SEO Holiday Triage – Getting your Wishlist sorted early

For online retailers, getting your holiday season right is about a lot more than finding the right Turbo Man figure and avoiding a last-minute fight at the checkouts. Kicking off on Black Friday and running through December and into the new year, the holiday season can make or break your yearly targets and have a big impact on your 2019 planning. In this guide, Director of Enterprise Services Tyson Stockton runs through how to triage your holiday SEO and has some helpful tips for those who are running late for the Christmas party.

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Holiday season objectives

A basic starting point for any roadmap is setting up your objectives. For most online retailers, their holiday season objectives will boil down to one main point: maximizing (online) revenue in November and December. If this is going to work, you can’t afford to wait until Q4. A major part of your Q3 activity should be dedicated to setting up the drive into Q4 – as a rule of thumb, you want to look at having everything you want to implement in place around 6-8 weeks before Black Friday, which, for most retailers will be a primary focus in their push for shoppers’ dollars.

Which holidays should I focus on?

To roll back slightly – it’s easy to say Black Friday is the main one-off shopping event of the year, but it’s not essentially obvious which other holidays you should push resources into. Depending on your segment, there will be topic-specific holidays (including other major events like the Superbowl) that will be relevant to your market.

Thinking in more general terms, even if you’ve got all your eyes and resources focused on Black Friday, you can use less major holidays – say the back-to-school period or Halloween – as trial runs for your November/December event page initiatives. This applies to your measures for implementation but also for feeling out your colleagues in other departments and seeing where you have traction. These smaller events can act as the pre-game to the main event, helping you to more accurately forecast how your performance is likely to change.

Starting out: It’s not just about who’s naughty and nice

The traditional approach to holiday planning is to see how current pages are performing, and find out where you should focus your efforts. This is important information, but standard keyword research, looking at the bread and butter of high search volume and big opportunities, is sometimes overlooked. If you only look at how you are currently performing, you can miss key opportunities to expand your reach.

Before you start, you want a comprehensive picture of where you stand, where your competitors are, and where the opportunities lie. Setting up a project with all the information might take one or two days, but it’s worth it. And be aware of holiday-specific aspects of the data – you’ll need the relevant monthly search volumes as some events have a longer presence like Christmas. As your competitors also have access to calendars, you should expect the landscape to be a lot more volatile. Be thorough and don’t forget to learn from the previous year. The better you understand the battlefield, the better your chance of outflanking your opponents.

Dear SEO, can I have a unicorn for Christmas?

Whatever your strategy, you have to know your budget and your limitations. If your main KPI for Q4 is delivering a fifty percent increase in unicorns but you only have access to real-world mammals, you’ll be missing out on your Christmas bonus.

This doesn’t just mean setting realistic goals based on your own resources. In the run-up to the holidays, you’ll often be relying on additional staff – maybe the development team has to create a new template or maybe you need writers to provide content. This is where experience from previous years or smaller holidays can be invaluable in providing you with guidance regarding the trade-offs you’re able to make. And the earlier you start, the more idealistic and ambitious you can be. If you’re late to the party, you need to be more realistic about how many resources you can actually get.

It’s so cold even the code is frozen

Categorizing and prioritizing is something your SEO team will be doing constantly, but the importance of the holidays makes this all the more acute. A big factor is that most eCommerce websites go into a code freeze prior to Black Friday. This is a major milestone in your planning as it will limit your options considerably. The activity period around Black Friday is a two-week window max. If you have something planned but you don’t hit the deadline before code freeze, it’ll be you who’s out in the cold.

Voices of Search Podcast – SEO Holiday Triage Week

From the 4th to the 8th of November, our podcast, Voices of Search, is holding a special SEO Holiday Triage week. Host Ben Shapiro and I will be talking over a different aspect of holiday season SEO each day. Here’s a quick run-down of the topics:

  • Episode 1: Where & when to start holiday planning
  • Episode 2: How you can identify and take advantage of your holiday-specific competitive advantages
  • Episode 3: Repurposing evergreen holiday assets
  • Episode 4: Cross promoting holiday deals & events
  • Episode 5: The quickest & most impactful holiday optimizations

To the Voices of Search

Be there before the goose is fat

You definitely want one specific URL for each holiday you’re targeting – this makes it possible to send clear signals to search engines that this is the specific intent of each page. Obviously Black Friday and Cyber Monday should link together, but if you just flip the content on Monday morning, you’ll be too late for GoogleBot to come crawling in time for the day.

So when should you put holiday content out there? People obviously aren’t scoping out Cyber Monday deals in the springtime, but from an SEO point of view, you don’t have to worry about people seeing the page before the Big Day. As long as there are links to other, related deals on there that serve the similar kind of intent, then you’re not doing any harm.

The best practice for a holiday page is to have multiple iterations throughout the year – say three or four cascading updates to build momentum. The first is a kind of evergreen deals page (but with related relevant information), the second could be a countdown or a clear call to “come back on Friday” and the third can be the live switch. After the dust has settled and your warehouse has been emptied, you can revert back to the long-term page. And, in the case of Black Friday, you’ll want the clear banner link to Cyber Monday to hook the two together.

Be thankful for internal links

Obviously, you’ll want homepage and/or large banner links to your holiday page when the time comes, but you can benefit greatly from internal links to your prior iterations. Most site managers aren’t going to be too happy handing out links to pages that are seen as placeholders, so you have to negotiate and see what you can get. Your best bet is to emphasize the value for search engines and push for links on hub pages or in the left-hand navigation that won’t sap traffic from real users.

This internal negotiation with other departments, who all have their own priorities, will always be aided by any executive support you can get. This means the better prepared you are and the better you can back up what you want with a clear value proposition based on hard numbers, the more chance you have of seeing your needs prioritized. And if you’re the Executive or the CMO reading this, then our advice would always be to listen to your SEO team. These guys tend to know what they’re doing.

What if my whole company is scrambling?

SEO won’t be the only department in the company juggling its priorities throughout the year and in the run-up to Q4. What SEOs need to understand is where their dependencies are. The precise deals your colleagues come up with don’t affect the keywords you should be going after – the message on your page will be the same and most companies in your segment will be competing for largely the same territory. Don’t wait for product marketing or other teams to make their minds up – get your own SEO strategy sorted in good time and don’t let others slow you down.

Are holidays a time for gambling?

Risk-taking is more of a question for an entire marketing department than just for SEO, but it applies to your SEO triage just as much. If your business plan (or your SEO-specific plan) is struggling, then you can use the holidays to try something new and take a punt. This could be a chance to pick up some much-needed wins.

We should stress, of course, that online revenues can go down as well as up. So if you are meeting your targets, then larger companies and established online authorities would usually be better advised to go for tweaks rather than big gambles. Play it safe in November and December and, if you are keen to experiment, then you can use smaller holidays to try out more creative ideas. If you get positive results for Valentine’s Day and Easter, then you at least have the experience and the data to back up this kind of strategy for the Main Events later in the year.

The holidays might be a time that can make or break your year, but a solid holiday season can equally be included as a predictable period of increased revenue. Big potential gains usually don’t justify unnecessary risks.

Wait, Black Friday is THIS Friday?

While it’s too late for you to win any Time Manager of the Month awards, if are behind in your Black Friday planning, then there are a couple of things you could think about doing:

  1. Skip Black Friday: Taking the biggest shopping day off your calendar could be a bold move – and it might not be easy to get the suggestion past your CMO, but Black Friday shouldn’t be viewed as a stepping stone to Christmas. Black Friday is 100% transactional, it’s all about the deals. Christmas shopping searches are much more spread out in terms of time, and they involve more research and exploration – what we would call informational searches. Even if you are going big on both (and other) holidays, these are very distinct tracks and a low-key Black Friday isn’t likely to impact negatively on your December traffic.
  2. Don’t forget January: If you’re running late, then January can be a great opportunity to make some gains. A lot of people who’ve been heavily pushing up to Christmas tend to overlook the start of the new year, but the first two weeks of January usually show solid conversion rates. Consumer behavior is different in January, with people purchasing for themselves and not looking at gifts, but because a lot of the competition will be less active, this could be a valuable space for smaller companies to fight for.

Conclusion: Don’t panic, but don’t promise any Christmas miracles

Besides actually optimizing websites for search engine rankings, one of the top skills any SEO needs to have is good expectation management. Fighting for recognition of SEO’s contribution is a major challenge, not just during the holidays. The great thing about holidays is that they come around every year – so you don’t have to rely on miracles – you have benchmark data to use when setting your goals and discussing your targets. Back this up with a few trial runs earlier in the year – and get everyone on board – and you’ll be well-placed to enjoy some happy holidays.

Tyson has over 10 years' experience in the digital marketing industry. As Director of Enterprise Services, Tyson manages the Enterprise Client Success team and SEO Consulting efforts at Searchmetrics. Tyson has worked with some of world’s largest enterprise websites including Fortune 500 and global eCommerce leaders. Prior to Searchmetrics, Tyson worked on the in-house side managing the SEO and SEM efforts of a collection of 14 sports specialty eCommerce companies in the US, Europe and Australia.
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