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Four tips for SEM teams to adjust to a privacy-focused future

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Four tips for SEM teams to adjust to a privacy-focused future

30-second summary:

  • Within the digital marketing space, the conversation around privacy and cookie changes has focused heavily on programmatic and paid social
  • But how will third-party cookie deprecation and new privacy regulations impact paid search?
  • Here is what search marketers can expect and how to prepare

In the digital marketing world, targeting, measurement, and optimization have foundationally relied on the ability to accurately track user behaviors and performance across the web. However, as we all know, platforms like Google and Apple have introduced privacy-focused initiatives over the past few years that complicate targeting and measurement for advertisers.

When discussing the impacts of these changes, much of the conversation has focused on programmatic and paid social, which are undoubtedly the digital channels feeling the greatest impact. What has not been discussed in great detail is the impact on search marketing. How should advertisers adapt their paid search strategies to adjust to these new realities?

Before digging into action items, let’s recap the newest updates and how they’ll impact paid search campaigns.

Chrome’s privacy updates will have a greater impact than iOS

There are two key privacy changes top-of-mind for search marketers in 2021. App Tracking Transparency (ATT), introduced through Apple’s iOS 14.5 update, requires a user to opt-in before a company can track their data across other apps or websites. Fortunately, the impact of this update on search programs for most advertisers is limited. Advertisers may see fluctuations in universal app campaign (UAC) volume, and search properties with a larger app-based audience (for example, YouTube) will experience some degradation in measurement and targeting. By and large, though, the ATT update is more of an issue for programmatic advertisers than search marketers.

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Google Chrome’s third-party cookie deprecation, coming in 2023, will have a larger impact on paid search. From a targeting perspective, remarketing lists for search ads (RLSA) will become less effective without data on users’ behaviors across non-Google properties. As of Q3 2020, RLSA accounted for 20 percent of Google search ad clicks for Merkle advertisers – so this is a significant segment of traffic. There will also be new measurement challenges, especially for companies relying on proprietary reporting tech.

While iOS 14.5 is already a reality for advertisers, there is more than a year left to prepare for Google’s third-party cookie deprecation. There are several steps search marketers can take now to optimize performance within a more privacy-focused environment.

1. Lean into first-party data audience solutions to target

Effective audience segmentation and targeting will continue to be critical in search moving forward. Google offers several in-platform audience options, such as in-market and affinity audiences, that don’t rely on third-party data and can be leveraged by advertisers indefinitely.

However, there’s a greater opportunity for organizations to differentiate themselves by crafting a strong audience strategy using their own first-party data with Customer Match. Many advertisers already use Customer Match to some degree, but the data may not be refreshed regularly, or it may not be segmented in detail. The transition away from third-party cookies is the perfect impetus for fine-tuning a first-party data strategy.

First, advertisers should assess the quality of their first-party data. How comprehensive is the data that’s collected? Are there a lot of duplicate records, or is there a reliable unique record for each customer? All of the slicing and dicing in the world won’t be helpful if the data you’re working with is fundamentally flawed.

Next, marketers should assess opportunities to segment their customer lists in meaningful ways – a single “email subscribers list” isn’t going to cut it anymore. Smart segmentation is always important, but it will become even more critical because it will empower Google to build more tailored similar audiences.

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After establishing segments, there must be a plan to refresh those audiences frequently. Determine an appropriate cadence for updating customer match lists and determine who’s responsible for doing it. Currently, this can be done through the Google Ads API or within the Google Ads interface.

Once a foundation is in place for your audience strategy, revisit your approach quarterly to ensure that segments continue to align with attributes important to your customers and your business. This also creates a natural check-in point to confirm that lists are being updated as expected and that they’re all receiving traffic. If needed, audience bid modifiers should be adjusted to reflect current performance.

On the topic of bidding…

2. Test or transition to Smart Bidding to take advantage of Google’s proprietary signals

While we, as advertisers, will have lesser user data available to us without third-party cookies, Google will continue to have a wealth of information about its users and their behavior on Google-owned properties. Google Ads’ Smart Bidding allows advertisers to take advantage of those audience signals to reach the right person at the right bid with machine learning. That’s not to say that segmentation isn’t important with Smart Bidding – it still is. One of the many signals the bidder looks at is all of the audiences a given user belongs to, including customer match audiences.

Advertisers can and should take advantage of custom audience segmentations through Google Analytics, Looker, or Google Cloud Platform (Big Query). And they should automate the pushing of defined customer audiences to Google marketing activation to maximize business data with Google’s Smart Bidding.

Whatever your advertising goals may be, there is likely a Google Ads Smart Bidding strategy to suit your business needs. For search marketers not yet using Smart Bidding, it’d be smart to start testing in early 2022 to iron out any kinks and have a full-blown Smart Bidding approach before 2023.

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3. Get comfortable with new reporting methods

We’ve talked a lot about adapting to the changes to come with targeting, but privacy updates also create challenges for reporting. There will be a measurement gap that advertisers need to solve. Fortunately, Google Ads has solutions in place to help fill holes with enhanced and modeled conversions.

Enhanced conversions improve reporting accuracy by using an advertiser’s hashed first-party data to tie a conversion event to an ad interaction. Enhanced conversions are powerful in that they make a one-to-one connection between an impression or click and a purchase. Modeled conversions, on the other hand, find their power in scalability; Google has been using them to report on cross-device conversions for several years. When used in combination, advertisers get the benefit of precision where a one-to-one connection exists, while smartly estimating conversions in areas where it does not.

As privacy regulations increasingly muddy the reporting waters, the stakes are higher to work with Google to fill the gaps. If you’re relying primarily on proprietary technology for reporting, consider using Google’s measurement system to get a more complete picture of performance. Understanding the full impact of search is critical for being able to optimize and allocate budgets effectively. Note that Google’s global site tag or tag manager is required to appropriately track conversions.

4. Monitor universal app campaigns for performance changes

Advertisers using UAC to drive app downloads via paid search should closely monitor performance for those campaigns. So far, Merkle has observed a slow downward trend in tracked installs as a result of Apple’s ATT update. To avoid the effects of ATT, some advertisers are increasing their investment in Android or shifting spend there entirely. UAC can continue to be an effective channel for marketers, but reduced visibility on iOS may require bid or budget shifts in order to hit performance goals.

Conclusion

Privacy updates are changing the way marketers approach targeting and measurement. Don’t panic – but do put a plan in place. With the right adjustments, search advertisers can effectively pivot along with the industry. More than ever, advertisers must value first-party audiences driven by search to further customer engagement, experiences, and marketing ROI. Using that first-party data, in conjunction with machine-learning-based bid strategies and modeled and enhanced reporting, will create a foundation to help future proof search campaigns for privacy updates in the years to come.


Matt Mierzejewski is SVP of Performance Marketing Lab and Search at Merkle Inc.

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Measuring Content Impact Across The Customer Journey

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Measuring Content Impact Across The Customer Journey

Understanding the impact of your content at every touchpoint of the customer journey is essential – but that’s easier said than done. From attracting potential leads to nurturing them into loyal customers, there are many touchpoints to look into.

So how do you identify and take advantage of these opportunities for growth?

Watch this on-demand webinar and learn a comprehensive approach for measuring the value of your content initiatives, so you can optimize resource allocation for maximum impact.

You’ll learn:

  • Fresh methods for measuring your content’s impact.
  • Fascinating insights using first-touch attribution, and how it differs from the usual last-touch perspective.
  • Ways to persuade decision-makers to invest in more content by showcasing its value convincingly.

With Bill Franklin and Oliver Tani of DAC Group, we unravel the nuances of attribution modeling, emphasizing the significance of layering first-touch and last-touch attribution within your measurement strategy. 

Check out these insights to help you craft compelling content tailored to each stage, using an approach rooted in first-hand experience to ensure your content resonates.

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Whether you’re a seasoned marketer or new to content measurement, this webinar promises valuable insights and actionable tactics to elevate your SEO game and optimize your content initiatives for success. 

View the slides below or check out the full webinar for all the details.

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How to Find and Use Competitor Keywords

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How to Find and Use Competitor Keywords

Competitor keywords are the keywords your rivals rank for in Google’s search results. They may rank organically or pay for Google Ads to rank in the paid results.

Knowing your competitors’ keywords is the easiest form of keyword research. If your competitors rank for or target particular keywords, it might be worth it for you to target them, too.

There is no way to see your competitors’ keywords without a tool like Ahrefs, which has a database of keywords and the sites that rank for them. As far as we know, Ahrefs has the biggest database of these keywords.

How to find all the keywords your competitor ranks for

  1. Go to Ahrefs’ Site Explorer
  2. Enter your competitor’s domain
  3. Go to the Organic keywords report

The report is sorted by traffic to show you the keywords sending your competitor the most visits. For example, Mailchimp gets most of its organic traffic from the keyword “mailchimp.”

Mailchimp gets most of its organic traffic from the keyword, “mailchimp”.Mailchimp gets most of its organic traffic from the keyword, “mailchimp”.

Since you’re unlikely to rank for your competitor’s brand, you might want to exclude branded keywords from the report. You can do this by adding a Keyword > Doesn’t contain filter. In this example, we’ll filter out keywords containing “mailchimp” or any potential misspellings:

Filtering out branded keywords in Organic keywords reportFiltering out branded keywords in Organic keywords report

If you’re a new brand competing with one that’s established, you might also want to look for popular low-difficulty keywords. You can do this by setting the Volume filter to a minimum of 500 and the KD filter to a maximum of 10.

Finding popular, low-difficulty keywords in Organic keywordsFinding popular, low-difficulty keywords in Organic keywords

How to find keywords your competitor ranks for, but you don’t

  1. Go to Competitive Analysis
  2. Enter your domain in the This target doesn’t rank for section
  3. Enter your competitor’s domain in the But these competitors do section
Competitive analysis reportCompetitive analysis report

Hit “Show keyword opportunities,” and you’ll see all the keywords your competitor ranks for, but you don’t.

Content gap reportContent gap report

You can also add a Volume and KD filter to find popular, low-difficulty keywords in this report.

Volume and KD filter in Content gapVolume and KD filter in Content gap

How to find keywords multiple competitors rank for, but you don’t

  1. Go to Competitive Analysis
  2. Enter your domain in the This target doesn’t rank for section
  3. Enter the domains of multiple competitors in the But these competitors do section
Competitive analysis report with multiple competitorsCompetitive analysis report with multiple competitors

You’ll see all the keywords that at least one of these competitors ranks for, but you don’t.

Content gap report with multiple competitorsContent gap report with multiple competitors

You can also narrow the list down to keywords that all competitors rank for. Click on the Competitors’ positions filter and choose All 3 competitors:

Selecting all 3 competitors to see keywords all 3 competitors rank forSelecting all 3 competitors to see keywords all 3 competitors rank for
  1. Go to Ahrefs’ Site Explorer
  2. Enter your competitor’s domain
  3. Go to the Paid keywords report
Paid keywords reportPaid keywords report

This report shows you the keywords your competitors are targeting via Google Ads.

Since your competitor is paying for traffic from these keywords, it may indicate that they’re profitable for them—and could be for you, too.

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You know what keywords your competitors are ranking for or bidding on. But what do you do with them? There are basically three options.

1. Create pages to target these keywords

You can only rank for keywords if you have content about them. So, the most straightforward thing you can do for competitors’ keywords you want to rank for is to create pages to target them.

However, before you do this, it’s worth clustering your competitor’s keywords by Parent Topic. This will group keywords that mean the same or similar things so you can target them all with one page.

Here’s how to do that:

  1. Export your competitor’s keywords, either from the Organic Keywords or Content Gap report
  2. Paste them into Keywords Explorer
  3. Click the “Clusters by Parent Topic” tab
Clustering keywords by Parent TopicClustering keywords by Parent Topic

For example, MailChimp ranks for keywords like “what is digital marketing” and “digital marketing definition.” These and many others get clustered under the Parent Topic of “digital marketing” because people searching for them are all looking for the same thing: a definition of digital marketing. You only need to create one page to potentially rank for all these keywords.

Keywords under the cluster of "digital marketing"Keywords under the cluster of "digital marketing"

2. Optimize existing content by filling subtopics

You don’t always need to create new content to rank for competitors’ keywords. Sometimes, you can optimize the content you already have to rank for them.

How do you know which keywords you can do this for? Try this:

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  1. Export your competitor’s keywords
  2. Paste them into Keywords Explorer
  3. Click the “Clusters by Parent Topic” tab
  4. Look for Parent Topics you already have content about

For example, if we analyze our competitor, we can see that seven keywords they rank for fall under the Parent Topic of “press release template.”

Our competitor ranks for seven keywords that fall under the "press release template" clusterOur competitor ranks for seven keywords that fall under the "press release template" cluster

If we search our site, we see that we already have a page about this topic.

Site search finds that we already have a blog post on press release templatesSite search finds that we already have a blog post on press release templates

If we click the caret and check the keywords in the cluster, we see keywords like “press release example” and “press release format.”

Keywords under the cluster of "press release template"Keywords under the cluster of "press release template"

To rank for the keywords in the cluster, we can probably optimize the page we already have by adding sections about the subtopics of “press release examples” and “press release format.”

3. Target these keywords with Google Ads

Paid keywords are the simplest—look through the report and see if there are any relevant keywords you might want to target, too.

For example, Mailchimp is bidding for the keyword “how to create a newsletter.”

Mailchimp is bidding for the keyword “how to create a newsletter”Mailchimp is bidding for the keyword “how to create a newsletter”

If you’re ConvertKit, you may also want to target this keyword since it’s relevant.

If you decide to target the same keyword via Google Ads, you can hover over the magnifying glass to see the ads your competitor is using.

Mailchimp's Google Ad for the keyword “how to create a newsletter”Mailchimp's Google Ad for the keyword “how to create a newsletter”

You can also see the landing page your competitor directs ad traffic to under the URL column.

The landing page Mailchimp is directing traffic to for “how to create a newsletter”The landing page Mailchimp is directing traffic to for “how to create a newsletter”

Learn more

Check out more tutorials on how to do competitor keyword analysis:

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Google Confirms Links Are Not That Important

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Google confirms that links are not that important anymore

Google’s Gary Illyes confirmed at a recent search marketing conference that Google needs very few links, adding to the growing body of evidence that publishers need to focus on other factors. Gary tweeted confirmation that he indeed say those words.

Background Of Links For Ranking

Links were discovered in the late 1990’s to be a good signal for search engines to use for validating how authoritative a website is and then Google discovered soon after that anchor text could be used to provide semantic signals about what a webpage was about.

One of the most important research papers was Authoritative Sources in a Hyperlinked Environment by Jon M. Kleinberg, published around 1998 (link to research paper at the end of the article). The main discovery of this research paper is that there is too many web pages and there was no objective way to filter search results for quality in order to rank web pages for a subjective idea of relevance.

The author of the research paper discovered that links could be used as an objective filter for authoritativeness.

Kleinberg wrote:

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“To provide effective search methods under these conditions, one needs a way to filter, from among a huge collection of relevant pages, a small set of the most “authoritative” or ‘definitive’ ones.”

This is the most influential research paper on links because it kick-started more research on ways to use links beyond as an authority metric but as a subjective metric for relevance.

Objective is something factual. Subjective is something that’s closer to an opinion. The founders of Google discovered how to use the subjective opinions of the Internet as a relevance metric for what to rank in the search results.

What Larry Page and Sergey Brin discovered and shared in their research paper (The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine – link at end of this article) was that it was possible to harness the power of anchor text to determine the subjective opinion of relevance from actual humans. It was essentially crowdsourcing the opinions of millions of website expressed through the link structure between each webpage.

What Did Gary Illyes Say About Links In 2024?

At a recent search conference in Bulgaria, Google’s Gary Illyes made a comment about how Google doesn’t really need that many links and how Google has made links less important.

Patrick Stox tweeted about what he heard at the search conference:

” ‘We need very few links to rank pages… Over the years we’ve made links less important.’ @methode #serpconf2024″

Google’s Gary Illyes tweeted a confirmation of that statement:

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“I shouldn’t have said that… I definitely shouldn’t have said that”

Why Links Matter Less

The initial state of anchor text when Google first used links for ranking purposes was absolutely non-spammy, which is why it was so useful. Hyperlinks were primarily used as a way to send traffic from one website to another website.

But by 2004 or 2005 Google was using statistical analysis to detect manipulated links, then around 2004 “powered-by” links in website footers stopped passing anchor text value, and by 2006 links close to the words “advertising” stopped passing link value, links from directories stopped passing ranking value and by 2012 Google deployed a massive link algorithm called Penguin that destroyed the rankings of likely millions of websites, many of which were using guest posting.

The link signal eventually became so bad that Google decided in 2019 to selectively use nofollow links for ranking purposes. Google’s Gary Illyes confirmed that the change to nofollow was made because of the link signal.

Google Explicitly Confirms That Links Matter Less

In 2023 Google’s Gary Illyes shared at a PubCon Austin that links were not even in the top 3 of ranking factors. Then in March 2024, coinciding with the March 2024 Core Algorithm Update, Google updated their spam policies documentation to downplay the importance of links for ranking purposes.

Google March 2024 Core Update: 4 Changes To Link Signal

The documentation previously said:

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“Google uses links as an important factor in determining the relevancy of web pages.”

The update to the documentation that mentioned links was updated to remove the word important.

Links are not just listed as just another factor:

“Google uses links as a factor in determining the relevancy of web pages.”

At the beginning of April Google’s John Mueller advised that there are more useful SEO activities to engage on than links.

Mueller explained:

“There are more important things for websites nowadays, and over-focusing on links will often result in you wasting your time doing things that don’t make your website better overall”

Finally, Gary Illyes explicitly said that Google needs very few links to rank webpages and confirmed it.

Why Google Doesn’t Need Links

The reason why Google doesn’t need many links is likely because of the extent of AI and natural language undertanding that Google uses in their algorithms. Google must be highly confident in its algorithm to be able to explicitly say that they don’t need it.

Way back when Google implemented the nofollow into the algorithm there were many link builders who sold comment spam links who continued to lie that comment spam still worked. As someone who started link building at the very beginning of modern SEO (I was the moderator of the link building forum at the #1 SEO forum of that time), I can say with confidence that links have stopped playing much of a role in rankings beginning several years ago, which is why I stopped about five or six years ago.

Read the research papers

Authoritative Sources in a Hyperlinked Environment – Jon M. Kleinberg (PDF)

The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine

Featured Image by Shutterstock/RYO Alexandre

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