Do you work in an industry that's heavily restricted in terms of what you're able to do from an SEO perspective? That's precisely the challenge that my guest today faces.
He is a contributor for Search Engine Land and Search Engine Watch, has spoken at Brighton SEO and SMX Italy, and is currently the Global SEO lead at Philip Morris International. A warm welcome to the In Search SEO podcast, Marco Bonomo.
The considerations are:
SEO in Restricted Industries
Marco: Hi, David. Thanks for having me.
D: Great to have you on. Well, Marco heads up the iqos.com and veev-vape.com. So Marco, why make it difficult for yourself and work in an industry that restricts what you can do from an SEO perspective?
M: Well, I will say it's a big challenge. I always had a career working on eCommerce websites where you are selling the products of somebody else. But in this case, with Philip Morris, for example, iQOS, which is a heated tobacco device, we are also the manufacturer so we got full control of the quality of the products, the distribution, and how the product is going to look like, the flavors, etc. The fact that we are in charge of what we're selling and how we're selling it, it’s worth the journey in working in such an industry, like the tobacco industry, in SEO as well.
D: So the fact that it's more challenging once you actually see the final result makes it more rewarding.
M: Definitely. That's my point.
D: So today, you're sharing your four essential considerations for SEO in restricted industries. Starting off with number one, images.
M: From my point of view, we need to make a distinction between the product images, which is something you can see, the product with a white background, which you can find, for example, on Amazon, and the lifestyle image, where you basically have the product and a person posing with the product. Depending on the legal setting of the particular country where you're selling the products, one category could be illegal. So you need to be careful. There is always a really good collaboration with the SEO team who runs the websites and the legal team because this is a quite delicate point for SEO for restricted industries. So just in case, if that particular market doesn't allow you to display product images or lifestyle images, it's a good idea to noindex the images. My recommendation is to add the noindex tag on the H2 header of that image. That will definitely save a lot of headaches.
In my opinion, what really surprised me is that some countries, for example, Denmark, don't even allow you to legally display the image of the product. So for iQOS in Denmark, we had to display, "For more information contact us,” because you cannot even show a blurred image of the product. So it really depends on the legal setting of the particular country.
D: And in countries that do allow you to display images, does that mean there's an opportunity to drive traffic from Google Image search?
M: Well, for example, for iQOS, it's a lot of branded traffic so it's definitely helping out because people tend to identify the products with a specific brand image. Also adding social data, anything that could help have Google and other search engines displays the best of the images you have.
M: And your number two consideration is videos.
M: Similarly to the images, videos also play an important part. For example, for iQOS, we got a strong lineup of video tutorials about how to clean an iQOS and what to do if it doesn't work. If you create this kind of material, and you've got a YouTube channel, (we have several YouTube channels for different markets) we tend to tag all the contents for an adult audience. So in this case, the user who's clicking on the video needs to verify they're an adult audience as there is age verification. So YouTube is quite safe. Definitely a safe place for displaying these kinds of videos. At the same time, if you have these kinds of videos, but they’re straight on the website, there is a need for an age-gate before accessing the video itself.
There is also the risk of let's say that Google is picking the video, and is playing a preview on their search results. So in this case, for iQOS, we needed to place a line of codes for each page, i.e., sitewide, which is called Max Video Preview, which if you set it to zero, it will ask Google not to display any preview and you’ll just get a static image. So even if a minor is seeing their particular video on the search results page, they cannot see the content of the video, they can just see the thumbnail.
D: You mentioned YouTube, can YouTube act as a way to discover your videos for people that aren't aware of your brand?
M: Yes and no. It really depends on the policy of the company. For example, BMI has quite a strict policy. I think if the audience is not more than 75% adult people, then don't display any branding or anything like that. This one is a different story because it was more of a tutorial. So it's really up to the company.
D: Understood. And legally speaking, I had a look at your website this morning, and you had to tick saying that you are over 18, but also the fact that you are an active nicotine user. Is that something that every country has to do? Or is that a law that's just applicable to the UK where I happen to be in?
M: We like to display the fact that heated tobacco is a kind of way to help people quit smoking. So if you're a smoker and you quit, that will be the best choice. But if you can't switch totally off, then heated tobacco is a good alternative. It is also considered by the FDA to be marketed as an alternative to smoking. So it is a good thing that nowadays you have plenty of alternatives.
D: And as part of that age-gate that I mentioned, consideration number three is part of that as well. How does that work in terms of how search engines view it? Can they view the content behind that gate quite easily?
3. Age gate
M: That’s an excellent point. From my point of view, the main takeaway is this. Everything that the user sees and everything that search engine bots see have to be the same. At any cost, we need to avoid any kind of cloaking where you display a particular page or image to Google and another one to the user. The page has to be exactly the same, we need to avoid any sort of cloaking.
We also need to consider one thing. From a Google perspective, they have always said for many years that there is no problem when you display an age-gate because obviously, they got a software like mine restricted where you need to verify somehow that the user is from an older audience, but this also has got a minimal impact on the PageSpeed. So it has to be there but it has to be as lean and as quick as possible. This is another point that we are always trying to make this age gate as light and as quick as possible. So if you work in SEO in these industries, this is another point to consider. Also, the age gates have to be loaded before you see anything on the page because it’s good that you don't give away anything. And also as soon as you click Verify the Page, the page is already loaded. So the user does have to wait twice to see the content.
D: So in the source code of the page that the user has landed on, can you actually see the text of the content that is on the main page?
M: You should be able to. It should be accessible to both.
D: And obviously, I guess you want to have many pages on your website to be indexed. Is it more challenging to get many pages from your site to be indexed because of the age gate?
M: It shouldn't be. The age gate obviously has to be deployed site-wide. But indexation shouldn't be affected by this age verification.
D: Is it just a normal website from the perspective of trying to get as many pages as possible indexed?
M: Yeah, definitely. We invest a lot in content, tutorials, product pages, and this kind of stuff. We aim to maximize indexation and credibility of the website.
D: And at the moment, obviously, you're asking people to indicate that they're a certain age. Is there anything that's likely to come down the line in the future, that will actually do a job of automatically trying to verify if someone is the age that they say they are?
M: Well, in some markets, they make things a bit more difficult. For example, I think in Canada, you need to add your ID. You need to be a registered user. This is the next level of verification, it might be that in the future, this will expand to other countries. It's really up to the legal setting of the markets.
D: Understood. And consideration number four is geo-fencing.
M: This is a tricky point. For example, iQOS, our main product is available in dozens of markets and it's always a bit tricky. What it's legal in one market might not be in another market. You got plenty of countries that are confronting each other, especially Europe, which has lots of different countries. For example, Switzerland is a small country, but it displays four different languages because you got Italian, French, English, and German. So for iQOS Italy, since it's a bigger website, it’s not surprising to have pages indexed on Google Switzerland. So to avoid any kind of issues, we limit the site with geofencing where basically, if you don’t have an IP address in that country you will be redirected to the country where you live in. This is probably the most strict setting you can implement. But it's also one of the trickiest because many things can go wrong. It has to be super aware of any kind of particular issue.
D: So if you're a logged-in user, then you'll know where someone normally lives. So if they happen to be on holiday in a certain country, then if your website shouldn't be accessible in that country, they will redirect to the one where the user is registered in. Is that correct?
M: That's correct. At least for us. This is the setting we decided on to give the best protection to the user.
D: And if the user hasn't been on your website before, then how would that experience work for them?
M: It’s based on the IP address. So even if you're not registered, you will not be able to access a website that is not part of your country. You'll be redirected to the iQOS of your country.
D: Okay. I’m trying to establish if you were in a country that doesn’t have access to the website, then what your experience would be if it was the first time you visit the iQOS website.
M: If you live in a country that doesn't have any market where we're not selling the products, yet, you'll get a notice on a global landing page that displays, "Sorry, your product is not available in your country. And we're sorry for the inconvenience.”
D: Wow. I've worked for big international websites before that had the same challenges that you indicated with, certainly French, for example. You've got Switzerland and France and other countries as well and had the wrong version of the website in France displayed in France itself. But I didn't go as far as to actually also face that challenge for a website that also had some kind of age gate on it as well. So an extra challenge that you face, out of many.
M: Definitely. And if I can add, there is also a different version of geo-fencing, which is probably a much simpler version, which is called blocking, simply blocking the foreign IPs. For example, more related to tobacco, there is a product called snus which is extremely popular in Sweden. It's basically tobacco that you store in your mouth. Since 1992, the EU banned these kinds of products. So it's not possible if you live in the EU to buy this. But Sweden joined the EU in 1995. When they joined, they were granted an exclusion because it was part of what they asked for to join the EU. Basically, you've got a product that is totally legal to be sold in Sweden, but it's illegal to buy from the rest of Europe. So in this case, you need to block all the different IPs outside Sweden.
D: I'm sure we can have a conversation just about that.
M: Yeah, and trust me, the legal setting varies from country to country. So you need to have a very strong legal team to fully understand the extent of the law.
The Pareto Pickle - Optimize Internal Links
D: Let's finish off with the Pareto Pickle. Pareto says you can get 80% of your results from 20% of your efforts. So what's one SEO activity you would recommend that provides incredible results for modest levels of effort?
M: Personally speaking, I think probably internal linking. If you're really strong with content, and backlinks, and you got a decent structure of the website, the single components that will allow you to improve rankings and the crawlablity of the website is definitely internal linking.
D: Well, I've been your host, David Bain. You can find Marco at @MarcoBonomoSEO on Twitter. Marco, thanks for being on the In Search SEO podcast.