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What were Google’s biggest search algorithm updates of 2018?

January 8, 2019 No Comments

Search came a long way this past year. We saw the appearance of the zero-result SERP, featuring knowledge cards for answers such as conversions and times.

We welcomed the mobile-first index and the mobile speed update. With the focus on mobile, we saw meta description lengths shorten from 300+ to 150 or so.

We saw minor changes to image search and a renewed emphasis on “compelling and shareable content.” After testing video carousels on desktop SERPs for a while, Google decided to roll the feature out by replacing video thumbnails with video carousels across the board. Understandably, we’ve since seen more focus on producing video.

Some algorithm updates occurred overnight, some happened incrementally. Some caused only ripples, and some turned the SERPs updside down.

As we say hello to 2019, we want to take a moment to reflect on this past year. The algorithm changes we saw last year can be indicators of changes or trends to come. Search engines often make incremental adjustments to their filters.

So, our friends over at E2M have created a visual and entertaining overview of what went down in Google Search over 2018 — and which might help give us an idea of where we’re going next.

Google’s biggest Search algorithm updates of 2018 – A visual representation by E2M

Google”s Biggest Search Algorithm Updates Of 2018

The post What were Google’s biggest search algorithm updates of 2018? appeared first on Search Engine Watch.

Search Engine Watch


Google Ads conversion rates by industry: How do you compare?

January 5, 2019 No Comments

Google Ads is an expensive game if you get it wrong.

So, we figure you’re doing what you can to measure the performance of your campaigns. But just how are you doing that?

Our best guess is you’re using your own historical data to measure your success. Of course, the inbuilt problem there is that it’s only your data. And there are few actionable insights you can get from it.

Now, we’re not saying it’s useless. These metrics will show you if you’re improving month-on-month, but the data will only show you how you’re improving against yourself.

Because when you look at your own historical data, pretty much all you can take from it is: are we doing better than we were doing before?

If the answer is no, then back to the drawing board, but if the answer is yes, you’re doing better than before, so good for you.

But how does your data stack up against the average across your industry?

We’re going to go out on a limb and say you don’t know the answer. You don’t know how you stack up against industry averages. And we’ll tell you why you don’t know…

Because that information is not so easy to get your hands on, and for most businesses it’s to all practical intents impossible.

And until you do know how you’re doing against industry averages, you’ll never know if your campaign is a true blockbuster.

Numbers: Google Ads across industry

A few years ago, Wordstream started running analysis of their client accounts to find answers on conversion rates, cost per click (CPC), click-through rate (CTR), and cost per action (CPA) by industry.

We also covered this back in 2016, if you’d like to compare how the numbers have changed.

These figures are based on a sample of 14,197 client accounts in all verticals — totaling more $ 200 million in aggregate Google Ads spend.

Their stated goal was to establish CVR (average conversion rate) for both search and display ads.

They ran the analysis across 20 different industries including the following:

  • Auto
  • Advocacy
  • B2B
  • Consumer Services
  • Dating & Personals
  • Ecommerce
  • Education
  • Employment Services
  • Finance
  • Health
  • Hospitality
  • Home Goods
  • Industrial Services
  • Insurance
  • Legal
  • Medical
  • Real Estate
  • Technology
  • Travel

So, what is the average conversion rate for Search and Display?

On average then, Google Ads advertisers are getting conversion rates of 3.17% on the Search network and 0.46% on the Display network. These averages have climbed significantly over the past couple years, an encouraging trend for agencies and advertisers alike.

How do those figures compare to what you are seeing — are they a relief or a shock?

Benchmark figures are important to your business

Without a benchmark it really is next to impossible to say how well you’re doing.

Maybe you had a CVR of 0.5% and you boosted that up to 1.5% — if you report that based only on your own historical data then it sounds great, right? However, you now know that the industry benchmark for the Search network is 3.17%. So if your CVR is 1.5% then you’re a long way behind the industry average.

And if your campaign isn’t hitting the average, then there’s no way to dress it up. A lot of work needs to be done just to get it to average levels. Let’s be blunt, who wants to be average?

Ask anyone if they want to be average and you already know the answer you’re going to get – nobody!

Now, if you’re not even halfway to the average CVR then average might seem attractive – but you can do so much better than average. Don’t settle for it. Use the average as marker, get your campaign up to the average and then do all you can to push it over and above. Make it a super high performing unicorn instead!

via GIPHY

Now, we know that the top 10% of advertisers are getting five times better than the average rates. Once you get past that average marker you can go onto create highly profitable campaigns.

Okay, that’s the Search network, now what about Display ads?

The top converting ads on the display network will surprise you

What do you think the top converting ads on the Display network are?

Perhaps ecommerce? Or maybe travel and hospitality because they are so much fun compared to insurance?

Well, as we said, you might be surprised.

Ecommerce along with travel and hospitality are among the very lowest of all conversion rates across all industries on Google Display ads.

The number one winner is…

Dating and personals!

That’s right. Converting at an average of 3.34%, this swelling industry has outflanked finance and insurance to lead the pack for average CVR in terms of Display.

The top five best converting industry types (according to SEW) for Display:

  • Dating and Personals 3.34% CVR
  • Legal: 1.84% CVR
  • Employment Services: 1.57% CVR
  • Finance and Insurance: 1.19% CVR
  • Auto: 1.19% CVR

And who comes in at the bottom of the pile for Display?

The very worst CVR of all industries is…

Home Goods. The CVR here is an abysmal 0.43%.

The top industry smashing it for Search CVR is dating and personals. This has a staggering 9.64% CVR on the SERPs, which is an unbelievable 2.66% higher than legal in a distant second place.

Here are the top 5 converting industries for Search:

  1. Dating and Personals: 9.64% CVR
  2. Legal: 6.98% CVR
  3. Consumer Services: 6.64% CVR
  4. Employment Services: 5.13% CVR
  5. Finance and Insurance: 5.10% CVR

Knowing these benchmarks is vital to your business. As we stated from the get-go, you need to know where you stand against others in your industry. This is the only meaningful way to accurately estimate your costs and ROI. If you don’t do this, you’ll take the historical data you have and maybe think you’re doing well — when really you’re way behind even the average.

Here are the rest of the numbers for Google Ads conversion rates by industry for Search and Display:

google ads conversion rates by industry

Image Source: WordStream

The post Google Ads conversion rates by industry: How do you compare? appeared first on Search Engine Watch.

Search Engine Watch


Search industry news and trends: Best of 2018

January 1, 2019 No Comments

It’s that time of the year again: reflecting on the year that’s past as we prepare for 2019 lurking around the corner. In this article, we have a roundup of some of our fan favorite pieces from 2018 on news and trends from the search industry.

From alternative search engines to future trends, best online courses to algorithm updates, these were some of our highlights from the past year.

We also have a roundup of our top articles on SEO tips and tricks here.

1. No need for Google: 12 alternative search engines in 2018

While many of us use “googling” synonymously with “searching,” there are indeed a number of viable alternatives out there. In this article, we try to give some love to 12 alternative search engines.

Most of us can name the next few: Bing, Yandex, Baidu, DuckDuckGo.

But some on the list may surprise you — how about Ecosia, a Co2-neutral search engine? With every search made, the social business uses the revenue generated to plant trees. On average, 45 searches gets one more tree for our little planet.

2019 might be a year for a little more time spent with some G alternatives.

2. Which is the best search engine for finding images?

Human beings process visuals faster than they do text. So it makes sense that in the last decade, the number of images on the internet has ballooned.

In this post, we compare the best search engines for conducting three categories of image search on the web.

First, general / traditional image search, looking at Google, Bing, and Yahoo.

Then, reverse image search, looking at TinEye, Google, and Pinterest.

Third, free-to-use image search, looking at EveryPixel, Librestock, and the Creative Commons.

3. The 2018 guide to free SEO training courses online

As all good SEOs know, this is a never-ending process. The SEO world seems to be constantly evolving, and nearly everyone in the field has learned their snuff largely through online material.

For anyone who’s new to the scene, this can be an encouraging thought. We all started mostly just poking around on the interwebs to see what to do next. And happily, a lot of the best SEO material is freely available for all.

In this article, we look at the best online, free SEO training courses. From Google to Moz to QuickSprout and more, these are fundamentals that anyone can start with.

We also highlight a number of individuals and businesses to follow in the industry.

4. Video and search: YouTube, Google, the alternatives and the future

One third of all time spent online is accounted for by watching video. And, it’s predicted that 80% of all internet traffic will come from video in 2019.

This year was further proof that videos engage growing numbers of users and consequently have an impact on the SERPs. In fact, video has been seen to boost traffic from organic listings by as much as 157%.

In this article, we explore how the ways in which we search for video are changing. From YouTube to Google Search, Facebook to Vimeo, video — and how we interact with video content online — has seen some interesting changes.

5. Are keywords still relevant to SEO in 2018?

Sneak peak: this one starts out with, “What a useless article! Anyone worth their salt in the SEO industry knows that a blinkered focus on keywords in 2018 is a recipe for disaster.”

We go on to explore why focusing on just keywords is outdated, how various algorithm updates have changed the game, and what we should do now instead.

Ps: the snarky take sticks throughout the read, along with the quality overview.

6. Google’s core algorithm update: Who benefited, who lost out, and what can we learn?

This was an interesting piece following an algorithm update from back in March. There were suspicions, Google SearchLiason tweeted a confirmation, and everyone had to reassess.

Via a simple query, “What’s the best toothpaste?” and the results Google outputted over the course of half a dozen weeks, we can trace certain changes.

What pages benefitted, what can those insights tell us about the update, and how do we handle when our content visibility nosedives?

7. A cheat sheet to Google algorithm updates from 2011 to 2018

Who couldn’t use one of these hanging around?

Google makes changes to its ranking algorithm almost every day. Sometimes (most times) we don’t know about them, sometimes they turn the SERPs upside down.

This cheat sheet gives the most important algorithm updates of the recent years, along with some handy tips for how to optimize for each of the updates.

Well, that’s it for SEW in 2018. See you next year!

The post Search industry news and trends: Best of 2018 appeared first on Search Engine Watch.

Search Engine Watch


SEO tips, tools, and how to’s: Best of 2018

December 29, 2018 No Comments

It’s that time of the year again: reflecting on the year that’s past as we prepare for 2019 lurking around the corner. In this article, we have a roundup of some of our fan favorite pieces from 2018 on SEO.

From how to’s to tips to tools, these were some of our highlights from the past year. SEW spark notes, if you will.

If you missed these pieces throughout the year, they’ll be worth a read. And if you’ve already read them, never hurts to refresh!

On Monday, we’ll have a roundup of our top articles on search industry news and trends.

1. How to force Google to recrawl your website

If you have launched a new website, updated a single page on your existing domain, or altered many pages and/or the structure of your site, you will likely want Google to display your latest content in its SERPs.

While Google’s crawlers are obviously pretty good at their job — indexing countless new pages simply from natural traffic and links from around the web — it never hurts to give Googlebot a little assistance.

In this article, we look at a few ways to alert Google’s crawlers to new URLs on your site.

2. How to set up event tracking in Google Analytics

Because one can never have enough Google Analytics insight, right?

One of the most useful features in GA, event tracking lets you capture all kinds of information about how people behave on your site.

In this article, we go step by step through two different ways you can set up event tracking: first, by adding the code manually, and second, by using Google Tag Manager.

This is a great tutorial for anyone looking to familiarize themselves with the task.

3. A quick and easy guide to meta tags in SEO

Meta tags help search engines and website visitors determine what the content of your page is about. 

They’re placed in the <head> section of a HTML document and need to be coded into your CMS. Depending on the platform you use, this can be quite less intense than it sounds.

Many “out of the box” solutions provide extremely user-friendly, labelled sections such as “meta description” calling your attention to exactly what goes where.

In this article, we take a look at why meta tags are important, along with the six main types of meta tags to focus on for SEO.

4. An SEO’s survival guide to Single Page Applications (SPAs)

For anyone who’s ever had questions about what SEOs should do with Single Page Applications (SPAs), this article is for you. Long, thorough, entertaining, and full of resources.

We start out looking at how the popularity of SPAs, Angular, and React have spiked in the last several years. Many developers eagerly embrace JavaScript for website development — and while that may have been rather inconsiderate of SEO ease (what else is new), it seems JS really is here to stay.

This article is bit of a coming to terms with that reality, accepting SPAs as part of our SEO future, and even dipping our toes in, if you will.

We look at what developers like about JS, how it was never intended for web page content delivery, common SEO problems of SPAs, and a host of other questions you might be asking.

Finally, we end with eleven recommendations for further reading — really, this could become the whole rest of your holiday break — on how Google treats SPAs, core principles of SEO for JS and for SPAs, and more information than you could want.

5. How to check your Domain Authority: 4 tools to use

Domain Authority (DA) serves as a handy heuristic in the SEO industry. It helps tell us how likely a site is to rank for specific keywords, based on the SEO authority it holds.

Many SEOs use Domain Authority to sense-check the quality of their inbound links and to understand how these are affecting their own’s site’s SEO health.

In this article, we round up some of the best ways to check out domain authority. We look at what factors go into DA, and how these tools go about calculating it.

‘Domain Authority’ was devised by Moz and they have naturally taken ownership of this name. Their suite of tools (some of which are discussed in this article) will reveal the authority of particular domains, but dozens of other free tools use Moz’s API to show these scores too.

6. 15 actionable SEO tips to improve your search rankings

This is another quite popular deep dive into SEO tips. We know “improving search rankings” gets a lot of fluff, but this is not that.

Here, we look closely at what makes RankBrain tick, and 15 ways to use that to your fancy.

Sections cover tips around optimizing keywords, optimizing title tags, optimizing descriptions, and reducing bounce rates and dwell times. Fun fact: research by HubSpot and Outbrain found that titles with brackets performed 33 percent better than titles without.

Questions about how to add LSI keywords? How long should long-form content really be? Benefits of long-tail vs medium size keywords? How much difference in clicks will a few characters too long in a headline actually make? All of that and much more (along with lots of screenshots) here.

7. 30 ways to market your online business for free

This article is a roundup of exactly what it sounds like — 30 ways to market your online business for free. It covers everything from emails to social media, from Google Analytics to Search Console, from forums to guest posting, from metadata to Schema.org.

While a few of the ways could be updated — posting to Google+, for instance, might be less helpful anymore — the list still provides some hefty inspiration to anyone needing a little boost of ideas for what to do online.

8. Four tools to discover and optimize for related keywords

This was a quite recent article that has soared. As we know, for SEO these days we need content that includes related concepts, satisfies intent, and provides value. The days of exact keyword matching are far behind us.

In this article, we have four great tools to use when optimizing for related keywords — and of course, how to use them.

For instance, the first tool in the list is TextOptimizer. It takes a term you give it, looks at the Google search results page, extracts snippets, and applies semantic analysis.

With that, it ouputs a list of all the related topics, terms, and concepts that form your topic cluster. From that cluster, it recommends you choose 15-25 of the words for a higher rank.

9. How to optimize your Google My Business listing

Lest we forget: local search.

For those looking to rank higher in searches tied to a user’s location — i.e. users that might be quite near your store and itching to buy something — a Google My Business listing is an essential first step.

This article gives a how to guide for first setting up your listing, claiming and verifying your business, filling out the information, and adding photos. From there, we go over gathering reviews, posting updates, monitoring your profile, and tracking data from Insights.

Of all the many, many things to do in SEO, optimizing a Google My Business listing is very straightforward. It can have a profoundly positive effect on your SEO — a whole wealth of ranking opportunity up for grabs.

The post SEO tips, tools, and how to’s: Best of 2018 appeared first on Search Engine Watch.

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SEO 2019: Nine tips for beginners

December 25, 2018 No Comments

Interested in learning more about SEO in 2019? Here are the key trends you need to follow to improve your search optimization skills.

It’s easy to get confused by the information overload when you’re just starting with SEO. Too many tactics can discourage you from practicing your skills. However, it doesn’t have to be scary to learn more about search engine optimization.

That’s why we’ve analysed the key SEO trends for 2019 and what they mean to someone who’s just getting started with search engine optimization.

1. Start with optimizing your site for mobile devices

Mobile optimization is critical when you’re getting started with SEO. Start by testing your site’s performance and load speed across all devices.

Every delay in browsing may be a missed opportunity to engage a new visitor.

People are spending more time on their phones every year, which means that a new SEO strategy cannot ignore mobile optimization. Moreover, it goes beyond improving e.g. the site speed on your site. SEO in 2019 is about understanding the ‘mobile consumers’ and how their searching habits differ when they are on the go comparing to a desktop user.

Think of your own searching habits when you’re in a rush and you’re looking for a fast answer. Or think of the search result that grabs your attention. Chances are, it’s mobile optimized and it takes into consideration that you’re looking for a clear and quick answer without further delays.

2. Understand how users search 

We tend to assume which keywords will perform better over others. Keyword testing is always a good idea but SEO nowadays is focusing more on understanding the search intent. It’s not enough to find an effective keyword that leads traffic to your site.

A long-term SEO strategy relies on search intent and the reasoning behind every search. Once you start understanding how your target audience is using search engines, then you’re able to optimize your site more successfully.

Searches are becoming more dynamic and it’s not enough to rely on assumptions. Start testing how your optimization can affect your search traffic and start applying more conversational queries to your keyword mix.

3. Write for humans, optimize for search engines

A successful SEO strategy does not ignore the human element when optimizing a site. We are not just picking good keywords to improve our site’s rankings. The goal is to pick the right keywords that your audience would use in a way that the content remains relevant and engaging.

Always start by thinking of your audience when creating your content. Your content should be both interesting and relevant to them so that they want to read more about it. Once you start understanding the content that your readers want from you, it’s time to focus more on its optimization.

It’s not enough to create good content if you don’t get people to read it. That’s why you want to optimize your content to reach higher in the SERPs.

There’s no need to start adding keywords in your content simply to appeal to search engines. Google and the rest have become way too sophisticated to reward such techniques.

On the contrary, the quality of your content and its relevance, for example, can help you increase your search traffic. Find the right balance between quality content and search optimization for the best results.

4. Analyse your existing search traffic

If you’re not sure how to get started and what to test then start by having a closer look at your current search traffic.

What are the best-performing pages? Which keywords is your audience using to access your content?

Analyse your top 10 posts and what they all have in common. Is it the quality of your content? The length of each post? Did you follow the best practices of on-site optimization?

Find the posts that work well as evergreen content and think of new ways to update them. A closer look at your search traffic and current SEO performance can even help you update your content calendar with topics that your audience would appreciate.

5. Stay up-to-date with the latest changes in SEO

If you want to master SEO, you need to follow the latest trends and the algorithm updates that might affect your tactics. As with every new skill, it’s useful to keep reading about it to stay informed about any recent changes.

Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced professional, it’s still important to keep reading about the latest SEO updates and what they mean to your strategy.

6. Learn the most important ranking factors

As we’ve just mentioned in the previous tip, it’s useful to dedicate some time every month to catch up with the latest SEO updates.

A great starting point is to read more about all the ranking factors that affect your position in the SERPs.

From the relevance and the use of the right keywords to the page speed and the use of backlinks, it’s good to learn how each ranking factor can affect your optimization tactics.

The list may be long, but here are some important ranking factors to help you optimize your page in 2019.

7. Never underestimate UX

User experience is becoming more important for SEO year over year. As Google is evolving, search results are becoming more personalized and the goal is to offer the best experience to the users.

The quality and the relevance of your content are very significant, but you also need to ensure that your site’s UX is appealing enough to encourage people to keep reading.

A good post cannot be engaging if your page is not, for example, optimized for mobile or if it doesn’t facilitate longer reads.

What you need is the right balance between great content and even better user experience. None of the two alone can lead to great SEO success.

Start analyzing your current bounce rate and the time spent on site and see how these compare with your site’s load speed.

Test your site’s performance across different browsers and devices and start improving all the issues that may risk you losing your readers.

8. Discover the link between social media and SEO

Social signals may not be among the ranking factors, but it’s still useful to understand how your social presence can affect your search results.

As social media becomes a bigger part of our lives, it can define a big part of our online presence and authority. The same occurs to all brands with an existing social presence.

Google has started integrating social results to the search answers in an attempt to present a more holistic idea of an online presence. By indexing more content to the search results, users are able to find the right answer to their questions as fast as possible. Thus, it’s good to keep in mind that your online presence and authority are not limited to your search results.

Similarly, social networks are turning into their own search engines where users are still looking for an answer to their questions. YouTube and Pinterest have become very popular visual search engines, while Twitter and Facebook can be helpful for finding more information about a person or a news event.

This means that our searching habits are changing and it’s useful to understand all the different ways someone can find your content on various channels.

9. Understand how voice search works

Voice search will be the biggest trend to shape SEO in 2019 and 2020. It is already seeing a growing adoption rate and more consumers are expected to use voice commands in 2019.

This means that search optimization should change to understand the new kind of search intent. People tend to use longer questions and more conversational queries in voice search. The challenge is to understand which keywords will be more relevant to your audience and how to measure the success of your strategy.

Although the measurement is still at an early stage, it’s still useful to understand the difference between text and voice commands. 

The more we think as consumers, the higher the chances of answering their questions in the most relevant way.

Overview

SEO doesn’t have to be complicated. You can start the new year by boosting your skills to try out new ideas.

One step at a time can help you improve your site’s optimization. The best way to get started is to pay attention to your readers’ online habits.

  • How do they behave on your site?
  • What are your best-performing pages?
  • Which keywords do they use?
  • What can you improve today to boost your SEO strategy?

The post SEO 2019: Nine tips for beginners appeared first on Search Engine Watch.

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An SEO’s guide to Google Analytics terms

December 22, 2018 No Comments

We all know Google Analytics is a powerful tool for serving up actionable data. And one of the quickest ways to get that data is to be clear about what all those terms mean.

What does bounce rate mean and is it connected in anyway to exit rate? And how about sessions and page views?

If those questions sounds familiar but you’re not sure of the answers, read on…

Because as soon as you understand all the Google Analytics terms, you can begin to get closer to the actionable data you need, the kind of data you can use to increase visitors, sales, and sign-ups.

Google Analytics can show what pages you need to improve in order to rank higher in organic search. It shows you if your copy needs tweaking, keywords need updating, or meta-descriptions re-writing. It also tells you if your call to action button is converting or not.

See also: A guide to setting up Google Analytics for your WordPress site.

Bounce rate

What Google Says:

“A bounce is a single-page session on your site. In Analytics, a bounce is calculated specifically as a session that triggers only a single request to the Analytics server, such as when a user opens a single page on your site and then exits without triggering any other requests to the Analytics server during that session.”

A user could leave a site because they lost interest, were confused, didn’t find the answer to their query, or did already found the information they were looking for.

The right kind of thinking here is this: What was the person expecting to find after searching for a keyword or key phrase. And does my site provide it?

If the bounce rate is very high, this is an indicator the site has a significant problem. Here are some helpful tips on ways to reduce bounce rate.

Alternatively, if the content is awesome and people spend a long time interacting with it, then that is known as “sticky” content.

If you’re just starting out with GA, here’s something to help get you started:

Clicks

The number of times people click on your link from the search results page is the number of clicks that appears on Google’s SEO report.

Clickthrough-Rate (CTR) is the number of clicks to your site divided by the number of impressions. Impressions are the amount of times your search link is shown to a searcher. So if CTR is high, the meta description is doing its job and converting searchers to visitors. However, if CTR rate is low then it’s worth testing different headlines.

Note that these clicks are not related to Google Ads clicks. These appear in Google Ads reports.

Entrances

If your site has more than one page then it has different entrance points, and Google records those separate entries.

Perhaps a blog post is performing well and bringing in traffic. Great. It might also show pages you want to be traffic-heavy are not performing properly.

Events

Events are certain user actions that happen on the site, and are created in line with KPIs.

For example, a site might offer a free download after pressing a button. So an event gets recorded each time the button is pressed. Now we have an event, we can extract actionable data. We know how many visitors the page had, and we know how many of those people we converted into button pressers.

Exit page

If an entrance page is where people arrive at your site, an exit page is where they leave.

A visitor may click through from the SERP, read the article, click on an internal link to read another article, then leave. Are there weaknesses on the exit page? This is easy to spot if one page stands out with a high leave rate.

Exit rate (% Exit)

The exit rate is calculated by dividing the number of ‘exits’ made from the page by the number of page views. However, a page with a high % exit rate may not necessarily have a high bounce rate.

But — and we said front and center these terms are confusing — a page with low exit rate is more likely to have a low bounce rate. That’s because users are probably heading to other pages on the site rather than exiting.

Hits

A hit is a request made to a web server to show a certain file. This could be a web page, an image or other things.

An event is considered a hit. A page view is a hit. All of these hits are grouped together in what Google calls a session. A session is a group of hits from one user. Google uses hits to determine the interaction between the user and the web page.

If the user takes no action for 30 minutes then Google ends the session.

Impressions

We first spoke of impression when looking at clicks. Impressions occur when your link is served up in the search results.

According to Google’s SEO Reports, impressions do not include impressions by paid Google Ads campaigns, which are recorded separately.

In short, when the user can see your link in the search results, that’s counted as an impression. And as you know, we use impressions and clicks to calculate the CTR.

Landing or entrance page

Both of these terms are used by Google to indicate the very first page a user lands on at the beginning of each session. This means in GA you can check which pages users most arrive at your site.

Page views

Page views are the number of times a visitor lands on any page of your website – these are called screen views on mobile.

Within page views, we first have unique page views. Google does not count multiple views of the same page by the same person in the same session as individual views. Instead, it counts them all as one unique view.

Then we have pages per session, also called ‘Average Page Depth’.

APD is the average number of pages viewed by a each user in one session and inside the analytics it includes repeated views of a single page.

Sessions

We encountered sessions earlier on. You already know that a session is the complete amount of time a visitor spends on your website.

You also know that each action a visitor takes is recorded as a hit. And all those hits are recorded within the session. This means in a 24 hour period you might have 100 sessions and 300 hits. The hits figure is equal to or higher than the sessions number.

There is a time limit on sessions. With standard GA settings, a session is ended after 30 minutes of inactivity.

Average session duration is the average time of a user’s session and the calculation to get this is to divide the session duration by the number of sessions.

Time on page

Time on page is the average amount of time that particular visitor spent on the page. If a page is text-heavy then there’s much more chance of each session producing a greater amount of time on page.

Google records average time on page. This is a simple calculation of dividing time on page by the number of page views, minus the exit number.

Users, visitors, or traffic — which one do you need to know?

Each of these terms describes visitors who access your site. Google uses these terms as and when they want.

There is, of course, a self-evident distinction between a new visitor and a returning visitor. Traffic generally expresses the total volume of people visiting the website. But traffic is split down into categories…

Direct traffic is when someone sends you the full URL to a website and you click on that link to go directly to the site. No search has has taken place. Direct traffic is common when sending out a link to your email list. Each person would directly access the site.

Next, we have organic search traffic. Organic traffic is free and targeted, and comes about from SEO efforts to rank the site as high as possible in those all-important Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs). If the site is showing little to no organic search, then go back to the drawing board on the keywords in use.

Paid search traffic means the number of people who visited the site via Google Ads.

Lastly we have referral traffic. This means a search engine, another website or social media site has placed a link to your web page on their site and is referring traffic to you.

Further reading

Overview

Reports

Tracking

Analysis

Custom segments

Error pages

Beyond GA

The post An SEO’s guide to Google Analytics terms appeared first on Search Engine Watch.

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Six most common travel SEO mistakes to get right in 2019

December 15, 2018 No Comments

Here’s a bold statement: “SEO in the travel industry is immensely challenging.”

The sheer number of pages to manage, complexities of properties, flights, accommodation, availability, occupancy, destinations, not to mention the crazy amount of APIs and databases to make a travel site function, can all make life tricky for an SEO, particularly when it comes to the development queue…

tough development queue

Having said that, there are still common mistakes and missed opportunities out there that have the potential to be really impactful and believe it or not, they don’t actually require a huge amount of resource to put right.

So, here’s a list of the six most common travel SEO mistakes to get right for 2019:

  1. Forgetting about index bloat

There are a LOT of facets and filters when it comes to commercial travel category pages, arguably the most of any industry.

Typically with every facet or filter, be it; availability, location, facilities, amenities nearby, occupancy etc. A URL is created with the associated parameters selected by the user.

If not handled correctly, this can produce thousands of indexable pages that have no unique organic value to users.

This is a problem for a number of reasons:

  • It can be confusing for search engines because they can find it tricky to identify the best and most relevant URL to rank and show users depending on their query
  • It can dilute domain level ranking signals drastically
  • It can cause a huge amount of duplicate content issues
  • It can waste crawl budget which for big travel sites is super important

Combined, this can cause big losses in rankings, traffic and subsequently conversion!

How to identify index bloat

Go to Search Console (formerly Google Webmaster Tools) and check your ‘Index Coverage’ report or, in the old version, check ‘Index Status’ to see if you can see any spikes or growth in ‘Total Indexed’ pages. If you notice something like the graph below and it’s not expected, then there may be a problem:

index bloat graph

If you find there is a big increase and you can’t explain why, conduct some ‘Site:’ operator searches and spot check areas of your site where this may be commonplace to see what you can find.

Here’s an example of index bloat from the page speed tool ‘Pingdom’. It seems as though every input a user executes produces an indexable URL:

index bloat example

Once you’ve found a problem like this, review the extent of it with a Screaming Frog crawl. This way you can see how many URLs are affected and distinguish between whether they are actually indexable or not.

For example, there may be a few hundred pages that are indexable but have not yet been found and indexed by Google.

How to fix index bloat:

  • Noindex – Use a page level meta ‘noindex’ directive on the culprit pages
  • Where possible redirect – index bloat can happen as a result of mountains of historical 404 pages too, 301 redirect them into the most appropriate page to consolidate
  • Canonicalisation – apply an absolute canonical tag to the culprit pages to indicate that they are duplicate
  • Pagination – where possible use rel=”next” & rel=”prev” markup to show that pages are part of a series
  • URL parameter tool – By far the easiest but arguably the most risky method is using Google’s parameter handling tool to indicate the purpose of the culprit pages, be careful though, this can cause bigger problems if implemented incorrectly

Expert tip

If any of the above are difficult to get implemented in your dev queue and you don’t trust yourself using the parameter handling tool, you can actually noindex web pages & directories in your robots.txt file. You can actually add lines reading:

Noindex: /directory/

Noindex: /page/

This could save you a lot of time and is fully reversible, so less risky if you have control over your robots file. If you’ve never heard of this, don’t worry it is supported and it does work!

  1. Unemotive meta titles

It’s pretty staggering but in the UK, there’s a lot going on in January for travel — it is certainly the biggest spike in the year for many brands, followed by ‘holiday blues’ peaks after summer.

Here’s the trend of interest over time for the query ‘tenerife holidays’ (a destination famed for its good weather all year round) to show you what I mean:

search trend over time of "tenerife holidays"

January might be a bad time to experiment because of the higher interest but, the rest of the year presents a great opportunity to get creative with your titles.

Why would you?

Simply, keyword heavy titles don’t inspire high click-through rates.

Creative titles entice users into your landing pages, give your brand a personality and increase your click-through rate. This sends strong positive relevancy signals to Google which helps towards highlighting that your website is the best for the initial user query.

Here are a few things you can try with supportive content and commercial landers:

  • Get emotional, people buy holidays on the experiences they anticipate having. Play on that with your titles – how will products/content from this page make the user feel?
  • Where possible use a numbered list to be as descriptive as possible
  • Use strengthening words such as premium, secret, amazing, proven, guaranteed
  • Tie in emotional hooks using words like; fun, adventure, seamless, safe, welcoming, luxury, relaxing
  • Experiment with ‘price from’ and actually quote pricing in the title
  • Switch up your ‘PHP’ generated title tags for property pages and experiment with more descriptive wording and not just PROPERTY NAME | LOCATION | BRAND – but don’t remove any keyword targeting, just improve those titles.

Expert Tip

Write five completely unique title tags for the same page and test each one with a Facebook or PPC ad to see whether they outperform your current iteration in terms of engagement.

  1. Poor merchandising

As previously mentioned, the travel industry experiences peaks and troughs of consumer behavior trend throughout the year which causes the majority intent to switch dramatically across different months in the year.

So, having a deep understanding of what users are actually looking for is really important when merchandising high traffic pages to get the best conversion out of your audience.

In short, gaining an understanding of what works when, is huge.

Here’s some tips to help you make better merchandising decisions:

  • Use last year’s email open rate data – what type of content/product worked?
  • Use Google Search Console to find pages that peaked in organic traffic at different times
  • Involve the social media team to get a better understanding of what your audience is engaging with and why
  • Use Google Trend data to verify your hunches and find clearer answers
  • Use UGC sites such as Quora to find questions users are asking during different months of the year. Use the following site operator and swap out ‘holiday’ for your topic: ‘site:quora.com inurl:holiday’ and then filter by custom date range on your search

Often consumers are exposed to the same offers, destinations and visuals on key landing pages all year round which is such a missed opportunity.

We now live in a world of immediacy and those in the industry know the challenges of users cross-shopping between brands, even those who are brand loyal. This often means that if users can’t find what they are looking for quickly, they will bounce and find a site that serves them the content they are looking for.

For example, there’s an argument for promoting and focusing on media-based content, more so than product, later in the year, to cater to users that are in the ‘consideration’ part of the purchasing funnel.

Expert tip

Use number five in this list to pull even more clues to help inform merchandising

  1. Holding back on the informational market share

I grant you, this is a tall order, travel advice, blogs and guides are a standalone business but, the opportunity for commercial travel sites to compete with the likes of TripAdvisor is massive.

An opportunity estimated from our recent Travel Sector Report at 232,057 monthly clicks from 22,040 keywords and only Thomas Cook is pushing into the top 10.

travel sector graph of number of keywords ranking

Commercial sites that don’t have a huge amount of authority might struggle to rank for informational queries because dedicated travel sites that aren’t directly commercial are usually deemed to provide better/unbiased content for users.

Having said that, you can see clearly from above that it IS possible!

So, here’s what you should do…

…focus on one thing and do it better than anyone else

Sounds pretty straightforward and you’re probably thinking ‘I’ve heard this before’ but, only a handful in the travel industry are actually doing this well.

Often you see the same information from one travel site to the next, average weather, flight times, the location of the country on a map, a little bit of fluff about the history of the destination and then straight into accommodation.

This is fine, it’s useful, but it’s not outstanding.

Let’s take Thomas Cook as an example.

Thomas Cook has built a network of weather pages that provide live forecasts, annual overviews as well as unique insights into when is best to go to different destinations. It even has a tool to shop for holidays by the weather (something very important to Brits) called ‘Where’s Hot When?’

Thomas Cook where's hot when?

The content is relevant, useful, concise, complete, easy to use, contemporary in design and, most importantly, better than anyone else’s.

In short, Thomas Cook is nailing it.

They have focused on weather and haven’t stopped until it’s as best as it can be.

Why did they bother with weather? Well it’s approximately a third of all travel-related informational searches that we found in our keyword set from the Travel Sector Report:

travel sector graph number of searches and ranking

Apply Thomas Cook’s methodology to something that is relevant to your audience, it could be; family attractions, adult only tour guides, Michelin star eateries, international laws families should be concerned about, the list is plentiful!

Find something, nail it.

  1. Ignoring the gold in on-site search

There are some big travel sites out there that don’t have an on-site search function which is a huge missed opportunity. Travel sites are inherently difficult to navigate with such a volume of pages, site search is quite often a great solution for users.

As well as this, it can give marketers some amazing insight into what users are looking for, not just generally in terms of the keywords users might be using but also the queries users are searching on a page by page level.

For example, you could drill down into the differences between queries searched on your homepage vs queries searched on specific landing pages to spot trends in behavior and fix the content gaps from these areas of the site.

You could also use the data to inform merchandising decisions to address number three on this list.

In doing this, users are actually telling you exactly what they are looking for, at what time, whether they are a repeat visitor or a new one and where they’ve come from to visit your site.

If you spend the time, this data is gold!

If you can’t get buy in for this, test the theory with an out of the box search function that plugs straight into your site like searchnode. Try it for six months, you might be surprised at how many users turn to it and you will get some really actionable data out of it.

It’s also super easy to track in Google Analytics and the reports are really straightforward:

1. Go to Admin

google analytics add searchnode search box to your site

2. Click ‘View Settings’

google analytics view settings

3. Switch ‘Site search Tracking’ on

google analytics site search tracking on

4. Strip the letter that appears in your site’s search URL before the search terms e.g. for wordpress this is usually the letter “s”: www.travelsite.co.uk/?s=search-term

5. Click ‘save’, boom you’re done.

Let Google collect data, extract it monthly and dig, dig furiously!

  1. Ignoring custom 404 errors pages

Who doesn’t love a witty 404 page. More and more often you’ll find that when webmasters optimize a 404 error page they make them lighthearted. Here’s a great example from Broadway Travel:

broadway travel 404 error page

There is a reason why webmasters aim for a giggle.

Think about it… when users hit a 404 error page, 100% of the time there’s a problem, which is a big inconvenience when you’re minding your own business and having a browse, so, something to make you laugh goes a long way at keeping you unfrustrated.

Time to name names, and show you some 404 error pages that need some work…

British Airways

british airways 404 page not found

TUI & Firstchoice

TUI and Firstchoice 404 page not found

Expedia

expedia 404 page not found

Momondo

momondo 404 page not found

404 error pages happen over time, it’s totally normal.

It’s also normal to get traffic to your 404 error page. But it’s not just any old traffic, it’s traffic that you’ve worked hard to get hold of.

If, at this point, you’re thinking, ‘my site has recently been audited and internal links to 404 pages have been cleared up’.

Think again!

Users can misspell URLs, ancient external links can point to old pages, the product team can make mistakes, as meticulous as you may be, please don’t discount this one.

Losing quality users because of a bad 404 experience is an SEO’s idea of nails down a chalkboard.

Here are some tips to optimize your 404 pages:

  • Hit them with something witty but don’t be controversial
  • Feature the main site query forms prominently so users can conduct another ‘base’ search
  • Feature a site search option as well – an error page is a perfect opportunity to get users to conduct a site search to give you some insight into what they are looking for (number five on this list)
  • Include curated links to most popular top level pages such as destinations, guides, hotels, deals etc. This will allow users to start from at the top of each section and it will also allow search engines to continue crawling if they hit a 404 page
  • Re-emphasize branding, USPs, value proposition and trust signals to subconsciously remind users of why they’re on your site in the first place

Even if you think your 404 is awesome don’t neglect them when they pop up:

  • Review the 404 page data in Google Analytics behavior flow to find broken links you may not have known about and fix them
  • Keep on top of your 404 pages in Google Search Console and redirect to appropriate pages where necessary

404’s are often the bane of an SEO’s life and you might think about ways to get out of keeping on top of them.

Sadly there aren’t any short cuts….

…Bonus SEO mistake

Creating a global 301 redirect rule for every 404 page and direct them to your homepage.

This is surprisingly common but is poor SEO practice for a number of reasons, firstly you won’t be able to identify where users are having issues on your site when 404 pages pop up.

You may also be redirecting a page that could have originally had content on it that was totally irrelevant to your homepage. It’s likely in this situation that Google will actually override your redirect and classify it as a soft 404, not to mention the links that may have originally pointed to your 404’s.

Save your users, build a 404 page!

Final thoughts

No site is perfect, and although it might appear as though we’re pointing fingers, we want you to be able to overcome any challenges that come with SEO implementation — there’s always a bigger priority but keep your mind open and don’t neglect the small stuff to stay ahead of the game.

The post Six most common travel SEO mistakes to get right in 2019 appeared first on Search Engine Watch.

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How to increase page speed to improve SEO results

December 8, 2018 No Comments

Page speed has been a part of Google’s search ranking algorithms for quite some time, but it’s been entirely focused on desktop searches until recently when Google began using page speed as a ranking factor for mobile searches as well.

Have you checked your page speed scores lately?

How do your speeds match up against your competition?

If your pages are loading slower than competitors, there’s a chance you’re taking a hit in the SERPs. While relevance of a page carries much more weight than page speed, it’s still important to ensure your pages are loading fast for users and search engines.

Here are 5 ways to increase page speed and improve SEO results.

Compress images

Large image files can have a significant negative impact on page speed performance. Images often represent the largest portion of bytes when downloading a page. This is why optimizing images generally returns the biggest improvement in speed performance. Compressing your images using an image compression tool will reduce their file size leading to faster loading pages for both users and search engines, which in turn will have a positive impact on your organic search rankings.

Leverage browser caching

Web browsers cache quite a bit of information, including images, JavaScript files and stylesheets. The benefit is that when visitors revisit your site, the browser doesn’t have to reload the whole page. If your server does not include caching headers or if resources are only cached for a short period of time, then pages on your site will load slower because browsers must reload all of this information.

Google recommends setting a minimum cache time of one week (and preferably up to one year) for static assets, or assets that change infrequently. So, make sure you work with your web developer to ensure caching is setup for optimal page speed performance.

Decrease server response time

There are numerous potential factors that may slow down the response of your server: slow database queries, slow routing, frameworks, libraries, slow application logic, or insufficient memory. All these factors should be taken into consideration when trying to improve your server’s response time.

The most favorable server response time is under 200ms. SEO marketers should work with their website  hosting provider to reduce server response time and increase page speed performance.

Enable Gzip compression

Your pages will load slower if your site has compressible resources that are served without Gzip compression. Gzip, a software application for file compression, should be utilized to reduce the size of files on your site such as CSS, HTML, and JavaScript (but not images).

You will need to determine which type of server your site runs on before enabling Gzip compression as each server requires a unique configuration, for example:

Again, your hosting provider can help you enable Gzip compression accordingly. You’d be surprised how much faster your pages load by having Gzip implemented.

Avoid multiple landing page redirects

Having more than one redirect from a given URL to the final landing page can slow page load time. Redirects prompt an additional HTTP request-response which can delay page rendering. SEO Marketers should minimize the number of redirects to improve page speed. Check your redirects and make sure you don’t have redundant redirects that could be slowing load time.

Conclusion

SEO marketers must be analyzing and improving page speed. A great place to start is compressing images, utilizing caching, reducing server response time, enabling file compression, and removing multiple/redundant redirects.

I urge marketers to periodically use Google’s Page Speed Insights Tool to check your load time and compare your website to competitors’ sites. The tool also provides specific, recommended optimizations to increase your site’s page speed performance.

As Google continues to favor fast-loading websites it’s crucial that SEO Experts take necessary steps to ensure your site’s pages are meeting (and beating) Google’s expectations. Today, improving page speed is an essential aspect of any successful SEO Program.

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TechSEO Boost: Machine Learning for SEOs

December 4, 2018 No Comments

This year’s TechSEO Boost, an event dedicated to technical SEO and hosted by Catalyst, took place on November 29 in Boston.

Billed as the conference “for developers and advanced SEO specialists,” TechSEO Boost built on the success of the inaugural event in 2017 with a day of enlightening, challenging talks from the sharpest minds in the industry.

Some topics permeated the discourse throughout the day and in particular, machine learning was a recurring theme.

As is the nature of the TechSEO Boost conference, the sessions aimed to go beyond the hype to define what precisely machine learning means for SEO, both today and in future.

The below is a recap of the excellent talk from Britney Muller, Senior SEO Scientist at Moz, entitled (fittingly enough) “Machine Learning for SEOs.”

What is machine learning? A quick recap.

The session opened with a brief primer on the key terms and concepts that fit under the umbrella of “machine learning.”

Muller used the definition in the image below to capture the sense of machine learning as “a subset of AI (Artificial Intelligence) that combines statistics and programming to give computers the ability to “learn” without explicitly being programmed.”

definition what is machine learning

That core idea of “learning” from new stimuli is an important one to grasp as we consider how machine learning can be applied to daily SEO tasks.

Machine learning excels at identifying patterns in huge quantities of data. As such, some of the common examples of machine learning applications today include:

  • Recommender systems (Netflix, Spotify)
  • Ridesharing apps (Uber, Lyft)
  • Digital Assistants (Amazon Alexa, Apple Siri, Google Assistant)

This very ubiquity can make it a challenging concept to grasp, however. In fact, Eric Schmidt at Google has gone so far as to say, “The core thing Google is working on is basically machine learning.”

It is helpful to break this down into the steps that comprise a typical machine learning project, in order to see how we might apply this to everyday SEO tasks.

The machine learning process

The image below represents the machine learning process Muller shared at TechSEO Boost:

the machine learning process

It is important to bear in mind that some of the training data should be reserved for testing at a later point in the process.

Where possible, this data should also be labelled clearly to help the machine learning algorithm identify classifications and categories within a noisy data set.

It is for precisely this reason that Google asks us to label images to verify our identity:

street signs Google images

This demonstrates our human ability to pick out objects in cluttered contexts, but it has the added benefit of providing Google with higher quality image data.

The pitfalls of an unsupervised approach to machine learning, and a training data set that is open to interpretation, were laid bare just last week.

Google’s ‘Smart Compose’ feature within Gmail has demonstrated gender bias by preferring certain pronouns when predicting what a user might want to say.

As reported in Reuters, “Gmail product manager Paul Lambert said a company research scientist discovered the problem in January when he typed “I am meeting an investor next week,” and Smart Compose suggested a possible follow-up question: “Do you want to meet him?” instead of “her.”

gmail smart compose

The challenge here is not restricted to projects on such a scale. Marketers who want to get their hands dirty must be aware of the limitations of machine learning, as well as its exciting possibilities.

Muller added that people tend to overfit their data, which reduces the accuracy and flexibility of the model they are using. This (very common) phenomenon occurs when a model corresponds very closely with one specific data set, reducing its applicability to new scenarios.

The ability to scale effectively is what gives machine learning its appeal, so overfitting is something to be avoided with care. There is a good primer to this topic here and it is also explained very well through this image:

the best way to explain overfitting

So, how exactly can this subset of AI be used to improve SEO performance?

How you can use machine learning for SEO

As is the case with all hype-friendly technologies, businesses are keen to get involved with machine learning. However, the point is not to “use machine learning” through fear of being left behind, but rather to find the best uses of machine learning for each business.

Britney Muller shared some examples from her role at Moz during her session at TechSEO Boost.

The first was an approach to automated meta description generation using the Algorithmia Advanced Content Summarizer, which was then compared to Google’s approach to automated descriptions pulled directly from the landing page.

Meta descriptions remain an important asset when trying to encourage a positive click-through rate, but a lot of time is spent crafting these snippets. An automated alternative that can interpret the meaning of landing pages and create clickable summaries for display in the SERPs would be very useful.

serp q&a results comparison

Muller shared some examples, such as the image above, to demonstrate the comparison between the two approaches. The machine learning approach is not perfect and may require some tweaking, but it does an excellent job of conveying the page’s intent when compared to Google’s selection.

The team at Moz has since built this into Google Sheets:

google sheets meta descriptions

Although this is not a product other businesses can access right now, an alternative way of achieving automated meta descriptions has been shared by Paul Shapiro (the TechSEO Boost host) via Github here.

Automated image optimization

Another fascinating use of machine learning for SEO is the automation of image optimization. Britney Muller showed how, in under 20 minutes, it is possible to train an algorithm to distinguish between cats and ducks, then use this model on a new data set with a high level of accuracy.

recognize ducks vs snakes

For large retailers, the application of this method could be very beneficial. With so many new images added to the inventory every day, and with visual search on the rise, a scalable image labeling system would prove very profitable. As demonstrated at TechSEO Boost, this is now a very realistic possibility for businesses willing to build their own model.

A further use of machine learning described by Britney Muller was the transcription of podcasts. An automated approach to this task can turn audio files into something much more legible for a search engine, thereby helping with indexation and ranking for relevant topics.

Muller detailed an approach using the Amazon Transcribe product through Amazon Web Services to achieve this aim.

amazon transcribe tool

The audio is broken down and delivered in a J-SON file in a lot of detail, with the different speakers on the podcast labelled separately.

transcription json string

There was not enough time in the session to work through every potential use of machine learning for SEO, but Muller’s core message was that everyone in the industry should be working towards at least a working knowledge of these concepts.

Some further opportunities for experimentation were listed as follows:

opportunities with machine learning

As we can see, machine learning truly excels when working with large data sets to identify patterns.

Tools and resources

The best way to get engaged is to combine theory with practice. This is almost always the case, but it is a particularly valid piece of advice in relation to programming.

Muller’s was not the first or last talk to reference Google Codelabs throughout the day.

google codelabs

There are more resources out there than ever before and the likes of Amazon and Google want machine learning to be approachable. Amazon has launched a machine learning course and Google’s crash course is a fantastic way to learn the components of a successful project.

google codelabs machine learning crash course

The Google-owned Kaggle is always a great place to trial new data sets and review the innovative work performed by data scientists around the world, once a basic grasp has been attained.

Furthermore, Google’s Colaboratory makes it easy to get started on a project and work with a remote team.

Key takeaways: machine learning for SEOs

What became particularly clear through Muller’s talk is how approachable machine learning applications can be for SEOs. Moreover, the room for experimentation is unprecedented, for those willing to invest some time in the discipline.

key takeaways

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Dragonfly: 500+ staff sign open letter for Google to drop new Chinese search engine

December 1, 2018 No Comments

More than 500 engineers, designers, managers and other staff from across global Google offices have signed an open letter at Medium.com calling on the search engine to stop their Dragonfly project and for company leaders to “commit to transparency, clear communication, and real accountability.”

As we reported last month

Google’s project Dragonfly first came to light in August via The Intercept and their reports surrounding leaked documents containing details about the project. In a nutshell, the project looked to be a fresh attempt by Google to re-enter the Chinese search market since having been blocked by the state back in 2010.

Dragonfly was speculated to be taking the shape of a mobile search engine. This is unsurprising, as more than 97% of internet users in China go online via mobile devices (according to CNNIC) and it is in this vertical that the industry is seeing most disruption from companies such as Shenma, Sogou and Haosou.

What was surprising were the subsequent leaked details from The Intercept and other sources hinting that Dragonfly users would be forced to sign-in to make searches, with IP addresses and phone numbers being linked to their activities too. It is also expected that the service would be censored in order to adhere to the country’s ‘cyber sovereignty’ laws – and, an as yet unknown, domestic partner would also have access to this customer data.

Consequently, there was significant uproar among many Google employees. On August 20th, senior research scientist Jack Poulson left the company and published his lengthy resignation letter online. ‘I believe that Google is largely composed of altruistic employees,’ he wrote. ‘But, due to my conviction that dissent is fundamental to functioning democracies, I am forced to resign in order to avoid contributing to, or profiting from, the erosion of protections for dissidents.’

A dangerous precedent at a volatile political moment

The latest open letter published on November 27th echoes much of the sentiment expressed by Poulson in his resignation document. ‘We are Google employees and we join Amnesty International in calling on Google to cancel project Dragonfly, Google’s effort to create a censored search engine for the Chinese market that enables state surveillance,’ it says.

‘Our opposition to Dragonfly is not about China: we object to technologies that aid the powerful in oppressing the vulnerable, wherever they may be. The Chinese government certainly isn’t alone in its readiness to stifle freedom of expression, and to use surveillance to repress dissent. Dragonfly in China would establish a dangerous precedent at a volatile political moment, one that would make it harder for Google to deny other countries similar concessions.’

The post also describes 2018 as a year of disappointment for Google employees. It references Project Maven (where Google assisted with development of AI in US military drones) which saw protests and resignations, as well as the Rubingate scandal which saw Android developer Andy Rubin given ‘a hero’s farewell’ and a $ 90m exit package after claims of sexual misconduct were made against him – ultimately leading to a global synchronized walkout on November 1st.

Official responses from Google have not satisfied critics

Google are yet to address the direct requests as detailed in this latest open letter. At a Q & A session during the WIRED 25 Summit in October, Google CEO Sundar Pichai sung the praises of the technical achievements of Dragonfly during recent tests. He also justified Google’s position by saying: ‘We are compelled by our mission [to] provide information to everyone, and [China is] 20 percent of the world’s population.’

Pichai also made reference to Google’s stated position on China back in 2010, when it decided it would no longer censor its SERPs at google.cn essentially putting an end to its operations in the country (this is regarded as the preferable position among employees signing the latest open letter). He stated it was time to ‘re-evaluate that choice’ and when asked about employees who were critical of such changes in company policy remarked, ‘we don’t run the company by holding referendums.’

Wider responses

This letter arguably hasn’t yet captured as many headlines as the walk-out earlier this month. There are a number of likely reasons for this – the biggest being that Dragonfly isn’t at this point in time a tangible product which we can see. It is understandably hard to get the public and mainstream press behind a campaign criticising a product that doesn’t even have a launch date.

The ethical issues with Dragonfly are also less black and white than those raised with Project Maven and Rubingate earlier in the year. As one user asks in the comments under the letter: ‘If Google drops dragonfly, the Chinese netizens will end up using “Baidu”, is it better or worse for the netizens of China?’ Another user argues: ‘The debate here really is about sacrificing the western pride and values surrounding censorship in favour of enabling a billion people that are already censored to the freedoms of information the west has.’

These positions might be surprising to some of the Google employees who have signed the letter or left the company, but it is in-keeping with data published at The Drum showing that more than 72% of Weibo users (one of the country’s leading microblogging sites) would choose Google over Baidu et al. if it were to launch its new service. There is something to be said for the potential for Google to disrupt the monopoly Baidu has in the country, and to potentially deliver better quality results if not less censored ones.

The signees, of course are not alone either. They are joined by Amnesty International (and a number of other organisations) who are bolstering the argument that Dragonfly will endanger human rights defenders and journalists who might use it. The number of employees signing the letter is growing, and the number of organisations joining the opposition to Dragonfly looks to be growing too.

Many are now looking to a Congress hearing on December 5th where Pichai is set to defend Google against accusations of bias in its algorithm. It is likely that the subject of China and Dragonfly will rear its head there, too, and that Pichai will likely face his toughest round of questioning yet. As things stand, Google re-entering the Chinese search market is looking more and more likely to happen. We can reasonably expect that the closer we get to that time, the more people we will see join the voices of the signees of this latest letter and the more heated the debate will become.

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