The Holy Grail Of Building Communities: Developing A Strong Sense of Community

Posted by RichardMillington

None of the technology released in the past five years has made us better at building communities.

It’s made it
easier to build communities, but it hasn’t made us better at building communities.

In fact, much of it has proved a costly distraction that has reduced the chances of us succeeding.

We say that with confidence. We’ve crunched, munched, and otherwise stared at numbers until our eyes bleed. Technology tweaks, barring a correction for an earlier mistake, rarely have a big long-term impact upon a community’s level of growth and activity.

We’ve had organizations invest millions (the record was .1m) on a new community platform to revive a fading community. That’s a lot of money to waste. That’s at the ‘
people getting fired’ level of money.

There is a far better approach to making our communities more successful. It doesn’t involve big technology overhauls or spammy marketing pushes.

It’s
creating a sense of community.

In this post, I’m going to outline why the sense of community is the missing piece of the community puzzle, the power of a strong sense of community, and how we can use social science to guide us.

The closest thing we have to a silver bullet

Sense of community is the idea that community is
experienced (or imagined).

The only people in a community are those that believe they are, not those that have completed a registration form 
in 30 seconds.

When people are really members of a community, they feel a strong psychological connection to that group. 
They sacrifice part of their own identity to accept, embrace, and then defend the group identity.

Sense of community has been shown to significantly 
increase activity, increase customer loyalty and buying behaviour, higher levels of brand advocacyincrease knowledge exchange, and reduced tendency to engage in negative behaviors.

The research here is about as conclusive as the existence of gravity. This can lead to only one conclusion, that we absolutely must be developing a sense of community among our members.

It’s not a silver bullet for community professionals, but it’s the closest thing we will ever get to a silver bullet.

The problem at the moment is most community professionals completely ignore this. They don’t try to create a strong sense of community among their members. Those that do don’t understand the principles of doing so. They hop from one idea to the next hoping each new idea will give them the sense of community explosion they crave.

Let’s change this. If we want to immediately be much better at building communities, let’s master the core principles of fostering a sense of community.

The four foundations for sense of community were highlighted in a
landmark article published David McMillan and David Chavis in 1986. These are:

1) Membership

2) Influence

3) Integration and fulfilment of needs

4) Shared emotional connections

Membership is the feeling that an individual has a right to belong in the community and can identify other members who also have the right to belong in a community. It comprises four attributes:

1) Boundaries

2) Emotional safety

3) Personal investment

4) A common symbol system.

You can intentionally add (or manipulate) each attribute to your community.

1) Boundaries

Boundaries separate insiders from outsiders. Boundaries are what separate your community from mainstream society. They allow members to be themselves and emotionally open to the group.

Boundaries can be real (think gated communities) or imagined (common experience). They can include rituals and traditions.
The higher the boundary, the stronger the sense of community.

The easiest way to increase the sense of community is to raise the boundary to being an accepted member of the community. This usually means developing a more narrow focus for the community. We can use
Ramit Sethi’s two-qualifier method here.

The best communities are those for {x} who do {y}. Where {x} and {y} are demographic, habits, or psychographic variables (who we are, what we do/have done/can do, and what we think/feel). See the table below:

You need to pick at least two. 

If you have an existing community and want a stronger community, simply add another boundary to the focus of the community.

This is why smaller communities typically have a stronger community (and more active membership) than the larger behemoths. If we look at
the different types of community, we see a LARGE number of communities with multiple qualifiers.


The
RockAndRoll tribe is a community for middle-aged (demographics) people who love rock and roll (psychographics). Not for those that love rock and roll, not for those middle-aged, but a very specific group that feel a strong sense of community with one another.

Below, 
BackPacking Light is for travellers (habits) who want to have the lightest possible backpacks (psychographics). This crowd completely geek out on shaving a few grams off their backpacks.

If you have an existing community, it’s quite easy to increase the sense of community by adding a common shared goal to the group and making this goal explicit.

Most communities, especially those created by organizations, are aimless. Ask 10 members what they want to achieve in the future or what they fear and add that as a boundary. E.g. ”
This is a community for HR professionals who want to embrace collaborative learning.

If that’s not possible, look at age, location, or experience factors. If say only people with five years’ experience in the field can join, everyone with 5+ years of experience will want to join. That’s powerful.

The community for
StudentDoctors, for example, might not look like much – but it hosts almost 15m posts from 419,224 members. That makes it more popular than almost any community for doctors. This group has common goals, experiences, and shared connections with one another.

Our own community,
CommunityGeek, only accepts community professionals with a strong track record in the social sciences. It’s the two qualifiers that ensure we feel a strong connection to one another.

We can also embrace a process known as
boundary maintenance in communities. This is a process by which boundaries are made more visible and reinforced by references to it and, most importantly, rituals and traditions.

In college groups, this used to be the reason behind hazing. Sadly, this isn’t something we can do in our communities. However, we have a ritual we make new members go through. We usually ask them to share their biggest mistakes.

This is a powerful discussion for three reasons. It’s usually funny and interesting to new members, most people can identify with the mistakes, and it makes people emotionally open to the group.

It’s also a discussion that almost anyone can participate in. Guide people towards these discussions as opposed to the generic and tedious
introduce yourself discussion. Make the introduction process fun and part of a ritual your community uses.

Alternatively, use an experience-based discussion. For example,
BaristaExchange, below, asks members to share how they learned to roast. You can adapt this to any community you’re working on:

How/where did you learn to {x}?

When did you become interested in {y}?



2) Emotional safety

Communities should be a place where we can talk about things that we can’t talk about anywhere else. Sometimes that is a
ferocious 40,000 word debate about whether to capitalize the I in Star Trek: iInto Darkness. Usually it’s about discussing the geekiest or more hardcore topics.

There aren’t many places you can discuss current detection an a Allegro ACS756 on an ATmega328. Luckily, the terrific
Element14 community (by Premier Farnell) is one of them.

You should push your community to discussing the things they can’t discuss anywhere else. It might be being frustrated at how difficult it is to lose weight with diabetes.

Communities should be a place where feel comfortable discussing the most difficult, geekiest, or most hardcore topics in our space. Very often, this means you need to initiate exactly these sorts of discussions.

Some communities, like
GAIA Online really want to discuss who would win in a fight between Kirk and Spock. This gives them a feeling of emotional safety within the group. It leads to strange sounding posts like these:

Make sure your community is the place to discuss the geekiest and most emotive topics in your sector.

3) Personal investment

Members want to work to feel they have
earned their place in the group. The more they have invested their time, resources, energy, emotions into the community they more they will continue to participate to avoid cognitive dissonance.

The more we have invested into the success of the community, the more we feel a connection to that group. The challenge is provide people easy, but meaningful, methods of investing in the group at the beginning. We
want to work to fit in and be accepted.

There are a few simple tactics you can apply here. One is to turn your community’s registration form into an application form. This is a nifty act of psychological ju-jitsu. The community becomes a place that you can join to a place that you might be able to join if you’re good enough. People that apply are far more likely to participate. We use this in
CommunityGeek.

Another simple tactic shown above is priming members to be in the participation mindset when they join.

We ask new members what they can offer the community when they join the group. This forces them to think what skills and experiences they have and how they could contribute them. Once they are approved (if they are accepted), they know what they can do. They know what investments they can make in the community. They also feel they have
earned their place in the community, as per above.

Don’t send your newcomers aimlessly into the group. Guide them towards positive actions they will convert them into regular members. Josh Elman’s
talk at the HabitSummit is worth watching here (skip to 20 minutes in).

The most highly converting action we know of are self-disclosure discussions. These are bonding-orientated self-discussions where we reveal information about our experiences, our thoughts/opinions on different topics, or information about who we are.

These discussions make people feel 
a stronger sense of connection to the group, especially a virtual group.

The BaristaExchange example above is a good idea here. Some types of discussions tend to work in all sectors. For example:

  • How did you first become interested in {topic}?
  • What was your biggest success in {topic}?
  • What was your worst mistake in {topic}?
  • Who do you most admire in {topic}?
  • Show off your best {topic-related thing}

Feel free to use your own. The goal is to guide a member to participate in this discussion within the first few minutes of registering for the community.

You need to indoctrinate them into the social aspect of the community. Guide members to participate in exactly these sorts of discussions via your post-registration page, confirmation/welcome e-mail, autoresponders, and in any personal messages to newcomers.

Update and rotate the discussion on a regular basis to keep it fresh.

Once someone participates they’re more likely to visit again to see the response to their contribution. They get caught up in the notification cycle of visiting, contributing, being notified of a response, and visiting again.

Via this process they also become socialized into the community. They get to know the other members.

The
community membership lifecycle is fickle; you need to offer members the opportunity to make the right investments at the right time. These investments gradually build up until a member becomes a regular participant in your community and feels a strong sense of connection to the group.

4) Common symbol system

A big problem facing branded communities is the community feels like an inauthentic marketing attempt to peddle whatever the organization is selling this month.

You get companies initiating conversations like this:

I don’t know “MB_Melissa”.

She might genuinely be looking forward to hearing what you think.

She might be on the edge of her seat, refreshing the page constantly in anticipation of the impending eruption of responses. But I doubt it.

I’ve never seen a member initiate a discussion using the phrase
“Product Discussion“. Those very words conjure negative connotations. The body of the content will make members cringe. The half-hearted and unnatural segue into a discussion feels repulsive.

Inauthentic symbols undermine any possible sense of community. The only way to overcome this is by bringing common symbol systems into the community.

You need to identify the words, images, ideas, and signs that have a unique meaning to community members and spread them liberally throughout your community.

This means mentioning them in content, naming the community after them (e.g. Element14 is quite literally a symbol here), and naming parts of the community after them. I don’t know much about the 
Coconut Monkeyhead Fun Club, but it’s very popular in Carnival’s terrific community.

Talk to members of the target audience and pay special attention to the expressions they use which have a unique meaning to them but not to outsiders. Then use these symbols throughout the community.

This also means replicating their tone of voice and language style. That can be difficult for many organizations to accept. This is why communities initiated by amateurs are far more successful than those initiated by people paid to develop them on behalf of organizations.

Action points:

  • Raise the boundary to being an accepted member of the community.
  • Encourage more personal investments of time, energy, emotions, and resources.
  • Introduce a ritual to the newcomer process.
  • Introduce shared symbols to the community content (and name)

People only participate in a community if they feel they can influence the community. Notice the word
feel in that sentence. Not everyone will be able to influence the community, but everyone needs to feel they could influence the community.

A big mistake of branded communities is they don’t offer members enough influence. We have efficacy needs to satisfy. To create this feeling we need to do two things.

First, we need to create plenty of opportunities for members to have influence.

Second, we need to amplify the influence that members do have.

Creating opportunities for influence

Communities should provide members keen to be more involved with a simple process of becoming more involved. If members want to write a regular column, help run areas of the site, interview experts, organize events, approve and welcome new members or lend their expertise, the community should have a place where they can do that.

You can also interview the key members in the community that aren’t putting themselves forward but would benefit from the influence they then receive.

Feature contributions. Prominently feature the contributions of members on the community platform. If a member makes a great contribution, mention it in a news article and encourage the member to write a column based upon the topic.

Write about your members. Use your content to write what members are doing. Talk about their milestones. It might be a work achievement, a topic-related success or even a lifestyle success. If a member is getting married or has a child, is climbing a mountain congratulate them. Profile members that are doing interesting things.

Promote existing expertise. Find members who are already experts in a niche topic within your field and invite them to have their own Ask Me areas in the community.

This both encourages the existing members to participate more, shows other members that they too could have their own
ask me area, and gives other members a reliable source of expertise on a particular topic.

Or, if you have high-profile people in your sector,
Reddit’s AMA (ask me anything) is an alternative approach that is usually entertaining and helps bond the community into a group.

Just
be careful that the interviewee fully understands the concept.

Once people have had an influence, amplify and showcase the influence to the rest of the community. Write case studies, add it to your
community’s epic community history, and mention it in your news posts and your newsletters. Shine as big a spotlight on the influence members have had as possible.

The needs of the community and the individual need to align in a manner that’s beneficial to both. Too many communities focus on pumping out endless content. This attracts a lot of people to read, but not to participate.

This doesn’t satisfy our needs to be a part of a group with a strong identity.

We want to join groups that make us better than we are today. We want to associate with the best, brightest, smartest, or otherwise most valued people in our sector. We want to feel they have the same-shared values as we do.

Status of being a member

Being an accepted member should be a status symbol that members can embrace. You need to raise the profile of the community outside of the platform. Make sure it gets featured in relevant media. Set goals for the community to achieve, and achieve them. The more you raise the profile of your community, the more members want to join.

People do not join communities they don’t feel will succeed. If your community looks quiet/empty, you need to remove the dead areas of the site set small milestones the community can achieve early on. Concentrate activity in as small an area as possible so the community
feels active.

In CommunityGeek, we have no forum categories at all. All the activity takes place on the landing page of the community. This makes the community feel very active very early on.

If your community is highly active, then show off this high level of activity. Highlight the quantity and quality of comments in the community. Make people they are participating in something they has momentum and is successful.

The frontpage of
FetLife, a community for people with alternative sexual lifestyles (NSFW), posts the numbers to all members on the landing page of community along with testimonials about the site.

Competence

You need to attract and retain talented and knowledgeable members.

People want to be in a community with the best and brightest. You need to attract them (appeal to their ego – weekly columns, interviews etc…) and keep them engaged in the community. You need to ensure your community is the best fountain of knowledge for your topic in your industry.

The best method of attracting key figures is to appeal to their ego. Interview them, write about them in news posts, feature their work, create community awards you can give them, or rank.

Alternatively, make the community exclusive and only for the best people in the topic. All the best people in the topic will want to join (but pretend they don’t care about it).

Shared values

Members have to feel that fellow members share the same values. One method of doing that is creating a constitution or purpose statement for the community (mission statement has negative connotations). This outlines why the community exists, what the community believes in, and what the community intends to achieve.

You can send this out to all new members when they join the community to begin indoctrinating them into the culture of the community.

Overcoming Bias, for example, posts the following statement:

This highlights to newcomers why this site exists and the purpose it serves its members. Your community should do the same. It’s usually best to base the community around one of
BJ Fogg’s motivations[xlv]. It should be based around pleasure, reducing pain, hope for a change in the world, reducing fear of something bad happening, social inclusion, or avoiding social exclusion.

The communities with the strongest sense of community oscillate at the same emotional frequency. They are happy, sad, and angry at the same things at the same time. Developing this shared emotional connection is difficult.

A shared emotional connection comprises of several elements. These include regular contact, good quality of interactions, shared experiences, shared history, and emotional openness.

Ensure regular contact

The more people interact, the more likely they will like each other. This is based upon the 
mere exposure effect. The more we are exposed to something, the more we like it. In the contact hypothesis, the more frequently we come into contact with other people, the more likely we are to like them.

Your members need to regularly interact with each other. Don’t wait for these interactions to happen,
proactively do things that drive these interactions.

Initiate regular weekly online discussions. Have live discussion topics around different issues, interview VIPs in your sector live, organize online and offline challenges or quizzes. Make sure your members are interacting with each other as frequently as possible.

Make the interactions meaningful

The interactions have to be meaningful. Exchanging information is fine, but limited. Introducing and highlighting (via sticky threads etc…) bonding-related or status-jockeying discussions will improve the quality to discussions.

Don’t try to overly control what members want to talk about or force members to talk about the topics you want to see more of. Let members lead the discussion and see where it goes. At the British Medical Journal’s
Doc2Doc community, we found most doctors didn’t want to spend their spare time sharing medical advice. In fact, they want to debate ethical dilemmas.

The most popular ever discussion was this one below;
was it wrong to use medical care to track down Osama Bin Laden?

This means you need to allow off-topic discussions. If members can only ever talk about the topic, they will never get to know each other personally. If they can’t personally get to know more about each other (or even remember previous contributions of members), they’ll never feel a strong sense of community with that group.

This is why it’s common for the off-topic discussions to be the most popular discussions in the majority of communities. People want to connect and get to know more about each other. Don’t shut these down.

Shared history

Ensure your community has an
epic and explicit history. Write it down. Talk about the major events and activities that have taken place within the community. Make sure all newcomers understand the narrative of the community their joining and their place within it.

Nostalgia is good here too. Subtle reminders to positive events which have taken place in the past reinforce the community identity.

Provoke emotional discussions

A final tactic is to introduce more emotionally provocative discussions. Members are likely to feel the same way about the same things at the same time.

If you can provoke those discussions, members are likely to share their feelings with one another about the topic.

If you begin introducing the above elements into your community, you should begin to notice members feeling more familiar, the tone and the language chances, and the overall sense of community begin to develop.

Measuring the sense of community

Measuring something as intangible as the sense of community is difficult. It doesn’t show up in Google Analytics. You have to survey a sample of members using the
sense of community index (SCI-2) developed by David Chavis at CommunityScience.com.

Don’t invite all members to compete the survey. This will lead to a
non-response bias. Those most likely to feel a strong sense of community are also those most likely to complete the survey. You need to segment your community in four groups and obtain a sample from each group which broadly represents the community.

We do this every quarter with some of our client communities. Here is an example:


This is an example of an average sense of community result for a former client.

However this only paints a broad picture of what happened in the community. The index allows us to identify which aspects of the sense of community are present and which need further development.

Here you see that the sense of community was initially low within this client’s community. We decided to tackle one aspect at a time and improve that. In this case, we chose influence. We decided to give members as many opportunities to feel influential within the group.

This means we sub-divided the community into smaller groups, we increased the number of interviews, we created opportunities for members to interview one another, and we began mentioning the names of members in every single news post we published in the community.

The level of influence rose immediately. Next we would tackle the shared emotional connection with positive (although not quite as impressive) effects. The power of this index is in identifying specifically what you can improve and then using the tactics above to improve it.

Do you want a community that lasts for 30 years?

Last year, I had the opportunity to meet John Coates. Most people haven’t heard of John; he’s the world’s first ever online community manager. He was the community manager of The WELL – the first online community. The WELL was founded in 1985.

When you listen to John speak, you realize that throughout the entire history of the community they have always had an incredibly strong sense of community among the group.

Developing a powerful sense of community is the most effective thing anyone managing a community can do to increase the level of growth, activity, and value over the community over the long-term.

Developing a sense of community will give you a community that lasts for years, maybe decades, instead of month.

Developing a sense of community is something each one of us is able to do among any group of people. Once you know and understand the elements above, it’s easy to use them to build any number of successful communities.

Good luck!

You can download half of my book, 
Buzzing Communities, for free here: http://course.feverbee.com/learn-more


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Zajonc, R.B. (1968). Attitudinal Effects Of Mere Exposure, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 9, No. 2. pp. 1 – 27

FeverBee (2010) The Basics of Increasing Interactions In Any Online Community <Available from: http://www.feverbee.com/2010/10/interactions.html> [Accessed April 9, 2014]

Doc2Doc (2014) Doc2Doc Homepage, British Medical Journal <available from: http://doc2doc.bmj.com/> [Accessed April 9, 2014]

Matthew Billingsley (2010) Was it wrong to use medical care as a reason to track down Bin Laden?, Doc2Doc, British Medical Journal <available from: http://doc2doc.bmj.com/forums/off-duty_news-media_wrong-use-medical-care-reason-trap-bin-laden_.0> [Accessed April 8, 2014]

CommunityScience (2014) Sense of Community Index 2 (SCI-2): Background, Instrument, and Scoring Instructions <available from: http://www.communityscience.com/pdfs/Sense%20of%20Community%20Index-2(SCI-2).pdf> [Accessed April 9, 2014]

CommunityScience (2014) Community Science Homepage <available from: http://www.communityscience.com> [Accessed April 9, 2014]

Wikipedia (2014) Non-response bias <Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-response_bias> [Accessed April 9, 2014]

The Well (2014) The Well homepage <Available from: http://www.well.com> [Accessed April 9, 2014]

Interested in learning more about the science behind community building? Rich Millington will be speaking on How to Use Social Science to Build Addictive Communities at this year’s MozCon, July 14-16 in Seattle. Register today!

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April 17, 2014  Tags: , , , , , , ,   Posted in: SEO / Traffic / Marketing  No Comments

Search Marketers Need to Evolve: Google is Rewarding Marketing Strategists

Posted by RonGarrett

In the last three years at Distilled, I have sold approximately million in marketing services to over 100 businesses. Initially, the vast majority of the business I sold was in search, but over time it has evolved to encompass different facets of marketing because we are now headed towards a hyper-competitive future.
In order for our industry to continue to thrive, we need to set ourselves apart. I wanted to share some of my experience in how I was able to overcome some of the challenges our search industry is facing when it comes to competing in this post-Hummingbird, post-Penguin, post-(not provided) environment. I’ve found that it is extremely important to:

  • Know what questions to ask when you have the opportunity to pitch at the executive level.
  • Know why you’re investing in specific marketing channels (i.e. if I invest $x,xxx in this channel for y number of months, I can anticipate z amount of traffic and revenue).
    • The goal is to invest first in the channels that you are most confident will generate the greatest increases in traffic and revenue in the short-term. Once you achieve this, your client has validation to request more budget internally to develop more long-term, less immediate-ROI driven activities. 

For many years now, search marketing has been a wide open market, with more business to go around than we have known what to do with. Brand after brand has recognized their need for help with search visibility, but they have not necessarily been clear on what that would entail. This led to the gold rush of search.

While many larger agencies were focused on media buying, creative, and television campaigns, the digital landscape was taking form with SEO, PPC, social, display, conversion rate optimization, email marketing, outreach (PR for the web), and much more. We as search marketers know there is a massive opportunity to be had as the digital landscape continues to mature, but whether it is ours for the taking remains to be seen.
In order for us to survive, search marketers need to become more well-versed into all digital marketing channels and gain a concrete understanding of when it is appropriate to invest into some of them.

The combination of secure search (not provided), Google’s continual innovation upon their ability to crawl and understand both the web and search behavior (with Hummingbird being the most recent example), their successful moves against scalable link building tactics (Penguin and manual penalties), and an overall increase in competition will push search marketers down either of these two paths:

  1. Become less and less white-hat over time, constantly looking for ways to justify the means for scalable tactics
  2. Jump ship to broader digital marketing roles and bury the SEO hats (example: Director of Marketing, Marketing Strategists, Brand Strategist, Content Strategist, Product Manager etc.) to grow revenue/traffic over time on different marketing channels.

Given the picture I have described above, I want to provide you with a framework with supporting examples for how you, the search marketer, can better get more of the resources you will need in order to pursue path 2. 

Search marketing challenges: a top-level look

Change is hard, especially at the pace required to be successful digital marketers, but Google, competing agencies, and the competition of brands on the web are forcing our hands as search marketers to pick our paths quickly and adapt.

Let’s start off by taking a closer look at some of the macro trends that add complexity to our jobs:

Google is a business

SEOs are dependent on a third-party platform that provides them with no proprietary information and gives them no advantage. The reality is that as Google’s ranking algorithm becomes increasingly complex, what exactly the right recommendation is for any given site becomes more ambiguous. Google simply isn’t in the business to support SEOs; they’re in the business to build the best technology in the world, so that they continue to attract the greatest number of users and generate the greatest amount of revenue. If SEOs continue to chase the algorithm, they’ll simply continue down a rabbit hole of becoming dependent on short-term tactics that at best, have no longevity, and at worst, damage the core of a business.

Source

Not provided

Not provided impacted how SEOs were able to directly attribute their work to organic growth. It has brought challenges not only to reporting, but also to how the previous work SEOs did was valued within an organization. With the advent of not provided, different marketing departments within an organization such as content, SEO, PR, and creatives can all justify that their work is what led to organic traffic growth. This makes it difficult for any organization to invest significant budget into SEO.

Source

Penguin

Penguin sent a very clear signal to SEOs that many of the link building tactics they were reliant on in the past were not only no longer effective but could even provide long-term damage to the bottom line of a business. Recovering from Penguin and any algorithmic update is uncertain, difficult, and extremely expensive. It also forced SEOs to step back and assess whether a tactic that might work today may also be detrimental to the site in the future.

Hummingbird

Although Hummingbird may not appear to have significantly impacted search results at an initial glance, the reality is that the underlying algorithm has changed to become much more adept at understanding semantics. Hummingbird, in combination with not provided, indicates that a continued emphasis on keyword-focused strings is not sustainable. Future SEO initiatives cannot be siloed into keyword research, keyword-focused landing pages, and building links to those keyword-focused pages; wider context-based approaches are required.

Google crawlers handling technical challenges

As Google implements more updates to its underlying search algorithm, it has also become capable of resolving (for better or for worse, depending on the circumstance) many of the technical issues that SEOs used to manually correct on their own, whether it be duplicate or keyword-stuffed meta titles/descriptions, mobile alternative issues, resolving 302 redirect issues that were meant to be 301s, etc. The reality is that barring very specific technical issues on a site (penalty, migrations, development of new processes/capabilities on the back-end), the “low-hanging fruit” of on-page SEO will shrivel.

Actionable ways for search marketers to get more buy-in at the beginning to execute a broader marketing strategy

The only way to execute the broader marketing tactics that will benefit search (e.g. dedicating resources to creating content, improve the UX of the site) is to say the right things to the right people. In this era of not provided and Penguin/Panda/Hummingbird, we need to be involved in much more overarching marketing goals/objectives in order to stay relevant, have budget, and become a priority for the organization.

1. Get in front of key stakeholders. Then, ask the right questions. 

There are several key stakeholders who can impact the work you do, the budget you get, the visibility your work gets, and the amount of internal resources you can utilize. They tend to be the CMO, Director of Marketing, and VP of Sales (especially if marketing is a purpose of lead-gen). The biggest challenge most individuals have when they are granted an opportunity to pitch to the executive team is how to ask the right questions that will demonstrate their expertise in not just a specific marketing channel, but how your marketing efforts will positively impact a business’s bottom line.

Image source

For example, below are the type of questions I ask executives based on their specific position within the organization.

CEO: High-level business picture

  • Is this the only brand you own? Do you have a group of brands you own and operate? Does this brand we are discussing today have a parent company?
  • How many years has the company been in business?
  • Is the company a privately held company or publicly traded company?
  • What is your business’s unique value proposition?
  • Who are your major competitors in this space?
  • What are the company’s most important business milestones/goals over the next 12-24 months?
  • What is the business’s 10-20 year goal?

CFO: High-level financial picture

  • Is the company bootstrapped (self-funded) or loan/venture funded? If loan/venture funded, what implications will this have on our engagement or your milestones?
  • Is the company profitable?
  • How long has the company been profitable?
  • What is the company’s annual revenue? (This is easy to find if the company is public.)
  • What has the company’s year-over-year growth been for the past 3-5 years?
  • What are the company’s most important financial milestones/goals over the next 12-24 months?

VP of Sales, CMO/VP of Marketing: High-level growth picture

  • Do you have a sense of the Total Addressable Market (TAM) of your businesses category / niche? (How much revenue opportunity is there in your space?)
  • How much of the TAM would you say your company currently controls?
  • What was the initial growth strategy of the business when the company first started, and why?
  • How has your growth strategy evolved over time?
  • What do you see as the major factors that contributed to your growth (when you first started and now)?
  • Do you foresee those same factors continuing to play a role over the next 3-5 years? The next 5-10 years?
  • What internal teams or external agencies played a huge role in that growth or success?
  • How long has your company been gaining market share? By how much YoY? If losing, by how much YoY?
  • What have been your most effective channels for growth to date?
  • What have been your least effective channels for growth to date?

Director of Marketing: A more granular look into growth strategy/plans

  • How does your company set goals and strategy around growth, expansion, and optimization of your business? Who does that? How often do you revisit this? Who sits in on this conversation from the marketing department?
  • How does your business determine how much money each year you invest into the growth and expansion of the company?
  • How much did the marketing department invest into growth last year (including all of the channels)?
  • Has the amount you’ve invested into growth over the years fluctuated a lot or stayed pretty consistent? Why?
  • How much of your marketing budget do you invest into offline vs. digital per year?
  • Has the amount of money you’ve invested into digital fluctuated much year to year? Where do you attribute most of the fluctuation in spend to?
  • How much of your digital marketing budget went to paid channels vs. other?
  • Have you already or do you have plans to acquire companies to support your growth?

2. Convert bad project requests into great briefs

Here are the most typical reasons I have seen companies offer when requesting services from a search marketing agency:

  1. We want growth of traffic/conversions through our site.
  2. We are about to make a big change and we don’t want to lose traffic.
  3. We need to recover our traffic.
  4. We need your help to debug this problem we are experiencing.
  5. We would like you to do some research and help us make a decision (provide your expert opinion).
  6. We need your help to track, measure, and report on the impact of our efforts.

Clients often ask for the wrong things for a number of reasons:

  • They don’t have enough first-hand experience with growing search visibility, or they have unrealistic expectations on how long this process would take for how much budget.
  • They focus too much on the industry jargon they’ve read over the years. Or,
  • They just do not have a deep enough understanding of what the business goals and objectives should be and why.

There is nothing wrong with this, but we should not let it stop us from focusing on the things that matter most. Business equates to revenue, and revenue increases lead to more confidence in your skill set.

For a specific example, if a client comes to you and asks you for links, reframe the conversation by asking them why they want links. Most clients ask for links for the following reasons:

  • Links are important to increase the domain authority of the site and the probability you can rank for highly competitive keywords, which increases the organic traffic that will go to my site.
  • Links are quantifiable/measurable (I’ve gotten x number of links in y amount of time for z price).

In this sample scenario, I would respond by saying links are an output you receive when you create great content. In order to deliver great content, you need to first start by understanding the data you have on-hand (via their CRM, customer surveys, their analytics, and their existing internal resources). The first step is for us to gain access to all this information in order for us to assess the potential opportunity this channel has on your business.


It is critical that you train your clients to talk in terms of business goals, objectives, and KPIs
because that is the only opportunity in which they will allow you to determine the marketing strategy, rather than you becoming their outsourced vendor for a variety of different marketing activities like link building.

3. Research and know which channels to invest in

Once you have a concrete understanding of the business’s goals, objectives, and KPIs, it’s the search marketer’s job to determine which specific marketing channels are the ones the client should be investing in. Is the goal to generate the quickest possible ROI in the least amount of time? CRO. Is the goal to understand product-market fit? Then perhaps paid search is the best medium. Is the goal to build a community and brand awareness? Creative content + PR + social media.

It’s crucial to prioritize the specific marketing channels and activities that are most aligned with the company’s business goals, while simultaneously also being the channels you feel the most confident will deliver the highest likelihood of ROI for your client. The reason is because whenever a client first signs with an agency, the first 6 months are the trial period. The client has taken a risk by partnering with an agency and they want to ensure that it’s a good fit, that you follow your word, and that you’re able to deliver results. Essentially, they’re determining whether you are a good long-term partner for them.

Once you’re able to deliver meaningful results that are aligned with the client business goals and objectives, you’ve passed the trial period. After that, the client is much more likely to opt for longer-term, higher-budget activities because you’ve successfully demonstrated your knowledge and expertise in marketing. Bigger budgets often times mean larger access to resources, which again significantly increases the chances that you will be building a long-term, meaningful relationship with your client.

Conclusion

Clients want you to succeed in helping them achieve their marketing goals, but they will be selective about when and how they spend their time getting you what you need. We, as search marketers, need to get better at identifying the channels that will increase the probability of success during the first 6 months of the campaign, while demonstrating our ability to think critically by asking the right type of questions and gaining the important knowledge that will give us what we need to be successful at the beginning of the project.

Fight the urge to think that if I see success you will be rewarded later on. Although that sentiment is mostly true, if you don’t get enough of what you need to be successful in the first half of the project, you may not get to a point where you can create enough value to justify them keeping you around for follow up work. For instance, if you agree to build links for a client, it’s highly likely you’ll always be perceived as a link building vendor to the client. Great search marketers don’t just plan to be successful, they plan for all of the scenarios that could keep them becoming successful and structure in solutions to position them for an optimal outcome. This means we need to build a concrete understanding of how different marketing channels integrate with search and understanding when it is appropriate to invest into which channels. We can no longer operate in solely a search silo; ironically, in order for us to survive the future of search, we need to broaden our scope and play a much more strategic digital marketing role for us to generate returns in search for clients. 

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April 16, 2014  Tags: , , , , , , ,   Posted in: SEO / Traffic / Marketing  No Comments

10 Smart Tips to Leverage Google+ for Increased Web Traffic

Posted by Cyrus-Shepard

This time, it’s about engaged traffic.

While checking our stats here at Moz, we noticed that while visits sent to us from Facebook keep decreasing, traffic from Google+ has started to appear significant by comparison.

While not everyone has an audience active on Google+, the number of people who interact socially with any Google products on a monthly basis now reportedly exceeds 500 million.

What’s different about Google+ is that beyond the direct social visits as seen above, Google offers marketers the opportunity to interact with visitors through many more touch points, including YouTube and directly in search results. This means that for visitors who engage with you through Google+, the potential traffic channels multiply

For this method to work, it requires that your visitors actually engage

Facebook and Twitter experts know this and perfected their engagement craft over several years. Engagment with Google+ means a new set tactics and best practices. These are areas that I consistently see otherwise expert brands fall short and miss easy opportunities.

Let’s discuss supercharging our Google+ engagement.

1. Headlines, every time

The more users notice your Google+ posts, the more likely they are to engage. The challenge is to stand out in a sea of thousands of posts. 

First things first. Unlike other social platforms, Google+ posts act more like mini blog posts, and every post needs a headline. Not only does adding a header help your post stand out, but Google uses the first words of your post in two different ways:

  1. They incorporates your headline into the title tag of the post
  2. The headline is typically what displays in Google search results

Adding the right headline can help your post stand out in search results, and can greatly influence the number of people who both notice and click through to your content.

Use a headline, every time.

2. Formatting for attention

Easily break up your long blocks of text with formatting to make your posts simpler to read and skim. This allows you to communicate more clearly and makes your text more accessible.

In addition to adding
bold to your headline, copy and paste the formatting cheats below to help compose a post that stands out from the rest.

G+ Formatting Cheats:

*This is a Bolded Headline*

_
Italic_

*Bold*
-Strikethrough- 

Mix and match styles: _*Bolded Italic*_

Numbered List:

 
*1.* Point One

 
*2.* Point Two

 
*3.* Point Three

Bulleted List:

 
• Point 1

 
• Point 2

 
• Point 3

Link:

http://example.com

#hashtag1 #hashtag2

How it Looks:

3. Use your words

Google+ is a both a visual and a text medium, so make them both count!

Don’t be afraid of writing
longer posts. Instead of simply posting a link to your latest blog posts and hoping for the best, add a summary of your important points. Explain why this is important. Give people additional context as to why they should click and share.

Personal example of Google+ posts where I
embraced the long-form:

The few minutes it takes to jot down your thoughts could result in multiple reshares and thousands of additional eyeballs on your content.

4. Use your images too

The vast majority of top posts on Google+ use images. In fact, the most popular post I’ve personally ever shared was a simple animated GIF.

For increased shareability, it’s usually best to upload your own photo.

By default, Google+ tries to include an image for any URL that you share. Unless you define the right Open Graph images and the proper social meta tags, the images are often not ideal, or are sized wrong.

When you upload your own image, the image links to the full-size version, not the URL you want to share. In this case, don’t forget to include a link to the URL in the text.

5. Smarter sharing > targeted

Most people set their post to “public,” thinking this gives them maximum exposure. In fact, there is a much more effective way to gain exposure to your top content, as long as you don’t abuse it.

By also adding your circles and select individuals to your share settings, this triggers a notification for those users that you’ve shared a post directly with them. 

Used smartly, these notifications can greatly influence the amount of activity on a post.

Warning: When targeted sharing is used too often, it turns spammy.  Be careful what you share. 

Only choose your very best, most important posts.

Amazingly, Google+ also allows you to notify people in your circles via email when you share. In order for this to work, the individuals must have their email notifications set up correctly. Be extra careful with this function, as it can turn people off fast!

6. The mighty, mighty #hashtag

Twitter and Facebook have made us accustomed to hashtags, but Google+ uses them in entirely different ways to organize and recommend content.

Google uses hashtags and semantic analysis to form relationships between topics. For example, consider this hashtag search for #linkbuilding. Notice the related topics Google associates with link building:

These associations aren’t random. In fact, Mark Traphagen demonstrates how you can “teach” Google these relationships by tagging your own posts.

By default, Google often adds hashtags automatically to any post with sufficient text. Best practice is to add your own relevant hashtags at the end or within the body of each post.

7. Find the followed links

The followed link on Google+ has gone the way of the dodo.

When Google+ was born, it was a bonanza for links, and seen as an SEO paradise. Since that time, Google has replaced most equity passing followed links with nofollow, which pass no link equity. This includes profile links, “contributor to,” and shared URLs.

There is one exception. Public +1′s remain followed.

For now, whenever a visitor +1s your content without sharing it to their stream, this results in a followed link as long as the visitor has +1′s set to “public.”

This could be an oversight, or Google could remove these followed links soon.

While the value of +1s for SEO has been debated again and again, this may be the last remaining place that a +1 may actually pass link equity.

8. Leverage Google+ comments

I’m sort of in love with the Google+ commenting system. 

Much like Facebook’s popular commenting plugin, you can embed Google+ comments on your own blog. What makes this so powerful is when visitors leave a comment, they are given the option of sharing your post to their own Google+ followers. 

This can greatly increase engagement among these users and their followers.

Officially, Google+ comments are only supported for Google’s own Blogger platform. Fortuneatly, clever folks have devised a number of plugins and solutions for WordPress, Drupal, and more.

9. +Post Ads: the future of social engagement?

Google’s +Post Ads offer an interesting premise: take your most successful Google+ posts and turn them into ads that show all over Google’s massive display network.

This exposes your posts to more people who otherwise would not have interacted with your brand on Google+ alone. This interaction drives more social sharing, and the sharing can continue after the paid promotion is over.

For example, if you are a car manufacturer, you could target your Google+ posts to appear on auto parts websites.

While still early in adoption, +Post Ads present a unique opportunity for businesses to attract customers at different stages of the buying cycle, and then keep those customers engaged through social media.

While the jury is still out if +Post Ads will be effective, it will likely take some time for marketers to learn how to effectively leverage this channel.

10. Interactive posts

Interactive Google+ posts allow you to perfectly customize how your content is shared, but they also allow you to prompt your social audience to take a specific action.

Google maintains an impressive list of actions which you can automatically embed into your post. These include:

  • Watch a video
  • Sign up for a newsletter
  • Reserve a table at a restaurant
  • Open an app
  • …and about 100 more.

Mike Arnesen wrote up a good overview of getting started with Interactive posts, or you can find more at the Google Developers blog.


Building your influence 

Google+ isn’t so much a social media platform like Twitter and Facebook, but an identity platform that works with Google to connect across all our different devices and web services.

This means that while sites like Facebook and Twitter can still deliver traffic to your website, Google+ is so integrated across so many platforms that it has many more places to touch potential visitors. Business that build up their audience base today potentially position themselves to collect bigger rewards in the future.

Do you receive traffic from Google+? Is it a part of your social strategy? Let us know in the comments below.

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April 15, 2014  Tags: , , , , ,   Posted in: SEO / Traffic / Marketing  No Comments

Online Content Collective, April 3, 2014 – SEO

Online Content Collective, April 3, 2014 – SEO is a post by SEO expert Shilah Anderson. For information about our SEO services or more great SEO tips and tricks, visit the SEO.com blog.

SEO

This week’s online content collective focuses on building on the conversation and fixing the misperceptions of what SEO is, where it’s going, and how we can keep it alive in the minds of our clients and our employees. Here is my favorite post of the day. It holds nothing back and saves nothing for later.

SEO Is Stone Soup

Don’t make me say it…Ok, SEO isn’t SEO anymore…or is it? In this very well written, witty, and somewhat opinionated post, by AJ Kohn from the “Blind Five Year Old” the notion that it doesn’t really matter what we call it, emerges from an old folk story teaching good persuasion tactics to the locals.

Somehow SEO changed right from under our feet. It’s funny because we all saw it coming but for some reason, no one let the clients know. As one would imagine, this created a rather large problem in both retaining clients as well as gaining new ones.  What are we selling? Spam (not out of a can)? A large link portfolio bound to get you a manual action?? On-page optimization??? I’m not the first to say that these questions shouldn’t even be asked anymore. SEO has changed but it is still a need that needs fulfilling. There remains a large opportunity to answer the call of those in need of “more traffic”. Here’s the run down:

  • SEO is “stone soup” – there are so many options and opportunities to build a successful digital marketing campaign.
  • Use the term SEO to your advantage – objections are just the next opportunity for a solution.
  • Predictability can play in your favor – knowing what is coming, only makes for a stronger defense.
  • Become a marketer – SEO is now like digital marketing, with a twist. Face it.

Throwing in the Towel on SEO

Speaking of understanding what SEO is and how your organization can benefit from it…this internally battled spiel by Will Reynolds from SEER tells a tale of a rather large disconnect in the SEO world. As we already know SEO is still alive and thriving, especially in the minds of businesses in need of growing traffic, but is it dying in the mind of the SEOs themselves?

Think about it, Panda hit us all pretty hard. Higher ups walked the plank, clients jumped ship, and the cogs making the machine run (the SEOs themselves) were left to pick up the pieces. Things got a little scrambled and there was a gap between understanding the importance of SEO (and the language around it) and the movement toward providing more.

This piece gives one side of the story when sitting across from an interviewee, who, seems like a perfect match but is inquiring about another position due to one big misunderstanding.  I think this is important information though because (since a lot of SEO companies are experiencing turnaround) we don’t want to let these perfect fits slip through the cracks just because SEO is getting a bad rap. If nothing else, it teaches us that we need to take charge and control the discourse to our advantage not only with potential clients but with potential employees.

5 Ways to Prove to the Client that the Traffic Will Come

Remembering we are (still) the experts in SEO can make all the difference. James Harrison of Clear Peach Marketing puts us in our place when he says:

“Yes, SEO is an investment; however, showing them that they are investing in your services and skills requires a little more than just performing SEO services…the client can’t really expect major increases in traffic until they reach the first page of the SERPs.”

Patience isn’t a virtue we can afford to go without.  And unfortunately, we will have to teach our clients to obtain these same qualities somehow. Success never happens overnight and that also goes for those who have succeeded once, and then backpedaled. Being good at what we do now more than ever is calling for REALLY good communication skills. Good communication skills also entail utilizing the resources in front of you. In educating your clients on why you’re now focusing on quality content and social media, instead of just plain old link building and keyword research, be sure to use industry icons and their endless accounts of proven strategy as examples of success.

The run down here:

  • Keyword improvements and rankings – Let them see the line move up a bit (even if it isn’t traffic)
  • Keeping track of efforts – Make sure your time is compensated and valued on both ends
  • Reporting, reporting, reporting – They want to see results. In changing our strategies, we can’t break away from the older more solid efforts that keep the client satisfied till your next call.
  • Educate your clients – Make sure they are on the same page. Panda kicked everyone’s butts, not just the SEOs. Your clients need to know what they are in for and why you are the best for the job.

1 Spend Search Advice – 5 Questions for Lowe Campbell Ewald’s SEO Manager

And this last one is just for those interested in a thriving organizational culture. Coming in on the top of my list for good tips on how to implement strategy and planning, is by Amy Gesenhues, with MarketingLand.

I am a huge advocate in organizations who value the input and insight of their employees. In fact, that is a big reason why I’m looking forward to my future here at SEO.com. This piece gives the perspective of one of my peers (Hillary Glaser- Lowe Campbell Ewald) and her understanding of what role importance and whole involvement from top to bottom can do for a campaign. She actually provides a fresh outlook on “campaigning” and the rhetoric that surrounds terms like these with alternative terminology like goal focused optimization.

She sets the sights high and delves into getting her hands dirty and becoming more than just a client but a partner, a teacher, and a consultant. These are all aspects of SEO that need to be implemented on a daily basis. Our client relationships need to be cultivated and nurtured; trust absolutely has to thrive here for these to become long term investments.

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Online Content Collective, April 3, 2014 – SEO is a post by SEO expert Shilah Anderson. For information about our SEO services or more great SEO tips and tricks, visit the SEO.com blog.


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April 15, 2014  Tags: , , , ,   Posted in: SEO / Traffic / Marketing  No Comments

Getting hreflang Right: Examples and Insights for International SEO

Posted by DaveSottimano

Most of us will remember the days in SEO where geotargeting was nearly impossible, and we all crawled to the shining example of Apple.com as our means of showcasing what the correct search display behaviour should be. Well, most of us weren’t Apple, and it was extremely difficult to determine how to structure your site to make it work for international search. Hreflang has been a blessing to the SEO industry, even though it’s had a bit of a troubled past. 

There’s been much confusion as to how hreflang annotations should work, what is the correct display behaviour, and if the implementation requires additional configuration such as the canonical tag or WMT targeting.

This isn’t a beginner- or even intermediate-level post, so if you don’t have a solid feel for hreflang already, I’d recommend reading through 
Google’s documentation before diving in.

In today’s post we’re going to cover the following:

  1. How to check international SERPs the right way
  2. What should hreflang do and not do
  3. Examples of hreflang behaviour
  4. Important tools for the serious international SEO
  5. Tips from my many screw-ups, and successes 


Section 1: How to check international SERPs the right way

I’ve said this once, and I’ll say it again: Know your Google search parameters better than your mother. Half the time we think something isn’t working, we don’t actually know how to check. Shy of having an IP in every country from which you want to check Google results, here is the next best thing:

For example, if want to mimic a Spanish user in the US:

http://www.google.com/search?hl=es&gl=us&pws=0&q=seo

Or if I want to impersonate an Australian user:

http://www.google.com.au/search?hl=en&gl=au&pws=0&q=seo

If you want a full list of language/country codes that Google uses, please visit the 
Google CCTLDs language and reference sheet. If you want the Google docs version go here, or if you want a tool to do this for you, check out Isearchfrom.

Section 2: What should hreflang do and not do


hreflang will not
:

  1. Replace geo-ranking factors: Just because you rank #1 in the US for “blue widgets” does not mean that your UK “blue widgets page” will rank #1 in the UK.
  2. Fix duplicate content issues: If you have duplicate copies of your pages targeting the same keywords, it does not mean that the right country version will rank because of hreflang. The same rules apply to general SEO; when there are exact or nearly exact duplicates, Google will choose which page to rank. Typically, we see the version with more authority ranking (authority can be determined loosely by #links, TBPR, DA, PA, etc.).

You might be wondering about duplicate content and Panda, which is a valid concern. I personally haven’t seen or heard of any site with international duplicate content being affected by Panda updates. The sites I have analyzed always had some sort of international SEO configuration, however, whether it was WMT targeting or hreflang annotations.


Hreflang will:

  1. Help the right country/language version of your cross-annotated pages appear in the correct versions of *google.*

Section 3: Examples of hreflang behaviour

Case 1: CNN.com

Configuration:

<head> hreflang, 302 redirect on homepage, and subdomain configuration

Sample of hreflang annotations:

<link href="http://www.cnn.com" hreflang="en-us" rel="alternate" title="CNN" type="text/html"/>
<link href="http://mexico.cnn.com" hreflang="es" rel="alternate" title="CNN Mexico" type="text/html"/>

What should happen according to the targeting?

Cnn.com is seen in EN-US and any Spanish queries should display Mexico.cnn.com

What actually happens?

Take a look at the US results for yourself

Take a look at the US results for yourself.

Take a look at the Mexican results for yourself.

Let’s try to explain this behaviour:

  • Cnn.com actually 302′s to edition.cnn.com; this is regular SEO behaviour that causes the origin page URL to display in search resuls and the content comes from the redirect. 
  • Mexico.cnn.com is not the right answer for “es” (Spanish language) IMO, because it’s the Mexican version and should be annotated as “mx-es” ;) 
  • Since cnnespanol.cnn.com exists and seems to have worldwide news, I would use this as the “ES” version.
  • Cross hreflang annotations are missing, so the whole thing isn’t going to work anyways ……

Case 2: play.google.com

Configuration:

<head> hreflang, language/country variations and duplicate content

Sample of hreflang annotations:

*FYI - I’ve shortened this for simplicity

x-default - 
https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com….

en_GB - 
https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com….

en - href 
https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com….

What should happen according to the targeting?

X-default for non annotated versions, GB page should display in Google.co.uk

What actually happens?

Take a look at the results for yourself

Take a look at the UK results for yourself

Let’s try to explain this behaviour:

  • One thing you may not notice is that the EN, X default, and GB version are almost entirely duplicate (around 99%). Which one should the algorithm choose? This is a good example of hreflang not handling dupe content.
  • The GB version doesn’t display in UK search results, and the rankings are not the same (US ranking is higher than UK on average). The hreflang annotation is using the underscore rather than the standard hyphen (EN_GB versus EN-GB)
  • They use a self-referencing canonical, which, contrary to some beliefs, has absolutely no effect on the targeting

Case 3: Musicradar.com

Configuration:

<head> hreflang, subdomain & cctld, country targeting and x-default

Sample of hreflang annotations:

<link rel="alternate" hreflang="en-gb" href="http://www.musicradar.com/" />
	
<link rel="alternate" hreflang="x-default" href="http://www.musicradar.com/" />
	
<link rel="alternate" hreflang="en-us" href="http://www.musicradar.com/us/" />
	
<link rel="alternate" hreflang="fr-fr" href="http://www.musicradar.com/fr/" />
	

What should happen according to the targeting?

Musicradar.com should appear in GB and all other queries other than EN-US and FR-FR where each respective subfolder should appear.

What actually happens?


See the Canadian results for yourself

See the American results for yourself

See the French results for yourself

Let’s try to explain this behaviour:

  • Perfect example of perfect implementation – you guys & gals working with Musicradar are pretty great. You get the honorary #likeaboss vote from me :)
  • One thing to notice is that they double list the EN-GB page also as the X-default
  • The English sitelink in the French results is pretty weird, but I think this is the perfect situation to escalate to Google as their implementation is correct as far as I can tell.

Case 4: Ridgid.com

Configuration:

XML sitemaps hreflang, subfolders, rel canonical and dupe content

Sample of hreflang annotations:

<loc>https://www.ridgid.com/</loc>
			
<xhtml:linkhreflang="en-US" href="https://www.ridgid.com/" rel="alternate"/>
			
<xhtml:link hreflang="en-CA" href="https://www.ridgid.com/ca/en" rel="alternate"/>
			
<xhtml:link hreflang="en-PH" href="https://www.ridgid.com/ph/en" rel="alternate" />
			

What should happen according to the targeting?

Ridgid.com should appear in the US, ridgid.com/ca/en should appear for Canadian – English queries (google.ca) and ridgid.com/ph/en should appear in Google Philippines for English queries.

What actually happens?

Check out the Canadian results for yourself

Check out the Philippines results for yourself

Let’s try to explain this behaviour:

  • All 3 homepages are almost exactly identical, hence duplicate content
  • The Canadian version contains <link rel=”canonical” href=”https://www.ridgid.com/” /> – that means it’s being canonicalized to the main US version
  • The Philippines version does not contain a canonical tag
  • Google is choosing which is the right duplicate version to show, unless there is a canonical instruction

Section 4: Tools for the serious International SEO

Essentials:

  • Reliable rank tracker that can localize: Advanced Web RankingMoz, etc…
  • Crawler that can validate hreflang annotations in XML sitemaps or within <head>: The only tool on the market that can do this, and does it very well, is Deepcrawl.

Other nice-to-haves:

  1. Your own method of “gathering” international search results on scale. You should probably go with proxies.
  2. Your own method of parsing XML sitemaps and cross checking (even if you use something like Deepcrawl, you’ll need to double check).
  3. Obvious, but worth a reminder: Google webmaster tools, Analytics, access to server logs so you can understand Google’s crawl behaviour.

Section 5: Tips from many screw-ups and successes

  1. Use either the <head> implementation or XML sitemaps, not both. It can technically work, but trust me, you’ll probably screw something up – just stick to one or the other.
  2. If you don’t cross annotate, it won’t work. Plain and simple, use Aleyda’s tool to help you.
  3. Google says you should self-reference hreflang, but I also see it working without (check out en.softonic.com). If you want to play safe, self reference; we don’t know what Google will change in the future.
  4. Try to eliminate the need for duplicate content, but if you must, it’s okay to use canonical + hreflang as long as you know what you’re doing. Check out this cool isolated test which is still relevant. Remember, mo’ dupes, mo’ problems.
  5. Hreflang needs time to work properly. At a bare minimum, Google needs to crawl both cross annotations for the switch to happen. Help yourself by pinging sitemaps, but be aware of at least a 2-day lag.
  6. You can double-annotate a URL when using X-default, in case you were afraid to. Don’t worry, it’s cool.
  7. Make sure you’re actually having a problem before you go ranting on webmaster forums. Double check what you’re seeing and ask other people to check as well. Check your Google parameters and personalized results!
  8. You can 302 your homepage when you’re using a country redirect strategy. Yes, I know it’s crazy, yes, a little bird told me and I throughly tested this and didn’t see a loss. There’s 2 sites I know of using this, so check them out: The GuardianRed Bull.

Closing, burning question: You might be asking yourself, how the heck did he find so many examples? Or maybe not, but I’m going to tell you anyway.

My secret sauce is 
Nerdydata.com, and if you didn’t know about this beautiful site, I hope that Nerdydata.com gives me a free t-shirt or something for telling you.

I find most SEOs who know about the tool are using it for useless stuff like meta tags (this is my own opinion), but what it really should be used for is reverse engineering things like hreflang and schema.org to find working examples. For example, a footprint you might use is hreflang=”en-us” and you’ll find a tonne of examples.

Here’s a few to get you started:

marketo.com asos.com 99designs.com sistrix.com
mozilla.org agoda.com emirates.com trivago.com
salesforce.com techradar.com symantec.com rentalcars.com
softonic.com aufeminin.com alfemminile.com moo.com
istockphoto.com ea.com freelotto.com softonic.it
americanexpress.com zara.com xero.com trustpilot.com
viadeo.com marriott.com gofeminin.de here.com
hotels.com enfemenino.com ringcentral.com mailjet.com

That’s it folks, hopefully you’ve learned a thing or two. Good luck in your international adventures and 
feel free to say hi on Twitter. :)

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April 14, 2014  Tags: , , , , ,   Posted in: SEO / Traffic / Marketing  No Comments



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