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Monthly Archives: April 2015

SearchCap: Google Speeds Up The Web, Expedia Goes Emoji & Hreflang

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By Barry Schwartz

Below is what happened in search today, as reported on Search Engine Land and from other places across the web.

From Search Engine Land:

Recent Headlines From Marketing Land, Our Sister Site Dedicated To Internet Marketing:

Search News From Around The Web:

Local & Maps



SEM / Paid Search

Search Marketing

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Wanted: Session Ideas For SMX East

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By Chris Sherman

We want your input to help us plan our upcoming SMX East conference, which will be taking place in New York City on Sept. 29 – Oct 1. Specifically, we’d love to hear from you if you have an great idea for a session that you think should be on the agenda. And if you’re interested in speaking at the show, the absolute best way to improve your chances of being chosen is to get involved at this point, by suggesting an awesome idea that really catches our attention.

We’re looking for two types of suggestions:

Session ideas for regular SMX sessions. Most sessions at SMX conferences are 60-90 minutes in length, and feature 2 to 3 speakers. Here, we’re not looking for solo presentations; rather, your idea should be a topic where multiple speakers can each weigh in with their own point of view, opinion and suggested tactics. You can let us know if you’re interested in speaking or would just like to see the session idea considered without nominating yourself to speak.

Session ideas for solo presentations. Solo presentations are keynote level, Ted-style presentations from industry visionaries. We’re looking for the best of the best: seasoned professionals, acknowledged thought leaders, inspiring communicators. People who will wow attendees with their insights and motivate them to chart new territory in their own online marketing campaigns. If you pitch to speak on a solo session, you really need to wow us to be seriously considered. Solo sessions are typically 25 minutes long.

Key Milestones For SMX East – Mark Your Calendar!

  • The session “suggestion box” is currently open; closes May 11
  • Agenda posted week of May 12
  • Speaking pitch form opens week of June 1
  • Speaking pitch form closes June 23
  • All speakers finalized June 30

Have a suggestion? Please read our guidelines for speaking at SMX conferences, use the session idea suggestion form to describe your idea.

Don’t delay! The session idea suggestion form closes Tuesday, May 12.

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Mobile-Only Internet Users Surpass Desktop-Only Users For First Time Ever by @mattsouthern

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By Matt Southern

ComScore reports that, for the first time ever, the amount users who use the internet exclusively on mobile devices has exceeded the amount of users who exclusively use desktop devices. However, it’s important to note that this does not mean the the internet is being accessed more frequently on mobile overall. This data only tracks users who exclusively use one type of device. The report indicates that there is quite a bit of crossover from people who use both types of devices. Even with that being the case, this is still a significant milestone and represents how far mobile has […]

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European Union to Carry Out Probe into US Tech Companies, Including Google by @mattsouthern

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By Matt Southern

Always on the offensive against United States tech giants, the European Union (EU) is reportedly set to carry out a wide-ranging probe into these companies — which include Google, Amazon, and others. The EU’s ultimate goal is to establish a universal set of regulations for how companies conduct business in the digital space. A draft plan for these regulations has been submitted to the European Commission, but has yet to be approved. These events are separate from the EU’s antitrust investigation that we reported on earlier this month, but there is some crossover when it comes to internet search. This […]

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Google Testing Faster & Lightweight Mobile Search & Optimizing Your Web Page For Slow Connections

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By Barry Schwartz

Google announced they are not just enabling a Google Lite for slow mobile connections on their search results page, but they are also testing optimizing your web pages after the searcher clicks from the mobile search results to your web site.

Google is basically showing them a toned down version of your web page, stripping out the heavy images and files, on a special Google URL.

Google said they are testing this in Indonesia for users on slow connections such as 2G speed. Google said the tests have shown thus far to load four times faster than the original page and use 80% fewer bytes, plus they saw a 50% increase in traffic to these optimized pages.


Google added a help page that lets you test your web page through the optimized Google version. The URL is[your_website_URL], replace [your_website_URL] with your URL, for example, this site would be

How bad does the light weight version of the site look? Here is a screen shot:


Not too great!

If you do not want Google to optimize your page because you don’t like how it looks, you want the page view, you don’t want it to by pass your ads or whatever, you can opt out. To opt out add to your HTTP header “Cache-Control: no-transform”.

This reminds me of Google Instant Pages from 2011.

To learn more about this, see the Google FAQs.

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Auditing Hreflang Annotations: The Most Common Issues & How To Avoid Them

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By Aleyda Solis

Hreflang annotations provide an easy way for multilingual or multinational sites to indicate the relevant language/country targets of their pages. Both Google and Yandex use hreflang to serve the right page version to each market in search results.

However, when doing SEO audits to international websites, I usually find hreflang implementation issues that hurt the pages’ chances of being correctly served to their relevant audience.

Following are examples of the most common issues I encounter (so you can watch for them in your next audit) and how to avoid and/or fix them:

1. Nonexistent Hreflang Values

Google and Yandex specify that the value of the hreflang attribute should use the ISO 639-1 format for the language and (optionally) the ISO 3166-1 Alpha 2 for the region.

So, for example, a page for English language speakers in the United States would have a hreflang value of “en-us,” while an alternate version targeting Spanish speakers in the U.S. would have a hreflang value of “es-us.”

Unfortunately, websites will sometimes unknowingly use nonexistent values in their hreflang attributes, such as in the following example where “en-UK” is used instead of “en-GB.”


To avoid this issue, I created a hreflang tag generator tool that can be used to create hreflang annotations with the correct language and country values following Google’s specification. The usage of incorrect language codes can also be identified through Google’s Webmaster Tools International Target report.

2. Irrelevant Hreflang Values

Sometimes, the language and region values in a hreflang tag are not properly aligned with the page’s relevant languages or countries. This error can be trickier to handle as tools won’t be able to identify it, so a manual review will be needed to detect if the hreflang values are really showing the correct language and/or country for the page in question.

This issue commonly happens when language-targeted pages also include a country target as well, despite the fact that they’re meant for any user searching in that language. Remember, hreflang attributes require a language to be specified, but region is optional and should only be used when necessary (for example, if you want to serve different pages to Spanish speakers in Mexico and Spanish speakers in Spain).

Unfortunately, there are hreflang tag plugins and tools that add country values by default, so it’s important to be aware of this and revise the values they produce where necessary.

Below is an illustration of this scenario. Urban Dictionary features different versions of its site in different languages, but these versions are not country-specific. For example, the Spanish language version of the site is meant for Spanish speakers anywhere in the world, regardless of their region.

Yet, in their hreflang annotations for their different language home pages, they also add a country code. For example, “es-ES” is the hreflang value for the Spanish version (adding the Spain country code), and “de-DE” is specified for the German version (adding the Germany country code).


It’s critical to verify, before implementing anything, whether the site is language or country targeted (or if there’s a mix of approaches that you need to be aware of). The hreflang values will need to be generated according to this targeting.

Another scenario I’ve found is that, in some cases, the language (or country) code hasn’t been correctly implemented and always specifies the same language (or country) for each alternate URL. In this example from Audible, the home pages for France and Germany have been tagged as English language pages, even though they’re really in French and in German, respectively:

Hreflang Errors Audible

3. Irrelevant URLs

Similar to the previous example, sometimes the hreflang attributes are showing the right language and/or country values, but the URLs have not been correctly specified.

For example, in the case of Skype, you can see that the English language version URL is always specified instead of the relevant language URL for each case. (Similarly, the canonical tag is always showing the English URL instead of the relevant one, as in the case of the Spanish language page below).

Skype hreflang Errors

To verify this type of error, you can use SEO crawlers such as Screaming Frog, where you can configure custom filters to identify the pages with or without the desired hreflang codes:

Hreflang Validation with ScreamingFrog

You can also use DeepCrawl, which has a pages report indicating which pages have (or don’t have) hreflang annotations, or if they are inconsistent (more than one URL specified for a country and language combination, for example):

hreflang validation deepcrawl

4. Nonexistent URLs

There are also situations where URLs that are meant to have absolute paths are not including the “http://” or “https://” at the start, making them relative URLs which don’t point to the correct page, as can be seen in this example:

Hreflang Code Errors

This is why it is recommended to use URLs with absolute paths, making sure the whole address is featured, including “http://” or “https://” at the beginning of the address.

5. No-Return Hreflang Tags

The final commonly seen error I’ll address is the inclusion of hreflang tags on only a few of the site pages, with webmasters forgetting to add them in their “return” URLs as well, as Google specifies here:

…annotations must be confirmed from the pages they are pointing to. If page A links to page B, page B must link back to page A, otherwise the annotations may not be interpreted correctly.

For example, Hubspot‘s English language home page includes hreflang annotations pointing (among others) to the alternate URL for the Brazilian home page in Portuguese. Unfortunately, the Brazilian home page does not have hreflang annotations pointing back to the English page.

No Return Tags

This type of error is also shown in Google Webmaster Tools and can be again validated with SEO crawlers:

hreflang no return tags

Although the “no return tags” issue in the previous example happened with hreflang tags implemented in the head area of the page HTML, I’ve found this issue (as well of a few of the previous ones) to be more common when implementing hreflang annotations in XML sitemaps.

This is because it can be less straightforward and more complex to verify the correct usage of hreflang annotations by going through all of the XML files. SEO crawlers (that can crawl a list of XML sitemaps directly) as well as the “International Targeting” report of Google Webmaster Tools can help with this task. I recommend paying extra attention when auditing the usage of hreflang annotations in XML sitemaps.

I hope that these tips are useful and help you to identify and fix hreflang issues much more easily. Happy hreflang auditing!

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Expedia Adds Emoji Hotel To Their Title Tags To Increase Click Through Rates In Google

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By Barry Schwartz

A week ago we reported that Google began displaying Emoji in the desktop search results. We anticipated that search marketers would begin to leverage this change by adding Emoji to their title tags, hoping the additional imagery in the search results would lead to more visibility and a higher click through rate.

It seems that Expedia, the massive travel search service, has went ahead and done just that.

Here is a picture of their snippet for a search on [cape canaveral hotels] and yes, the 3rd organic listing I see has the hotel Emoji:


Expedia seems to be testing the Emoji on select pages, as I can’t get the Emoji to show up for all queries and clicking through the site, only select pages have Emoji added to their title tags.

Here is an other example I spotted for [cheap flights to Portland]:


This one uses the airline seat Emoji, while the hotel listing uses a hotel Emoji.

This tip was sent to us by Jonathan Alonso SEO Analyst at

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Is Google Showing Fewer Ads Per Search?

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By Mark Ballard

Google’s Q1 2015 earning report showed that paid clicks on Google websites were up 25% year-over-year, while average cost-per-click (CPC) on Google websites was down 13%. Unfortunately, these data points tell us almost nothing about the state of Google paid search.

On the company’s earnings call, outgoing Google CFO Patrick Pichette revealed for the first time that, were it not for YouTube TrueView ads, Google “sites clicks would be lower but still positive, and CPCs would be healthy and growing year over year.”

This story fits much better with the paid search trends that a number of industry analysts, including myself, have been seeing — and it’s nice to finally have some clarity on why Google has been reporting hefty CPC declines when so many industry data sources have been showing the opposite for Google paid search.

The shift to mobile as an explanation for declining CPCs was a red herring in recent years, and foreign exchange rate effects could only explain so much, but now we know that YouTube ads are big enough to drop the officially reported growth rate of Google sites CPCs by at least 13 percentage points.

Looking At The Third-Party Data

There are plenty of companies that release reports with data on the paid search industry, and while each of these reports may be subject to its own flaws and biases, taken together, they can shed light on the underlying trends that are affecting all of our search programs.

The data for Q1 2015 has been more consistent than usual on one key point: Google paid search click growth was weak even as click-through rate (CTR) rose. iProspect reported that Google clicks were down 11% Y/Y as impressions declined 35%. IgnitionOne showed clicks up 4% across all search engines, but with impressions down 20% and CPC up 21% (23% for Google). The Adobe Digital Index shows Google spend down 1%, even as CPC rose 6%, suggesting a decline in clicks of nearly 5%, despite CTR rising 18%.

In the latest quarterly report from my company, Merkle RKG, we show Google click growth at 0.2% Y/Y in Q1 as CPCs rose 13%. Impressions were falling 18% Y/Y by the end of the quarter. While factors like the default search provider change for Firefox, slowing tablet growth, and the maturation of the PLA market contributed to slowing overall growth, they do not explain it fully.

Maybe all of these reports are “wrong,” and there is some reason our data isn’t a good reflection of the true underlying trends in Google paid search; but after digging into this question in recent weeks, I’m convinced that there was a significant change in the AdWords market that began to take hold in mid-2014.

The bottom line is that Google may actually just be showing fewer ads, even when accounting for the shift from text ads to Product Listing Ads (PLAs) and from desktop to mobile. This notion runs counter to the popular narrative that the Google SERP has become increasingly overrun with ads, but a number of data trends are pointing in this direction.

Google’s incentive for such a change would be to drive a higher percentage of ad clicks to the ads at the top of the page, which yield them higher CPCs. Showing fewer ads wouldn’t be that different from what they’ve done over the years with the numerous ad extensions that are available and preferentially served for top ads. Impression Growth Reverses Course

Looking into AdWords impression trends, my colleague and fellow Search Engine Land columnist Andy Taylor and I found that non-brand text ad impression growth in June 2014 was 19% Y/Y for the median AdWords program managed by our company.


The next month, growth fell sharply to 7%, and by October 2014, impressions were declining by 12% Y/Y. By March 2015, impressions were declining by 18% Y/Y.

We looked specifically at results to take search partners out of the equation. Other industry sources have pointed to declining search partner impressions as a reason for overall Google declines, and I originally believed this was the most likely cause for the declines we were seeing.

Notably, eBay moved its mobile search ads from Google to Bing in mid-2014; this had an appreciable impact on overall AdWords search impressions, but the impact to clicks was minor.

We also wanted to isolate desktop results, because factors specific to our data set led to above-average growth for mobile traffic in Q3 2014. We do not believe that desktop traffic was impacted at the same time by similar factors.

Importantly, while traffic has been shifting to both mobile devices and PLAs over time, the timing and severity of the deceleration in desktop text ad impression growth does not match up well to what has been a steadier and slower shift to those segments.

Similarly, another consideration here is Google making close variant matching mandatory back in late September 2014. This could have led to increased competition for any given query and driven impressions for our programs lower. We do see impression growth drop sharply in October 2014, but the timing of changes in other data points, and their directional movement, does not fit this picture well.

First Page Minimum Bids Have Risen Sharply, And Average Position Is Higher Up The Page

As Google impression growth stalled and ultimately fell into decline, we saw a concurrent rise in average Google first page minimum bids.


Using March 2013 as a baseline, we see first page minimums for non-brand text ads roughly double by July 2014 after being stable if not down slightly into early 2014.

First page minimums increased further as we entered the holiday shopping season, but they have remained greatly elevated into early 2015. We see similar trends for ads across all Quality Score levels with significant traffic.

We would expect to see this type of trend if Google began showing fewer ads per result, competition increased significantly, Google began showing fewer ads for less competitive queries, or Google simply raised minimum bids directly.

It’s difficult to rule out any combination of these factors, but average position trends can point us to more likely scenarios.


In the last year, our average position for a non-brand Google text ad has moved up the page by about half of one position for the median program. Again we see a major shift occur in the second half of 2014 following stable results in the earlier part of that year.

Were increased competition a major factor in driving down impressions and pushing up first page minimum bids, this result seems unlikely.

Will We Ever Know For Sure?

Short of Google itself weighing in to explain the paid search impression decline and weakening click growth that so many of us are seeing, we’ll have to rely upon more circumstantial evidence to figure out the extent to which forces beyond our control are shaping the paid search market. Unfortunately, on the Google earnings call, Patrick Pichette declined to elaborate when questioned about search trends specifically.

This isn’t just idle curiosity, though. If there is external pressure pushing up CPCs and driving down impression and click growth, but advertisers are not aware of what is really going on, they may be prompted to take action in ways that are not helpful — or even harmful — to their search programs.

While no two search programs are alike and each is impacted by a unique combination of factors, having a decently accurate sense of larger industry trends can provide much-needed perspective and context to those individual experiences. At least, I’d like to think so.

I’m curious what the readers of this site think about the data I’ve presented here. Does our take sound off base?

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