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The state of tracking and data privacy in 2020

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January 2020 felt like a turning point. CCPA went into effect, Google Chrome became the latest browser to commit to a cookie-less future and, after months of analytics folks sounding the alarm, digital marketers sobered to a vision of the future that looks quite different than today.

This article is not a complete history of consumer privacy nor a technical thesis on web tracking, although I link to a few good ones in the following paragraphs.

Instead, this is the state of affairs in our industry, an assessment of where search marketers find themselves in the current entanglement of data and privacy and where we can expect it to go from here.

This is also a call to action. It’s far from hyperbole to suggest that the future of digital and search marketing will be greatly defined by the actions and inactions of this current calendar year.

Why is 2020 so important? Let’s assume with some confidence that your company or clients find the following elements valuable, and review how they could be affected as the associated trends unfold this year.

  1. Channel attribution will stumble as tracking limitations break measurability and show artificial performance fluctuations.
  1. Campaign efficiency will lose clarity as retargeting efficacy diminishes and audience alignment blurs.
  1. Customer experience will falter as marketers lose control of frequency capping and creative sequencing. 

Despite the setbacks, it is not my intention to imply that improved regulation is a misstep for the consumers or companies we serve. Marketing is at its best when all of its stakeholders benefit and at its worst when an imbalance erodes mutual value and trust. But the inevitable path ahead, regardless of the destination, promises to be long and uncomfortable unless marketers are educated and contribute to the conversation.

That means the first step is understanding the basics.

A brief technical history of web tracking (for the generalist)

Search marketers know more than most about web tracking. We know enough to set people straight at dinner parties — “No, your Wear OS watch is not spying on you” — and follow along at conferences like SMX when a speaker references the potentially morbid future of data management platforms. Yet most of us would not feel confident in front of a whiteboard explaining how cookies store data or advising our board of directors on CCPA compliance. 

That’s okay. We’ve got other superpowers, nice shiny ones that have their own merit. Yet the events unfolding in 2020 will define our role as marketers and our value to consumers. We find ourselves in the middle of a privacy debate, and we should feel equipped to participate in it with a grasp of the key concepts. 

What is the cookie? 

A cookie stores information that is passed between browser and server to provide consistency as users navigate pages and sites. Consistency is an operative word. For example, that consistency can benefit consumers, like the common shopping cart example. 

Online shoppers add a product to the cart and, as they navigate the site, the product stays in the shopping cart. They can even jump to a competitor site to price compare and, when they return, the product is still in the shopping cart. That consistency makes it easier for them to shop, navigate an authenticated portion of a site, and exist a modern multi-browser, multi-device digital world.

Consistency can also benefit marketers. Can you imagine what would happen to conversion rates if users had to authenticate several times per visit? The pace of online shopping would grind to a crawl, Amazon would self combust, and Blockbuster video would rise like a phoenix.

But that consistency can violate trust. 

Some cookies are removed when you close your browser. Others can accrue data over months or years, aggregating information across many sites, sessions, purchases and content consumption. The differences between cookie types can be subtle while the implications are substantial.

Comparing first- and third-party cookies

It is important for marketers to understand that first- and third-party cookies are written, read and stored in the same way. Simo Ahava does a superb job expanding on this concept in his open-source project that is absolutely recommended reading. Here’s a snippet.

It’s common in the parlance of the web to talk about first-party cookies and third-party cookies. This is a bit of a misnomer. Cookies are pieces of information that are stored on the user’s computer. There is no distinction between first-party and third-party in how these cookies are classified and stored on the computer. What matters is the context of the access.

The difference is the top-level domain that the cookie references. A first-party cookie references and interacts with the one domain and its subdomains. 

  • searchengineland.com
  • searchengineland.com/staff
  • events.searchengineland.com

A third-party cookie references and interacts with multiple domains. 

  • searchengineland.com
  • events.marketingland.com
  • garberson.org/images

Marketing Land has a helpful explainer, aptly called WTF is a cookie, anyway? If you’re more of a visual learner, here is a super simplistic explanation of cookies from The Guardian. Both are from 2014 so not current but the basics are still the basics.

Other important web tracking concepts

Persistent cookies and session cookies refer to duration. Session cookies expire at the end of the session when the browser closes. Persistent cookies do not. Data duration will prove to be an important concept in the regulation sections. 

Cookies are not the only way to track consumers online. Fingerprinting, which uses the dozens of browser and device settings as unique identifiers, has gotten a lot of attention from platform providers, including a foreshadowed assault in Google’s Privacy Sandbox announcement.

Privacy Sandbox is Google’s attempt at setting a new standard for targeted advertising with an emphasis on user privacy. In other words, Google’s ad products and Chrome browser hope to maintain agreeable levels of privacy without the aggressive first-party cookie limitations displayed by other leading browsers like Safari and Firefox.

Storage is a broad concept. Often it applies to cookie storage, and how browsers can restrict the storage of cookies, but there are other ways to store information. LocalStorage uses Javascript to store information in browsers. It appeared that alternate storage approaches offered hope for web analysts and marketers affected by cookie loss until recent browser updates made those tactics instantly antiquated.   

Drivers: How we got here

It would be convenient if we could start this story with one event, like a first domino to fall, that changed the course of modern data privacy and contributed to the world we see in 2020. For example, if you ask a historian about WWI, many would point to a day in Sarajevo. One minute Ol’ Archduke Ferdinand was enjoying some sun in his convertible, the next minute his day took a turn for the worse. It is hard to find that with tracking and data privacy. 

Facebook’s path to monetization certainly played a part. In the face of market skepticism about the social media business model, Facebook found a path to payday by opening the data floodgates.

While unfair to give Facebook all the credit or blame, the company certainly supported the narrative that data became the new oil. An iconic Economist article drew several parallels to oil, including the consolidated, oligopolistic tendencies of former oil giants.

“The giants’ surveillance systems span the entire economy: Google can see what people search for, Facebook what they share, Amazon what they buy,” the Economist wrote. “They own app stores and operating systems, and rent out computing power…”

That consolidation of data contributed to an increase in the frequency and impact of data leaks and breaches. Like fish in a bucket, nefarious actors knew where to look to reap the biggest rewards on their hacking efforts.

It was a matter of time until corporate entities attempted to walk the blurring line of legality, introducing a new weaponization of data that occurred outside of the deepest, darkest bowels of the internet.

Enter Cambridge Analytica. Two words that changed the way every web analyst introduced themselves to strangers. “I do analytics but, you know, not in, like, a creepy way.”

Cambridge Analytica, the defunct data-mining firm entwined in political scandal, shed a frightening light on the granularity and unchecked accessibility of platform data. Investigative reporting revealed to citizens around the world that their information could not only be used by advertising campaigns to sell widgets, but also by political campaigns to sell elections. For the first time in many homes, the effects of modern data privacy became tangible and personal.  

Outcomes: Where we are today

The state of data privacy in 2020 can perhaps best be understood by framing it in terms of drivers and destinations. Consumer drivers, like those mentioned in the previous section, created reactions from stakeholders. Some micro-level outcomes, like actions taken by individual consumers, were predictable. 

For example, the #deletefacebook hashtag first trended after the Cambridge Analytica story broke and surveys found that three-quarters of Americans tightened their Facebook privacy settings or deleted the app on their phone. 

The largest outcomes are arguably happening at macro levels, where one (re-)action affects millions or hundreds of millions of people. We have seen some of that from consumers with the adoption of ad blockers. For publishers and companies that live and die with the ad impression, losing a quarter of your ad inventory due to ad blockers was, and still is, devastating. 

Political Outcomes

Only weeks after Cambridge Analytica found its infamy in the headlines, the European Union adopted GDPR to enhance and defend privacy standards for its citizens, forcing digital privacy discussions into both living rooms and board rooms around the world.  

Let’s use the following Google Trends chart for “data privacy” in the United States to dive deeper into five key outcomes.

General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) has handed out more than €114 million in fines to companies doing business in the EU since becoming enforceable in May 2018. It’s been called “Protection + Teeth” in that the law provides a variety of data protection and privacy rights to EU citizens while allowing fine enforcement of up to €20 million or 4 percent of revenue, whichever hurts violators the most.

Months later, the United States welcomed the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), which went into effect in January 2020 — becoming enforceable in July. Similar to GDPR, a central theme is transparency, in that Californians have the right to understand which data is collected and how that data is shared or sold to third parties.

CCPA is interesting for a few reasons. California is material. The state represents a double-digit share of both the US population and gross domestic product. It is also not the first time that California’s novel digital privacy legislation influenced a nation-wide model. The state introduced the first data breach notification laws in 2003, and other states quickly followed.

California is not alone with CCPA, either. Two dozen US state governments have introduced bills around digital tracking and data privacy, with at least a dozen pending legislation. That includes Nevada’s SB220 which became enacted and enforceable within a matter of months in 2019.

Corporate Outcomes

Corporate responses have come in many forms, from ad blockers I mentioned to platform privacy updates to the dissolution of ad-tech providers. I will address some of these stories and trends in the following section, but, for now, let’s focus on the actions of one technology that promises to trigger exponential effects on search marketing: web browsers.

The Safari browser introduced Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP) in 2017 to algorithmically limit cross-site tracking. Let’s pause to dissect the last few words in that sentence.

  • Algorithmically = automated decisions that prioritize scale over discernment
  • Limit = block immediately or after a short duration
  • Cross-site tracking = first- and third-party cookies

ITP 1.0 was only the beginning. From there, the following iterations tightened cookie duration, storage, and the role of first-party cookies for web analytics. Abigail Matchett explains the implications for users of Google Analytics.

“All client-side cookies (including first-party trusted cookies such as Google Analytics) were capped to seven days of storage. This may seem like a brief window as many users do not visit a website each week. However, with ITP 2.2 and ITP 2.3… all client-side cookies are now capped to 24-hours of storage for Safari users… This means that if a user visits your site on Monday, and returns on Wednesday, they will be granted a new _ga cookie by default.”

You are beginning to see why this is a big deal. Whether intended or not, these actions reinforce the use of quantitative metrics rather than quality measures by obstructing attribution. There is far more than can be said on ITP so if you are ready for a weekend read, I recommend this thorough technical assessment of the ITP 2.1 effects on analytics.

If ITP got marketer’s attention, Google reinforced it by announcing that Chrome would stop supporting third-party cookies in two years, codifying for marketers that cookie loss was not a can to be kicked down the road. 

“Cookies have always been unreliable,” Simo Ahava told me. “To be blind-sided by the recent changes in web browsers means you haven’t been looking at data critically before. We are entering a post-cookie world of web analytics.”

Where it goes from here

The state of tracking and data privacy can take several paths from here. I outline a few of the most plausible then ask others in the analytics and digital space to offer their insights and recommendations. 

2020 Path A: Lack of clarity leads to little change from search marketers

This outcome seemed like a real possibility in the first week of January as California enacted CCPA while enforcement deadlines got delayed. It was not yet clear what enforcement would look like later in the year and it appeared, despite big promises, that tomorrow would look a lot like today. 

This path looked less likely after the second week of January. That leads us to the next section.

2020 Path B: Compounding tracking limitations keep marketers on their heels

Already in 2020 we have seen CCPA take effect, Chrome put cookies on notice, stocks for companies that rely on third-party cookies tumble, and the sacrifice of data providers that threatened consumer trust.

And that’s just January.

2020 Path C: Correction as consumer fear eases in response to industry action

The backlash to tracking and privacy is a reaction to imbalance. Consumers are protecting their data, politicians are protecting their constituents, and platforms are protecting their profits. As difficult as it is to see from our vantage point today, it’s most likely that these imbalances will normalize as stakeholders feel safe. The question is how long it will take and how many counter adjustments are required in the wake of over or under correcting.

As digital marketers, who in some ways represent both the consumers with whom we identify and the platforms with whom we depend, are in a unique position to expedite the correction and return to balance.

Finally, I would like to congratulate Simon Poulton on the birth of his first child, Matthew. We started writing this article together then someone wonderful decided to show up early. We all look forward to seeing you again at SMX someday soon. Congrats, Simon.


Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.


About The Author

Andrew Garberson is SVP of Marketing Services at Bounteous, an agency that creates big-picture digital solutions that help leading companies deliver transformational brand experiences. In addition to leading SEO, SEM, CRO, media, marketing automation and email teams at Bounteous, Andrew is an adjunct professor of digital marketing at Chatham University and frequent conference speaker at SMX and other leading industry events.



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How to drive digital innovation necessary during the pandemic

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30-second summary:

  • COVID-19 has kept consumers in their homes, which has led to significant spikes in internet use and companies scrambling to digitize in order to meet customers where they are.
  • The ability to quickly develop digital capabilities will continue to be critical for meeting customer needs and ensuring organizations’ survival.
  • To remain competitive, companies must enhance the digital customer experiences they offer through upgraded social media, optimized conversion, strategies, better marketing research, an effective internal website search, and fresh customer touchpoints.

Emerging digital technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and cloud computing enticed leaders with their agility and efficiency. Many companies planned to make digitization a goal for the new decade.

In hindsight, they probably wish they hadn’t waited.

The novel coronavirus upended every aspect of our lives. As businesses and governments around the world try to combat the pandemic, millions of consumers sit inside their homes. And where do people go during a government-mandated lockdown? Online.

The unprecedented shift to remote work and online learning, combined with a dramatic increase in movie streaming, videoconferencing, and social media traffic, has led to significant spikes in internet use. In this same time frame, big tech companies — the businesses at the forefront of digital innovation — have flourished, as have brands that capitalized on the power of social media engagement.

The biggest trick to digitization right now is meeting customers where they are. For example, my company, Teknicks, is working with an online K-12 speech and occupational therapy provider. When schools began transitioning to remote learning, students’ needs changed, too. We helped the provider pivot its value proposition and messaging to accommodate school districts’ new realities. By focusing on teletherapy tools and reassuring parents, we’ve seen substantial growth and brand recognition during the pandemic.

Until we find a vaccine for the novel coronavirus, your customers will likely engage with you through online channels. The ability to develop digital capabilities quickly will continue to be critical for meeting customer needs and ensuring survival for your organization. With that in mind, here’s how you can enhance your digital customers’ experiences:

1. Upgrade your social media

It’s not hard to be good at social media marketing — it’s hard to be great. As you build your audience on websites like Facebook and Instagram, be sure to engage with followers consistently. Create a content calendar mapping out your posts and sharing strategies and stick to it. These platforms are also a great channel for customer service, allowing you to provide personalized support and become instantaneously useful (something that customer support tickets and chatbots never seem to be).

If you already have a sizable engaged audience, it’s time to work on your content strategy. Don’t build your content strategy around keywords. Instead, focus on your audiences’ needs. A truly effective content strategy will be customized for the platform you’re on and will account for the user behavior most characteristic of that platform. Naturally, you will use keywords and phrases that are optimized for discoverability while maintaining authenticity.

One key strategy is to conduct marketing research using a survey. This tactic goes well beyond traditional keyword research and generates content ideas directly from your targeted audience, not a keyword tool. Surveying your prospective customers allows them to tell you what type of content they want to consume, significantly increasing the likelihood of engagement. Often, this strategy is the key to successful marketing strategy. I’ll go into more detail below.

2. Focus on and prioritize conversion optimization

Ideally, your website looks good and loads quickly, but those qualities alone don’t make a website great. The user experience that your website offers is ultimately what determines whether customers bounce in droves or actually stick around. Attempting to boost your initial traffic will exponentially increase customer acquisition costs, so improving your conversion rates via website optimization is a more affordable (and profitable) solution.

We often see double-digit increases in conversion rates on our first test. We typically focus on the most trafficked pages to increase the likelihood of big, impactful wins. There is an entire science behind conversion optimization, but the core fundamentals have remained the same for years.

To make sure your website’s architecture is seamless and intuitive, develop a conversion rate optimization strategy that works for you. This will require you to ask visitors for feedback, experiment with different messaging options, and regularly review your analytics, among other things. The idea is to get to know your visitors well. It takes work, but it will pay off over time as the incremental conversion rate increases impact top-line revenue.

3. Conduct marketing research surveys

With the right insights, you can turn every engagement into a memorable and valuable experience for both you and your customers. The best way to get customer insights is to ask. Design a survey of up to 10 questions in a variety of formats along with some screening questions to make sure the feedback you get is actually useful.

When designing, consider your potential customers’ preferences and pain points. For example, if you know your audience is mostly on Instagram, asking “What do you like about social media?” won’t be as effective as “What makes Instagram posts better than Facebook posts?” Once the survey’s drafted, post it to your social channels and send it out to your mailing list. You want to understand which messages resonate with your audience before you spend a cent on marketing. Learning how to conduct marketing research is one of the most important marketing skills you can attain.

Asking individual customers how they feel about various messaging options can give you a goldmine of useful data to help inform the language and design choices you make. Not every customer will choose to participate in a survey, but some will. Show them you appreciate their input by offering a small discount or another incentive once the survey is completed. You’ll be surprised by how many responses you get and how beneficial the precursory information is.

4. Review your internal website search

As much as you’d love for every visitor to spend hours exploring every nook and cranny of your website, most will want to get on with their lives after they’ve found what they came for. To make the process faster, you should offer some sort of internal website search functionality. If you don’t already have one, add a search box to your navigation menu.

Not every website has one, and even the ones that do have very surface-level functions. However, search bars are a valuable asset that can increase internal sessions and conversion. Internal website searchers are 216% likelier to convert, according to WebLinc. Search bars assist your visitors and expand your understanding of user behavior, providing you with the information you need in order to adjust your website accordingly.

Evaluate the effectiveness of your internal search, taking notice of how it finds and organizes the content after a search. Most native search functionality is very basic and just looks for the presence of “search term,” but you may want to test out more advanced filters that help users more effectively find the information they are looking for.

I recommend looking at the search data monthly to see what users have been looking for. Be sure to review what searches yielded zero results and which searches brought up irrelevant content. Identify areas that can be approved and understand your content gaps that need additional content to support the demand.

5. Identify new customer touchpoints

Innovation is all about using new technology to improve old processes. While your typical customer journey might depend on your industry and business, chances are good that you can find ways to enhance it with emerging technologies.

Evaluating whether an emerging technology is a fit for your business and whether you should invest in testing it out, starts with (drumroll …) a survey. As we discussed earlier, surveys can answer just about anything you want to know about your target audience. Go ahead and ask your audience if they own or use the emerging tech and validate its place in the customer journey.

Take the new home buying process, for example. David Weekley Homes, the largest privately-held home builder in the U.S., wanted to better understand whether voice-enabled devices can play a role in the customer journey. The company also wanted to propose a voice app idea to the audience and understand how they felt about the emerging technology concept. By conducting a survey, we uncovered that 81% of the respondents would consider the voice app idea to be somewhat to extremely valuable and 70% would possibly to definitely use the voice app if it existed.

The increasing usage of voice search and voice-enabled devices also offers an opportunity for consumer brands to make it easier than ever for customers to find their products. Tide, for example, has capitalized on marketing on Amazon’s Alexa Skills platform to remove a step from the purchasing process. Customers can use the company’s skill to order Tide products without having to pull up the Amazon app or go to the Tide website. In that way, new tech makes an old process (purchasing detergent) more frictionless than ever.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made digital innovation a business imperative. Regardless of your industry, you should look for ways to anticipate and meet customer needs. Your customers expect a seamless digital experience. If you can’t provide it, they won’t have to leave their homes to find someone else that can.

Nick Chasinov is the founder and CEO of Teknicks, a research-based internet marketing agency certified by Google in Analytics, Tag Manager, and a Google Premier AdWords partner.



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Core Web Vitals, E-A-T, or AMP?

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30-second summary:

  • The biggest Google update of the year is called the Page Experience update.
  • Core Web Vitals are part of that update, and they are definitely ranking factors to keep in mind, especially when optimizing images.
  • AMP is no longer the only way to get a “Top Stories” feature on mobile. Starting in 2021, any news webpage can become a “Top Story”.
  • Combining AMP’s privacy concerns and cost of operation might mean that AMP will disappear within a couple of years.
  • E-A-T is not a ranking factor right now, and we don’t know if it will become one in the future.

2020. What a year. History is happening around us, and Google? Well, Google keeps on revamping their search algorithms. Over the years, there have been many many major algorithm updates, as Google worked to keep us on our toes. 2020 was no different: in one fell swoop, we got the news about a Page Experience update and AMP news. All the while the debate about whether or not you need E-A-T for ranking rages on. How do the Core Web Vitals stand in changing the search game in 2021?

Let’s go over each of these innovations and see which will change the way we do SEO, and which will fade into obscurity sooner rather than later.

1. Importance of core web vitals for SEO

Core Web Vitals were part of Page Experience update, and, by far, caused the biggest ruckus.

There’s a lot to learn about Core Web Vitals, but they boil down to the three biggest issues on our webpages:

  1. LCP — Largest Contentful Paint, which deals with the loading speed of the largest single object on the page.
  2. FID — First Input Delay, which means the reaction time of the page to the first user input after (whether they click, tap, or press any keys).
  3. CLS — Cumulative Layout Shift — this is the measure of how much the content of the page jumps while loading content, mostly visual content, after opening.

How core web vitals influences rankings

Of course, some SEO experts think that the entire Page Experience update is nothing special, and could even: “[…] distract, […] from the core mission of communication and storytelling,”.

And, sure, most of Page experience update is simply an assembly of things we’ve known for a while: use HTTPS, be mobile-friendly, control your page speed, and so on.

But Core Web Vitals are a bit different and can influence the SEO practice in unexpected ways. Key factor that’s already changing rankings is Cumulative Layout Shift.

As most SEO experts know, for a while an important part of image optimization was using the <decoding=async> attribute in the <img> tag to avoid losing page speed while rendering the page.

Using <decoding=async> could lead to some seriously janky pages if coders didn’t specify the height and width of every single image to be rendered. Some websites did it anyway, for example, Wikipedia on most of its pages has a predefined space for images created ahead of time.

Core Web Vitals and other ranking factors for 2021 - Wikipedia

But as SEO experts we didn’t have to worry about pages being jumpy all too much, as that didn’t influence the rankings. Now with CLS being formally announced as a ranking factor, things will change for a whole slew of websites and SEO experts.

We’ll need to make sure that every webpage is coded with CLS in mind, with the needed space for every image defined ahead of time, to avoid the layout shifts.

The verdict

Overall, of course, it’s too early to tell, and more work by SEO’s around the web needs to be done here. However, it seems that if you aren’t used to focusing on technical SEO, Core Web Vitals becoming ranking signals might not influence your day-to-day work at all.

However, if you are conducting complicated technical SEO, then Core Web Vitals will definitely change the way you work in as-yet unexpected ways.

2. Importance of AMP for SEO

The AMP’s relevance today is kind of an open question. While it’s always been great as a quick-and-easy way to increase page speed, the privacy concerns have been voiced over and over again since the technology’s very inception.

But in 2020, significant changes are afoot, since, within the same Page Experience update, Google announced that there’s finally no requirement for us to create AMP pages to occupy the “Top Stories” SERP feature.

That’s a pretty huge step for anybody trying to accrue as many SERP features as they can, and, in particular, for news websites.

Core Web Vitals and other search ranking factors for 2021 - Top Stories

How AMP influences rankings

If we believe John Muellers’ words, then AMP is not a ranking factor. Seems plain and simple enough. But of course, things aren’t so simple, because AMP comes with pretty significant gains in page speed, and speed is an important ranking factor.

Thanks to AMP’s pre-rendering combined with some severe design limitations, AMP webpages often really do win in page speed, even if not in ranking as is.

The “Top Stories” SERP feature, however, was a huge benefit to using an AMP for any news agency with a website, and it’s easy to understand why. Just look at how much of the page is occupied by the “Top Stories” results.

Not only do “Top Stories” automatically get top 1 ranking on the SERP, but they also sport a logo of the website posting them, standing out even more from the boring old blue-link SERP.

This means that for a few years now news websites were essentially forced into using AMP to get into a “Top Stories” SERP feature on mobile since it absorbs a whole lot of clicks.

On the other hand, it takes quite a lot of resources to support AMP versions of the webpages, because you are basically maintaining a whole additional version of your website.

Added to which, a page that’s been properly optimized for speed might not need AMP for those speed gains, as well.

The verdict

While it’s tough to imagine that AMP will fade away completely within the next couple of years, AMP’s privacy issues combined with the cost of maintaining it might spell the end of it being a widely used practice.

Now, with the “Top Stories” becoming available to non-AMP pages, there’s virtually no reason to jeopardize the users’ security for speed gains you could get by proper optimization.

3. Importance of E-A-T for SEO

Expertise. Authority. Trust. All perfectly positive words and something we should all strive for in our professional lives. But what about search optimization?

Coming straight from Google’s Quality Rater Guidelines, E-A-T has been the talk of the town for a good moment now. Let’s dive in and see how they might change the way we optimize for search.

How E-A-T influences rankings

For most of us, they don’t really.

Sure, Quality Rater Guidelines provide valuable insights into Google’s ranking process. However, E-A-T is one of the lesser-important factors we should be focusing on, partly because these are nebulous, abstract concepts, and partly because Google doesn’t exactly want us to.

As Google’s official representatives informed us, E-A-T is not in itself a ranking factor.

Receiving follow-up questions, Google’s John Mueller then reiterated that point, and Ben Gomes, Google’s VP of search engineering confirmed that quality raters don’t influence any page’s rankings directly.

However, in practice, we often see that the so-called YMYL websites already can’t rank without having some expertise and authority established. A very popular example is that it’s virtually impossible to rank a website providing medical advice without an actual doctor writing the articles.

The problem here is that expertise, authority, and trustworthiness are not easily interpreted by the search algorithms, which only understand code.

And, at the moment, there seems to be no surefire way for Google to transform these signals into rankings, except to read the feedback of their quality raters before each algorithm update.

The verdict

While using E-A-T to rank websites might sound like an inarguable benefit for the searcher, there is a couple of concerns that aren’t easily solved, namely:

  1. Who exactly will be determining the E-A-T signals, and according to which standard?
  2. The introduction of such factors creates a system where the smaller and newer websites are punished in rankings for not having the trustworthiness that they couldn’t realistically acquire.

Responding to both of these concerns requires time and effort on the search engine’s side.

As things stand right now, E-A-T is not something to keep in mind while doing day-to-day SEO operations.

Let’s imagine a fantastical scenario where a webmaster/SEO expert has some free time. Then they might want to work on E-A-T, to try and stay ahead of the curve.

On the other hand, there simply isn’t any proof that Google will actually use E-A-T. Or that, even if used, these signals will become major ranking factors. For this reason, E-A-T shouldn’t be your priority ahead of traditional SEO tasks like link building and technical optimization.

Additionally, consider this. The entire Quality Rater Guidelines is 168 pages long. However, a comprehensive explanation of what E-A-T is and why it might be calculated a certain way will take many more pages than that.

Conclusion

As of the time of this writing, the Core Web Vitals seems to be the most important ranking news to come out in 2020 in practical terms. However, search is an extremely volatile field: what worked two weeks ago may not work today, and what works today might not work for most of us.

The matters are further complicated because we’re fighting an uneven battle: it’s simply not in search engines’ best interest to give us a full and detailed picture of how ranking works, lest we abuse it.

This is why it’s crucial to keep our hand on the pulse of optimization news and changes occurring every single day. With constant efforts from our SEO community to work out the best way to top rankings, it’s possible for us to close that gap and know for sure which trends are paramount, and which we can allow ourselves to overlook.

Aleh Barysevich is Founder and CMO at SEO PowerSuite and Awario.





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How to optimize and use effectively

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30-second summary:

  • Partial match domains refer to when your domain name has partially included the main keyword that you are trying to rank for.
  • There are many aspects that make it different from how the exact match domain works.
  • Tudor Lodge Consultants share a quick guide to help you succeed at partial match domains, understand the caveats, and optimize effectively.

Partial match domains refer to when your domain name has partially included the main keyword that you are trying to rank for.

Commonly used by SEO professionals to gain an advantage when it comes to ranking in the search engines or from business owners who have a company name that is closely linked to the services they offer or area they work in.

Examples of partial matches include having vital keywords like “insurance”, “loans”, or “casino” in the domain name or adding words like “hub”, “network”, or “quick” to the beginning or end of the domain, such as casinohub.com, everydayinsurance.com or quickmoney.com

This is different from an exact match domain (EMD) which stipulates the exact keywords you are trying to rank for in your domain name e.g carinsurance.com, plumbing.com, bestcasinos.com

Content created in partnership with Tudor Lodge Consultants.

Why can partial match domains be an issue?

Historically, having an exact match or partial match domain was a sure-fire way to rank top for your target keywords – only for Google to weigh this down considerably in recent years as a way to make SEO positions more ‘earned’ rather than ‘gained.’

Partial match and exact match domain have been shown to have a higher click-through-rate (CTR) in search results – largely because they mention the exact words that the customer is looking for. Unsurprisingly, these domains can be worth thousands and are put on sale through the likes of GoDaddy and 123 Reg.

Whilst having a partial match domain can be an advantage for SEO, there is always the risk of exposing your business to a Google penalty, especially as Google’s guidelines become more strict and give preference to brands that demonstrate good use of the content, link-building, varied traffic sources, and user experience.

Although you may demonstrate very good SEO results initially, you may find yourself compromised during the next algorithm update, which could have a massive impact on your website and its rankings – and make it very challenging to recover from the penalty. Not to mention, the financial implications to you and your client.

Therefore, being conscious of partial matches and how they work for SEO is of vital importance.

When partial match domains are high risk

Partial matches are high risk when optimizing in an industry that is very highly competitive and prone to algorithm updates – such as casino or gamblings, loans and credit, finance and insurance, web hosting, FX, and more.

Reason 1: There is a risk that you may use too many keywords in your URL, meta-data, and content and this is deemed as keyword stuffing by Google and is therefore penalized in the next update.

Reason 2: You may be generating links back to the site, but getting your brand name linked back to the site might be considered overkill if it mentions high-risk words like “casino”, “loans”, or “insurance” too often.

When partial match domains are low risk

Partial match domains are low risk when targeting local SEO searches (that is, a location) or the keywords are not competitive.

After all, if you have the domain name malibu-hairdressers.com, there are only going to be a handful of hairdressers in the Malibu area to compete against and this is a viable name for a company in that area. Also, local SEO searches are not often included in algorithm updates, which makes them a safer bet and you can always gain good and free exposure through the three results that feature on Google Local Listings.

If your keywords are not competitive and you are more or less the only person in your industry, you should be low risk, since you may not need many optimizations to get to position one of Google and the role of keyword stuffing does not come into play as much.

In addition, if your website is an information resource, you are trying to capture lots of search phrases and not heavily relying on just a few that might be struck by an algorithm. A website that is full of guides or news, should generate content and links more naturally, even though it has a partial match domain. Successful examples of sites like this include searchenginewatch.com, moneyadviceservice.co.uk, and smcrcompliance.com.

How to optimize partial match domains

1. Be as natural as possible

If you have a partial match domain and are already optimizing it, try to make the SEO as natural as possible. Create good quality content guides or blog posts and when getting links, drive them towards these pages, not your money pages.

If you are linking back money pages, use anchor like ‘read more’ or ‘find out more’ to hyperlink back to them. Try to stay clear or exact match or partial match anchor text as this could be seen as too spammy. It’s not too late to message all the links you have generated so far and get them redirected to safer pages or blog posts on your website. This approach may take longer but will be much more safer and effective long-term.

2. Manage your keyword stuffing

Try and avoid using the main keyword like “casino” or “insurance” too often. One of the simplest ways is to mention it one only in the meta-title, meta-description, and URL too.

Rather than: quickcarinsurance.com/car-insurance

Use: quickcarinsurance.com/car

3. Try to avoid using one from the start

If you can avoid using a partial match domain from the start, this would be ideal. As SEOs, we never know what is round the corner with Google’s guidelines, but we can certainly see the trend of brands taking center stage on page one. So with this in mind, try using a brand name if you can.

Be clever with your domain name: You do not necessarily have to include the money word to get the value of a high-click-rate. You can be smart with your domain choices, such as the company Fetch.com which is a pick-up delivery app, or Paw.com for dog accessories, or GetIndemnity.co.uk, the large business insurance broker. Think of good synonyms or words connected to the brand, without compromising your Google ranking.

4. Manage the expectations of your client

The majority of SEO clients want quick results, even though we really need six to 12 months (or longer) to show the full impact of our work. When pitching to a client with a partial match or exact match domain, you need to manage expectations that there might be a fall in rankings during the course of a year due to an algorithm change – and you may need to make changes for this to recover. Someone with a long-term view on their SEO will appreciate this, but someone who wants quick results will not and will likely demand their money back before you know it.



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