The latest from Google: Panda 4.2, Alphabet and Google Local

Over the past couple of months, Google has made a number of changes and announcements. With the big G maintaining dominance in search, it’s important that brands are aware of the changes in order to stay ahead.

Below is a short summary of some of the latest Google updates affecting natural search to help keep up-to-date and ensure your strategies are robust.

Panda 4.2

On July 18th Google began a Panda refresh which aims to devalue pages with thin or low quality content. Unlike past Panda updates, this is a long slow roll-out so sites are unlikely to see any immediate impact.

Google wants to index and reward useful pages that provide good quality, unique content that is highly relevant to a users’ search. If you are concerned you may have been affected by Panda previously, and you have addressed your on-site content, you could see your natural visibility improve over the coming months. On the flip side, if you are still not integrating quality content into your pages, you could see the opposite effect.

A lot of eCommerce sites still seem hesitant to add content to important category/sub category pages for fear that it will detract from the products. There of course needs to be a balance, but your on-site content should help guide, inform and support users when making a purchase so a lack of content will be detrimental from both a visibility and conversion perspective.

Local SERP tidy up

Google’s local products have evolved quite a bit over the years. From ‘Places’ to ‘Local’ to ‘My Business’– it’s fair to say that this hasn’t been one of their most streamlined offerings!

For too long, there has been confusion around how to connect your historic ‘Places’ or ‘Local’ pages with Google+ brand pages and Google Map listings. Google was not quick to solve this issue which led to an over-saturation of inactive, unpopulated or duplicate map listings, not to mention some frustrated webmasters!

So when Google announced that they would be closing down inactive or unresponsive Google+ My Business pages on July 28th, this wasn’t an unwelcomed move.

Google has also decided to reduce the local ‘7 pack’ of results to a ‘3 pack’, with business addresses and phone numbers being removed altogether. This will improve mobile user experience but also further refines local search results.

I don’t see this as a bad thing for retailers. This is more like ‘house-keeping’ on Google’s part. There’s no denying that having an optimised Google+ My Business page remains a significant part of any local strategy, but the changes do highlight the importance of ensuring your pages are well optimised, that local information is accurate and that your page is correctly linked to your map listing. (If you still haven’t linked your Google+ accounts, here’s how.)

I then think Google will start placing more emphasis on retailers that are actively engaging with their audience through their My Business page. This is where I think brands still have work to do. Your listing is not just a location marker. Make the most of this additional natural exposure and post content, encourage reviews and communicate with your local audience.

LF_GPLUS_BlueThe future of Google+

Alongside the local changes, Google has finally announced its plans for Google+. Part of the plans include the popular decision to no longer force users to sign up to a Google+ account in order to use services such as YouTube and Gmail. It is also separating out other elements such as fully migrating Google+ photos onto a separate stream called Google Photos.

The problem with Google+ was that it never quite found its niche. It failed to compete with Facebook which retains dominance as the ‘socialising’ platform of choice. Google+ also failed to gain ground in other areas, with niche newbies like Instagram ploughing ahead in terms of visual networking and content sharing.

However a lot was invested in Google+ so they are not going to let years of development go to waste; they just need to give Google+ a focus. Many of the thoughts in this article reinforce that its longer-term value will be as a platform to share, engage and discuss interests and topics.

A feature released in May, Google+ Collections, enables users to create, contribute to and discuss various topics. Since launch, users have demonstrated high engagement with Collections, with many stating that this could give positive direction to the platform.

Could Collections pave the way for Google+ to (dare I say it) succeed? Only time will tell. I might even log in myself sometime soon.


Alphabet_Inc_Logo_2015.svg Google becomes Alphabet

Finally, let’s end with Alphabet. Google’s most recent announcement on 10th August detailed plans to restructure into new holding company called Alphabet. The new company will head up a collection of companies, the largest of which will be Google.

Google’s co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin announced (a surprise) shake-up of the company’s structure and management. In the announcement, they will be handing control of the Google search engine to Sundar Pichai who will replace Larry Page and become CEO of Google.


What does this mean for brands? Well not much right now. It will be interesting to see where Google steers itself in the future but for the short term, its business as usual.

Image credits

Google Logo
Alphabet logo 

SEO in web development, keyword analysis & monitoring the bottom line

Over the past few months, a number of articles have caught my eye as they reinforce important learnings about how search has evolved. In light of these articles, I’ve looked at how brands and retailers need to shift their mind-set around ‘SEO’ and use it more strategically within marketing campaigns.

SEOs have a role in development

SEO has evolved greatly over the years and it doesn’t operate in silo. Search engine algorithms have advanced significantly to weed out spam and reward sites that have relevant and valuable content – ultimately sites that provide users with what they want.

SEO and UX go hand-in-hand and which is why it’s important that the SEOs of today have good knowledge of usability and experience design as well as the technical aspects of search.  All these skills can be a huge asset when redeveloping a website.

Your optimisation team will have in-depth, historic knowledge of your current site’s performance, what works and what doesn’t as well as your business goals. They also have knowledge of a number of different platforms so can advise on the best platform even before the project has kicked off.

When developing a site, use your SEO team’s experience, learnings and advice to your advantage. Get their input on technical requirements and recommended specification for your new site to ensure that important elements, for both the search engines and users, are factored into scope.

Then by the combined ideas of your optimisation team, designers and developers will ensure you end up with a site that exceeds expectations in terms of architecture, content, optimisation and user experience.

Keyword analysis

I recently read a good post about the relevance of keyword analysis in Search Engine Land. I couldn’t agree more with the points raised and want to reinforce how brands should be using search term analysis today.

The Hummingbird update in 2013 was an important step in Google’s quest to provide better quality search results. By better understanding the intent of search queries by looking at context (rather than specific keyword matching) they have been able to provide smarter, more relevant search results.

Of course, bespoke on-page optimisation still has its part to play, but brands need to forget trying to rank for certain keywords and focus on adding relevant, more varied content around topics or subjects.

Keyword analysis today should help identify popular keyword themes, product opportunities and review what questions are being frequently searched for. This kind of analysis will help you find gaps and opportunities for targeted content, be that additional products, improved categorisation or filtering functionality, enhanced product information, how-to guides or FAQs.

Think about the role your content plays in a conversion and investigate terms that will target more of the right customers throughout their search.

Measuring your marketing

Another interesting read was this article on Moz which discussed why looking at correlation rather than focusing on causation needs to be more of a focus for modern SEOs and marketers.

It is becoming harder and harder to predict and measure success from individual channels and the key statement in this article is that SEOs are “becoming more complete marketers, with greater influence on all of the elements of our organisations’ online presence.”

All these articles reinforce that SEO shouldn’t be treated as something that operates in isolation. Retailers need to change their view on traditional SEO tactics such as keyword analysis, as these should be used far more frequently and strategically to inform content creation. Expanding quality, engaging content is always going to be the best long-term strategy for natural success, not focusing on specific keyword rankings as many brands still do!

Retailers also need keep focused on the bigger-picture. Of course monitor granular channel specific metrics, but don’t obsess over them. Tie everything back to your bottom line. If your marketing channels are working, you will be able to see this in your sales, revenue and market share.

And finally, be sure to get the most from your agencies by pooling their knowledge to ensure your marketing campaigns are joined up. Whether it is a new site build or a strategy review, get your agencies in the same room to work together, share plans and collaborate on strategy to ensure you maximise the effectiveness your marketing.

It’s not too late to maximise online sales this Christmas

Christmas is a key time for many retailers and brands. Therefore, it is important to ensure your website is up to scratch in order to maximise sales.

Conversion rate optimisation (CRO) underpins the success of a website and even a few small changes now could have a positive impact on conversion rates and sales over the festive period.

So where to start? How about with the following:

Carry out some quick A/B tests

Many tools such as Optimizely allow you to test smaller changes against the current design to determine which perform better than others. You can then serve the better performing page variation to a higher percentage of users in the run up to Christmas. This means that even if you do not get statistically significant results quickly, you can still divert more traffic to your higher converting page variation.

Conduct a user test

This will help you quickly identify any changes you can make immediately. If you have specific problem areas you want to test, What Users Do is a cost effective online tool that can top line key issues users’ face.

Conduct a short survey

Tools such as Google Surveys or Survey Monkey allow you to gain some quick, free insight into what users might find frustrating on your site. By focusing on getting something up and running now, you can run it for a month and implement any quick-win changes in time for December.

Identify problem pages in Analytics

Look for pages that drive a good amount of traffic but have low conversion and/or high bounce rates. In addition, review page speeds and work through priority recommendations from Google Page Insights. You will typically find the same problems across a number of pages, so some site-wide changes to improve load time could have an immediate, positive impact on user experience. It will also improve optimisation of the site.

Go through your checkout process

Identify any issues or tweaks you could make to simplify or streamline the process. Look out for unnecessary form fields, enable guest checkout (if you haven’t already,) auto populate address fields where possible etc. Try and be objective, as if you were a customer yourself.

ASOS checkout

Check your online enquiry forms and customer service channels

Ensure they function as best they can. Forms should be quick and easy to fill in and should let customers know that their enquiry has been received. Any queries should be answered promptly in order to try and maintain the attention of the customer and ideally their loyalty to buy with you.

Check your website’s search function

Many people know what they want and will search specifically for gifts at Christmas. They also usually want to view and compare products and prices quickly. Therefore, ensuring your site search functions well and provides relevant, useful results should help support conversions. If you are using Google custom search, you should explore marking up for a Google sitelinks search box which would enable a search box directly in the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs.)



Review which products were popular last Christmas

Use this insight to ensure they have good visibility on your site this season. Use popular product imagery to promote email sign ups too (e.g. email / newsletter/ catalogue sign up boxes.)

Offer a price match

If you can, offer a price match offer in case customers have seen lower prices elsewhere. Price is even more important to customers at Christmas, therefore you have to ensure you remain competitive. Ensure price match messaging is in a prominent position across product pages and provide details for customers to contact you to honour the price match.

John Lewis price match

Free delivery

Where possible, offer free delivery as standard. Alternatively, consider awarding free delivery if people sign up to your newsletter. By doing so, you will benefit in the long run by growing your email list.

john lewis

Abandon basket emails

Make sure your abandon basket emails are working effectively in the run up to Christmas. These emails are really effective to bring people back to purchase.

Basket abandonment email

As you can see, it’s not too late to make some fruitful changes to your site that could boost your sales this Christmas. Look at your website with fresh eyes and prioritise any ‘quicker win’ changes so you don’t lose sales to your competitors. But don’t hang around too long – your customers certainly won’t!


How small retailers can compete against big brand stockists

An issue many smaller retailers face is when their competition online is their stockists or wholesalers. The desire to grow direct sales whilst keeping stockists and wholesalers happy is a difficult balancing act.

This is particularly prevalent for fashion brands where larger stockists can more often than not, be more competitive on price and offer free or next day delivery. They are also likely to have much higher marketing budgets and be able to promote products to gain a higher percentage of sales.

There are many industry pressures facing smaller retailers today, not least the constant markdowns and discounts made available by big brand retailers, such as Amazon. The dominance of big retailers entices more customers to hunt for the best price, something that is supported by the prevalence of mobile, where customers can compare prices online while shopping on the high street.

Ultimately, the marketplace is one where price is a key influencer, and one that supports big brand retailers. But what does this mean for the smaller retailer who cannot continually offer discounts or offer free/next day delivery as standard, especially if they operate in the premium/luxury space? Are consumers these days only really interested in grabbing a bargain? I think some are, but some are not.

I was chatting to my Dad over Christmas and we were both having a moan about bad service. It got me thinking about how easy it is to remember when you get poor service, but equally you do remember when you get a great service. People are much more likely to remember, recommend and return to businesses that go the extra mile and provide a great experience, which makes you feel valued as a customer, even if their prices are not the cheapest.

This article looks at how I think smaller retailers can compete against the big boys, which in time may negate the need for them to have a wholesale channel at all. We have certainly seen this with one or two of our clients. To build brand awareness and drive revenue during the early years, they need wholesale. But as the business grows and their direct channels to market mature (website, catalogue and so on), they are able to go it alone.

So where to start?

It has to be the customer.

Who is your typical customer?

  • Who are they demographically and geographically?
  • How often do they buy?
  • What are their interests?
  • What is important to them?
  • What do they like or dislike?
  • What are their daily challenges?

These are just a few of the questions you should ask to try understand exactly who your customers are, enabling you to plan and execute an experience that meets, and exceeds, their expectations.

Emotions are always involved in purchases, so recognising and understanding individual customer circumstances, as well as what is important to them will help you provide a more superior service then your stockists.

Think about building relationships

Customer relationships are different to customer experience. Relationships are not with a product or service, they are with a company or even an individual within that company. You therefore need to build trust with your customers and really develop a relationship to incite loyalty. Have a conversation with your customers, engage with them and stay in touch via social media, email marketing, newsletters and catalogues.

Remember that customer journeys are not linear and people are fickle, so investing time building relationships is what will help keep your brand front of mind when customers are thinking about their next purchase.

The next step is to ensure you have a quality product, informative website and a great delivery service.

When customers are actively browsing, one of the most important things they consider is the product itself. Is it good quality? Is it durable? What are the features? What do other people think? Additionally, be sure to let customers know how the product will make them feel or how will it change their daily life for the better. Again, consider the emotional value of the product.

Add value with great content

Create supplementary product content including detailed style and fit guides, inspirational product development stories, trend or seasonally-focused content, product videos, product reviews and so on. The benefits of this kind of information will be two-fold. You are providing rich, quality content to support your natural search visibility, but you are also enticing customers to buy directly on your site. People will always have doubts or questions about products, so if your content can answers these questions, there is no need for them to go elsewhere.

Consider bespoke incentives

If you cannot compete on price, what other incentives can you offer customers e.g. a ‘3 for 2’ offer or a ‘buy one get one half price’? This still reflects a saving to the customer but you are also encouraging people to buy more.

User experience is key

Ensure your website is easy to use and that your checkout process is quick, intuitive and user friendly. If you’ve got them this far, you definitely don’t want to lose the sale!

Add value to your delivery and personalise your packaging
If you cannot offer free or next day delivery, consider what other benefits you can offer as part of your delivery service. Could you text the customer with updates about the status of their delivery? Can you personalise the packaging? Customers love interesting packaging as well as receiving unique offers, small freebies and personalised messaging in their delivery. Use your customer insight to support what is important to them and use this to your advantage.

These are the small things that will make customers feel special and make the purchase a memorable one.

Loyalty programs

If providing a great product and experience, make sure you offer a loyalty program which can further incentivise customers to come back and buy directly from you. Ensure details are placed in each delivery.

Customer service

Ensure your problem handling process and service recovery is watertight. This is an important part of building trust, loyalty and brand advocacy. If you do everything to fix a problem (or demonstrate that you are doing everything you can) you will instil a good memory over the negative problem they have encountered.

This customer service needs to be delivered via multiple channels. Customers will complain via Facebook just as readily as they will via your contact number.

Managing stockists

Finally, some things to consider when setting up and developing relationships with stockists:

  • If possible, release your collections on your site first, and allow at least two weeks exclusivity on your site. This should enable the search engines to index your content as the primary source which should see your retain high natural visibility for product related searches.
  • If possible, do not allow stockists to bid on your brand name (or similar derivatives) via paid search.
  • Consider limiting the range you sell through stockists, whether this is a limit on product range, or just a limit on selling all product variations.
  • Do not give stockists all your product imagery, videos, etc. This will ensure you retain exclusive ownership of your full range of assets.

With all the above being considered, smaller retailers should not feel like they have to compete against their stockists on price or free/next day delivery. Getting a better understanding of your customer, engaging them in relevant ways and nurturing relationships will help you provide an unbeatable experience for them. Only until you know what your customers truly value, can you deliver a memorable and delightful experience that perhaps your stockists don’t.

People don’t tend to remember where they got the cheapest deal last time, but they do remember where they had a truly great customer experience.

Planning a new website? Don’t forget these five key elements

It’s always exciting when clients are developing a new site. It is the perfect chance to sort out any issues and build advanced functionality that will help set their site apart from the competition.

However all too often, crucial elements are not factored into the initial scope which can be costly to re-address after the platform and CMS have been chosen and developers appointed. It is therefore vitally important that you think carefully about what you want, and need the site to achieve first and map your requirements from this.

Below are the top 5 elements you need to consider when getting the project scoped:

1) Analyse your current site to inform the new
What is working well? What needs improving? What are the opportunities? What do your customers think? It’s so important to understand the status of your current site so you can figure out exactly what you need the new site to achieve.

2) Ensure the navigation is search engine friendly
Textual navigation is important for the search engines to be able to easily spider the site. Therefore avoid JavaScript, Flash or image based navigations as these can be problematic the search engines.

3) Plan your site architecture
Having a good site architecture is important as it will ensure the search engines can index and rank all relevant pages on the site. Ensure that the category structure is logical and you have landing pages that match how people search. Make sure product filtering produces unique URLs so that ranking and traffic potential is maximised. (These pages should provide a better conversion rate.)

4) Specify device agnostic design
Responsive web design is the best option to allow the site to render well on different devices. If not, a separate mobile site should definitely be considered to ensure you are providing a seamless experience across devices to help further encourage conversions. Allow your customers to buy where and when they want!

5) Allow for good CMS functionality
It is important to ensure the CMS allows easy optimisation and ongoing management of the site. My colleague, Ben Adam, recently put together a much more exhaustive list of e-commerce features that will be driven by the choice of platform / CMS. Those that are pretty fundamental are as follows:

  • Logically structured, search engine friendly URLs that follow the structure of the site (avoid dynamic URLs, spaces or symbols in the URL, uppercase letters, etc.)
  • Ability to add page-by-page 301 redirects (in case your URLs change, which if you are changing platform they almost certainly will)
  • Ensure HTML tags are customisable to allow for targeted optimisation. The main ones are:
    • title tags
    • meta descriptions
    • h1 headers
    • alt tags
  • Maintain areas for copy on every page and keep this copy integrated into the design (web copy seems to be a dying component but it is still very important to the search engines, particularly if you want non-brand, search term exposure)
  • Support for the following:
    • breadcrumb trail
    • editable robots.txt
    • instructional meta tags (including rel=canonical, rel=prev / next, rel=author)
    • microformats to allow us to mark up the content directly for the search engines (e.g. price, stock, review markup etc.)
  • Allow for an XML site map, automatically generated would be best case (this means that any changes or additions will automatically populate the XML sitemap)

In most cases, the budget available for a re-build will help determine features and functionality somewhat; however you must plan and be clear about your objectives and requirements from the very beginning. Otherwise you risk spending money on a new site that doesn’t achieve what you want, and need it to.

How stores should embrace digital to provide an innovative shopping experience

As online sales continue to increase, my last post looked at how retailers can maximise digital sales of high-value items. However there is still a good proportion of customers who like to visit a store to view a product before making a purchase, particularly for higher-value items.

It is therefore important retailers do not forget about their bricks and mortar stores and look to embrace digital in order to provide a great shopping experience in-store, as well as online.

Savvy customers are demanding a seamless multi-channel experience where they have the flexibility, choice and convenience to buy where they want, when they want. Retailers therefore need to implement more advanced digital and multi-channel technology in their stores.

We have the following suggestions:

  • Integrate your multi-channel retail systems so that stores can efficiently correlate orders and stock availability with all other channels. New, integrated technologies are crucial to efficient product fulfilment, order management and operational success
  • Introduce in-store Wi-Fi to allow users access to the Internet for free. A third of consumers carry out in-store comparison shopping on their mobile phones. So whether they are price checking, looking for the best deal or for looking for delivery options, today’s customers want to make the most informed choice
  • Introduce in-store kiosks or tablets so that customers can browse your full product range and place online orders in-store. This also presents the opportunity for store staff to educate less savvy customers on how to use your website
  • Utilise QR codes or develop a barcode scanning apps for use in the following areas:

1. Store window displays to allow customers to scan and buy. Waitrose and John Lewis did this over the Christmas period (although the window display is still there now – in March!) This type of feature could work well around seasonal events or particular promotions to showcase a targeted range

2. Store shelves or individual product tickets so that customers can scan items, add products to an online shopping basket or save them in an online wish list. This means customers will get the in-store experience, with the ease of online ordering and the convenience of home deliver

3. Additionally, you could provide detailed product information or video material so that customers can scan the store shelf or the product ticket to find out more about a product. For higher-value products such as furniture, perhaps lead people to buyer’s guides or extra images of the furniture to help customers visualise the product in different environments and rationalise the purchase

4. Print catalogues or brochures so those that customers can take a catalogue home and buy in their own time.  Shopping catalogues remain a firm favourite with UK shoppers

  • Interactive mirrors and integrating social media in store to provide an innovative shopping experience. Lingerie retailer Triumph recently launched their ‘fantasy mirror’ which allows shoppers to virtually try on lingerie without getting undressed
  • 3D augmented reality point of sale material. This would very useful for packaged products e.g. various bed linens or throws so that the customers can see what the linens will look like on a bed etc. This type of experience could help aid cross-selling where ‘stylist matched linens’ are sold in tandem with a bed frame
  • Don’t forget search! Retailers with stores must factor in local search as a key part of their retail natural search strategy. Google has been working hard to improve local search results and their most recent update included improvements to rankings for local search results, as well as richer local results. In layman’s terms, Google has got better at ‘understanding when search queries and documents are local to the user’ and they have improved the ‘triggering of Local Universal results’. This increased emphasis on local results highlights how crucial it is that your stores have a well optimised Google Place page that includes accurate and detailed store information, good imagery and customer reviews

Every retailer is different so what is right for one retailer may not be right for another. However, it is clear that the in-store experience needs to adapt and continue to evolve to match the needs of today’s customers.

Ultimately, readdressing your in-store technology and experience will require a great deal of time and financial investment but the benefits of developing a richer shopping experience will become increasingly important for thriving in the ever-evolving retail environment.

Ten ways retailers can maximise digital sales of high-value items

Historically, high-end or high-value items have not sold as well online as they have in-store. This is because customers have preferred to see, touch and feel items before making a purchase. However, this more traditional path-to-purchase appears to be slowly changing.

Digital sales are beginning to overtake in-store sales for a number of retailers who sell higher value items, particularly furniture. Changing shopping behaviour, advances in m-commerce and retail SEO, alongside robust multi-channel marketing strategies are all helping to increase digital sales.

So what do retailers need to do to maximise sales of high value or high-ticket items through their online channels? We have the following tips:

1. Firstly, if you don’t already have a mobile optimised site, get one! Not only do almost half of the UK’s mobile users own a smartphone, but mobile site conversion rates tend to be good. (Furniture Village has revealed that their new mobile site is delivering higher average order values than their main website.)

2. Make sure you check the performance and user experience of your site on tablets. Recent research by Adobe has shown that tablet visitors spend 20% more than desktop shoppers, and twice as much as those using smartphones.  You could even consider creating a specifically optimised tablet site.

3. Provide good product filtering options and detailed product information. Customers like to be able to filter by size, colour, price and material so whether you are selling designer clothes, accessories, or sofas, good product filtering functionality will aid the shopping experience.  John Lewis do this quite well:

Additionally, good quality product descriptions help customers feel completely informed about a product and can be just as important as an image.

4. Provide context with advanced zoom imagery, 360° product rotation options, 3D modelling or even augmented reality to further develop the shopping experience.

5. Provide pattern / colour / material close-ups to help customers clearly view product options, and consider allowing customers to order samples (e.g. swatches of materials.) Again, John Lewis are doing this well:

6. Consider creating product videos or buyers guides to help support your product information and demonstrate the features and benefits of your products.

7. Customer reviews are still highly powerful in persuading sales. (88% of shoppers indicated their purchasing decision was influenced by customer ratings, comments and reviews – Adobe Scene7 Viewer Study Jan 2010). our partner, Feefo, provides a highly effective ratings and reviews system that has proven time and time again to increase online conversions, loyalty and customer satisfaction by listening to what genuine customers say.

8. Consider a ‘showcase’ showroom that displays products in real life settings e.g. a house. We are seeing more and more high end retailers offering this type of ‘lifestyle experience’ to aid sales of higher value products.

9. Customer service – this is nothing new but a happy customer will not only be a repeat customer but they will recommend you to a friend, which is one of the most valuable ways to win new customers.

10. The convenience of click and collect and collect + has proved hugely popular for customers allowing them more control and convenience over product delivery.

Today’s customers are increasingly expecting websites to include the above features and functionality so that their digital experience is more like an in-store experience. By blurring the boundaries between online and offline, and creating a more seamless experience between channels, customers will inadvertently be more confident buying high ticket items online.

Understand your authority to inform your natural search strategy


The scope of a natural search strategy should always be influenced by your authority. Broadly speaking, this includes both the authority of your brand (within your industry) as well as authority of your website domain (in the eyes of the search engines).

In simple terms larger retailers, such as John Lewis and M&S, have a greater amount of ‘authority’, in general, than say a smaller boutique or fashion house. As such, their natural search strategies will, and should, differ.

When we are approached by a smaller, boutique brand, the general theme is that they remain reliant (and tend to spend most of their budget) on more traditional offline marketing methods, particularly PR. As such, most of their search engine traffic will tend to be driven from brand terms. This is to be expected as the offline coverage received in a magazine, for example, will inevitably drive prospects and customers to the website, often via a search engine. As such, smaller brands will tend to face a recurring problem – low search engine exposure, and therefore traffic driven to their websites, for non-brand terms.

On the flip side of the coin, retailers with a higher level of authority tend to dominate the search results for competitive, non-brand search queries even when they do not appear to have adopted many of the optimisation basics.

This is partly driven by updates to Google’s algorithm that appears to ‘favour’ larger brands. Clearly this has implications for your natural search strategy depending on your level of authority and therefore how you are perceived by Google.

Below, I look at the general differences we find between higher authority brands and websites, such as John Lewis, compared with boutique style businesses and in turn, the approach that might be taken to natural search execution on the basis of that authority:

HIGH authority – e.g. larger high street brands such as John Lewis and M&S.
These sites will tend to rank very well for non-brand terms aided by their strong, authoritative domain.  As such…

  • Whilst optimising the site itself remains important, they tend to get away with a lesser amount of highly optimised copy
  • They will have a strong natural link profile with varied, quality links from multiple domains
  • They will have a good following of fans and brand evangelists on social platforms
  • They will likely have a well-integrated on- and off-line PR and social strategy, one objective of which is to continue building high quality SEO links
  • They will lead the way in multichannel and e-commerce therefore delivering an intuitive and consistent experience for customers as they move between channels

MID authority – e.g. smaller high street brands such as Dorothy Perkins.
Whilst possessing a certain level of authority, they are not quite in the same league as a John Lewis. Therefore greater emphasis needs to be placed on optimising for non-brand search terms.

  • They will perhaps need to include a greater volume of on-page copy, well optimised for non-brand terms
  • Whilst they will accumulate a good number of links quite naturally, the emphasis will be on building links utilising anchor text relevant to non-brand keyword targets, especially terms that are highly competitive
  • They will more likely have both on- and off-line PR strategies with SEO link building operating separately.  These will be working well, but could benefit from more cross discipline integration to ensure the ‘belts and braces’ SEO link building is supported by securing of editorial links from PR
  • They will adopt social strategies that may be more focused around offers and deals

LOWER authority – e.g. smaller boutique brands / fashion houses
We often find that these websites utilise flash over search engine friendly content. As such, these sites can be difficult to optimise for search engines, particularly the homepage. As these businesses / websites are seen to have the least authority, the irony is that they actually require the most work when it comes to on and off page optimisation to stand any real chance of climbing up the search engine rankings, particularly for competitive, non-brand search terms.  As such…

  •  There needs to be greater emphasis on optimising the website with copy featured across category, sub-category and product pages
  • The optimisation strategy should generally focus first on long tail search terms (exposure can be gained more quickly as these search terms are naturally less competitive). It is generally the case that traffic driven to a website from a longer tail search term (‘black cocktail dress’, for example, will lead to a higher conversion rate as the visitor is further along their buying journey
  • As such, lower authority sites should try and adopt advanced product filtering functionality to introduce more targeted, long tail landing pages for the search engines to rank
  • These sites should be very user and conversion focused in order to achieve higher average order values and conversion rates for the lower volumes of traffic they will be generating – every visitor counts!
  • They will get very few quality links naturally
  • To make the best of available resource,  completely complimentary on- and off-line brand and product PR and SEO link building campaigns will work hardest – with an initial focus on the longer tail ‘belts and braces’
  • They will adopt social strategies to connect and reward customers on a more personal level

Thinking about where your site fits in to this ‘authority scale’ both in terms of your brand and domain should sit at the heart of planning your natural search strategy. Time and time again we are approached by boutique businesses looking to rank first page on Google for a highly generic and competitive search terms. In the vast majority of cases, it is totally unrealistic based on the level of competition and the budget set aside for natural search, which in itself is an increasingly complex discipline.

My two pence worth on the IR Expo 2011

I was fortunate enough to attend the Internet Retailing Conference 2011 last Tuesday. The overriding thought of the day was that retailers must be thinking Multi-Channel. Nearly every talk focussed on the importance of building your brand and creating a seamless user experience across all channels. This is of course sage advice however, in my view there was a notable absence in retailers talking about search as part of this experience, particularly the benefits of optimising your website and social media presence for non-brand searches.

Building your brand with targeted and engaging content across channels is great for existing customers but what about potential new customers who don’t already know your brand? Search is absolutely fundamental to increasing non-brand exposure and starting to engage with those not familiar with your brand.

Many niche brands come to us with the same problems: they are getting zero traffic for non-brand terms and their home page accounts for the vast number of entrances to the site (which is being driven by brand domain authority).

So what do you need to do to increase visibility for non-brand terms? You need to go back to basics to ensure all of the content you create on and off site is optimised in a way that search engines can understand.

Optimise your meta titles, page headers, internal links and include areas of optimised copy on every page. The search engines will then be able to effectively evaluate and rank your pages for more product-focussed, non-brand terms. Link build to those pages and other engaging site content you are creating using those non-brand terms. Natural search visibility has to be a fundamental part of any multi-channel strategy as it is the starting point of the customer user journey for so many new customers.

It is refreshing to see that retailers are taking strides towards multi-channel and talking seriously about the customer experience. Just don’t forget that search is a key part of this.

I’ll finish with some of my key take outs from the conference:

  • Embrace, invest and commit to multi-channel – You need to make sure you evolve your strategy. Customer behavior and trends and changing, driven mainly by technology so in turn search campaigns, payments methods, user-experience and so also need to evolve.
  • Demonstrate ROI across the business (rather than for each channel) – Make sure you have good multi-channel analytics tool in place to understand the journey customers take from research through to sale. In turn, this allows you to optimise marketing channels properly.
  • Be agnostic about where a sale takes place – Customers shop wherever they want, whenever they want. So you need to embrace technology and provide a cohesive user experience across all channels.
  • Understand your customer – Make them feel good.  Listen and engage with them, find out what they want, what they like, what’s important to them and find out where they spend their time (both on and offline). Use this insight to align your strategy.
  • Make your brand accessible across channels – Strive to provide a unique brand experience but ensure the brand experience is consistent across all your channels. Bring your brand to life with hot spotting videos, creative content, dynamic merchandising, contextual product imagery etc.
  • Mobile is (still) the next big thing – If you haven’t got a mobile site, get one! Use your customer insight to find out what your customers do on their mobiles and match your mobile offering to this. Mobiles add locality so don’t forget your local strategy.

Changing mobile habits open up opportunities for savvy marketers

It’s no secret that the number of people who access the Internet through smartphones is rapidly increasing as mobile Internet becomes faster and more affordable. The resulting shift away from PCs, towards mobile devices is now beginning to have a big effect on people’s online habits. Adfonic’s Paul Childs recent opinion piece in NMA highlight’s that many advertisers are missing opportunities resulting from this shift.

Historically traffic trends by hour have peaked at lunchtime and tailed off throughout the afternoon as people tended to surf during lunchtimes then gradually get back to work.

In contrast to PC web access, analytics data shows mobile traffic increasing from 6pm onwards, with people accessing the Internet on their commute home. Mobile traffic continues throughout the evening as people surf in-front of the TV or in the pub, peaking around midnight (suggesting surfing is preferred to more traditional bedtime activities, such as reading).

As mobile traffic peak periods occur at traditionally dead times for online advertising there is clearly a big opportunity here for advertisers to target prospects and customers. With the UK seeing the fastest growth in subscribers to smartphones in Europe and expected to be leading the world in the adoption of the high-speed mobile Internet technology, this opportunity to target customers via mobile marketing is only set to increase.

M-commerce is ready to go mainstream and the importance of having a mobile specific retail site has been echoed by recent launches of major mobile sites for retailers M & S, JL and Amazon. Surprisingly, out of 50 of the UKs top eCommerce sites, only around 30% have dedicated mobile websites. Although some of the remaining 70% may have mobile apps it does highlight how larger retailers have been relatively slow to implement mobile strategies. In turn, however, it is a great opportunity for smaller, savvy retail brands to gain a competitive advantage over their larger counterparts.

If 2010 was the year mobile finally took off, 2011 will see it accelerate to mainstream adoption. Brands of all sizes need to be prepared to take advantage.