How to Rid Your Website of Six Common Google Analytics Headaches

Posted by amandaecking

I’ve been in and out of Google Analytics (GA) for the past five or so years agency-side. I’ve seen three different code libraries, dozens of new different features and reports roll out, IP addresses stop being reported, and keywords not-so-subtly phased out of the free platform.

Analytics has been a focus of mine for the past year or so—mainly, making sure clients get their data right. Right now, our new focus is closed loop tracking, but that’s a topic for another day. If you’re using Google Analytics, and only Google Analytics for the majority of your website stats, or it’s your primary vehicle for analysis, you need to make sure it’s accurate.

Not having data pulling in or reporting properly is like building a house on a shaky foundation: It doesn’t end well. Usually there are tears.

For some reason, a lot of people, including many of my clients, assume everything is tracking properly in Google Analytics… because Google. But it’s not Google who sets up your analytics. People do that. And people are prone to make mistakes.

I’m going to go through six scenarios where issues are commonly encountered with Google Analytics.

I’ll outline the remedy for each issue, and in the process, show you how to move forward with a diagnosis or resolution.

1. Self-referrals

This is probably one of the areas we’re all familiar with. If you’re seeing a lot of traffic from your own domain, there’s likely a problem somewhere—or you need to extend the default session length in Google Analytics. (For example, if you have a lot of long videos or music clips and don’t use event tracking; a website like TEDx or SoundCloud would be a good equivalent.)

Typically one of the first things I’ll do to help diagnose the problem is include an advanced filter to show the full referrer string. You do this by creating a filter, as shown below:

Filter Type: Custom filter > Advanced
Field A: Hostname
Extract A: (.*)
Field B: Request URI
Extract B: (.*)
Output To: Request URI
Constructor: $A1$B1

You’ll then start seeing the subdomains pulling in. Experience has shown me that if you have a separate subdomain hosted in another location (say, if you work with a separate company and they host and run your mobile site or your shopping cart), it gets treated by Google Analytics as a separate domain. Thus, you ‘ll need to implement cross domain tracking. This way, you can narrow down whether or not it’s one particular subdomain that’s creating the self-referrals.

In this example below, we can see all the revenue is being reported to the booking engine (which ended up being cross domain issues) and their own site is the fourth largest traffic source:

self-referrals-2.png

I’ll also a good idea to check the browser and device reports to start narrowing down whether the issue is specific to a particular element. If it’s not, keep digging. Look at pages pulling the self-referrals and go through the code with a fine-tooth comb, drilling down as much as you can.

2. Unusually low bounce rate

If you have a crazy-low bounce rate, it could be too good to be true. Unfortunately. An unusually low bounce rate could (and probably does) mean that at least on some pages of your website have the same Google Analytics tracking code installed twice.

Take a look at your source code, or use Google Tag Assistant (though it does have known bugs) to see if you’ve got GA tracking code installed twice.

While I tell clients having Google Analytics installed on the same page can lead to double the pageviews, I’ve not actually encountered that—I usually just say it to scare them into removing the duplicate implementation more quickly. Don’t tell on me.

3. Iframes anywhere

I’ve heard directly from Google engineers and Google Analytics evangelists that Google Analytics does not play well with iframes, and that it will never will play nice with this dinosaur technology.

If you track the iframe, you inflate your pageviews, plus you still aren’t tracking everything with 100% clarity.

If you don’t track across iframes, you lose the source/medium attribution and everything becomes a self-referral.

Damned if you do; damned if you don’t.

My advice: Stop using iframes. They’re Netscape-era technology anyway, with rainbow marquees and Comic Sans on top. Interestingly, and unfortunately, a number of booking engines (for hotels) and third-party carts (for ecommerce) still use iframes.

If you have any clients in those verticals, or if you’re in the vertical yourself, check with your provider to see if they use iframes. Or you can check for yourself, by right-clicking as close as you can to the actual booking element:

iframe-booking.png

There is no neat and tidy way to address iframes with Google Analytics, and usually iframes are not the only complicated element of setup you’ll encounter. I spent eight months dealing with a website on a subfolder, which used iframes and had a cross domain booking system, and the best visibility I was able to get was about 80% on a good day.

Typically, I’d approach diagnosing iframes (if, for some reason, I had absolutely no access to viewing a website or talking to the techs) similarly to diagnosing self-referrals, as self-referrals are one of the biggest symptoms of iframe use.

4. Massive traffic jumps

Massive jumps in traffic don’t typically just happen. (Unless, maybe, you’re Geraldine.) There’s always an explanation—a new campaign launched, you just turned on paid ads for the first time, you’re using content amplification platforms, you’re getting a ton of referrals from that recent press in The New York Times. And if you think it just happened, it’s probably a technical glitch.

I’ve seen everything from inflated pageviews result from including tracking on iframes and unnecessary implementation of virtual pageviews, to not realizing the tracking code was installed on other microsites for the same property. Oops.

Usually I’ve seen this happen when the tracking code was somewhere it shouldn’t be, so if you’re investigating a situation of this nature, first confirm the Google Analytics code is only in the places it needs to be.Tools like Google Tag Assistant and Screaming Frog can be your BFFs in helping you figure this out.

Also, I suggest bribing the IT department with sugar (or booze) to see if they’ve changed anything lately.

5. Cross-domain tracking

I wish cross-domain tracking with Google Analytics out of the box didn’t require any additional setup. But it does.

If you don’t have it set up properly, things break down quickly, and can be quite difficult to untangle.

The older the GA library you’re using, the harder it is. The easiest setup, by far, is Google Tag Manager with Universal Analytics. Hard-coded universal analytics is a bit more difficult because you have to implement autoLink manually and decorate forms, if you’re using them (and you probably are). Beyond that, rather than try and deal with it, I say update your Google Analytics code. Then we can talk.

Where I’ve seen the most murkiness with tracking is when parts of cross domain tracking are implemented, but not all. For some reason, if allowLinker isn’t included, or you forget to decorate all the forms, the cookies aren’t passed between domains.

The absolute first place I would start with this would be confirming the cookies are all passing properly at all the right points, forms, links, and smoke signals. I’ll usually use a combination of the Real Time report in Google Analytics, Google Tag Assistant, and GA debug to start testing this. Any debug tool you use will mean you’re playing in the console, so get friendly with it.

6. Internal use of UTM strings

I’ve saved the best for last. Internal use of campaign tagging. We may think, oh, I use Google to tag my campaigns externally, and we’ve got this new promotion on site which we’re using a banner ad for. That’s a campaign. Why don’t I tag it with a UTM string?

Step away from the keyboard now. Please.

When you tag internal links with UTM strings, you override the original source/medium. So that visitor who came in through your paid ad and then who clicks on the campaign banner has now been manually tagged. You lose the ability to track that they came through on the ad the moment they click on the tagged internal link. Their source and medium is now your internal campaign, not that paid ad you’re spending gobs of money on and have to justify to your manager. See the problem?

I’ve seen at least three pretty spectacular instances of this in the past year, and a number of smaller instances of it. Annie Cushing also talks about the evils of internal UTM tags and the odd prevalence of it. (Oh, and if you haven’t explored her blog, and the amazing spreadsheets she shares, please do.)

One clothing company I worked with tagged all of their homepage offers with UTM strings, which resulted in the loss of visibility for one-third of their audience: One million visits over the course of a year, and $2.1 million in lost revenue.

Let me say that again. One million visits, and $2.1 million. That couldn’t be attributed to an external source/campaign/spend.

Another client I audited included campaign tagging on nearly every navigational element on their website. It still gives me nightmares.

If you want to see if you have any internal UTM strings, head straight to the Campaigns report in Acquisition in Google Analytics, and look for anything like “home” or “navigation” or any language you may use internally to refer to your website structure.

And if you want to see how users are moving through your website, go to the Flow reports. Or if you really, really, really want to know how many people click on that sidebar link, use event tracking. But please, for the love of all things holy (and to keep us analytics lovers from throwing our computers across the room), stop using UTM tagging on your internal links.

Now breathe and smile

Odds are, your Google Analytics setup is fine. If you are seeing any of these issues, though, you have somewhere to start in diagnosing and addressing the data.

We’ve looked at six of the most common points of friction I’ve encountered with Google Analytics and how to start investigating them: self-referrals, bounce rate, iframes, traffic jumps, cross domain tracking and internal campaign tagging.

What common data integrity issues have you encountered with Google Analytics? What are your favorite tools to investigate?

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What to See, Do, and More at MozCon 2015 in Seattle

Posted by EricaMcGillivray

One of our favorite things about MozCon is introducing all of you to Seattle. We love our city, and besides three days of marketing learning, we also host three night events and facilitate other fun activities. We are currently 92% sold out with around 100 tickets left, so if you haven’t already:

Buy your ticket now!

Check out the full schedule if you’re interested in knowing more about the MozCon sessions.


Birds-of-a-feather tables at lunch

After many requests for more community connecting, this year, we’re launching birds-of-a-feather tables during each lunch. There will be eight labeled tables with different topics each day and a different facilitator each day. (There are also a ton of unlabeled tables for random meeting and gatherings.) Sit down and join a conversation around a professional interest.

Roger and friends at MozCon

Table schedule

Monday tables:

  • Real Estate Marketers, hosted by Brittanie Flegle from Realty Austin
  • Manufacturing, hosted by Crystal Hunt from WTB, Inc.
  • Content Strategy, hosted by Ronell Smith from RS Consulting
  • Women in Digital Marketing, hosted by Susan Wiker from Fodor’s Travel
  • In-house Marketers, hosted by Andy Odom from Santander Consumer USA Inc.
  • Local SEO, hosted by David Mihm from Moz
  • Inbound Marketing, hosted by Eric Hess from REI
  • SEO Executives, hosted by Benjamin Seror from SimilarWeb

Tuesday tables:

Wednesday tables:

Don’t worry, with all of us in the same room, doing the same things for three days, you’ll never miss a lunch or birds-of-a-feather opportunity!


Our official MozCon evening events

#MozCrawl: Monday night

Join us and our partners for a tour of the neighborhood bars in Belltown. This is our second official MozCrawl, and we’re delighted to show off yet another part of Seattle. Each bar will feature a unique MozCon button. Collect all six and be entered in a drawing for a golden Roger. The crawl runs from 7-10pm. Make sure to bring your ID, US driver’s license or passport.

(Standard disclaimer: Roger is golden, not made of gold.)

Locations

Buckley’s, 2331 2nd Ave, hosted by Moz
Clever Bottle, 2222 2nd Ave Ste.100, hosted by wordstream
Rabbit Hole, 2222 2nd Ave, hosted by

unbounce
Lava Lounge, 2226 2nd Ave, hosted by whitespark
Wakefield Bar, 2137 2nd Ave, hosted by Moz
The Whiskey Bar, 2122 2nd Ave, hosted by kissmetrics

MozCrawl map


MozCon Ignite: Tuesday night

You’ve long asked for a networking-focused event, and in a Mozzy spirit, we’re happy to bring our Tuesday night MozCon Ignite. Starts at 7pm with networking and appetizers with talks starting at 8pm.

Ignite talks are 5 minutes in length with auto-advancing slides. All these talks are passion topics—no marketing talks—so you can put your notebook down and relax. Get to know your fellow community members and their interests beyond our shared profession.

MozCon Ignite schedule:

7:00-8:00pm Networking
8:00-8:05pm Welcome to MozCon Ignite with Geraldine DeRuiter, aka the Everywhereist Geraldine DeRuiter
8:05-8:10pm Regales of an Accidental Nightcrawler Stunt Double with Jay Neill from Affiliate Resources, Inc.

Jay Neill is an online marketing consultant who helps businesses get started in the world of local SEO through education and servicing. In his spare time, Jay enjoys jumping on trampolines and playing with his vast collection of vintage Star Wars action figures.

Jay Neill
8:10-8:15pm Sled Dogs, Northern Lights, and Mushing Tails! with Anna Anderson from Art Unlimited

Anna Anderson is an avid dog lover who owns over 35 sled dogs in Northern MN. Growing up with sled dogs, she and her family now competitively race across North America: training, racing, and traveling for 2-3 months with 20 of her best canine friends across the country! Follow her on Twitter: @boldadgirl

Anna Anderson
8:15-8:20pm Performing a Canine C-Section with Marie Haynes from HIS Web Marketing

Dr. Marie Haynes is recognized as a leader when it comes to dealing with Google penalties and algorithm changes like Panda and Penguin. Prior to her career in SEO, she was a small animal veterinarian for 13 years. It is possible that her strong fear of birds is what launched her in to a new life of battling the Penguins at Google. Follow her on Twitter: @Marie_Haynes

Marie Haynes
8:20-8:25pm Bulltown Strutters: The Band That Married Its City with Mark Traphagen from StoneTemple Consulting

Mark Traphagen is Senior Director of Online Marketing for Stone Temple Consulting. When not disrupting things online, Mark disrupts the sleep of the good citizens of Durham, NC, by making as much noise as possible with the Bulltown Strutters, a New Orleans Second Line style parade band. Follow him on Twitter: @marktraphagen

Mark Traphagen
8:25-8:30pm Okay, I Have a Confession: I Was Homeschooled with Garrett Mehrguth from Directive Consulting

Garrett Mehrguth is digital marketing enthusiast and owner of Directive Consulting, which provides SEO, PPC, and Content for small to mid-market companies. When Garrett’s not in the office, you can catch him playing foosball, surfing, or playing soccer. Follow him on Twitter: @gmehrguth

Garrett Mehrguth
8:30-8:35pm Conquering the 100 Best Books of All Time with Kristen Craft from Wistia

Kristen Craft is Director of Business Development and loves connecting with Wistia’s partner community to spread the word about video marketing. In her spare time, she takes epically long walks, swims in ponds, and brews beer. Follow her on Twitter: @thecrafty

8:35-8:40pm Tales of Coffee from a Kitchen Window with Scott Callender from La Marzocco Home

Scott Callendar is the Director of the newly launched La Marzocco Home. He is the definition of a coffee geek and spends his time away from his job in coffee with his family and thinks more about coffee. Follow him on Twitter: @incognitocoffee

Scott Callender
8:40-8:45pm Go Frost Yourself: 7 Basic Frostings & Their Uses with Annette Promes from Moz

Annette Promes has spent the past two decades in and around Seattle working in various marketing roles. She is currently the CMO at Moz, where she and her teams handle everything that is “funnel-related,” such as driving traffic to Moz’s site, converting that traffic into product trials, and reducing customer churn. Annette really loves frosting. Follow her on Twitter: @ahpromes

Annette Promes
8:45-9:15pm Networking break
9:15-9:20pm A Creative Endeavor Inspires & Lengthens a Life with Ralph Legnini from DragonSearch

Ralph Legnini – Senior Creative Strategist at DragonSearch in NY – is an Aikido 5th Degree Black Belt Sensei, former Saturday Night Live music producer, President of the Board of Education in the 2nd largest school district in New York State, funky rock & roll guitar player, and has worked in the recording studio with music icons Mick Jagger, Madonna, David Bowie, Nile Rodgers, & Todd Rundgren. He used these unique combined skills to create a life sustaining environment for a talented 16-year-old boy with incurable cancer. Follow him on Twitter: @ruaralph2

Ralph Legnini
9:20-9:25pm Finding and Embracing Healthy Eating Habits with Carrie Hill from Ignitor Digital Marketing, LLC

Carrie Hill is the co-founder and technical SEO expert at Ignitor Digital. She loves cooking, eating, reading, and Eddie Vedder…not necessarily in that order. Follow her on Twitter: @CarrieHill

Carrie Hill
9:25-9:30pm I Was Told There Would Be Hoverboards. with Dan Petrovic from DEJAN

Dan Petrovic, the managing director of DEJAN, is one of Australia’s best-known names in the field of search engine optimization. Dan is a web author, innovator, and a highly-regarded search industry event speaker. Follow him on Twitter: @dejanseo

Dan Petrovic
9:35-9:40pm The Day I Disremembered with Chris Hanson from 3GEngagement

Chris Hanson has been involved in digital marketing since 2006 and is currently Founder and CEO of 3GEngagement. After Hanson worked as a Park Ranger, lived without electricity, raced sled dogs, and lived in Alaska, he felt that digital marketing was the next obvious career move. Follow him on Twitter: @FollowUPsuccess

Chris Hanson
9:40-9:45pm What Did You Expect in an Opera, a Happy Ending? with Chrissi Reimer from Three Deep Marketing

A Green Bay native and Minneapolis transplant, Chrissi Reimer spends her days working as an SEO at Three Deep Marketing. Most nights, Chrissi can be found experimenting with different ways to prepare arugula, trying new brews, or taste-testing every ice cream option in the Twin Cities. Follow her on Twitter: @chrissireimer

Chrissi Reimer
9:45-9:50pm The Best Practices in Cooking Hot Dogs with Josh Couper from Rafflecopter

Josh Couper is the director of customer happiness at Rafflecopter and long time hot dog aficionado. Follow him on Twitter: @josh_couper

Josh Couper
9:50-9:55pm Raising My Parents with Jen Lopez from Moz

Jen Sable Lopez is the Director of Community at Moz. She is a renowned Community Strategist who started her marketing career as a technical SEO. Jen is a self-proclaimed geek and faux vegetarian, and she prides herself in having kicked colon cancer’s butt at the young age of 37. Follow her on Twitter: @jennita

Jen Lopez
9:55-10:00pm Stoned Nerd versus the Four-Legged Home Invaders with Ian Lurie from Portent, Inc.

Ian Lurie is founder and CEO of Portent, Inc., a search, social and content agency that helps clients become weird, useful, and significant. He’s also a renowned raccoon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter: @portentint

Ian Lurie

Garage Party: Wednesday night

There ain’t no party like a Moz party, and our annual bash at the Garage is always a blast. Have one last hurrah with us before heading home and back to work.

Garage Party

For those who’ve never been to the Garage, there’s something for everyone: bowling, pool, and karaoke. Plus, a ton of food and drinks—including our featured MozCow Mule Mocktail, as well as well liquor, beer, house wine, and of course, our friend H2O. So whether you’re singing your heart out, playing for the corner pocket, bowling a turkey, or just chatting with your new friends, we’ll see you there.


Coming in early? See and explore Seattle!

Seattle by CheWei Chang

MozCon-adjacent activities

The following events are MozCon-adjacent, meaning they aren’t hosted by Moz and attendees must arrange and pay for their adventures.

Alki Kayak Tours

Paddle around Elliott Bay! At 2:30pm Sunday, for $49/per person, you can head out on the water and make new MozCon friends. You can easily catch the water taxi at Pier 50 ($4.75 one-way) from Downtown to West Seattle. Alki tours is located right next to the West Seattle ferry terminal for your convenience.

Local Craft Tours

Take a distillery tour at 12pm Sunday and learn about Seattle’s unique craft culture. Conveniently, the tour leaves from the Grand Hyatt Hotel. You can call (206) 455-3740 to reserve your spot on the tour, which costs $87.50/per person.

Seattle Mariners vs. Los Angeles Angels

Love baseball? Come see Seattle’s home team play. The Mariners game starts at 1:10pm, and you can see them take on the Angels for $17/per person on the View Level. You must purchase your ticket before 5pm July 10 in order to get the MozCon deal. Enter ‘MOZCON’ as your special offer code.


Citywide events


Mozzers recommend their favorite Seattle destinations!

Rachael KloekAgua Verde, recommended by Rachael Kloek

“Agua Verde serves great Mexican food in a beautiful lakefront setting. You can rent paddleboards and kayaks right under the restaurant to paddle your way around Lake Union.”

Chris LoweBallard brewery blocks, recommended by Chris Lowe

“A dozen really good breweries all within a few blocks of each other: Stoup, Reubens, Red Envelope, Populuxe, Peddler, Maritime, etc., etc. You can easily walk from one brewery to another. Bonus is that most of these breweries host food trucks on the weekends. The area is also just a few blocks from downtown Ballard and the Burke Gilman Trail.”

Renea NielsenBallard Locks, recommended by Renea Nielsen

“The Ballard Locks are a bit of a trek from downtown Seattle (~ 45 min. by bus), but they are a perfect Seattle maritime adventure. The Locks abut a beautiful park and show off Seattle’s maritime history. If you’re lucky, you may even find some sea lions playing in one of the closed Locks.”

Erica McGillivrayPike Place Market, recommended by Erica McGillivray

“May seen like a ‘touristy’ spot, but Pike Place Market actually thrives on local business. Every day, there’s a farmer’s market, flowers galore, and artisans on everything from cheese and spices to woodworking and jewelry. There are hidden shops (at least three bookstores) and a ton of great food.”

Rand FishkinElliot Bay Books, recommended by Rand Fishkin

“One of the best indie bookstores in the country, stocked with good stuff to buy and read, and there’s a lovely cafe, too.”

Nemecia KaloperFerry ride, recommended by Nemecia Kaloper

“Takes you to such cool places and allows you to see the city from different view and get a taste of our awesome islands! It requires usually at least 1/2 a day, but is well worth it to be able to hop over and have lunch somewhere other than the city. It’s easy to never take the trip, but well worth it if you do. I recommend Bainbridge in particular and Nola Cafe.”

Kevin LoeskenThe Fremont Troll, recommended by Kevin Loesken

“The Fremont Troll, and Fremont in general, perfectly sums up what’s great about Seattle. The troll itself is an amazing piece of art. It’s also near the Lenin Statue and close to a lot of interesting bars, restaurants, and shops.”

David LeeRodeo Donuts!, recommended by David Lee

“Best donuts ever. Even better than Voodoo in Portland, OR. This needs to be a 150 characters long so once again, best donuts ever. I really like the donuts here. Don’t go to Krispy Kreme or Top Pot.”

Abe SchmidtVivace: the Cafe Nico, recommended by Abe Schmidt

“The Cafe Nico best coffee drink in this city. Orange/nutmeg/ cinnamon paired with the greatest espresso pull in the country (only machine in the world capable of the ‘perfect’ espresso shot).”

Ben SimpsonStarbucks Roastery, recommended by Ben Simpson

“Just a few blocks from the convention center, the Starbucks Roastery is one of biggest new attractions in Seattle. Why? To start, walking it it feels like Willy Wonka had one to many espresso shots and got inspired. Starbucks pulled together its best baristas from around the country to put together some amazing craft coffee creations. And to top it all off, they’ve got a Serious Pie on location making all of their delicious food. If you do nothing else during your visit, the Starbucks Roastery is an absolute must!”


And Mozzer favorite restaurants and bars opened since last MozCon


Looking for more options?
Don’t miss our quintessential post from last year,
our mega post from 2013, Rand’s personal recommendations, and Jon Colman’s Seattle coffee guide.


Buy your ticket now!

Sign up for The Moz Top 10, a semimonthly mailer updating you on the top ten hottest pieces of SEO news, tips, and rad links uncovered by the Moz team. Think of it as your exclusive digest of stuff you don’t have time to hunt down but want to read!

Instagram Now Lets You Search By Location, Explore Real-Time Trends, + More by @mattsouthern

Instagram announced that it has added new search functionality to its iOS and Android apps that will allow users to find photos by location, discover real-time trending searches, and more.

The post Instagram Now Lets You Search By Location, Explore Real-Time Trends, + More by @mattsouthern appeared first on Search Engine Journal.

Why ccTLDs Should Not Be an Automatic Choice for International Websites

Posted by Liam_Curley

There are many articles on domain structure for international sites. Many, if not all, recommend the use of ccTLDs due to the geo signals they send to Google; but I’ve read very few articles that substantiate this type of claim with any research or evidence. Is this recommendation outdated? With every passing year, Google gets better at reading and setting geo signals. By introducing hreflang and improving Google Webmaster Tools (recently rebranded as Google Search Console) with regards to setting target countries, it’s so much easier to get geo signals right than it was a few years ago.

With the recent changes Google has been making, I am left questioning whether or not we really need ccTLDs to target other countries. Do they have a positive impact on rankings? If they don’t, why would you use them? If you can set geo signals via webmaster tools or hreflang tags, is it better to consolidate your link equity with one domain and separate everything with subfolders?

I wanted to look at the market data concerning ccTLDs and their performance on different international versions of Google. I wanted to know whether ccTLDs demonstrated any tendency of outranking sites with gTLDs (as defined here) that had a greater DA or PA. If ccTLDs did demonstrate this trait, then perhaps there is merit in selecting them over subfolder structure. If not, and the ranking of websites on SERPs shows the general trend of order by DA/PA, then surely there is no reason to structure an international website with a ccTLD and the best option is to consolidate all links on one site and geo target the subfolders. I understand that there is more to this decision if we take into account the user’s preference to interact with local domain websites. We’ll touch on that point later. For now, I just want to focus on how Google seems to treat ccTLDs.

The SERP Research

The hypothesis

ccTLDs don’t supersede PA as a ranking signal. I believed that if I gathered a decent sample size, the general trend would show that ccTLDs didn’t tend to outrank sites with a gTLD and higher PA.

Local link ratio doesn’t correlate with high rankings. Rand’s research suggests local links have a positive impact on a sites ranking on local search engines. Does the ratio of local links correlate with a higher ranking? If they do, then this could lead us to believe that a consolidation of local links on a local ccTLD would support successful international SEO. If there is no correlation, then this would further support that there is little ranking benefit with this regard to using a ccTLD, as we can receive local links to a gTLD.

A local IP address doesn’t improve rankings. There still seems to be some opinion in the community that hosting a site on a local IP address will help rankings on local versions of Google.

Methodology

I wanted to gather data for competitive terms from several competitive markets. The first task was determining which markets to select. I made a decision based on the markets that have the highest B2C spend per digital consumer. I initially picked out the top 10, then selected five from those based on which sites I was able to work with (linguistically). The markets selected were: U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, and Italy.

Next, I selected the keyword categories that I would use to analyze SERPs. I picked out the sectors based on the biggest digital B2C market sectors in the U.S.. From the top 10, I selected five: clothes, toys and games, computer and consumer electronics, furniture and home furnishings, and auto parts.

Then, I decided to identify 10 keywords for each category in each market. Keywords were selected by inputting a broad keyword into AdWords for each category (say, “game”), filtering by search volume, and selecting the highest search entries that had an average AdWords suggested bid of higher than £0.05 which would provide terms that had high search volume and commercial relevance.

This was done for each category in each market.

I collated data from the top 10 pages ranking for each SERP, giving me a total of 2,500 web pages to analyze. Searches were conducted for each keyword on the local version of Google (e.g., google.it) using the SEO Global Chrome extension from RedFly Marketing, allowing me to see the search results for a local user.

Analysis of data

Once the keywords were selected for each market, I collected the following data from each SERP:

  • Ranking position
  • URL
  • Domain structure
  • Domain authority
  • Page authority
  • Page title
  • IP address location
  • Local link ratio

From this information, I would also collect the following on each web page entry on the SERP:

  • Is there an exact keyword match in the domain?
  • Is there a partial keyword match in the domain?
  • Is the exact keyword used in the URL?
  • Is a broad keyword used in the page title?
  • Is an exact keyword used in the page title?

Each entry was given a yes or no for the questions above, which would allow me to compare domain performances on a like for like basis with regards some of the basic on-page SEO elements.

Once this data was collected, I started to identify the following:

  • Whether the ccTLD was outranking a gTLD that had a higher PA
  • Whether the ccTLD was outranking a gTLD that had a higher PA, where both the ccTLD and gTLD in question had matching on-page SEO implementation for the keyword in question

Research limitations

Let’s start with the obligatory “correlation does not equal causation.” Nothing discovered in this research will definitively prove or disprove ranking factors for international SEO. However, I believe that this kind of research does throw up interesting data, and any SEO trends and correlations discovered through this type of research can set us on our own path to research further and look for more concrete signals to prove or disprove these results.

I had a decision to make regards whether to measure ccTLD ranking over TLDs with a higher PA or a higher DA. I decided to go with PA. Predominantly because I’m looking at the ranking performance of a page, not a website. DA has a direct impact on PA, but if we measured performance against DA, I think we’d be less likely to get a true picture (e.g., blogs on subdomains, and small sites with a keyword in the domain ranking with their home page).

The resources available for this research (i.e., me) meant there was a limit to the volume of SERPs and web pages analyzed. My limited linguistic skills meant I couldn’t analyze SERPs from a broader language base (e.g., Nordic and Japanese), and I could only collect data from the top 10 rankings for each SERP.

Also, ideally the data would have been drawn from the SERPs over one day. I collected the data manually. (I could have set up a crawl, but at the time I didn’t have the knowledge available to do that.) So, it was taken over the course of around six weeks.

Finally, I mentioned that I compare the rank of pages based on like for like on-page SEO. Due to time restraints, I was limited to a handful of what I deemed to be key on-page SEO signals. Therefore, it’s open to debate as to whether the signals I selected are the key signals for on-page SEO.

The results

research-cctld-vs-gtld-infographic-large

Discussion

ccTLDs are not outranking gTLDs. Graphs 1 and 2 demonstrate that the majority of ccTLDs are not outranking gTLDs that have a higher PA. Graph 1 shows that 46% of ccTLDs reviewed outrank a gTLD with a higher PA. However, when we only count “outranking” to occur when both the ccTLD and the gTLD have the same basic on-page SEO (e.g., keyword in title, URL and/or domain), we see that the percentage of ccTLDs outranking gTLDs falls to 24 percent.

This information doesn’t definitively tell us whether or not a local ccTLD is a ranking factor in national SERPs, but it does indicate that it’s probably not a signal that generally outweighs PA. That being the case, from a purely SEO perspective (not considering online consumer psychology), a subfolder must be the best domain structure for the majority of international sites. Unless you or your client is a major brand with a large budget, the resources required to launch several ccTLDs and build enough authority for each to make them visible in their respective search engines makes a ccTLD an unwise selection.

A Local IP address doesn’t pack a punch. Again, this research can’t definitively determine whether an IP address does or doesn’t provide ranking signals for national SERPs, but Graph 5 suggests that if it does, the signals are weak. Of the 474 ccTLDs with a local IP address, only 19 percent were outranking a gTLD with a higher PA. This figure suggests that an IP address has little direct impact on rankings, even when combined with a local ccTLD. That said, it’s worth checking out this article on IP host location from Richard Baxter, which presents a different finding.

A Local link ratio has no relationship with high local rankings. While Rand’s research indicates local links have an impact on local search results, a local link ratio doesn’t have a relationship with high rankings. There doesn’t appear to be a benefit of setting up a ccTLD to gain local links for an international market. Local links can be earned for any domain and any structure, whether ccTLD or subfolder.

Implications for international SEO

It is difficult to make an accurate, broad statement on best practice for international SEO. Every market is likely to be slightly different with regards the way that users interact with content, as well as the way that search engines crawl and rank web pages. You also have to take into account that if you’re working with a client on SEO for different international markets, goals and resources will vary. Toys “R” Us does very well in the SERPs we analyzed with a ccTLD structure, but then they have the resources available to support multiple domains and earn local authority and PR for each domain.

The research looked at SERPs for five countries and 2,500 web pages. The results for each country did vary, and while analyzing 500 web pages for each country doesn’t represent a sufficient sample size to make a sound opinion on each, it does lead me to believe that the choice of whether to use a ccTLD or a gTLD for an international market could vary depending on the market in question. More information is available here on the data collected from each country. To summarize, here are the findings:

sample-countries-for-serps-infographic-l

I’ve omitted the U.S. from the second table, as there were only two web pages with a ccTLD from the 500 analyzed. That confirms what many of us would have suspected or known: ccTLDs aren’t widely used in the U.S. With hindsight, it probably would have been more interesting to swap the U.S. with a different country for analysis.

The information above suggests that maybe there is some variation in how sites rank in different international search engines. It’s also interesting to note that ccTLDs are more popular in some markets than other, which could have an impact on the user relationship and interaction with a website depending on it’s domain structure.

Consumer psychology and ccTLDs

Let’s put aside what I’d consider to be some of the ranking
implications behind a choice of domain structure. There’s another consideration
to be made when it comes to selecting a domain structure for an international
site: Does a local domain have a positive impact on consumer psychology and the
choice of buying or browsing on one site over another?

As with the SEO argument for a ccTLD, there are plenty of
articles and research that suggest consumers prefer to shop on an
eCommerce site with a local domain rather than a generic domain (U.S. excluded).
Eli Schwartz recently wrote an article summarizing research he’d conducted on
the
searcher perception of
ccTLDs
. The post provided some really interesting results. However, I didn’t
necessarily agree with the approach taken with one of the questions put to respondents
regarding eCommerce and the impact of ccTLDs on purchase decisions.

In the
study, Eli asked each respondent this: “Of the links below, which is most likely to
offer the most reliable express shipping to your home?” The respondent was then asked to select either a website with a .com domain, or one with a local ccTLD.
The results are interesting, but if we’re looking for insight into eCommerce
buying decisions, I think it’s a bit of a leading question. If you ask the
respondent a question like this, and give them the choice of a local domain or
a generic domain, they’re likely to answer yes to the ccTLD. However, I don’t
believe that this indicates that the ccTLD is used as an aid to make a purchase
decision. It tells us if you strip all other buying aids from the process, boil
it down to the choice between one domain and another, the respondent selects
the local domain. Real-life buying decisions don’t work like this.

Following on from my research on international rankings, I
wanted to try and create a real life test environment where respondents pick
one website over another to purchase a product.

Test 1 – Impact of domain structure when a consumer is browsing an
ecommerce store

Using CrowdFlower and UsabilityHub, I created a test for U.K.-based respondents. First, the respondent was presented with the following
information:

“You’re looking to
purchase a new laptop. You’ve done your research and found the make and model
that you’d like to buy. You find this laptop on two eCommerce websites. Based
on the page your about to view, which site would you buy the laptop from?”

The respondent was then presented with the following two
eCommerce sites:

DABS-Moz.jpgLaptops-direct-Moz.jpg

Both sell the same laptop with the same specification, same price, same delivery and same returns offer. The key difference between the two is that one is hosted on a .com domain and one is on a .co.uk. The design and layout for each is different, but I’ve attempted to create a real-life situation, and you’d never be choosing between two eCommerce stores with the same design.

Two hundred sixty-two respondents participated in the Dabs vs. Laptops Direct selection, and 174 of these respondents provided feedback on why they made their decision.

The results are as follows:

dabs-v-laptopsdirect-infographic-1-large

As you can see, none of the respondents selected either website due to the domain structure of the store. Choices were predominantly made on a preference for less ads or clutter, product information, usability, or branding. It seems clear to me that when the consumer is browsing an eCommerce site, the domain structure plays no part in their purchase decision. Although not tested here, localization indicators such as language, currency, delivery, and returns policy will arguably dictate whether or not you stand a chance of winning their business rather than the domain.

Test 2 – Impact of domain structure when consumer is browsing the SERPs

After I’d reviewed consumer decision-making while on the webpage, I wanted to see if ccTLDs were a genuine factor in consumer psychology on a SERP when the user is making their browsing decision.

In the next test, U.K. respondents were presented with the following text:

“You’re looking to find an eCommerce site that sells car parts. You go to Google and search for ‘car parts’. You see the following results page. Which website would you click on first?”

The respondent was presented with a SERP for car parts, making sure that one ccTLD of four websites (the third organic result) was available in the organic results. As you can see, the second organic result, a gTLD, contains U.K. within the domain:

google-serp-test-moz-google.jpg

The following heat map shows the websites selected by the respondents:

SERP-car-parts-Moz.jpg

The 200 respondents were then asked to give a reason for their selection. The results are as follows:

car-parts-serp-infographic-2-large.jpg

It does seem that a ccTLD can play a part in the browsing selection for a portion of the audience. Eleven percent of the respondents indicate they made their selection because the website was based in the U.K., although they don’t specify how they made that assumption (i.e., could be ccTLD, meta description, etc.). Five percent of the respondents specifically mention the local domain as the reason for their choice (although they seem to be confusing the autopartsuk.com as a U.K. domain). Seventeen percent of our respondents made the website selection based on their belief that the website was based in the U.K.

The research also shows how important the meta description is in the user-browsing decision, something that I think often gets overlooked by SEOs. In fact, 30 percent of our respondents indicated they made their selection based on information provided in the meta (mentioning things like free delivery, range of stock, and discounts). I think that when we get a website ranking for a really important keyword, SEOs can be a bit like the football (or soccer) team that’s just scored a goal. We’re so engulfed in the success of scoring that we switch off at kickoff, letting the other team score straight away. There is a danger that we think we’ve won when one of our web pages ranks well, when in fact that’s just part of the job. We still need to compete for the user’s attention once we’re on the SERP, and entice them to click on our website instead of the competitor’s.

Do Google’s new ‘branded breadcrumbs’ change the significance of ccTLDs?

We’ve seen that a number of users make a SERP selection based on their assumption that the selected website is based locally. At present, the domain structure is used as a key indicator of a websites location. However, as part of the mobile algorithm update, Google’s announced a move from a URL display to a branded breadcrumb that will remove the domain structure from the SERP. On mobile, from a location perspective, the domain structure will no longer influence a users SERP selection. The 17 percent of respondents making the selection based on location will look for other information to aid their decision.

For now, on mobile at least, the SERPs present a level playing field for ccTLDs and gTLDs with regards to consumer psychology. The meta description is even more important in enticing the click.

Conclusions

For me, the research shows that choosing a ccTLD as the domain structure for an international site shouldn’t be the automatic decision that it seems to be for many. While further research is required, I don’t believe that a ccTLD domain structure has a big enough impact on rankings to warrant selecting this option over a subfolder, which allows us to consolidate links and boost DA and PA on all of our international content. We can geotarget subfolders via webmaster tools and hreflang tags, and as a local ccTLD doesn’t seem to supersede PA as a ranking factor, we should act accordingly and launch international sites with the highest PA possible (i.e., subfolders).

The research on consumer psychology does show that a ccTLD can have a positive impact on SERP user selections. However, meta descriptions can also be used to promote local service and delivery. The changes announced by Google for mobile SERPs will remove URLs from the selection equation, and we’ve seen that when a user is on a website, they pay little attention to the domain location.

While I feel this is the right advice for most brands, it’s probably not the right advice for all. If you’re working with a large brand, you might have the resources available to earn the marginal gains in every facet of what you do. If further research shows that ccTLDs do have some ranking impact, no matter how small, and that improves your ranking by one position for each keyword, then the impact could result in a significant amount of extra traffic if you’re working for a large eCommerce customer.

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