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In this episode, you will hear Mark Williams-Cook talking to Nathan Lomax from Quickfire Digital, an e-commerce specialist build agency about SEO for e-commerce brands.
They will cover:
How important is SEO for e-commerce brands?
Specific SEO for e-commerce sites vs other types of sites
Topical authority in SEO
How schema can help e-commerce SEO
SEO as a driver for "good behaviour" within a company
MC: Welcome to episode 114 of the Search with Candour podcast, recorded on Friday the 4th of June, 2021. My name is Mark Williams-Cook and today's podcast is going to be slightly longer than usual and it's going to be an interview I had with another very respected chap in the e-commerce realm called Nathan Lomax, and we're going to be talking all about SEO in e-commerce, especially for brands that are just kicking off in this space.
Before we begin, I would love to tell you all about Sitebulb who have very kindly sponsored this podcast for quite a while now. Sitebulb is a desktop based SEO auditing tool for Windows and Mac. It's something I've used for many years now - we've used in the agency - for a long time, and it's one of my favourite SEO tools. If you've listened to lots of previous episodes you'll know that's true and I'm not just saying that because they're currently sponsoring me to say it, but it's a tool that I really enjoy promoting. I show it to people whenever I teach them SEO, and as I said, I use it myself pretty much on every single client at some point.
There's so many features that make Sitebulb a particularly great tool. I normally talk about how Sitebulb's really great for beginners because it gives a lot of diagnostics behinds the data it's picking up and explains the issues, and they've got a lot of content around that, but from a more techie end, it's so incredibly configurable as well. If you delve into the settings of Sitebulb, you can micromanage and globally ignore certain types of report audit notification. If you know you've got a particular build or template where it's going to keep kicking up this particular era and you don't want that because you want to take advantage of the fact that Sitebulb can track the differences between different audits and you don't want this noise in the way you can actually do that. It's really, really good.
If you haven't checked it out, they've got a special trial for Search with Candour listeners, which means you get a 60 day trial. It's free, you don't need a credit card or anything like that, and you can get this by going to sitebulb.com, but then go to /swc (sitebulb.com/swc) , and you'll get that trial. As I said, it's completely free, no obligation, do give it a go.
You're about to hear a recording I had this week between myself and Nathan Lomax of Quickfire Digital. Quickfire Digital is an agency that specialises in e-commerce website builds, that's their world. And I've worked with them quite a few times now in terms of SEO projects and helping get their tech SEO up to speed and helping consult with some of their clients for SEO. One of the things Nathan wanted to talk to me about was brands that are just getting started in e-commerce and really SEO, this is their first encounter of it. I think it's a really great chat because he covers questions that maybe I wouldn't have thought of myself and it's really useful to get that outside lens, that outside viewing on SEO in e-commerce.
It may not be one if you are a really experienced SEO, you're doing e-commerce, or it might be for you, you might disagree. I go off on a little bit of a tangent on some of my thoughts about entities and the future of Google and SEO, so maybe it will make you mad if you disagree with me. But definitely something in there if you're in-house e-comm SEO, especially if you're a business owner and marketing manager for an ecomm site. I really hope you enjoy it. This is myself and Nathan Lomax from Quickfire Digital.
NL: This morning, we're going to be talking about SEO for e-commerce brands and actually on the journey we've been in the last 18 months, more and more retailers are coming to us asking about the importance of SEO as they get drawn towards the Google shopping's of the world, Instagram shopping, all this good stuff, but actually they seem to be forgetting the core principles of SEO. Today seemed the perfect opportunity to dive back into that and to give people a reminder of the importance of SEO, particularly with the upcoming core web vitals update.
Mark, just starting us off, for those that are joining and have questions, please feel free to ask as we go, just jump straight in and I'll do my best to answer them. For those that are watching this on record, actually, if you see something you're unsure of or you have a question, reach out to us and we'll do our best to answer that, and we'll be back in a couple of weeks time to do this all again.
Mark, let's start. When we talk about SEO, and we talk about why brands should be taking SEO so seriously, where to begin? Why is SEO so important these days and why should brands really put it at the top of their agenda?
MC: Well, you mentioned earlier things like Instagram ads and shopping ads, so the first thing I just want to say is, it's not an or proposition. SEO does need to be part of the mix. The things for me that differentiate it from things like social ads or any display ads is the fact that it's search based, and why that's so important is it's the only type of marketing where you know exactly what the person wants because you know the search term you're targeting, and probably even more importantly than that, you're getting them at exactly the right time. All the other general types of marketing are targeted through, it might be demographics or interests, and you're just hoping you get the message out at the right time or you're building awareness, whereas SEO puts you in direct contact with something your marketers have wanted for decades, which is this. This is someone, they want this thing right now.
Actually, on top of that, there's a whole other set of interesting reasons. One study by USO, Ofcom every year does this study for media attitudes and adults. And the last, I think it's three years, we've seen really similar results, which is that around 50% of adults in the UK can't identify what is a Google ad and what isn't.
NL: Even still with the giant ad tech.
MC: Yeah, well, the giant ad tech has kind of got, I think, a bit more camouflaged over the years. So, it's really important to be visible and there's lots of other studies showing as well that consumers really trust the sites and brands that Google ranks. So, if you think when you're making a purchase, maybe from a company you haven't heard of, you might Google their name, reviews, or their name, are they trustworthy? Is it a scam? You're using Google to do all of that other research in place of asking a friend or something like that.
So, actually, not just ranking for the specific thing that you want people to buy your service or your product, but all those other kinds of terms that are along that research path are part of SEO and really important as well. And actually, if someone asks me that question about why we should take SEO seriously? Normally, I just ask them to explain the last journey they had online, where they bought something, or made a purchase, and it normally starts with a search. So, they answered their own question.
NL: And so, Mark, should retailers approach their SEO strategy differently to say, if you're in the B2B space?
MC: Well, I think there's different things to focus on if you're looking at e-commerce. So one that jumps to mind is image SEO. So, when we talk about SEO, it's certainly nowadays more than the 10 blue links. So, maybe a decade ago, you'd do a search on Google and generally you would just get a result with 10 links to websites. And nowadays we get feature snippets, we get maps, we get shopping results, we get top stories. And one of the interesting things I've noticed when I've worked in e-commerce for SEO is that a lot of people actually use Google images to look for products, especially things like fashion. So they might type something like, men's red trainers, because they want a pair of red trainers, right? But then rather than going to a website, they jump across the images and then they just scroll through images. And it makes sense because shopping's like a visual experience. And then they'll actually choose an image and then go to the website from there.
So there's a whole set of things you can do as a retailer to enhance how well you rank in Google images. So things like, for instance, not using stock imagery is one because you'll notice in Google images you rarely get the same image appearing multiple times. So, if you use stock imagery, it means that pretty much only one person using that imagery is going to rank for that term. So, having your own photography increases your chances of ranking. There's other things as well. So, it used to only be like a paid ads thing, but that's with Google Merchant Center, which is you can provide Google with a feed for your products. So it gives Google direct information about the product name, the price, if it's in stock, pictures, description, and actually you don't necessarily have to pay anymore to get those listings. So, Google's integrated it with their organic, free results. If you've got that product fee, you can actually get free clicks now.
So, Google, I think, is trying to position themselves against Amazon, because they want to basically bolster their inventory and they haven't got enough people necessarily willing to pay that they're allowing people in organically where there's gaps for those product feeds. That's something that a lot of people miss now even if they're not doing paid ads, which is setting up these product feeds. And generally, I think SEO is just a motivator for good behavior. So, if you built an e-commerce website, and you were just thinking about, I'd say selfishly just thinking about, we want to sell products, right? So you've made your categories, you make your product pages, and that's it. And then normally when... It happens in a roundabout way that people then say, "Oh, well, we need some kind of blog post or something to rank in Google."
And then this leads you on this conversation about what I said earlier, which is that earlier in the purchase funnel research that people do, and actually, how can we provide more value to our visitors? So, we're selling this product. Do we want to give them comparisons or how to use it, how to set it up, or how to look after it? And they're the kinds of things that help you rank. So they're like a motivator for you to do good things for the user. So, there I think there are three things that... And there are many, but three core things I think are different for e-com SEO.
NL: Mark, in terms of schema markup. Just tell us a little bit more about the importance of schema markup and how retailers can go about embracing schema within their own site.
MC: Yeah. So, schema for those that haven't encountered it, and there's no reason really you should, unless you're involved in web or SEO. Schema is a way essentially to label your data for search engines. So, up until schema was a thing, search engines just have to take the great unwashed internet, and all of the unstructured data and texts, and basically just use these algorithms to try and work out what on earth you're writing about? When Google crawls and looks at a website, it doesn't know it's off the bat a website that sells, say, running gear. It has to try and work that out. And it has to when someone does a query about how does my gait affect my running or something? Google has to try and work out, okay, has this page got the answer to that question?
Schema gives you a way to explicitly label this data. So using that example, there is something called FAQ schema, frequently asked questions schema where you can say, you can label this data saying, this is the question, and this is the answer to that question. So, you're removing any of that gray area that search engines have to work out themselves. And the same again, specifically with e-commerce, you can provide information about products as to whether they're in stock, the brand, for instance, the weight, the price, and that can be pulled through sometimes in search engine result pages. So you get this, again, rich data coming through.
Schema I think is really important because it's the basis I think of how Google is developing, which is really to become a knowledge engine. So Google wants to move away from showing lists of search results to just answering questions. And they're doing that. And without going too deeply into it with what's called an entity based approach, which is they're trying to work out what things are and then what the connections between the things are as well. Okay. I'll stop there before we go too deep into that.
NL: No, I love that. I'm just thinking, in terms of these kinds of conversations, we often talk about Google as the only search tool, but we neglect the Bings and the other search engines of the world. Do the same principles apply with things like schema, or actually if you do your schema for Google, it applies on all search engines?
MC: Yeah. So generally I think there's a divide between I'd say the Western world and the Eastern world in terms of SEO. So in the West, we've got mainly search engines like Google, Bing, Yahoo, DuckDuckGo. And generally they all follow the same principles. Google tends to lead the way on those standards and then other search engines adopt them. For other search engines, like so in China, Baidu is a bigger search engine. In Russia, you've got Yandex.They actually have slightly different principles. So, Yandex will massively favor .iu domains. They look at how many conversions complete on a site to help rank it. Some of those search engines still use the keywords meta-tags, which none really of the major Western search engines do. So, I'd say it's only really a consideration about should we be doing things differently if you're operating in those markets. If you're operating in the UK, Europe, America, Australia, I would take a Google first approach. Bing's got some market share and certainly from a paid point of view, it's really worth targeting that, but it's really Google principles and everyone else toes the line.
NL: So, Mark, if you talk about Google keywords. Well, essentially, yeah, keywords may be drifting away from what it once was. Actually, what are the really core important metrics we look at when we're looking at on-page SEO in isolation?
MC: Yeah. So, keyword research is a really interesting topic because we touched on this entity thing and I try to sometimes frame it or describe it as intense research now. And there's a few reasons for this. So, firstly, I'd just headline and say, keyword research is still really, really useful. But it can be, especially if you look at keyword volumes, it can be a bit of a red herring, and I'll explain why. So, I think previously, and when I say previously I'm now talking about several years ago, the optimal thing to do was look at keyword volumes and try and target generally the higher keyword volumes and make individual pages for most individual key phrase searches. Okay? And that was because how search engines were analyzing texts on a page was still pretty basic.
And pretty much a search engine was just like, "Well, this thing seems to be the nearest match. So I'm going to rank that." So things have changed massively since then in terms of how search engines analyse texts and how they determine what a page is about. So generally speaking now, if you have a bunch of related topics. Say you sell car parts, and you were writing an article about servicing your engine. It would make sense to do that maybe as one long article broken down into pieces, whereas before it would have made sense to do 10 separate articles. So what we're now learning from this intent-based approach is to build out a page essentially as a user would like it. So, we focus a lot more on long tail key phrases.
So, we still target these head terms if you like, but we have loads of data available now through sites like AnswerThePublic and alsoasked.com around things like people Also Ask data, which are these hundreds and hundreds of search terms that if you put them into a keyword volume tool it will say they have zero search volume or less than 20. It's a big mistake to just discard them because they're still showing. And there's a reason they're showing, and it's that combination of words, yes, in that phrase might have 15 searches a month. But what is important to realise is there's another 100 ways to search for that exact question with the words in a slightly different order, or with an addition of a word that means, actually it's got a few hundred searches a month and they're all the same intent. So, you don't need to make loads of pages. You just need one page that answers that intent. And generally now Google is smart enough to rank that page for that whole subset of queries.
So, yes, when it comes to keyword research, I look at volumes, especially when we're building sites. When we're doing link architecture and working out what categories should be because this is like broadly saying, "Okay, there's lots of people looking for this." It's useful to see which words people actually use because English is a complex language, right? And sometimes there's different phrases people use even regionally. So understanding that's important. When it actually comes down to content I really go and use these deep dive tools and will produce content briefs. We will actually just lean into the keyword research to help guide us, but we're certainly not, it is not dictated just by that.
NL: Yeah. That makes sense. Mark, let's indulge in a little bit of role-play. So if I'm the client, you're Mark. I come to you and say, "Look, I've got an e-commerce brand. We're selling gym wear. We've got some pretty hefty goals here. We think SEO is going to form an important part of our marketing mix." What's the first thing that we would do?
MC: Well, the first thing I always do is set an expectation that SEO is a long term thing, right? So, especially with new businesses, new businesses tend to have aggressive growth targets, especially if they're funded. and we just have that conversation. If someone's like, "Okay, we're doing SEO and in three months we need..." You can stop conversation there, basically. Especially, if it's a new site, you need to be taking over a 12 month view as in longer than 12 months for SEO.
With that in mind, there are lots of things to take into account. So the very first thing is the technical foundation for the site. If you're building a news site, and by technical foundation I mean that the site is as easy for search engines to crawl and index as possible. So, generally there'll be some issues or opportunities that you mentioned schema.
The next step is to draw out a strategy. And that requires discussing what are the actual targets? What resources do you have and by resources, I mean, how much time is available? How much runway have we got? How much money is there to invest? What internal skills do you have? So, you need to know what you can do internally and what needs outsourcing? And then map out your competitors, the market, are there any gaps, and what your competitor is doing in SEO because SEO isn't a static target. I always describe it as a never ending marathon type race. You're joining in, you've got to catch up with people, and if you want to project how long that's going to take, you've got to work out how fast everyone else is running. So you can run slightly faster. And how far ahead they are because you're starting behind people that are already ranking.
Once you've got all of those points or information, you can draw out your strategy, which is essentially, we're going to achieve this by, with this approach. And then that filters down to a plan. And then the plan is actually who is going to do what and by when? And it may be that you draw out this grand strategy and you realise when you overlay your time, money, and resources, that actually you can't do all those things, which is just fine and very common.
So then it's about focusing on what is the most effective thing we can do? And with all that technical stuff in place, a lot of the SEO focused stuff will come down to providing good content, attracting links to the site, and that overlaps with a lot of other disciplines, which is why it's important to have this strategic plan because there's lots of other ways that other people can contribute to that. That's where it starts. The wrong place to start is to say, "Here's our site, do the SEO." Which again is common and that's what we're here for, to guide people through that process and let them know where it plugs in to everything else.
NL: Well, we talked a couple of times there about benchmarking and ranking. In terms of the technical foundations, is there a tool that you would recommend so users can go and type in their web address and just see what those missed opportunities may be in terms of we don't have schema, or we don't have this because I guess many retailers may be blissfully unaware of the opportunities that they're missing.
MC: It's a difficult one because all tools require some level of skill and understanding to take the results in context. I mean, the one I'd recommend, that I think is the easiest to use, is called Sitebulb, which is at sitebulb.com. They have a free trial that you can download. That will run an audit of your site. And what it does, apart from collecting the data, it will try and actually diagnose any potential issues. And it's really good at explaining why there are issues and it tries to prioritise them for you. Now, like with all tools, it's quite possible that it will miss something major or it will flag false positives. And all of that information has to be put in context to your own site, your own targets.
When we do an audit on a site, we'll probably use five or six different tools and that's really just to get a sense for it, but a lot of the work's actually done manually. Most people would have received emails offering them free SEO audits, which are just pumped out from these tools. And generally they're not worth the PDF pixels there.
NL: Yeah. In terms of competitor analysis, Mark, this is another thing you mentioned there. Is Sitebulb a tool that allows you to do that competitor research as well, or is there a separate tool to do that?
MC: Yeah. Sitebulb just looks at your own site, so that's identifying opportunities there. Now, competitive research is again a tricky one. So, I guess the go-to platform for a lot of people is SEMrush, which does cost money. It will give you an idea of things like what your competitors rank for, and it will give you a rough idea of who ranks for the keywords you want to. And the issue with all of these tools is you do have to take them with a fairly large pinch of salt. So, sometimes they're accurate and sometimes they're really far out. Now, while the defenders will say, "Yeah, but in these cases, it's really accurate." I think it's worth pointing out, if you don't know that the data you're looking at is inaccurate or accurate, you have to treat it as inaccurate.
I posted an example, I think it was last from SEMrush where I had access to the client's actual data and SEMrush had said that they had three times their search traffic and we're talking into the hundreds of thousands of visitors. I was like, "Oh, wow, that looks really good." I logged in, looked at their search console and analytics. And unfortunately, that hadn't actually happened. It was just completely flat, which was what I expected because they weren't really doing any SEO. And I just posted this as an example of saying if you're doing competitor research on that website, you looked at it. You're like, "Oh, wow. They must be really going at it because they've 3Xed their traffic, but they actually haven't." So no tool, unless you've got direct access, is going to give you accurate information, but it's useful as a guide.
If you have an SEO specialist work for you, they'll get more into that competitive research. So the type of things I would do is once I've identified the main competitors, I would then run specific tools for specific things like Majestic or Ahrefs, the two tools that we use to look at backlink profiles, which is who links to these websites? And the reason we want to look at that is we'll see what kind of digital PR they're doing, what kind of deals they're making with other websites, what kind of content they're posting, and we'll get a feel for essentially how hard they're pushing their SEO. And that's more of a guide for me about how competitive it's going to be.
I've never used keyword difficulty metrics, personally. Again, you can compare SEMrush and Ahrefs, two of the largest SEO tools, with the same keyword, one will say very difficult, another will say very easy. So, I go on experience and use these other tools and I guess it's not common sense. It's a specialist's sense on how difficult that's going to be.
NL: Mark. I appreciate you guys, incredibly humble. And I know that the Candour team have been working very hard behind the scenes on their own set of tools and products and one that's coming out, I was keen to pick your brains on. You created something that was like an AlsoAsked style platform. Do you mind just sharing a little bit about that if it's ready to go so that retailers listening can go and check it out?
MC: Yeah. So, it's launching hopefully later this month. So we ran a public beta for almost a year and the tool is at AlsoAsked.com. And that tool is, if you fall around 50% of any searches that happen in Google you'll see there's a little box that says people also ask. And it will list normally four or five questions that are related to that search term. And if you click on one of those questions, it will then give you another three or four questions related to that. That is a gold mine of information about what people are searching for, but also what Google expects, which I think a lot of people miss.
So, if I do a search term and Google knows, well, people actually commonly ask these four other questions. It's a really good hint for, well, if you answer those four questions on one page, Google knows that people ask them and then you're seen as a really great source of information. So we made this tool where you can pop in any key phrase, you can set a country in a language, and it will go away and it'll mind that data for you. And it'll put it into a mind map kind of thing. So, it'll say here's your search term, here are the four questions related to that. And then here are the four questions related to each of those, and then a final step of here are the four or five related to each of those.
So, actually you end up with sort of 60, 70, 80 questions for one key phrase. It's a really helpful tool for content writers, if you need a little bit of inspiration. It's really helpful for SEOs if they want to know what questions people have about their brands, their products, or an article they're writing. Even if you're doing PPC as well, it's about understanding that intent, and it's a really good way to unlock that. You can actually then download the data into CSV, plug it into any other tools that you've got, like really neat stuff with things like sentiment analysis.
So, you could for instance, track your brand over time, see what questions are asking, and as you build your brand from people asking, is it a scam, to why the price is so good? Hopefully, over the years, that kind of thing.
NL: Yeah, that's perfect. So you touched a little bit there around international SEO. If you're a UK retailer looking to dip your toes into say the European market, how can they go about optimising their products and category pages, et cetera, for international search, as opposed to just UK search?
MC: Yeah. That's a really good question. So, don't just run it through a translator. A translator would be my kind of first thing. I've seen sites that have a UK version and then they stick an auto translate on and we talked to them about internationalisation and they say, "Well, people don't really buy from Germany, so we don't think it's worth it." And then when you actually look at it and we'll get a German to read it, it's like, "No, they're not buying from Germany because the translation is crap and the prices aren't in euros and whatever." So, there's a few things to do.
From a technical point of view, there's a whole bunch of things you can do. There is a special tag that search engines use called hreflang tag and what that does is it allows you to essentially pair up or not pair up, match up all of the different language and region versions of a page. So this is particularly important, for instance, if you are selling in Australia, in the US, and the UK, you are going to have three separate pages there because one's in US dollars, one's in Australian dollars, one's in Sterling. You're going to have to do the barbaric thing and remove all the U’s from the words for the American version. It's probably going to be written differently as well.
So apart from translation, the UK-US thing is a really interesting point on localisation. So, if you've been to the States, and you watch TV out there, compared to the UK, you'll realise there's a night and day difference in how people are sold to and how they're spoken to and their expectations, and the culture is very different.
It's not enough just to say, "Well, our UK page is in English. The US is English as well, so it's fine." You need to really get it rewritten for the US market, and the same obviously applies - this is why I was talking about automatic translation - if you're having something done from English to French or Spanish or German, it is not enough just to have it one-to-one translated. You've got to, again, think about that intent because someone in Spain may use a different set of words to describe something, things may not translate well. Culturally, there may be different types of search terms.
So, there's a translation aspect, there's a localisation aspect and again, there's a technical aspect, which is going back to what I said about this Hreflang thing, and that the idea of this Hreflang thing, particularly with taking the example of US, UK, Australia, is if you've got three pages selling a product, which are not identical, but very close, it becomes quite tricky for Google to work out, actually, which one should I rank? Because it's not clear that this page is English but it's for the US, this page is English but it's Australia. So you can actually label them up and basically say, "Okay, this is English US. This is English UK. This is English Australia. So Google then knows, okay, the searcher is in Australia. I need to show them this version.
It also goes one really helpful step forward, which is, say your UK version of the page is really popular. It gets lots of links and Google saying, "Okay, this is a good page." If you use this Hreflang tag to say, "Well, this is the US version, and this is your Australian version," that equity that you've built is shared between all of those pages and you tend to see all of those pages rank better.
The last technical point from... It touches on SEO, but it's really more of a usability thing, you mentioned Core Web Vitals earlier; Core Web Vitals is to do with performance, not necessarily speed, although speed is one aspect. And the interesting thing about Core Web Vitals, and website performance in general is there's no objective measure about what is good and what is bad without the context of the user visiting the site. And what I mean by that is, if you build your site and the audience is in the UK, and you run all your core vitals checks, and you look in search console, and you're all green, and you say, "Brilliant, our site performs really well."
You then open an international store in maybe a country that's much more rural and has much lower average internet connection speeds, what you'll then find when you look at search console is that your Core Web Vitals' performance is all red, and you haven't changed anything on your site. It's that the average connection speed of those people is a lot slower. So to have an acceptable performance for people in that region you need to make that region a lighter version of your site, and that's about then technical localisation.
There's actually a whole set of layers of things you can do for internationalisation, but the main ones are translation, of course. Localisation is super important. The marking up of the different pages with Hreflang, especially, again, important for countries like Switzerland, where you can't just have the Swiss version because there's people speaking Swiss German, or reading German, Italian, French, so you can label up the different versions. And then this other level of technical optimisation, if you want to go that far around localised performance, but yeah, there's loads you can do.
NL: Well, a couple of questions coming off the back of that. The first is around search terms overseas. When people are looking to see search volumes; okay, is my product even viable to sell it in France, for example? Do you still use the Google keyword tool or do you use something else to identify the traffic volumes out in France or Switzerland or wherever?
MC: Yeah. If you just want to do a quick comparison, you can actually use tools like Google Trends because you can filter that by country and you can then see, okay, well, here's the English search term. Here's maybe the French version. Oh, the French version has got 75% of the volume of the English version. But yes, I would use the same tools for assuming the search engine is the same. Obviously, I wouldn't use Google search estimates for maybe Russia, like I said because you need to know what's going on in Yandex there.
NL: And Yandex had its own tool Mark?
MC: Yandex is an interesting one. So if I was doing SEO for Yandex, there are people that specialise in that and that's what I would always do. So, I've dealt with a few Russian migrations technical stuff. But for the SEO, I'll put them onto a Yandex specialist. The same with Baidu. So, Baidu even to get a Baidu webmaster account, and to show ads there, for instance, you need a Chinese national and all the interface is in Chinese. So you really, it's good to have someone specialised in those search engines. Yeah, Google Trends is a good shout.
NL: Perfect. Thank you. You talked also about Google search console and again, many retailers, perhaps aren't using search console to the max of what it can do. Just as a quick 20 second summary, what can retailers or any SEO do within the Google search console that perhaps they're not aware of?
MC: So Google search console is a free, I'd say, diagnostic tool provided by Google. You set it up and it will give you a whole range of information that's super useful. Everything from what search terms you're ranking for, your average positions, how many clicks you've had, and this is more accurate than the data you'll get out of analytics, right? So, analytics counts users and sessions, and you can lose users and sessions for all kinds of reasons with browser blocking and all sorts. This is counting the actual click from the search result, which is really helpful.
More importantly than that, it highlights any errors Google encounters, or thinks it encounters. So if you've got crawl errors, if you've got pages timing out, server errors, broken links, malware, if your site is not mobile friendly, the Core Web Vitals performance, it's all in there. And the reason it's so important is all of these other tools are using what are called generally compound metrics. So essentially, metrics that they've come up with to try and reflect things that are happening that Google is using. But this is direct information from Google that they are using. If they think your site errors lots, then it's safe to say whatever impact that's going to have, it will have. If your Core Web Vitals in search console is bad, it doesn't matter what any other tool says, it’s bad because that's what Google was making the judgment on. So that's the first thing I set up and it's free and you can integrate it with analytics. There's no reason anyone shouldn't have it.
NL: Wow. Perfect. Now, we hear the phrase topical authority used quite a lot within SEO and within the world of entrepreneurship, personal brand is really kicked off as well. Why is topical authority so important for retailers?
MC: Yeah. I guess it's almost like why did you choose to talk to me about SEO? Hopefully, because you consider me like a topical authority on SEO, right?
MC: So, you're like, "I'm going to talk to Mark about this." And just about how if you've got any problem, maybe like I've got a particular friend that if I have a problem with my car, I always go and speak to them first. I don't ask someone that isn't a topical authority on cars, in my opinion. They're the person I know that knows the most about cars. So, when it comes to ranking web pages, Google, one of the models that Google uses and people talk about is this, can you become a topical authority on something? Which is rather than Google, just being like, "Oh, okay, this, this one website has this one guide about running on. So I'm going to rank them for whatever this article is about."
If you've got a whole article about that subject that are all linked together, it's Google's way of seeing into your website's brain and saying, "Okay, well, yeah, this website, this entity seems to know a lot about this topic." So you have this abstract idea of topical authority, even if it's not in that one page. And there's lots of ways that this is expressed and there's loads of really interesting Peyton's that Google has. One caveat I'd say is just because Google has a painting for something doesn't necessarily mean they are using it. They have a painting for it, and they did a trial run several years ago now on authorship where you could mark up who the author was that wrote an article. And actually now that is deprecated, but you can still do it with schema. So you can say, this is a web page, the webpage belongs to this website, that belongs to this company, and it was written by this person.
And when you look at Google paintings, you'll see that they have technology now that can do things like identify individual people by their writing style. So when it sees a piece of text, it can start working out, even if the author isn't specified who wrote it. Even for audio, they have audio fingerprinting so they can identify individuals based on their voice. And as you've probably seen now, Google is indexing podcasts and it can jump you to the right part of a YouTube video. So that live transcription is all happening. So where we're going, I think with topical authority.
So, the old school topical authority is basically, if you want to rank for stuff you need to show you're a specialist. And generally that was done through your website, through having lots of good content on the subject, getting it linked to by other sources. That's how you become an authority, right? When people start referring to you. I think where we're going with it is it's going to pivot slightly to become individuals. So Google is going to recognise and identify who individuals are. And this is why there's a lot of stuff written about EAT for Google, which is this expertise, authority, and trust. And this talks about things like having a visible author name on who wrote this and being able to check out who that person is.
So we're working with a website at the moment that deals in the medical supply area. And they had some blog posts and they were written by admin. I said, "If I'm a user and I arrive on this site and I'm reading this information, this is important information because if it's got anything to do with medical stuff it is important. It's correct. But it's written by someone called “admin”. I immediately don't trust it as much." Whereas, if it's written by someone and I can see for instance, "Okay, they're a qualified first aid instructor and they've written on these 20 other websites. Then I start to trust that more." And that is the kind of thing that's going to be merged by search engines, I think more and more. The general concept is you can't just chuck a page about a topic up on your website randomly and expect it to rank, you earn that over time like how my friend has earned my trust about having me pester him every time something goes wrong with my car.
NL: Well, very good. I'm curious to know about size guides and brochures and things like that for retailers where perhaps they're external PDFs, how do we get those indexed and ranked as opposed to static content on a webpage?
MC: Yeah. Actually, PDFs have had no problem being indexed and ranked. Google bot can read PDFs, and it's a protocol that will convert it to HTML anyway. So even things like hyperlinks inside PDFs work absolutely fine and pass link equity. The common issues that you get.
Well, my bugbear personally with PDFs, firstly, is PDFs aren't mobile friendly. PDFs are a pain to read on mobile. You're pinching and zooming, and it's like, "Ugh." So, you get this thing where sometimes you have the content repeated on the site and then in a PDF. And then you've got an issue of Google's trying to pick, which one should I rank? Should I rank the web page or should I rank the PDF?
If you're going to do that, generally I would try to hide the PDF from Google and just have the webpage there and people can download the PDF if they like. My discussion I always have with clients is why does it need to be a PDF, basically? If you're sending it to someone they're going to need internet access anyway to download it, right? So, why can't you get a webpage that works on their mobile as well? There are some arguments around having gated content.
Personally, again, I'm not a fan of gated content, especially now with various current GDPR stuff. You're certainly limited if you can't just lock stuff off and be like, "You have to join our mailing list if you want this, otherwise, free content." It just doesn't work like that. I think it annoys people. I don't think it's genuine, and I think you'll get more value having it open, having it indexed, and having it rank and having people link to it than generally you get from hiding stuff. PDFs aren't technically a big issue in terms of search engines, I just think there's better ways to do things because you'll make stuff easier for users, and you'll probably find you get more traffic anyway when you're a bit more open with that information.
NL: And so, Mark, if you had a PDF and you decide actually you want to then showcase it on the site as content, I guess you then remove the PDF and put it all as perhaps series of blog posts or the question really is, do you put it as a page or do you put it as blog posts or do you do a mixture of the two?
MC: Well, you can still have the PDF. If you want a PDF on the site, you can have it, and there's certain ways you can just block Google from indexing it, which is fine because then you get around that duplicate issue. When we talk about, do we have stuff as web pages or blog posts, what's the difference? A blog post is just a webpage at the end of the day. It's just a blog post, generally a web page that's organised chronologically. That's all a blog is.
It's just generally categorised chronological web pages. So, if it is something that I would class as evergreen, which is it's always relevant, like a size guide, then yeah, it wouldn't go on a blog. It would go on a static page somewhere.
But again, generally, if people are, especially if you've got mobile users, just think about the user. How are they going to be accessing the content? If it is on mobile, PDF probably isn't a good format for them. So, yeah, get the information on the site. Why is it not on the website if you want people to read it on a screen? Is my question. I think it's a hangover from an old web, all this PDF content that's going around.
NL: Yeah. In terms of videos and augmented reality and virtual reality now that's coming into retail more and more. How can retailers in particular optimise these for search?
MC: Yeah. So again, video is interesting because it's always been a technical challenge for search engines to understand video because it couldn't just read it as it's not text. They tend to be large files, so it's very process heavy in terms of it’s a large file, it's got to dig through it. But I think we're at the stage now, at least certainly with Google, and I mentioned this earlier, if you upload a video to YouTube, you can opt for automatic transcription now, which just shows you, and it's actually really good. It's scary accurate, and that shows you the level of understanding they have of the content in their video. If you have video on your site, there is a video schema. You've got video site maps as well, which can hint to Google and other search engines about what that content is.
I get a lot of questions about whether we should host the video ourselves, or should we have it on YouTube? And for most people I tell them to put it on YouTube. And the reason for that is YouTube is the second largest search engine in the UK, if people specifically want video content they jump straight to YouTube, they don't necessarily do a Google search anymore. They just go to YouTube. Same as a lot of shopping behaviour. And it's why Amazon is one of Google's biggest competitors, they're not doing Google searches. They just go straight to Amazon and search for the thing they want. And then there's a whole branch of YouTube optimisation then, which is fairly basic, but that's more about engagement, and titles.
Hosting your own video content can be challenging. Again, for the reasons I've said, which is that it's bandwidth heavy. So, if you suddenly get a really popular video, you're going to need to make sure you've got the infrastructure server beef to actually serve it up properly. And then you've got to solve all those issues yourself with things like transcriptions. So transcriptions are something we do with a lot of audio content. And for instance, our podcasts, we pay to get that transcribed. So even though search engines or Google could go through and index it. We make it easier, provide the transcription. As well from an accessibility point of view, especially for the podcast. And it gives us the opportunity to do things like internal linking as well.
Again, there's a lot you can do with that. With AR and VR, that's a hard question. I don't actually think I've got a good answer for you yet because a lot of that stuff's still in its infancy. I've seen some interesting uses of AR, more to do with people like placing products in situ in their room. And there was actually a conversation we had with a client of ours we did on a pitch, which for their econ site, we were talking about having 3D models of some of the products built. So they could then, from the product page, just turn the camera on and see it in their house. But none of that really is going to be indexed and searchable yet, but I think it will be. I think, again, all these new media types are a technical challenge and Google has been getting there. It used to just be text and links and then it was images. And now we're here with audio and video as well.
NL: Mark, what role does social play within an SEO strategy? Because people often see them as separate channels and separate opportunities yet once upon a time social signals was talked about as some kind of contribution towards a ranking factor and therefore is social and your visibility on social and your activity on social still important for your SEO strategy, or actually they're two very separate things?
MC: In terms of, and I'll be careful how I word this, so in terms of a direct ranking factor in Google's, talking specifically about Google and their core algorithm, I'm comfortable to say that I believe social signals are not and never have been a ranking factor. When Google talks about their core ranking algorithm that's actually still composed of, surprisingly I think, a few things. There are layers on top of this. So, we actually got to see a leak from a load of Google documentation that got published a couple of years ago talking about this twiddler framework, which is essentially loads of little small algorithms that sit on top of this core algorithm that help basically improve results.
I think you could wildly speculate as to what happens there. So most interestingly, and it causes a lot of debate is about how often a particular search result is clicked on as a percentage, right? So there's lots of people saying, "Well, if you click on your search result so lots of people do it will improve the ranking." And Google's said, "This is absolutely not in our core ranking. That's not true." But then people who have done tests and then we've seen sites quickly jump up a few places when they've had thousands of people do that. For me, this is all part of those little micro algorithms that stick on the top to say, to answer the need for maybe, okay, well a certain maybe website's been in the news. So the search intent has flipped just temporarily and Google needs to adapt to that.
And we see searches change seasons. Halloween's a really good example. If you now do a search for some Halloween search terms, you'll generally get sites about Halloween and the history of Halloween, right? In the couple of weeks running up to Halloween, those same searches will produce e-commerce sites because Google understands that the intent has shifted and people want to buy landfill plastic stuff for Halloween. So, going back to your question about social signals, I think the larger answer is slightly more complicated because we spoke about entities and Google certainly wants to understand what a brand is and how trusted a brand is. And they have patents for, and again from what I've seen, they don't appear to be active, but looking at how brands, the sentiment, what their sentiment is online. So how people are talking about them.
I think the more searches your brand has certainly doesn't hurt because it does establish you as an entity online that people are looking for and is in demand. But social as crossover in terms of channel and strategy is definitely something to consider. So, I actually, literally yesterday was talking about some of the digital PR campaigns we're running for our SEO clients. And so, we've got some really nice coverage recently of some digital PR work we've done. And I was saying to the team, I think what's going to be worth doing is actually doing some paid social ads for this content because the content is really good. It's got some newspaper coverage, but we can get more bang for our buck if more people see it.
And actually we're more likely to get more links if more people see it and more people will share it. So by putting it on social media, although we're not directly improving our ranking because we're running a Facebook ad, what we are doing is exposing it to thousands more people who then might share it, who then might link to it, which then does send the kind of signals that search engines listen to. So, there is definitely a strategic crossover in those channels.
NL: Mark, thank you as ever. We've got about six or seven more minutes. I'm going to fire some questions fairly quickly at you to see if we can get through a little bit more. One is around the CMS preference for search. Is there a choice between a Shopify or a WooCommerce or a Magento or a totally different CMS entirely? Does Google or does search consoles, or do any search algorithms prefer one CMS to another?
MC: No. Some come out of the box better than others, but it's not specific because it's WordPress. You can have very good WordPress sites and you can have terrible WordPress sites. It's not because it's WordPress, same with any platform. I've seen brilliant Magento sites and terrible ones.
NL: Yeah. Perfect. In terms of URL structure for retailers, what is the importance for SEO in terms of URL structure?
MC: Actually, pretty low in terms of direct importance. So having, for instance, keywords in your URL isn't really much of a ranking factor, like tiny, tiny, almost undetectable if it is. However, a big passive bonus is that anchor text, which is the text people use in a link to a page, is really important; really important for how that page is going to rank. And most links that are naturally created online are just kind of like the raw URL. If you have your URL with the product name with hyphens between, for instance, Google understands hyphens delimiters between words. If people paste that raw URL, search engines then get a better idea of what that following page is going to contain because you got the correct anchor text and URL.
Again, careful answer, as a direct ranking factor, meh, not really important. Should you do it? Yes, because there's passive benefits to doing that, that will stack up over time and optimisation is the sum of all of these small things that give you the edge.
NL: Mark, meta titles, some people use bars to separate words, some people use hyphens, some people include brand names. Is there a rule of thumb that says, do or do not use this as opposed to that?
MC: No, no, no. Bars, whatever you like, hyphens, it's fine.
NL: Perfect. Breadcrumb trails, the importance of breadcrumb trails on product pages, and within sites in general. Are breadcrumb trails as important for search or is it purely just for usability?
MC: I'd say it's mainly a usability thing, user experience thing. It does show though in the search results. So you've got schema for breadcrumbs, needs special thinking about if you've got products maybe in multiple categories as to which breadcrumb you show, if they haven't taken a particular route. So if you just land on that product page and that product is in three categories, which breadcrumb do you show? But again, certainly worth doing because all of these things, you can set them up. They do themselves automatically and they scale well. From the search page, you're giving the user the information maybe as to, okay, that wasn't what I was looking for, but I can see from this breadcrumb it's in this category. So they obviously sell more of that thing. So, again, it's one of those things that it's pretty much no effort to do, and there are various small benefits, but it's not going to make or break you.
NL: Similar question, but around product reviews and product recommendations. Again, more for user experience or more for search?
MC: It depends on the content of the review, really. Interestingly, for local rankings, map packs, Google My Business reviews actually do help determine what you rank for. So, if you are selling, like you said earlier, your gym wear and you have lots of people writing reviews about your brilliant gym wear, Google does seem to show you for more local searches to do with gym wear. You can, again, mark up specific product reviews, which is helpful with average review ratings. But for me that's more of a, again, there's a whole bunch of things that do impact SEO, but it's because they're good for the user. And therefore, they're primarily user concerns.
So, like the whole Core Web Vitals thing to me, Core Web Vitals isn't really an SEO thing. It's a ‘make your site good for users’. It affects conversion rates. It literally affects the money that you're going to generate and as it happens, it will impact how well you rank, and that's where that falls in to me with things like product reviews. They're very important, but more so for users.
NL: Mark, final question for today. As a retailer listening in the next six months, what should you look out for in the SEO landscape that's on the horizon?
MC: That's a really interesting question. I think, personally, I wouldn't get too entrenched in worrying what Google is changing or not changing in terms of the algorithms. So, we call that algorithm chasing and the best thing you can possibly do is understand Google's business model, which is basically they want good organic results because it makes people use their search engine. And it means that they make their 1000 billion on their Google ads because people use the search engine, right? So, you need to align your long term SEO strategy to help Google hit its goals of making more money. If you're algorithm chasing, trying to find the cracks and essentially getting your content to punch above its weight, you have to be aware it's a short term thing. You'll eventually lose rankings when the algorithm catches up with you. That's what I'd say.
As a business owner, as a retailer, I would definitely take a long term view, and if I was engaging with anyone to do SEO, they would be my questions around how long term is the strategy and questions about how resilient the kind of activity you're doing is going to be to Google updates.
NL: Mark, absolutely extraordinary as always. Thank you. For those that are listening today, I hope that you've enjoyed today's session. Please do keep your questions coming in and we'll do our best to answer them on our next catch-up with SEO for E-commerce brands with Mark Williams-Cook from Candour.
Now, before we go today, just a quick little shout out, Mark. If anyone is looking to get involved with SEO for their e-commerce business, or perhaps it's not an e-commerce business, but you've tuned in today to find out more about Mark and his agency, where can they go to find out more about you guys, Mark?
MC: Yeah. So, if you just search for Candour Agency, it will be there. You'll be able to see the kind of work we've done. I'm quite active on LinkedIn. I'm pretty sure actually I'm the only Mark Williams-Cook if you Google me, so I'm active on LinkedIn and Twitter. I'm always up for talking to people if they've got questions about SEO. On LinkedIn I post one SEO tip every day, Monday to Friday. There's loads of free stuff you can get there, have a conversation with me about it. But yeah, check out the site! It is the main place if you're interested in what we do or SEO.
NL: Final thing, Mark, just how many SEO tips have you done because you said, oh, I do a bit of content on LinkedIn. I'm pretty sure there's several hundred.
MC: Yeah, we've just gone over 500 now. So, I'm pretty sure it's the biggest list that exists.
NL: So, do go and check it out, folks. It's a fantastic resource. Mark is always very generous with his time as he has been here this morning. Mark, lovely to see you as always. Thank you for your time. And we look forward to seeing you again on the next episode. Thanks again.
MC: That was a bit longer than usual, but I hope you enjoyed it and got something from it. As usual, I'm going to be back like clockwork in one week's time on Monday, the 14th of June. Do subscribe to the podcast. If you're enjoying it, do tell a friend all that nice stuff, and I hope you have an absolutely wonderful week.
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