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9 Ways to Use Heatmaps to Improve Your SEO

by Today's Eggspert

Using heatmaps is like being Jason Bourne.

You get to spy on your visitors and see exactly what they’re doing. And, like Jason Bourne, you’re not trying to be evil — you’re just trying to understand what they want.

The same is true with SEO.

You’re trying to understand what keywords people are searching for to find your business. You need to know what content you can create to drive links and keyword rankings.

Essentially, the idea behind both is that the better you understand your audience, the better you’ll be at creating content that meets their needs.

And when you use them together, you can be even more effective at giving visitors what they want.

Use heatmaps to learn what content visitors are reacting to positively, then create more of that content for them. Rinse and repeat.

I love the intersection of these two digital marketing practices.

It gives us the opportunity to get out of a one-track mind and encourage the flywheel effect.

In this instance, heatmaps can help us improve our SEO. And on the flip side, content built with SEO in mind will show better engagement in our heatmaps.

When you look at it this way, they’re natural companions.

Google is always trying to serve the best possible results to users. If users aren’t satisfied with the search results they’re served, they’ll go elsewhere.

Many of the metrics that go into their algorithm are data points that quantify the quality of a page to serve a user. Backlinks, keywords, site speed, HTTPS, and 200+ other factors represent how likely it is that a human will find a page useful.

So how do you stop playing catch-up with all the algorithm changes?

You go where Google is going: To a focus on user satisfaction with every search query and page.

You can beat Google to the punch by evaluating exactly how much users on your site like what you’re giving them.

Heatmaps, scrollmaps, website video recordings, and other technologies give you an instant look into exactly how visitors are using your site, and how engaged they are.

So how exactly do you use heatmaps to improve your SEO?

1.Determine ideal content length and structure

The word “content” is often so overused and so vague that it’s almost lost its meaning. But content really is the crux of all digital marketing. It makes the core of your website.

It’s also the core of any SEO strategy. Without great content, it’s impossible to achieve the rankings that you want.

There are many factors that go into creating SEO-friendly content, but one that’s often discussed is length.

Many SEOs accept the idea that longer content ranks higher as fact.

That’s because for years, well-known digital marketers have been claiming that when it comes to site content, longer is always better.

You may have heard the statistic claiming that first-page result is 1,890 words. These studies show word count dropping as you move further down the results page.

word count page 1

Some studies have even shown a strong correlation between average content length and rankings.

medium content length

But that doesn’t mean that longer is always better. Serving your audience is more important than following standard “best practices” to a T.

Sometimes, super long content is the answer. Sometimes short, concise pages that get to the point are what the user wants.

Every industry, audience, and customer base is different. We can’t apply broad directives to every website in the world at once.

But you can use tools to see what your audience wants.

Using Crazy Egg or your favorite heatmapping software, take a look at a potentially high-value page that isn’t achieving the results you want.

This will show you exactly where on the page users are bouncing.

pasted image 0 24

Perhaps many of your visitors stick with you until the 4,000th word in the article, and then they leave.

This can tell you that you might be better off with a shorter page, or that you need to do something different around that point on the page.

You can also run these tests on various pages on your site to see if you notice any trends.

If your visitors consistently drop off right around 1,000 words, this could be the ideal length for your pages — even though that’s lower than the widely accepted best practice.

2. Test pages’ structure and elements

Beyond length, there are tons of other elements about which SEOs have differing opinions on how to do best.

This means in a lot of cases, there’s no general consensus on the best way to structure a page.

But even if there were, it wouldn’t necessarily be in your best interest to follow that structure for all of your content.

This is especially true when you consider just how many different “best practices” there are for creating effective pages.

There are hundreds of different factors that go into ranking well and providing a great user experience. This means that you have hundreds of opportunities to improve your site for your visitors.

In fact, in one study of position one results, Siege Media found over a dozen best practices that correlated with ranking in the number one spot.

siege 10x

Many of these best practices centered on appearance and readability.

For example, the average article ranking in position one had nine images, and articles that get the most shares have an image every 75-100 words.

They also found that content including graphics, animations, interactives, or video converted two times better than static content and that high-quality images get 121% more shares.

In terms of readability, the average position one result had a Flesch Readability score of 76.5, meaning it was easily readable by 13-15-year-olds. And of those position one results, 78% of position one results contained a bulleted list.

The top pages also had an average of 15.8px font and 3-5 outbound links.

So what does this mean for your content strategy? Should you start exclusively producing articles with nine images, one bulleted list, four outbound links, and a font size of 15.8?

Not necessarily.

These studies are great for illustrating what high-ranking pages have in common, but you shouldn’t see them as hard-and-fast rules.

Of course, some of them can point you in the right direction and give you a general idea of how to approach your content.

For example, adopting certain best practices like adding more images if you don’t use many, or experimenting with formatting that improves readability can help.

But it’s important to always put your audience’s needs over arbitrary content rules.

It’s also worth noting that this study reported an average position one content length of a whopping 2,416 words instead of the commonly-cited 1,890. There are hundreds of studies like this that show trends among high-ranking content, but each produces slightly different results.

Use this information to shape your goals, but make sure that your focus is ultimately on your readers.

One example of a site that combines best practices with an audience-first focus is outdoor retailer Evo.

They have a comprehensive snowboard buying guide on their site that currently ranks in position one for competitive keywords like “how to choose a snowboard” and  “snowboard size chart.”

It even outranks a few more widely-known retailers like REI & backcountry.com.

evo rei backcountry

So how did it achieve this ranking?

It’s impossible to come up with a clear answer to this question, but as soon as you visit the page, it’s clear that usability is a priority.

First, the page begins with a table of contents that lets visitors skip directly to the information they want.

evo table contents

If someone’s trying to find the perfect snowboard for their needs, they have several factors to consider. A newer snowboarder might want to focus on selecting an option that’s ideal for beginners, while a more experienced snowboarder might focus on more complex concerns like turning ability.

If either of those users landed on this page and simply saw a wall of text, it might not be immediately obvious that it contains the information they want.

Some might skim to see if they could find information that’s relevant to their needs, while others would simply return to the results page to find another option.

By including a table of contents, Evo eliminates this issue. They make it easy for visitors to skip directly to the content they want.

Then, once a user arrives at the appropriate section, they see size charts and other helpful graphics.

evo table 6

While these aren’t necessarily as attention-grabbing or unique as many “best practice” articles recommend, they’re designed to help visitors accomplish their goal.

This is ultimately much more valuable to the user and provides a better user experience.

Evo also includes simple diagrams that illustrate different board shapes. These illustrations are well done, but nothing flashy. They simply help visitors understand their options so they can make an informed choice.

evo rcr

The page also includes video tutorials for videos who prefer a more interactive experience.

evo video 6

Watching these videos provides a similar experience to having a sales associate explain their options in person. It’s also a great feature for visitors who’ve never purchased a snowboard before and don’t know where to begin with the written content on the page.

All of these elements together make the page a valuable resource for Evo’s target audience — which certainly plays a role in its ability to hold the top spot in search results.

So how can you replicate their success?

You’ll never know for sure without taking a good hard look at your analytics. Only after analyzing a significant number of pages on your site will you be able to determine what kind of content works best for your audience.

You’ll want to look at bounce rate, time on site, exit pages, and pages per visit to see which pages generate the best results for your site.

Then, you can dig into those pages to see how they’re structured. Look to determine how they’re different from other pages on your site, and which elements you can replicate to achieve similar results for other pages.

You can also take things a step further with scrollmaps.

Knowing where users abandon a page can help you restructure it more effectively to improve your bounce rate and time on page. This can also help you earn more shares, links, and — eventually — better rankings.

For example, let’s say you take a look at the scrollmap for a high-value page on your site. You notice that it starts off strong, but visitors fade out around 1,000 words.

Examine the page and see what it looks like at that point.

Maybe you have an irrelevant photo or CTA that distracts from your content and drives users away.

Or maybe your visitors were expecting some visuals and videos but were hit with a wall of text.

You can use scrollmaps to identify these types of issues and determine what’s scaring off your traffic, as well as what they actually want. Then, you can focus on delivering the right content, in the right format, again and again.

By using scrollmaps to analyze and adjust your content, you’ll be improving the very substance that Google uses to rank your site, earning you more traffic, leads, and sales.

Beyond scrollmaps, you can also use heatmaps to see what grabs your visitors’ interest — and what doesn’t.

These maps display click data in a way that highlights where users focus their attention.

For example, in the screenshot below, we can see that most of the clicks on this page are going to items on the navigation bar and the email signup forms.

heatmap 6

This is ideal.

A large chunk of clicks on the navigation bar is typical, and the clusters around the subscription form show that a high percentage of users are converting in that way.

When you run these tests, you can get an accurate idea of how users interact with your pages.

This is particularly valuable for pages that you want to use to accomplish a specific goal.

If you discover that certain elements are distracting from the more important content on a page, like CTAs or forms, you can eliminate them or move them elsewhere.

For other pages, you can focus on identifying elements attract more attention than others. If you’re having trouble retaining traffic, you may want to incorporate more of those elements on the page.

Finally, you can also use mouse recordings to see exactly how visitors interact with your website.

These recordings show you exactly how visitors move through your content. They show where users spend the most time on a page, and what they scroll past.

Much like with heatmaps, you can use this information to add more of the content they like, and less of what they don’t

This will help you improve the user experience your site provides — and as a result, your rankings in search results.

3. Use Heatmaps to improve internal links

When SEOs talk about links, we generally focus on inbound links. After all, these have the potential to make the biggest impact on rankings and visibility.

Still, they’re not the only type of links you should be considering.

In fact, internal links can work wonders for your website.

They establish hierarchy, keep users on your site, and help search engines effectively crawl content.

So if you don’t pay much attention to your site’s internal linking structure, it’s time to start.

Of course, everyone knows that navigation, footer, and sidebar links are important for navigational purposes.

But beyond that, you can also use them to improve your SEO.

For certain sites that don’t yet make this a priority, implementing internal links correctly can be a quick SEO win.

But as you add links, you need to use them in a helpful, non-spammy way. If your links get in the way of the reading experience with over-optimized anchor text or by linking to irrelevant sources, you’ll turn the user off and they’ll most likely bounce.

Instead, focus on using your links to add value.

If you’ve ever read an article on Wikipedia, for example, you may have gotten lost for hours hopping from one page to another. They connect their whole website together like a spider web.

wikipedia internal links 768x380

If you use internal links properly, the way Wikipedia does, you’ll make the page more helpful and engaging.

Your internal links are also what determine and support your site structure.

Good site structure is essential, because it impacts how both users and search engine crawlers interact with your site.

So when you’re considering your site’s internal links, you need to think about it the role it plays in two crucial areas: Navigation, and indexation.

Navigation and user flow

First, your site’s structure is what helps users navigate through your pages.

When done correctly, your site should guide visitors to relevant content and get them closer to converting with each click.

This requires structuring your content around the buying process. Each of your pages should fit into one of three stages: Awareness, consideration, or action.

sales funnel

Most of your visitors will first arrive on an awareness page. These pages are typically informational articles, optimized to rank for the keywords a user searches during their research process.

Your awareness pages should include lots of internal links to encourage new visitors to visit other content on your site. Some of these links can be to other top-level informational pages, but you should also include links to content in the next step of the funnel: consideration.

Consideration pages are specific to your products or services. They tell visitors what your company offers, and why they should choose you over your competitors.

From there, you can link to action pages that prompt visitors to make a purchase, fill out a contact form, or take another high-value action.

Of course, this is a simplified version of the buying process. In most cases, visitors will visit many more than three pages on your site before converting.

But when you keep this basic process in mind, you can more effectively structure your site to make it happen.

When done properly, your internal links should help your visitors seamlessly navigate through your site in a way that gets them closer to becoming customers.

Your navigation should also be structured in a way that reduces the number of clicks each visitor needs to make to get where they want to go.

Ideally, each page on your site should only be three to four clicks from your home page. For example, if you owned a pet store, your site’s structure might look like this:

11 pet food

Each of the store’s 24 products is within three clicks of the homepage, and each category has plenty of room for expansion. Even if the store tripled its number of products, these categories would still provide a great experience for users.

The key here is to strike a balance between your number of categories and the number of products in each category. Although fewer categories may make for a cleaner navigation bar, you don’t want to make your visitors scroll through hundreds of products to find what they want.

Essentially, your goal should be to make it as easy as possible for visitors to find what they want. For example, Amazon does a great job of this.

amazon menu 6

Each category has a logical name that tells users exactly what they can expect if they click it.

They also keep this navigation consistent throughout their site.

For example, if a user clicks “Books” in the main, they’re taken to a category page with different book genres. Even so, they still have the option to access that main menu at the top of the page.

amazon book

As you divide your categories and create your navigation bar, make sure that it is consistent on every page of your site.

New visitors will have a much easier time figuring out how to make their way through your pages if the menu bars remain consistent. Plus, returning visitors will appreciate the familiarity when they’re ready to find new products on your site.

Search engine crawling and indexation

Internal links also help search engines more effectively crawl your site.

First, they enable crawlers to find new content. When Google crawls your site, they use links to move from page to page.

So whenever you add a new page to your site, link to it from an older page that has already been indexed. The next time Google crawls that older page to look for updates, it will follow the link and find your new content.

This speeds up the indexation process and will help you get your new pages to rank as quickly as possible.

Your internal links also help Google understand the most important content. As you build out your site structure, you should make sure that the number of links pointing to a page correlates with how important that page is.

For example, if you want one of your core service pages to rank well and attract lots of traffic, you need to show Google that it’s an important page. Link to it from other relevant pages to establish hierarchy.

Finally, your links can drive traffic to deep internal pages. As you continue adding to your site, it can become challenging to make sure that your content doesn’t get lost in the shuffle.

This is especially difficult for pages centered on specific, long-tail keywords. Link to these pages from relevant pages that get higher levels of traffic to make sure that your target readers can find them.

You should aim to create an organized but comprehensive web of internal links that connect all of your pages.

internal links

Each page on your site needs to have links pointing to it.

You can use the general structure of a pyramid to guide you as you create your structure.

Think of your homepage as the top of the pyramid, with category pages directly below. Depending on your site’s purpose, these categories might be for products, services, or post topics.

Ideally, your categories should be similar in size. For example, if run a retail store with hundreds of shoes, as well as a few dozen accessories, dividing your shoes into categories based on gender and style would help you achieve a more even split.

From there, you have your product pages, service pages, or blog posts.

It’s important to note that the category tier also includes cornerstone content, or the most important content on your site.

Your cornerstone content might be category pages, but they can also be anything else that’s well-written and focuses on a topic that’s relevant to your business’s core mission or service.

These are the pages that you’ve identified as most valuable to your visitors, so you want them to rank well and attract lots of traffic.

This means you need to point a lot of internal links to them.

If you haven’t yet built out a strong link structure for your cornerstone content, analyze your existing content to find opportunities to link to those pages.

Then, as you write new pages, you can incorporate those links into the writing process.

If you run a WordPress site, you can also use the Yoast SEO plugin to simplify the process.

Open the post editor for your cornerstone pieces, then check the box next to “This article is cornerstone content.

yoast cornerstone

Then, when you add new content, Yoast will automatically suggest relevant cornerstone articles that you can link to.

This helps you strengthen your site’s structure with each post.

yoast internal link suggestions 6

The plugin also lets you view all of your cornerstone articles directly from your posts section in WordPress.

overview cornerstones

This shows how many links point to and from each of your cornerstone pieces. This makes it easy to identify when your cornerstone pages don’t have as many links pointing to them as they should.

The goal here is to create a clear hierarchy for search engines that enables them to understand the different types of pages you publish and rank the most important ones for any given search.

Case study: Mail Online

One great example of the importance of inbound links is how The Guardian and Mail Online covered the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

Ranking for terms related to this event offered both publishers the opportunity to attract tons of traffic, based on search volume around the event:

world cup google trends blog full 6

Both The Guardian and Mail Online attempted to rank for World Cup-related searches by creating entire sections of their site dedicated to the event.

These category pages were designed to keep World Cup content all in one place. The general idea behind these types of hub pages is to make it easier for visitors to find relevant content.

When done correctly, it can also improve rankings for the hub page’s target keyword.

The Guardian published all of their World Cup content in this section and used internal links within each individual article to point to the main hub page.

As a result, that hub page ranked in the top 10 for “World Cup” for four months leading up to the tournament.

guardian world cup 6

Mail Online, on the other hand, did not link to their World Cup page consistently.

They created tons of content around the tournament but failed to link to their main hub page. This meant that Google had no way of knowing that it was the most important on their site for the keyword “World Cup.”

As a result, all of their new content was essentially competing with that page for rankings.

The following chart illustrates how those various articles (in yellow) competed with the main hub page (in pink).

world cup mail landing

As a result, that page never made it above page four. In fact, its rankings fluctuated almost every time they published another similar article.

mail world cup

To get their main World Cup page to rank, Mail Online should’ve included links to it from each new article they published. This would’ve shown clear hierarchy and strengthened that page’s ability to rank.

Unfortunately, Mail Online missed lots of simple opportunities to link to their main hub page.

mail online missed

Articles like the one above ended up competing with their main page — hence the fluctuations.

Although these two sites had similar authority, and Mail Online’s individual articles actually generated more views, The Guardian’s page ranked far better both during and in the months leading up to the tournament.

That’s because The Guardian clearly indicated to Google which page it wanted to rank for World Cup-related searches.

So if there’s a certain page on your site that you want to rank well, it’s essential to point lots of links to that page.

Make these cornerstone pieces a core part of your site structure, and you’ll be much more effective in showing Google which pages on your site are the most important.

And if you’re not yet using this strategy to help your most important pages rank well, looking for relevant spots to add links could be a quick win.

Using heatmaps to improve structure and links

As you develop your internal linking structure, it’s essential to make sure that all of your links make sense and add value to your visitors.

Clicking a link takes a user away from the content they’re currently reading. If that link is irrelevant, it could drive them away from your site altogether.

This defeats the purpose of adding those links in the first place.

So how can you be sure that your links are working the way you want them to?

One of the best ways is by running heatmap tests.

Heatmaps, or a more detailed tool like Crazy Egg’s Confetti, will visually show you where users are clicking throughout your site.

In this context, they’ll show you the exact links they click on, and the ones they don’t.

crazyegg confetti

Unlike Google Analytics’ in-page analytics, which groups all links going to the same page together, heatmaps show you precisely where the user clicks.

If you see a trend of some types of links being clicked much more often than others, you’ll know they are helpful. Do more of those.

Keeping users engaged is a huge SEO win. Internal links ideal for engagement because they encourage users to visit more pages on your site instead of bouncing back to the search results.

A proper use of internal links throughout your site will help you have more control over which pages Google sees as important. It will also help you drive traffic to deep internal pages throughout your site.

So if your site’s structure isn’t yet what it should be, spend some time organizing and building links between your existing pages.

4. Optimize image placement with scrollmaps

You probably love images.

I know I do, and I want to see them on almost every page I visit.

They’re also an essential part of your website. In fact, content with images gets 94% more views than content without

visual content matters

Google loves images too – mostly because users find pages with images more engaging and trustworthy.

In one study, Xerox found that people were 80% more likely to read a document when it had visuals.

likelihood to read a document

Eighty percent is a huge jump.

Most site owners would be willing to put in a significant amount of time and effort to achieve that kind of increase and engagement — but adding photos and graphics to your content is a relatively easy task.

It also greatly improves your site’s overall user experience.

Back in the early years of the web, images were rare and of low quality. Now, we see high-quality images bringing websites to life across every industry.

If you doubt the impact that images can have, just consider how BuzzFeed grew to be one of the most-visited sites online.

They built their brand on using images extensively.

Some of their earliest posts were nothing more than lists of images with one-sentence captions.

Even now, at almost any point in time, their most popular posts are simply cleverly-crafted listicles with great titles.

Trending On BuzzFeed 768x542 6

If you continuously publish engaging and useful images, your visitors will want to share your content, which will lead to both more links and referral traffic.

Using images in the most optimal way is not always straightforward, however.

That’s why many site owners end up asking questions like:

  • Where are the best places to include images?
  • How many images should I use throughout a post?
  • Do I always need images?
  • What styles of images resonate most with visitors?
  • How can I learn the optimal number of images for my content and audience?

We used to be flying blind when trying to answer questions like these.

Now, there’s lots of data to show site owners the best way to incorporate images into their sites — so there a few general guidelines you can use to shape your approach.

Add relevant images to every piece of content you publish

You should be adding images to every new page you publish on your site.

You shouldn’t be adding just any images, though — each one needs to serve a purpose and be relevant to the page’s topic.

So stock photos should be your absolute last resort.

The best types of images show statistics, illustrate a point, or help readers better understand how to do something.

If you have the resources to work with a graphic designer, adding custom images to your pages is an excellent way to reinforce your branding while explaining a concept.

Add a caption if the image needs an explanation

If it’s not immediately obvious what you’re showing with an image on your site, include a caption to make it clear.

Many people scan through pages quickly to find specific pieces of information. Including captions helps those users recognize when a graphic is related to what they want to know.

For example, Vox includes scoresheets in some of its Olympic coverage.

These sheets aren’t particularly attention-grabbing, and to most readers, it’s not immediately clear what they are.

olympic scoresheet

Adding even a simple caption makes it easier for readers to understand what they’re looking at and decide whether to decipher the chart for themselves.

Don’t jeopardize speed

Your images should improve your user experience. But if they slow your site down, they can end up doing the exact opposite.

One of the most important considerations when adding images to your site is sizing. Aim to make image files as small as you can without compromising quality. This reduces the file size, and as a result, the amount of time your page will take to load.

It’s important to note, though, that you’ll need to resize your images before adding them to your site.

Although the width attribute makes it easy to get images to display at the size you want, this doesn’t actually make the file any smaller.

resize image 6

Once you’ve re-sized your image, you can also use a tool like kraken.io to compress it.

kraken

This makes the file even smaller, without reducing quality — allowing you to add interesting visual content to your page without sacrificing speed.

Use responsive images

Your images need to display just as well on smartphones and other devices as they do on desktop computers. This means it’s essential to make sure that each one is responsive.

If your images don’t display properly, this can ruin the user experience you provide for mobile users and cause your bounce rate to skyrocket.

Use scrollmaps to optimize images and placement

As with virtually every other aspect of your site, guidelines and best practices for how to use images can only get you so far.

It’s far more important to determine the amount and type of images that are most effective at engaging your target audience.

Still, that’s often easier said than done.

Fortunately, scrollmaps let you use real data from visitors to help determine the optimal number of images and their placement.

If you’re not using enough photos, scrollmaps will show people bouncing after hitting your walls of text. And, if you’re showing too many photos, scrollmaps will also reveal people bouncing.

The important thing to remember is you need to have a decent sample size when you test your own site. You can’t just look at a few of your pages and reach a conclusion from those. You need to base your findings on as many of your website pages as possible.

5. Use heatmaps to boost conversions

Creating great CTAs is essential for driving conversions.

In most cases, we think about creating effective CTAs in terms of copy and phrasing. And while the words your CTAs contain are certainly important, so is the way that you place them on your site.

Location has a huge impact on how many of your visitors will notice and click on a CTA. For example, the Nielsen Norman Group have continuously found that 80% of visitors’ attention is spent above the fold.

So placing your most important buttons above the fold is generally a good idea. In one study, moving a CTA from under to above the fold led to a 20% increase in conversions.

Above the fold attention

But simply following this kind of best practice won’t necessarily get you the results you want.

For example, this page has several CTAs above the fold, but most of the clicks are going to the navigation bar.

too busy conversions blurred

In theory, focusing the majority of the space above the fold on CTAs doesn’t seem like an awful idea. In practice, it’s causing a huge chunk of users to navigate away from the page.

There are a few things that could be causing the lack of clicks. The most likely is that there too many options.

The simpler your CTAs are, the more effective they’ll be at generating conversions.

For example, this page has only two lines of text and one button.

heatmap cta button blur

And where are the majority of the clicks going?

Right on that button.

If your conversion rates aren’t what you’d like them to be using heatmaps can help you identify where users are clicking instead.

Then, you can use that information to structure your pages in a way that highlights your CTAs and gets more of the results you want.

6. Use heatmaps for outbound link engagement

Some site owners are reluctant to include outbound links for fear of losing traffic. But linking to other websites is good for your SEO, even though it can seem a bit counterintuitive.

Many site owners hear this advice and wonder: What if users leave my site and never come back?

This is unlikely to be the case, since referencing and citing reputable sources is a sign of quality, both in the user’s eyes and in Google’s.

External links play a big role in how Google and other search engines view your site.

As a result, linking to reputable sources can actually help your SEO efforts.

By referencing other quality sources in your pages, they’ll see your content as more trustworthy. After all, how reputable could a page be if it simply involves a writer spewing opinions with no sources to back them up?

(In most cases: Not very.)

In fact, Google’s original PageRank algorithm relied on websites linking to each other to crawl the entire web.

If websites never linked to any other websites, the Google crawler as we know it wouldn’t exist.

Today, their indexation and ranking processes are much more advanced. But outbound links are still important.

The key, though, is that those sites are reputable — and Google can tell the difference.

Two computer science students from Stanford University actually developed their own Anti-Trust Rank algorithm that detected spammy pages based on the fact that they tended to link out to other spammy pages:

The Trust Rank algorithm started with a seed set of trustworthy pages and propagated Trust along the outgoing links. Likewise, in our Anti-Trust Rank algorithm, Anti-Trust is propagated in the reverse direction along incoming links, starting from a seed set of spam pages.

web spam anti trust

Their algorithm was effective in determining the quality of a page based on the quality of the pages it linked to.

And if a student-created algorithm could accomplish this, it’s safe to assume that Google’s can, too. So as you link, make sure that they’re always to sites you’re comfortable being associated with in terms of quality.

This isn’t just a protective measure against having your site labeled as spam, either — adding authoritative links can actually improve your rankings.

Today, It’s accepted as fact that inbound links help SEO. Earning links is one of the most important things you can do to improve your rankings.

But outbound links can have an impact, too.

Although it’s not one of the top correlated metrics, independent tests show a positive benefit from linking to other websites.

In one study, Reboot attempted to rank for two made-up keywords: Phylandocic and Acludixis. They created ten sites targeting each keyword, for a total of 20 sites in the study.

These 20 sites were launched on the same day, and each URL was made up of a random string of characters. Each site also had a similar title tag structure.

The ten sites for each keyword were essentially identical, with one notable exception: Five of them linked to reputable sites within their copy, while the other five did not.

Exactly five months after launching these sites, the results were clear. All of the sites that linked to reputable sources ranked higher than the sites that did not.

Just take a look at this search results page for the made-up keyword, “Phylandocic.”

serp results phylandocic

The results for “Ancludixis” were identical in structure.

So although outbound links may be one of the most important factors in rankings, they certainly play a role. So it’s worth your time to make sure that yours all point to reputable sites and provide value to your visitors.

You can also use heatmaps so see which links your audience is most interested in. These maps can show which external links visitors are clicking, and which they’re ignoring.

By using this data, you can optimize your outbound linking habits to improve SEO and user engagement.

7. Use heatmaps for related posts engagement

When a reader gets to the end of an article, they have two choices: Leave, or read another one.

This means that if you want to increase the amount of time your visitors spend on your site, you need to provide them with additional content to read.

One way to do this is to manually add links to related content. If you want to guide everyone who reads a certain page on your site to another specific page, this is the easiest option.

It’s also especially valuable if those two pages represent an important part of your conversion funnel.

For example, if you publish a case study about a customer who benefitted from one of your services, it makes sense to link directly to that service page at the end.

But the direction you should send your readers isn’t always that clear. So in many cases, you might end up choosing pages at random.

And while this approach can still help reduce bounces, a better option is to install a plugin that can do most of the work.

If you run a WordPress website, chances are you’ve seen dozens of plugins for adding a “Related Posts” section to the bottom of your posts.

These related posts sections serve two purposes.

First, they are an easy way to dynamically insert relevant internal links throughout your site. This improves SEO.

Second, they improve user time on site and page views on site. These metrics represent deeper user engagement.

As I mentioned above, there are tons of plugins that can help you accomplish these goals.

related posts plugins

They’re an extremely popular type of plugin among WordPress users — and that’s because they work.

They’re ridiculously effective at driving engagement and page views on your website.

In fact, during one test of a related posts plugin, I saw a 14.4% increase in time-on-site.

And what’s even better?

These related articles are dynamically generated.

You don’t have to manually add them to every page as you do for the other internal links you include in your pages.

Instead, you can simply enable a plugin, determine your settings, then let it start placing links.

And if you wanted to, you could stop there. But you can take things a step further to answer questions like:

  • Are readers actually clicking these?
  • Which posts are performing best?
  • What steps can you take to optimize user engagement?

This last question is key.

In one study of 200,000 domains, Moz found a positive correlation between user engagement and rankings in Google search results.

similarweb correlation

So as you work to improve your engagement-related metrics, you’ll also likely improve your rankings and traffic.

Of these metrics, one of the most important is time on site. There is a definite correlation between how long visitors spend on a site and how that site ranks in search.

time on site rankings 6

When you consider that Google’s top priority is providing results that meet their users’ needs, this makes sense. If a user spends lots of time browsing your content, this is a good sign that they like what they’re seeing.

When you focus on making the browsing experience as seamless as possible, you help Google reach their goal of helping users. This can help your site climb up in search results.

The same holds true for page views. This makes perfect sense considering that the more time a user spends on your site, the more pages they will logically view.

The final engagement metric considered in the study was bounce rate. As bounce rates rise, rankings tend to drop.

bounce rate rankings

Altogether, this means that pages with lower bounce rates, longer average time-on-site, and higher average page views tend to rank best results.

It’s unclear if Google actually uses these metrics to determine rankings since this study was based on correlation. Still, they show user satisfaction and quality of results.

The takeaway here is to make sure you provide a great site experience, and your rankings will likely improve as a result.

Keep this in mind as you add related posts at the end of your pages.

Whether you choose to add them manually or utilize a plugin, your related posts need to contribute positively to your user experience.

You can make sure that they do by following a few best practices:

  • Write clear anchor text. Readers should know exactly what to expect when they click a related post. In most cases, this can simply be the post’s title — but if the title is unclear, use more obvious anchor text.
  • Vary your posts. Don’t always link to the same few posts. Frequent visitors will likely have already read them, and they have no incentive to click on a post they’ve already read.
  • Limit your links. It can be tempting to include as many related posts as possible so that all of your readers can find something that sounds interesting. Do not do this. Too many posts can make your page look cluttered, so it’s best to limit this section to 3-5 posts.

As you optimize your related posts section, you can also use Crazy Egg’s Confetti or another heatmap tool to see for sure the best ways to optimize it for engagement.

Want to see which related posts are clicked on most?

Heatmaps will answer that.

If you notice poor-performing posts, you can tweak your settings to make them more relevant.

Want to see how traffic sources differ in their click engagement?

Confetti has you covered.

confetti crazy egg

One area where Confetti outperforms standard heatmaps for this analysis is that Confetti lets you drill down even deeper. You can find out which type of traffic is most likely to keep browsing, and which type is bouncing.

You can also use this feature to identify differences in browsing habits between different traffic sources.

If your goal is to improve your rankings, you can focus on the users coming from organic search. Look at related posts they click — and the ones they ignore — then adjust your links or settings.

The more you effectively you cater to Google’s users, the better your user experience metrics will be — and the better you can rank in search.

8. Match title tags with page content message

Gone are the days of keyword stuffing and awkward pipes (Like | This) in title tags.

It used to be that you could pack your title tags full of keywords and it worked like magic.

You could rank well for your target keywords, regardless of the quality of your page’s actual content.

Fortunately for users, that’s no longer the case.

It’s not that simple anymore, as Google uses many engagement factors to determine page quality.

There are hundreds of factors that go into achieving high rankings. Plus, Google’s algorithm is smart enough to recognize when site owners are trying to game it.

So does this mean that title tags are irrelevant?

Not at all.

Your title tags still play a role in how Google understands the topic of your pages. And beyond that, they present a huge opportunity to improve your CTR from the search results.

Though the top few results tend to get the majority of the clicks on a page, they don’t get all of the clicks.

You can maximize the portion that your rankings get by optimizing your title tags for clicks.

That being said, you don’t want to mislead users for the sake of pursuing a higher CTR.

Users are likely to bounce if there’s a mismatch in expectations between your title tag and the content on your page.

This phenomenon is called pogosticking, and Rand Fishkin explains it well in this Whiteboard Friday video:

“If people click through to your site only to click their back buttons and look for another result, the search engines are going to catch on, and you could fall in the rankings.”

pogosticking

If you optimize your title tags to generate as many clicks as possible without considering the content on each page, you can end up damaging your rankings.

If you think about it from the point of view of a searcher, this makes sense. If you clicked on a result looking for a specific piece of information, but that piece of information is nowhere to fund, you’d be frustrated.

This is an extremely poor user experience — and exactly the kind of experience that Google wants to avoid giving its users.

But if you optimize your title tags to grab searchers’ attention without misleading them, you have the chance to get great CTRs and improved rankings.

Those of you who manage AdWords ads know the drill: Match the ad copy with the landing page to boost your Quality Score and conversions.

And while there’s no “SEO quality score,” the main idea still applies to the organic search listings.

So as you optimize your title tags, make sure that the content on your pages matches the promises you make in the search results.

You want to optimize for maximum CTR, but you also want to deliver on expectations once those visitors land.

The clearest benefit here is to users. When all of the titles on a search results page accurately reflect what each page contains, it’s easy to select the best one and find the right information.

But beyond that, user satisfaction is key to ranking well.

If you’re not yet making it a priority, it’s time to start.

Of course, this is a metric that can be difficult to measure. It also requires more complex solutions than tweaking a keyword.

But when you put the user first, you’ll be much more successful than SEOs who prioritize “easier” tactics like keyword optimization.

Optimizing your title tags to provide a positive user experience is a great example of this.

The obvious benefit of writing attention-grabbing title tags is that they can increase your CTRs. The less obvious benefit is that your CTR can actually end up influencing your rankings.

If your CTR is higher than that of the results above you, this can actually move you above those results.

You likely already know that the majority of the clicks on most search results pages go to the top result, with the CTR steadily dropping as you move down the page.

Still, that top result almost never gets all of the clicks.

In fact, in one study Larry Kim, he analyzed 1,000 keywords from his site’s Google Search Console account and looked at their click-through rate averages by rank.

ctr by rank

At first glance, this chart reflects the conventional thought that the majority of the clicks for any given search go to results at the top of the page.

But the green line only represents the top 10% of keywords ranking in the top spot in terms of performance. And while the fact that he’s achieving a CTR of up to 55% is extremely impressive, that’s only for a relatively small chunk of keywords.

His average CTR for keywords in position one is right in line with often-cited statistics at right around 30%.

But if you look at the orange line, some of Wordstream’s keywords ranking in position one were getting CTRs of well under 10%. This means that most of the clicks for those keywords were going to lower-ranked results on the page.

It also means that your site has plenty of opportunities to attract traffic, even from keywords you aren’t yet ranking in the top few results for.

Optimizing your title tag can help you earn traffic that would otherwise go to the sites that outrank you, many of whom may be more powerful in terms of domain authority.

This strategy works, too.

In one study, Search Engine Journal sought to increase their CTR for a post titled “Guerrilla Marketing: 20+ Examples and Strategies to Stand Out.” At the start of the experiment, this post ranked in position eight and had a CTR of 1%.

Then, they changed the title to “20+ Jaw-Dropping Guerrilla Marketing Examples.”

They didn’t alter the copy, images, or anything about the page but the title tag. But within a few months, the page jumped to position five, with a CTR of 4.19%.

This change also resulted in a 97.3% increase in organic pageviews over three months.

sej ctr

That’s almost double the organic traffic, for a change that likely took less than five minutes.

If Google notices that users seem to prefer a lower-ranked result over one at the top of the page, they’ll adjust the rankings accordingly.

In fact, Google’s former chief of search quality even confirmed that rankings are affected by click data.

Their algorithm essentially uses CTR as feedback on what users want.

So if one of your pages ranks in position five, but gets more clicks than the result in position four, Google’s algorithm can see which content users prefer.

Then, you could see a swap.

This, much like most of the factors that play into Google’s algorithm, is because it helps the search engine tailor rankings to what users want.

CTR is also a good indicator of relevance because it shows which results users think are most in line with their needs.

So how can you improve your title tags to achieve higher CTRs?

Creativity isn’t a bad idea here, but there are a few elements that have been proven to attract more clicks:

  • Numbers: There’s a reason that half of the articles you see online seem to have numbers in their titles. They’re effective for attracting clicks.
  • Emotional phrases: People are driven by emotion and curiosity, so using phrases like “You won’t believe…” or “Insanely effective” are more effective for grabbing attention than calmer, plainer titles.
  • Content type: Your page’s format can play a role in whether a user wants to read it, so using words like “list,” “story,” and, “guide” can tell them that your page is what they want.
  • Keyword: This may sound obvious, but make sure to include the main keyword you’re targeting on the page. This immediately tells searchers that your page is a relevant result.

As you test these strategies, it’s important to keep the “pogosticking” phenomenon in mind.

Even if your title tag updates immediately result in increased CTRs, this won’t necessarily translate into long-term results or ranking changes if you’re not matching users’ expectations.

Some of this comes down to understanding the intent behind your target keywords and keeping it in mind when you adjust your title tags.

But beyond that, you can use scrollmaps and heatmaps to see the impact that your changes have on how users interact with your page.

Run heatmap and scrollmap tests before changing your title tags so that you can use them as benchmarks.

Then, continue to run tests as you change and optimize your title tags.

If you see increased CTRs but worse engagement, this is a sign that your content no longer matches what your title tags make searchers expect — which could ultimately harm your rankings.

9. Get keyword usage feedback with scrollmaps

There’s a common disagreement between SEOs and marketing managers:

SEOs want traffic to grow continuously, while marketing managers want to focus on achieving better conversion rates.

This is an oversimplification, but it illustrates a problem that many businesses experience.

SEOs tend to want to incorporate keywords wherever they can if they think it will have a positive impact on rankings.

But even among SEOs, there’s often disagreement regarding how many times to use a target keyword on a page.

The answer to this question used to be “as many times as possible.”

Today, the answer is a bit more complicated, as this Whiteboard Friday illustration shows.

moz keyword usage

Keywords are an important part of optimizing your content, but it’s entirely possible to overdo it.

You don’t want to use keywords at the expense of readability, or your content will seem slightly spammy and unhelpful.

Plus, we all know that keyword stuffing is a bad idea.

Still, keywords are a critical part of creating effective content.

Keyword research can help you uncover great topics for your site, then inform and guide how you approach those topics.

Then, you’ll need to include those keywords in your content to show search engines and users that it’s relevant. Still, those keywords shouldn’t take over.

Keywords are still important for discovery and rankings, but they need to flow naturally with your content. So as you write, make sure that you’re writing first for human readers.

Don’t let your keywords take away from the reading experience or writing quality, but incorporate them where they make sense.

On the upside, the advent of semantic search is making it easier to rank for relevant searches without using exact-match keywords.

This is because Google’s algorithm is getting smarter and is starting to understand user intent on a more conversational level.

In this context, “semantic” refers to the true meaning or essence of something.

So instead of providing results that use the exact words and phrases a user searches, Google aims to provide the best possible results for their needs — even if the phrasing is a little different.

For example, take a look at the knowledge graph result for this query asking for the name of the dancer in the “Chandelier” music video:

semantic dancer

This result answers the question perfectly — even though it doesn’t contain the exact phrase searched.

This means that as Google gets smarter, exact keywords are becoming slightly less important.

It also means that you may need to adjust your strategy to account for semantic search.

So how can you do that?

There are a few different best practices to keep in mind.

First, aim to create content that answers questions or fills gaps in information. As you can see in the example above, semantic search is great for finding specific pieces of information.

If you’re not sure where to start with this, search for one of your target keywords for an existing page.

At the bottom of the results, you’ll see a section with similar searches.

These phrases are pulled from user search data, so they’re all phrases and questions that users search often.

heatmaps best practices 6

If any of them have significantly different search intent from your existing page, jot them down and consider using them as topics for new pages in the future.

But in most cases, you’ll see at least one or two searches that are relevant enough to your page that it would make sense to incorporate an answer.

As you identify common questions that are relevant to your site, answer them in a simple, question-and-answer format with natural language.

You don’t necessarily need to use the exact keyword you pull from the related searches section. Instead, write in a way that makes it easy for readers to understand what you mean, and for Google to identify key pieces of information.

If your answer is the best, exact-match keywords aren’t the most important factor.

In addition to creating answer-based pages, you can also optimize other pages on your site for semantic search by making sure that all of the titles and headings are written primarily for human readers.

In the past, it was standard practice to include a page’s target keyword in each heading on the page. And while this is still a good idea where it makes sense, it can end up harming your rankings if it has a negative impact on readability.

Instead of prioritizing exact keywords, phrase your titles and copy in a way that will make the most sense to the reader.

As a human writer, you can generally be confident that your copy flows naturally based on how it sounds to you.

But if you’re attempting to optimize for specific keywords and are worried about how this might impact user experience, you can use heatmaps to gauge changes.

For example, let’s say you update a page to target a new keyword or question, and you incorporate a specific phrase a few times the page. After making the change, you see an increase in bounce rate.

You can use tools like heatmaps to see where you’re losing visitors.

If you’re overusing keywords on a page, for example, a scrollmap can show you exactly where your content is turning off users.

If you’re repeating the same phrase over and over again, users will recognize the low-quality writing, and they’ll go somewhere else.

Ideally, this will become less of a concern as semantic understanding plays a larger role in Google’s algorithm.

But until then, heatmaps and scrollmaps can help you make sure that you aren’t overdoing it with your optimization, and strike the right balance for your readers.

Conclusion

Engagement is a difficult metric to measure, but it has a major ability on each of your pages’ ability to rank.

This means you should aim to provide as positive of a user experience as possible with every piece of content you create.

There are many factors that influence your success in achieving this goal. Your optimization strategy, CTAs, visual content, and navigation can all impact how users engage (or don’t engage) with your pages.

So if your pages aren’t getting the results you want, it can be challenging to determine the root of the issue.

Fortunately, tools like heatmaps and scrollmaps can shed light on user interactions. You can use them to see which elements aren’t functioning like you want them to, as well as the elements that are driving them away from your content.

You can also see which elements are working in your favor — and use that insight to improve your content across your site.

When you focus on your users, you can get better at serving the user every day. And considering that serving users is exactly what Google aims to do with its search results, the changes you make can translate to a more successful SEO strategy.

How do you use heatmaps to improve your site’s user experience?

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  1. Joe Robison says:
    September 7, 2016 at 5:04 pm

    Happy to discuss any topics or new ideas related to heatmaps and SEO – thanks for reading!

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Andrew Martin

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