Weekly Finds - Week 41, 2020

This week with shrinking keyword data in Google Ads, PAA boxes, the impact of shared hosting on rankings, the email comeback, and the impact of COVID on startups.

Audio version:

In September, Google removed a big cut of search terms reported in Ads. According to a Google Ads notification, “the search terms report only includes terms that a significant number of users searched for, even if a term received a click.” It's a huge problem because advertisers get less information about where their money goes. As a result, they might lose money due to inefficient targeting. The key lesson for me is that about 28% of search terms are now inaccessible. This is audacious! As a result, PPC becomes less useful as an SEO testing vehicle, too.

An alternative to PPC traffic is, of course, SEO and one way to drive more traffic is to rank in "PAAs" (people also asked boxes). SEMrush looked into 1,000,000 PAA boxes to understand how they're structured and how to rank in them.

They found PAA boxes in about half of the results, 86% of the time for question queries, and they are 6x as likely to appear as a Featured Snippet. 58% of the time PAAs appear after the first organic result, and 79% of PAAs contain paragraphs. The key lesson is that 74% of sites ranking in PAAs were not ranking on the first page of the query. That’s very interesting and must mean Google uses a different way to evaluate what qualifies for a PAA versus, say, a Featured Snippet or regular organic result. PAA paragraphs also seem to be short: 41 words on average, 130 words max.

In SEO, not only content counts but also technicalities. The folks from Reboot conducted a very interesting experiment about the impact of shared hosting on rankings. Bad neighborhood hosting can be an issue for SEO and most people don’t pay enough attention to it. Shared hosting can mean your site shares an IP with a PBN.

The experiment was set up by defining a fake keyword and registering 20 clean domains: 10 on dedicated servers, 10 on shared servers with spammy sites. Then, Reboot scanned DNS A records to find spammy sites hosted on shared servers and cross-referenced them with Ahrefs and Majestics. They normalized factors like speed, design, and content.

The result and key lesson is that sites hosted on a shared server ranked worse than those on dedicated servers, though the impact wasn’t significant.

Bringing visitors to the site is only the first step, then you have to keep them. Email is a great channel for retention and it celebrates a kind of resurgence. Reuters and Oxford University came out with a detailed report on Email.

They found that email usage varies across countries. In Belgium, 28% of readers consume news via email. In the UK, only 9%. Most subscribers use email to escape the information flood on the internet and stay up to date because emails are easy to sample and consume, which makes email a great retention channel. Readers above the age of 35 are more likely to subscribe.

"Once just a series of automated links, the most successful emails are treated as an editorial product hosted by a senior journalist who brings an informal tone and personal touch which has often been lacking in digital media

This is the key point for me in the newsletter trend wave that popped up over the last years: It’s about personality and storytelling, not just a list of links.

Email is an old channel that celebrates a comeback, but some channels are being catapulted into the future. Ben Evans, former partner at a16z and publisher of a great newsletter,  shines a light on the broader implications of COVID:

  • Unbundling happens at a faster rate (example: Transferwise unbundles international money wiring)
  • Everybody is now forced to try everything online
  • We're going through multiple phases in Covid/lockdown and we don't know what "the new normal" will look like

Covid is a moment of realization that accelerates many trends instead of changing them, with exceptions like the travel industry.