Creating content in support of your products and services is hard. Finding something to say which is both unique and valuable to the audience is a non-trivial endeavor, however it remains critical for persuading your audience that your product or service is right for them … and persuading search engines that your website is important.
That said, it’s incredible how many brands overlook this one simple, effective, easy-to-create content tool: the FAQ.
You don’t even have to do the thinking for an FAQ. Your customers do it for you. In your day-to-day sales and support operations, customers are asking questions all the time. All you need to do is document them and their answers, put it on your website, and bingo! – You now have an FAQ.
FAQ Best Practices
It’s absolutely possible to make a terrible FAQ, but really easy not to. If you follow these guidelines when creating your FAQ, you’ll be set:
- Talk to your sales and / or support teams about the questions that they are getting from customers. If you’re creating an FAQ, you want to be sure it’s answering questions that your customers actually have.
- The best FAQ questions are broadly relevant and / or address an important question. If you have a question from a person with a niche application which would only be relevant to a small subset of the audience who is also using your product for that application, it’s probably not worthy of adding to the FAQ. If you have too much clutter, people won’t use it.
- It’s really easy to end up with oceans of FAQ content. Your don’t want your FAQ content to fluster your audience because there is too much of it. In addition to being selective with what content makes the grade for your FAQ section, use design tools such as accordions to help minimize the content overload and help ensure that customers are only presented with the FAQ content which is most relevant to them.
- Keep FAQ content on the page of the product / service it pertains to whenever possible. Forcing people to navigate away to FAQ content is usually neither a good navigational experience nor the best for SEO.
- If you have a long FAQ section, try to keep the most important and / or broadly relevant information towards the top, where it will be more likely to be seen.
To give you a better idea of how you may be able to leverage FAQ content, let’s take a look at a few examples.
Agilent’s website makes ample use of FAQ content, which is great. To give an example, I’ll look at the page for their 280FS AA Atomic Absorption Spectrometer. They have a lot of stuff on this page, but they use a left-hand navigation menu with anchor links to help users find the information they need. In the “Support” section there is an FAQ, along with other categories of content, each of which has an accordion feature.
Agilent’s FAQ has a good amount of content in it, and they make it more manageable by only showing the questions. You have to click the question to see the answer. Unfortunately, when you click the question, you are directed to a page that has only that one question and answer on it, meaning the page is of relatively low value and has taken the user away from the bulk of the information they are seeking, leading to a sub-optimal user experience (you need to wait for the page to load, then click back to get back to where you were). Additionally, having many pages with “thin” content is far less beneficial from an SEO standpoint than having one page with lots of content. If, for instance, they instead had a nested accordion in which the answer dropped down when it was clicked, this would circumvent the need for individual pages for each answer while still showing a relatively manageable amount of information to each user.
Laboratory Supply Network also makes frequent use of FAQs. FAQs are perhaps of even greater value for distributors and resellers since these companies are often starved of unique content. FAQs, product reviews, and other mechanisms for generating unique content can both improve their SEO and differentiate them from competition who may be selling similar (or the same) products. As an example, we’ll use their Q500 FAQ on Homogenizers.net. Laboratory Supply Network puts their FAQs in a separate tab from other information on the product page, helping to prevent clutter. They also have all the FAQ information directly on the product page, which maximizes the SEO benefit. However, within the FAQ tab, there are no aids to help users find the information which may be of value to them. The only way to see which questions are answered is to scroll through them all – and through their answers. This is non-ideal, especially if there are a lot of questions and / or the questions have long answers. While users will scroll, too much scrolling decreases the likelihood that content near the bottom will be seen.
FAQs add value for your customer and improve the SEO of your website. As with just about any content generation effort, your primary question should be: “can we do this in a manner which is valuable for our audience?” If you have a complex product or service or there is any common uncertainties that customers have about your business, it’s likely that you can both deliver and receive value through an FAQ. Ensure that you’re following best practices, and you’ll maximize its value.
There’s been a ton of buzz in SEO circles about Google’s new RankBrain algorithm. This is very understandable for two reasons. First, it’s a nerd’s dream. It’s an artificial intelligence-based algorithm, and anything with AI in it is buzzy and awesome. Secondly, and more importantly, Google has stated that RankBrain is already the third most important ranking factor behind content and links.
To really understand what RankBrain means for life science SEOers, let’s zoom out a bit and understand what RankBrain is and what it does.
What Is RankBrain?
Put simply, Google RankBrain is a machine learning artificial intelligence system designed to help process search results in order to provide more relevant results to searchers. Specifically, RankBrain is intended to help Google return more relevant results for terms and phrases it’s never heard before. This was particularly important as the internet ever increasingly quickly spews forth new vocabulary and people speak in a stream-of-consciousness type manner into their phones.
Put somewhat more technically, RankBrain converts all language into vectors, with any given vector’s position and direction representing its conceptual meaning. Semantically related terms have vectors which are positioned close to each other and, similarly, groups of related terms (vectors) are positioned closely to other groups of vectors which have close semantic meaning. Through some crazy mathematics and / or magic which I’m sure would be beyond me even if I did have access to the details of it, this ever-changing map of vectors enables Google to make a best guess with regards to terms or phrases it does not know. However, it also [presumably] allows it to better map known concepts to each other as well.
How to Optimize for RankBrain
If this isn’t the first article you’ve read on how – specifically – you should optimize for RankBrain, then let me apologize on behalf of whatever other advice you may have received. The correct answer is: you do nothing. Continue to be a person, and do the rest of your job like a person. The “like a person” part is important.
Since the beginning of search engines, people have been trying to game the system. It’s been a decades-long battle between website owners, who want to convince search engines that their websites are important, and the search engines themselves who want to return the most relevant results to searchers. Initially, search engines were fairly rudimentary and it was easy to convince them your website was more important than it actually was. As time went on, search engines took away more and more tricks. By and large, search engines have won – it’s now extremely difficult to game the system. However, that doesn’t mean that the ranking systems were perfect. RankBrain is simply a response to allow it to better adapt to the actual people doing the searching. In other words, it’s attempting to make Google’s search algorithm a little bit more human. It’s becoming less important to obsess about every word you use since Google is starting to place less importance on the term itself and more importance on the meaning. After all, that’s what people are really looking for. They don’t want results that just have the words they used. They want results that will provide the meaning they seek.
This doesn’t mean that SEO is dead. It’s not. All this means is that you shouldn’t be trying to fool anyone. The best way to increase your website’s value to search engines is, by and large, to increase your website’s value to your target audience. Have great content that makes people want to share it? That’ll be good for SEO. Have a well laid out and easily navigable site? That’ll be good for SEO. Is your website highly relevant to the people you’re looking to target? That’ll be good for SEO as well. Of course there’s always some technical factors that people still manage to overlook – for instance, ensuring your title attribute is relevant and meaningful and that your page load times are decent – but at the end of the day if you’re making a site that’s great for your target audience, it’ll probably end up having fairly good SEO as well.
Don’t Forget to Use Words
I personally find this to be the most amusing piece of advice that I find myself giving over and over again: don’t forget to use words. Seriously, you can have the flashiest website, all the video content in the world, giant shiny infographics, and a totally cool podcast, and all those things are great. You know what none of them have? Words – the text kind. Think of it this way:
- What do people type / speak into search engines? Words.
- What do search engines’ web crawlers read? Words.
- What form the bulk of the results that search engines return? Words.
While the above is admittedly an oversimplification, it’s still 90% true. Words are still very important. It still comes down to the content.
It’s no secret that the SEO world has changed. Ever since Google’s Panda and Penguin algorithm changes, and the subsequent updates to them, prior best practices fell apart. There’s no doubt about that. Things that were once highly effective tools of SEO, like link wheels, are no longer relevant. Because of the ever-decreasing ways in which a marketer can manipulate search engine ranks, there has been an increasing chorus of people proclaiming the “death” of SEO.
Some Self-Serving Claims
It’s been a long-running trend to proclaim the death of SEO. Here’s a nice little article from 2007 which lists other, older articles proclaiming the death of SEO. The claim that SEO is dead is not a new one.
These claims tend to come from two kinds of people: SEO-ers who’ve jumped ship and are trying to get people to follow them, or from people who work on elements of marketing that could be considered strategic alternatives to SEO. Once upon a time, a lot of these voices were from people doing search advertising. Now they’re mostly from content marketers.
Is content marketing important for SEO? Sure it is. Is it more important for SEO than it used to be? In most cases, yes. Is it a replacement for SEO? Not a chance.
The New Age of SEO
Let’s be clear on something: SEO is not dead. SEO will quite possibly never be dead so long as search engines as we know them remain widely used tools.
SEO has been an ever-changing field since the beginning. Remember “keyword jamming”? Remember those websites that were padded with “invisible” text at the bottom of the pages back in the 90s? Remember the link farms of the 2000s? … The most effective tactics have always changed as Google and other search engines have evolved, and I would be very surprised if that fact doesn’t remain true for a long time to come. The only thing about SEO that is infallibly true is the value of those highly coveted top organic search ranks.
The job of the SEOer has not changed. The SEOer is not suddenly a content marketer. The SEOer’s toolbox, however, has changed.
Many technical factors surrounding SEO are still important. Site performance is still very important and something that can be directly controlled. Clickthrough is still very important and is something which is readily influenced. Ensure that any page that you would want to use as a landing page has the appropriate metadata such that your site’s appearance in search results attracts searchers. Making use of Google Authorship and tagging content accordingly can have a profound effect, especially for companies which generate a lot of high-quality content. Additionally, SEOers need to ensure the website’s entry points should be controlled.
Keyword research is still important. The results of this keyword research are then fed to content development teams to help guide the content focus towards things that people are looking for. SEOers then need to ensure that the content is appropriately optimized, or that the content development teams know enough about SEO to create well-optimized content themselves.
Content marketing is very important for most organizations, but it’s still just one piece of SEO. Having an SEO strategy which focuses solely on content will put you at a strategic disadvantage versus those companies with a more holistic approach.
By now, any decent SEO-er knows that the old way of performing SEO – basically, manipulating ranks through inorganic backlinks – is worthless. Google caught on and killed it. As of Panda 4.0, there are extremely limited ways in which someone can fool the rankings system, and doing so will only hurt you in the long run. That being the case, more SEO experts are turning to content development to improve SEO. In a sense, this is good – content development is a legitimate way of trying to improve rankings. However, as SEO-ers start to think about content, we need to remember that the content itself needs to be prioritized above SEO at all times. In other words, life science marketers cannot let the quality of their content slip due to the desire to focus on SEO.
Remember that the purpose of using content for SEO is to have your content seen by your target audience. Your audience, when consuming that content, is going to judge you by its quality. If you’re churning out low-quality content for SEO purposes you may get a lot of eyeballs, but you’re going to be turning off your audience due to the low value of the content which they’re landing on. This can be especially damaging if the audience doesn’t have prior experience with your company. Instead of trying to develop content strictly for SEO, take the high-quality content that’s being developed as part of your content marketing strategy and optimize it!
There are a number of things that you can do to improve the SEO of your high-quality content. For example:
- Think about how your audience would ask questions related to the topic at hand. Is there any particular phrasing that they would use? If so, try to incorporate that phrasing into your content to improve the match for relevant “long-tail” search terms.
- Make appropriate use of heading tags.
- Ensure your page titles and URLs are optimized and relevant. Some content management systems default to generic nomenclature for URLs and titles, using things like an arbitrary numbering system or the date instead of a rich description. Ensure your settings use the title of your content (or at least part of it) in the page title and URL.
- Improve the clickthrough rate of digital content by using a descriptive meta description tag
- Improve the CTR of your digital content even more by using Google Authorship and ensuring you have a good headshot in your linked Google+ account. This can have a huge impact – I’ve seen various case studies claiming that pages with authorship attribution and a headshot displayed in the search results see between 20% and 150% increases in clickthrough. Eye-tracking data is just as compelling: searchers will pay more attention to author-attributed pages than higher-ranking videos with larger images.
If necessity dictates that you need to create content strictly for SEO purposes, especially if it would fall outside the bounds of your content strategy, ask yourself the following questions to ensure that you don’t churn out junk content:
- Does our target audience have a need to know about this topic?
- Can we create content which would genuinely fill that knowledge gap?
- Would our target audience expect us to provide this type of content? If not, would they find it odd that we are? … I think of this as the realtor / lawnmower conundrum. Your realtor, knowing that you just bought a house, would be in a great position to sell you a lawnmower. They even know what kind of lawn you have. However, you would likely be put off if your realtor tried to sell you a lawnmower.
While the tools at one’s disposal to positively affect search engine ranks are more limited than they used to be, SEO is still important. As SEO tactics take a more content-centric approach, it’s important you don’t churn out low-value content. Your content strategy should be focused on the content. Working SEO into your content strategy will have a far more positive long-term effect than trying to take to shape content around an SEO strategy.
About a month and a half ago we wrote an article about times when search advertising isn’t worthwhile, focusing on the results of a study by eBay Research Labs. However, that study highlights just two specific instances when search advertising isn’t profitable; there are many more instances when search advertising would not be able to play an effective role in demand generation for life science marketers, and we discuss these here.
The most obvious example is when your product isn’t simply something that scientists aren’t looking for. This is most common with services and software, but sometimes occurs with other products as well, especially those which are non-essential to life science research. You can attempt to expand your targeting to include ancillary terms (for example, if you manufacture an accessory to a product then you might advertise for the terms related to the main product). However, this often leads to a low clickthrough rate, which both increases cost-per-click and decreases the frequency that your ads will be shown, which may lead to lackluster campaign performance. Additionally, if search volume for a given term is too low, most SEM platforms (AdWords, Bing Ads, etc.) simply won’t show any ads.
Another example is when the people doing the searching aren’t the people you need to sell to. For example, in the situation of suppliers of very high-end equipment, most of the search traffic may come from lab techs but the decision-makers may be director-level individuals. It may be that this ultimately doesn’t matter – it may still be worthwhile to advertise even if only 1 out of 100 clicks is relevant – but this can dramatically increase the cost per conversion, which is a much more meaningful metric by which to measure ROI.
Chemical / biochemical companies often face a unique problem with search marketing. Depending on the substances they sell, they need to take care to not be flagged as an “online pharmacy” by ad platforms, which can result in account suspension.
Additionally, for low-cost items it is often the case that search engine marketing isn’t profitable on the initial sale, especially for distributors and for manufacturers of lower-value products who often operate on fairly thin margins to begin with. In order for SEM to have a good return in these situations, it is imperative that life science suppliers continue to re-engage with customers in order to drive repeat sales.
As we said previously, search engine marketing is a fantastic tool and can work wonders for lead generation but we should not blindly expect results from it. Regardless of the situation, SEM should be carefully monitored and coupled with appropriate analytics and CRM such that results can be measured, informed decisions can be made, and campaigns can be improved over time.
One of the newer trends in website design, which has actually existed for quite a while but is just now becoming more popular and easy to implement, are single-page websites where the content is accessed via anchor links which trigger dynamic scrolling. (In case you’re not sure what I’m talking about you can find a whole website of examples here.) While single-page design can add a lot of character to a life science website and be visually captivating without sacrificing user flow, a single page website almost always sacrifices SEO.
The reason is quite simple: Fewer pages means fewer URLs, fewer page titles, and fewer high-on-page header tags. Google Webmaster Trends Analyst John Muller explained on the Google Webmaster Central forum:
Quote from Google Webmaster Trends Analyst John MullerI’d generally recommend a more traditional site format. It’s complicated for search engines to understand a “one-page” site like that, given that there is so much information on a single page. It’s much easier for our algorithms to focus on individual pages with content that matches the same context. Additionally […], it could be extremely confusing to the user to see basically an empty page when they expect to find content based on a search that they’ve made.
John raises another excellent search-related point that addresses a UX flaw in single-page websites. Even if you do manage to optimize for content that is farther down the page, Google doesn’t index anchor links. Therefore, the search results could indicate the page being relevant to the search due to content well below the fold, but a user who clicks the link will land at the top of the page and not at the relevant content.
Does this mean you can’t use all those nifty scrolling effects on your site? Not at all. It’s possible to use the same type of single-page design and the same effects while still having multiple pages – for example by using a static nav bar header with “real” links as opposed to anchor links but making on-page content accessible via anchor tangs with dynamic scrolling. Another solution is to use landing pages to target additional keywords then link back into the dynamically scrolling page(s) – or just capture leads right on the page by leveraging more highly targeted content, which is the purpose of most landing pages. Landing pages are generally not well cross-linked with other site content and are outside the normal site hierarchical structure, however, and therefore often require additional off-site SEO effort to achieve a high rank for competitive terms.
Ultimately, if you want scientists to be able to easily find your products via search engines, it’s probably best to have a traditional site format.
Regardless of who you are or what you’re looking for, one of the most common ways to look for products and services is the mighty internet. An unpublished BioBM study found that among life science researchers, 45% will turn to search engines first when looking for a product or service – roughly the same amount as will ask a colleague first – and almost all scientists will perform an internet search at some point in their buying journey. Given the near-ubiquitous prevalence of search as a tool to find products and services, search engine marketing just seems to make logical sense. If you have a product, and someone is looking for that product, then put up an ad, they’ll click on it, and bingo – for a few bucks you’ve targeted a highly relevant member of your target market who is even looking for product information right now! Simple, right? Not always…
There are, in fact, multiple scenarios in which search engine marketing can fail. One of those reasons, however, is a bit more difficult to detect and can actually cost you a lot of money.
eBay Research Labs recently published a study where they set out to determine if brand keyword search ads, in other words keywords that contain the brand name of the company, were worthwhile. Unsurprisingly, they found that such advertising was not effective; in these circumstances people were using Google as a navigational tool and when paid search was turned off, and therefore paid traffic dropped to zero, their organic traffic increased by roughly the same amount.
The much more interesting question that they asked was: “What would happen if we simply turned search advertising off altogether?” The answer to this may seem obvious. If someone searches for “used Gibson Les Paul” (an example they use in the paper) a number of guitar resellers appear in organic search prior to eBay. As this is also the case for many other product-specific terms, eBay’s search ads help direct traffic to eBay when they would otherwise be directed to other sellers / resellers, and thereby increasing eBay’s business. It seems to make logical sense.
eBay wasn’t satisfied with that assumption, however, so they took a sampling of United States geographies and turned off all search ads, leaving search ads in the rest of the country on as a control. What happened to their sales? Largely, nothing. Looking at the sales and advertising data in conjunction with customer data, they found that search advertising is only cost-effective on the least active customers; those whose last eBay purchase was not recent and who made few purchases in the past year. However, eBay is a very popular company and those infrequent purchasers constituted a small percentage of searchers. Therefore, when cost effectiveness was calculated, search advertising had an astonishing -75% ROI. In other words, for every dollar they spent in search advertising, they got back only 25 cents!
Most life science companies, however, as with most companies in general, do not have the kind of brand recognition that eBay does. You probably don’t have to remind scientists that Sigma sells chemicals or that Illumina sells sequencers, but these are the exceptions rather than the rules. So what’s the takeaway for smaller companies? First, while search engine marketing is a fantastic tool and can work wonders for sales or lead generation, we shouldn’t simply expect it to do so. Secondly, testing and analytics are extremely important – not just for search marketing but any advertising campaign and most marketing endeavors. While it may be more difficult to draw accurate conclusions from smaller sample sizes, most of the experiments that eBay ran to test their hypotheses could be done by any company.
You’ve seemingly done everything right – you have lots of high-quality backlinks pointing to the relevant page and the page has an optimized title, URL, and header tags. You have well-optimized content and lots of it, and your domain and site have “aged”. You’ve avoided any “black hat” tricks that could get you penalized. So why aren’t your search engine rankings where they should be? It’s not an uncommon problem, and there’s generally only two answers: 1) You’ve underestimated your competition, or 2) Your clickthrough is poor.
If you know a few things about SEO, you probably heard a lot of talk about backlinks and content / page optimization, but those are by no means the only important factors in SEO. Your search results also need to appeal to the scientists that are doing the searching. Think about it: Google is in the business of helping internet users find the content that they’re looking for. People use Google more than other search engines primarily because of the quality of the search results. If a result isn’t being clicked on, then that indicates that it’s less relevant than other results. If it’s less relevant, then it’s in the search engines’ best interest to return a different result for that query that is more relevant and the experience is better for the users.
If you keep a close eye on your Google rankings, for example, you probably noticed that your rankings for some terms will occasionally bounce around a bit. That’s usually Google performing clickthrough testing – seeing if another result would be of more interest to the users.
So what is the life science marketer to do? A few things. First, pay attention to your meta description attribute. While this attribute is not included in Google’s algorithms that determine search ranking, this attribute is generally what will display as the descriptive text under the link in the search results and therefore effects clickthrough. Be sure that’s relevant and interesting. Including language used in the search term will help as well. Secondly, think about what searchers for that term will be looking for and what the page you’re optimizing is offering. Are searchers going to be interested in cell-based assay products but your highest-ranking result is a blog post? Conversely, may they be interested in informational content about pre-clinical toxicology but your result offers it as a service? Perhaps they are looking for stem cell culture protocols but your result is for a white paper. Regardless of the exact reason, you could be significantly impacting your clickthrough if your optimized result is not what the searchers are looking for.
Unfortunately, you cannot measure clickthrough in Google Analytics since there is no information provided about impressions. You can, however, use Google Webmaster Tools. The “Search Queries” menu will show you the ballpark number of impressions for any given search term, the average position in search results for that term, and the amount of clicks those impressions led to as well as the CTR (provided you have more than 10 clicks for the given term). Keep in mind that unlike Google Analytics, Google Webmaster Tools only retains data from the past 90 days, so if you want to keep track of clickthrough long-term you’ll want to export it.
You can do everything right – have high-quality links, well-optimized content, etc. – but if your clickthrough is poor your SEO will suffer. Life science marketers who measure and optimize for clickthrough will be rewarded with higher search rankings.