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Over the last four months, Google has been ramping up its publicity of a more aggressive target for mobile site performance: sub one second page load times.

Enforcement of this aspiration comes from Google's usual source: algorithmic rewards for sites achieving this goal. You just need to look at how industry commentary has exploded around site speed issues over the last couple of years to see the impact this strategy has had.

I fully expect to see this industry focus switch to mobile-specific commentary through 2014.

Let's take a look at the evidence, and the SEO opportunity...

The case for sub-one second mobile site performance

Back in August, Google's Webmaster Central blog posted an update stating its ambition to get mobile pages loaded in under a second, citing research by the Nielson Norman Group showing user flow becoming disrupted at this threshold.

It also referred to analysis of mobile device loading trends showing global mobile load times are dropping year on year, but still average just over seven seconds

So we can see Google's ambition and reasoning stated pretty clearly. More importantly though, it's been re-iterated by Matt Cutts over the last few months as well.

Matt was the conduit for explaining and supporting the introduction of page speed as a ranking factor for 'desktop' search (AKA, Google's main algorithm) back in 2010, and he's performing the same role for mobile today.

Matt talked about penalisation of 'slow loading' (aka plus one second) mobile experiences at SMX in June, (there's a good roundup here) supporting an official post highlighting SEO demotion factors for smartphone device searches.

At that stage, the page speed promotion element was not rolled out, and these announcements were simply alerting webmasters ahead of time that they need to get their mobile house in order to avoid penalisation for poor smartphone page load performance.

Matt stated in that appearance at SMX in June that the rollout was “coming soon”.

He reiterated the point at Pubcon in October, (you can view the whole keynote here) stating that webmasters of mobile sites need to “get ready”.

Also related to mobile, and covered in the keynote were:

  • Clarification of 'Hummingbird'. This is fundamental to mobile, as that's where the natural language searches are most prevalent, and detection and algorithmic adjustment in line with page speed is baked into the infrastructure changes associated with Hummingbird, including the mysterious 'third tier' index also announced (my $0.02 here: it's an indexing tier tightly related to speed factors, equivalent to Big Daddy's 'Supplemental Index' in another dimension. A post for another day).

  • Smartphone ranking will now exclude sites running Flash assets if the smartphone won't support it (read: iPhones). This is significant enough on its own, and has slipped under the radar somewhat.

  • Around 40% of YouTube video views are via mobile devices. Explains why Google is being so aggressive regarding mobile!

So we can say conclusively that sub one second will be a metric and baked into Google's smartphone rankings: in fact, it's a good bet it is testing live on datacenters out in the wild already.

Delivering speed for global mobile SEO success

If you're running SEO across a multinational site, then your challenge for executing fast page load times are more extreme than single territory sites, as Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) come into play and may make many of the 'easy' optimisation steps impossible (particularly JS optimisation elements), but let's walk through the basics first, then look at global expansion and tool options.

We can achieve sub-second rendering of the above-the-fold content on mobile networks by applying the following best practices:

  • Server must render the response (< 200 ms).
  • Number of redirects should be minimized.
  • Number of roundtrips to first render should be minimized.
  • Avoid external blocking JavaScript and CSS in above-the-fold content.
  • Reserve time for browser layout and rendering (200 ms).
  • Optimize JavaScript execution and rendering time.

The important aspect to note here is the focus on 'above the fold' render times. This is really where Google's sub-second target is applied, and this is key to achieving a significant SEO competitive edge for smartphone performance.

We know that Google has been executing pages as a 'headless browser' for some time now – since 2008, in fact – to render pages when accounting for general page load times, and a similar approach is used for mobile render times.

PhantomJS is a great way to test Google's indexing experience for different website implementations during page speed analysis, and will apply for mobile responses too.

If you don't already have a performance test process or environment, you should consider using PhantomJS in a stack with Selenium to automate your testing and ensure your page render times are as slick as possible before putting a CDN wrapper around it.

There's a great explanation of this stack's benefits and setup over here which also gives an overview of why this type of testing is useful.

There are mobile flavours you can plug into Selenium to specifically emulate particular mobile devices (see iOS Driver for example).

When thinking about what to change in the code and code layout, Google's page speed developer guides are comprehensive and effective and as such should be used to build your starting checklist before moving to the testing stage.

After tweaking to get the best results using your test stack, running benchmarks with Google's PageSpeed Tools will give you a clear picture of your site mobile performance and pointers on areas of remaining opportunity.

After this stage, you need to consider your CDN options, as they will typically apply their own 'optimisation' to your pages as part of their caching and edge serving. So begin dialogue to see your options to over-ride these 'features' where they break your performance gains.

I've written about assessing CDNs for SEO before, so take a look if this is a new consideration or you're thinking of evaluating your supplier.

Of course, if you're not serving a site to a high volume global audience and a CDN would be overkill, then much of Google's best practice can be overlaid on your stack (assuming you're not tied to MS servers) using their PageSpeed module for Apache & Nginx.

What's the impact?

Before Google ramped up the importance of page speed for its main algorithm, uptake amongst webmasters to implement Google's recommendations was poor.

Indeed many today would argue that uptake is still poor. However great strides have been made by sites in competitive SEO niches to deliver fast sites as they have the dual carrot of preferential rankings and better site conversion rates (basically: more traffic, converting to revenue at a higher rate).

As its audience shifts to mobile and table devices (as has dramatically happened over the last year) Google's incentive for smartphone performance will have a similarly engaging effect.

So if you're in a competitive niche for SEO (or even if you're not), you likely have around 12 months of competitive SEO advantage ahead of you from today if you get your mobile site performance up.

I know what I'll be working on in that time, so expect your competitors will be too!

Chris Liversidge

Published 10 December, 2013 by Chris Liversidge

Chris Liversidge is Director at QueryClick Ltd and a contributor to Econsultancy. You can connect on LinkedIn, Twitter, Google Plus

2 more posts from this author

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Yusuf Bhana, Digital Marketing Manager at TranslateMedia.com

Great article Chris. I wonder if we'll start seeing fewer responsive sites and more dedicated mobile sites as a result of these changes.

The issue with responsive sites has always been that they try and cram a desktop site onto a mobile-sized screen, hiding elements or simply scaling them down, which often results in slow page load times on mobile.

almost 3 years ago

Chris Liversidge

Chris Liversidge, Director at QueryClick Ltd

Could well happen Yusuf, it's a good shout. Though the technical legacy of maintaining two codebases means it's not a cheap solution. Also, I guess you can't underestimate the momentum of design trends to keep the responsive push rolling.

almost 3 years ago

Stuart McMillan

Stuart McMillan, Deputy Head of Ecommerce at Schuh

Good post sir!

@Yusuf, I'd disagree that "issue with responsive sites has always been that they try and cram a desktop site onto a mobile-sized screen", that's not an issue with responsive, that's an issue of how it has been approached.

If one were to pay attention to traffic numbers, it's pretty clear that mobile (smartphone) traffic will be greater than desktop at some point next year.

Sites need to be designed mobile first and then allowed to "upsize" for desktop, not the other way around. Get it right on mobile and you're on to a winner.

almost 3 years ago

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Yusuf Bhana, Digital Marketing Manager at TranslateMedia.com

Thanks for commenting @Stuart. I agree that it's not responsive sites that are the issue but the way that historically, in most cases, desktop has been prioritised over mobile.

Although I'm not sure that "upsizing" to desktop is the solution for all sites. I work for a B2B organisation that only receives 10% of its traffic from mobiles and this hasn't changed much over the last year.

almost 3 years ago

Chris Liversidge

Chris Liversidge, Director at QueryClick Ltd

Upsizing is a good design philosophy though, I's agree with @Stuart on that one. The Foundation framework is a fantastic building block and using that ethic: http://foundation.zurb.com/

almost 3 years ago

Stuart McMillan

Stuart McMillan, Deputy Head of Ecommerce at Schuh

@Yusuf, to give you some insight as to why I'm so mobile focused, we get almost a third of our traffic from smartphone and tablet is about 22%. We either get good at mobile or we loose market share.

almost 3 years ago

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Yusuf Bhana, Digital Marketing Manager at TranslateMedia.com

Thanks @Stuart. If I worked on a site with those levels of smartphone/tablet traffic I'd be the same :)

almost 3 years ago

James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

Hi Chris

Thanks for a great article (and the link to the CDN post i missed).

I gave a talk today on SEO for 2014 and mobile was key theme. One thing ecommerce teams are going to have to take more seriously is mobile optimised sites (whether that's using responsive or separate m site). The more unoptimised pages that makes it into mobile SERPs, the more they're going to be down weighted because the UX is poor and the likes of Google will see that in high page load, high bounce, low engagement etc.

Re mobile site design, i'm with @stuart that for companies where mobile growth is rapid and mobile+table is going to pass desktop, then a touch first design principle is almost essential for the future. Otherwise, as @Yusuf alludes to you end up with a site shrunk from desktop which doesn't reflect mobile browsing patterns/needs.

Thanks
james

almost 3 years ago

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Fred Esere, Graduate Test Analyst at Trader Media Group

Some really cool dashboard samples here, I've found dashing to be an excellent platform for creating your own dashboard. See - http://shopify.github.io/dashing/

Fred

almost 3 years ago

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James Burton

Where's the evidence for the sub-one-second penal target though? "aka plus one second" seems to be an inference too far.

Yes, Google said it would be great if load times were sub one second, but that doesn't mean webmasters will be faced with "enforcement" and "penalties" if their sites take longer. The SMX page specifically states Cutts that didn't mention a figure.

Speed is undoubtedly a ranking factor but it's unclear at this stage precisely how Google does or will favour faster mobile sites. In fact, contrary to the impression given by the SEO community, Cutts has previously made it clear that speed penalties only apply to a minority of particularly slow-loading results, and that speed doesn't otherwise affect ranking. That is, it's not a penalty that applies to a majority of sites on a linear basis.

To assume the mobile penalty would work differently and penalise virtually the entire mobile web doesn't seem to be correct.

almost 3 years ago

Chris Liversidge

Chris Liversidge, Director at QueryClick Ltd

Agreed that Google's only statement on mobile speed metrics is that from an engineering point of view sub one second critical above the fold rendering should be the target for all websites @James. While I agree that's not going to be the threshold for a linear internet-wide penalty (that would indeed be crazy) if you wanted to set a threshold to shoot for for your own site performance, there's a pretty strong incentive right there for that to be the goal.

I'd expect to see non-linear applications of incentives (in the form of avoiding ranking limiters and minor negative checks) just as we see in the main algorithm.

It's easy to see how you could model exponential incentives by simply rolling over CTR incentives from the main algorithm to mobile device searches. The final implementation will of course be more complex and subtle than that. My point is we're being told right now to prepare for it, so...we should.

almost 3 years ago

Stuart McMillan

Stuart McMillan, Deputy Head of Ecommerce at Schuh

I think if you combine any potential SEO benefit (or lack of penalty) and the benefit it has for the user experience and conversion, why would you *not* make your mobile sites respond this quickly?

almost 3 years ago

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Deri Jones, CEO at SciVisum.co.uk

I think you're spot on Stuart - why not make it better!

Certainly as web speed optimisation specialists here at SciVisum, we are seeing an increased demand among existing and new clients to get a handle on mobile speed: not just at the page level but the end to end customer User Journey too.

And being able to compare journeys between desktop browser as well as Android and iPad is a vital factor we get asked for - and with continuous monitoring it helps to prove when changes have indeed delivered a speed ROI.

Of course, depending on the maturity of the organisations website platform: it can be a difficult for some to make the required changes to fix speed bottlenecks: and for many it can be harder still to speed up the transactional pages; which can't be improved with the usual page-speed tweaks, but need back end code changes too.

A good article Chris!

almost 3 years ago

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John Taylor

Chris, Great Article with Awesome Insights!

I certainly Agree with @Stuart here. Gone are the days, when we used to make websites with keeping Search through Desktop in our mind. No matter we want to change our perspective or not, but certainly Mobile Search and Mobile Browsing is the future and those of us who wants to survive online, we have to focus on Mobile Versions of our website, to make them better and better.

almost 3 years ago

Chris Liversidge

Chris Liversidge, Director at QueryClick Ltd

@Deri @John Thanks! Delighted to see thoughtful discussions around the mechanics and philosophy of conversion framed by SEO.

@Stuart you're obviously all over this, you should get posting on some of your key insights: I'd be an avid reader for sure.

almost 3 years ago

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Sohil Memon

No doubt that the Smartphones are rising at an immense rate and all of them are comfortable in mobile browser, rather than switching on big dump Computer. That's the we are giving much more effort on the mobile SEO.

almost 3 years ago

Richard Baxter

Richard Baxter, CEO at Builtvisible

All of the problems you've described here are solved by building on an all platform basis first.

While this is hardly the solution big enterprise class companies want to hear, I think the best solution is rebuild your front end from scratch, rather than trying to hack in a mobile optimisation layer.

Start the web development process with designs for at least 3 different views (mobile, tablet, desktop) and base your front end development on a good responsive CSS framework. They're almost all open source, including our own (search "open DAWS") - if you're able to build in LESS then you have the opportunity to build to an incredibly granular level of responsiveness - it's well worth investigating.

Finally, my most irksome of mobile experiences (and something the Google article doesn't mention) is getting from a mobile view to desktop - you decide to either "request desktop site" and you're redirected to a 404 because the UA detection doesn't work all that well; or - clicking "desktop site" in a footer somewhere takes you to the homepage or to another 404. That problem is everywhere!

almost 3 years ago

Chris Liversidge

Chris Liversidge, Director at QueryClick Ltd

@Richard the 'Desktop Site' link is up there on my all time pet hates list for exactly that reason. It shouldn't be so hard!

Agreed on the philosopy of all platforms giving a clear line through design and dev to create, typically, the best solution for all. Though I think there are some outlier sites with unusual business cases (working on one at the moment: one of the UK's biggest businesses, but online is a unique challenge for them & I can see issues with one site for all platforms unless some serious server intervention is allowed for advanced functionality on mobile & tablet devices).

almost 3 years ago

James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

Morning all,

Great to see the debate continuing.

Re desktop link, still important as some people do use it (crazy eh!) even if there is a mobile optimised site. Granted very few.

However, there are some simple tips to make the UX as smooth as possible:

1) Make sure the link works!
2) Make it redirect to the corresponding desktop page - don't just shove them all back to the homepage

House of Fraser implemented the redirect to matching page and that to me is the neatest option for mobile users who decide to switch.

It's not ideal but you've got to cater for the outliers.

cheers
james

almost 3 years ago

Stuart McMillan

Stuart McMillan, Deputy Head of Ecommerce at Schuh

Going a little bit off-topic, us and others have seen positive results when looking at this link by changing it from "visit full site" to "visit desktop site"

almost 3 years ago

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Arnaud Boiselle

Hi all,

Very good article Chris, very informative

2 reflexions about it :

- 1 snd loading speed web site goal : In what condition ? Edge, wifi, 3G, 4G etc ? I don't have an exemple in mind of such high speed website today regardless of the connection speed.

- What about the content of the mobile page itself ?
To me a mobile website can be fast for two reasons : because it is well made or because the content is very poor.

How would google make a correct algorithm with load speed / content factors ? sounds difficult to me and the worst part of it : we will never know how it works pricesely ....

I think Google make a point with the loading speed factor even if I'm a bit afraid of the final result/decision they will make.

almost 3 years ago

Stuart McMillan

Stuart McMillan, Deputy Head of Ecommerce at Schuh

@Arnaud, Chris obviously has a lot more experience with Google's Algo than me, but if I were to guess I would think it would be a 3G connection with something like a 150ms RTT latency (which is fairly typical). http://www.webpagetest.org/ has this as one of the connection types, if you're measuring performance.

quick note on testing it on responsive sites, I find it useful to use chrome as a browser and then use a custom script to force the browser in to a mobile viewport screen size.

I wouldn't worry about 4G.

almost 3 years ago

Chris Liversidge

Chris Liversidge, Director at QueryClick Ltd

Interestingly, @Stuart & @Arnaud Google's Ilya Grigorik discusses the impact of 3G or 4G connections, and makes it pretty clear that from an engineering POV, they mean *in any case* hitting a critical rendering path for above the fold should be under one second.

As Ilya points out in the video here, for some 3G connections that second may well take up 100% of your one second target with even just the most basic issues.

It's a fantastic watch, highly recommended. Here's the section on 3G Vs 4G and implications for server & code approaches: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YV1nKLWoARQ#t=227

Another takeaway: 4G will make a huge difference. Shame it's not as prevalent as it could be while still relatively expensive.

almost 3 years ago

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Arnaud Boiselle

@stuart

About http://www.webpagetest.org/ , what would be your experience about it ? I used it in the past but was never able to reproduce the loading time they gave me in 'real condition' (I mean me testing and counting :). A bit like the page load speed numbers given by analytics I found quite high. It brings the question of measurment tool.

@chris
The video is a mine of information, thanks

"Another takeaway: 4G will make a huge difference. Shame it's not as prevalent as it could be while still relatively expensive."

Agree but in some case we can already think our mobile site according to the 4G technology
(French Market for exemple, 4G is really cheap even if this is a very new techno in this country) -> http://www.lefigaro.fr/medias/2013/12/10/PHOed880c7c-61ab-11e3-bd44-449634d2cf21-805x480.jpg (1$ -> 0.72 Euro)

almost 3 years ago

Chris Liversidge

Chris Liversidge, Director at QueryClick Ltd

That 4G rate is a compelling reason to move to France @Arnaud!

almost 3 years ago

Stuart McMillan

Stuart McMillan, Deputy Head of Ecommerce at Schuh

@chris, good shout on the Ilya video, I've seen him speak a few times, I've certainly learned a lot from him. His book, High Performance Browser Networking, is very interesting.

The reason for my 3G suggestion is that, in practical terms, who actually tries anything on the internet if you don't have a 3G signal? If you get a good 3G experience, then you've got 4G covered. However 4G isn't going to solve all our problems, it still has a lot of latency, even though there has been major re-engineering of the control plane.

@Arnaud, webpagetest is pretty good, as far as inexpensive synthetic monitoring goes, I especially like the metrics that it produces. I've never tried RUM (real user monitoring), but synthetic is certainly giving me enough info to take action. I do also look at GA site speed measurements and compare them, although given the prevalence of iOS devices and the lack of timing events coming out of Safari, it's not great.

When it comes to speed optimisation, network issues are still very much public enemy number for mobile, but on desktop it feels like things have advanced beyond there and in to areas like rendering, assuming you've got the basics right.

I'm going to make sure that we try and gain that competitive speed advantage you talk of!

almost 3 years ago

Stuart McMillan

Stuart McMillan, Deputy Head of Ecommerce at Schuh

here's something hot off the press: http://blogs.msdn.com/b/ie/archive/2013/12/12/understanding-the-real-world-performance-of-your-web-application-across-ie11-and-other-browsers.aspx

Hopefully the browser vendors will get on board very soon, it'll be great to have some standardised reporting metrics. RUM just grew up.

almost 3 years ago

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jonee jim, QuickBooks Hosting at elucentra cloud services

your blog is very usefull and I am working Quickbooks Hosting

www.elucentra.com

almost 3 years ago

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Deri Jones, CEO at SciVisum.co.uk

In case anyone isn't aware of what Stuart means when he says

> I especially like the metrics that it produces. I've never tried RUM (real user monitoring), but synthetic is certainly giving me enough info to take action.

'Synthetic' monitoring :- is when an external agent outside of your website visits it, purely to measure performance and look for errors.

Often just called 'website monitoring'.

Contrast that to RUM, which uses the traffic already generated by your customers, to extract some performance metrics: and this space is changing fast.

Synthetic monitoring will never go away as a copper-bottomed way to know what it feels like for your customers on the site: because it's impossible for RUM to cover certain bases: most obvious example: if say a button on a certain page that has javascript that fails to run for certain products in your basket: the fact the button does nothing means there is no traffic generated to your site, to give RUM info on. So RUM is blank.

Whereas a synthetic User Journey; when clicking the button and not getting the required next page can easily flag that as an error and alert your team by email/SMS.

I would imagine that most organisations here, apart from the smallest, should have some kind of this kind of monitoring in place - even if they don't rech your desk!

For marketers - the real question is whether your synthetic monitoring is realistic or not: ie does it really represent your customers.

Stuart's line is a good question to put to yourself: is it giving me enough info to take action?

To take action: that requires joining up both the business teams and the tech teams round the same web performance metrics: see this video of Dixons' Stores experience of 'Uniting the Tribes'.
- http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=Mfxz9TPf-hw

almost 3 years ago

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Alice

I can't wait to show this article to my friend. We have been arguing about mobile SEO and I told him its the next big thing in SEO but he probably thought am out of my mind. Now that this article has taught me a lot I am going to have a stronger argument. Thanks big time.

almost 3 years ago

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Rajeshkumar

Very informative post. In mobile SEO you manly talked about page load speed. What is difference between mobile SEO and the SEO that we do. I think it same. Simply if we are optimizing for the mobile device then we are calling this as Mobile SEO. I don't think there is much in mobile SEO. It's all about making your website mobile friendly and then optimizing website as regular SEO.

almost 3 years ago

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karan khanna, Personal at CEO at Nthing

I the case there are many blogs like a popular blog from Rovert Vamosi (his personal blog - http://robertvamosi.com) is also there!

over 2 years ago

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John Brennan

Sometimes if we follow the pagespeed suggestion from Google, the website design will be minimalist.

We must compress the image to make the website load faster.

But the most important thing is the website has responsive design because this is very crucial since many people use a smartphone to access the website.

over 2 years ago

Avatar-blank-50x50

John Brennan

Sometimes if we follow the pagespeed suggestion from Google, the website design will be minimalist.

We must compress the image to make the website load faster.

But the most important thing is the website has responsive design because this is very crucial since many people use a smartphone to access the website.

over 2 years ago

Avatar-blank-50x50

John Brennan

Sometimes if we follow the pagespeed suggestion from Google, the website design will be minimalist.

We must compress the image to make the website load faster.

But the most important thing is the website has responsive design because this is very crucial since many people use a smartphone to access the website.

over 2 years ago

Ali Moghadam

Ali Moghadam, Digital Marketing Executive at Koozai

Nice post Chris!

The time bomb analogy is pretty accurate. Mobile is going to blow up big time! I don't personally think desktop will die, but I do foresee it becoming the smallest slice of the pie before too long.

I think we're facing more of an attitude shift in design. A good looking website is no longer one with gradients, shading, Flash, bells, whistles and doo-dahs.

There are still a lot of sites out there, built and designed recently, that look old and dated. I think that minimal design is more than a trend - and that's a good thing.

Think about what people value, for example someone's diary. Do they value the book and paper, or the words they wrote? Think about your website in the same way. Will people value the frame it's in? Of course it *should* be visually appealing, but not at the cost of usability or speed. If you're site is all looks and no substance, what's the point?

Personally, I would welcome more sites that focus less on dazzling the hell out of me and more on getting me what I want faster. Convey information fast - like an Ethernet connection to the brain!

over 2 years ago

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Nicky Helmkamp

Hey Chris! Excellent article! We included it in our Monthly Resource Roundup http://www.northcutt.com/blog/2014/01/december-the-best-seo-social-media-content-marketing/

Cheers!

over 2 years ago

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