Duane Forrester’s 5 Keys to Improving Search Rankings


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Duane Forrester Photo

Eric Enge: When a publisher comes to you and says, “What should I do to improve my SEO in rank well and Bing”, how do you answer that question?

Duane Forrester: There’s a fairly substantial movement toward being extremely thoughtful about where you put time and money. It’s easy to say that, and everyone likes to think that they’re behaving that way. When people ask me where to invest their money I really try to look at the bigger picture, and this has caused me to put together this chart.

Marketing Priorities for Publishers

Investment Priorities for Publishers

To me, these are the five core areas. Let’s go over them one by one:

Priority Number One: Content is Still King

Content, by far, is the number one thing businesses need to focus on. I say that for three reasons:

One, we at search engines have been saying this forever and everyone wanted to pooh-pooh that for a while. Now, all of a sudden, we’re all back to content marketing and content is the main thing.

Two, the content is what the searcher is looking for. The searcher is not looking for the most optimized website. They’re looking for a part to fix their washing machine that broke. They’re looking for a location to go to dinner tonight. They’re trying to understand what the cost to move from this neighborhood to that neighborhood will be when they sell their home. They’re looking for content. The most optimized website is not necessarily giving the searcher the best content or the answers to their questions.

The third reason is that a lot of people think they build excellent content. I ask that question at pretty much every speaking engagement I have and lots of people say “yes I build excellent content”. The reality is that it’s not up to you to decide if it’s quality content. The quality is determined by the interaction of the visitor to your website. If they’re interacting with it, if they’re finding value in it, then there’s quality to it.

Create Engagement

Creating Engagement is a Critical Activity

We’ve seen that be problematic for websites. Don’t repeat, syndicate, or duplicate content, because that’s obviously an issue. Those are fairly large items in the content spectrum. But the smaller stuff, matters too. The grammar, the phrases you’re using. Are you writing things correctly? Are you making common spelling errors?

Are you leaving those things in place and producing your content in a manner that shows obvious carelessness? That can happen due to limited time, especially if you are a one-person shop, but that happens even at the biggest publishers, where the processes are in place to manage every piece of content. It goes through multiple rounds of spellchecking, grammar checking, vetting, and everything. And yet, content still gets produced today that has incorrect facts in it, misspellings, typos, and grammatical errors.

All of these things in content are extraordinarily important. As consumers, we know what’s right from what’s wrong. We were all taught how to read and write in our language. When we see content that is not written correctly or not using the right spelling on words, or using the incorrect words in instances, it is very obvious to us. It raises a bit of a flag with us, and we start to then lose a little bit of trust in the actual website.

If you can’t tell “form” from “from”, or “their” from “there”, then maybe some of the information you are presenting as facts weren’t fully checked out either. That becomes a real trust issue for the reader of your content. By far, content, probably the biggest thing to focus on.

Bad Grammar and Spelling Can Hurt You!

Bad Grammar and Bad Spelling is Bad for Business

Eric Enge: In a past interview we talked about how Bing makes use of click-through rate and user interaction signals with search as a way of seeing how users respond to the content. It strikes me that that would be one way that you could measure content quality, right?

Duane Forrester: It is completely plausible. If you’re a searcher coming in and looking at something and you don’t have a high degree of confidence in it, the most logical thing that’s going to happen is, you’re going to go back. Remember, the finite size of a page is known. It’s easy to understand how long it takes the average human being to consume a piece of content. If it appears that that average human being is consuming less of the content, that’s a signal to us.

That’s telling us that they’re less than pleased with your content. Now it could be that the answer to their question is at the beginning of your content. The reader believes the rest of the content is fluff and not for them. That’s totally fine. This kind of data is only useful across millions of instances here, not one-off situations.

It’s the small things that can cause erosion of confidence by a visitor to your website. The next time, they don’t click on your search result, because they remember the last time they went there and that it was a bad experience. We make those judgment calls every day in life for a variety of different reasons. There’s no difference in how we process things in an online environment.

Eric Enge: I have to admit, because it’s my style of speaking, I’ll write an article with paragraphs that start with the word “but”.

Duane Forrester: Oh, yeah. I do that too.

Eric Enge: There’s some judgment too, in how people are going to respond to things. People understand it.

Duane Forrester: There’s a balance. It’s not, go get an old English schoolbook and learn how to write proper old English. The real question is whether the reader will be receptive. Will they think this content is meeting their needs? If the answer is ultimately yes, then your style is just fine. You shouldn’t give up your style just to meet a grammatical requirement.

Priority Number Two: Social Media

Eric Enge: Let’s talk about number two!

Duane Forrester: Social Media is a fairly obvious one. It’s a great way to have a conversation with people, to engage people, to get a read on whether they love you, like you, loathe you. It’s a great way to solve problems.

If somebody has an issue, you can capture it early while they’re complaining. It also plays a role in attracting the search engine’s attention. If something becomes suddenly very important socially, we want to know. We’re interested in fresh content.

If people are loving you, if you’re getting all kinds of social support from people and they love you, you know what, that’s a signal to us that maybe we should be ranking you higher.

Maybe we should try you ranked a little bit higher than we normally would, to see if searchers interact the same way that we perceive the interactions happening via social media.

There’s also one value that every business should be able to maximize and get from social media, it’s interacting with their customers. Plain, straightforward. “Hey, Mr. Customer, I see you have a problem. I’m here to help you with it.” Just the act of trying to fix the problem is enough to make most future customers feel good about interacting with you.

In terms of the integration of social into the search results pages, Bing has a very rich and deep experience. We bring in Klout, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and more.

Bing's Social Sidebar

Bing Shows Social Results on the Right Sidebar

It also makes a person feel comfortable. If they’re looking for your product and they see a company profile of all of this information listed in it, they feel pretty good about that, because you look like a very legitimate business to that customer. They can see everything they need to know about the company’s history.

Eric Enge: When we were at Pubcon Austin, you pretty clearly said that you are using social signals as a ranking factor.

Duane Forrester: The reality behind this is pretty straightforward. It’s like I mentioned earlier. If we’ve got social signals that are telling us something is popular, then we want to take a look at that. We want to test that out. It’s no secret that we’re constantly testing in the algorithm.

We try different locations for pieces of content to see how people engage with it. Whether it’s better engagement, lesser engagement, are they more satisfied, less satisfied. Using the social signals that we’re seeing, it’s just an extension of that. It’s simply a matter of us saying, hey look, socially this thing is breaking out.

This has all the patterns of going viral. If that’s exhibiting the signs of potentially going viral, let’s take a look at it. Let’s move it closer to the top. Let’s see if people are actually more willing to engage with it, what signals we get back when they do engage with it, and is it actually a quality piece of content.

Bing's Concept of Testing SERP Position

The above graphic is meant to be a very simplified illustration of the basic concept outlined by Duane, and in no way details how Bing actually does this)

Duane Forrester (continued): That doesn’t take away all of the other factors that the algorithm is going to take a look at. It still has to go through all of these things. New pieces of content still suffer from that lack of historical trust that’s been built up and helps a piece of content rank.

But if your site is established and we trust the site, there’s a natural follow on effect here that if you produce something that is an “oh wow” piece of content that really gets people’s attention it’s probably in our best interest as an engine to show that and see how people engage with it.

Duane Forrester: Social signals are like taking the pulse and understanding the confidence that people have in you. That’s the real takeaway with social. The search engine is no different than a person, really, when it comes to, hey, do people like this? Do they not like this? It’s something that helps us understand.

Any time we have access to something that helps us understand, that’s valuable to us. Same as it is for the humans, whether it’s reading a review that somebody wrote on pair of hiking boots they’re looking to buy, or whatever it is. Those extra signals are very valuable.

Priority Number Three: User Experience

Eric Enge: What about the user experience?

Duane Forrester: I’ll be honest; I’ve been toying with flipping user experience ahead of social. There’s a reason why they’re fairly close to each other in height on the chart. It’s because there is a relevancy factor between these two things.

To be completely honest, in my experience, I think these two items could be interchangeable for a business. A business has finite resources. They need to choose something they’re going to invest in. What is it going to be this year? If you can only do one, what are you going to choose? That’s obviously up to that business to decide.

User experience is something that generally gets overlooked. Most businesses simply go with whatever comes out of the box. If that’s a WordPress install or a custom template, or whatever it happens to be for your content management system, they just go with that. They go with whatever the designer suggested for the buttons, the placements, the colors, the sizing, and the words that are used on them. In many cases, people don’t even realize these things can have an impact.

Users Get Angry With Bad Websites

Users are Impatient with Bad Websites

When we launched the webmaster tools in June of 2012, we did three rounds of usability testing prior to the launch. When the project was started, there was myself and our engineering lead on it. Both of us are SEOs, so we felt confident that as we drafted things on the whiteboard, on our computers, and refined these ideas for layouts, buttons, grouping of content, labeling, all of this stuff, we felt that we had a pretty good handle on this given the history we brought to this project.

When it was brought forward and suggested to us that we’ve got some budget, maybe we should do some usability testing. At the time, my only concern was the time it was going to take. Did we have that in the window of the project? We did, so I was happy to engage in usability testing. After I saw the results of the usability testing, I was blown away and extremely grateful that I took the opportunity to do the testing.

We brought in actual webmasters, people who run online businesses. We put together a set of tasks for them and told them, “You’ve got five minutes. How much of this work can you get done?” No one completed any of the work. No task we gave them was completed within the allocated timeframe. This was with the existing version of Webmaster Tools (not the one we were working on).

Then, we sat down with a fresh set of webmasters, a different group of people. We showed them the new version of our Webmaster Tools and gave them the same tasks. 30% to 40% of the people managed to complete the work in the time that we gave them. We felt that this was a big improvement over what was then currently live.

Then we took the feedback from that second group. We asked them, what would you change? What would you do? And we went back and refined our design based on their input. When we brought a third group in and gave them the same tasks, everybody completed everything. It was incredible. It turned out to be a huge step forward.

There are a lot of tools available out there for AB testing, for multivariate testing. There are things that websites can do on their own without having to go through the larger process that my team would engage in. It can make a startling difference.

In addition, usability testing is also going to help with your conversion optimization. It really can be something that is monumentally different. If it’s me and it’s my budget and I’m spending the money, I’m putting the money into usability before I’m putting the money into SEO.

There’s no question at all in my mind. That’s 15 years of experience. This is where I find myself today as an SEO. I will put my money into quality content. I will put my money into social engagement. I will put my money into usability testing. And then, I will actually start putting money into things that are SEO related.

Eric Enge: Other less expensive tools are sites like usertesting.com. You can also use tools that do mouse movement tracking. There are a number of different approaches that you can use that are relatively inexpensive and allow you to do a lot of stuff along these lines, that people can do.

Duane Forrester: It’s more important than ever. Five years ago, this idea of multivariate testing and AB testing was a very niche application. People claimed they were doing it, but very few were actually doing it at a level where they understood the value of it.

Some people understood the value simply because they would test their pay per click ads. They would test versions of the pay per click ad to see which one performed better. Then they would refine from there. They would learn where to put their money and get bigger returns on it. That’s just smart marketing.

The real step here is for these same businesses and all businesses to take that type of thinking and apply it to the web site itself. Test the content I’m producing, how I’m organizing content, how people are navigating around the site, and how they are interacting with the content.

Priority Number Four: Link Building

Eric Enge: Number 4 is link building, what are your thoughts on that?

Duane Forrester: Link building is important, but not for the reasons that SEOs want it to be important. Links are still a vote of confidence. They’re still valuable. The age-old caveats apply. You want organically grown links. You want relevant links. You want links that are, in some way, related to what you’re talking about from sites that matter. From trusted sources as well.

The days of, “I have to get an .edu. I have to get a .gov,” those are way behind us. People that are playing that game now, they’re far behind the curve. They need to catch up with the reality of link building. One area that link building does prove valuable in, and it has always been this way since the first link was placed on the Internet, is for driving direct traffic. That is not ever going to change.

Links Can Drive Direct Traffic!

Focus on Links that Will Bring You Relevant Visitors

If you’re looking for links, seek out opportunities where the links get showcased in a natural environment. If somebody is doing a review on products, send them your product for review and make sure you’re included in that article.

If it’s me, I’m not even going to suggest to them they put a link back to me, because my assumption is that a good writer, striving to give their reader all of the information they need, will naturally put a link in to my business. Maybe not to my product page, but maybe to my business’s homepage. Which, you know what, that’s fine. That’s still a vote of confidence in there. It’s still going to get the user into you.

But if you’re sitting down, saying to yourself, “I need links for ranking,” it’s not quite as straightforward. But the ability to get just the right link from just the right place to just the right piece of content is very hard these days. Is it the best way for you to spend your time doing that? I’m going to argue that, no, it’s not.

I’m going to argue that spending your time on usability testing or on engaging in social media or on producing better quality content or on proofreading that quality content, that’s a much better use of the website’s time, than in trying to solicit links anywhere.

So, if you go back over to content, if you go back over to usability, if you go back over to social engagement, all of those things have subtle and less subtle ways of driving link growth for you. If you’re nailing it on these things, and you’re actually getting engagement with people and they’re loving you, you know what, they’re going to talk about you socially. Which will drive more people to you.

Which inevitably means, you will get more links built to your product. It’s that simple. If you keep your house in order, and you really impress the visitors you get, they’re more likely to want to impress their friends and share you with their friends. As human beings, we love to scoop our friends.

If I can actually get a link from you to my product, what it’s going to do is it’s going to drive direct people from that review you wrote to my site, to my sales page. It’s going to drive them from that YouTube video where you did a hands-on review because you’re an influential person, over to my actual homepage, where then people can engage with my product and go ahead and buy it if they want it.

Eric Enge: Cross channel leads.

Duane Forrester: Yes, less of an SEO impact. Much more of a direct impact on the quality of traffic to your business, and potentially sales as well.

Eric Enge: Two years ago, I was chatting with Matt Cutts in an interview. I suggested to him that as soon as you say the phrase link building, you could argue that you’re potentially already in trouble. He responded with:

That’s right. It segments you into a mindset, and people get focused on the wrong things. It leads them to think about links as the end goal. It’s important to think about producing something excellent first. If you have an outstanding product, world class content, or something else that sets you apart, then you can step back and start thinking about how to promote it.

Duane Forrester: I remember that. I think there’s something to that. A lot of times, what we’re doing as marketers is we’re setting a direction. We’re trying to figure out and uncover the faint trail that gets us that step ahead. It’s tough work. It is not easy. It is not obvious. It takes a lot of attention to detail.

Usually, there’s so much work that needs to be done that we’re moving through things quickly. If we end deciding we’ve got to go do link building, there is a tendency to revert to whatever the simplest version of link building is in their mind.

Unfortunately, this may not include links that drive direct traffic and may just be an attempt to prop up their SEO. I’ve said this before. Matt’s said this before. Imagine if we reach a point in our history as search, where the value of links is taken off the table. Imagine we reach the point where there are enough other quality signals telling us what we need to do, that links no longer serve a purpose in an algorithm for ranking. What are you going to do then? How are you building your business to a point where you’re sustainable in an area where those things are less valuable?

So many businesses don’t think that way. They think short-term. They take a shortcut on it. That’s short-term thinking and that’s not going to serve you long run. Ultimately, you could argue that if you send somebody a product for a review and they link over to you, you’ve essentially paid for a link.

You’re not really going to do that, because most bloggers, most influentials who get that product, they’re not keeping the product for themselves. They’re literally holding a contest and giving away the video camera you gave them. They’re giving away that set of hiking boots to the most prolific commenters. Because that’s a credibility point for them.

If they’re just collecting all this stuff for free, can I really believe their reviews? Of course you love everything everyone sends to you, because you get it all for free. There’s a lot of that credibility mindset that comes into this. When it comes to link building, you’ve got to ask yourself, what are the reasons we’re building links? What’s the value we’re getting out of links? If the answer is only, “we’re doing this to help with SEO and with rankings”, it doesn’t matter how many times you split the hair after that, you’ve gone down the wrong path.

Eric Enge: You sat in on my presentation at Pubcon Austin where I talked about link building and the philosophy I was espousing. It was essentially brand and reputation first. Because it protects you from all these scenarios. So search as we know it might change? Or some other new thing might come along? Search as we know it might go away, right? Who knows?

Duane Forrester: We may be living in the golden age of search right now, but that doesn’t mean five years from now search doesn’t become something very different. If you start looking at trends that are developing now, wearable technologies, the move to different types, sizes, and uses of hardware, and how the knowledge that is built into the search engine’s ecosystem can power the backend of those devices, it starts to get a little bit sketchy then. Because at some point, what’s happening here is search is answering questions as fast as you can think of them, but it has nothing to do with typing into a search box and getting a list of results.

As a business, are you positioned for this? Because that change is coming. That is the future. It’s just a while out yet. Everybody still has to figure out the hardware and algorithms. But, where are you at with that? There’s a reason why Bing is building that intelligent fabric, that ability to complete tasks and power knowledge across different devices. That is the future.

Eric Enge: No question. People really need to be looking at that bigger picture. Bing is still using links as a ranking factor, but of all the links that somebody has, it might be a very small number of those links you see in their back link profile.

Duane Forrester: Absolutely, I love this. Often, it’s a single link that helps you rank well. If you’re really chasing volume links you are wasting your time.

The problem with linking reports is you don’t have an answer as to which links in that group actually matter. You’re still guessing at that. The job of an SEO is to guess correctly. It’s to understand which, out of all those links, really matter. Unfortunately, too many times people look at a linking report, and they focus on the number of links. They are far better off celebrating the 4 links they received from USA Today from articles they’ve done where we’ve been quoted.

You might only get one or two of those links a year. But if that’s what’s helping you, the rest of whatever is in that linking report is just fluff. It’s not really doing anything for you. I caution people looking at these things.

At least pop your head up and ask yourself, am I potentially leading myself down a blind alley? Am I potentially forgetting something that I could be focusing on, because I’m focused on something else? Always go through that mental checklist with yourself.

Eric Enge: The interesting thing is that the links from those higher authority sites, such as the USA Today, are much harder to game. You’re going to have to have great content. You’re going to have to build that brand and reputation, if you’re actually going to succeed in getting quoted by those people.

You could argue about what signal Bing uses most at the algorithmic level if you wanted to. By the time you unravel it all, you figure out how am I going to get to all of the right places and get the right breadth of signals that I really need. It goes back to what you’ve been saying. Content, social media, and usability.

If I’m not mistaken, one of the reasons you’ve put link building in the fourth spot, pursuing it as a purposeful task as opposed to focusing on holistic behavior that causes that to happen truly organically often leads to the wrong type of thinking.

Duane Forrester: I originally had link building in the fifth spot on my chart, but part of me felt that would be a little too expected, given I’m a search engine telling people that link building is not important. The only reason it ended up fourth spot was because we’re now at the stage with On Page SEO, where SEO is mainstream enough that you have to be doing the basics and you have to do them correctly. It’s not optional any more. It’s a baseline. You’ve got to do this. This is the reason I put SEO in the fifth spot.

Priority Number Five: On Page SEO

Eric Enge: That makes a good transition into our 5th item, SEO. What are your thoughts on that?

Duane Forrester: All things being equal, a better-optimized site should be a better experience for a searcher. But if you’re relying solely on On-Page SEO, you are missing the point. You’ll succeed to a degree. You’ll probably increase your numbers over where you currently are. But then that increase will stop. You’ll flatline and you’ll wonder why.

Eric Enge: Not only that, you’ll be doing your SEO sub-optimally.

Duane Forrester: Oh, completely. We really do need a better name for this than SEO, because there’s so much more to it now. The idea of getting a site ranked, the idea of driving traffic, of growing engagement and being successful, is not just an SEO effort.

Today, many people still think that way. It’s similar to, when you say the words link building, you go down the wrong path mentally. When you say the phrase SEO, it’s that same wrong path mentally. Because what we’re really talking about here is, in this graph when I’m talking about SEO, I’m talking about the purely technical things that you have to get sorted out.

Some content management systems will create duplicate content all on their own. Others will manage it effectively. You have to understand who you are, and you have to understand if you need rel=canonical or if you do not need rel=canonical. Those are important things to figure out. They have to be done. But that’s baseline work today. It’s important that people do it, but I expect people to do that.

Really, what we see is, people put so much time into all of that. Not taking away from the fact that it does take time to get the stuff done, I used to work at MSN, I know how long it can take to move a project forward. I also used to work at a small publisher, and I run my own website, so I know how quickly some things can be done as well. Everyone is on that continuum from long to short-term to get this done.

But you can’t be doing those things and ignoring user experience, social media, content. You can’t be half-assing anything today. That’s the takeaway here. In the future, there’s going to be even less room for that. Every day there are new people coming online that are going to make a name for themselves, who are going to push somebody who is today’s greatness off the map. It happens every single day.

It’s going to happen again tomorrow and the next day and the next day. The good news is that everybody who is somebody today, or who is growing to be somebody today, can protect themselves by investing in these areas now. By getting really good at making sure they’re nailing it on these things.

One other thing, you have to get good at questioning yourself. Every couple of months you’ve got to ask yourself, is what I’m doing today, right now, my process, still the best it can be? Or is there a way for me to refine my process to make it better?

Eric Enge: At this point, a solid approach to SEO is what can call “table stakes”. You don’t get to play without it.

Duane Forrester: Exactly. That’s how you enter the game. If you haven’t put it down, you’re not actually in the game. You might be in the room, but you’re not in the game. It’s important that people do that. If you’re running a WordPress site, it is so simple. Just go use a plugin and fill in the blanks. Move forward.

You’ve got much bigger fish to fry, in terms of your content, in terms of managing social media, in terms of getting that user experience sorted out. You have many more important areas to put your time in, than trying to fix a platform like WordPress. WordPress is not the most SEO friendly content management system out there, but it is very popular. And with the right plugins and a little bit of understanding on how to use them, it can be quite effective.

So you need to do a good job with SEO, but the big areas where I would focus are content, social media, and the user experience.

Eric Enge: Thanks Duane!

Duane Forrester: Thank you Eric!

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Eric Enge
Eric Enge is a partner at Stone Temple Consulting (STC), which has been providing SEO Consulting services for over 5 years. STC has worked with a wide range of clients, ranging from small silicon valley start-ups, to Fortune 25 companies. Eric is also co-author of The Art of SEO book.


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