SEO :: The Musings of Tony Gavin, Esq.

Category Archives for SEO

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:

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

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!

Category Pages: Are You Missing a Great SEO Opportunity?

Most people use WordPress as a platform to manage their website. It’s a great Content Management System, but truthfully, I’m only a fairly recent convert. Up until about twelve months ago, my agency was very much a Joomla! specialist. Up until about six months ago, even my own website was hosted on the Joomla! CMF. As a developer, Joomla! makes a ton more sense than WordPress. As a non-developer who just wants to be able to manage their website effectively, WordPress is a hands-down winner! And that brings me to Categories…

Categories – A missed opportunity!

After rebuilding one of our agency websites I decided to take a closer look at what pages Google was indexing. You can get a clear idea of this for your own website by going to your Chrome browser and typing in You’ll see what Google is presenting in search results for your pages – including any category pages that they are serving up. Here’s an example of that.

As I moved through the results I started to notice something interesting. Category pages were being indexed – usually with gobbledygook in the meta description which Google had randomly pulled from the pages. That gobbledygook (it’s actually a snippet) is pulled from all the posts which have been published on your website in that Category. Here’s a random example I pulled from the web. It’s what I see as a wasted opportunity.

Why bother with Categories?

The short answer is because Google is clearly indexing them. Chances are if you have a lot of pages about a particular Category and the content is good, Google will be very interested in that page. Why wouldn’t you do everything that you can to help it rank? Makes sense, right!

How to rank a Category page in organic search results

Firstly, you’re going to need to create some decent content about that category. For example, my website has a lot of content (including blog posts) about the Mautic open source CRM and marketing automation platform. As a result of that, the Category Archive page contains a lot of content about that subject – and Google knows all about it. I did say QUALITY content too. Make sure that what you write is worth reading or Google is going to pass it by.

Next up you’ll need to edit your Page Titles and Meta Descriptions. This post is not about how to do that and there are about a million places on the internet where you can find out for free. I’m not going to go through that here, beyond stating that you need to ensure that your meta data reflects what your blog posts within the Category you are editing are all about. If your Category is about house painting, for example, you might end up with something like this:

House Painting Tips and Tricks from House Painting Pros

Learn the secrets of painting your house like a pro. We have tons of free house painting tips that will have your house looking picture perfect in no time!

Notice that the page title and meta description makes it clear that the Category is all about house painting. If your blogs have been set up correctly, their meta data will tell much the same story as will the content of each blog. If you wish to you can further reinforce that message by adding some content to the category page. Maybe you could have something like this as an introduction:

Painting your house is a big investment of time and money. It might also increase the value of your home and make it a more enjoyable place to live. The House Painting Blog is dedicated to providing home-owners like you with free tips and tricks that will help you achieve a professional look with your house painting. Scroll through our archive to learn about selecting colours, preparing surfaces, choosing the right paint, application techniques and a heap of other really useful info. We welcome your questions and ask you to comment on blog posts so that we can answer. Happy painting!

Here’s an example from the agency website that I mentioned before:

Other opportunities – including internal linking

Many websites have galleries installed to display images. Did you know that most gallery plugins allow you to control Page Titles and Meta Descriptions, as well as add content – just like what I’ve suggested above. In part, that’s because most WordPress gallery plugins exploit Categories as their backbone. Plenty of other plugins offer the same opportunities, like testimonial sliders, for example. Your ability to get pages like this indexed are almost limitless.

I’ve also used Category pages to drive internal linking. You’ll see in the example below that we’ve added content including photos, along with links to certain pages of the website. We had that website ranking like a demon in Google organic search within weeks of it going live. Internal linking from Category pages played their part in that fast track success.

Some final thoughts on Categories

Google wants to know what your website is about. Categories help their crawlers to navigate your website and assist their AI in understanding what your website is all about. With clever use, you can be driving discovery of your pages and well as pushing the kind of engagement that you want from visitors. It takes a bit of time to think through the strategy you want to use to present your information, but that investment of time is well worth the results. It’s one of those little understood and infrequently used tactics that can make a huge difference to how your website ranks on Google.

Social Signals & Your Authority on Google

I’m often asked by people about the value of displaying Facebook Likes, Twitter Tweets, LinkedIn Shares and other social media signal buttons on their websites and blogs. In order to fully address that, I think that we need first to take a good look at what a social signal really is and how search engines interpret them.

What is a social signal?

In simple terms, a social signal is a link from somebody’s social media page (such as a Facebook or LinkedIn account) to your web page. When visitors to your website or blog click a Facebook Like button, or Google+ icon, they are creating a link directly from their social media account to your page that they have Liked or G+’d. This lets those who are connected with that person via social media know that they have found some value in whatever it is that you have posted. It’s a vote of confidence in what they have viewed on your web page – and something that they think is perhaps worthy of attention from others that they are connected to. It’s always great to have people appreciate what you have taken the time to create, but what is the significance of that from a Google search perspective?

A brief overview of how Google works

Google has a complex algorithm that it uses to determine what appears in search results when you type a particular search term into their search engine and utilizes a wide range of factors in order to deliver you a result. One of the more significant factors in that algorithm is the number of links to your webpage(s), and the relative importance of the pages that are linking in. For example, if your company makes rocket engines, having links from the NASA website might provide Google with some comfort that your company makes decent rocket engines. If your website had another link from the Virgin Galactic website, that might add further credibility. On the other hand, a link from your local hamburger store might hold less value to Google. Think of a link (including social signals) as a vote of confidence for the content you have provided.

What does Matt Cutts say about social signals?

For the non-geeks reading this (geeks already know exactly who he is) Matt Cutts is head of webspam at Google (update – Matt is now the former head of webspam at Google). There is a reason why people like Matt and the webspam team exist – and that is because as you now know – Google uses links to your web pages as one way of determining the relevance and usefulness of what you have posted. Unfortunately, some webmasters in the past have manipulated Google’s search results by producing and linking less than useful content to key web pages. Matt and his team work overtime to make sure that search engine results remain as untainted as possible, by detecting and punishing attempts at algorithmic manipulation. Any experienced webmaster will be able to tell you just how effective they are at this too!

Anyway, I have embedded a four-minute video that Matt posted to the Google Webmasters page on YouTube a little while back. The video is specifically about the effects of social signals on organic search rankings for web pages, and I found it most interesting. In effect, Matt is saying that Google is not (to his knowledge) placing any particular significance on social media signals. This is (in part) because of the difficulties associated with crawling some social media pages, and also the great speed at which interrelationships between social media users change. Here’s the important part – whilst Matt acknowledges that some pages with plenty of social signals rank well in organic search, he notes that’s correlation, not causation. In effect, he’s saying that the content was probably great to begin with, which is why it has plenty of social love!

What is the future of social signals?

My educated guess would be that the value of social signals will increase dramatically over time. Google, as well as other search engines and social platforms, are working very hard to ensure that they know who is responsible for posting what online, and where. As platforms become more integrated, and leading platforms make it more difficult to hide your true identity, anonymity diminishes. With diminishing anonymity comes the sort of transparency that makes attribution easier, and more reliable. Does that make for a better or worse internet? Maybe that’s a good topic for another post sometime. For now, it’s important to understand that this sort of transparency provides opportunities to build real authority, and the future of the internet as a communication tool lays in authority.

What about Authority?

The original thrust of this post was to question the value of displaying social media engagement buttons on websites and blogs. My view is that these buttons provide a ton of both short and long-term value to webmasters and bloggers. The Google algorithm gets better over time. Just a few years back search results could readily be manipulated with web spam. Today, that is largely not the case. It’s just a matter of time before the Google algorithm becomes smart enough (if it’s not already) to rank the “authority behind the authority”.

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.

To use, or not to use?

It’s clear from what Matt Cutts says in his video that Google is super interested in establishing authorship, and thus authority. Social media by its nature is a first-rate way for Google to determine what people value in the real world, how many of them value it, and the authority behind what it is that they value. In the present, social media does exactly the same thing for webmasters and bloggers. Every time a visitors provides their stamp of approval for your content by clicking on a social media icon, they are also telling those they are connected with about the value of your content. My view is that any webmaster or blogger who fails to have social media buttons integrated on their website is missing a most valuable opportunity to get their message out there – and is just plain crazy! Install the buttons. Suck up their value!

I originally published this article under the title “Social Signals & Authority on Google” at i-Business, on 17th September, 2014. The post contains minor edits.

Search Engine Marketing for Tradies – Is it Worth the Money?

Search engine marketing (SEM) is the science (some say dark art) of driving search engine traffic to your website. When somebody types a particular search into Google that is related to your trade service you ideally want your website to be visible in search results. For example, if you are a plumber in Brisbane, you might want to be visible for a range of keywords that people might type into Google. For example:

  • plumber Brisbane
  • fix blocked drain Brisbane
  • shower leak repairs Brisbane

The most common way to make a tradies website visible for search terms like those are via search engine optimisation (SEO) and pay per click (PPC) advertising, like Google AdWords. Usually, when somebody calls you about search engine marketing for your tradies website it will be to sell you one of those services.

SEO & PPC – What’s the Difference?

SEO is all about “optimising” your website, social media pages, directory listings and other online profiles so they appear in search results for keyword sets that you target – preferably as high up the list of search results as possible.

PPC is all about competing with and bidding against other local tradies who want to rank as highly as possible on Google for certain keyword sets too. Generally, the more bidders there are in a PPC auction, the more you’ll pay for your ad to appear in search results.

SEO & PPC – Which is Better?

Unless you know how to do these things yourself, you’ll have to pay for both SEO and PPC. You might be best to think of SEO as a longer-term investment in “free” visibility on the search engines, whilst PPC is something that can drive traffic to your website immediately and produce fast results. Which is better? Maybe neither. In an ideal world, you might want a balance of both.

Are SEO and PPC Worth It?

Whenever tradies ask me this question I always say the same thing: Show me the demand. Any marketing consultant who’s not just out to take your money will ask the same question or a variation of the question. If there is no localised demand for what your business does, SEO & PPC will generally be a complete waste of your money. I’ve been doing this a long time and that’s the truth. Unfortunately, there are many people selling SEO & PPC who either don’t appear to be aware of this simple reality or who just don’t like to talk about it. If you’re not being asked about localised demand, chances are you’re dealing with a fool or are just about to be royally scammed. Understanding local demand is the starting point for all good quality search engine marketing when it comes to promoting local trade services.

SEM Cost/Benefit Analysis

The numbers don’t lie. They’ll tell you if it’s worthwhile for you to invest money in SEO or PPC. Doing a cost-benefit analysis doesn’t require fancy spreadsheets or a masters degree in mathematics. Some basic searching on Google will reveal a lot, as will some rudimentary keyword research. A pen, paper and calculator will tell you the rest.

Local Search Volume

Firstly, think about what people might type into Google as a search when looking for a tradie like you. If you’re an electrician in Newcastle, you might choose some terms like this:

  • Newcastle electricians
  • electrical contractors Newcastle
  • cost of electricians in Newcastle

You can check your approximate monthly search volume for individual keywords and keyword sets by using the Google keyword planner, which is a free tool. You’ll need a Google account to access and use the tool. There are also some other freebie tools online, just Google “free keyword planning tools”. Many keyword planners will give you more ideas once you have entered a few basic search terms. They’ll often also tell you local search volumes, keyword competitiveness and estimate the cost per click on Google. You can be sure that if something has a solid search volume and a high cost per click, SOMEBODY is making money from that keyword set. Any competent consultant will know how to research keyword search volumes for your trade and will discuss with you what keywords you should be targeting for SEO and/or PPC purposes.

Check out your competition

Now that you have some basic information it’s time to take a look at the competition. Who is ranking organically on Google? What about with Google AdWords? Are they your local competitors? Are they a struggling business, or somebody who is doing well? What is their website like? Would YOU call them if you landed on their website after clicking an ad or a link? How good is your website, in comparison? Can you compete well or do you need to spend some time and money improving your website before jumping off the block? Be honest with yourself.

What are your expected costs sales?

Next look at how much SEO and PPC will cost you, plus the cost of any ads. How many new inquiries would you need to generate in order to break even? What about to make a profit? Are there any other costs to consider, such as a new website or tweaking your existing website? If SEO is going to cost you $1,500 per month and PPC another $750 per month, plus the cost of ads, will you recover that? How soon? Some VERY basic mathematics will tell you most of what you need to know.

Think before you act

Don’t be dazzled by all the fast talk and “guarantees”. A digital marketing proposal makes sense, or it doesn’t. If the whole thing is going to cost you $4,000 per month, for the next 12 months, how else could you spend that money on advertising and what results might you expect from that? Could you just put that money straight in your pocket instead? Consider the alternatives.

A final word

Just because it’s digital advertising doesn’t mean that it’s good advertising. Like every other business, digital marketing has plenty of cowboys in its ranks. Check out the people you’re dealing with and ask to see some real world results before taking action. That usually sorts the men from the boys. When it comes to deciding if search engine marketing is right for you, as a local tradie, “it depends” really is the answer. Knowing what it depends on puts you streets ahead in deciding if SEO or PPC are right for you.