out to other webmasters and offer for them to host the infographic on their sites. You reach out to them, announcing your infographic, and offering a unique article to go along with the infographic. In effect, you are guest posting, but with the additional incentive of a beautiful graphic to go along with the content. You can then suggest the site owner to list that page as one of the sources, and include the link in the article.
Article found on Kapost with the infographic hosted on their page.
The strength of this method lies in its ability to serve as a launching-point for additional content. The type of content that will be produced cannot be redundant, but act as supplements to the information that caused readers to be intrigued in the first place.

How to Leverage Blogger Outreach

Unless you have millions of people visiting your blog daily, you need to go out and find sites that would be interested in sharing your content and tell them about it. This is key to visibility.
For effective outreach, follow these steps:
  1. Create a list of relevant sites to pitch by using Google search operators
  2. Send a personalized pitch to the site, asking if they’d like to check out the infographic
  3. If they’re interested in sharing it, write a custom introduction, including a link to one of your relevant landing pages
  4. Follow up to make sure the site publishes the content
  5. Promote the published articles through your social media channels
It’s important to approach sites that would be best-served in hosting the content. Sharing your infographic (with its intro) on a site that is not relevant would dissolve your topical authority, and would only serve to stir suspicions. Much like the creation of the infographic, thinking laterally will help when working on outreach.

Amplify the Content Placement

Once your infographic is shared, leverage the placement by promoting the published URL through your social media. But don’t just tweet it and forget it. Consider creating a Facebook ad campaign to promote that landing page, or possibly even amplify using a Pinterest or Twitter ad.
Site owners will be thrilled to see your content receiving social shares and engagement, thus paving the road for future contributions. You’ve worked hard to create a connection with that site owner, so don’t let it end there; offer to continue contributing articles or infographics as you develop them.
Google doesn’t want webmasters building links; they insist that links should be naturally earned on the basis of great content. The method described here is a way to be proactive about attracting links and social shares, without being directly responsible for those placements. It’s an effective way to improve your visibility without the risks of potential penalties.
Have you used infographics in the past to improve visibility? What methods have you found most effective when conducting outreach? Share your stories below!

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Call-Only Ads – 5 Reasons Why They Should Be Part of Your PPC Strategy

She might be a little young, but she will never know what it’s like to not have a smartphone. The mobile landscape continues to expand and grow. Google statistics show:
  • 79 percent of smartphone owners use their devices to shop.
  • 82 percent of mobile shoppers are using search to help determine what they are going to shop for. Mobile users are mobile shoppers, and it’s all the more important to have your paid search ads front and center.
  • 70 percent of people searching on mobile will call a business directly from the search results.
Last month, AdWords announced a new ad format for phones with call-only campaigns. This is an "upgrade" from the call extensions that we have been using. While call extensions are an effective way to promote your business number in an ad, call-only campaigns have taken it a step further. And it’s specifically targeted for businesses whose focus is phone calls. But – even if part of your business relies partially on phone calls as opposed to clicks, it’s a strategy that you should seriously consider putting into your marketing mix.
And it’s easy to set up. When you create a campaign in the Settings tab, you simply select the Call-Only option:
And I know what you are thinking – but now I have to create more campaigns to support another new AdWords feature. Do I really need this? And what’s the advantage over call extensions? Why should I change over?
Here are five compelling reasons to migrate to this new feature:

1. Phone Number Is at the Top of the Ad

Unlike call extensions, the phone number is the first thing you see in the ad – and with the word "Call" incorporated. This ad format on a mobile device is more likely to get the user to take an action. It’s also highly visible with bigger font size and blue text:

2. Prominent Call Button

The call button is readily displayed next to the ad. This enables an immediate call to action for the user – they are one click away from contacting you, and you are one click away from a potential sale.

3. A Click = Phone Call

With call-only ads, a click is directly translated into a phone call. Instead of someone clicking on an ad and going to your site, you put the potential buy directly to someone they can talk to. Therefore, it’s crucial to maximize the value of each call. You can bid based on what the value of the call is for your business. For example, you can set a bid based on the ROAS for the call.

4. Direct Line to Your Business

Think of call-only ads as a direct hotline straight into your business. Ensure that when someone calls in, your call support team is well versed in the ad copy that is being used, so they understand what people are looking for when they call in. This is important because people are not relying on your website – they are relying on the person in your call center. What you are saying in your ad is the reason someone is calling in – so be sure that you have the right answers.

5. Ability to Create More Targeted Ads

It’s important to develop a strategy with call-only ads. Because the call to action is going to be the call itself, you are not focused on messaging that is promoting a call to action. This is very different from when you are generally writing ad copy, so it requires a different focus. Ensure your ad lets people know that they can reach you directly, and that they are not going to a website. Use messaging such as "speak to a rep today," "call for free estimate," or "talk with a consultant."
Call-only ads are a great way to promote your business by targeting your mobile customers. Have you started incorporating call-only ads? Would love to hear from you.
Want to keep up with the latest news from AdWords? Google now has a features section that shows all of the new stuff from AdWords, and it’s broken down by month. The features section can link to blog posts about a new feature, or link you to the Help or Policy Center if the update is related to changes with AdWords.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Nodes and Edges: Visualizing Network Data 101

Visualizations of your social data can be extremely helpful in developing marketing strategies, but how can you go about creating these graphs?
Google Knowledge Graph, the Facebook Graph, and the Social Graph — today’s digital marketers and brands love to throw these terms around like they are ancient, tested, and proven concepts that everybody grasps and understands. However, the truth is often very different.
Recently, one of our clients asked me to show him his brand’s "Social Graph." Not being a social expert, I had to do a lot of research and internal inquiries to find some ways to actually "show" him. Turns out it is a little more complex than people often expect. It’s not a simple downloaded Excel sheet you can get that shows your "graph." Instead, Social Graphs are basically a network of nodes and edges — of entities and the connections between them.
Nodes and edges? Confused? I was, too, which is why I want to share a simple way to analyze your social graphs or networks in order to better understand and visualize them. We will focus today around analyzing Social Network Graphs, but this approach can be used for any type of network data like link networks and website structures.

Data Concepts

Before we dive head-first into one of those "fascinating" screenshot-powered, step-by-step guides, I want to quickly address the data concepts behind graph visualizations. Most graphs are powered by a two-dimensional data system consisting of two core items: nodes and edges.
Nodes are the entities we are evaluating (People, Pages, Handles, Groups, etc.) and edges are the connections between them (Likes, Following, Friendships, etc.). Most of the network data today is handled via GraphML files or .gdf (graph data format) files. Basically, these are simple text files that contain a list of all the nodes and the relationships/edges between them.


Several tools can visualize network data and the most exhaustive list I know of can be found here. In today’s examples we will use Gephi to visualize our social data. Why Gephi? It’s free, open-source, cross-platform, and easy to use. It also has one of the most appealing visual outputs compared to some of the other tools out there.

Data Sources

There are thousands of ways to extract social network data like the native APIs, Custom Applications, Excel tools, and more. One of the easiest for data extraction AND visualization is NodeXL. It allows for fairly effortless extraction from multiple networks (YouTube, Twitter, etc.) straight out of Excel. It also allows you to visualize and customize them directly inside Excel.
For Facebook data (and for today’s example) I’ll use an actual Facebook app called NetVizz. NetVizz allows you to export your own "Friend" and "Like" networks as well as "Page Like" networks. Examining Page Like Networks is a great way to analyze audience affinities and learn more about target audiences by understanding common interest and connections.

Getting Started

OK, first we have to determine what we want to analyze. Let’s say we are thinking about having a booth, sponsoring, or speaking at the next ClickZ Live conference and we are trying to determine some of the common interests among attendees. What else do they care about, what do they read, or who are they connected with? Having these insights will help us to better understand the audience and determine how and where to communicate with them.

Getting the Data

The first thing we would need to do is to get the Like Network for ClickZ Live. In order to do that, we need to find out the numeric Facebook ID for the conference. The easiest place to get it would be http://lookup-id.com; it’s a free (ad-supported) site that allows you to enter a Facebook URL and in return get the ID. Once you have the ID extracted (in our case, 82891330657) we would go to the NetVizz Facebook page and select "Page Like Network."
Now simply enter the numeric Facebook page ID of your choosing and select a depth of 2. This will take some extra time, but it gives you a broader set that goes to second-level likes.
After a few minutes of crawling you will see a link that allows you to download a GDF network file.
Note: If you are downloading data for pages with millions of likes, this can take a few hours. But since this is a server side crawl, you are able to have multiple crawls running simultaneously.

Importing the Data

Once you have downloaded your .gdf file, start up Gephi and import it via File->Open. On the Import report, just leave the default options and click "okay." You will be presented with a somewhat odd-looking bunch of lines and dots.

Enhancing the Data

One advantage of Gephi is the easy-to-use implementation of mathematical operations. For our data, we want to do two things.
  1. Click on "average path length" on the right-hand side. This will calculate the distance and betweeness centrality of our nodes (their centrality within our chosen network). It will allow us to understand their importance relative to the other nodes. Once the calculation completes, just click "close."
  2. On the right-hand side, run Modularity. Modularity uses a community detection algorithm that allows us to group related nodes together (we will color code them). Click "close" once the calculation is completed.
After you run both of these, nothing will change visually, but we can now perform operations against these calculations.

Visualizing the Results

This is the fun part. Now that we have run our calculations, let’s start by sizing the nodes. On the top left side select the Nodes tab, then select the diamond icon (size) and choose "betweeness centrality." The minimum and maximum sizing depends on the size of your set; for this small example I would recommend minimum 10 and maximum 50. Choose "apply" and you should see that the nodes have adjusted their sizes.
Next, choose the Partition tab in the top left corner. Then select "nodes" and hit the green arrows in order to refresh the options. You should see the Modularity class option. This is the data we got from our community detection algorithm. Once you select this and hit "apply," the nodes will be colored based on the results of our community detection algorithm, according to their common attributes and relation to each other.
Now let’s give our results that awesome look. Underneath the Partitions and Ranking window on the left is a Layout option. This allows you to use different algorithms to lay out the nodes and edges. The best one for this type of data is Force Atlas. Simply select it, check "prevent overlay" and press "apply." You should be left with a view similar to mine below, which clearly displays the major and minor nodes as well as the connections between them:
But what are they? Use the three little icons highlighted above in yellow to reveal your metrics: The first one will show the labels; in the second one use the dropdown and choose node size; then use the slider (third one) to find a fitting size.
At this point it should like this:
There are a ton of adjustments you can make to sizes, colors, etc. to graph your data and see what’s really happening in a brand’s social network but this is not bad for five minutes of work. Now you can start to zoom in, move and highlight nodes. As an example, when I hover over the ClickZ Live node, I can clearly see the biggest affinities:
Playing around with the data a bit reveals some interesting connections. During this exercise, for instance, I discovered some patterns from pages that indicate they either paid for their likes or made all their employees like their clients’ pages (but I won’t call them out publicly; can you find them?).
Another insight from my ClickZ Live example is that comScore is the biggest common denominator outside of ClickZ’s own properties.
There are countless deeper analysis models you can apply in Gephi and build on the existing data such as PageRank and Clustering.
The visualization below is what I eventually sent to my client to show him his brand’s social network. I generated it using Force Atlas, Page Rank, and Modularity and then added some transparency in the Preview Dialog.
I hope this inspires you to perform this type of visualization and get some great insights into your brand’s graph data. Questions? Feel free to message me at @nxfxcom.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Search Marketers

In his 1989 best-selling business and self-help book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey outlines a series of "true north" principles that help individuals attain their goals and adapt to change. More than 25 years later, do these tenets still ring true? And, what if we applied them to today’s search marketer?

1. Be Proactive

From a marketing perspective, proactivity has become a central characteristic required for organizations to thrive in the evolving digital landscape. Marketers who are able to look ahead and make informed predictions about the future of the market and their investments will be best poised to stay ahead.
But it’s not just about future-proofing. Given the state of constant flux of the search space – algorithms updating, policies changing, and technology sharpening – marketers need to be able to adapt to the dynamics from an executional standpoint in order to achieve desired outcomes. This means becoming more agile to course-correct when needed, optimize on-the-fly, and keep budgets and strategies a bit more fluid.

2. Begin With the End in Mind

Start by establishing your goal and aligning it to your organization’s overarching business objectives. Goals provide a framework to align your campaigns and measure performance so you can adjust overtime.
Take a cue from your HR department and make your goals SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-Bound.
Not sure where to start? Consult historical data and use industry benchmarks as a guidepost. And don’t think that just because you set the goal, there’s no adjusting it. Maintain that agility even still by creating short-term targets, such as budget pacing goals, in additional to longer-term milestones, such as overall business objectives.
And, if we’re talking highly effective search marketers, success will be measured beyond proxy campaign metrics like impressions, clicks, and conversion rates, with KPIs focused around revenue, profit, or customer lifetime value growth.

3. Put First Things First

While flexibility is needed in PPC management, there must also be a semblance of orderliness and structure. This is why campaign setup is key.
Whether you’re building an account from scratch or simply restructuring, be sure you are asking the right questions. Each element – from tracking to targeting to ad rotation and landing pages – factors into performance and spontaneous modifications could help or hinder you.

4. Think Win-Win

When developing your ads, always look to achieve a win-win situation: positive outcomes for both you and your audience. This means: meet the expectations of your audience by being visible when they search near a store location, by including sitelinks to assist navigation, by optimizing your inventory feed for accuracy, or by serving a responsive experience on a mobile device.
Small steps such as these will pay off big time by creating a more relevant experience that consumers are more likely to engage in.

5. Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood

Now it’s time to get philosophical. Believe it or not, search marketing isn’t all about you, the advertiser; it’s actually mostly about the consumer. So, understanding your key audiences, how they search, their challenges, and desires, is an essential state of mind to consider.
Beyond understanding the consumer, also tune into industry trends and competitors. Don’t manage your search program in a vacuum – understand the implications of the greater market.

6. Synergize

Is it possible to do the impossible math of 1+1=3 with your search marketing? If you begin to remove the walls around your search program to no longer view the activity in isolation, you can begin to see and derive cross-channel synergies to improve your marketing and garner more value.
Leverage CRM and first-party data to execute more sophisticated and specific targeting and remarketing. Search performance can inform social optimization tactics so pay attention to the signals. Running concurrent and complementary campaigns across channels can not only help bolster your message, but also help create momentum and improve performance.

7. Sharpen the Saw

Hone your practice and do not let your programs become stagnant. Test and learn and apply changes to improve your campaigns and program. As Covey described, it’s an "upward spiral" – you learn, commit, do. If you don’t commit to regularly monitoring and auditing your programs, you run the risk of not being able to scale and take advantage of your next big opportunity. You should be thinking: where would my next dollar be best spent? If more budget were available, could we quickly capitalize across our search program?
While some of the skills needed to succeed as a modern marketer are evolving, keeping in mind these tried-and true habits will make you a highly effective search marketer.