Have you ever got carried away with a bad or impractical idea?

In the cold light of day, vision and dreams are poor substitutes for facts. It can be painful.

Many times this is down to the massive gap that lies between a dream and a plan.

One simple and effective way to transform such ideas is to get rid of words and phrases like think, believe, are confident, and expect. Then substitute the beliefs and aspirations with facts. In other words replace hopes and expectations with real data.

You see data doesn’t lie.

Not only is it more honest and reliable than dreams, but it’s stronger and more resilient too.

Yet in spite of the logic, it can be too easy or tempting to ignore good data.

It’s too easy to judge a version of a page on our website by how we think it looks or communicates. Logically we know that we’re not selling to ourselves, and yet…

It’s too easy to run a split test that measures similar variations of what we’re already doing. It’s even surprisingly easy to run a split test but then ignore the results, because the version that wins doesn’t fit with what we like.

Yet it can also be dangerous to trust the data too much.

Data doesn’t lie, but deceit comes in many forms, including omission, misinterpretation and over-reliance. All of which can render your facts and consequent actions meaningless and even dangerous.

A common mistake, for example, might be to assume that your “best” market is where most of your existing sales come from. Despite having no/low visibility in other regions.

Another mistake may be to rely too heavily on what your existing customers say they like about your product. But what about the people who looked at it but didn’t buy it? Feeding your strengths is sensible in moderation, but some of your neglected weaknesses may offer greater opportunities.

I’m an ardent believer in listening to the data; to everything that it tells me. Listen with an open mind, but also a healthy degree of wariness. You might be amazed by what it tells you.

Most people have some expectations of what awaits them when they arrive on a website.

On our own site, for example, we primarily provide services related to AdWords and SEO. When I look at the keywords that bring people to our content, there are of course some words and phrases that are less targeted than others, but the majority are relevant to what we do.

So when we first arrive on a web page, we instinctively seek reassurance that we’re in the right place. If those signals aren’t there, we don’t persevere and look for more compelling evidence, we just leave.

For example when someone searches for “adwords cheat sheet” and arrives on the relevant page on our website, they see the following (without the highlighting):

landing on adwords cheat sheet

When they scan the content, they instantly understand that they’re in the right place to find what they’re looking for.

A picture of a golden retriever wearing a headset, although more charming, won’t really have the same effect.

Penny wearing a headset

So human visitors are heavily influenced by the text and images on a page. But what about the search engine spiders?

We already know that they are primarily interested in the words on a page, so in the same way that human visitors are reassured by the text, so too are search engine spiders.

But spiders are merely gatherers. They’re not particularly clever, and they’re certainly not as clever as (some of) the visitors to your website.

So they need a little guiding. The spiders that is. Actually the visitors too.

This is where Real SEO connects beautifully with common sense.

If Google can see that a significant number of other pages on your website are related to your content, this is significant.

If Google can see other websites that are related to your content linking to your website, that sends a good signal too.

If Google see that many or most of your visitors search for terms related to your content, and then stay on your website for some time (ideally engaging with it too) this is even better still.

Conversely, think of the signals sent if your other pages have no connection to the page’s content, links come from unrelated websites, and visitors bounce within a few seconds of arriving.

I do believe that SEO is becoming less dependent on keywords, but let’s not forget the obvious: that keywords are, after all, just words. And it’s going to be a long time before Google have any reliable alternative to analysing the words that you use on your website.

If you think of your language, words and content as the main criteria for Google to understand you, and the above factors as amplifiers, you can only be moving in the right direction.

If you like this idea and want to learn more, I will be holding a series of short webinars on how to apply Real SEO to your website starting on January 27th. You can sign up here.

Five years ago, the chance of getting hit by a real SEO penalty was incredibly small.

There was a lot of talk and fear about being “banned by Google”, but in the majority of cases this was completely unfounded.

And bear in mind that these were the days of black-hat SEO tactics being a lot more commonly used and accepted, as ultimately it boiled down to “what do we have to lose”.

“What do we have to lose” changed dramatically in February 2011 with Google’s first release of their Panda algorithm update, that hit so called thin content hard. And this approach has continued ever since.

So in the past, many businesses could justify leaving SEO on their to-do list. Probably not the wisest move, but it’s always hard to justify spending resources on opportunity cost, and most websites still get some traffic from Google anyway.

Today it’s a very different situation. With 17 significant updates in 2013, and 13 updates in 2014, the situation looks set to get worse before it gets better.

Why? Because there’s an ongoing cat-and-mouse battle running between Google and dodgy SEOs, and yet we’re all still seeing an awful lot of crappy websites in the search results.

You may be wondering: Why should I even care?

You need to care because this has the potential to hurt you. We’ve seen and worked with a lot of companies who never knowingly did anything wrong, but they’ve been hit by the updates.

We’ve even worked with companies that used techniques that Google accepted or even encouraged in the past, but have since decided that these are frowned upon or even outlawed.

So you may never have done anything wrong. But you could still be penalised, or even just hurt. (Pain is bad by the way).

Google’s Penguin update (originally in 2012) was all about over-optimisation. Some of the websites affected had done nothing more than try to optimise their content for Google. Eugh.

I believe that the Google of today punishes the lawless and rewards the law-abiding.

Even if you’re not hit by an algorithm update, your competition may be rewarded, pushing your site down in the rankings.

In other words you don’t even need to be hit to be knocked down.

So don’t wait for something unpleasant to happen. SEO can no longer remain on your to-do list.

Stay informed, keep up with the latest news and developments, and schedule resources to make sure that you don’t lose your Google traffic altogether.

Speaking from experience, a small investment in prevention can be dramatically more effective than a cure. Stay safe.

I recently asked for your help with an experiment to test how HTTP Referrer Information may not be passed on through SSL servers.

We’re almost there, but can I please ask for your help one last time?

All you have to do is click on the link below, then click on the link that’s on that page. That’s it.

Please only click on this link from the actual page on our server though. If you’re reading this elsewhere (for example in an RSS reader/service), please click on this link first to open this post in your browser, then click on the link below.

>>> PLEASE CLICK HERE from your web browser <<<

Let me guess. You’ve been meaning to get round to SEO for __ months, but [fill in your excuse here]. A few years ago that was questionable; today it may be deadly. Not convinced? Here are five reasons why you need to make SEO more of a priority.

Today’s technique may be tomorrow’s spam.

The rate of change in Google’s algorithms and rules has been incredible, and Google are redefining what is permissible, suspect and risky on an ongoing basis.

In the past, press releases, guest posts and even paid links were allowed; even encouraged. Today you don’t want to sit around and wait to see happens next. Staying on top of SEO current events may play an important role in your visitor counts and sales.

In SEO, movement is life

Your competition are coming for you.

With the exception of AdWords, SEO is about as competitive as it gets. You and your competition are going after the same people, in the same places, searching for the same keywords.

And you all want to outrank each other.

The status quo is dynamic and temporary. You need to actively maintain your rankings and traffic.

(Hint: the first step involves trying to do so.)

People are searching for what you sell right now.

If they’re not finding you, or you’re not making it easy for them to find you, who will they find instead? Where will they find what they’re looking for?

Now you’re competing with Google.

Google’s knowledge graph and increased top-heavy placement of AdWords ads mean that you’re not only competing with your direct competition any more. You’re also competing with Google themselves.

My screen resolution is a pretty healthy 1920 x 1080, but this is what I see when I search for sightseeing in London:

Competing with Google

I can only see three organic listings without scrolling. And why scroll? Most people will find what they’re looking for in the knowledge graph. In the above example, if you’re not in the top three, you probably won’t get clicked at all.

It’s not that difficult.

Fellow SEOs don’t like me saying this, but around 75% of SEO is pretty straightforward. And let’s face it, you’re probably not doing that much SEO at all right now. Doing anything (no matter how little) is much better than doing nothing.

Put SEO on your agenda – before a change in circumstances force you to do so.

A while ago we posted our advice on whether or not you should be implementing SSL on your server for SEO reasons. The nutshell answer being don’t panic over SEO and SSL.

Another reason for not doing anything right now is that there’s evidence to suggest that HTTP Referrer information is not being passed on through links. So we’d like to put that to the test.

All you have to do is click on the link below; that’s it. That’s our own HTTPS referrer linking to a non-secure page on a website that we’re using for testing purposes.

Please only click on this link from the actual page on our server though. If you’re reading this elsewhere (for example in an RSS reader/service), please click on this link first to open this post in your browser, then click on the link below.

We’ll let you know what we find.

>>> Please CLICK HERE from your web browser  <<<<

Thank you.

AdWords conversion tracking is dead. No, Google haven’t removed it from AdWords, nor are they phasing it out. Yet.

But if you’re using conversion tracking as your sole gauge of success, you’re doing it wrong!

Why? Because AdWords conversion tracking is a highly inaccurate indicator; but not a reliable metric.

The entire system is based on a cookie, and that cookie might not be present at the time of the conversion. A missing cookie does not mean the conversion was not a direct result of your AdWords efforts. It just means the cookie was not found at the time of the conversion and there are many reasons why this might happen. Someone deleted it, a different device was used, a different user was involved, someone ate the cookie (just kidding) and so on.

Even if you’re able to see some recorded conversions, you can’t accurately use that data. It’s impossible to say how representative the data truly is. Were you able to track 100% or 10% of your AdWords conversions?

No one wants to waste money on AdWords. It is however important to understand the limitations of the current tracking system.

Ask yourself: what can we track?

We all want to know if visitors are arriving on our websites and purchasing our products and services, however we just can’t see this with any level of accuracy.

What we can see is if visitors were engaged with our site. In most situations, someone who arrives and is not interested won’t venture any further. They will leave the website. With AdWords, we want to reduce the number of visitors who aren’t interested and increase those who are.

This can be accomplished by combining the following three systems: Google Tag Manager, Google Analytics and AdWords conversion tracking

How to set up page engagement tracking:

This tutorial will assume that you have already set up the Google Tag Manager across your entire website. For instructions, please visit the Google Tag Manager website.

I like the Google Tag Manager because it makes my life easier. You add a small bit of code to your website much like you do with Google Analytics. Then the Google Tag Manager will dynamically inject tracking codes into your site based on the conditions that you set. With the Google Tag Manager, you no longer need to tag all your pages with AdWords, Analytics or third party tracking codes. You simply log into a web interface and configure your tracking tags as you see fit.

Step 1: Set up a new type of conversion from within Google AdWords.

Page engagement tracking step 1

I would recommend that you set the count to “unique conversions” because the initial page engagement is most important; not all subsequent page engagements.

The conversion window should also be set to “1 week” because page engagement is about that initial visit to the site just after the ad click.

Complete the conversion set up process and save the actual code that Google generate within a text file. You’ll need to reference some of the values in a later step.

Step 2: Listen for page engagement with the Google Tag Manager.

With the Google Tag Manager, you can set up event listeners that can be used to trigger this new page engagement conversion. Currently, the Google Tag Manager offers 6 different event listeners:

  • Click Listener
  • Form Submit Listener
  • Link Click Listener
  • Timer Listener
  • History Listener
  • JavaScript Error Listener

For this tutorial, I am only going to configure page engagement tracking on the Link Click Listener, however other types of events could be used for triggering page engagement conversions as well.

Set up a new tag within the Google Tag Manager called “Link Click Listener”:

Page engagement tracking step 2

The Link Click Listener tag will trigger an event each time a link is clicked.

Step 3: Set up a page engagement rule specific for AdWords traffic:

Page engagement tracking step 3

I only want to track page engagement if the visitor arrived from an AdWords ad and then clicked on a link within the landing page. To accomplish this, I need to create a rule.

The first part of the rule identifies whether or not the user is from AdWords by the gclid= parameter. This parameter is present when using AdWords auto-tagging. By default, most AdWords accounts have it enabled. You can easily be confirm this by following the instructions on this page.

The second part of the rule determines if the event was a link click. Please note the text case within “gtm.linkClick”. It’s important.

Step 4: This is where you tie everything together. Setting up the actual AdWords page engagement tag:

Page engagement-tracking step 4

When setting up this particular tag, you will need to reference the conversion code that Google generated in step 1. In it, you’ll need to pull out the Conversion ID and the Conversion Label and then enter them into this tag.

You then need to select the firing rule for this tag which is the rule you set up in step 3.

I also added a zero for the conversion value because I don’t want these types of conversions to interfere with any possible sales conversion tracking that I may have set up.

Step 5: You must test!

Testing to see if this works could not be easier. From within the Google Tag Manager interface, Google provide an easy to use debugging system. By clicking on the Preview button, you’ll be able to debug what you just configured without actually making it live on your website.

I highly recommend that you test this within each of the major web browsers – Chrome, Firefox and Internet Explorer.

Step 6: Last but not least, you need to make it live.

Once you have thoroughly tested your new page engagement tracking system, press the Publish button to make it live.

Welcome to conversion tracking in 2014.

You may already be aware that Google sent enormous waves around the SEO world yesterday with their announcement that HTTPS is to be considered a ranking signal:

There’s a lot of speculation on the impact and significance of this, so rather than you having to wade through the details, here’s my take on the matter.

Don’t panic.

There is nothing that has to be done immediately. No-one is going to be penalised for not having SSL.

The current impact is minimal.

In Google’s words “For now it’s only a very lightweight signal—affecting fewer than 1% of global queries, and carrying less weight than other signals such as high-quality content—while we give webmasters time to switch to HTTPS. But over time, we may decide to strengthen it, because we’d like to encourage all website owners to switch from HTTP to HTTPS to keep everyone safe on the web.

Google have also said that they will provide detailed best practices over the coming weeks. I’ll let you know when they are published. For now they give this advice:

– Decide the kind of certificate you need: single, multi-domain, or wildcard certificate
– Use 2048-bit key certificates
– Use relative URLs for resources that reside on the same secure domain
– Use protocol relative URLs for all other domains
– Check out our Site move article for more guidelines on how to change your website’s address
– Don’t block your HTTPS site from crawling using robots.txt
– Allow indexing of your pages by search engines where possible. Avoid the noindex robots meta tag

There’s also some useful advice here.

The bottom line is that it will probably be a good idea to make the move over to HTTPS at some point, but there’s no need to drop everything and start implementing this today.

In the interest of learning more on the practicalities that are involved, we’re currently in the process of moving our own website over to SSL. Watch this space.

In the meantime if you have any questions on this, please don’t hesitate to send them my way.

PS: Don’t you love the fact that Google’s blog post isn’t on a secure server?

Nobody ever skips brushing their teeth. It just doesn’t happen. I myself have had long journeys crossing far too many time zones, where I’ve staggered into bed without showering or even washing my face, but my teeth always get brushed. Always. It doesn’t matter how exhausted, hungover, sick, miserable or tight for time you may be; you always brush your teeth.

The reasons for doing so aren’t as obvious as they may first appear. After all when you stumble into your Shanghai hotel room at who-knows-what time in the morning, having not slept for the past 36 hours, your teeth will survive that one brief night without being brushed. They’re most likely coated with 36 hours of plaque anyway, so six more hours isn’t going to make much of a difference.

And the only person who’s going to have to deal with the odour in the morning when you wake up will be you. And let’s face it, it doesn’t matter how well you brush before collapsing onto the mattress, the wakeup experience will not be minty and refreshing.

So why do we do it? It can’t just be routine – I shower every day, but after that particular flight was too tired to care. It can’t be social pressure, because no-one else was going to cotton on to my filthy plaque-heavy secret.

We do it partly because we’re conditioned to – because every single day of our childhood and adult life begins and ends with cleaning our teeth. It’s probably also because it’s impossible to hide when you haven’t done it – if we meet at a conference you won’t be able to notice if I skipped a shower, but you’ll certainly notice if my breath smells like a dead badger.

In addition, once we lose our baby teeth, what grows in their place has to last us the rest of our lives. Fillings don’t repair teeth, they simply contain the damage. When one of our teeth cracks, breaks or dies, we replace bits of them with artificial substitutes, but the tooth itself is gone forever.

We also do it because at some point we’ve all been in the Dentist’s chair for something more than a checkup. And with the exception of my Father * no-one likes having their teeth worked on. It’s time-consuming, costly, unpleasant and invariably hurts like hell.

Each time I’ve had a filling, I’ve been particularly diligent about cleaning and flossing my teeth for weeks afterwards. After a particularly bad experience (an abscess I had springs to mind) that must-do-better factor lasted for literally months before slowly being eroded by time.

So what does this have to do with Google?

Well as a general rule, there are four types of people who devote sufficient time, energy and general resources to their SEO.

People who like SEO.

People who realise the full potential of SEO.

People paid to be responsible for SEO.

People who’ve been hit by a penalty.

The first two types probably account for less than 0.1% of all the people doing SEO, so we can safely ignore them for the inspired and genius oddballs that they are.

Of the people who are paid to handle SEO, assuming that a sufficient amount of their time is allocated (in other words it’s not just one of their 250+ “general marketing things” that they do), the person who ultimately pays them to do their job will most likely fall into the fourth and by far most popular category. Someone who has either been hit by a penalty themselves, or knows someone else who has had the pleasure.

In other words that person has had their full-blown kick-in-the-balls mother of all SEO abscesses, and they want to do all they can to make sure it never happens again.

When I first started speaking at conferences about SEO (running Office 97 on a Windows 98 laptop) I used to point out that despite people’s fears of being punished by the search engines (Google had company back then), the chance of this happening to them was incredibly small.

Today it’s a different story. Bearing in mind that we’re a very small company  and we only ever take on a very small number of SEO clients, I have consulted, advised and handled twelve businesses slapped by Google since December last year.

Trust me. You do not want to be in the position of having your wrist slapped by one of Google’s updates. When it happens it can be anywhere from problematic to devastating. Every business needs to do what they can to avoid being hit by one of Google’s ferocious updates.

So what can you do about it?

In much the same way that we look after our teeth on an ongoing and regular basis, your SEO needs to be treated as a vital task, and regular time has to be set aside for it. A small investment in time each week can identify and resolve issues before Google become aware of them.

I can’t stress this strongly enough. SEO can no longer be considered an afterthought. It’s mission critical.

Not sure where to start?

An SEO overview that will take you 90 seconds.

Google Webmaster Tools can alert you to some issues before they get out of hand – site messages, HTML improvement & security issues could be a good start.

LinkResearchTools can find and deal with all sorts of problematic links. A one month subscription could be money well spent.

ScreamingFrog can crawl your website and find more on-site issues and problems than you thought existed.

Moz and RavenTools offer very reasonably-priced options, and both will provide you with a lot of direction in terms of what needs to be done.

The bottom line is that the specifics of what you do aren’t as important as doing something, on a regular basis. Anything is better than nothing. 

Don’t leave SEO on your to-do list, give it the time and attention needed to make sure that the next penalty won’t decimate your website traffic.

* My Dad is the only person I know of who finds going to the dentist relaxing, to the point where he has actually fallen asleep.

Please note: This isn’t a thinly-veiled sales pitch. We’re not looking to take on any more SEO work at the present time.

Most AdWords accounts use some form of conversion tracking as a metric of success, yet this model is flawed to the point of being meaningless.

I’m not going to go into the specifics of why there may be a disconnect between the ad click and the conversion here, but if you want details read Tracking your AdWords return on investment.

I will, however, show an example that illustrates why conversion tracking is meaningless.

The story of Misguided.

We’ll consider the case of Misguided, a company who sell an online solution for tracking productivity. They’ve been using AdWords for many years, and consider it an important part of their overall marketing strategy. Their AdWords account is managed by an inept ad agency, who’ve assigned Fritter to handle their work.

When Fritter began managing their AdWords, he setup conversion tracking to record anyone who creates an account as a conversion.

So a person searches for a productivity solution, clicks on Misguided’s ad, and has a cookie dropped on their system. Assuming they like what they see, they then open an account and, this is recorded as a conversion.

One of their main campaigns (main #1) rather conveniently receives a round 100 conversions a week.

Fritter thinks he’s quite the AdWords expert, and thanks to reading Tracking your AdWords return on investment, knows that 100 conversions a week won’t be all the conversions, but he uses this data as a useful metric.

So if rc is recorded conversions, nc is non-recorded conversions, and ac is actual conversions:

rc + nc = ac

Fritter hasn’t quite understood the implications of this though, and doesn’t understand that nc may actually be more significant than rc. This is a fundamental mistake on his part.

In the main #1 campaign, for example, even though Fritter has no way of knowing this, there are twice as many non-recorded conversions as there are recorded.

In other words:

100 recorded conversions + 200 non-recorded conversions = 300 actual conversions.

Fritter has been trying to optimise this campaign, and in doing so has disabled a large number of countries that were generating a lot of clicks but absolutely no sales. The result of that is that the campaign is now spending more of its budget in the United States.

One of the implications of this is that there are now a greater proportion of searchers using mobile devices and tablets. As a direct consequence, the number of disconnects in the conversion tracking process has increased.

This results in AdWords reporting 75 recorded conversions a week, instead of the previous 100.

Making a big mistake.

However what Fritter can’t see is that although there are less recorded conversions, there are more non-recorded conversions than before:

75 recorded conversions + 275 non-recorded conversions = 350 actual conversions.

Again, Fritter can’t see this. So what does he do? He forgets the significance of the non-recorded conversions, is swayed by the apparent decline in conversions, and cuts the budget to that campaign.

Fritter can’t know that he’s cutting the budget to the most profitable campaign in the account, mainly because he’s being deceived by the perception of accuracy.

In a sense, you could argue that Google make the misinterpretation easy. The screenshot below shows a total of 11 performance-related metrics. Five of them (highlighted in red) are as good as meaningless.

Misleading conversion data

I’m not suggesting that you pay no attention to reported conversions, as under certain circumstances this information can be quite useful.

But don’t rely on it, and don’t use it as the basis of making decisions on running the account.

The obvious question now is what should you use to determine the success of your AdWords account. The next post will deal with that issue, and give you all the answers you need to make meaningful and accurate decisions.

For now:

Don’t Fritter your account budget with Misguided goals. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist that.)