The Top of Funnel Butterfly Effect

This post is based on a Comment I recently posted on Rand Fishkin's Whiteboard Friday video, titled How Can the Value of Top-of-Funnel Channels be Measured?

This really struck a chord with me after seeing Kelvin Newman's presentation at SearchLove 2014 in London.

Trying to predict the ranking, traffic or business outcome effect of certain Top of Funnel actions is like trying to forecast the weather for in 6 months. There seems to be a parallel with Chaos Theory. According to WikipediaSmall differences in initial conditions yield widely diverging outcomes for such dynamical systems, rendering long-term prediction impossible in general.

Let me illustrate this with an example: during a conference you might be queueing for food and randomly start a conversation that could ultimately lead to a massive business deal, a PR opportunity, etc. This might not have happened if you would have started queueing 15 seconds later or at another catering buffet. A small difference in this initial condition can thus create a very different outcome.

With SEO maturing to encapsulate more traditional marketing elements such as branding and PR, this creates a situation in which SEO professionals are still trying to find causality when correlation is probably the best we will ever achieve in this context. I must admit that I also want to dissect and understand processes in an IF THIS THEN THAT manner, but unfortunately this isn't always a feasible approach.

According to Kelvin's analysis, we are going to have an increasingly difficult time trying to reverse engineer (aka understand) Google since it is becoming more of a machine learning company; referring to the acquisition of Deepmind.  Some of the points he was making were truly fascinating:

  • When machines teach themselves; they solve problems in ways we can't understand or reverse engineer.
  • Algorithms can react in peculiar ways when they come into contact with other algorithms, and the real world
  • Even with billions at stake, the world’s greatest scientists cannot predict the outcomes of a complex and chaotic system with precision (such as the weather)

So, what now? Shall we just forget about SEO, change careers, go sit on a mountain, herd sheep while enjoying nature in all its glory? Even though some days this might sound like a good value proposition... all is not lost! 

Even though we might not be able to reverse engineer Google, we are aware of what Google is trying to achieve and there certainly are things that we can do in order to optimise our chances for a positive outcome. In this context it is interesting to see how David Sotimano, from Distilled, used machine learning to try and figure out why some Distilled blog posts performed well (as to organic traffic), while other posts didn't perform well at all. Results were not conclusive but the approach certainly showed an opportunity for the future as to defining the base conditions maybe?  

What is required, but not necessarily sufficient?

How does this all translate in practice?

In a previous life I have done loads of marketing and PR for brands such as Eidos, Vivendi Universal Games, Blizzard, etc. It was always notoriously difficult to predict the outcome of a specific action/activity. But also, the more you get yourself out there and the more initiatives you undertake, the more likely it is for Serendipity to emerge.

Over 2000 years ago the philosopher (and statesman) Seneca managed to encapsulate this extremely well: Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.

Well I guess that in this context we need to achieve the optimal preparation with our Top of Funnel activities. So it is indeed about trying to figure out which actions are most likely to help us achieve "luck".  I refer to this as: Which are the base conditions or activities needed?  SEO Professionals are actually extremely well placed to play an important role in defining the minimum required promotional activities. Being used to large data sets and analysing the hell out of everything, SEOs can very likely help define increasingly large parts of the marketing spectrum within an organisation.

Reverse Engineering a Hit?

I often think that what we are trying to achieve with a piece of content, is what musicians are trying to achieve with their music... a hit = going viral. Is there a sure recipe for creating a musical hit?  Not really, but there probably are some things you really need to do in order to optimise your chances.

So this is probably what we need to define for ourselves? What can we do in order to optimise our chances towards a positive outcome? What is the minimum effective dose of digital marketing that we should be implementing?

Many questions, for which the answers will be different for every company and/or industry.  So in conclusion: analyse, find correlations, understand your minimum required marketing and... don't assume that Serendipity can be taken for granted.

New Google Maps as an indicator of Pigeon algorithm effects for territories not affected yet?

If you keep yourself in the loop as to all matters SEO you will probably know about Google’s Pigeon update. This algorithm update has had quite an effect on the rankings of local businesses across the US… not always for the better.

The consensus seems to be that:

  • An internal reshuffle within - but also reduction in - the Local Pack (often from 7 to 3)
  • A shift in the signals used to rank local businesses with more of a focus on brand, similar to organic rankings. With also directories coming out as winners.
  • A more narrow radius as to the searcher, with Google also becoming more clever in order to ascertain where someone is. Google is also able to detect if the searcher is static or moving and the speed at which he is moving. A search on a mobile phone as you are walking along a high street will trigger different results when compared to a search sat at your desk using a desktop PC.  But even in the latter case it seems that the radius was still reduced.

From my understanding Google is now returning - after a Pigeon update - Hyper Local, Hyper Branded results.

As a business owner it is rather difficult to physically move your business just to make sure that you are in the city centroid, or that you are located near where most local searches occur.

So, you should probably make sure that you pull out all the stops as to your good old fashioned marketing and PR efforts in order to:

  • Not completely depend on Google.

  • Obtain links from local press and reference sources with a combination of brand name, URL and keywords. Try to also obtain a link from a local .ac domain.

All of the above while still making sure to implement pre-Pigeon Local SEO Best Practice (but that is for another Blog post).  In order to mitigate any potential negative effects, I would also recommended to make sure your directory citations are all in order and consistent.

If you are the owner of a UK-based small or medium sized business, and you are enjoying organic traffic from the Local Pack within Google’s SERPs it might be a very wise move to try and have a glimpse into the future… And we don’t need a DeLorean for that, we just need the New Google Maps. The latest version of Google Maps is seemingly running in Data Centres that are using the updated Google algorithm.

There obviously is a difference since one and the same search within Google Maps (at the same location) returns different results in the New Maps compared to the Old Maps.

While being based in Burnley, when I do a simple search for “bathrooms” I get the following results in the New Google Maps:

However when performing this same search within the OLD Google Maps (by clicking on the little interrogation mark icon at the right-hand bottom section of the page), I get very different results.  Also notice the strong similarities with the actual Local Pack when performing a regular Google Search.

Knowing that there is a very strong correlation between Google Maps results (List View) and Local Pack results, we now have a tool that allows us to see into the future!

Can I guarantee that what I am saying is 100% correct? Nope... we are talking about Google after all.
But, all things considered I would at least reflect upon it and already take preventative action where possible.

Well, this is awkward...

As said, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.  

So, instead of procrastinating about my first Blog post I thought I'd better post something, even if just for the totally self-indulgent positive feeling of finally publishing a Blog post after many years of absence from my Travel Blog

I would like to take the readers of this blog on a journey that will teach you how to hack yourself a website presence and communicate your brand and/or products on a shoestring budget and without the need to be a coding wizard.

More about this in a second blog post!