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12 Tools for YouTube Search Optimization

YouTube is the second most visited website, after Google. Success on YouTube requires compelling videos (i.e., stunning visuals, correct length). But it’s equally important to optimize those videos for visibility and search rankings. Fortunately, there’s a variety of free and premium tools to help.

Here is a list of tools to optimize your video content on YouTube. There are tools for keyword research, performance testing, search tracking, bulk processing, and more.

YouTube Analytics

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YouTube Analytics is the first stop for analyzing and optimizing your YouTube video performance. Monitor your channels, videos, and claimed content. See how many people watch your channel and the top few videos with estimated real-time views. Get reports on watch time, as longer times are likely to show up higher in search results and recommendations. See how viewers respond to your videos with comments, shares, clicks, and playlist selections. Price: Free.

TubeBuddy

TubeBuddy home page

TubeBuddy

TubeBuddy is a browser extension that adds a layer of features directly on top of YouTube’s website. Access the video “SEO Tools” to improve your YouTube search rankings with optimized tags, titles, and descriptions. Use TubeBuddy’s productivity tools for insights into YouTube’s tips, bulk processing, and research and promotion. Optimize your thumbnails with simplified A/B testing. Find out when people are talking about you on YouTube with Brand Alerts. Price: Basic is free. Premium plans start at $7.20 per month.

VidIQ

Home page of VidIQ

VidIQ

VidIQ is a chrome extension that provides optimization data to improve your video performance, subscriber engagement, and promotion opportunities. Get VidIQ scores that predict the likelihood of promotion in related videos, search, and recommendations. Use the Channel Audit tool to see how your content is performing and what issues need attention. Measure video momentum with the Velocity tool, and monitor your competitors with the Competitors tool. Boost a video with keyword suggestions for title, description, and tags. Price: Basic is free. Premium plans start at $7.50 per month.

YTCockpit

Home page YTCockpit

YTCockpit

YTCockpit is a tool for YouTube keyword research. Find keywords with high search volume. See how easy or difficult it is to rank for those keywords depending on the competition. Plan your content and your tagging according to keywords that people are already searching for. Analyze hundreds of videos per minute, and gather data from YouTube suggest and Google Ads. Price: Plans start at $19 per month.

Rival IQ

Home page Rival IQ

Rival IQ

Rival IQ is a platform for competitive benchmarking to ensure your video content is outperforming competitors’. See where you stack up against other brand channels and monitor the competition’s changes with custom alerts. Find out what’s working for your competitors to set relevant, achievable goals. Access full YouTube stats such as engagement rates, post times, and views. Segment your YouTube content with custom tags by theme, product, content, and more. Use tags to track your influencer marketing campaign metrics, including video frequency, views, and engagement. Price: Plans start at $199 per month to track five companies.

Canva

Home page Canva

Canva

Canva is an online design and publishing tool. Use it to create dynamic thumbnails for your videos. Find YouTube thumbnail templates for food, music, beauty, travel, tutorials, and more. Access Canva’s library of images, and use the animation feature to make your thumbnail stand out. Upload your own images or artwork, experiment with layout, rearrange elements, and customize as you see fit. Price: Free.

Ahrefs Keywords Explorer

Home page of Ahrefs Keywords Explorer

Ahrefs Keywords Explorer

Ahrefs Keywords Explorer is a tool for generating keyword ideas. Use Ahrefs’ YouTube Keyword Tool to research the words people search for. Filter results by search volume, word count, clicks, clicks per search, return rate, and more. Price: Plans start at $99 per month.

YTRank

Home page of YTRank

YTRank

YTRank is a simple web-based tool to find the ranking of any YouTube video for a specified keyword search. Just enter the YouTube video URL and then up to six keywords. Price: Free.

Keyword Tool

Home page of Keyword Tool

Keyword Tool

Keyword Tool for YouTube provides over 750 titles, tags, hashtags, and long-tail keywords from YouTube autocomplete. To make keyword suggestions more relevant, localize results to all countries and languages supported by YouTube. Pro version provides search volume estimates, costs per click, and Google Ads competition data. Price: Free. Pro plans start at $69 per month.

TagsYouTube

Home page of TagsYouTube

TagsYouTube

TagsYouTube provides a set of tools to help find ideas, optimize content, and track performance. Run the Channel Audit for an in-depth overview of the performance of your YouTube channel and videos. Use the Tag Extractor and Hashtag Generator to identify important keywords. Use the Title Generator and Description Generator to develop optimized text. Price: Free.

Morningfame

Home page of Morningfame

Morningfame

Morningfame provides an expert, guided process to optimizing your videos. Review comparisons between your channel and others of similar size to add context to your statistics and suggestions for improvement. Find out what’s working and what’s not. Repeat the successes, and try new tactics on the rest. Price: Plans start at $4.90 per month.

Social Blade

Home page of Social Blade

Social Blade

Social Blade is an analytics tool for YouTube, Twitch, Instagram, and Twitter. Access Social Blade’s database of global analytics for content creators, live-streamers, and brands. Spy on your competitors, monitoring any channel’s monthly views, subscribers, and earnings. Get video rankings, and learn the basics on how to build subscribers. Grow your channel with insights from YouTube-certified experts. Find influencers through the query builder. Price: Basic is free. Premium plans start at $3.99 per month.

The SEO Benefits of Web Scraping

In “SEO for Google Shopping,” I addressed the need to optimize product feeds. I stated that including keyword product descriptions and titles in the feeds was scalable with “scraping.” But I didn’t describe it further.

In this post, I’ll explain scraping. I’ll review why it’s useful and how it relates to search engine optimization. Scraping can speed up many tasks, eliminating hours of manual work.

What Is Scraping?

Scraping is the process of extracting items from a web page, such as text, code, and images. Scraper applications range from browser extensions to standalone software.

Screenshot of ScrapeBox home page

Scraper applications range from browser extensions to standalone software. ScrapeBox is an example of the latter.

Scraping speeds up the manual process of copying and pasting items on a page with your mouse and keyboard. For example, a human could spend hours manually updating 500 title tags. With a good scraper, it would take a minute.

Scraping is increasingly common. For example, the web crawler Screaming Frog uses scraping to extract data from a website.

Google scrapes websites to display rich snippets on organic search results. The text in Google’s answer boxes comes from scraping.

For years merchants have scraped competitors’ product pages to obtain their prices quickly. Your site may be getting scraped right now — as you read this.

Scraping your own site can be useful. Scraping can quickly gather all of your products and prices into a single spreadsheet for further analysis.

Content thieves use scraping to reproduce articles and images. Spammers rely on scraping tools to impersonate a website and mimic its success. Such tools also facilitate spammers scraping select content and spinning it into new posts. Google doesn’t like this because the result is generally low-value pages. But for spammers, it can be a fast way to trick Google in volume. Sometimes it works, but not nearly as well as it used to.

SEO tools scrape Google’s search results to determine rankings. These tools run millions of searches daily to get updated ranking info. Google has tried to bully rank tracking companies to stop.  It costs Google money because it renders each page for the bot. Plus, it inflates search volume metrics.

Scraping Considerations

Scraping can perform SEO tasks at scale. Say a competitor’s website often appears on the first page of Google for a handful of terms. You could search each term and write down the results or run a scraper on Google’s results. A good scraper will let you export the data.

Just about anything on the web can be scraped. The fun part is figuring out when and how to do it. For example, recently a client wanted to update all its logos on the internet as part of a branding exercise. Using ScrapeBox and a couple of minutes of setup, I had a full spreadsheet of all the websites Google knew about that contained the outdated logos. Each row had the specific image URL and its actual appearance.

Websites sometimes disallow scraping as part of their terms and conditions. A few years ago, for example, LinkedIn sued 100 people who used scrapers to copy user data. It’s important to know what a website allows (or disallows) in terms of scraping.

New Options

Scraping opens up options you may have never considered. “Is there a way to get all that data at once?” A thoughtful scraping strategy could be the answer.

CommerceCo Recap: SEO Entities vs. Keywords

Some search engine optimizers believe “entities” have supplanted keywords as the foundation for organic rankings. But it doesn’t mean that keywords are irrelevant.

Within SEO, entities are the people, places, things, organizations, and concepts contained in a knowledge graph, a description of related entities.

Knowledge Graph

Google’s knowledge panel is a visualization of a knowledge graph. Search for the actor Harrison Ford and Google will display a knowledge panel showing a lot of info about Ford personally and professionally. It’s an example of an entity (Ford) and the facts related to it.

Screenshot of Google search results for Harrison Ford, showing a Knowledge Panel.

This knowledge panel for Harrison Ford provides an example of an entity (Ford) and the facts related to it.

You can learn that “Harrison Ford is an American actor, pilot, and environmental activist. As of 2019, the U.S. domestic box office grosses of his films total over $5.1 billion, with worldwide grosses surpassing $9.3 billion, placing him at No. 4 on the list of highest-grossing domestic box office stars of all time.”

You will also discover that Ford has been married three times, has five children, and is expected to appear in two upcoming films, one of which is a new Indiana Jones movie.

It would likely be impossible for Google, or any search engine, to provide this sort of information based on keywords alone. And due to its knowledge graph, Google’s search results for “Harrison Ford” will not include Ford automobiles because Google understands not just the words “harrison” and “ford” but also that Harrison Ford is a person.

The information that we find on Harrison Ford’s knowledge panel comes from Google’s knowledge graph.

Things, Not Strings

“Search is a lot about discovery — the basic human need to learn and broaden your horizons. But searching still requires a lot of hard work by you, the user. So today I’m really excited to launch the Knowledge Graph, which will help you discover new information quickly and easily,” wrote Amit Singhal in May 2012 for Google’s official blog.

“Take a query like ‘taj mahal.’ For more than four decades, search has essentially been about matching keywords to queries. To a search engine, the words ‘taj mahal’ have been just that — two words.

“But we all know that [taj mahal] has a much richer meaning,” Singhal continued. “You might think of one of the world’s most beautiful monuments, or a Grammy Award-winning musician, or possibly even a casino in Atlantic City, N.J. Or, depending on when you last ate, the nearest Indian restaurant. It’s why we’ve been working on an intelligent model — in geek-speak, a ‘graph’ — that understands real-world entities and their relationships to one another: things, not strings.”

The “things” are entities, and the “strings” are the characters that make up a keyword. Thus, as early as 2012, Google was emphasizing entities over keywords.

About Entities

“The idea of semantic search, the idea of a knowledge graph, none of this is new. Google didn’t invent this. Google adopted the concepts,” said Bill Sebald, the founder and managing partner of Greenlane Search Marketing and a Practical Ecommerce contributor. Sebald spoke during a live interview for the CommerceCo by Practical Ecommerce community on March 18, 2021.

Sebald believes that Freebase, a Wikipedia-like resource launched in 2007 by MetaWweb, a U.S. software company, is the basis for Google’s use of a knowledge graph and entities within that knowledge graph. Google acquired MetaWeb in 2010.

When it launched Freebase, Metaweb described it as “an open, shared database of the world’s knowledge” and “a massive, collaboratively edited database of cross-linked data.”

The connected items are entities.

Google, Sebald stated, “can take those entities and it can create relationships…I’m from the Philadelphia area ―Carson Wentz isn’t our quarterback anymore― but [Google can recognize] that Carson Wentz is a quarterback on the Eagles….Google knows that the Eagles are part of the NFC East. So Google can, therefore, say Carson Wentz is a quarterback in the NFC East.”

These sorts of relationships allow Google to provide much better search results, and in many cases answer the intent of a person’s search query directly on the search results page.

Keywords

This does not mean, however, that keywords have lost all of their SEO value. They have at least two important uses.

First, as the artificial intelligence firm Aylien noted, keywords help when an entity is either not known or is little known within Google’s knowledge graph.

In May 2020, Danny Sullivan, Google’s public liaison for search, wrote that his company’s knowledge graph contained more than “500 billion facts about five billion entities.”

As large as those numbers sound, they don’t come close to the total number of facts or entities. Thus for lots of things and concepts, keywords are still the way search works.

Second, keywords can help refine an entity search, again according to Aylien, which gave this example: “Combining the entity search ‘Pandora Music’ with the keyword search ‘number of customers’ will really hone your search to deliver exactly what you are looking for.”

Entities 101

I provided an “Entities 101” overview to members of CommerceCo. Here’s a partial recording of that presentation.

SEO: 10 FAQs for Internal Links

Internal links benefit search engine optimization. But knowing how to use them and understanding their value is not always clear. What follows are 10 frequently asked questions for internal-link management for SEO.

10 FAQs for Internal Links

1. How are internal and external links different?

It’s a matter of who’s doing the linking. An internal link is something you control — you link from one of your pages to another. External links are created on another site and link to yours. External links are also known as backlinks.

2. How do internal links help with SEO?

Internal links do three things:

    • Signal value. Search engines assume your internal linking decisions indicate your priorities — what you consider important.
    • Signal relevance. The words used in a link’s anchor text help search engines understand the meaning of the page being linked to.
    • Create relationships between pages. It’s unlikely that two unrelated pages will link to each other. Links tie two pages together contextually, lending additional meaning to both.

External links convey the most value, but internal links help distribute the value more evenly so that other pages have a better chance of ranking in organic search.

3. Which pages should I link to?

Link to pages that you want to rank. The more you need a page to rank, the more links that page requires.

4. Where should I place internal links?

Link from pages that have a higher value, such as a home page and higher-level category pages. But all relevant pages are candidates for linking. Every page on your site links to other pages via the header and footer navigation. Use that navigational structure to link to your most important pages.

You can also create contextual links in the main body of the page. For example, you could link from a paragraph on your home page to your most important category page. Make sure the links are part of the page’s design, though, and have some value to your shoppers. Slapping a list of links at the bottom of a page solely for SEO is spam, and search engines will treat it accordingly.

5. How many internal links should my site contain?

There is no definitive answer other than the links should be relevant to the content and useful to shoppers. Placing more than three links in a sentence will look obnoxious to shoppers. However, if a sentence is a bulleted list of useful resources, six links for six bullets might be appropriate.

6. What should the link text be?

The visible part of the link — called “anchor text” or “link text” — should be a relevant keyword or phrase. Avoid using “learn more” and “click here” unless that’s what you’re trying to rank for.

7. Should I link from my blog to my ecommerce site?

Yes. A blog or other content section should link to your ecommerce pages and vice versa. Links from high-authority pages have the most value.

8. How do I make an internal link in HTML?

Illustration of an HTML hyperlink.

Basic HTML links are structured, as shown above, with an anchor tag, a URL, and anchor text.

9. How do I make an internal link in WordPress?

In WordPress, linking is as easy as copying the URL you want to link to, clicking the link icon shown below, and pasting the URL into the field that pops up.

Screenshot of the admin section of WordPress

10. How do I identify broken internal links?

You’ll have to deal with broken links sooner or later as you add and remove content and change URLs. You can monitor broken links for free in Google Search Console’s Coverage report, which will list URLs that return a 404 error, signifying a broken link. For each of those URLs, use Search Console’s URL inspection tool to determine where they’re being linked from.

Alternately, you can use a crawler such as Screaming Frog’s SEO Spider or DeepCrawl. It will tell you which of your URLs return 404 error codes and the pages that link to them.

10 SEO Tips for Podcasts

Podcasts have gone mainstream. As of March 2020, 37 percent of Americans over the age of 12 — around 104 million people — listen to at least one podcast per month according to Edison Research. But podcasts are often poorly optimized for search engines.

Drive more organic search traffic to your podcast with these 10 tips.

10 SEO Tips for Podcasts

1. Obsess over the message, not the equipment. The value of a podcast’s content is paramount. Absent value, it doesn’t matter if the recording is on a $1,000 microphone. Spend time honing the content. Everything else is secondary.

2. Host episodes on your site. Link authority is one of the most important aspects of search engine optimization. Other sites will link to where the podcast is hosted. You need that to be your site, rather than on podcast directories, such as Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Play.

Your podcast can live in a directory on your ecommerce domain, where each episode has its own page. The basic anatomy of a page should include:

  • An audio (or video) file;
  • An image;
  • Show notes — i.e., a timestamped table of contents to help listeners find highlights;
  • A transcript, potentially edited for length and clarity.

3. Nail the name. It’s tempting to come up with a clever name for your podcast. But the name is critical for organic search. Many more listeners will search for the podcast’s topic than its name.

Use the topic in the name of the podcast. (Ours is “Ecommerce Conversations,” for example.) If you must have a creative name, include both the topic and the names, such as “Cinderella’s Slipper: A Women’s Shoes Podcast” or “The Open for Business Podcast.” As long as you have the topic and the word “podcast” or equivalent in the title, your chances of being found by searchers are much higher.

4. Set keyword themes for episodes. Start with the keyword research you’ve done for your site. Then extend the research into question-and-answer and how-to areas. Don’t be afraid to follow tangents. They can lead to rich veins of keyword data you might not have found otherwise.

Use the keywords in an episode’s title as well as its audio or video. That will ensure those words are in the critical SEO elements: title tag, URL, and transcript.

5. Transcribe to text. Take the time to include the textual elements that search engines can index easily and deeply. Many listeners will appreciate the full text, especially those who want to quote an episode or link to it.

6. Double down with video. You’re already recording audio. Turn a camera on and capture the video, too. YouTube is the world’s second-largest search engine. Listeners go there to consume podcasts. If you can’t bear to be on video, consider setting the audio track to a video of still images.

7. Use the content everywhere. Your podcast is content marketing gold. Use elements of it where you market your products, always linking back to an episode.

Share quotes and images on social media. Write a blog post — or two or three — on interesting aspects of the podcast. Include every episode in an email newsletter. Reach out to relevant influencers to pitch your episode. Use snippets to answer questions on Quora, forums, and social media. You could even use video snippets in social media advertising.

The key is the link to an episode page on your site. All of those links build authority. Search bots will follow the links, improving authority. And humans will click the links and engage with the content, which could result in more links.

8. Distribute widely. Podcast directories use your RSS feed to discover episodes and deliver them to their listeners. Every directory you submit your podcast to includes a link back to your site when you host the podcast yourself. Those directories tend to be authoritative. Links from them are valuable additions to your backlink profile. Moreover, every podcast directory has its own following. Submitting to only one or two means missing out on the links and listeners from all the others.

At the very least, submit your podcast to the big three: Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Play. After that, consider Stitcher, TuneIn, Soundcloud, Podcaster, and dozens of others you’ll find in a Google search.

9. Interview influencers. An influencer is anyone who draws an audience for your podcast topic. It could be industry colleagues or customers (who use your products). An influencer could mention her appearance on your podcast to her listeners and readers, likely triggering more links and increasing your organic search authority.

10. Be consistent. Set a realistic schedule and stick to it. The more you publish, though, the faster you’ll see results. Like a blog, you may need to produce and promote tens of episodes before you gain much traction.

Consider posting more than one episode at launch. If they like your podcast, listeners could binge on a couple of episodes and share their discovery with the rest of the world.

SEO: Keyword Research for Product Content

Content on an ecommerce site’s product detail pages, category pages, and blog can attract visitors and lead to sales and profit.

For many commerce businesses — omnichannel retailers, ecommerce-only merchants, wholesalers — attracting a steady flow of site visitors from organic search results is vital for success. But achieving high rankings in those results requires optimizing a site with relevant content.

SEO and Content Marketing

Search engine optimization is the process of organizing a website to communicate its purpose and value to Google, Bing, and similar. The result, hopefully, is highly-ranked pages in search results, producing more and better visitors.

Content marketing is the act of creating, publishing, and promoting content to attract, engage, and retain customers. The goal of content marketing and SEO is the same: generate visitors.

For this article, I’m going to put SEO first in the process.

Content marketers will sometimes create articles or videos that are not directly related to the products their business sells but instead around topics that interest prospects.

For example, an online shop that sells 4×4 truck accessories might produce content about backcountry hiking. Why? Because folks who hike in the backcountry likely drive four-wheel-drive vehicles. The hikers might need a vehicle accessory or two.

Consider the “Michelin Guide” series. Michelin, which sells tires, started publishing a series of hotel and restaurant guides about 120 years ago. Folks who stay at hotels and eat at restaurants presumably drive there in an automobile. Eventually those folks will need tires.

Neither of these examples is product-centric. Product content marketing starts with the item to be sold. It is about 4×4 accessories or tires, not about hiking and the best restaurant. Product-centric content marketing requires keyword research.

Seeds

As with any form of SEO keyword research, start with seed words. For an ecommerce business, these keywords might be the names of its product categories.

For example, if it went looking for seed keywords, a pet-supplies store might pick “dog food,” “dog treats,” “dog toys,” “dog leashes,” “dog collars,” and similar. These are the product category names for Menards, which sells pet goods in addition to home improvement items.

Screenshot of Menard's pet categories web page

If it were doing product content marketing for pet supplies, Menards might start with category names as keywords.

In the same way, an online retailer selling shoes might select seed keywords such as “sneakers,” “loafers,” “boots,” and even “tuxedo shoes” for its product content marketing. Those are the category names for Suitsupply.

Screenshot of Suitsupply's category page for shoes.

Suitsupply’s category names for shoes are potential keywords for optimizing organic search.

Keyword Ideas

Using the list of seeds, start to generate other keyword ideas. Look for the phrases shoppers use when searching for your products or services. Many tools can help. For example, Google’s auto-suggest feature shows popular and relevant keyword phrases.

If you enter the phrase “dog toy” in Google search, auto-suggest shows keyword phrases such as:

  • “Dog toys for big dogs,”
  • “Dog toys for chewers,”
  • “Dog toys for small dogs,”
  • “Dog toys made in USA,”
  • “Dog toys with toys inside.”
Screenshot of Google search's auto-suggest for "dog toys."

Google’s auto-suggest can produce useful keywords, such as this example for the search query “dog toys.”

You can find more keywords when you search for one of the suggested phrases. For example, “Dog toys for big dogs” leads you to “large dog toys aggressive chewers.”

Ahrefs Keywords Explorer is another good option for generating search-engine keyword ideas. Explorer can accept one or several keyword seeds at a time. It can also find keywords for YouTube.

Screenshot of Ahrefs Keywords Explorer.

Ahrefs Keywords Explorer can accept one or several keyword seeds at a time. It is also helpful for finding keywords for YouTube.

Add a term or even several terms to Keywords Explorer. In the ensuing results, look for the “having same terms” link in the left menu. That report will be a list of thousands of keyword ideas. And for each of these ideas, you can keep digging deeper.

Screen of Ahrefs keywords report

The “having same terms” reports in Ahrefs is helpful for generating keyword ideas based on your seed phrases.

Finally, SEMrush’s Keyword Magic Tool is also an excellent way to generate keyword ideas based on product-centric seed phrases.

Screenshot of SEMrush's Keyword Magic Tool

SEMrush’s Keyword Magic Tool is an excellent way to generate keyword ideas based on seed phrases.

Sorting Keywords

The next step in product-specific research is to sort the keywords.

If you used a manual process such as Google’s auto-suggest, build a spreadsheet and then capture more info about the keyword phrase using Ahrefs, SEMrush, Google Ads Keywords Planner, or similar. Essential details include:

  • Monthly search volume,
  • Keyword difficulty,
  • Parent topic.

Consider also:

  • Average PPC cost,
  • Competitive density,
  • Your company’s current rank.

Then use Ahrefs, SEMrush, or similar to sort, such as for these keyword phrases:

  • dog food,
  • dog treats,
  • dog toys,
  • dog leashes,
  • dog collars.

We could enter all of these into the Ahrefs Keywords Explorer and look for the ideas under the “having same terms” report. There are more than half a million keyword phrase ideas there.

Screenshot of Ahrefs dog-related keyword report

The Ahrefs report for dog-related product terms generated more than 518,207 keyword ideas.

You could sort by the search volume and look for phrases with more than 250 monthly searches. You might also filter for terms that are relatively easier to rank for, those with a maximum keyword difficulty of 20.

Applying both filters in Ahrefs — search volume and keyword difficulty — would narrow the list to 855 phrases.

Screenshot in Ahrefs for sorting dog-related keywords by search volume and difficulty

Filtering in Ahrefs dog-related keywords by search volume and difficulty narrows the list to 855 phrases.

Keyword Intent

Whether one has created a spreadsheet or used the filter feature in a keyword tool, it is now time to categorize by intent. Keyword intent identifies the goal of the searcher.

Not every search phrase is clear. But others signal obvious intent, such as:

  • Navigational. Brand names or product names.
  • Informational. These include words such as “how,” “why,” “what,” “help,” and “guide.”
  • Investigational. Words such as “best,” “top,” “review,” and “price” typify this intent.
  • Transactional. Here look for modifiers such as “buy,” “coupon,” “deals,” and similar.

Create Content

Finally, select the keyword phrases to create content around. Apply a simple question: Given a keyword phrase, can your business create an article that would benefit the reader and easily connect to one of your products?

SEO: Common Fixes to Core Web Vitals

Google stated in November that Core Web Vitals would become a ranking signal in May 2021. When Google announces such a change, heed the warning. The sooner you prepare, the better the chance of preserving or improving your organic search traffic.

Core Web Vitals, which focus on site speed, is Google’s attempt at rounding out its customer experience metrics — seven metrics in all. The first three are Core Web Vitals:

  • Loading focuses on the Largest Contentful Paint (LCP) — the time it takes for a browser to display the page’s primary visual contents.
  • Interactivity focuses on the First Input Delay (FID) — the time before a visitor can fully interact with the page.
  • Visual stability focuses on the Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS) — when the layout of the page shifts suddenly and unexpectedly.

Core Web Vitals joins Google’s four customer-experience ranking signals:

  • Mobile-friendly measures the ease of navigating a site on a smartphone browser.
  • Safe browsing measures security, ensuring that sites in Google’s index don’t contain harmful content or software.
  • HTTPS confirms that the site is hosted securely.
  • No intrusive interstitials confirms that visitors can see the content promised in the search result, not interstitials such as full-screen ads.

Improving Core Web Vitals requires web developers. Unfortunately, until recently there haven’t been many resources to help.

How to Fix

The Core Web Vitals reports in Google Search Console list your weakest pages. Enter those URLs into PageSpeed Insights for actions your developers can take to fix. Likely those actions will vary depending on the page, such as the home page, product detail pages, category pages, and blog posts. The underlying code for each of those page types is unique.

PageSpeed Insights measures the three Core Web Vitals on mobile and desktop for a single page, assigning a numeric grade — symbolized in green (“good”), yellow (“needs improvement”), or red (“poor”). In the example below, Amazon’s mobile home page passes the First Input Delay test, but not Largest Contentful Paint or Cumulative Layout Shift. (Note the blue flag to the right of each Core Web Vital.)

Pagespeed Insights Amazon mobile home page

Amazon’s mobile home page passes the FID test, but not LCP or CLS.

First Input Delay. The fix for a poor FID assessment is likely to optimize the size and order of JavaScript files. Forcing web browsers to load large files early can block users from interacting with the page.

To resolve:

  • Shrink JavaScript via minification, the process of removing unnecessary space and code.
  • Remove unused or unnecessary JavaScript libraries.
  • Split JavaScript into bundles and load only the portions necessary at the time.

Largest Contentful Paint. Ensuring that the largest image or text block displays in 2.5 seconds can require:

  • Speeding up server response times;
  • Eliminating render-blocking JavaScript and CSS;
  • Optimizing font and image file sizes.

Cumulative Layout Shift. Pages with a poor CLS score shift unexpectedly, frustrating users.

To fix CLS glitches:

  • Use size attributes for media files (such as images and video) to reserve the space in the final rendering;
  • Avoid injecting new content above what’s already rendered;
  • Use CSS transform animations that don’t trigger layout changes from page to page.

Don’t Overlook Technical SEO in 2021

Good ecommerce and blogging platforms should, by default, take care of most technical search engine optimization concerns. But this doesn’t mean B2B and B2C ecommerce companies can ignore technical SEO in 2021 thanks, in part, to ecommerce growth, the emergence of alternative search environments, and the need for new digital experiences.

SEO often starts with making it easier for web crawlers to discover, crawl, and index a site. This task, which is called technical SEO, has been a priority since the beginning of the search engine era.

Thus technical SEO may include techniques such as server maintenance, the use of structured data, or just including a sitemap.

Content Management Systems

Back when most websites were hand-coded and completely custom, technical SEO practitioners had to worry about URL formats, 301 redirects, internal linking structures, and more.

Over time, however, content management systems in the form of ecommerce and blogging platforms started to take care of technical SEO natively.

A properly set up Shopify or BigCommerce store, for example, will have many of the technical SEO basics covered. Therefore, an online merchant could focus on other aspects of the business and feel pretty safe.

Three factors, however, may bring technical SEO back to the forefront in 2021.

3 New SEO Factors

Ecommerce growth. Ecommerce grew significantly in 2020. There are likely more online businesses now than before the pandemic.

This was one of the predictions that Bloomreach CEO Raj De Datta made during a recent presentation for CommerceCo by Practical Ecommerce.

De Datta’s prediction depends in part on the assumptions that more businesses will sell directly to consumers and that relatively small specialty retail businesses will emerge even as the so-called traditional retail model could become less effective.

More sellers will likely result in more competition. In 2021, dozens of businesses could be selling very similar products.

Imagine 100 companies all selling bath bombs from Shopify and BigCommerce sites. Each of those businesses would have about the same level of technical SEO. Sure, they could compete for on-page SEO, content, and advertising. But a certain level of technical SEO would be table stakes.

Any of those businesses could seek to change the odds by focusing on technical SEO beyond what the platform provides — perhaps better taxonomy, title tags, or image sitemaps.

Image of bath bombs

When every ecommerce business has a similar website and a similar platform, technical SEO is not a competitive advantage. Photo: Mathilde Landenin.

Alternative search environments. SEO isn’t just for Google. In 2021, there are many viable search alternatives, such as Amazon, Facebook, eBay, and any of a few thousand specialty marketplaces.

For example, B2C and B2B ecommerce companies can list an entire product catalog on Facebook. That catalog can be uploaded daily as a comma-separated file or equivalent. But most businesses will depend on a programmatic upload process that might include one or more application programming interfaces, FTP sites, or similar.

How these various technologies are used and combined is most certainly technical and also important for SEO.

Facebook, for example, has specific field requirements for product data feeds. Experimenting with how or what product information is included in a given field could make it easier for Facebook to index.

Technical SEO could evolve to include algorithms that adjust product data feeds to improve discoverability on any number of these alternative search environments, thus providing a competitive advantage.

Digital experiences. The need to gain a competitive advantage has led some commerce businesses to focus on user experiences.

Digital experiences matter in the technical SEO context because they often go beyond what is available from popular ecommerce platforms. This could include a headless technology stack and static-site generation, as examples.

More Important?

Collectively, ecommerce growth, alternative search environments, and the technology behind new and exciting digital experiences could all make technical SEO even more important in 2021 and beyond.

A Day in the Life of an SEO

Search engine optimizers are like black sheep in a family. Our work is often misunderstood. Colleagues wonder what we are doing or how we make money for the company. Why do we read blog posts all day, they sometimes ask?

Success in organic search can be elusive. It’s often hard to measure. Other digital marketing channels produce more data for tracking and forecasting. With search engine optimization, however, we frequently guess. We run tests. We experiment.

I’ve been an SEO practitioner since the late 1990s. My agency now manages SEO for large and small companies worldwide. My day generally consists of the four activities below.

SEO: A Day in the Life

Learn via self-study. SEO was born in forums and blogs. Before SEO was an acronym, we were sharing and debating tactics. The forum at HighRankings.com was my textbook in 1996 when I began trying to improve my employer’s organic search performance. This was before Google, incidentally.

We used avatars and user names to hide our identities. But we were part of a community. We shared what we learned and argued theories.

Google launched in September 1998. A user named “GoogleGuy” — who, we found out later, was Matt Cutts of Google — would pop in and gently guide our suspicions.

Fast forward to 2020, and forums aren’t nearly as popular. But the SEO community lives on — in blogs, Facebook Groups, Twitter, and the like. Self-study is part of the job. We spend hours reading and discussing with other optimizers.

Screenshot of the home page for HighRankings.com's forum, from 2003

The forum at HighRankings.com was an early day repository of SEO info. This screenshot from Wayback Machine is circa 2003.

Create experiments. A downside to SEO is that we’re often speculating. Google shares plenty about its algorithm. But it keeps many more details secret.

This gap — the known versus the unknown — is a big part of my job. That’s why we run tests to determine the tactics and strategies that work best for a client or industry. And, yes, search algorithms apply different ranking factors based on the industry.

Testing can prevent catastrophes. For example, over a decade ago I worked for GSI Commerce (now eBay Enterprise), a leading ecommerce platform. We had hundreds of clients making millions of dollars each day. Much of their traffic came from organic search. An SEO mistake would have been dire.

The common belief at the time was that contextual URLs were important for higher rankings. Rather than numbers and symbols, a URL should include meaningful, descriptive text — or so we thought. But updating every client’s URLs (to text, from numbers and symbols) would have been hugely expensive and, potentially, disruptive. So we tested the change on a few brands that volunteered.

We found that changing the URLs was actually counterproductive. Organic rankings did not increase. Our participating clients lost loads of sales from the experiment.

In other words, testing is critical for a meaningful SEO program. Absent tests, implementing “best practices” can be disastrous.

Monitor results. For SEO, data create a hypothesis. That hypothesis is tested. The results of that test drive implementation. But the results also drive the next test. At Greenlane (my agency), we don’t build long roadmaps for clients. Instead, our activities are more like sprints. Each month we optimize based on the incoming data. We abandon ship if a campaign is not driving the expected results.

Conversions (revenue, typically) from organic search traffic are our guiding light. It’s not what SEO tools or Google Search Console report. It’s what’s occurring on the ground with our clients. Thus responsiveness is key to SEO success.

To be sure, we’ll use tools such as SEMrush and Ahrefs for competitive intelligence. We’ll use rank-tracking software to estimate our organic visibility. But conversions and revenue are what matters.

Recommendations. We recommend tactics to our clients. They decide whether to take the advice. Our recommendations typically answer:

  • What is the problem?
  • Why is it a problem?
  • How to fix?

Clients sometimes do not implement our recommendations. The reasons, which vary, include no budget or limited internal staff. When that occurs, we usually run out of ideas.

For example, I once worked with a large, prominent retailer that had suffered declining revenue from organic search. I made a few recommendations based on a careful assessment. The recommendations came with development costs. The chief marketing officer declined my suggestions as I could not guarantee success. The result is that the company’s organic traffic has not improved, and, importantly, its long-term potential is limited.

In other words, the best we can do is provide the what, why, and how.

SEO: Google’s Product Knowledge Panels Drive Impressions (but Not for Amazon)

Every merchant wants to beat Amazon in Google’s organic search listings. The easiest way? Upload data for placement in Google’s product knowledge panel.

Product knowledge panels contain information you’d typically find on a product detail page, such as a product description, images, and reviews. Most importantly for ecommerce sites, these knowledge panels contain an exhaustive list of the stores that sell the product.

Google aggregates that information, from sites all over the web, into an area on the right side of desktop search results, as shown below for “instant pot duo crisp.”

Sample Google knowledge panel

The product knowledge panel appears on the right side of desktop search results, such as this example for “instant pot duo crisp.” Click image to enlarge.

On mobile, the panel is more prominent and appears on top of search results.

Sample Google product knowledge panel on mobile

On mobile, the panel is more prominent and appears on top of search results.

The listings in the product knowledge panel (and the Shopping tab) are free. Previously they were available only to advertisers. Google’s move to make shopping results free represents its attempt to win market share from Amazon.

Thus, while Amazon dominates Google’s organic search results for many product queries, it is notably absent from Google’s free shopping listings in the product knowledge panel and the Shopping tab.

Strong placement in the knowledge panel lands your brand next to the top organic listing in desktop searches and above it on mobile. It takes about three scrolls on mobile, depending on screen size, to move beyond the lengthy product knowledge panel to get to the first organic result.

Placement in product knowledge panels means more impressions, especially on mobile. For example, 71 percent of searchers for the query “instant pot duo crisp” used a mobile device.

How to Get Store Placement

You’ll need to work through Google Merchant Center for a free listing in a product knowledge panel. The same is true for the free product listings in the Shopping tab. Though Merchant Center is primarily for advertisers, product data uploaded there also populates the organic shopping features.

There’s no cost to register with Google Merchant Center and no obligation to advertise. Google uses the same system to run both.

Your first step is to determine whether your company already has a Google Merchant Center account and a corresponding data feed. Ask whoever manages paid search if you’re unsure.

If your data feeds are live, doublecheck the following:

  • The “free product listings” box is selected for each feed’s destination;
  • The data for each product contains a unique identifier. The Global Trade Item Number (GTIN) is much preferred if one exists. If not, the Manufacturer Part Number (MPN) is acceptable.

The GTIN or MPN is essential. It’s the key piece of data that Google uses to identify product info across many sites. Without a GTIN, your product’s data can’t be aggregated with the others, so your site will not display as a store that shoppers could purchase that product from.

If your company does not have a Merchant Center account, you’ll need to open one. Then create and upload a data feed that will identify your products to Google, enabling it to show your goods to shoppers in the product knowledge panels. My colleague Hamlet Batista explains the steps at “Create a Google Product Feed from an XML Sitemap.”

As you upload your first feed, make sure, again, to include the GTINs and to check the box to allow the destination “free product listings.”

Last, opt in to “surfaces across Google,” which is marketing-speak for all of the Google properties on which your product data might display, including:

  • Product knowledge panels in Google search;
  • The Shopping tab in Google search;
  • Google Images;
  • Google Maps;
  • Google Lens.