Under “Ranking” in Google’s Webmaster Tools it used to state:
“In general, webmasters can improve the rank of their sites by increasing the number of high-quality sites that link to their pages.”
Someone in Mountain View recently made a few edits and Google’s advice to site owners now reads:
“In general, webmasters can improve the rank of their sites by creating high-quality sites that users will want to use and share.”
Rand Fishkin thinks that this doesn’t tell the whole story – I would say this creates more questions than it tells stories, as site owners start to wonder how Google determines what a high-quality site is. Google’s phrasing implies that they’re still using machine learning to determine what users might think, rather than taking into account what they’re actually saying about pages.
For Google, this is completely the right approach. After all, people don’t often say all that much about your pages; as people, they’d rather talk about you. Ask an internet marketer who the most successful brands are in the online sphere and they’ll tout the usual suspects; soft-drinks giants such as Coca-Cola and Red Bull; YouTube magnates like Old Spice and The Dollar Shave Company; with HubSpot’s list of the “Top 10 Most Remarkable Marketing Campaigns Ever” topped off by Barack Obama’s 2008 Presidential Campaign.
Ask one of these marketers what Coca-Cola’s landing pages look like and you’re likely to be told you’ve not quite understood the premise.
Does that mean Google doesn’t understand marketing?
Google is phenomenally good at marketing itself. Page and Brin built their business around knowing exactly what users want and finding out if they don’t know. Google Suggest shows that the company often knows its users better than they know themselves. Therefore, Google’s algorithm intends to show users what they’re looking for. It’s not meant to simply show the page which is technically best, but as it’s an algorithm, that’s what it’s got to work with – or at least it has been for a considerable amount of time.
We were among the first to prove that tweets do affect rankings and Googlers have been implicit that social signals are becoming increasingly integrated into the algorithm. Google is crowdsourcing its rankings. It no longer serves the page with the most keywords and backlinks. Now, it serves its users.
Returning to Google’s entry for ranking in Webmaster Tools, the best way to create “high-quality sites that users will want to use and share” is to create more high quality pages on that site. This doesn’t mean a page for each location you want search traffic from, or a page for every colour your product comes in; one thing you need is content.
You also need data
I’m not suggesting for a second that you should abandon SEO and become a content marketer. Anyone experienced in SEO is likely to make a pretty decent content strategist, but there will never be a shortage of websites that require on-going on-page optimisation; some of the most vital content on a website is rarely seen by users.
The reason we’re talking about content marketing now isn’t because it’s new, but because we’ve established the effects it can have on search rankings. Influential people in the SEO community are happy to declare that content marketing is the next big thing. Why, then, are we having so much difficulty establishing the ROI?
Research by Fournaise states that 69% of marketers “feel their strategies and campaigns do make an impact on the company’s business, even though they can’t precisely quantify or prove it”.
Measuring success is an issue encountered by every marketer at some point, with social media being a standout example in recent times. Even organic search is struggling as Google supplies us with less of the keywords we used to quantify ROI for years. Pageviews are still seriously useful when measuring the impact of content, but they can’t stand alone – we could start cross referencing all the metrics we used to ignore and call it “Big Data” so clients don’t call us out on it, or we could start measuring what matters.
How to measure the ROI of content marketing
According to Joe Pulizzi the C-Level measures the success of your content marketing efforts by asking the following three questions:
- Is the content driving sales for us?
- Is the content saving costs for us?
- Is the content making our customers happier, thus helping with retention?
The problem with this is that it might be months before you’re able to answer “yes” to more than two of these questions. Strong content drives sales and strong content increases customer retention – it takes a very strong content strategy to save costs and that means a long term investment. However, a long term investment requires a big return and content marketing is able to provide that.
Define your goals
As well as telling you how to rank, Google tells you how to value content using Page Value. It defines Page Value as “the average value for a page that a user visited before landing on the goal page or completing an Ecommerce transaction (or both),” adding: “This value is intended to give you an idea of which page in your site contributed more to your site’s revenue.”
For an SEO looking to get buy-in to a content marketing strategy this seems to be the perfect starting point. You should have goals set up in your Google Analytics – make sure you assign a value to each goal. Deciding how valuable each goal is to your business is not something there’s space to discuss here, but if you’re looking for help on how to implement goals there’s a helpful guide on Search Engine Land.
The exact formula for Page Value published on the Analytics Blog is as follows:
Page Value = (Transaction Revenue + Total Goal Value) / Unique Pageviews for the page
A similar formula can be used to calculate the Page Value for a group of pages, such as a directory or blog:
Page Value = (Transaction Revenue + Total Goal Value) / Total unique Pageviews for the group of pages
This example, shamelessly stolen from Google’s “Valuing Content Using Page Value” illustrates how Page Value works:
Here Google shows you how to find the Page Value for page B:
“Goal page D: $10 (Remember, you assign the value of the Goal page when you first create a goal in the Analytics Settings page)
Receipt Page E: $100 (This page is where the visitor makes an ecommerce transaction of $100)
Unique pageview for Page B: One
You would then set up your Page Value equation like this:
Ecommerce Revenue ($100) + Total Goal Value ($10)
Number of Unique Pageviews for Page B (1)
Page Value for Page B is $110 since a user visits Page B only once before the goal page during this session.”
Google’s example isn’t the most realistic, but it illustrates the point fairly clearly. Let’s try another example, where:
A (1000 visits) > B (100 Visits) > C (50 Visits) > Goal Page D (5 Visits, Goal Value = $10) > Receipt Page E (1 transaction, $100)
Transaction Revenue + Goal Value = $100 + $10*5 = $150
A’s Page Value = $150/1000 = $0.15
B’s Page Value = $150/100 = $1.50
C’s Page Value = $150/50 = $3.00
D’s Page Value = $150/5 = $30.00
E’s Page Value = $100/1 = $100.00 (We used $100 because landing on E doesn’t influence people landing on D, which generated $50)
This example shows logically that pages near the end of the goal funnel are always going to be more valuable. It’s best to compare pages within the same area of the site. That is, compare blog posts to blog posts; compare category pages to category pages; but don’t compare blog posts to contact pages because they’re too dissimilar in function.
Using Page Value, you can prove the exact monetary value of your blog, for example, and if that’s all your content strategy amounts to then it’s a case of a job well done…assuming those pages are worth something.
“Page Value is not a silver bullet,” says Google. “But it is an actionable metric that can help you understand the behaviour of your visitors.”
How to do this on your own site
You’ve provided your client with a carefully considered content strategy; let’s say for the sake of simplicity that this extends to that site’s blog. If you want to prove how much revenue your blog posts have yielded for your site in the last month, open your site’s Google Analytics profile.
Under Standard Reports, select Content; open the Site Content menu; and select All Pages.
Apply an Advanced Filter, looking only for pages hosted on your blog. Depending on how your site is structured, this could be Include Page Containing /blog/, or something similar. Click on the Page Value column to sort the pages in descending order of value.
The top number you’re met with (in this case £0.25) shows the average amount spent by people browsing the pages listed. The % of Total shows the average amount that pages in this selection (the blog) contributed towards the overall revenue, which includes goal pages and commercial landing pages.
From this example, we can establish how much the blog section has contributed to the revenue of the site. We can establish how much greater the blog’s share of the overall revenue has become after we implemented our content strategy (in this case it’s up 80% YoY ). We can also establish which types of content are performing well and which are not, which is something we should be factoring into our future content strategies in order to incrementally increase revenue again in future. As stated above, segmentation is key: you need to understand how your content is performing relatively.
You should, of course, be interested in the behaviour of your visitors beyond measuring who clicks to confirm purchase and who does not. I listed Pulizzi’s “Primary Content Indicators” above, but in the same article, titled “Reporting Content Marketing ROI to the C-Level”, he lists “Secondary Content Indicators” too, which he defines as “the types of measurements that help us make the case for primary indicators”. Using Page Value we can report how our content has impacted sales (Primary Indicator #1); but Google Analytics very helpfully lists all sorts of Retention metrics such as Time-on-Site and Bounce Rate (Primary Indicator #3).
Content Marketing is the way to grow search in 2013
In the last couple of years, growth in organic search has become much more difficult due to Google’s liberally applied updates. Matt Cutts and co. have put SEO on the back foot and search marketers spend more time than ever trying to protect market share rather than increase it. Linkbuilding is not as scalable as it once was and the biggest brands combat this by sending men into space.
This is in pretty stark contrast to Pulizzi’s Primary Indicator #2: “Is the content saving costs for us?” Nobody in the Red Bull boardroom asked whether jumping through the atmosphere was going to save them money – they asked if it would make them money and it’s done just that.
Brands don’t have to hire shuttles to create great content (although it certainly helps), but being able to say to your boss that each person who read your content contributed, on average, X amount to the bottom line last month goes some way towards building that relationship with the C-level.
Add lead generation on top of this, rather than going in with this as your Primary Indicator and you’ve got something you can report on now as well as something that’s going to make sure the investment in content marketing keeps coming in future.
Businesses who have dealt with SEO agencies for years are finding it difficult to buy into content marketing because it’s so much more expensive than the content they’ve put their names to in the past. If we’ve been successful in educating our clients/upper management that press release syndication and article spinning is not the right strategy, we should be able to tell them that cheap content doesn’t benefit anyone in the long term and the “churn and burn” strategies previously employed by search marketers are now focused firmly on the latter.