Google planning exercise for a hyperlocal site: The Ambler

Google planning exercise for a hyperlocal site: The Ambler

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This is a long blog post that explores ways of improving the online public relations effort of a hyperlocal website called The Ambler. I thought that it was worth sharing in full as an example of a media planning exercise using Google Tools. And you may just have some ideas for how The Ambler could improve its online public relations.

After blogging about the Google Media Planning Toolkit recently I had a call from Anna Williams, editor at The Ambler, asking if I’d take a look at the website and give the team some pointers on how they could improve their online marketing.

The Ambler is a hyper local newspaper and website that was founded in 2000 by The Amble Development Trust, a regeneration charity. The seven-person mainly volunteer editorial team produces content for a bi-monthly print edition that is distributed free to local residents and businesses, and a website.

Amble is a small town on the Northumberland coast. It grew in the 1900s around the fishing industry, coalfields and shipbuilding. With the fishing industry much reduced and coal and shipbuilding gone, the town is rebuilding its economy by encouraging growth in aquaculture, digital and creative businesses, as well as developing the leisure and tourism sectors.

The Ambler’s goal is to engage the local community. Here’s what it says about itself on its’ website.

“Our purpose is to keep local people in touch with local events, and to inform and encourage discussion on issues of interest to the community. […] Our online site is updated usually every day and we also have a Facebook page.”

Increasingly The Ambler has a second purpose beyond community engagement.

“We want to engage with people and promote the town outside of the immediate area and would like to do our bit to promote the town as far as possible. We know we appeal to people that have moved away from the town and those with extended family as far away as Australia. The website means we have connections to a much wider audience these days,” said Anna.

I’ve followed The Ambler’s work over the last few years. It was producing hyperlocal content before the term was invented and is recognised as a leading example of the genre. I agreed to spend half-a-day poking around the site to see if I could turn up any ideas for its future development.

I thought that it would make a good blog post and demonstration of Google Tools. It’s not often that you have the opportunity to lift the lid on a real planning exercise.

In the UK 90 per cent of searches on the web start with a search query on Google according to Experian Hitwise so it’s the obvious place to start researching and planning a website.

Site traffic The Ambler has historically relied on its web host to provide traffic data about the site and has limited confidence in its validity. This is limited to basic dashboard information. It shows that traffic to the site varies between 10,000 and 30,000 unique visitors per month. This instinctively seems high for a hyperlocal website but is conceivable given the amount of content on the site and its longevity.

Once upon a time we could have used Google Adplanner to query traffic levels to The Ambler, other hyperlocal websites, and related websites in Northumberland, but since September 2012 it has been limited to sites that are part of the Google Display Network.

The Ambler is built on a Wordpress platform. This is incredibly flexible and allows additional features to be added using plug-ins developed by an active open source community.

The first job for The Ambler is to create a Google Analytics account and to add Google Analytics tracking code to the site so that the team can understand how people are reaching the site, how many visitors the site gets a month, how long they spend, and what content they look at when they’re on the site.

Audience planning The most recently available population data for Amble (2001 census via Office of National Statistics) puts the population at around 6,000 people in 2,500 households. Data from the 2011 census is due to be published by June 2013.

The Ambler is reaching this audience through its print edition dropped through letterboxes. The team is interested in understanding how it could engage with people from outside the town and encourage them to visit.

There’s a delicate balance to be played here between satisfying the needs of the local audience and engaging with potential visitors. The objective of The Amble’s online marketing effort could not be clearer.

Content planning Google Keyword Tool is the place to start to understand how people are searching for topics and issues related to your market. It reports 18,000 exact search matches on desktop PCs and 2,900 exact searches matches on mobile devices for the search query ‘Northumberland’.

It also suggests hundreds of keyword terms that could form the basis of a content strategy for The Ambler. The key insight is that the majority of Google search queries related to Northumberland are for places to stay and things to do in the region.

Exploring topics related to Amble shows that there are around 1,600 searches on desktop PCs and 500 searches on mobile devices each month.

Amble as well as being a town in Northumberland is a noun, proper noun, and a verb so you have to work hard to dig down to the queries that are related solely to the town. When you do, you find more than 2,000 queries per month related to beaches, the River Coquet, caravan park, caravan site, guest houses, pubs, taxis and Northumberland Wildlife Trust.

Google Trends picks out long term trends around a Google search query. It shows a fall off in searches for the query Northumberland in Winter and peaks in Summer. It also shows peaks around news events. The second job for the team at The Ambler is to use Google Keyword Tool and Trends to explore how people are searching for content related to Amble and Northumberland, and then use this as the basis of content plan for the site.

Site structure Wordpress is popular as an entry-level content management system because it is straightforward to configure, has a lot of best practice, search-engine friendly, features built-in, and can be readily modified thanks to the active open source community.

Content on The Ambler uses a directory and document structure defined by Wordpress. It is friendly to search engine spiders and content, categorised using a series of defined categories and tagged using a palette of tags.

The site is updated with new content several times a week. This is good practice to ensure that the site is frequently indexed by Google and other search engines.

There are lots of Wordpress plug-ins available to help ensure that content is optimised for search marketing. My third recommendation is to install a plug-in such as Wordpress SEO which will help contributors optimise their content for search terms creating a neat loop between the keyword planning and content development.

The Ambler doesn’t have a mobile version of the site. Many Wordpress templates now implement responsive design and provide a ready made mobile version of the website. It needs to be switched on via the template settings. Alternatively it is easily remedied using a Wordpress plug-in such as WPtouch. This is my fourth recommendation, given that we’ve already established that people are searching for related content using mobile devices.

Content engagement Unfortunately it’s not possible to comment on how users engage with the site beyond noting which stories have the most comments. Google Analytics will enable the team at The Ambler to understand how visitors found the site, how long they spend viewing a particular type of story, or the user journey through the site. Implemented fully, it allows you not only to check the pages people reach and how long they spend on page, but how many people read the whole article and how many reach the comment box.

My fifth recommendation would be to promote content to the top of the site on topics which are most likely to engage the audience thus giving readers more of what they want to read.

Content distribution and links The Ambler has an RSS feed but it doesn’t allow people to subscribe to its content via email. Recommendation number six is to trial a weekly or monthly email version of The Ambler and add a prominent email subscription option to the homepage and each story on the site. There are numerous applications such as MailChimp that could be used to do this at no or low cost.

The print edition of The Ambler is very different to the website product. There’s a missed tactical opportunity to drive readers from print to online to comment on stories. By promoting a short URL link at the end of either key articles or all the content this could be used as an engagement mechanism and cross over between the two platforms.

I asked Escherman’s Andrew Smith to look under the bonnet at The Ambler’s inbound links. According toMajesticSEO The Ambler has more than 5,000 inbound links for 90 domains.

“The trust metric for the site is low which suggests that it has been getting lot of links from low trust sites - part of the link building strategy should be to identify relevant sites with high trust flow where they can try to get links from - rather than simply going for volume of links. MajesticSEO is a great tool for that kind of approach,” said Smith.

Recommendation number seven is to use content from the site to broker links with related sites. Inbound links from authoritative sources will give The Ambler higher prominence by Google.

Social strategy The Ambler has a Facebook page and Twitter account but the site isn’t actually that social. Recent posts haven’t been shared or discussed on the main social networks yet rudimentary searches on Facebook, Google+ and Twitter show that there are large communities engaging around content related to Northumberland. The Ambler would benefit from its own Google+ page. This would help with local search and ensure that content is quickly indexed.

Recommendation number eight: all the content (and more) from The Ambler should be shared via each of these social platforms using an appropriate tone of voice and conversational style. The Ambler should use analytics for each of these social networks to understand how people are interacting with the content. Once installed Google Analytics will show how many people are landing on the site from each of the networks.

Pushing content out into social network will need resource from the existing team. However adding social sharing buttons to The Ambler should enable visitors to share content with their own social networks. That’s recommendation nine: add a social sharing plug-in such as Social Share so that visitors can share content on their social network of choice.

Set goals in Google Analytics We’re back where we started with Google Analytics. Understanding how visitors are engaging with the site is key to its future development.

Setting goals in Google Analytics is a way of tracking whether you’re achieving the objectives for a website. It keeps you honest. My final recommendation then is to set up goals around key engagement metrics such as time on site or visits to a page.

Summary of recommendations The Ambler has grown organically over the last 12-years thanks to its committed team. But there are some very straightforward ways that it could be even more successful by using free tools and additional Wordpress plug-ins. Here are my ten recommendations.

  1. Create a Google Analytics account and add a Google Analytics tracking code to the site.
  2. Use Google Keyword Tool and Trends to explore how people are searching for content related to Amble and Northumberland and use this as the basis of content plan for the site.
  3. Add a Wordpress plug-in to help contributors to the site optimise content for search marketing.
  4. Make The Ambler mobile friendly by switching on the responsive feature of the Wordpress template or by adding a Wordpress mobile plug-in.
  5. Promote content on the site on topics that are most likely to engage the audience.
  6. Create a weekly or monthly email version of The Ambler and allow people to subscribe.
  7. Create and implement a link building strategy based on content from the site.
  8. Share content via social networks using a conversational style appropriate to each network
  9. Add social sharing buttons for Facebook, Google+ and Twitter to each piece of content on the site.
  10. Set some goals for the site in Google Analytics.

I have no doubt that savvy readers will have lots of smart ideas for how The Ambler could improve its online marketing. Please share your ideas via the comments. I’m sure the team at the Ambler would love to hear your suggestions – and they’d almost certainly make good content for a follow-up blog post.

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