Navah Hopkins recommends that SEOs in 2023 need to get ready for the dynamic Search Engine Results Page and be prepared to incorporate the two worlds of paid and organic even more in the future.
Navah says: “This may come as a shock as a PPC in an SEO conversation, but my number one tip is to get ready for a more dynamic SERP. Get ready for PPC and SEO to be collaborating far more than they already are.
When we think about how much PPC and SEO work together - that has escalated tremendously - but the biggest catalyst for that is how much the content for paid media is blending with organic. You can see this in shopping, you can see this in images, even in traditional search - you’re starting to see tests where organic takes the former right-hand side of the page, where it used to just be a stack.
Get ready for those complexities. I’m especially excited about this when it comes to local, because there are far more exciting local placements to be had, but even in shopping. Particularly video and images, as PPC now has the Performance Max campaign and you’re going to see a lot more folks producing video and image content. Get ready for those search result pages to really be a blend.
From a branding consistency standpoint, we want to make sure that we’re on point, we’re carrying the same message through, and we’re being mindful that we’re not stepping on branding toes as we communicate with our audience - either through paid or through organic.”
How often should SEO teams and PPC teams sit down and analyse the SERP together to devise a strategy for the optimum way forward?
“There is no hard and fast time that needs to be set. When I ran the paid arm of a tech SEO agency, we had a weekly meeting that was just our wild and crazy innovation time - where we chatted and collaborated. All client communication ran through everyone, and we were all on the same page, but that might not be tenable for some brands. It might be a quarterly conversation.
What matters is that you are building in automated workflows to get that data from the paid team into organic, and from the organic team into paid, so there’s a constant flow. Also, that you’re not growing complacent in analysing our search result pages. You really want to have a sense of, not just what is happening in your world, but what’s happening across the aisle.
One really powerful tool for this (especially if you haven’t run a paid campaign but you need to get a sense of things): Google Ads has a free Ad Preview and Diagnosis tool that will give you a sense of what those SERPs look like. If you don’t want to create SERPs in the wild, that actually count against your metrics, this is a really powerful way to get an idea of what’s happening on the pages. It can also give you a sense of what’s happening in the account and what might be causing the paid campaigns to not serve.
I definitely recommend, at minimum, a quarterly connect. You can connect every day, you can connect every week, the point is that you’re collaborating and automating as much data sharing as possible.”
What’s something that an SEO team can do to make their results suitable for a dynamic SERP, i.e., the results will be just as effective in multiple environments?
“There are two really big things. Number one is to remember that, from a paid standpoint, a lot of the good is going to borrow from organic. When we think about paid versus organic, one of the common misconceptions is that paid is for transactional and organic is for research. That’s just blatantly untrue. Organic is just as powerful, sometimes even more so, at driving that value. Make sure that when you’re looking at your creative (your landing pages, your title tags, etc.) you’re building in that transactional intent - and building for humans, not the machine.
One of my favourite stories about ‘average creative’ is that when the human mind comes up with average ads, and Google does their automated ads, then the automated ads perform better because Google gives more attention to the ads that it created. So, if you build average creative - if you build average experiences - you’re going to perform poorly. Whereas, if you take the time to really think about how you can drive more value, direct the user to the right spot, and engage them in a meaningful way - so they consent to be tracked in this first-party data world - you will do so much better.
The other really important thing is to be very mindful about what kind of domain structure you want and how you are setting yourself up. In a lot of cases, people will try to share domains, and then you fight and you’re stepping on each other’s toes. If you know that there is always going to be conflict, you might want to think about splitting things so that you have a subdomain versus a main domain; you have your main domain as your organic and subdomain for paid. That way, you can really control how users are engaging with you, and you can have that really beautiful tracking.
A lot of people, especially in eCommerce, will try to force all of the traffic to go to the main domain, and there are some instances where you do want to have that separate domain. If you have to share, make sure that you’re being mindful about tagging for out-of-stock, you’re being very upfront, and you’re building in enough leeway time for redirects - because redirects cause disapprovals. Be mindful of that. There’s nothing worse than paying money to drive traffic to a bad page, being in that top five organically, but your page is just bad. Be careful there.”
Does Google advocate AI-driven content for paid but hate it for organic?
“I had a really fantastic conversation about this with Cindy Krum. She is one of my absolute favourites in the mobile spaces, particularly mobile SEO. She was caught really unawares by how much close variants are a thing in paid. In looking at the most recent update in August of 2022 (being upfront with your creative on the SEO side - don’t try to cheat the user), AI content is not necessarily the answer. The answer is content that is good.
Google is inclined to believe that its tools are good. If you lean into Google’s automations - whether that’s the ads that it automatically creates, leveraging Smart Bidding, leveraging Smart Campaigns, PMax, etc. - they tend to get more screen time than a campaign or an ad, if both exist alongside each other.
If you just have things that the human fully owns, it’s a little bit easier for that to get screen time. You have to be mindful that when you use automation it can do a lot of good, save a tonne of time, and do amazing things, but the things that you specifically create might struggle to get screen time - even if your thing might be a smidge better.”
How do you measure the value of a dynamic SERP, where a result is going up and down, appearing in Local Packs, etc.? How do you keep track of things like click-through rates and traffic from the SERP?
“One of the things that I focus on is brand lift - whether I’m getting more brand lift off of Local Map Pack versus traditional listings, for example. That’s something I monitor quite a bit. The other thing that I look at very carefully is how much I am getting paid queries for traffic that I’m also getting from organic, and if the bounce rate is better, worse, or the same.
If I see that paid is weaving its way into organic SERPs, but the performance is poor, I will start to exclude some of those queries. I want to let organic shine - I don’t want to pay for that traffic. Conversely, if I see that paid is doing great, I might double down on paid so I can really own that SERP and still have that organic placement there for when I need it. Then, I will start to build out content so I can get those supplemental SERPs.
This includes video. I cannot overstate how important it is to build video into your strategy because there are more and more SERPs that require video. Particularly in eCommerce, but also on the local side. This goes for local service ads, Google Business Profile posts, etc. Video definitely improves engagement, so video is pretty powerful.”
Is it best for brands to have a YouTube channel and embed YouTube on their website, or have their own self-hosted video or video service?
“I am always Team YouTube - but also place on LinkedIn, and place on Facebook, and host yourself. The more domains where you have that content, the better. If your goal, though, is to improve Google placement - YouTube is one of Google’s toys. You will improve your standing by playing with Google’s toys. That’s just feeding the content into the system.
That said (and this is a shameless plug for Microsoft) a lot of Microsoft content can actually be pulled from Facebook. Especially if you love what you get from Google, but wish you had a little bit more control and it was a little more transparent on the data, Microsoft ads and Bing can be super powerful. The content that you get from those other hosted spots definitely feeds into Bing, so you don’t have to do as much work.
Get your video everywhere. If you care about Google, prioritise YouTube first, and make sure that you write out really documented descriptions, so they’re highly searchable. But equally, don’t be afraid to post that content on Facebook, LinkedIn, etc., so it will serve not just on Google but on Bing, and drive that much more traffic for you.”
How do you optimise for the user experience?
“Microsoft has a free tool called Clarity. It is one of my absolute favourite gems - every single digital marketer needs to get this installed on their site. It does not impact site speed in any meaningful way, and it will give you full transparency into user behaviour. From recordings to heat maps to comparisons to running A/B tests. It’s fantastic. I strongly recommend Microsoft Clarity. It has a lot of the same functionality as things like Hotjar, but it’s free.
Once you have that installed, you can see what the user journeys are. Do you find that people are clicking on things that they think are buttons, but they’re not? Do you find that people are getting stuck in a weird render and that explains why people are bouncing: because something is rendered poorly?
Obviously, things like site speed tests are great too. Also, be mindful of colours and the subconscious feelings that people have around different colours on the internet - and fonts. However, the most actionable advice I can give is to get Microsoft Clarity installed on your site and look at what your users are doing.”
What shouldn’t SEOs be doing in 2023? What’s seductive in terms of time, but ultimately counterproductive?
“One of the things I find very troubling when it comes to seasoned professionals is that we get very confident and comfortable in what we know. We start to lose the lustre of the industry because we get so comfortable. We have our game plans when it comes to algorithmic shifts, and we have the same cycles.
We need to test more, and we need to be willing to fail. We need to get out of our comfort zone and test one new thing a quarter so that we can make sure that we’re staying current and providing value to the brands that we serve.
One of the worst things that you can do is to assume that you know everything because then you will know nothing. There is definitely a pattern where we get to a certain level of excellence and then we plateau. The biggest challenge we all face, as incredibly talented digital marketers, is how we can make sure that we’re keeping our teeth, and that we’re remaining current.
Test one new thing every quarter. Come up with a wild and crazy idea and test it. If it fails, then you have data that shows it doesn’t work, and you can test something new. If it works, you just found something really amazing and incredible. These tests don’t have to just be in content or tech SEO. They can be in CRO, you can test something with your paid friends, you can test something with social, you can test something with in-store marketing, etc. Don’t lose your fearlessness. Don’t get complacent and risk-averse.”
Is there one resource, or one software platform, that you would recommend to assist with testing?
“I’ve said Microsoft Clarity a lot, and it is really fantastic, but this is going to be more of a holistic answer.
Find a testing accountability buddy. Find someone that you love and respect, that may be in a completely different company or industry, that you come at things the same way, you can share your tests and your ideas, and have that sounding board and check-in with. This isn’t your boss; this is your friend that you don’t want to let down.
Yes, there are tools out there like Clarity and Hotjar, you can look at Ad Preview and Diagnosis to review the SERPs, and you can look at Google Trends. There’s a plethora of tools, but a friend that will hold you accountable for running tests, that you love and respect - that’s priceless. That is the best tool I can suggest.”
Navah Hopkins is CEO of Navah Hopkins Consulting LLC and you can find her at navahhopkins.com
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