Google :: The Musings of Tony Gavin, Esq.

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An SEO Question: Do Mentions Without Links have any Value?

SEO professionals have known for a very long time about the value of mentions online, with links pointing to their websites. Getting quality backlinks to your website is still the number one driver of lifting both organic rankings and traffic. Particularly as voice-activated search becomes more widely adopted, SEO professionals are considering the impact of mentions without links. I’m going out on a bit of limb here and saying that linkless mentions were always going to become a thing – with or without voice-based search.

Let’s go waaaaaaay back to 2011

In the closing months of 2011, I locked myself away for several months in the Philippines, with my friend and fellow nerd/geek, Chris Bennetts. At the time we were researching (between beers) what became a way of creating highly authoritative social media footprints in order to assist in driving SEO results. Admittedly, our system was for “people” who didn’t actually exist (and it worked like a charm) – but that’s a whole other story! We concluded way back then that linkless mentions would eventually play a significant role in search rankings. Here’s why…

Social signals and organic rankings

One of the things that caused Chris and me to go down the rabbit hole that we did was that there appeared to be some correlation between heavily liked content and organic rankings. We could see that many pages with high numbers of social Likes and Shares ranked well in search. What we didn’t know was if there was causation attached to that, in that the Likes and Shares increased rankings, or if it was simple correlation. It wasn’t until 2014 that the former head of Google’s web spam team, Matt Cutts, cleared that up.

Causation – vs – Correlation

Here’s a link to an article that I originally wrote back in 2014, on the issue of social signals and authority on Google, which I recently republished. It includes that video of Matt Cutts outlining Google’s (then) viewpoint on social signals. In essence, Matt was saying that the content was good to begin with – and that’s what it was ranking. The Likes and Shares were incidental. I’ve never really been fully convinced by that argument. What I am convinced of is that the Google algorithm is becoming smart enough to differentiate the value of a social signal, in much the same way that it can differentiate the value of a particular backlink.

Tiger Woods and sub-aquatic golf shoes

I often use the example with clients of me stumbling across a web page about golf shoes, and Liking it. Google knows (or should know) from my social media pages that I don’t play golf. I like to scuba dive in my leisure time. Unless the page is about sub-aquatic golf shoes, I don’t think that my opinion about them is really that relevant. On the other hand, if Tiger Woods was to stumble across the same page, and he Liked it, that would be an entirely different matter. If Greg Norman saw that Like on Tiger’s Facebook feed (I’m assuming they are friends on Facebook here) then himself visited the page and Liked it, that would be cause for excitement! Two golfing greats Liking a page about a particular type of golf shoes is something that golfers would want to know about.

By the way, I stole this paragraph from the article I wrote back in 2014. I’ve used the example endless times to demonstrate my point. Back to linkless mentions…

The linkless mention

Time has already proven right much of what Chris and I figured out back in 2011. It’s crystal clear to me that non-linked mentions will impact rankings in the long-term, as Google’s incredibly complex algorithm becomes even better at working out and understanding context and figuring out attribution. I’d be very surprised if their algorithm doesn’t contain the seeds of that already, with a heavy dose of artificial intelligence constantly “learning” more about the individual authority behind any sort of mention or signal.

What’s better: search or social?

Ah, yes. The divide between search and social is crumbling and has been for years. I know FOR SURE that the kind of content that I could (and often did) rank ten or even five years ago would not make into Google’s top 100, let alone the top three search results, today. I’m now focused on the discovery of my websites rather than just chasing search rankings. Whilst my websites rank like demons in search, I can tell you that blogs and social media now drives primary discovery of most of my web properties – and inquiries.

Organic search traffic is generally better quality traffic, probably because it’s so damned specific and people are actually LOOKING for that content. The differences between organic traffic and social traffic are in fact quite stark. Just the same, social provides one hell of a lot more visitation than search does, for me. Here’s an example using some stats from this website:

ORGANIC SEARCH TRAFFIC
Percentage of visits to website: 10.9%
Average Bounce rate: 12.82%
Average time on website: 22:38 mins
Average page visits: 13.10

SOCIAL MEDIA TRAFFIC
Percentage of visits to website: 57.8%
Average Bounce rate: 26.21%
Average time on website: 8:04 mins
Average page visits: 5.52

Back to linkless mentions

Damn! – this post sure has drifted a bit! Anyway, the point is that I believe simple mentions on the internet, in the right places, will increasingly be enough to drive traffic and visitation – regardless of link status. Google has always claimed that “content is king” – although that wasn’t actually true until quite recent times. It’s already crystal clear that Google’s artificial intelligence is becoming smart enough to consider non-linked signals and could very well be doing that already. Exciting times!

Hey Google! What are you doing with my Meta Descriptions?

According to Danny Sullivan, head of Google Search Liaison, Google will not be migrating the meta description length warning to their new Search Console. Those who follow my Facebook group, Marketing Secrets, might recall my (rather frustrated) rant from a few weeks back when Google announced that they’ll be displaying fewer characters for meta descriptions in search results – and at the same time refused to specify a recommended length. Given all of that, his new announcement is hardly surprising and is perhaps long overdue.

Google has been screwing with meta descriptions for a loooooong time…

I first recall seeing “odd” looking page titles and meta descriptions toward the end of 2011. At the time I owned an education-focused website and Google seemed to be offering alternative page titles and meta descriptions, apparently based on perceived user intent. For example, a search for “recognition of prior learning university degree” would yield a completely different set of page titles and meta descriptions in search results to “recognition of prior learning”- for the exact same page. It wasn’t long after this that the Big G announced they were, in fact, serving results in this manner. In other words, this has been happening for close to seven years now.

More recently (as in late last year) Google decided to display more characters in the meta descriptions of the search results they delivered. Description lengths went up from an average of 160 to 320 characters, causing a frenzy, with webmasters editing and extending their visible messages. Just a few weeks ago Google rolled that back and we again have an average of about 160 characters being displayed in search results. The only difference now is that Google is refusing to state what the ideal length of a meta description now is. That sounds to me like they may again extend or even shorten the length of meta descriptions in search results.

Clearly, this has been a work in progress for a long time.

Controlling Your Meta Descriptions

In spite of what Google has been doing for a long time, I’ve tried to exercise some degree of control over what page titles and meta descriptions appear in search results. I’ve achieved this for my own websites and those of many clients by ensuring that both of those items closely match the on-page content, with a special focus on H1 and H2 tags, plus the primary message of the page. By and large, I’ve been successful in making sure that the desired message is being presented. I’m wondering how much longer we’ll be able to do that for?

Because I’ve been doing this a long time, I can recall a time when Google took note of meta keywords. They stopped doing that so long ago that I can’t recall exactly when it was. The reason why they started disregarding that signal was that webmasters figured out that they could “stuff” that meta area with the keywords they wanted to appear for in search results. Much the same thing has happened with page titles and meta descriptions, which is undoubtedly why Google has been paying them less and less attention. Given the awesome combined power of latent semantic indexing and AI, I can easily envisage a time in the not too distant future when Google will disregard both page titles and meta descriptions entirely.

What’s Next for Meta Descriptions?

The upshot of this is that you should probably to take a closer look at the content of your pages and really examine what keywords you might be targeting. Google is now clearly favouring long-form content with tightly focused, high-quality information, within narrow fields. That kind of content seems to be even more highly favoured when the website it’s on is semantically related. Semantically related inbound links power this even more. It looks like a narrow focus on a particular subject is going to score you more and more brownie points as time marches on.

Google already picks and chooses from your web pages what it wishes to display in page titles and meta descriptions. They’ve just told us (without telling us) that this practice is now becoming the norm. You need to start thinking of all of your content as potential snippets of information that are likely to be presented in organic search results. Google is already doing this, but they haven’t quite gotten there in terms of consistently displaying that content in a way that always makes sense. I believe that they will get there – and you can help them (and you) by targeting key, on page snippets of information to conform with a 160 character length protocol – for now anyway.

Welcome to another new normal!