How Shop Direct Group used its content strategy to improve search rankings

Content marketing has rapidly become one of the most important trends in digital, though there is an argument that it is simply a new buzzword for something that successful businesses have been doing for years.

Even so, there’s no denying the positive impact that comes from having a coherent content strategy.

Shop Direct Group, which makes £1.7bn from its range of brands including Very.co.uk, Littlewoods and K&Co, is an excellent case study. 

After putting content at the heart of its SEO strategy it saw a 25% year-on-year growth in SEO traffic and a 50% growth in generic traffic. SDG now attracts more than 600,000 site visits every day.

To find out more, I spoke to SDG’s Head of Ecommerce Paul Hornby…

1. What percentage of your traffic comes via organic search?

It differs between each brand, but we get 65% from ‘free traffic’, 23% of which is from natural search while the other 42% comes direct to the URL.

But the one thing that’s really hurting us at the moment is ‘(not provided)’ traffic from Google, as the volume of these visits is up 1,700% year-on-year.

So from a reporting perspective and trying to find out what came from a brand terms and what came from generic terms, which used to be quite simple, has now become incredibly difficult.

I was looking at our figures yesterday and the volume of traffic that came through as ‘(not provided)’ was three times what was reported as generic.

So from a reporting and attribution perspective it’s become incredibly tough.

2. We’ve noticed a similar trend at Econsultancy to the point where search is almost becoming immeasurable. Do you think it’s going that way?

I absolutely do. When we first were looking at it ‘(not provided)‘ was low single digits, so we were able to get robust figures on what traffic was generated by just brand terms alone and look at all the commercial metrics that came with that.

And similarly we could look at generic terms, and do an amalgamation of brand terms plus generic, then also look at what kind of terms drove traffic to different areas of the site.

But now all of a sudden around 30% of traffic is unreported, and that figure is growing. It is becoming completely unreportable.

3. How much of your traffic is ‘sideways traffic’, i.e. coming to product pages and other pages within the site, rather than to the homepage?

We get around 51% of traffic directly to the homepage while 49% comes through to other areas, such as product pages.

So it really is a bit of a mistake when brand teams come to me and ask to get all their promotions on the homepage, as only half of the traffic will actually see it.

And the amount of sessions that land on the homepage is actually shrinking thanks to our SEO efforts, as more of it is coming to product pages or at category level.

4. How has content marketing worked for you? What kinds of tactics have you been using?

Content marketing is something that we’ve really tried to drive as a pillar of our SEO strategy. We’ve been working closely with a company called iTrigga across a number of different areas of the site and it’s something that we’re going to continue to invest in.

Our on-site content strategy has touched on a few key areas that I’ll run through. First and foremost it’s for our brand stores, these are something we use to try and create a branded concession area within our sites.

The reason we did this was to try and replicate the offline shopping experience that you might find in a department store like Selfridges.

So we created these branded areas on our site, which have tabs that contain a huge amount of information specific to the brand. 

We worked directly with the brands to ensure the content we show in these tabs is very timely and relevant, and ties in with their promotional campaigns, but it also helps the customer to understand that brand and its products.

We’ve been trying to recreate a lot of content that both helps customers and recreates the in-store experience, but to be completely honest it also gives us more traction from an SEO perspective.

And it’s also useful for social, as it’s content that people might want to share.

This is something we’ve rolled out on desktop for a few brands and we’re now looking at how we can also roll it out on mobile, though we’re obviously aware that we can’t pad the page out too much on a smaller screen.

We’ve also created category specific content, which obviously has a benefit in terms of SEO for those pages and also for improving our horizontal indexing.

So in the first instance we generated around 5,000 pieces of content, and that was very successful as it helped to improve the indexing on our category pages and boosted generic traffic.

The second step was to try and get it more naturally involved in the customer journey, so we will be running some experiments on where the content is positioned.

Currently the content sits in the footer of the site, but we are going to move that to the top and we’re also looking at running creative banners behind it so it’s more aesthetically pleasing.

And one of the things I’ve very interested in for the future is that we’re going to connect to iTrigga’s API, which will enable us to dynamically serve content in different gallery pages.

This means we can differentiate the content that we serve in, for example, the dresses page, then track the impact that it has commercially on our site and also within natural search rankings. That’s really the next step in our content strategy.

5. Why did you decide to out-source this content creation? Would it not be better to have the content created by someone who is closer to the brand?

I don’t think so, because iTrigga has taken a lot of time to get to know our brands and the differences between them, as we obviously don’t want to be duplicating content.

But also a lot of the content we are building is category specific, so it needs the branded tone of voice but a lot of it is detailed information about that product category, which makes it easier for a third-party to take it and run with it.

6. The influence of social signals on the job of the SEO has been a major talking point. How significant is this, and how does it affect your tactics?

It’s extremely significant and I think it’s changing our strategy quite significantly. The line between social and SEO is blurring to the extent that I wonder if it even exists anymore.

In the past your SEO tactics were to identify the keyword you wanted to go for, generate some content, make sure your internal linking structure worked with targeted keywords, etc.

But now, when we sit in our SEO strategy meetings we just end up talking about social all the time, and that’s a good thing but it also shows the way in which the world has changed.

So much of the work we’re looking to do at the moment is around social amplification, so for example we’re currently looking at a way of monetising Twitter.

We ran a trial with our Very brand using a Twitter account called ‘Very Recommends’, where we listened to general chatter on Twitter and if somebody tweeted something like, “It’s Friday night and I’ve got nothing good to wear,” then it would respond and give them product recommendations.

So that’s a direct way of monetising our Twitter feed, but it’s also generating social signals through user comments.

Everything we’re doing now is looking at how we can drive greater social amplification, such as using the authorship tags in Google+ and tying that back to our corporate blogs, creating content that people will want to share, or looking at how we can work with bloggers.

And I think in the long term Google+ will probably be the backbone of the SEO and social marketing crossover – it will be your online ID and almost the social spine of Google.

So ultimately things like the number of +1s you get and the amount of people that have you in circles will impact your search rankings.

7. How important is mobile search, and mobile in general for traffic/revenue?

Mobile is massive for us. We take £1.7bn in sales of which 80% comes from ecommerce. 

Back in December of 2010 our mobile sessions were about 3% to 4% of overall traffic, but in December 2012 it had risen to being around 30%.

On Boxing Day 2012 we peaked at 41% of all online sessions coming through mobile, which includes both tablets and smartphones. So it’s a huge growth area for us.

We made a strategic decision two years ago to be in charge of our own destiny on mobile so built our own mobile site, which means we have our own code base.

This has enabled us to get ahead of the curve as we’ve been investing in our own skillsets and our own people, and consistently testing and improving our mobile platforms.

We found that conversions were poor at first, and though we’ve managed to double the conversion rate on our mobile site it’s still not inline with desktop and tablet, which tend to be relatively similar.

That said, I think the days of reporting conversions based on the device are dead. You’ve got to be looking at conversion rates on a customer level, because traditional sessions don’t really exist either. 

I could be at work and get an email about a certain product that makes me go to the site and browse a few items. Then I might do some more research on my phone on the train, then use my tablet when I get home.

If you look at each of those channels individually then they might look quite poor, but from a customer perspective it’s very different.

So we’re spending a lot of time trying to work out device attribution and how that piece works. And we have seen that customers are worth more to us if we can get them to shop across multiple devices.

We’re also looking to bring out new apps, as we’re not thrilled with our market penetration at the moment. Overall though, we will continue to be mobile-first as it’s taken that level of importance for us.

8. SDG’s ecommerce director recently said that the company has different PPC strategies for each device as users typically use very different search terms. How does this work in practice?

At Shop Direct we do indeed deploy different device-specific strategies when running paid search activity. The key strands to this are:

1. The different user interface on mobile versus the desktop means that bidding positions do alter, especially given the importance of featuring above the fold on mobile. 

We closely monitor bidding, average position and the relative CTR we receive to ensure we get the right visibility. This will be developed further with the recent announcement by Google of enhanced campaigns.

2. Without a view of how mobile users attribute on desktop sales, it’s important that we’re more flexible when measuring the ROI of a mobile campaign. 

We try to understand product behaviour to inform bidding and what we expect to convert on mobile versus what will fuel a user to convert somewhere else.

3. Like most PPC advertisers, campaign profitability is used to govern what stays live and what is paused over time. 

This naturally creates differences in the keyword portfolio we’re managing on mobile compared to desktop.

4. Finally, historically we’ve witnessed different browsing behaviour by device. This results in us having desktop, tablet and mobile specific versions of every keyword so we maximise the response by device type. 

However, with Google changing the game with enhanced campaigns that will evolve further.

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How Shop Direct Group used its content strategy to improve search rankings

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