It takes about ten years to grow a Christmas tree, ready for the big day. Luckily seasonal campaigns online don’t take that long to prepare, but you still need to leave yourself enough time and take care of the seasonal landing pages year-round.
There are four aspects to seasonal or event-focused SEO:
- URL maintenance
- Page maintenance
- Targeted link building
It’s very surprising how often sites do not use the same URL year-on-year for recurring events. Maintaining a URL can be tricky with product lines and seasonal items: for instance, retailers often don’t want a Valentine’s Day page sitting live all year around. However, it’s vital that this URL exists: even if it can’t be linked to in a prominent place, it shouldn’t be allowed to 404, and in all but the most extenuating circumstances (which we’ve definitely come across from time to time!), it shouldn’t be redirected elsewhere whilst not in season.
Try to avoid using URLs that designate a year or other time-indicator. A primary goal should be to have the URL remain the same, so a CMS that creates a page like www.site.com/valentines-day-2012 is undesirable compared to www.site.com/valentinesday/.
Keep in mind that some big content management systems create URLs that reflect on-page factors, like title tags or the <h1>. Check that the CMS you are working with isn’t one of these before you create a new page. It may be necessary to title / tag that page generically enough to keep using the URL into the future. If you have to put seasonal URLs through 301 redirects in order to use them again, you partially waste the strength of the older links.
A landing page, even out of season, needn’t be confusing for a consumer. If there is no stock available, a perfectly acceptable landing page (from both an SEO and usability perspective) can exist on a seasonal URL. This could be in the form of an email notification service for when the season starts up again, or a list of related products. Ideally, a small link building maintenance budget would be applied towards this URL for eight months of the year, while four months of the year would see this URL receive extra attention: relevant content, increased link acquisition and social media interest.
Of course, if you can maintain a page year-round, do it! But many businesses can’t or won’t, and require that you provide them with an SEO-friendly compromise.
Convincing large businesses to maintain a page year-round can be tough. One of the best arguments you can use is that a seasonal page can be tailored for generic conversions during the off-season. For instance, a page whose one purpose in life is to sell–and rank for–a seasonal gifts term should be designed with the help of your conversion/usability expert/agency, and should point people towards a more generic product offering. Although the page won’t likely receive much traffic at all, including this content achieves a couple of worthwhile goals:
- Maintaining crawlable, indexable, Google-friendly content throughout the year.
Had you not heard? Google doesn’t like thin, content-free pages.
- Potential conversions from traffic. In the ~50 weeks of a year that the page is irrelevant,
it will receive at least some traffic. Why waste an opportunity?
Canonicalisation and Archiving
For many seasonal events, you are going to have content/pages from previous years that you need to keep live. Music festivals, yearly sports events and conferences for example. In most cases, there should be a home URL for the event that never changes. Information for the upcoming event should sit on this URL. When an event finishes, its information (photos, recaps, line-ups, results, etc) can be placed on a new URL after an appropriate amount of time. This creates an archive for the event, with the event’s “home page” always sitting at the top of the hierarchy.
A few years ago, SEOmoz wrote a post about avoiding keyword cannibalisation. The theory here is pretty much the same, even though SEOmoz’s post was about pages that are perpetually relevant.
A site can have multiple pages about very similar things, but they must be named in a way, and link to each other in a way, that identifies which one is the most important, and which are specialised or specific.
An example of this not being done very well, comes from a site whose overall SEO is impressive. Last.fm ranks well, both in the UK and the US, for some stunningly high-volume terms. For instance, an eighth place ranking for [eminem], a term with an estimated thirteen million monthly searches worldwide. Their SEO for music artists is great.
Last.fm isn’t in the business of promoting music festivals, but they do have a page about thousands of music events worldwide. What they don’t have, however, is a landing page for each event: every incarnation of a festival is given a new page and a new URL. A site search for a popular British festival shows how convoluted indexing is for the site’s festival subfolder:
Results like this go on for pages, and there are no URLs in the form of www.last.fm/festivals/reading/
If Last.fm was in the business of ranking for festival names and selling tickets, its competition in the UK would be fairly stiff for the term [reading festival] alone. The site is being outranked not only by ticket merchants and information websites (many of whom have weaker sites), but by sites like the Thames Valley police. In effect, Last.fm doesn’t rank, quite simply because the site gives Google no idea of which URL it should prioritise.
Given how well the site ranks for artists, songs and albums, it should have no problem ranking for music events. On-page factors: when it comes to bad site structure, they still matter a lot!
Let’s compare this to FIFA’s system of archiving information about past World Cups. Although not perfect, FIFA has created a dedicated URL for each event, and the pages generally rank well for related queries. There are some ranking anomalies, but in general this archiving system is working well when it comes to terms like [world cup 2006]:
Each heading (“South Africa 2010”, etc) links through to information on the event.
This URL is saved for information about the upcoming event:
Commercial interests usually don’t require a business to document previous years’ events. When they do, information archiving makes the difference between Google understanding where your information lives and which area is most important, and Google understanding only that you’ve written a scattered selection of disjointed information about a topic.
When I lived in the US, our gauge of whether Christmas advertisements were out too early was proximity to Thanksgiving: ads before the last weekend of November were too early. Adverts after Thanksgiving were okay. For SEO purposes, Thanksgiving would be far too late to start building links for Christmas products! As such, it can seem awkward to start link building early. Organic search results can change very quickly to reflect new links, publicity and social chatter, but tough queries can also stay stagnant for months. Given how quickly SERPs can change due to fresh, new results, it’s important to establish authority in a niche as early as possible. If you have been optimising a site or page for a seasonal query previously (i.e. this is not the first year you’ve worked with the site), your base helps you get started.
You shouldn’t take chances with time-sensitive link building: either you rank on time, or you don’t. And if you don’t, you’ve not only missed out on the traffic and sales that would have come with ranking at an appropriate time, but you’ve also wasted whatever resources you spent on ranking too late. Sitting at the top of a Google.com SERP for the first time for [valentines day chocolates] on February 21st is more than a little disappointing (as are the chocolates).
Start link building early. Even if you think your site is powerful, and even if you’ve been able to rank quickly for seasonal things in the past. Often, success with rankings of all types doesn’t depend so much on how strong your site is or what you’ve managed to do in the past, but on what competing sites have managed to do while you weren’t watching.
Internal Link Building
If there is an existing product, you need to make sure the specialised product is linked to from the existing page. For instance, Flowers in relation to Mothers Day flowers (which was yesterday in the US, I hope you remembered!). This helps ensure that search engines will choose the correct specialised URL, rather than the generic one. If we were to use SEOmoz’s “snowboards” example from earlier in this post, we’d need to link from the primary snowboards page to the kids’ snowboards page with that anchor text.
Seasonal results are different to “regular” rankings: the closer the date gets to an event taking place, the more fluctuation takes place in the related rankings. News stories pop into SERPs and Google favours “real time” results that lack your page’s history and backlinks. A page can rank very well in the weeks leading up to an event, but there is no guarantee that it will rank well through the event. The chart below tracks a page’s ranking for two keywords up to an event, through the day the event took place, and into the weeks after the event finished:
What does this mean? To begin with, it means that a top ranking in the weeks leading up to a major seasonal event are not a guarantee of top rankings throughout the event. In the last couple of years, Google has put a lot of effort into making its results relevant to a time and place, not just a generic list of links. As a result, a commercial page that ranks for 51 weeks of the year can be pushed a long way down the page by “fresh” content as an event takes place.
The good news is that the “fresh” content is rarely commercial, and people still looking to buy will usually look past news stories. It is also worth noting that, as far as commercial interests for seasonal events go, rankings on the day itself are often not important…
After all, it’s difficult to buy Christmas presents on Christmas Day. Unless you are in the business of last-minute orders and until-midnight deliveries, the flood of news and “fresh” content on the day of of an event is not as troubling as it seems.
Many large corporate sites or small SMEs don’t have the flexibility to become a news source or fresh result for seasonal events. If you can, however, it is worthwhile attempting to fill one of those news results with your own content. Even if the higher-ranking URL isn’t taking people to your product page, your fresh content should be put together with conversion in mind, attempting to lead visitors towards the commercial pages.