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Google’s Carousel may seem new to most searchers, but it has actually been rolling out since June. That means enough time has past for marketing and search analysts to really start digging in to see what makes the carousel tick.

If you’ve yet to encounter it, the carousel is a black bar filled with listings that runs along the top of the screen for specific searches, especially those that are location based or for local businesses such as hotels and restaurants. The carousel includes images, the businesses’ addresses, and aggregated review ratings all readily available at the top, in an order that seems less hierarchical than the “10 pack” listings previously used for local searches.

Up until now, we’ve only had been able to guess how these listings were decided based on surface level observations. But, this week Digital Marketing Works (DMW) published a study which finally gives us a peak under the hood and shows how businesses may be able to take some control of their place in the carousel. Amanda DiSilvestro explains the process used for the study:

  • They examined more than 4,500 search results in the category of hotels in 47 US cities and made sure that each SERP featured a carousel result.
  • For each of the top 10 hotels found on each search, they collected the name, rating, quantity of reviews, travel time from the hotel to the searched city, and the rank displayed in the carousel.
  • They used (equally) hotel search terms—hotels in [city]; best hotels in [city]; downtown [city] hotels; cheap hotels in [city].
  • This earned them nearly 42,000 data points on approximately 19,000 unique hotels.
  • They looked at the correlation between a hotel’s rank in a search result based on all of the factors discussed in step 1 to determine which were the most influential.

Their report goes into detail on many of the smaller factors that play a role, but DMW’s biggest findings were on the four big factors which determine which businesses are shown in the carousel and where they are placed.

1. Google Reviews – The factor which correlated the most with the best placement in the carousel were by far Google review ratings. Both quantity and quality of reviews clearly play a big role in Google’s placement of local businesses and marketers should be sure to pay attention to reviews moving forward. However, it is unclear how Google is handling paid or fake reviews, so many might be inspired to try to rig their reviews. For long-term success, I would suggest otherwise.

2. Location, Location, Location – Seeing as how the Google Carousel seems built around local businesses, it shouldn’t be a surprise that location does matter quite a bit. Of the 1,900 hotels in the study, 50 percent were within 2 miles of the search destination, while 75 percent were within 13 minutes of travel. Businesses would benefit from urging customers to search for specific landmarks or areas of cities, as you never know exactly where Google will establish the city “center”.

3. Search Relevancy and Wording – According to the findings, Google seems to change the weight of different ranking factors depending upon the actual search. For example, searching “downtown [city] hotels” will result in listings with an emphasis on location, while “best hotels in [city]” gives results most dependent on review rankings.

4. Primary Markets and Secondary Markets – It seems both small and larger businesses are on a relatively flat playing field when it comes to the carousel. Many small hotels are able to make it into the listings, right next to huge chains. The bigger businesses may have more capabilities to solicit reviews, but no hotel is too small to be considered for the carousel.

When most people think of SEO, they see it as a way to earn the top spot (or close to it) on the search engine result pages (SERPs). Markets can be highly competitive, and if SEO can get you above others in your industry than most companies see the process as being worth their time and money. While that is true in some ways, it is also far from the whole truth.

The wide perception about SEO implies that it is only really important for largely internet based businesses or those in competitive markets. However, SEO can benefit anyone who wants to develop an online presence and make themselves available to the ever-increasing number of consumers who use the internet as their primary shopping tool.

Small or niche businesses with limited resources may ask what the point of investing in SEO could be when there is little to no competition. What is the point when you’ve already earned the top spot, with no signs of losing it in the future? Amanda DiSilvestro has spent quite a lot of time considering this issue (enough for two separate articles across different sites) and the conclusive answer is that SEO can help businesses in niche markets in tons of ways that may not seem apparent at first.

Optimization means improving usability

Between Google’s recent shift of focus from links and keywords to quality usability for users, many aspects of optimization are centered entirely on improving how your site functions for the people that actually use it. SEO can be perceived as a marketing tactic, but it is more importantly a usability tactic. Sites that readers enjoy using are more valuable than those that barely function, and Google recognizes that and ranks sites accordingly.

You’ll have competition eventually

No matter how niche your business is today, eventually the vast majority of companies will see competition. Chances are, if you don’t see competition eventually your niche is in danger of becoming irrelevant. Either way, it is always best to be ahead of any competition that arises, and solid SEO essentially helps you fortify your grasp on the market. Rather than battling a new competitor when they show up, you’ll be prepared and far ahead of their attempts to overthrow you.

You want to be the best, not the only option

Ignoring SEO means your site isn’t living up to its potential. Customers view site usability and professionalism as indicators of the reputability of the company running the page. Because SEO is becoming synonymous with usability, optimizing your site communicates your value to search engines and your users at the same time. If consumers see you as the only option, but think your site and brand look sub par, they will view you as the only option they have rather than the best possible option. That pushes potential customers away and could even cause an enterprising individual who notices your weakness to try to enter your little market.

Conclusion

SEO isn’t immediate. It takes a lot of time to get the results you want. While you may feel comfortably established as the top (or only) option in your niche, things always change eventually. Getting ahead of the curve will save you stress in the long run and make potential customers trust your company more.

Let me ask you, did you even know there is a difference between an SEO agency and a content marketing agency? To many, the terms have become synonymous, but the terms actually have different meanings reflecting what you hope to get out of hiring a professional to help you run your web presence. How do you know which agency is the best for you? Amanda DiSilvestro broke down the differences between the two recently, as well as the general pros and cons of both.

SEO agencies tend to be more focused on data and metrics from the search world. While they create content, they are more interested in calculating visibility and traffic and leveraging those with trends in search behavior so that they can create the best content for search engine visibility. Content marketing agencies on the other hand create content based on what what your audience wants most during the current buying cycle. The interest isn’t on search, but rather engaging with the public and achieving a goal.

The biggest differences are where each agencies information is coming from. SEOs use search-driven data and analytics, while content marketing agencies use audience-driven data and general content creation knowledge. Both agencies use data to create excellent content, and in many ways their efforts do overlap, but their methods are different.

What is best for you depends on the needs of your business. DiSilvestro suggests working with a content marketing agency first, so that you understand your audience, buying cycle, and the more broad ideas of creating content before seeking out an SEO company. Once you know how to create great content, an SEO can help you make it visible.

It isn’t uncommon for business owners to try to handle at least a portion of their SEO on their own. Some will try to find a balance between working with an SEO company and doing some of it themselves, while others try to go totally independent and see what they can do without paying for the professionals.

Both make complete sense and have positive aspects. You want to have control over your company’s online presence, and it is always important to try to familiarize yourself as much as possible with online marketing and SEO, even if you are working with an SEO agency.

There’s a reason there is professional online marketing help available however, and that is there are many online marketing tasks a company should try to take care of themselves, and then there are the more complex tasks that are best left to the people who work in SEO every day.

Many of the tasks the company can take care of are actually best done before you ever begin working with an SEO agency. If you don’t know what you can do on your own, Search Engine Journal writer Amanda DiSilvestro recently made a checklist of things you should do before you begin looking for professional help. They will let you take the reins on your online presence and make sure it fits the way you want your company to be portrayed, while also creating a foundation that experts will be able to build upon later.

When things go wrong with an SEO campaign, it puts everyone involved in a tricky position. The first step is obviously to figure out what happened and who is responsible in order to fix the problem, but pointing out who is responsible for failure can hurt egos and business relationships if not handled right.

The most problematic situation is when a client is at fault, which is indeed possible. The customer is always right may be a good philosophy to live by in many cases, but it isn’t actually all that true when it comes to implementation. This is especially true when you are working with someone not all that informed about SEO.

Some SEOs will try to cut out the client, but that hurts the campaign as well. Instead, the best option is making sure to educate clients about the process in order to avoid issues, though that obviously can’t keep all problems from popping up. If one does arise, it is your job to talk the issue through with your client. While it may be their fault for not following through on a responsibility, it is equally likely you are also responsible due to a failure of communication.

Amanda DiSilvestro suggested a few ways clients can end up bringing down an SEO campaign, as well as how Search Engines and SEOs themselves can derail your progress. The most common issues for clients include:

  • Failing to Change – Many times, SEOs will suggest changes to make onpage to optimize a website, and often it will mean tweaking content to include keywords or possibly editing a meta tag. Clients are often very protective of their content however, and sometimes ignore these suggestions. In this case, the SEO has done their job, but if the client isn’t willing to cooperate, there is little the expert can do.
  • Failing to Plan as a Group – When SEOs aren’t confident in their client’s understanding of optimization, they sometimes begin to ignore the client all together. But, even if a client doesn’t want to be very hands on with the campaign, they almost certainly had goals in mind when they hired the pros, and those goals should be included in the plan for optimization. If a client tries to avoid being a part of the SEO process, including reading the regular reports, there will be a schism between the SEO expert and the company, which will likely splinter the campaign and weaken it.
  • Giving Up Too Early – Too many potential clients come to SEO agencies wanting quick fixes. No matter how earnestly you try to explain that optimization is a slow process, if the client doesn’t comprehend how long it will actually take, they are likely to get frustrated and shut the whole thing down before they really had a chance to reap rewards. There is little SEOs can do here except try to really communicate about time estimates and benchmarks you expect to hit, or just refusing clients that refuse to understand there is no way to get to the number one spot on Google overnight.

Now, we all know clients aren’t always the problem. In fact, it is usually the professional that ends up torpedoing the whole campaign. SEO firms and experts have the power in the campaign, and it is a tough balancing act to get everything on a site working as well as it can to impress the search engines. There are endless reasons a campaign may not work, but unfortunately the most common all stem from just plain bad practices.

  • Going Black Hat – It seems everyone writing about SEO knows how blatantly terrible an idea black hat practices are, but yet there is are never-ending “optimization” services available that use keyword stuffing, duplicate content, cloaking, shady link building  and several other bad practices that Google already knows to look out for. Sure these services might get a site good rankings initially, but it won’t be long at all before they sink under the weight of penalties.
  • Poor Communication – Just as it was said above, even when the client is at fault, the SEO is sometimes responsible for not explaining the process or keeping the client in the loop. SEO work is a partnership, no matter how independent you may be. The client relies on you to inform them about this unique field and help them make informed decisions. If you aren’t communicating and they make a mistake it is your fault. Similarly, if you make a decision without consulting the company you are working with and they don’t like it, you have no excuse.
  • Laziness – When it all comes down to it, a lot of SEO is maintaining and tweaking things to make a site the most efficient possible at signaling to search engines. Experts can get lazy too, but when a site starts under-performing because you haven’t been paying it the attention it deserves, there is no one to blame but yourself. The solution to this one is obvious. Drink a coffee, get up, and do the work clients are expecting of you.

While these categories cover many mistakes made in SEO, there are also innocent problems like misreading a market, and simply putting your faith in the wrong type of campaign.

No one likes having the finger pointed at them when things fall apart, but it is important to honestly assess who is responsible for the faults.

A bruised ego may sting for a little, but if you are the client can put that aside and focus on the good of the site, you can use the understandings gained about what went wrong to repair SEO mistakes and bad habits. With those lessons under your wing, soon you’re site will be performing as you would like it to.

Every successful business or person has had to take risks to get where they are, but they normally downplay the stress and preparation that are involved in taking those leaps. It is natural to be worried, but with the proper forethought and preparation taking risks doesn’t have to be so scary.

The very nature of taking risks is not knowing if it will pay off, but if you listen for the patterns in others’ stories, you can see what risks are more likely to work out well. There are risks worth taking, and risks not worth taking. While you can plan all you want, sometimes it is best to just take a leap and see how it works out, while minimizing losses if it all goes belly up.

Amanda DiSilvestro has enough history in SEO to be able to make some pretty good guesses on what type of risks will benefit you and which are more likely to burn you. Saying yes to smart risks is the only way to get where you want to be.

One smart risk that worries many is hiring a writer with no SEO experience. Our field is so complex that it is easy to assume a writer without any experience would be able to learn fast enough to be a competent voice in SEO, let alone a writer that can take SEO principles and write about other topics accordingly. While writing for SEO is quite different from journalism or creative writing there is a good chance that any good writer you hire will be able to learn the basics of SEO fast enough to help you out.

Another common hiring fear many have is hiring a social media expert because it is so new, and so many people think they are a social media “expert” because they have a Facebook, and tweet all the time. This doesn’t mean hiring a social media expert is bad for your business, it just means your hiring process will have to take some extra effort to vet out the unqualified applicants. If your applicant doesn’t understand how social media and business function together, they aren’t an “expert” and they are more likely to cause a scandal than promote your brand’s image.

There is no path to success that doesn’t involve risks, but it shouldn’t feel like you are gambling. You should be informed enough to avoid the huge obvious problems, and the small bumps are fixable. Maybe one strategy won’t work, but every company has setbacks.