TABLE OF CONTENTS
1. EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
3. ANALYSIS OF THE STATUS QUO
3.1. Idea and Business Model
3.1.1. Affiliate Marketing
3.2. Market Size
3.4. Implications from the Status Quo Analysis
4. DEVELOPMENT OF A DIGITAL MARKETING STRATEGY
4.1. Search Engine Optimization
4.1.1. On-Page Optimization
4.1.2. Off-Page Optimization
4.2. Search Engine Advertising
4.2.1. Search Advertisement Elements
4.2.2. Keyword Auctions
4.2.3. Ad Quality Score
4.3. Display Ads, Social Media Marketing, Email Campaigns
5. IMPLEMENTATION OF THE DIGITAL MARKETING STRATEGY
5.2. SEO in Practice
5.2.1. Evaluation of My German Finances ’ SEO
5.3. Marketing Campaign Setup and Tracking
5.3.1. Landing Page
5.3.2. Website Analytics Setup
5.3.3. Google Ads SEA Campaign
5.4. Campaign Performance Results and Evaluation
6. IMPLICATIONS, RECOMMENDATIONS AND LIMITATIONS
7. NEXT STEPS
Declaration of Authorship
Founders of online businesses often encounter the question of which digital marketing channel to invest in at an early stage. This report gives insights into the practical steps of setting the foundation of a digital marketing strategy. Furthermore, it will test the effectiveness of search engine marketing, a popular digital marketing channel consisting of search engine optimization and search engine advertising. The results reveal the opportunities and challenges of digital marketing strategies and conclude to begin with search engine optimization while deferring search engine advertising to a later point in time when more resources are available.
The goal of this report is to develop an effective marketing strategy for the focal website My German Finances and to provide empirical data enabling digital marketing recommendations that are helpful for early stage website founders in general. This report’s findings should prevent a founder or online marketing manager from burning cash due to a poor channel selection and uninformed marketing investments.
Originality and Value:
The report provides an unbiased practical example as My German Finances has just recently been launched and can therefore reveal the uninfluenced effect of search engine marketing measures. This will yield valuable information for future founders and marketing managers as to whether search engine marketing is an effective channel at an early stage and which elements to focus on.
Keywords: search engines, digital marketing, Google Ads, SEO, SEA, SEM
List of Figures
Figure 1. Competition Matrix for My German Finances
Figure 2. Screenshot of Featured Snippet
Figure 3. Text ad example in Google Ads for My German Finances
Figure 4. Google's Keyword Planner Output for bank account keyword ideas
Figure 5. Screenshot of My German Finances' main navigation menu
Figure 6. Screenshot of the desktop PSI score before optimization
Figure 7. Screenshot of the mobile PSI score before optimization
Figure 8. Screenshot of the mobile PSI score after optimization
Figure 9. Screenshot of the desktop PSI score after optimization
Figure 10. Screenshot of the Pingdom Website Speed Test result after optimization
Figure 11. Screenshot of the AddThis sharing buttons on My German Finances
Figure 12. My German Finances search traffic’s page views over time
Figure 13. Featured snippet on a mobile SERP for “German credit cards”
Figure 14. Featured snippet on a mobile SERP for "best German credit cards"
Figure 15. Screenshot of the German bank account landing page
Figure 16. Three ad versions for the Banking Campaign in Google Ads
List of Abbreviations
Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten
1. EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
This report explains the first development of a digital marketing strategy for My German Finances. My German Finances is a website for foreigners in Germany, explaining German contracts in English. Validated by early tests and surveys, the idea is to provide informative content primarily about financial products, such as credit cards and bank accounts, for a relevant target group of 2.7 million foreigners in Germany. The business model is entirely built upon affiliate marketing links, which are embedded into the content. A commission is paid for every confirmed lead or sale generated through one of these links.
The goal of developing a digital marketing strategy is to find an impactful and cost-efficient way to grow the audience, i.e. traffic, of the website. For this purpose, the report focuses on the two elements of search engine marketing, namely search engine optimization and search engine advertising. Both fields are very complex and take a lot of effort to set up. For search engine optimization, many on- and off-page adjustments need to be made for a noticeable effect on traffic and revenue. For search engine advertising, multiple factors need to be taken into account, such as website relevance and ad quality, in order to be able to run a successful ad campaign. The search engine optimization of My German Finances resulted in an impressive increase in search engine traffic by 713% and additional revenue of roughly 1,000 Euro. The impact of search engine advertising was measurable but not certainly profitable, despite good ad performance values concerning click-through-rate or ad quality.
In summary, search engine optimization efforts have been the right strategy for traffic growth of My German Finances. Search engine advertising had a vanishingly small positive effect, but still constitutes a promising marketing option once campaign optimizations are finalized. The core recommendation for new online businesses is to start with – and always focus on – search engine optimization, as it entails potentially great effects at little cost.
The online venture My German Finances 1 was developed in the framework of the course MAN 633 Entrepreneurial Spirit at the University of Mannheim. My German Finances is a website that explains German financial products, such as bank accounts, credit cards or insurances, in English and provides detailed information about the terms and conditions and the question which providers might be the most favorable ones.
The milestones for this project were to conduct explorative interviews with 20 to 30 people about the potential of this service, and to research the market size as well as competition. As a consequence of the research, the project focused on financial products. The knowledge from the interviews and the market research was incorporated into the website content as well as design and the beta version of My German Finances launched in December 2017.
The first project report for MAN 633 concluded that the next steps would be to find Product/Market Fit through the analysis of website traffic. Consequently, there would be the need to plot a digital marketing strategy to continuously increase the traffic to the website and to leverage other growth opportunities such as partnerships and collaborations.
This report will investigate and formulate the essential parts of a digital marketing strategy and test search engine optimization (SEO) techniques as well as a search engine advertising (SEA) campaign in order to find the most effective approach.
During the development of the digital marketing strategy the best practices of search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine advertising (SEA) are examined.
The methodology outlines the practical steps in applying the aforementioned best practices and describes the setup and execution of digital marketing campaigns with Google Ads in practice.
Subsequently, the effect of the campaign is measured and evaluated. The results as well as limitations of this empirical study will be discussed and should provide useful insight for small online businesses, which contemplate using digital marketing tools as growth engine.
Conclusively, future steps for growing website traffic and revenue are presented.
3. ANALYSIS OF THE STATUS QUO
Before starting the development of a digital marketing strategy, the current situation of My German Finances has to be presented and explained. The past project milestones are explained, from the idea to market research and achieving problem/solution fit, in order to establish a common understanding of the project. The need for a digital marketing strategy will be discussed.
3.1. Idea and Business Model
Since Germany seems relatively international, as it is with 1.34 trillion U.S. dollars the third largest exporting country in the world (WTO, 2017), one might assume that the daily lives are adjusted for expats working in Germany or at least the millions of tourists coming here every year (Statistisches Bundesamt, 2017c). The general problem that foreigners in Germany have is that almost all information for any kind of service is in German, making it basically impossible to research which offer could be the best one for the individual needs. Even though free online translation services are available, foreigners do not know which German websites to look for that compare service benefits and prices. Consequently, they search with English keywords and ask questions in international expat discussion boards, where the answer might be a couple of years old and buried under four pages of other comments. In turn, foreigners often rely on German friends or acquaintances to refer them to good services or just take the next first offer they encounter without researching for better options.
The simple solution to this information asymmetry is breaking the language barrier. In theory, it would be ideal to provide the information of interest in each person’s native language. However, in order to keep the solution approach simple, it is obvious to choose the world language English as a starting point. As the world language, it should also able to reach the largest share of all foreigners in Germany.
The general idea is to provide the relevant information about essential German services on a website in English language. With displayed graphics and translated key features, the users could compare features and prices before deciding on a product or service and would be directed straight to the provider’s website if they wanted to purchase any of the offers. This information service would be readily available around the clock and would not require any personnel. In 2015, a similar project called My German Phone had already been realized. It presented German phone plans and prepaid SIM cards in English language to assist foreigners in Germany. After three years, My German Phone has a steady traffic of around 10,000 users visiting the website every month with a monthly revenue of approximately 500 Euro. This experience served as a proof of concept that the proposed solution works and is accepted by the target audience. However, commissions for referred services could be much higher than the ones of German sim cards. While exploring various affiliate marketing categories, it turned out that commissions for financial services, such as bank accounts, credit cards, loans, and insurances, were among the highest of all affiliate network publishers. Before this could be put into action, more research on the matter had to be conducted to be sure that this could be a viable business.
Explorative interviews with exchange students at the University of Mannheim and conversations with two experts for foreigners in Germany sharpened the view on needed support for international students as well as expats. The explorative interviews showed that there is definitely a need for an information service in English language that integrates the different topics of interest into one structured website. People have many questions when moving to Germany, but they are having trouble finding the appropriate support. Insights from a relocation agency owner validated the hypothesis that bank accounts are the basis for subsequent contracts in Germany, but also gave ideas for additional content, such as car insurances and registration procedures.
The prioritization of topics led to the decision to focus on financial products at first and call the service “My German Finances”. The business model is summarized in a Lean Canvas (APPENDIX 1), Ash Maurya’s adaptation of Alex Osterwalder’s Business Model Canvas, which focuses on the essential elements of an uncertain business endeavor (Maurya, 2012). It was important to be able to focus on few topics to become an extensive and reliable source for specific information. A comprehensive portal for all kinds of questions that foreigners have would make it difficult to produce satisfactory content in a short time, and it would be challenging – if not impossible – to compete against the existing blogs and discussion boards in search engine rankings. Once the Product/Market fit with this niche information was found, all content could still be consolidated into a new website offering and it could take advantage of the hopefully good search engine ranking of My German Finances and My German Phone to get the new website started.
3.1.1. Affiliate Marketing
The information about German services and products is combined with affiliate marketing links. This way, if someone actually decided to order something, My German Finances would receive a commission payment. Affiliate marketing works as follows: Online services only pay the publisher a commission in case of a successful lead or sale. Affiliate marketing is therefore also often called performance marketing, as the advertising payments are not fixed, but related to the publisher’s performance.
Affiliate marketing is a major sales driver as it generated around one sixth of all retail ecommerce spending in Germany in 2016 – almost 8 billion Euro (AWIN, 2018, p. 45).
There is one key advantage to using direct affiliate links on websites: Many people block regular display ads, but affiliate links cannot be blocked if they are integrated into the content. More than 25% of German internet users block ads, globally one of the highest rates (AWIN, 2018, p. 44). Besides, there are low entry barriers for affiliate marketing, because no monetary investments are necessary. The membership in all affiliate networks is free for publishers as the advertisers pay the networks to be able to offer their programs on that platform. Furthermore, quick international expansions are possible, because not many adjustments are necessary. Only the content needs to be translated and the affiliate links need to be replaced with new country-specific links.
One disadvantage of affiliate marketing is that it is often necessary to be part of many different affiliate networks in order to cover all available products. Some advertisers only have programs in certain networks and not in others. This required My German Phone to be a member of several different networks: affili.net, AWIN, zanox, financeAds.net, communicationAds.net, Aklamio, Amazon PartnerNet, and SimDiscount. Zanox and affili.net have since been acquired by AWIN, making it slightly easier to track a website’s overall performance.
Another drawback is that legal requirements make web analytics, which are a vital part of affiliate marketing, quite challenging since the introduction of new internet privacy laws, such as the infamous “cookie-law” (European Commission, 2016) and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) of May 2018 (European Commission, 2018).
However, the main advantage of affiliate marketing is that it is completely automated, and the content only has to be created once. From then onwards, very little operational work is required except for updating the information once in a while and trying to generate user traffic for the website.
3.2. Market Size
In order to assess the venture’s full potential, it is important to know how big the market of foreigners in Germany really is. The total number of foreigners living in Germany was around 10 million in 2016 (Statistisches Bundesamt, 2017d). Relevant for the revenue of the business model are only people that are 18 years old and older, because they are legally able to sign contracts and purchase any products that would be included on My German Finances. In 2016, 1,400,405 foreigners in Germany were younger than 18 years, so the market size can be narrowed down to the remaining 8,638,675 people (Statistisches Bundesamt, 2017a). Even more relevant would be the working foreigners, so-called expats, as they have an income and definitely need German financial products, such as bank accounts or health insurance. The latest statistics on foreign workers in Germany is from 2014 with 3,570,000 expats (Statistisches Bundesamt, 2016). Out of these foreigners, it would be good to know how many of them do not speak German, as only those are of interest as a focus target group. Around 69% of all expats struggle with the German language. Generalizing this finding leads to 2,463,300 expats as the main customer target group (Internations, 2017).
However, all foreign students still need to be added, as they would not be listed as foreign workers, but would still be in need of German bank accounts, insurances or internet contracts. In 2016, there were 358,895 foreign students enrolled at German universities (Statistisches Bundesamt, 2017b). Some of them probably understood German and needed to be excluded from the target group. In lack of corresponding statistics, the expats language quota was applied again and resulted in 247,638 remaining students as a customer group. In total, the customer group would be at least 2,710,938 – or roughly 2.7 million people. See APPENDIX 2 for a summary of the market size analysis and APPENDIX 3 to see the increase in foreigners in Germany over the past years.
Analyzing the competition revealed that not a single website was doing or trying to do what My German Finances ’ goal was. It was surprising to see that very few websites considered the English-speaking population in Germany. The competing services were plotted on a competition matrix (see Figure 1). The x-axis indicates if the service is a direct or indirect competitor to My German Finances. The y-axis indicates if the service was a highly competitive threat to My German Finances or if it represented a rather low threat to the project’s business model.
Relocation agencies, university advisors or HR departments were offering support for foreigners as well, but they offered personal consultation and advice, which is not available to everyone and often at a high price (at least for the relocation agencies). Therefore, they are considered as indirect competition and potential partners. The provider websites, e.g. from N26 or Deutsche Bank, are not a very strong competition either, because they are lacking the comparison feature. They might have an English website, but the customers can still not be sure that this is the best option for them. The major German comparison websites, such as Check24 or Verivox, would be a stronger competition, but they do not provide any English explanations of what to look out for when deciding on a certain financial product. The already existing discussion boards and expat information websites are the strongest competition, but they lack a key quality that would be included on My German Finances: highly valuable, well-structured and very detailed information on complex German financial technicalities.
On websites like HowToGermany.com or ToyTown Germany, there is very general information about German services and procedures, but often they do not recommend specific products. This information gap can be mitigated with My German Finances, as it has already been done with the previous project My German Phone. In many of these discussion boards, the user needs to comb through dozens of pages of conversation in order to find the answer to the question he had, and this answer might already be obsolete.
Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten
Figure 1. Competition Matrix for My German Finances
3.4. Implications from the Status Quo Analysis
The only way to further develop the business is to analyze users’ feedback and pivot the business model as necessary. In order to get relevant and reliable feedback, My German Finances needs high exposure and more traffic. Then Google Analytics could be used to find out which pages are most popular and which content should be extended.
As a next step, a digital marketing strategy with individual action points should be created. In the past, My German Phone increased its traffic with free methods like “social marketing”. Social marketing was defined as actively taking part in discussion boards, answering questions of other users while placing links to the website. This was done in the forums that ranked highest in the Google search results and therefore would generate high quality backlinks (see 4.1.2). Google values backlinks from popular sources and would consequently improve the search result ranking if many relevant backlinks could be acquired.
Apart from social marketing, My German Finances should engage in search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine advertising (SEA). Especially SEO is a powerful way of generating free traffic, but it is also very complex and can take a considerable amount of time. Search engine advertising (SEA) is not free, but could pay off in the long run, if it is set up correctly. The theory and effectiveness of both SEO and SEA will be examined in this report (see 4.1 and 4.2).
4. DEVELOPMENT OF A DIGITAL MARKETING STRATEGY
Digital marketing is a fairly new approach that continually evolves with the development of the internet in combination with smartphone adoption. Until now, academic research has recently shown little interest in best practices for internet marketers (Schibrowsky, Peltier, & Nill, 2007), despite its high importance for every online business.
In order to provide a sound theoretical understanding of digital marketing techniques and strategies, training resources from Google, one of the most frequently used advertising channels in Germany (IFH Köln, 2017), as well as digital marketing specialist literature serve as guidance in this report.
A digital marketing strategy consists of several important elements. This practical research thesis focuses on two impactful components that are relevant for My German Finances. These components are the two parts of search engine marketing (SEM): search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine advertising (SEA). The limitation to these two areas ensures a thorough analysis in the light of the project’s time constraints.
In order to develop an effective digital marketing strategy, it is inevitable to define the goals of both the business and the digital channel, in this case the website www.mygermanfinances.de. The goal of My German Finances is to create value through informative texts and product comparisons provided on the website. Creating a website will enable a global audience to access this information. If an effective digital marketing strategy is executed, then profits and sales commissions will increase. The goals of the website are supporting the business goals but are slightly more actionable and concrete: Not all website visitors also sign a contract (e.g. for a bank account, credit card, or insurance), so in order to increase affiliate marketing sales and leads, the website should have as many visitors of the relevant target group as possible and motivate them to click on one of the affiliate links leading to the respective product. The percentage of visitors actually signing a contract of any kind that results in a commission is called conversion rate (CR). The CR determines the efficiency and profitability of the website.
In summary, the two overarching goals of My German Finances are to increase the number of website visitors and, consecutively, to motivate them to click on affiliate links with the intention of signing a contract. The marketing tools of SEO, SEA, display ads, SMM, and email campaigns are some of the major means that help to achieve these goals.
4.1. Search Engine Optimization
Search engine optimization (SEO) is the very first step to improve market visibility for any business with a proprietary website or online shop. It uses mostly unpaid methods of generating organic traffic to the website. User acquisition through organic search can have a great impact on the overall visitor number of a website, as the first project My German Phone shows. Within 8 months, from 1 January 2018 to 31 August 2018, the largest source of visitors to My German Phone was organic search, generating more than 86% of all traffic (APPENDIX 4) at no cost.
The report focuses on recommendations and best practices for Google as it is the world’s most popular search engine (StatCounter, 2018) and also has the largest market share in Germany (93%) (Statista, 2017). Other popular search engines, such as Yahoo!, Bing, or Ask.com, use similar techniques and best practices for their search listing rankings.
In a recent study on factors of website ranking in search results conducted by SEMrush, a popular company for search engine optimization software, it was discovered that some website characteristics are more influential on organic search result position than others (SEMrush, 2017). According to their research, the single most influential ranking factor is direct website traffic, followed by the average time a user spends on the website. Direct website traffic is the immediate navigation to a website without detours. Time spent on the website, just like pages per session and bounce rate, are signs of user behavior that indicate a website’s relevance and quality and are therefore highly valued by search engines. Backlinks, i.e. links placed on other websites directing to one’s own website, were found to have great importance as well. Other important ranking factors include website text content length, keyword placement and density, and website security. The latter could have a major impact on websites that rank for rather uncommon and specific keywords, because among these websites the adoption of Hyper Text Transfer Protocol Secure (HTTPS), the secure version of the internet browsers’ data transmission protocol, is not widespread and can therefore constitute a competitive advantage (Google Webmaster Central Blog, 2014; SEMrush, 2017).
SEO techniques can be categorized into on-page and off-page optimization (Zlatin, n.d.). On-page optimization includes technical improvements such as general page loading speed, responsiveness for mobile devices, alternative text for images and text formatting but also improvements related to user experience like an intuitive navigation, text length and relevant keywords. Off-page optimization is concerned with the website’s online reputation, the so-called website authority, which heavily influences the ranking in search results. Several techniques are involved to build and improve website authority, such as a good backlink network, content marketing, guest blogging and cross-linking (SEMrush, 2018).
4.1.1. On-Page Optimization
Keywords are undoubtedly a crucial part of search engine marketing: They enable search engine crawlers to determine the content of a website, categorize the entire internet and connect the searcher with appropriate websites by linking search terms and websites’ keywords. Therefore, in order to be recognized as a relevant website for certain topics, all content has to be written using relevant keywords. Especially the titles need to be carefully composed. It is important to be conscious about keywords in even the most hidden places, such as in the so-called deep link, the URL address leading to a specific page on a website (Moz, 2018). Even the filename and alternative text (“alt text”) of images used on a website should be adjusted to include relevant keywords. The filename and alt text of images are not even visible to a website visitor, but they are attributes used in the web pages’ prevailing programming language called Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) that are analyzed by search engine crawlers (see 18.104.22.168).
Evidentially, a thorough keyword research is advisable in order to identify the most relevant and most frequently searched terms for certain topics, so that every part of the website can be tailored around the target keywords. Several tools can aid with the keyword research, e.g. Google Keyword Planner, Google Trends, Google Autocomplete, SEMrush, Moz Keyword Explorer, Microsoft Bing Ads Intelligence, or Wordtrackers. These tools provide an overview of each search term’s average monthly search volume, the website’s current ranking for each term, and also suggest related keywords and search terms that should be used in combination. The list of relevant keywords should then be used to include them in as many texts as possible while staying relevant and readable (Dodson, 2016, pp. 17-20).
In the case of My German Finances, a peculiarity with regard to affiliate marketing should be considered: Most affiliate advertisers do not allow publishers to buy the advertisers’ branded keywords, e.g. “Commerzbank”, “Postbank”, “Barclaycard” or other brand names, because it would create competition for the brand owner in keyword auctions (see 4.2.2). For that reason, branded keywords can only be used for on-page optimization, but not for SEA.
One of the major factors of quality and relevance taken into consideration by search engines is the bounce rate (BR) of a target web page (Google, 2018d). Relevance is a part of the landing page experience, which is a determinant of Google’s Quality Score (see 4.2.3). The BR measures the number of visitors that exits the website after only visiting one single page, engaging in no interaction. The number of visitors with a single-page session divided by the total amount of sessions equals the bounce rate. The BR should not be confused with the exit rate: The exit rate of a page indicates for how many sessions out of all sessions that particular page has been the page where visitors left the website (Google, 2018g).
The first step of creating good content is identifying the target audience and understanding their challenges and needs. Before explaining the products or services that represent the solution, the target group’s problems should be described and explored (Scott, 2015, p. 239). This should be done in a writing style that is easily understandable and does not sound too distant or formal.
While large amounts of high-quality content are the most important aspect of a website, it will not be successful without being clearly arranged and easy to navigate (Scott, 2015, p. 131). If the visitor cannot find what he is looking for because it is buried under hundreds of different pages, they will bounce back and start a new search. Not only human visitors prefer well-organized websites, search engines’ crawling robots like a clear structure because it gives them more information about the topics of a website. Websites should reveal a hierarchy of their individual pages, like a family tree, making it easier for human and robotic visitors to understand content areas and connections between them (Dodson, 2016, p. 21).
This hierarchy logic is also applied within the WordPress CMS, enabling My German Finances to adapt this approach as well. The starting point of the family tree structure is the home page, i.e. the page with the largest overview2. The overview pages of the individual categories, e.g. for insurances3, are child pages of the home page. The subcategories of insurances, such as private liability insurances4 or car insurances5, are again child pages of the insurances overview page, “grandchildren pages” if you will. This hierarchical structure should also be reflected in the URL structure by separating different levels with a forward slash, e.g. like https://www.mygermanfinances.de/german-insurances/car-insurances-in-germany/, to make the logical classification visible for the human eye before actually clicking on it.
The page structure should also be reflected in the main header menu on the website to make every page easily accessible. Pages that are connected with regards to content should also show internal hyperlinks to each other. Hyperlinks can be programmed to be follow links or nofollow links. The follow/nofollow meta tag tells the search engine crawler if they should literally follow a certain hyperlink and attribute the content of the new page to the linking page (see 22.214.171.124). Due to this crawling behavior, internal links should always be follow -links while links to external websites (e.g. affiliate links) should be nofollow -links in order to not lose relevance to a more popular website.
In addition to a hyperlink’s meta tag, its anchor text is also relevant for context and website classification. An anchor text is the word or piece of text that is displayed as a clickable link on a web page. It is defined through HTML code, for example like this link that leads to the credit card overview page on My German Finances:
<a href=”https://www.mygermanfinances.de/german-credit-cards/”>Top 5 German Credit Cards</a>
In this example, “Top 5 German Credit Cards” would be the clickable anchor text that would lead to the URL defined by <a href=””>. SEO experts have created strategy papers and guidelines just about how to optimize anchor texts, essentially saying that the text should be descriptive, naturally written and relevant to the link’s content (Grybniak, 2017).
Not only the website code should be clear and logical, but also the texts. Just like humans, search engines prefer broken down information that is easily digestible. Pages should take advantage of structuring elements such as headings, bullet point lists, numbered lists and tables to make the content easier to understand. Page titles are formatted with HTML to be displayed in a certain style. Normally the main title has the largest font size and is formatted with the <h1> HTML-code for the largest heading. Sub-headings have smaller fonts and are formatted in a descending logic with <h2>, <h3>, etc. HTML-codes. Webmasters should not forget to format all titles on the website in this manner, because it is analyzed by search engine crawlers and helps them understand the structure of the page (Mueller, 2015, 24:06). A more cleanly arranged and formatted website is treated more favorably than sloppily programmed websites.
Proper formatting will enable the search engines to reward the website with a featured snippet on the search engine result page (SERP). A featured snippet is a highlighted search result, that has the relevant information already extracted and takes up more display space than other search results. It is not possible to force a search engine to display a page as a featured snippet, the search engine is programmed to automatically select relevant and high-quality pages (Google, 2018h).
My German Finances was fortunate to be awarded with a featured snippet (Figure 2. Screenshot of Featured Snippet) for German credit cards, probably due to good on-page optimization practices. The featured snippet is displayed when searching the keywords “credit cards Germany”.
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Figure 2. Screenshot of Featured Snippet
126.96.36.199. Technical Optimization
Apart from strategic decisions regarding the content and structure of the website, there are many technical elements of a website that should be optimized.
In 2010, Google started to include page speed measurements in their search ranking algorithm. They argue that faster websites improve the overall user experience and increase the time a user spends on a website, eventually leading to more revenue (Singhal & Cutts, 2010; Souders, 2009). Today, the two most common search engines Google and Bing take the page loading time into consideration when ranking pages on the SERP (Microsoft Bing Ads, 2018b). The page loading time can be estimated by analyzing the page’s HTML code but is more accurately measured using real-world browsers, e.g. Google Chrome (Google Developers, 2018a). Like many other online services, Google offers PageSpeed Tools 6 that provide insights into any website’s speed performance and give recommendations on how to improve the loading time. These technical recommendations often require the most challenging and most time-consuming changes in the website structure, but also hold the potential of heavily improved search result rankings.
Two obvious recommendations are to avoid landing-page-redirects and to reduce the server response time. Avoiding landing-page-redirects means that a link should point to the final page and should not take any detours to a different page. Redirects often occur on pages that lead to a special mobile website, e.g. facebook.com leading to m.facebook.com, or when a website switched from HTTP to using HTTPS; then all old HTTP-links have to redirect to the new HTTPS-links. Reducing server response time is solely dependent on the web host provider that a website uses. If their server response time is too slow, it will pay off to switch to a faster provider.
Another factor that improves page loading time is to prioritize visible content by reducing the size of above-the-fold content. Just like with a physical newspaper, above-the-fold content of a website is everything that is visible at first glance – without scrolling or clicking. If less important resources and render-blocking scripts are loaded within the above-the-fold content, the user will have to wait for the website to load while looking at a white screen. When visible content is prioritized, the visitor already sees the main website content, such as menu, logo, and texts, while the remaining resources are loaded in the background.
Having a website that loads quickly is a great advantage in the race for the best SERP position, but it is just one aspect of many. Another technical requirement for the prime SERP positions is the so-called “responsiveness” of a website. A responsive website dynamically adapts to any device, displaying the content in a readable and well-formatted manner on any screen size – especially desktop, tablet and smartphone screen sizes. Apart from responsive web design, there are also other ways to optimize a website for mobile devices, namely adaptive design (“dynamic serving”) and using separate URLs. However, using a responsive web design is recommended by Google (Google Developers, 2018b). Search engines treat websites that are optimized for mobile devices preferentially and when Google announced this change on April 21, 2015 it was seen as a major disruption of the internet industry, even dubbed “Mobilegeddon” (Dodson, 2016, p. 27; Makino & Phan, 2015; Price, 2015). Therefore, every page of a website should be faultlessly displayed on mobile devices, which can be tested with Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test 7.
As previously noted, the HTML code of a website can help search engine crawlers understand the topic and content of each individual page. Apart from correctly formatting titles, there are more invisible hints for search engines, called “meta tags”. Meta tags contain keywords and sentences that describe a page’s content and help search engines and social media to display previews of that content. Although meta tags are not as important as relevance and user experience, they are still a vital part of search engine optimization (Dodson, 2016, p. 23). Every content management system, such as WordPress, has plugins that enable the webmaster to include meta tags in the code. As mentioned at the beginning, even the images’ file name, caption and alt text are analyzed by search engines to identify what the image is about just like it should help visually impaired visitors who use programs that read these hidden texts to them (Dodson, 2016, p. 26).
The most important tags are the ones for titles and description, because those are displayed on the SERP and when the link to that particular page is posted in a social network, like Facebook or LinkedIn. Titles should not contain more than 60 characters, while descriptions should have 160 characters or less, because it would simply not be displayed in full on a SERP (Schwartz, 2018; SEOPressor, 2018). Titles and descriptions should be concise and truly descriptive in order to add value to SEO – merely stuffing assumed relevant keywords into the meta tags will result in penalties from search engines (Google, 2018e). Moreover, many plugins offer the feature to include a list of meta tag keywords for every page, promising better ranking results. However, Google has stopped using these keywords for web ranking many years ago, because they were often abused for irrelevant keyword stuffing in the early days of search engines (Cutts, 2009). Nevertheless, there is a multitude of meta tags that are analyzed and understood by search engines; Google also published a list of these tags that are often very technical and serve as commands to the search engine’s web crawler (Google, 2018k).
Further criteria for high-quality pages can be found in Google’s “Search Quality Rating Guidelines” (Google, 2018m). These guidelines are created for search quality raters that are people around the world who are assigned to conduct real searches and review the resulting pages (Google, 2015; Sherman, 2018). Conversely, these rating guidelines can be used by webmasters to adjust their websites accordingly to optimize them for Google.
Another two features of on-page optimization are providing a sitemap and enabling social sharing. A sitemap is in principle the table of contents of a website, listing every page for better discoverability. HTML sitemaps are for human visitors, XML sitemaps for web crawlers. A social sharing feature enables the visitor to spread a web page through various communication channels, such as email, instant message, or social networks like Facebook or LinkedIn. These features are part of both on-page and off-page optimization, because they need to be installed on the website but mostly affect off-page resources. Hence, they will be explained in the following section.
4.1.2. Off-Page Optimization
Search engines’ algorithms use various techniques to return the best results to a user’s search query. Among other factors, Google analyzes the links to and from websites to determine the ranking of possibly useful pages (Google, n.d.). This famous ranking algorithm is called PageRank and was first introduced by Google’s founders Sergey Brin and Lawrence Page in 1998 (Brin & Page, 1998). At the beginning, PageRank was very much reliant on the number of links pointing to a website, which has led many people to use “black hat SEO” strategies to boost their websites’ PageRank, such as paying each other for links. Nowadays, especially after a major search algorithm update called “Penguin” (Google, 2012), Google uses many different factors to rank websites on SERPs, e.g. content quality of the linking page, popularity of the linking domain, user experience on the page and if it is mobile-friendly (Google, 2018i, n.d.). Therefore, it is important as ever to acquire many high-quality backlinks linking to one’s own website for successful off-page search engine optimization.
Numerous ways exist to build a backlink network; the most obvious strategy is to create such good content that people start linking to it on their own. However, to get the first visitors to come to a website and link to it as well, it might be necessary to send them a direct message, e.g. via email (Dean, 2018). Prepared email scripts that are personalized for each individual recipient can decrease the workload. With this method, it is important to contact websites that have similar topics and a good website authority. Similar topics are required to prove the link’s relevance to Google’s web crawlers; backlinks from pages that have close to nothing in common with one’s own website will have no positive effect on SERP ranking. It might even harm one’s own ranking because large amounts of unrelated backlinking websites could be seen as “black hat SEO” tactics, meaning forceful ways that try to trick the algorithms and do not care about the user experience. Good website authority is mostly connected to the backlinking website’s PageRank, which should be rather high to have a significant impact.
In the previous project My German Phone, email marketing helped to set up very valuable backlinks from renowned foreign university websites, namely the University of California Education Abroad Program 8. The great benefit of official institutions, like universities, is that they have special domain features: In the U.S., universities are granted the exclusive .edu -domain, which can only be used by certain eligible institutions accredited by an agency of the U.S. Department of Education (EDUCAUSE, 2018). This makes a backlink from an .edu -domain, just like from .gov -domains, extremely reputable and very influential with respect to ranking the linked website in search results – but only if the content really is reputable and relevant to the linked website. Merely a link from an .edu -domain is supposedly not enough to have a positive effect on search result ranking, the .edu -page also needs to contain relevant content (Google Webmasters, 2010). Nevertheless, targeting official institutions is a great start to build a powerful backlink network.
A social sharing option makes it as easy as possible for the visitors to share the page through their preferred channel. As mentioned before, these social sharing buttons are both addressing on-page and off-page optimization: They need to be installed on the website, but they mostly affect the backlink network through the increased distribution of links on social networks or via direct messages. Good content marketing can be very beneficial when trying to get visitors to share the page. Content marketing involves the creation of valuable content that is not necessarily connected to the website’s core business. Yet, it attracts visitors to the website and sparks interest in the remaining content and services of the website. Well performing content types are visual assets, like infographics and charts, lists posts that summarize important information, original content such as the results of studies or surveys, and detailed analyses of specific topics of interest, e.g. case studies (Dean, 2018).
Another option to generate backlinks is guest blogging, meaning that essays or informative content elements are prepared for other, more popular websites. In return, that page links to one’s own website. This should only be done on the basis of reciprocity and should not be paid for, because this method has been frequently abused and could therefore be considered a “black hat” SEO technique.
If possible, it can be very rewarding to start cross-linking from an already established and successful website to the new website. This will channel a good portion of the existing traffic to the new website and will make the visitors as well as the search engine aware of the newly created content on a different domain. It requires the ownership or control over more than one website, which is not given in most cases. However, in the case of My German Phone and My German Finances, it is an invaluable opportunity.
To make all off-page optimization efforts worthwhile, it is crucial to create an XML sitemap. This file is part of the website and helps search engines to index all elements of it. It is basically a register of all pages, images and additional meta information. Especially when the website is newly built, Google recommends submitting a sitemap file, as the website will have few external links leading to it and might not be discovered otherwise (Google, 2018j).
This sitemap file location then needs to be submitted to Google Search Console 9, a service that offers insights into the website’s crawling method and into the ranking for certain keywords. Google Search Console offers valuable data on website performance: It shows crawling and technical error of any page and also provides information about which websites are linking to the website and which search queries cause the website to appear on a SERP. Most importantly, it will shorten the time until the website is displayed in Google’s search results.
1 Accessible via https://www.mygermanfinances.de
6 PageSpeed Insights are available via https://developers.google.com/speed/pagespeed/insights/
7 Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test can be accessed via https://search.google.com/test/mobile-friendly
8 See here in the “Communications Abroad” section: http://eap.ucop.edu/guides/germany/1718/ Pages/international_summer_school_free_univ.aspx, last accessed on October 20, 2018.