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What Is A Sitemap? Do I Need One?

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What Is A Sitemap? Do I Need One?

Sitemap. While this is a term you may be familiar with, what does it mean?

Do you need one? Where do you find one? How do you make one?

These are valid questions; for some, there might be more than one answer.

Today, we will take a deep dive into the sitemap world, so that you can walk away with the necessary answers and confidence around the topic!

What Is A Sitemap?

Let’s start here.

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Defining a sitemap is essential for several reasons, and we are going to go through the two main types that apply to technical SEO: XML and HTML sitemaps.

XML Sitemap

An XML sitemap is a file that provides a website’s essential pages, videos, and other important files for Google to discover when crawling the site.

Not only are these listed in the file, but the sitemap can also provide details for Google to know – for instance, when the page was last updated, and if the content is available in other languages.

As I mentioned, you can also provide details about content types like videos, photos, and news-related content, specifically in your XML sitemap.

According to the Google Developers Sitemaps section, the following can be included for specific types of content in your sitemap:

  • A sitemap video entry can specify the video running time, rating, and age-appropriateness rating.
  • A sitemap image entry can include the location of the images included on a page.
  • A sitemap news entry can include the article title and publication date.

Next, we will talk about what an HTML sitemap is and the differences between the two.

HTML Sitemap

An HTML sitemap is more targeted for users on your site than for Google.

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This is a page that exists on your site and has links to the pages on your website – and in some cases, includes a little context into what those pages are.

Google mentions that you should try to establish a consistent and clear hierarchy on the HTML sitemap as, although not its purpose, it can help with indexation.

You can think of an HTML sitemap as a directory that users can leverage to navigate your site and find what they need.

An HTML sitemap should not be an attempt to replace the important pages in your site’s navigation.

XML Sitemaps Vs. HTML Sitemaps

So, what are the key differences between these two types of sitemaps? Let’s review.

XML

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  • The intent is for Google and other bots.
  • There is no hierarchy.
  • Used primarily for indexing.
  • You can submit via Google Webmaster Tools.

HTML

  • The intent is for users.
  • A hierarchy should be used.
  • No place to submit in Google Webmaster Tools.

Do You Need A Sitemap?

If you are wondering if you need a sitemap, that depends!

First, let’s discuss the XML sitemap. There are a few questions you can ask to determine if you need an XML sitemap:

  • How big is your site? Is it large enough that Google may miss newly updated content when it is crawling?
  • Is your site relatively new? If so, it may not have a ton of external links on the Internet that point to it to help Google discover it. Even if your site isn’t new, and you don’t have external links, your answer to this question should be yes.
  • Is your site content heavy? Do you have many photos, videos, news content, etc.?
  • Does your site need a better architecture that results in pages not being well linked to each other? This can also be the case with archived and orphan pages you want to be indexed.

If you answered yes to any of the questions above, then yes, it is best practice to have an XML sitemap.

Even if you answered no to all of the above, I would recommend an XML sitemap for a few reasons; If your site grows, expands its scope, and other situations may arise, having a sitemap will be beneficial!

Next, let’s review whether it makes sense for you to have an HTML sitemap.  Depending on where you look, you will find that answer to be yes or no.

HTML sitemaps are known to be an older concept, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have one.

The XML sitemap has the information needed for Google to crawl, index, and learn other important information about these pages. However, an XML sitemap does not show hierarchy like an HTML sitemap.

Google will crawl the links on your site, and including an HTML sitemap could allow Google to understand your site’s architecture and relationships better.

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This is even more useful for sites that have an incredibly large number of pages.

So, is having an HTML sitemap critical? No, it is not.

It is also not a cure-all for a poorly architected and nested website. While it isn’t a critical element of success, it has shown benefits that make having one a best practice.

To close this topic out, I recommend you have an XML and HTML sitemap because let’s be honest, why not, when the pros outweigh the cons very clearly?

Now you may be wondering how to create these two assets and what to do with them – so, let’s jump into some ways you can create these files and where to put them on the site.

How To Create An XML Sitemap

First, we will go over how you can generate sitemaps from scratch, and then we will get into some great tools that can do it for you.

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XML sitemaps have specific criteria in order to be rendered valid.

Screenshot from lowes.com, January 2023

Below are a few specific requirements for XML sitemaps:

  • Begin with a <urlset> tag and end with that tag closing </urlset>.
  • Include the protocol you are using within the <urlset> tag.
  • Each URL entry must have a <url> tag as a parent XML tag.
  • Include a <loc> child entry for each <url> parent tag.
  • Each sitemap can only contain up to 50,000 URLs and 50MB.
  • Must be UTF-encoded.

XML Sitemap Best Practices

Now, let’s look at some key best practices when it comes to creating XML sitemaps:

  • Only URLs you want to be indexed should appear in your sitemap. This means no redirected URLs, non-canonical URLs, or pages marked as no-index.
  • Do not use session Ids.
  • Only include the primary if you have two versions (mobile and desktop) of your site.
  • Include media assets like videos, photos, and news items.
  • Use hreflang to show Google that there are alternative language versions of your website.
  • Google documentation notes it leverages <lastmod>, but only if it’s consistent and verifiable. If you can’t keep this accurate, don’t use it.
  • Google ignores the <priority> and <changefreq> tags at this time, according to John Mueller on this Search Off the Record podcast.
  • Google will not crawl your URLs in the order they are listed, nor does it guarantee indexation.
  • Your sitemap should be updated regularly – automatically, or manually – or Google may not trust it.

Now, if you felt lost reading those beginning requirements, that is okay, because there are tools to help you achieve your desired outcomes! We will go over some later in this article.

Check out the refined version below:

refined sitemap of lowes.comScreenshot from lowes.com, January 2023

How To Create An HTML Sitemap

When putting together an HTML sitemap, remember its purpose is to serve a user on the site and help Google understand the hierarchy of your website.

You do not want to no index this page from Google; keep it crawlable!

You will want to ensure you don’t just throw thousands of links on an HTML sitemap page with no sense of organization, as this won’t help anyone – bots included.

Home Depot sitemapScreenshot from Home Depot, January 2023

HTML Sitemap Best Practices

Let’s go over a few quick best practices when it comes to HTML sitemaps:

  • Arrange the page’s structure to align with your website’s structure. You will want to make sure that the hierarchy is easily understood.
  • The HTML sitemap should be located somewhere the user can easily find it. You will often see it in the footer links of a website.
  • Use anchor text that is valuable to the user.

Need a little help getting started? No worries – there are plenty of tools to help you.

Sitemap Generator Tools

There are a number of tools to help you generate different types of sitemaps. Let’s go over a few now.

XML Sitemap Generator Tools

  • Screaming Frog – This tool is a great option for generating a sitemap, especially if you want to generate one after crawling your URLs. Screaming Frog is free if you have under 1,000 URLs, but you would have to buy a license if you have more.
  • XML-Sitemaps.com – This web-based application allows you to enter your website URL and it generates an XML file for you. This is a free tool for up to 500 URLs.

Depending on which CMS you are leveraging, there are also thousands of XML sitemap generator plug-ins, but be cautious as even the best generator tools have their limitations, so make sure to double-check the output.

Here are a few popular XML sitemap plugins for WordPress:

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HTML Sitemap Generator Tools

  • com: this is a free online tool where you can scan your website URL or upload a document to generate an HTML sitemap. As we discussed earlier, there may be better approaches than a generator if your site is poorly architected.
  • Crawler: Like Eli mentions, if you have a large site and are already using a crawler like OnCrawl, DeepCrawl, Screaming Frog, or SiteBulb, you can leverage the output from a crawl to help generate your HTML sitemap.

Like XML sitemaps, there are also a variety of CMS plugins for creating HTML sitemaps. Here are a few for WordPress:

In Conclusion

Sitemaps have existed in the SEO world for some time as a method for helping search engines discover and crawl websites.

And, while having a sitemap isn’t always necessary for every site, it certainly doesn’t hurt – and can be especially useful for both new and large sites.

When you are determining your next steps for creating a sitemap for your website – whether XML or HTML – I hope you can leverage this guide to decide which path makes the most sense for your site’s needs.

More resources: 


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Google Unplugs “Notes on Search” Experiment

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Google unplugs Notes On Search Experiment

Google is shutting down it’s Google Notes Search Labs experiment that allowed users to see and leave notes on Google’s search results and many in the search community aren’t too surprised.

Google Search Notes

Availability of the feature was limited to Android and Apple devices and there was never a clearly defined practical purpose or usefulness of the Notes experiment. Search marketers reaction throughout has consistently been that would become a spam-magnet.

The Search Labs page for the experiment touts it as mode of self-expression, to help other users and as a way for users to collect their own notes within their Google profiles.

The official Notes page in Search Labs has a simple notice:

Notes on Search Ends May 2024

That’s it.

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Screenshot Of Notice

Reaction From Search Community

Kevin Indig tweeted his thoughts that anything Google makes with a user generated content aspect was doomed to attract spam.

He tweeted:

“I’m gonna assume Google retires notes because of spam.

It’s crazy how spammy the web has become. Google can’t launch anything UGC without being bombarded.”

Cindy Krum (@Suzzicks) tweeted that it was author Purna Virji (LinkedIn profile) who predicted that it would be shut down once Google received enough data.

She shared:

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“It was actually @purnavirji who predicted it when we were at @BarbadosSeo – while I was talking. Everyone agreed that it would be spammed, but she said it would just be a test to collect a certain type of information until they got what they needed, and then it would be retired.”

Purna herself responded with a tweet:

“My personal (non-employer) opinion is that everyone wants all the UGC to train the AI models. Eg Reddit deal also could potentially help with that.”

Google’s Notes for Search seemed destined to never take off, it was met with skepticism and a shrug when it came out and nobody’s really mourning that it’s on the way out, either.

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15 Reasons Why Your Business Absolutely Needs SEO

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15 Reasons Why Your Business Absolutely Needs SEO

The need for quality SEO keeps increasing.

Brands that execute an organic strategy the right way are standing out early and often – and it’s more important now than ever, thanks to the emergence of AI and other technological innovations.

Blend those emerging technologies with the tumultuous few years that made up the COVID pandemic – where millions of consumers were pushed online to do their business, make purchases, and stay entertained – and you can begin to scratch the surface of SEO’s importance in marketing’s modern-day ecosystem.

SEO is the most viable, sustainable, and cost-effective way to both understand and reach your customers in key moments that matter.

Doing so not only helps build trust while educating the masses – it also establishes an organic footprint that transcends multiple marketing channels with measurable impact.

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But while it will certainly improve a website’s overall searchability and visibility, what other real value does SEO offer for brands willing to commit to legitimate recurring or project-based SEO engagements?

And why does SEO continue to grow into a necessity rather than a luxury?

Here are 15 reasons why businesses need SEO to take their brand to the next level – regardless of the industry or business size.

1. Organic Search Is Most Often The Primary Source Of Website Traffic

Organic search is a massive part of most businesses’ website performance and a critical component of the buyer funnel, ultimately getting users to complete a conversion or engagement.

Google owns a significantly larger portion of the search market than competitors like Yahoo, Bing, Baidu, Yandex, DuckDuckGo, and many others.

Screenshot from gs.statcounter.com, February 2024

That’s not to say that all search engines don’t contribute to a brand’s visibility – they do. It’s just that Google owns a considerable portion of the overall search market. Thus, its guidelines are important to follow.

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But the remaining part of the market owned by other engines is valuable to brands, too. This is especially true for brands in niche verticals where voice, visual, and vertical search engines play an essential role.

Google, being the most visited website in the world (and specifically in the United States), also happens to be one of the most popular email providers in the world.

YouTube is the second most-used search engine, with at least 2.5 billion people accessing it at least once a month, or 122 million people daily.

We know that a clear majority of the world with access to the internet is visiting Google at least once a day to get information.

Being highly visible as a trusted resource by Google and other search engines will always work in a brand’s favor. Quality SEO and a high-quality website take brands there.

2. SEO Builds Trust & Credibility

The problem for many brands is that building trust and credibility overnight is impossible – just like in real life. Authority is earned and built over time.

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And, with the AI revolution we’ve experienced over the last year showing no signs of slowing down, building real credibility has become even harder to achieve – and even more critical.

Following Google’s E-E-A-T guidelines is vital to ensure successful results when creating content for your audience.

The goal of any experienced SEO professional is to establish a strong foundation of trust and credibility for a client. It helps to have a beautiful website with a clean, effective user experience that represents a quality brand with a loyal customer base – or at least the potential for one.

A brand of this nature would be easily discoverable in search with the right SEO strategy. The more channels you’re comfortable publishing on and partnering with, the more discoverable you will be.

This can also be attributed to being a respected brand offering quality goods or services to customers, being honest and forthcoming with the public, and earning the trust and credibility among peers, competitors, and other stakeholders.

This becomes a lot easier to succeed with when the brand already has trust signals tied to it and its digital properties.

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So many varying elements contribute to establishing that authority with search engines like Google. It starts with building that credibility with humans.

In addition to the factors mentioned above, authority is accrued over time as a result of aspects like:

But now, in the age of AI, establishing that authority continues to become even more complicated and difficult to do.

Yet still, doing so the right way will do more for a brand than most other digital campaigns or optimizations.

Establishing a brand as an authority takes patience, effort, and commitment that relies on offering a valuable, quality product or service that allows customers to trust a brand.

3. It’s An AI Battlefield Out There & It’s Getting Even Harder

Since what seemed like the overnight emergence of AI going mainstream and becoming available at every person’s fingertips, search engine results pages (SERPs) are now more competitive than ever.

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Organic real estate keeps shrinking.

Bots, scrapers, and other AI-led technologies are stealing content and regurgitating things they learn along the way, which are often inaccurate or confusing, all while clouding the competitive market with duplicated or plain awful content.

Real SEO – including thorough keyword research, industry analysis, and competitive benchmarking to create high-value content for your customers and loyalists – allows brands to stand apart from the lowly regurgitated spam that floods our SERPs daily.

The challenge of optimizing websites and content for search engines that are relying more on their own AI technologies to enhance the user experience within their platforms than they ever have before is just another layer of complication exemplified by the emergence of AI.

It’s no secret Google’s Search Generative Experience (SGE) hasn’t exactly been the magic touch to take search to the next level. And, in some instances – up to this point – SGE has even taken Google backward in terms of user experience and information retrieval on a boatload of varying topics and queries.

SEO will undoubtedly help brands navigate and distill – and stand out among – the search engine noise that is littered with D-list content and AI-generated mediocrity.

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4. Good SEO Also Means A Better User Experience

User experience has become every marketer’s number one priority.

Everyone wants better organic rankings and maximum visibility. However, few realize that optimal user experience is a big part of getting there.

Google has learned how to interpret a good or unfavorable user experience, and a positive user experience has become a pivotal element to a website’s success.

Google’s Page Experience Update is something that marketers in all industries will need to adhere to and is part of their longstanding focus on the customer experience.

Customers know what they want. If they can’t find it, there will be a problem with that website holding up against the competition, which will inevitably surpass it by offering the same, or better, content with a better user experience.

We know how much Google values user experience. We see the search engine getting closer to delivering answers to search queries directly on the SERP every day, and it’s been doing it – and expanding its integration – for years.

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The intention is to quickly and easily offer users the information they are looking for in fewer clicks.

Quality SEO incorporates a positive user experience, leveraging it to work in a brand’s favor.

It also understands the importance of leveraging Google’s updated on-the-SERP-delivery tactics for high-value content that has garnered significant traffic and engagement for sites in the past, but is now losing significant portions of it to the SERPs themselves.

5. Local SEO Means Increased Engagement, Traffic & Conversions

The mobile-first mindset of humans and search engines has shaped local search into a critical fundamental for most small- and medium-sized businesses.

Local SEO aims to optimize digital properties for a specific vicinity so people can find a business quickly and easily, putting them one step closer to a transaction.

Local optimizations focus on specific neighborhoods, towns, cities, regions, and even states to establish a meaningful medium for a brand’s messaging on a local level.

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SEO pros do this by optimizing the brand’s website and its content, including local citations and backlinks, in addition to regional listings relevant to the location and business sector to which a brand belongs.

To promote engagement locally, SEO pros should optimize a brand’s Knowledge Graph panel, its Google Business Profile, and its social media profiles as a start.

There should also be a strong emphasis on user reviews on Google and other third-party sites like Yelp, Home Advisor, and Angie’s List (among others), depending on the industry.

I recommend following the local SEO tips on SEJ here.

6. SEO Impacts The Buying Cycle

Research is becoming a critical element of SEO, and the importance of real-time research is growing.

Using SEO tactics to relay your messaging for good deals, ground-breaking products and services, and the importance and dependability of what you offer customers will be a game-changer.

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It will also undoubtedly positively impact the buying cycle when done right.

Brands must be visible where people need them for a worthy connection to be made. Local SEO enhances that visibility and lets potential customers find the answers and the businesses providing those answers.

7. SEO Is Constantly Improving & Best Practices Are Always Being Updated

It’s great to have SEO tactics implemented on a brand’s website and across its digital properties.

Still, if it’s a short-term engagement (budget constraints, etc.) and the site isn’t re-evaluated consistently over time, it will reach a threshold where it can no longer improve because of other hindrances.

Or, it will require such lift that brands will end up spending far more than expected to reach a place they could have otherwise obtained naturally over time through marketing efforts that included SEO.

How the search world evolves (basically at the discretion of Google) requires constant monitoring for changes to stay ahead of the competition and, hopefully, on Page 1.

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Being proactive and monitoring for significant algorithm changes will always benefit the brands doing so.

We know Google makes thousands of algorithm changes a year. Fall too far behind, and it will be tough to come back. SEO pros help to ensure this is avoided.

8. Understanding SEO Helps You Understand The Environment Of The Web

With the always-changing environment that is the World Wide Web, it can be challenging to stay on top of the changes as they occur.

But staying on top of SEO includes being in the loop for the major changes taking place for search.

The AI renaissance has been a clear indication of that.

Knowing the environment of the web, including tactics being used by other local, comparable businesses and competitors, will always be beneficial for those brands.

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Observing and measuring what works and what doesn’t only strengthens your brand further as well.

Knowing the search ecosystem will be beneficial 10 out of 10 times.

9. SEO Is Relatively Cheap & Extremely Cost-Effective

Sure, it costs money. But all the best things do, right?

SEO is relatively inexpensive in the grand scheme of things, and the payoff will most likely be considerable in terms of a brand’s benefit to the bottom line.

This isn’t a marketing cost; this is an actual business investment.

Exemplary SEO implementation will hold its own for years to come. And, like most things in life, it will only be better with the more attention (and investment) it gets.

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Not only is it cost-effective, but it’s scaleable, measurable, and rarely loses value over time.

10. It’s A Long-Term Strategy

SEO can (and hopefully does) have a noticeable impact within the first year of taking action – and many of those actions will have a lasting effet.

As the market evolves, it’s best to follow the trends and changes closely.

But even a site that hasn’t had a boatload of intense SEO recommendations implemented will improve from basic SEO best practices being employed on an honest website with a decent user experience.

And the more SEO time, effort, and budget committed to it, the better and longer a website stands to be a worthy contender in its market.

The grass is green where you water it.

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11. It’s Quantifiable

While SEO doesn’t offer the same easy-to-calculate return on investment (ROI) as paid search, you can measure almost anything with proper tracking and analytics.

The big problem is connecting the dots on the back end since there is no definitive way to understand the correlation between all actions.

Tracking and attribution technology will continue to improve, which will only help SEO pros and their efforts.

Still, it is worth understanding how specific actions are supposed to affect performance and growth – and hopefully, they do.

Any good SEO pro will aim at those improvements, so connecting the dots should not be a challenge.

Brands also want to know and understand where they were, where they are, and where they’re going in terms of digital performance – especially for SEO when they have a person/company being paid to execute on its behalf.

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There’s no better way to show the success of SEO, either.

And we all know the data never lies.

12. SEO Is PR

SEO helps build long-term equity for your brand. A good ranking and a favorable placement help elevate your brand’s profile.

People search for news and related items, and having a good SEO and PR strategy means your brand will be seen and likely remembered for something positive.

Providing a good user experience on your website means your messages will be heard, and your products or services will sell.

SEO is no longer a siloed channel, so integrating with content and PR helps with brand reach and awareness alongside other worthwhile results.

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13. SEO Brings New Opportunities To Light

High-quality SEO will always find a means of discovering and leveraging new opportunities for brands not just to be discovered but to shine.

And that becomes a lot easier when experienced SEO pros can help distill the millions and millions of websites competing – and flooding – the SERPs daily.

This goes beyond keyword research and website audits.

SEO is also extremely helpful for understanding the voice of your consumers.

From understanding macro market shifts to understanding consumer intent in granular detail, SEO tells us what customers want and need through the data it generates.

SEO data and formats – spoken or word – give us clear signals of intent and user behavior.

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It does this in many ways:

Hiring an SEO professional is not always an easy task either. It requires money, time, vision, communication, more time, and some other things that will undoubtedly need to be fixed over the course of time.

Executive SEO on behalf of brands means immersing an SEO team in everything that makes that brand what it is. It’s the only way to truly market something with the passion and understanding that its stakeholders have for it: becoming a stakeholder.

The better a brand is understood, the more opportunities will arise to help it thrive. The same can be said about SEO.

New opportunities with SEO today can come in many ways – from content, digital, and social opportunities to helping with sales, product, and customer service strategies.

14. If You’re Not On Page One, You’re Not Winning The Click – Especially With Zero-Click Results

SEO is becoming a zero-sum game as zero-click SERPs show the answer directly at the top of a Google search result.

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This has only intensified with AI, SGE, Gemini, and more sure-to-come technologies that continue to shape our industry.

Early data showed about 56% of queries in a testing sample triggered SGE automatically directly on the SERP as part of an answer to a specific query in 2023, largely based on the semantics and intent of the query.

SGE results are also still incredibly volatile; sometimes they show up automatically, other times not at all, and other times there’s even an option to use SGE for results or not.

Regardless of that or any speculation on the future, there’s one thing for sure: Zero-click results in searches are winning.

If you’re not on Page 1, you need to be.

There are still too many instances when a user types a search query and can’t find exactly what it’s looking for. And sadly, SGE hasn’t been great at changing that until now.

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15. SEO Is Always Going To Be Here

Consumers will always want products and services online, and brands will always look for the most cost-effective way to connect them with each other.

While the role of SEO may shift and strategies will surely change, new avenues are constantly opening up through different entry points such as voice, apps, wearables, and the Internet of Things (IoT) AI is another prime example, and we can already see its impact greatly.

Outdated SEO tactics aren’t going to work much longer. New organic search opportunities will always arise. SEO helps find the best ways to capitalize on them.

Conclusion

The role of SEO has expanded significantly over the last few years, and it’s only becoming more challenging and expansive in the face of AI.

New technologies are constantly creating new processes and even shortcuts and workarounds that are changing the game, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse.

One thing is certain, though: Without giving SEO efforts some significant attention through a brand’s fiscal year, you are doing your business a disservice. Try it and see. Analyze the results. Test some more. Try new things.

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Stay up to date with changes and guidelines, and make sure you’re offering unique content that is valuable. And if it’s not originally yours, include proper citation and linking.

SEO will continue to help consumers when in need.

Implementing robust, quality SEO updates on a brand’s website and digital properties will benefit them and their marketing efforts in measurable ways, and the impact will be felt.

There will be challenges, but when done right, there can also be success.

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What Is Programmatic Advertising? How Does It Work?

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What Is Programmatic Advertising? How Does It Work?

Programmatic advertising has been a buzzword in the marketing industry for quite some time. But what does programmatic actually do? And how does it differ from traditional display marketing?

Programmatic advertising is a perfect realm where precision meets automation, and where your ads reach their perfect audience – almost as if by magic.

Gone are the days of casting wide audience nets and hoping for the best returns. In a digitally dynamic world, programmatic stands out as a blend of efficiency and effectiveness.

Ready to learn more? Read on to learn everything you need to know to be successful and harness the power of programmatic advertising.

What Is Programmatic Advertising?

Programmatic advertising uses automated technology and algorithmic tools for media buying. The term programmatic relates to the process of how ads are bought and sold in the advertising space.

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Programmatic advertising differs from more traditional media buying methods in its use of automation.

It analyzes many user signals to ensure that ads serve the right person, in the right place, at the right time.

Essentially, it automates the decision-making process of ad placement – without having to manually negotiate prices or placements like other platforms.

This means your ads aren’t just thrown out into the digital void of the internet, hoping your audience will notice.

Instead, they’re strategically positioned when and where they’ll make the most impact.

Think of programmatic as the umbrella in this category, where different types of programmatic buying are categorized beneath it.

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Read more: 7 Power Benefits Of Using PPC Advertising

What’s The Difference Between Programmatic And Display Ads?

It’s easy to confuse display and programmatic ads, especially with the strides that Google has made in its automated and real-time bidding capabilities.

The largest difference between programmatic and display is:

  • Programmatic refers to how ads are bought.
  • Display refers to the format in which ads appear.

Display ads are typically colorful banners, videos, or other interactive media that catch your attention on websites and apps.

Programmatic advertising, on the other hand, is considered the “behind-the-scenes” expert. It’s the technology-driven process behind the ads that decides which display ads you see, based on a whole host of factors such as:

  • Interests.
  • Behaviors.
  • Demographics.
  • Time of day.
  • And more.

The second biggest difference between display and programmatic is the ability to buy ads across platforms.

Display ads are more commonly referred to when placing ads within one specific ad network, such as the Google Display Network. Programmatic advertising, on the other hand, takes display media to the next level.

Multiple platforms exist for programmatic, such as sell-side platforms (SSPs) and demand-side platforms (DSPs), allowing advertisers to buy ad inventory across an open network of platforms.

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With both programmatic and display, advertisers typically have control over the following:

  • Audience.
  • Bidding strategy.
  • Budget.
  • Creative and assets.
  • Placements.

Read more: How To Develop Your PPC Strategy

Programmatic Advertising Platforms

Automated technology has made significant strides throughout the years.

In the early days, programmatic platforms offered basic automation and targeting capabilities using simple data points.

As the digital landscape grew, so did the complexity and capabilities of these platforms.

These days, programmatic platforms are mostly powered by advanced algorithms, artificial intelligence, and machine learning.

To go even further, there are many types of programmatic platforms available today.

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The three main types of platforms are:

  • Sell-side platform. Also known as a “supply-side platform,” this platform allows publishers to sell their ad impressions to advertisers in real-time. This platform encompasses both DSPs and ad exchanges. They’re equipped with technology that allows publishers to set minimum prices for their inventory, choose which ads appear on their site, and block ads from certain advertisers – if needed.
  • Demand-side platform. This platform allows advertisers to purchase ad inventory across multiple platforms at once. This is where most advertisers fit into this landscape. DSPs enable advertisers to manage their ad inventory bidding and target specific audiences using sophisticated data sources.
  • Ad exchanges. This is how SSPs flow their ad inventory to DSPs. DSPs connect to an ad exchanger, where ad prices fluctuate based on the competitiveness of that inventory. Think of the ad exchange as the neutral ground where transactions between SSPs and DSPs occur.

Understanding the key differences between SSPs, DSPs, and ad exchanges is crucial for navigating the programmatic landscape.

To familiarize yourself with the different platform types, let’s take a look at some of the major players in each category.

Sell-Side Platforms

A comprehensive list of SSPs for publishers includes:

  • Google Ad Manager.
  • Amazon Publisher Services.
  • OpenX.
  • SpotX.
  • Sovrn.
  • TripleLift.
  • PubMatic.
  • Adform.
  • Xandr (Microsoft).
  • Index Exchange.
  • Magnite.
  • Media.net.
  • Sharethrough.
  • StackAdapt.

If you’re looking for a video SSP, some of the leading companies include:

  • SpotX.
  • Teads.
  • SpringServe.
  • Verizon Media.

While there are many more available to publishers, these are companies you may have heard of but might not have associated with programmatic technology.

Demand-Side Platforms

If you’re a media buyer, this list is for you.

Like SSPs, these company names may ring a bell and offer DSPs.

Some of the top DSPs include:

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  • Display & Video 360 (Google).
  • The Trade Desk.
  • Amazon Advertising.
  • MediaMath.
  • Xandr.
  • LiveRamp.
  • Adobe Advertising Cloud.
  • StackAdapt.
  • PubMatic.
  • Quantcast.
  • AdRoll.
  • Simpli.fi.
  • RhythmOne.
  • Criteo.
  • DemandBase.

Some of the larger DSPs for Connected TV and video include:

  • Display & Video 360 (Google)
  • OneView (Roku).
  • MediaMath.

Again, there are many more DSPs available to advertisers. It’s important to choose a DSP with the features and inventory you are looking for.

Some DSPs offer self-serve advertising, while others offer both self-serve and full-managed service (likely to larger advertisers or agencies).

Ad Exchanges

Some of the more well-known ad exchanges available to publishers include:

  • Xandr (Microsoft).
  • Verizon Media.
  • OpenX.
  • PubMatic.
  • Google Ad Exchange.
  • Index Exchange.
  • Magnite.
  • Smaato.
  • AdRoll.
  • InMobi.
  • Amazon.

Remember: not all ad exchanges are equal.

It’s important for publishers to research options carefully and choose platforms that align with their goals.

Read more: The 8 Best PPC Ad Networks

How Much Does Programmatic Advertising Cost?

Simply put, programmatic advertising can cost as little or as much as your budget allows.

It’s a common misconception that small businesses can’t benefit from programmatic technologies – but we’re here to correct that.

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Programmatic ads are typically bought on a cost-per-thousand-impressions (CPM) basis. This means advertisers pay a set amount for every 1,000 impressions their ad receives.

CPMs typically range between $0.50 and $2.00; however, premium inventory can be upwards of $50 and more.

These prices are based on factors such as:

  • Which DSP you chose.
  • Your target audience and specificity.
  • Ad inventory quality.
  • Ad format.
  • Bidding strategy.
  • The level of competitiveness and demand.

A good rule of thumb for programmatic ad cost: the more niche your audience, the higher CPM you will pay.

So, whether you’re a multi-million dollar advertiser or a small business just getting started, you can likely fit programmatic into your advertising budget.

What Are The Benefits Of Programmatic Advertising?

There are many benefits to incorporating programmatic advertising into your marketing strategy.

Some of the top benefits include:

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  • Large-scale audience reach.
  • Efficient and low-cost awareness.
  • Real-time data and analysis.
  • Ability to utilize first-party data.
  • Opportunities for cross-device campaign strategies.

Large-Scale Audience Reach

Arguably the biggest benefit of programmatic advertising is the ability to grow and scale.

Programmatic is the best way to buy ad inventory to reach the masses due to the abundance of cross-platform inventory.

Advertisers can also quickly adjust their audience strategies to capitalize on what is or isn’t working, ensuring their ads are always optimized.

Not only is it easier to scale your audience, but you can do so much more efficiently thanks to more precise factors like weather or time of day, coupled with real-time bidding.

Efficient And Low-Cost Awareness

Related to the above benefit of scaling reach, programmatic is one of the most cost-effective types of advertising that exists today.

Earlier, we discussed average CPMs for programmatic averaging between $0.50-$2.00.

Even with a small budget, your marketing dollars can go a long way toward reaching your target audience and increasing awareness of your product or service.

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You can then take that audience further by setting up retargeting campaigns to guide users down their purchase journey, increasing incremental purchases and leads.

Real-Time Data And Analysis

Because programmatic platforms rely on real-time bidding, advertisers reap the benefit of receiving near real-time data.

Why does this matter?

Real-time data allows for faster decisions and pivots. It also puts you in a proactive rather than reactive mode.

Bids and strategies can be adjusted in real time based on immediate performance or even market conditions, which maximizes the chances of their ads being seen at the right time.

Utilizing First-Party Data

Another benefit of programmatic advertising is the type of data segments available to advertisers.

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For example, advertisers can upload owned first-party data in a secure way and target those people directly using real-time bidding signals.

This avenue opens the door to finding new customers similar to current ones.

Cross-Device Campaign Strategy

It’s important to note that programmatic advertising is typically seen as an awareness tactic.

Because of this, companies that look solely at last-click success often overlook the true potential of programmatic advertising.

So, how does programmatic fit into a cross-device campaign?

The key is to capture that initial awareness to users through programmatic ads.

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That initial awareness touchpoint can be run across multiple channels and formats like:

  • Display.
  • Video.
  • Mobile.
  • Social media.
  • Out-of-home.

Likely, a user won’t purchase a product or service after the first interaction with a brand.

Once a user’s interest is peaked, you have the ability to remarket to them on other platforms based on their interaction or engagement with that initial ad.

Marrying that data together from the first interaction to the eventual purchase is key to determining the success of your programmatic strategy.

Types Of Programmatic Advertising

There are different types of programmatic advertising.

These should not be confused with the programmatic platforms themselves.

The types of programmatic advertising are simply how an advertiser purchases ad inventory.

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The four most common types are:

  • Real-time bidding. This type of bidding is open to all advertisers and most common form, where ad auctions happen in real time. This is also known as the “open marketplace.” Because it’s an open marketplace, it is naturally a highly competitive and dynamic space.
  • Private marketplace. Also known as PMPs, this bidding happens when publishers have invite-only agreements with a limited number of advertisers. These websites typically offer premium pricing because of the coveted ad space. There’s usually limited scale compared to RTB since inventory is restricted to that particular marketplace.
  • Preferred deals. Also known as “Spot Buying” or “Non-Guaranteed Premium,” this is a lesser-known type of programmatic advertising. Advertisers choose ad spots before they go on the private or open market. If the advertiser chooses not to buy the inventory, it can then be offered in a PMP or via RTB.
  • Programmatic guaranteed. Similar to a preferred deal, but there is no auction bidding. The publisher and advertiser have a direct agreement on a fixed price for ad inventory. It guarantees the advertiser a certain amount of inventory and guarantees the publisher revenue for that inventory.

Read more: What’s The Best PPC Bidding Strategy?

Programmatic Advertising Examples

Programmatic ads come in all shapes and sizes.

The beauty of using programmatic ads is tailoring the content to your chosen target audience.

A few well-executed programmatic campaigns include:

Amanda Foundation

The Amanda Foundation is a non-profit animal hospital and shelter rescue in the Los Angeles area.

It created a campaign to help at-risk shelter animals find a home during their final days.

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Specifically, it leveraged programmatic signals like location, demographics, and browsing behavior to tailor specific animal images to its audience.

If users were interested in large dogs, they would be served a banner ad with large dogs instead of smaller dogs.

As you can see, messages and images were tailored to the individual’s behavior and interests.

Image from Amanda Foundation, August 2022

Geico Insurance

You’ve most likely seen or heard some version of a Geico ad.

Have you ever thought about the different ads Geico targets for you, though?

Geico uses such ad formats as TV commercials, website banner ads, social media ads, and more to create a true cross-platform awareness campaign.

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The brand carefully chooses its content based on the platform it serves on, the target audience and demographics, and more.

Its commercials are so popular, in fact, that Geico has dedicated a resource page on its website where users can view their favorite commercials.

Progressive Insurance

While we’re on the topic of insurance, it would be remiss not to talk about Progressive’s use of programmatic ad targeting.

If you’re considered a Millennial or Gen Xer, you probably know what I mean.

Progressive created a series of commercials around the portrayal of young homeowners becoming like their parents.

As a homeowner myself, I’ve caught these commercials in the wild on my smart TV and within streaming services like Hulu.

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Even further, their advanced targeting capabilities have caught my attention as I’m watching home shows like HGTV’s “Fixer Upper.”

Like Geico, Progressive hosts a dedicated page on its website of the famous character, Dr. Rick, and his videos on how to “un-become your parents.”

Brilliant Earth

Brilliant Earth is a leader in the fine jewelry space, with both physical locations and a strong online presence.

They’ve done a great job targeting different messages based on who was viewing items on their site.

In the example below, I visited their website and browsed different products.

A while later, I was served a subtle ad with an accompanying subtle message of “Drop a Hint.”

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The brand had identified that I had been browsing rings but understands, based on user signals, that I may not be the one purchasing this item.

Its messaging based on these advanced signals is a great example of sending the right message to the right user at the right time.

Brilliant Earth programmatic ad example.Screenshot taken by author, March 2024

Programmatic Can Ensure That Advertising Budget Is Spent Wisely

The basics and benefits of programmatic advertising can help guide your existing programmatic strategy, or if you’re just getting started, create a new strategy that incorporates programmatic.

The evolution of programmatic platforms, with their sophisticated algorithms and data-driven strategies, has empowered advertisers to deliver their messages to the right people, in the right context, and with precision that was once only dreamed of.

The precision of programmatic advertising, married with efficiency and scalability, ensures that advertising dollars are being spent wisely, maximizing return on investment and driving meaningful engagement.

Understanding the functionality and features of each platform will be a critical component of your programmatic success.

More resources: 

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Featured Image: ArtemisDiana/Shutterstock

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