Ed Yates is a Digital Strategist for Xercise4Less. With an extensive agency background, Ed has considerable experience in all aspects of digital marketing, from SEO and link building to content production and conversion rate optimisation.
Since joining Xercise4Less Ed has helped them develop their online strategy, particularly from a search engine perspective. We spoke with Ed to learn about his approach to modern SEO and what he believes Google has in store for the fitness industry over the next couple of years.
How does your role within X4L compare to your time at agencies?
When I was working in agencies we would tend to focus on technical SEO and building links, but now things have become far more strategic. Rather than obsess over link numbers, we’re more concerned about building relationships with strategic associations. Being given a link from such partners may be one objective from my perspective, but it’s part of a far bigger picture.
How important is social media now for SEO?
There is no direct link. You can’t say if I get ‘X’ amount of shares here and ‘X’ amount of comments then I’ll be ranking this web page quite soon. It doesn’t work like that, but the more you grow your community, the more referral traffic and direct traffic will be sent to the website. As this brand affinity grows, naturally, searches for your brand name increase. All these factors help Google determine one trusted brand over another.
The real reason we are so active on social media though is to add value to the member experience. Many of our members spend a great deal of their day on social media, and their time in the gym forms a major part of that. They want to share their progress online and interact with friends and brands that they trust. We want to ensure that Xercise4Less is part of that daily activity. This is no longer just the leisure industry, it’s the entertainment industry.
Which are the main social platforms you’re investing in?
We’re already extremely active on Facebook, and are now seeing a great deal of growth across Instagram and Snapchat. We’ve also invested in an app through which we’re providing lots of video content to our community and encouraging our PT’s to do the same. This content is particularly valuable at increasing engagement with new or inexperienced members who really value the extra support.
Do you feel your social media impact is measurable?
For Xercise4Less it’s all about putting the customer first. That’s the central reason why we’re so active on social media. However, there’s no question that this engagement is producing measurable growth, whether that’s in direct sales, SEO or extending our brand reach.
What do you see being the big developments in SEO over 2017?
The general trend over the last few years has been away from link building tactics and towards building real brands with a clear position in their market and a highly engaged audience.
“Google’s emphasis on user experience and engagement has grown hugely”
The “mobile first index” from October last year is also having a big impact. The update, which will continue to roll out over the next few months, will base all rankings purely on your mobile user experience, which means if you don’t have a strong responsive design then your rankings can see real damage, not to mention lower conversion rates. In a market like ours, which is dominated by young people who spend far more time on mobile than desktop, it’s absolutely critical that your website is built mobile first.
As a consequence, things that could result in penalties in the past don’t really apply any much. For example, historically you weren’t able to hide content as Google would penalise your rankings, but now Google understands that for mobile user experience it’s important a lot of content is placed behind expandable tabs, so you no longer need to worry about what impact that might have on your SEO. This means there’s a lot more creative scope for web designers and brand architects.
AMP (Accelerated mobile pages) has been a big talking point in the SEO community recently. AMP is a way to cut resources on the web and make it a friendlier place to find things using mobile. For most busines websites under 10,000 pages, however, this is unlikely to be an issue in 2017. AMP is mainly directed at the heavy news channels and larger sites that impact Google’s crawl budget.
Google’s emphasis on user experience and engagement has grown hugely. The way in which you measure that (time on site, page views, bounce rate, etc) will all be dependent on the primary objective of your site. For us it’s all about conversions so you don’t necessarily want people spending 10 minutes browsing, but it’s essential that Google can see they are instantly engaged and don’t just bounce back into the search engines.
“We are seeing a huge change in how Google ranks businesses on a local basis”
Then there is the Hummingbird update, which has changed the way Google reacts to long tail search queries. Rather than just responding to keywords, Google now assesses the meaning of the entire phrase, helping it to provide accurate results for more conversational search queries, which are becoming increasingly common due to the rise in voice search. Again, this rise is particularly steep among millennials.
Finally, we are seeing a huge change in how Google ranks businesses on a local basis. For example, Google recognises that when someone searches for “gym near me” proximity is everything. So where in the past you may have been able to boost your Google maps ranking through reviews and local citations, now they will be far harder to influence.
What should companies be doing to turn these changes into an opportunity?
The first thing is having a responsive website design. In my opinion we probably left this a little too long and saw instant improvements the moment we made the switch. The user should be able to find the information they want or complete their intended action in as few clicks as possible, ideally just one. Information should be stripped back and the user experience should be clean and simple, with large buttons that are easy for someone to tap on a mobile.
For hummingbird, it’s important you consider the way in which people are likely to search in a conversational manner, particularly via voice search, and ensure you have content that serves these searches well. FAQ pages, for example, often provide great content for these long tail search queries. However, it’s also essential to ensure that all the appropriate schema mark-up is in place so that Google can understand the context of the content, particularly the location information.
Does your search marketing team worry about member retention rate, or is that seen as irrelevant to your objectives?
The website is there to convert users above all else. That’s the single most important objective and takes precedence over everything else. That said, retention is extremely important to our digital team as a whole.
The longer the average gym membership, the more you can afford to spend on acquiring them in the first place, whether that’s through SEO, social media or advertising. You can also justify spending more money on kitting out the gyms and improving the member experience, which of course further increases retention rate.
What about ecommerce? Is that something that gyms need to be thinking about?
It makes sense that once you have a strong relationship with your audience, you should try to serve them in other ways you know they will value, which is why we’ve added an ecommerce shop to the website. Members can earn points by engaging with us in various ways, and then redeem those points in the shop.
Again, it’s all about putting the customer first and doing all we can to build the strongest community in the industry.
What’s likely to be the next big thing affecting SEO and digital marketing generally?
In addition to a continuation of the current trends around brand, UX, mobile and localisation, I think we’ll see a rise in the role of programmatic content. This is content that interacts with you based on your behaviour. For example, if I was walking down the street looking for somewhere to eat, a burger shop could hit me with a mobile ad based on my past behaviour, time of day, and other factors that may signal my intent at that moment.
“It’s all about brands serving you with the most personalised, targeted content at the right time”
Programmatic content has huge implications, not only for advertising but content marketing and SEO. It’s all about brands serving you with the most personalised, targeted content at the right time, whether that’s through the search engines, social media or some other digital channel.