Pandas And Loyalty

SEOs debate ranking metrics over and over, but if there’s one thing for sure, it’s that Google no longer works the same way it used to.

The fundamental shift in the past couple of years has been more emphasis on what could be characterized as engagement factors.

I became convinced that Panda is really the public face of a much deeper switch towards user engagement. While the Panda score is sitewide the engagement "penalty" or weighting effect on also occurs at the individual page. The pages or content areas that were hurt less by Panda seem to be the ones that were not also being hurt by the engagement issue.

Inbound links to a page still count, as inbound links are engagement factors. How about a keyword in the title tag? On-page text? They are certainly basic requirements, but of low importance when it comes to determining ranking. This is because the web is not short of content, so there will always likely to be on-topic content to serve against a query. Rather, Google refines in order to deliver the most relevant content.

Google does so by checking a range of metrics to see what people really think about the content Google is serving, and the oldest form of this check is an inbound link, which is a form of vote by users. Engagement metrics are just a logical extension of the same idea.

Brands appear to have an advantage, not because they fit into an arbitrary category marked “brand,” but because of signals that define them as being more relevant i.e. a brand keyword search likely results in a high number of click-thrus, and few click-backs. This factor, when combined with other metrics, such as their name in the backlink, helps define relevance.

Social signals are also playing a part, and likely measured in the same way as brands. If enough people talk about something, associate terms with it, and point to it, and users don’t click-back in sufficient number, then it’s plausible that activity results in higher relevance scores.

We don’t know for sure, of course. We can only speculate based on limited blackbox testing which will always be incomplete. However, even if some SEOs don’t accept the ranking boost that comes from engagement metrics, there’s still a sound business reason to pay attention to the main difference between brand and non-brand sites.


Investing In The Return

Typically, internet marketers place a lot of emphasis, and spend, on getting a new visitor to a site. They may also place emphasis on converting the buyer, using conversion optimization and other persuasion techniques.

But how much effort are they investing to ensure the visitor comes back?

Some may say ensuring the visitor comes back isn't SEO, but in a post-Panda environment, SEO is about a lot more than the first click. As you build up brand searches, bookmarking, and word-of-mouth metrics, you’ll likely create the type of signals Google favours.

Focusing on the returning visitor also makes sense from a business point of view. Selling to existing customers - whether you’re selling a physical thing or a point of view - is cheaper than selling to a new customer.

Acquiring new customers is expensive (five to ten times the cost of retaining an existing one), and the average spend of a repeat customer is a whopping 67 percent more than a new one

So, customer loyalty pays off on a number of levels.

Techniques To Foster Loyalty

Return purchasers, repeat purchasers and repeat visitors can often be missed in analytics, or their importance not well understood. According to the Q2 2012 Adobe analysis, “8% of site visitors, they generated a disproportionately high 41% of site sales. What’s more, return and repeat purchasers had higher average order values and conversion rates than shoppers with no previous purchase history

One obvious technique, if you’re selling products, is to use loyalty programs. Offer points, discounts and other monetary rewards. One drawback of this approach is is that giving rewards and pricing discounts is essentially purchasing loyalty. Customers will only be “loyal” so long as they think they’re getting a bargain, so this approach works best if you’re in a position to be price competitive. Contrast this with the deeper loyalty that can be achieved through an emotional loyalty to a brand, by the likes of Apple, Google and Coke.

Fostering deeper loyalty, then, is about finding out what really matters to people, hopefully something other than price.

Take a look at Zappos. What makes customers loyal to Zappos? Customers may get better prices elsewhere, but Zappos is mostly about service. Zappos is about ease of use. Zappos is about lowering the risk of purchase by offering free returns. Zappos have identified and provided what their market really wants - high service levels and reasonable pricing - so people keep coming back.

Does anyone think the engagement metrics of Zappos would be overlooked by Google? If Zappos were not seen as relevant by Google, then there would be something badly wrong - with Google. Zappos have high brand awareness in the shoe sector, built on solving a genuine problem for visitors. They offer high service levels, which keeps people coming back, and keeps customers talking about them.

Sure, they’re a well-funded, outlier internet success, but the metrics will still apply to all verticals. The brands who engage customers the most, and continue to do so, are, by definition, most relevant.

Another thing to consider, especially if you’re a small operator competing against big players, is closely related to service. Try going over-the-top in you attentiveness to customers. Paul Graham, of Y Combinator, talks about how start-ups should go well beyond what big companies do, and the payback is increased loyalty:

But perhaps the biggest thing preventing founders from realizing how attentive they could be to their users is that they've never experienced such attention themselves. Their standards for customer service have been set by the companies they've been customers of, which are mostly big ones. Tim Cook doesn't send you a hand-written note after you buy a laptop. He can't. But you can. That's one advantage of being small: you can provide a level of service no big company can

That strategy syncs with Seth Godin’s Purple Cow notion of “being remarkable” i.e do something different - good different - so people remark upon it. These days, and in the context of SEO, that translates into social media mentions and links, and brand searches, all of which will help keep the Google Gods smiling, too.

The feedback loop of high engagement will also help you refine your relevance:

Over-engaging with early users is not just a permissible technique for getting growth rolling. For most successful startups it's a necessary part of the feedback loop that makes the product good. Making a better mousetrap is not an atomic operation. Even if you start the way most successful startups have, by building something you yourself need, the first thing you build is never quite right.....


Gamification has got a lot of press in the last few years as a means of fostering higher levels of engagement and return visits.

The concept is called gamification - that is, implementing design concepts from games, loyalty programs, and behavioral economics, to drive user engagement”. M2 research expects that US companies alone will be spending $3b per year on gamification technologies and services before the end of the decade

People have natural desires to be competitive, to achieve, to gain status, closure and feel altruistic. Incorporating game features helps fulfil these desires.

And games aren’t just for kids. According to The Gamification Revolution, by Zichermann and Linder - a great read on gamification strategy, BTW - the average “gamer” in the US is a 43 year old female. Gaming is one of the few channels where levels of attention are increasing. Contrast this with content-based advertising, which is often rendered invisible by repetition.

This is not to say everything must be turned into a game. Rather, pay attention to the desires that games fulfil, and try to incorporate those aspects into your site, where appropriate. Central to the idea of gamification is orienting around the deep desires of a visitor for some form of reward and status.

The user may want to buy product X, but if they can feel a sense of achievement in doing so, they’ll be engaging at a deeper level, which could then lead to brand loyalty.

eBay, a pure web e-commerce play dealing in stuff, have a “chief engagement officer”, someone who’s job it is to tweak eBay so it becomes more-gamelike. This, in turn, drives customer engagement and loyalty. If your selling history becomes a marker of achievement and status, then how likely are you to start anew at the competition?

This is one of the reasons eBay has remained so entrenched.

Gamification has also been used as a tool for customer engagement, and for encouraging desirable website usage behaviour. Additionally, gamification is readily applicable to increasing engagement on sites built on social network services. For example, in August 2010, one site, DevHub, announced that they have increased the number of users who completed their online tasks from 10% to 80% after adding gamification elements. On the programming question-and-answer site Stack Overflow users receive points and/or badges for performing a variety of actions, including spreading links to questions and answers via Facebook and Twitter. A large number of different badges are available, and when a user's reputation points exceed various thresholds, he or she gains additional privileges, including at the higher end, the privilege of helping to moderate the site

Gamification, in terms of the web, is relatively new. It didn’t even appear in Google Trends until 2010. But it’s not just some buzzword, it has practical application, and it can help improve ranking by boosting engagement metrics through loyalty and referrals. Loyalty marketing guru Fredrick Reichheld has claimed a strong link between customer loyalty marketing and customer referral.

Obviously, this approach is highly user-centric. Google orient around this principle, too. “Focus on the user and all else will follow.”

Google has always had the mantra of 'focus on the user and all else will follow,' so the company puts a significant amount of effort into researching its users. In fact, Au estimates that 30 to 40 per cent of her 200-strong worldwide user experience team is compromised of user researchers

Google fosters return visits and loyalty by giving the user what they want, and they use a lot of testing to ensure that happens. Websites that focus on keywords, but don’t give the user what they want, either due to a lack of focus, lack of depth, or by using deliberate bait-and-switch, are going against Google’s defining principles and will likely ultimately lose the SEO game.

The focus on the needs and desires of the user, both before their first click, to their return visits, should be stronger than ever.


According to Microsoft research, the average new visitor gives your site 10 seconds or less. Personally, I think ten seconds sounds somewhat generous! If a visitor makes it past 30 seconds, you’re lucky to get two minutes of their attention, in total. What does this do to your engagement metrics if Google is counting click backs, and clicks to other pages in the same domain?

And these metrics are even worse for mobile.

There’s been a lot of diversification in terms of platforms, and many users are stuck in gamified silo environments, like Facebook, so it’s getting harder and harder to attract people out of their comfort zone and to your brand.

So it’s no longer just about building brand, we also need to think about more ways to foster ongoing engagement and attention. We’ve seen that people are spending a lot of attention on games. In so doing, they have been conditioned to expect heightened rewards, stimulation and feedback as a reward for that attention.

Do you reward visitors for their attention?

If not, think about ways you can build reward and status for visitors into your site.

Sites like 99 Designs use a game to solicit engagement from suppliers as a point of differentiation for buyers. Challenges, such as “win the design” competition, delivers dozens of solutions at no extra cost to the user. The winners also receive a form of status, which is also a form of “payment” for their efforts. We could argue that this type of gamification is weighed heavily against the supplier, but there’s no doubting the heightened level of engagement and attraction for the buyer. Not only do they get multiple web design ideas for the price of one, they get to be the judge in a design version of the X-Factor.


Hopefully, this article has provided some food for thought. If we were going to measure success of loyalty and engagement campaigns, we might look at recency i.e. how long ago did the users last visit, frequency i.e. how often do they visit in a period of time, and duration i.e. when do they come, and how long do they stay. We could then map these metrics back against rankings, and look for patterns.

But even if we’re overestimating the effect of engagement on rankings, it still makes good sense from a business point of view. It costs a lot to get the first visit, but a whole lot less to keep happy visitors coming back, particularly on brand searches.

Think about ways to reward visitors for doing so.

Published: July 25, 2013 by A Reader in business


July 25, 2013 - 2:19pm

I agree with you. I believe there is been a major shift in how Google values, weights and judges websites.

User interaction is extremely important. Panda is only one portion of their algorithm. I believe this new change the we are seeing in the last 18 months is a complete overhaul of their algorithm. I believe they've been working on this for at least five years.

I think it's far more complex than people understand. I suspect they have segregated industries, website styles (forums versus blogs) and maybe some other segments. I believe they apply different formulas for different situations.

Returning visitors can be a valuable metric when you're selling books. However when you're selling automobile insurance, it's unlikely you're going to get many returning visitors. So I believe the use another set of metrics for that industry.

Unfortunately, many people in our industry are focused on trying to figure out what Google has done, and how they can benefit from it. In my opinion this is futile. I believe their system is so complex, we and the outside can never figure it out. I also think that we have not seen the entire system. I think they're rolling it out in pieces even in 2013. It may take them two more years to fully implement this system.

In my opinion, the only way to get good results is to market the website better. Building a better website in terms of user engagement will produce great results. However that is an expensive thing to do. By monitoring multiple analytics carefully, we can learn from the user experience and refine the website. This is the only way we're going to win. By making our websites better than the competition, we will gain more business.

July 25, 2013 - 3:07pm

Returning visitors can be a valuable metric when you're selling books. However when you're selling automobile insurance, it's unlikely you're going to get many returning visitors.

Having an ongoing relationship is an easy way to drive ongoing usage data. Don't people have the opportunity to login to pay their bills each month / quarter / year? I know my bank (which also offers insurance) invites me to sign in to pay the bills, sign in to download statements, sign in to download updated insurance cards, sign in to update mileage driven, etc.

Further, some of the biggest brands in insurance drive curiosity clicks & brand awareness with outsized ad budgets. I believe Geico spends nearly $1 billion a year on marketing & Warren Buffet mentioned 75% of their quotes come from the internet. It's pretty clear that marketing campaign is thus driving plenty of usage data.

many people in our industry are focused on trying to figure out what Google has done, and how they can benefit from it. In my opinion this is futile. I believe their system is so complex, we and the outside can never figure it out.

If I fully believed this then I would likely shut this site down. But I don't ;)

Understanding biases and risk factors and so on has value. And even if you can't get at the precise impacts of every little thing, there is still value in seeing the trends to project the future and try to stay out in front of some algorithmic issues.

the only way to get good results is to market the website better. Building a better website in terms of user engagement will produce great results. However that is an expensive thing to do.

Links were the primary basis of ranking (and to a large degree still are), but if Google wanted to analyze how a site is "better" by using end user data (see here to see how they are collecting it) then surely folding that data into the pot would be a large chunk of their analysis of what is "better."

I believe their strategy of analysis favors that which is already well known, which means that larger sites & businesses that can afford branding campaigns win, while smaller sites that can't generally/typically end up on the losing side. This shift is well reflected in this past half-year of updates, where the top 10 sites grew exposure by about 20% (off a huge base), while result diversity dropped by over 10%.

On a...cough...unrelated note, did you listen to Google's quarterly conference call where Nikesh Aurora spoke of Google's strategic move UP the funnel? Google's focus on brand in organic mirrors the goal of their ads in working with larger companies for broader ad campaigns.

By monitoring multiple analytics carefully, we can learn from the user experience and refine the website.

Funny you should mention analytics as the way forward. Not that I think it is wrong, but rather because Google is now hiding so much data. Between keyword (not provided), their (secured search) obfuscation & making some mobile visits look like direct visitors, Google is no longer sending keyword referral data for something like 60% to 65% of organic search visits. And this is *before* one accounts for some of the other recent treats Google has done with things like the local carousel, where there is a 2-click process where unbranded searches are hidden by the 2-click process.

So even if one *really* cares about web analytics & improving user experience, Google inserts itself as "roadblock cafe" on that front UNLESS you pay for the data via AdWords, in which case the data flows like wine.

July 25, 2013 - 7:32pm

This news & general trend certainly isn't encouraging for SEOs. A strict-sided definition of SEO is someone who manipulates search engine rankings via a handful of techniques and/or tricks. More and more these techniques seem to be plugged up for more holistic website metrics like user engagement (something a strict SEO doesn't have much business in).

It seems discouraging that more and more the algorithms soak up previously traveled optimization roads to favor ones like user engagement that cannot be gamed all that much. Is there a time when we turn in our hats and just become general marketers? Or has REAL SEO gone underground.... The market certainly seems at a point where its going to stratify pretty heavily. The SEO nincompoops (which may include me) certainly don't see clear path outta this one.

July 26, 2013 - 10:12am

A strict-sided definition of SEO is someone who manipulates search engine rankings via a handful of techniques and/or tricks.

I think one has to view SEO as constantly changing if one is to evolve with the relevancy algorithms.

To a crop of folks who started in the 1990's, so much of everything SEO was about what you did on-page.

In terms of the "handful of techniques and/or tricks" ... back when I got into SEO about a decade ago a lot of folks considered anyone who built links to be a spammer. Why? Doing on-page optimization was easier and more profitable. :D

The point I am trying to make there will always be some folks who say whatever is new is crap or unneeded or spam or some other such. I certainly wasn't "long" on social media, but in spite of that I still must face how it impacts the ecosystem.

favor ones like user engagement that cannot be gamed all that much.

All metrics can be gamed, as people are far more influenced than they like to believe.

I am not endorsing the ways of Bernays, but read this, then read this: "Bernays's seamless transition from hawking products to psychological warfare was most glaringly evident in his work for United Fruit, the colossus of the banana market and Guatemala's largest landlord in the early 1950's. ... when Jacobo Arbenz Guzman became Guatemalan President in 1951 and started to confiscate the company's massive landholdings, Bernays helped forge a network of intelligence agents in Central America expressly to discredit the regime. He circulated unflattering information to influential American newspapers, stigmatizing Arbenz with the Communist label and softening up public opinion for the eventual C.I.A.-sponsored overthrow of the reform-minded Government."

He had a government overthrown to increase his client's profits, plunging the country into a 36-year civil war!

Adam Curtis directed a great DVD documentary named The Century of The Self. He's a journalist who really gets how power structures work: "So much of the language that surrounds us - from things like economics, management theory and the algorithms built into computer systems - appears to be objective and neutral. But in fact it is loaded with powerful, and very debatable, political assumptions about how society should work, and what human beings are really like. But it is very difficult to show this to people."

Is there a time when we turn in our hats and just become general marketers?

Certainly many folks are heading in this direction.

Another strategy that is an end-around is parasitic hosting, which will likely rise something like 50-fold in the next 2 years. If Google wants to rank big platforms over smaller sites, then people will spam big platforms that get the ranking boost. Revisit this comment in 2 years and see if this prediction was correct or not. ;)

The market certainly seems at a point where its going to stratify pretty heavily.

Much of this is the fault of the industry itself for 2 big reasons:

  • Frequent shilling for the market monopoly that dictates the terms of the market
  • Most people want everything for free, no matter how valuable it is. True story a publicly traded company worth over $30 billion wanted access to our site for their team, but told me that they felt $300 was a big risk and I should give them a free trial.
July 26, 2013 - 9:06pm

But what does SEO evolve into? Seems to me its just evolving into competitive webmastering.

July 27, 2013 - 8:57pm

...the copywriting people will tell you it is copywriting, the content marketing people will tell you it is content marketing, the social media people will tell you it is social media, and the SEOs will still call it SEO.

July 26, 2013 - 10:19am

"A strict-sided definition of SEO is someone who manipulates search engine rankings via a handful of techniques and/or tricks."

I don't agree. Gaming the search engines ar black hat SEO techniques to rank a page just for the sake of ranking it.

Webmarketing is getting more mature and it takes a wholistic approach to succeed and SEO is just part of the game.

You need good valuable engaging content with attractive illustrations, images, videos all that SEO optimized and shared in social media, press relations PR 2.0 is a + and finally analytics to analyse what's working and what is not

July 26, 2013 - 9:04pm

That's great and all, but I'd say valuable engaging content, attractive illustrations, images, videos, social media, press relations, analyzing results = all sounds like general marketing.

The only part of SEO that you could include in that is some proper linking and a decent title? Its like 90% good marketing 10% SEO.

July 27, 2013 - 10:30pm can broaden or narrow the scope as they like, depending on what their objectives are. If one wants to stay competitive, one can either say:

Ultimately how one frames it in their mind doesn't matter too much, so long as one adds the therefore or "what next" piece to it. Either frame of mind works just fine as long as one is willing to keep evolving with the ecosystem.

Generally speaking, in most cases people who define themselves by a category typically have an expansive view of that category, as it is the lens through which they view themselves and the broader world. Those outside a category often tend to slag off a term and try to constrain its meaning, such that they can sell a parallel service while claiming it is somehow different (this is what many of the "death of SEO" crowd do).

July 28, 2013 - 2:10am


Engagement is likely a signal Google examines. If that is the case, then engagement optimisation is SEO as much as on-page optimization, or any other signal, is SEO.

It doesn't really matter what labels we apply, the measure of success is higher ranking and increased, relevant traffic. SEO without ranking improvement, or more relevant traffic, is worthless, so if "marketing" helps achieve ranking improvement, then an SEO would be foolish to ignore marketing.

July 28, 2013 - 6:12pm

I guess I'm trying to describe the trend that a search engine optimized site is more of a side effect of good marketing these days, which leaves the idea of hiring an SEO guy out of the picture pretty much. It is very hard to brute your way into good rankings (which was the textbook SEOs forte of the past). You can just skip all the search engine optimization nonsense and just go your own way - search engines are better and better about figuring things out on their own anyways. Is that fair to say?

July 28, 2013 - 6:39pm
  • The scope of a field broadening out doesn't make that field suddenly irrelevant.
  • While some well known sites can do well without much SEO consideration, they could still have large technical issues which if fixed would cause a large increase in rankings and search traffic.
  • Even in terms of content creation and promotion, understanding hooks to put into it & the linking opportunities around it is still quite valuable.

In the past SEO could have acted as the entirety of a marketing strategy without doing much in the way of offline marketing, without doing much advertising & without understanding much beyond the search channel itself. There are still some cases where that is true, however they become scarcer by the day.

In some cases SEO can still be half or more of a site's marketing strategy, but the more other pieces there are mixed in there the less the overall risk of large step function declines in rank & traffic.

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