Google's Eating Your Lunch - Here's What To Do About It

Google's Eating Your Lunch - Here's What To Do About It

Google is taking over organic real estate as it continues towards greater profitability, but what can webmasters and brands do? The answer is refocusing on content marketing, argues Simon Penson.

Published 1st January 2016

Arhur Conan Doyle once said “any truth is better than indefinite doubt” and he makes a good point. It’s why I am writing this article as much as a quasiconfessional as a simple, actionable ‘how to’ guide. The reason is simple and I’m comfortable talking about it: Google is taking over organic real estate on its incessant march towards greater profitability and there’s little anyone can do about it. It’s the elephant in the room that SEO agencies don’t want to admit but we can see it playing out across almost every metric. Click-share percentages have been diminishing for years with. Studies from 2006 suggested position one would attain up to 42% of total clicks for any given search term. By 2010 that was down to 34%, in 2013 it was 33%. The latest study by Advanced Web Ranking put that figure at 31%. All of this data also predated Google’s most significant changes to date, with mobile UX and the introduction and roll out of Knowledge Graph. The result of these changes is clear to see in Google’s results, showing increasing profits from its core search ad business. Why? In short they are stealing more click share than ever for its ad products. We are also starting to see it play out in search visibility charts (see Figure 1).

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Figure 1: Search visibility drop for big brands

Here we can clearly see a market-wide change, with the big players all experiencing declines rather than the significant growth you would expect to see from ‘big brands’, given the recent rhetoric around Google wanting to support them.

Doom and gloom?

So, should we all pack up and go home? Never! The simple answer to all this is that the focus on link-building with a view simply to claim increased organic search market share was never a long-term strategy. The answer lies in a renewed focus on marketing once again, and I want now to explore how that plays out in the context of search and especially in the answer to the challenges around the perceived decreasing value from link building and ‘off page’ activity.

Holistic approach

The inherent value in link-building has always been broader than a simple conversation about ‘equity’ or ‘ink juice’. The technique of adding content to sites has only ever been a step away from PR, and with it the host of extra value associated with a more holistic approach. Maturing social and blog channels only add to the potential value of investing more time into off-page activity, and below I want to share the approach we have honed over several years of mistakes and iteration to maximize the reach and impact of a joined-up approach to content marketing.

STAGE ONE

Objectives

Ground zero for any successful campaign is objective setting. The process is still overlooked by many, but before you start you must define what success looks like. That must also come topped off with a healthy serving of realism. If your budget is a couple of thousand pounds for the entire piece, then you must be honest about what this may achieve, both as a standalone but also as part of the wider content strategy it sits within. You must also be clear about where the value is coming from. Is the piece a brand play or a performance-marketing effort? Metrics that may suit each of these are shown below.

Brand content metrics

  • Dwell time
  • Social sharing
  • Eyeballs reached
  • Sentiment 
  • Visits

Performance-marketing content metrics

  • Visits
  • Leads generated
  • Effect on organic search visibility
  • Citations and links earned

There are of course many others, but for a campaign to be measurable you should set clear and realistic KPIs against any of these relevant to the campaign. For instance, in the following fictional example for a sports betting brand, the KPIs are simple and we would always capture them in a format not too dissimilar to the below.

Idea: Interactive Euro ‘16 Wall Planner

Allows the user to input scores to predict the winners as well as recording results and getting access to lots of related content.

Main objective:

Obtain at last six highauthority placements and reach 100,000 new ‘eyeballs’.

KPIs

PR Placements: 6+ high profile site placements (notional Hitwise Traffic target of 100,000 for those pieces).

Social:

Organic – Reach – 75,000 Engagement – 5,000 | Paid - Reach – 250,000 Clicks – 20,000.

Visits and actions:

Doubling of traffic to the site during campaign period.

STAGE TWO

Audience understanding – who

Once these are set and agreed, the next phase is to centre thinking on the audience with whom we want to engage to achieve those objectives. For the example campaign, the target market was relatively broad but ended up being focused on males in the 18-34 age range. The insight from brand was that the ideal target demographic was at the younger end of that range and were employed with few financial commitments. The insight from internal qualitative and quantitative data helps paint a picture that will power the creation of Campaign Personas. I have written previously about how you can extract data from social to inform audience understanding1 , and while Facebook has changed Graph Search a lot since penning the piece, there is still value in following some of that process. Creating campaign or distributionspecific personas allows you to focus very clearly on creating the right content, angles and distribution plan to hit those key objectives. To do that, however, you must first dive into the data. The starting points for this are existing marketing insight, social data and/or output from Global Web Index (a paid-for tool), a SAAS offering that allows you to mine a vast swathe of Internet usage data. Many of the ad platforms you use buy this data to power their own targeting.

Where

From social we can extract data that enriches the picture of how much time they spend on any particular platform, but GWI aggregates that information and allows you to produce insight such as shown in Figure 2.

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Figure 2: Global Web Index data showing where prospects spend time

From this kind of data we can plan a detailed, focused and informed social distribution plan as part of the wider seeding strategy. What is also interesting to know is both the type of content this audience currently engages with and also how they believe your brand fits within that picture? Mistakes are often made where businesses understand what the people they want to attract consume without taking into account if the brand has the right to play in that specific space. The good news is you can easily gain insight into both of these areas.

What

The starting point for this insight piece is a dive into Google Display Planner. The free tool is designed to help media planners with display ad targeting but its data can also be used to understand which sites a select demographic may frequent. In Figure 3, you can see we have entered a couple of keyword interests as well as topic interest to form a target demographic.

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Figure 3: Google Display Planner interface

By clicking that Get Placements button, you enter the main dashboard where you can further refine everything, from age and gender to device use, and back again. A section I use quite a lot both for paid and PR targeting, as well as for initial audience insight, is the Individual Targeting Ideas > Placements > Sites drill-down. This gives you a list of sites visited by your ‘audience’ and this can be downloaded into a CSV file and sorted based on a number of metrics including traffic and popularity, etc. This then allows you to select a small number of sites that will most likely be visited by those thinking about your product or service for the next level of analysis.

Why

To understand what they are into you must now drill into what they are sharing most on those sites and the best tools for doing that are ahrefs’ Content Explorer and Buzzsumo. Taking a random site from the list we created we can now look at the most shared content on the site. For this specific task we will use the former and select the Top Content option within the main Site Explorer. In Figure 4, we can see the most shared and linked-to assets and start to understand the sort of content our audience wants to engage with.

STAGE THREE

Brand Activation

As already discussed however, not every brand can cover every subject, or has the ‘right’ to do so, and understanding this is key to success.

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Figure 4: Selecting Top Content option within Ahrefs Content Explorer

To get a fuller picture here, qualitative survey data is needed. To paint this picture we will again turn to Global Web Index data, but in the absence of such a tool a quick survey of existing visitors will give you this critical insight. Figure 5 shows the answer to what this target audience expects to see from the brand. This doesn’t mean specific content ideas, but rather the ‘type’ of content it has the authority to produce in the eyes of the audience. As we can see from Figure 5, the brand is looked to predominantly as a source of information and knowledge sharing. It is also clear, however, that they want to engage with the brand and expect relevant, timely content; an important point we will come back to later.

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Figure 5: Global Web Index survey of existing visitors’ content interests

So, we now understand a little more about our audience’s needs and we can use this alongside existing research data and customer knowledge to create personas specific to the campaign. In the example we are walking through, those personas could be as shown in Figure 6. Figure 6 is a simplified version, and we always use our persona template, (which you can download from our website2 ) to ensure we paint a thorough picture.

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Figure 6: Example personas created for campaign

Once this stage is set in stone, the next phase is to move onto the campaign idea itself.

Ideation – informing ideas with data

At Zazzle we use our much-publicized ideation process as the basis for this process and it is something I have written about previously for Moz.3 The principle is that you create left-brain structure around the creative process to ensure you can consistently output great ideas based on the objective. This process will always unearth great ideas but not always ideas that fly from a campaign perspective, and for a long time we really struggled to understand why. It was an anomaly that perplexed for several months, and it took a session digging into feedback from journalists at real scale, as well as work on the entire distribution process, to really figure it out. The answer boiled down to not asking the right questions of each concept at an early enough stage and it required a reversal in how we plan the campaign as a whole.

Testing ideas

The result was a new process that included a session at the end to ask questions of each and every idea recorded to ensure it is ‘fit for purpose.’

1. Why Now?

The first and most important question is, ‘why are we doing this now?’ We learned the hard way that an idea can be the best idea in the history of content marketing but if it hasn’t got a ‘news hook’ you may well be fighting a losing battle. Such an angle can be manufactured with a little forethought of course, so this doesn’t mean that only ‘newsy’ content will work. For instance, if we take a look at a piece on a subject such as finance, there is always a way to weave in a new study, political opinion or law change into the campaign to give it that critical ‘run it now’ message. Without it, a journalist or blogger - almost all of whom are motivated by news and trends - will have something more important to run before your piece and it may just get lost in the noise.

2. What’s the angle?

If your idea passes the first stage of questioning, then the next phase is to look at how you may break that news angle down into a series of angles, or exclusives. While having one really strong ‘story’ can be enough, it is much better to be able to present a number of different flavours on the same thing. That way, when pitching, your PR team will be able to approach a larger number of sites with that exclusive they all hunger for. Figure 7 shows an example of how this may work. In this case we have designed a series of exclusive angles for the example idea. The data-informed rationale behind it was as follows:

  • Why Now – ‘Because Euro 16 is coming up and we want to be first’
  • Why This? – ‘There is a huge existing conversation in this area and we can tap into it. The audience is also perfect.’
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Figure 7: Exclusive angles for example Euro 2016 campaign

As you’ll see there are a number of clearly different angles here supported by supplementary content. This process then actually shapes the way you build the assets themselves, ensuring that you maximize potential reach.

3. Who is it for?

Once you have established it has legs as a trending opportunity campaign, the next stage is to work hard on understanding who would be interested in it, and where you may find them online. As we now have several exclusive angles, we can go back to our personas and add an extra layer of detail to define which ones would be interested in each angle/ story. For instance, we know that the launch is most likely to resonate with our male persona and so we want to push that through sites such as Lad Bible, and social channels more attuned to that audience.

4. Where will we find them?

With our distribution audience defined, the next logical step is to build up a list of prospective media to approach with the exclusives. There are a myriad of tools and ways in which to do this, enough for a post in its own right, but while I can’t share every one, it is worth discussing the key tools we use daily to do this. You find these distinct groups in different places on the web and so grouping those people together helps you to then understand which sites they frequent. At this stage we often use Hitwise upstream and downstream traffic data to inform our decision making in a more datadriven way. The platform allows you to see where visitors go before and after visiting specific sites, widening your prospecting list.

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Figure 8: Example distribution plan

STAGE FOUR

Before we get into the influencer outreach piece, however, you must first create a site framework for your PR team to work from. This means creating a handful of example sites for each distribution persona, giving clear examples of where we may find them. The final list of agreed and approved prospects is then added into our Content Campaign Planner, which you can download for your own campaigns from our website.

 Building campaign plans

Below you can see a screen shot of the top sheet of the plan, which captures the overall timeline of each element. The tabs below it then contain all the info on:

  1. The paid social plan – targeting, spend, target CPC, etc.
  2. The PR plan – exclusive angles, the sell, content being used, etc.
  3. Prospect list – list of publications to be targeted
  4. Other – a tab to capture any other activity such as above-the-line activity if appropriate for the campaign.

Budget distribution

Before we get into the plan detail however, one important point we always cover off is budget breakdown. We use a famous ad campaign in the UK as the basis for this decision-making process and learn from one of the most successful going; the John Lewis Christmas campaign. It is a wildly successful TV-first creative with a tasty £7m budget. Critically, however, ‘only’ £1m of that is spent on creative, the rest is all distribution, and while it wins award after award for being an undeniable hit, that budget split ensured it was always going to be successful. All too often we get carried away with making the creative stand out when we should be much more focused on distribution planning. Exact breakdown will vary, but as a guide aim for a 70/30 split towards distribution.

STAGE FIVE

Find the right prospects

Distribution then is key and in the majority of cases your PR plan should deliver the biggest impact, if executed correctly. And that makes your approach to prospecting key to the overall success of the project. As we have already carried out a lot of work around target sites the next phase is to understand whom the right journalists or influencers are inside those businesses. At this stage there will also be further work on blogger influencer identification to ensure that the PR plan has the breadth of targets covering off as many eyeballs as possible. And the process couldn’t be easier, because it is simply about people:

  1. Take your list of sites selected as part of the audience-understanding project;
  2. Enter them into Gorkana and/or Linkedin to establish the best section editor, journalist or influencer to reach out to;
  3. Note name, email address, phone number and any previous communication notes into your planner.

Outside of this we have been trialling JournoRequest to bolster those efforts and take the legwork out of social monitoring (an effective but labour-intensive process for finding trending opportunities from the journalists themselves). The simple tool delivers targeted journalist content requests to your inbox and can help when it is part of an ‘always on’ monitoring process that feed in at the ideas stage.

The pre-pitch

A major mistake often made at this stageis to pick up the phone too early. It’s all too tempting to do that when so much work has led to this point but before you do it is important to pre-plan what you are going to say and to whom to ensure you maximize take-up and don’t confuse who you pitch which angles to. This is where the prospecting list from with our planner comes into its own. As shown by the example in Figure 9, it segments that process and makes it possible to scale the communication across multiple PR team members. It can often help PRs to write a script before making the call to ensure the sell is as strong as planned and we always tell the journalist that we will follow up with all the details on email. This not only creates an excuse to get their email address if we don’t already have it but also ensures it stays front of mind and we make it as easy as possible for them.

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Figure 9: Example organic sharing plan

STAGE SIX

Social

PR is, of course, only part of the story and it is important to plan around every other available channel opportunity to maximize reach. Social is the next consideration as it will support PR activity and we know from the initial audience piece how much time our target market spend on key platforms. Supporting the content by creating a regular organic sharing plan across social and other owned channels is the first logical step, but there is obviously much more you can do. The chart in Figure 10 is a great starting point when considering how wide you can, or could, spread the net. Which option you choose is dependent upon a) the topic of the campaign and b) what insight tells you about the audience you are targeting. In our example, the interactive wall planner would be hosted on the site and would then be pushed organically via all key social channels as well as being the subject of a significant PR campaign. Organically we ensure we can get the most out of the channel by, again, creating a number of editorial angles. In the case of the wall planner, this meant creating a number of quotes obtained from the survey results and memes and so on, to vary the messaging around the campaign but to ensure we kept it front of mind. It was on the paid media side we focused on most, however, as we saw the targeting in the space as the best way to capture the attention of our audience.

That meant focusing down on Instagram and Facebook with the majority of spend but also drip feeding it through Twitter to a really tightly controlled custom audience created from existing customer email data. And while targeting simply by interest sets will work we almost always find that the best option here is to add the Facebook Website Custom Audience Pixel to your site, and to then use that data to create a custom audience based on those already visiting. It can also be useful to test this against a custom audience created from ‘lookalikes’ based on uploading your email database (if you have one). If, however, the campaign were designed to attract a completely different audience, then we would look more towards modelling the targeting on interests and/or competitors.5 The same is true of Twitter too, although clicks here will be more expensive, while Instagram is still at a very early stage in its paid lifecycle which means that CPCs are relatively affordable, but are undoubtedly heading north as more advertisers jump on the platform. LinkedIn is the most expensive - and hardest to target - of all options, but where there is a high average lifetime value of a customer and your product is in the B2B space, it can work. There are, of course, several other considerations and you may also want to add some level such as native ad opportunities (think Taboola and Outbrain) and even paid search and/or display.

STAGE SEVEN

Retargeting

Display or retargeting can work very well as part of a wider, longer-term strategy to nurture the new visitor in the weeks after they land on your content. The idea here is to offer a really targeted piece of content or offer to follow up, and this can then feed the whole inbound marketing strategy.

Email

This is where email can come in also. As well as simply promoting the campaign through an editorial newsletter we can choose to personalize that message further, as we did with our retargeting. This only serves to strengthen the ‘relationship’ you have with that individual.

Fitting it within a wider strategy

There are many, many thousands more words to write around the topic of lifecycle marketing, but that is for another day. Before we finish, however, it is definitely worth touching on how that standalone campaign should sit within a wider content strategy. This is something I have always been incredibly passionate about as we see, time and time again, larger organizations throwing money at campaigns without really thinking about how they fit within the whole picture. The point is that a ‘big’ idea is only as good as the other content that surrounds it. Great ROI does not often flow from a singular piece but the overall approach to content strategy. Being able to consistently deliver is the difference between success and failure.

Free Download

If you want to have a go you can download the campaign planner I use day-to-day by visiting http://www.zazzlemedia.co.uk/ content-marketing-campaign-planner/

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