Optimising for Google in sport
In an era when traffic from social media is increasingly throttled, Google should be the organic source you care about most.
Our research shows most Premier League clubs are not using the tools that would give them greatest visibility on Google though - undermining any efforts to realise commercial value from their sites.
The working title for this article was Holy Crap How Does A Sports Organisation Even Compete For Share Of Mobile Search Traffic, but as it happened that didn't seem a very SEO-friendly headline.
However- this is specifically not just about SEO. It's about optimising for Google as a platform, which includes more than organic search results. In sport, the popular Onebox and Knowledge Panel features provide fans with much of the content they need on the search results page- but erode traffic that would once have gone to official club and league sites.
For most Seven League clients, Google still drives 4-5 times as much traffic as all social sources combined and yet it rarely receives the focus that status merits.
How big a deal is this really, though?
One very repeatable insight we see across all website analytics is shown below - it's the number of times the website has appeared on a Google Search Engine Results Page (SERP), split by device.
22.6m is a big number in anyone's book. Here it's from a 90-day period, so >250k impressions per day from people actively searching for content the official site contains.
Search Impressions by device on a major football club website
But wow: those click-through-rates. That is a lot of potential traffic not being realised.
And wow 2: mobile search impressions are 3x as large as desktop. It's not news that mobile phones are popular, but this really drives home how important it is that your site is easy to find on mobile search.
So, what happens when we start to search for a Premier League football club.
Let's try l-i-v-e-r- ...oh.
Screenshot from an era where you thought maybe Gareth Bale wasn't as good any more
Well, finding details of their next match was easy. We do not need any official club channels for that. This also works during live matches to show the latest score, and post-match showing the result.
Imagine we keep going and complete our search.
Your organic result used to be here
Results and fixtures, standings and news are all an easy tap away. This is called the Onebox, is powered by Google and provides excellent service to the user but minimal value to the club.
Scroll down and next is 'Top Stories', featuring news articles in AMP format from any relevant publisher. It's possible for official club sites to rank here and indeed Liverpool sometimes do, but there's high competition for this space and the vast majority of content is not club-owned.
Major publishers provide heavy competition for Top Stories slots
Keep going and hello: we have the club's organic search result- we're showing Leicester City because it's a website project we know very well.
The news article carousel here is driven by structured markup
It's not always an organic result at this point though- sometimes it's the Knowledge Panel, Google's summary of an organisation's basic details plus playing roster and 'similar' brands, i.e. other clubs.
Other non-organic content that may appear includes a carousel of Tweets from the club, another carousel of video content (from multiple sources) and a list of related search options.
Depending on your personal search history, the total number of organic site results on the first SERP can be as low as four (our experience when Googling 'LCFC', which we've done a lot).
Why does it matter?
Visitors from organic search are your best customers, by almost any definition. They spend the longest time on your site, look at more pages per session, have some of the best conversion rates and are your top revenue driver.
On the one hand, it looks like Google is continually stripping away visibility for official sports club and league website with their Onebox content.
As ever though, Google also offer ways for you to reclaim some of that space and we focus on 3 primary methods below - Google Posts (editorial), Structured Markup and Accelerated Mobile Pages (technical).
The problem for Premier League clubs is that a high majority of them don't take advantage of this - including commercial giants like Manchester United and Chelsea, where there will be a direct relationship between volume of traffic and ability to deliver on commercial partnerships.
Both those clubs have new sites currently in beta which may feature the technical aspects in their full build, although they're not included so far. We do know that Spurs will be including both on their new site.
Any club not listed here will be underperforming for search traffic vs their potential
What can you do?
1) Get into Google Posts
Posts is a relatively new format offered by Google - launched in the US in early 2016 for Presidential candidates, it was later extended to US brands and Google My Business accounts but is still only available by application for brands in Europe.
It allows the publisher to produce small cards in a number of formats - image-led, video-led (YouTube only), events, polls and a new Story format that opens up into full-screen portrait mode.
These cards appear as part of the Knowledge Panel that appears in the right-hand column for desktop search results, and somewhere between 3rd-5th position in mobile results.
The Knowledge Panel pulls information from multiple sources across the web, e.g. Wikipedia, but was largely out of the control of brands until Posts launched.
Our findings are that Posts definitely add incremental visits to your official site; if used well they will be amongst your top 10 site referrers, and on match days can be in the top 2 if used judiciously in the pre-, during- and post- match periods when search volumes peak.
2) Use Structured Markup for News Articles
Let's go back to our screenshot of the organic search result for LCFC.com.
As well as the regular site description and key subsection list, you'll see latest news stories are listed in a horizontal, image-led carousel that holds up to 10 articles in total.
Up to 10 articles are listed horizontally, to be swiped through by the user.
This is driven by Structured Markup, i.e. additional metadata in the page code that tells Google (and other crawlers) that the content is a news article and gives precise detail of the headline, publish date, image url etc.
That's all data that Google could (and does) scrape anyway even without this markup, but putting it in the format they ask for should be a no-brainer for any site developer.
Player pages are very hard for club site to rank highly for, so this sub-menu within the organic result is extremely valuable.
Google have excellent documentation for all content types that can be marked up in this way (it builds on documentation that's been available for several years at schema.org, but with specific examples of how the search results page will interpret the data).
One thing Google don't document in detail is the 'athlete' subcategory of the 'person' schema.
On lcfc.com, that's used on player pages and drives an expandable 'Players' menu within the organic search result for the site; something we've not seen for any other club site.
3) Publish in AMP format
We've talked about this at length before and it's still a thing.
Structured markup and AMP are somewhat interchangable in certain situations; for example, Liverpool just use AMP and they still get the news article carousel in their site's mobile search result.
We'd still advocate having both, though. Structured markup will have multiple future uses including in voice search and Google's own newsfeed, while AMP is essential to appear in the Top Stories section of the results page.
There's heavy competition from other media publishers to appear in Top Stories, but if you're not using AMP you reduce your chances to 0%.
In reality, most AMP traffic for club sites will come from Twitter rather than Google. The native Twitter app will default to the AMP version of any page linked in a tweet.
We've used Premier League club sites as an example because the fact that most of them don't optimise for Google suggests (a) that not many other sports orgs will be doing it better, and (b) ongoing optimisation of digital products often falls through the cracks if there's no coherent product strategy that connects it to the overall digital strategy.
Man City employ multiple digital product managers while Liverpool also have significant in-house tech resource.
Leicester, Newcastle and Tottenham are Seven League clients and we've performed a role for each them over the past 2 seasons that provides the glue between content, tech and commercial needs (with the tech delivery coming from Pulselive for LCFC and Stadion on NUFC, with Stadion also powering Bournemouth's site).
You can - of course - talk to us about doing the same for you.