What the Healthcare.gov Disaster Means for Your Website

Putting politics aside, the launch of the Healthcare.gov website has been a train wreck. I’ve been building and marketing websites for a dozen years, and I have never seen a launch go so spectacularly, publicly wrong. This is partly due to the highly visible and contentious nature of the Affordable Care Act. But more interestingly, this marks the first time in my memory that there was an implicit assumption that a big, complex program and a website were essentially the same thing.

If:             Healthcare.gov = Affordable Care Act

Then:    Healthcare.gov is broken = Affordable Care Act is broken

This logic is fundamentally flawed, but that doesn’t stop it from being the dominant perception in the marketplace.  In fact, if you look at the relative popularity of these terms on social media, “healthcare.gov” gets 2.6 times as many tweets per day as the name of the program itself, “affordable care act”, and Google Trends shows the terms neck-and-neck in popularity:

Topsy Analytics for healthcare.gov and affordable care act

Google Trends data for healthcare.gov and affordable care act

What this marks is a shift in the mindset of the American public – your website is not a part of your business, it is your business.  If your website doesn’t represent your company well, or even worse, doesn’t function smoothly, the bad smell doesn’t just hover over your website, but over your business as a whole.

But that knowledge comes with a huge upside.  As a website owner, you are in a uniquely powerful position – no one in the world knows your customers better than you do.  You will have some or all of the following ingredients at your disposal:

  • Customer knowledge
    • Direct customer experience and feedback
    • Your sales and support staff who talk with customers every day
  • Keyword data
    • Years of search keyword data specific to your audience finding your website
    • Social media keyword data
    • Keyword data from publicly available tools
  • Content performance
    • Engagement and conversion metrics of content you’ve published over the years
    • Analysis of competitors’ content marketing and social media campaigns
  • Conversion path knowledge
    • Knowledge of the specific steps involved in your customers’ journey
    • Knowledge of the common stumbling blocks your customers encounter
    • The ability to proactively present solutions to problems that customers may experience

These ingredients should be combined and recombined with user personas to continually refine the kinds of content and services that you offer to address changing audience needs.  If a piece of content does not directly satisfying one of the primary needs of your core audience, you should question whether it deserves to be prioritized.

Create content that solves user needs as its first priority, and then rigorously QA and analyze conversion bottlenecks to ensure that customers aren’t encountering barriers along the conversion path.

Granted, if your website fails at providing a good user experience, and the efficient delivery of its primary value to your customers, you’re not likely to have your failure broadcast on The Daily Show.

People will just quietly click the Back button, and find your competitors.

Daily Show tweet about healthcare.gov issues

This is a re-post of my Forbes article.

What Google’s Changes Mean for Your Content Marketing Efforts

91% of B2B marketers use content marketing as a tactic, spending $118 billion in 2013 on content marketing, social media, and video.

If you don’t understand some key aspects of Google’s new search algorithm, you may be flushing your content marketing dollars down the drain.  True, talking about search algorithms tends to make eyes glaze over.  But, if you’re like the millions of other businesses that have identified content marketing as a key channel for educating prospective customers and getting them into the sales funnel, you need to know how the game has changed, and what that means for your business.

In the past 2 months, Google has made some significant changes.  First, they completely replaced their core web search algorithm.  Then, they hid the keywords that visitors use to find websites in organic search.

1.        Google Hummingbird

In August 2013, Google completed the change-over to their new search algorithm, Hummingbird.  A complete algorithm change is a BIG event for Google.

If the algorithm is the “recipe” that Google uses for ranking and retrieving results, then individual ranking factors within the recipe (such as using keywords in your title tags) are “ingredients” in the recipe, and Google has stated that there are over 200 ingredients.

All the early evidence indicates that Hummingbird still uses the vast majority of the same ingredients, in the same way.  So, doing good on-page and off-page SEO is just as important as always – more than ever, it’s table stakes for effective web marketing.

The big change with Hummingbird is in how it understands natural-language queries and processes them.  Hummingbird allows Google to understand the intent of queries in a much more intelligent way.  Now, Google may return results that may not contain the exact keywords you used in your query, in that exact order, but the results will match the intent of what you asked for.  For example, you may have Googled “the best French Cajun food in Baton Rouge” and get a website returned that only talks about Acadian cuisine, and doesn’t use the words “French” or “Cajun” anywhere on the page.  It matches your intent, but not the exact words.

Google is now much better at understanding “entities” or “things” and not just keywords or “strings”.

2.       Google Hides Your Organic Keyword Data

Next, in September, Google announced they’re encrypting all searches performed on Google.  That doesn’t mean anything to the average user of Google, but it means a foundational shift for companies that care about the organic search traffic that their site gets.  Anyone with access to web analytics for any site they work on will notice that a huge percentage of organic search traffic is now being lumped into the black box of “(not provided)”.  What this means is that most companies that get 80% or more of their organic search traffic from Google will no longer be able to see what terms visitors typed in to find their sites.

There are ways to work around this new limitation, and your resident SEO should be able to speak to them.  But those are tactical fixes, and what you should be looking for is a strategic solution.

1+2 = 4

So, let’s do a quick summary of what we know:

  • Hummingbird allows Google to understand the intent of queries much better
  • Google applies this refined query knowledge to entities (“things, not strings”) which allows them to consider a larger set of documents as potential results
  • Google no longer lets you see exactly what keywords visitors used to find your site

If Google is now very good at understanding the intent of a searcher’s query, but no longer lets me, as the site owner, see exactly what that query was, where does that leave us?

We are now in a place where the burden is on you, as an organization, to really understand your customers, identify each facet of the business problems that they face, and provide solutions to those problems, or at least being able to describe how your product fits into the landscape.

Absent query data is actually a big problem for lots of organizations.  Query data allowed us, at a tactical level, to see exactly how users were finding our sites, and then use standard web engagement and conversion metrics to attempt to rationalize how well our content matched that user’s needs.  If we didn’t have the right content, we could create new content, or re-write existing content to do give us context-appropriate coverage for that keyword.  It was a very tactical fix.

That approach resulted in SEOs feeding keyword “opportunities” back up the funnel to content writers to plug obvious gaps.  Often, the result was creating a shallow piece of content that contained the keywords, but didn’t address the end users’ needs in a substantive way.

What is required, now more than ever, is a top-down approach to understanding customer needs and developing comprehensive content sets that service those needs.  User personas need to be a driving force behind your content creation.  Are your editorial team and SEO team able to articulate all of the major points along the customer journey for each of your main user personas?  Do you have user personas that you update?  Do you regularly interview your sales staff to integrate feedback from the front lines into your personas?

More than ever, Hummingbird underscores the important of writing content that addresses real customer needs, not just specific keywords.  Conceptually, your content needs to be substantive and solve problems, not just fill “keyword opportunities”.