TV Network Performance in Organic Search
Entertainment is a vastly large search playing field, covering millions of keywords and equally as many websites competing for search traffic in the top 10 results; millions of entertainment-related search queries are performed every day. This report focuses on one segment – TV shows – and assesses how well the main players – the TV networks – are performing in the SERPs (search engine results pages) generated by the most popular keywords. TV shows are one of the most popular venues of home entertainment, with millions of people watching episodes of the latest series every night. Over the past 30 years, the number of Cable TV subscribers has increased by the factor of 3.5, from 17.5 million in 1980 to about 61 million in 2010, while the revenue generated from these viewers has skyrocketed from 2.6 billion dollars in 1980 to 93.3 in 2010, increasing by the factor of 35. (Source: “Table 1142. Cable and Premium TV—Summary: 1975 to 2010,” 2012 Statistical Abstract of the United States, December 2011, U.S. Census Bureau, page 717)
Both the huge increase in number of subscribers, as well as the revenue coming from TV have brought with them a change in search behavior and large demand for TV show related keywords. Queries range from the ways in which one can watch TV shows online to a vast amount of informational queries – about the synopses of the previous night’s episode, cast of the show, episode lists, etc. Naturally, the keywords that make up the queries for each series contain the name of the series, together with secondary keywords, such as [where to watch online], [streaming], [season finale], etc.
This study provides insights into the nature and implications of searches performed for a number of popular TV series belonging to the largest US TV networks. The websites of the TV networks that the programs belong to are natural contenders for populating the top locations for queries using the name of the shows; however they are often being outranked by smaller, unaffiliated websites that are targeting the same keywords. We analyzed the size of the market, as defined by the number of searches performed for relevant keywords, where network websites are ranking for those keywords and whether they are being systematically outranked for those keywords, and how much traffic is unrealized due to low rankings or failure to provide results suitable for Google’s Universal SERPs. The data and the conclusions presented in this study should help TV networks identify areas in which their performance could improve significantly by applying even the most basic rules of search engine optimization. On the flip side, smaller players can discover traffic-generating opportunities that TV networks are leaving open by ignoring those very rules.
This study analyzes four chief areas of search:
- Keywords – We identify the most popular secondary keywords that accompany the name of a show, and the estimated sizes of both the short tail and long tail keyword niches, as defined by those secondary keywords.
- Rankings – We examine where the TV network websites are ranking for the keywords that define their search niches. We look at both how networks are performing for all of the keywords relevant to their TV show names as well as for the groups of keywords defined by the people’s interests at the time they performed their searches.
- Traffic potential – We estimate how much traffic TV networks are receiving based on those rankings and Google’s keyword search volumes. We try to appraise the potential increases in traffic they would achieve if their SEO was improved and they ranked at top locations for those phrases.
- Universal SERPs – Universal SERPs are specialized results, like “news for…” and videos, inserted algorithmically by Google in accordance with the nature of the search query. We check in how many queries the TV network websites appear in the Universal SERPs, and the kinds of results they provide (Video, News, or Images results). Universal SERPs offer an opportunity to present a different kind of result to a searcher, both in content and in presentation – these results stand out from the regular “10 blue links” results and are known to receive a higher click-through rate of visits. Notice how the News and Video results in the following SERP stand out due to the frame image and are likely to receive more clicks than their relatively low position on the first page would merit (figure 2):
Furthermore, due to the fact that Google ranks blocks of Universal Results within the top 10 websites on the first page of results, Universal SERPs represent websites an opportunity to rank in the top 10 with content that, if presented as a regular HTML page, wouldn’t have reached the first page ranking. So, for example, if one succeeds in ‘convincing’ Google to classify their webpage as ‘news’, their site gains an opportunity to automatically be boosted to the first page of results.
The first part of the keyword analysis involved choosing the TV shows to cover. Two main criteria were used to select which shows to analyze:
- Popularity – We chose TV shows that won an Emmy award in the 2013 ceremony.
- TV Network Coverage – We chose a large number of networks to analyze, in order to understand all of the different promotional strategies. Our assumption is that if an organic SEO effort exists, it is being managed by an in-house SEO professional employed by each network. Therefore, the more networks we include in the research, the more SEO strategies we can sample.
An elimination process resulted in a total of twenty-three shows across nine networks to analyze (figure 3):
Gathering more data about main and secondary keyword phrases was made possible with the Google AdWords Keyword Tool, which provided an estimated number of searches for each keyword per month. In addition to this feature, the AdWords Keyword Tool offers a list of related keywords based on Google’s search data and from this we extracted the secondary keywords. We filtered for all the keywords that were searched with the name of the series (primary keyword) and chose the most popular keywords, according to two parameters:
- How frequently the keyword is searched (combined counts of exact match monthly searches from the AdWords Keyword Tool) and,
- How many times the secondary keyword appears in the total database. So for example, if the secondary keyword [episodes] was searched together with every show name present in the research, it was deemed more popular than, say, keyword [ratings] which was searched in combination with only a few show names.
In order to get a better overview of the search niche, as defined by the keywords used to search for different shows, we classified the keywords into several groups:
- Online streaming – Keywords that represent the desire to watch the TV shows or series online. For example, [watch episodes], [watch online], [watch full episodes], etc. The majority of networks offer online streaming of their series’ episodes, but so do other websites.
- Informational queries – Queries intended to elicit results containing information about the series – [cast], [season finale], [wiki], [new season], etc. TV networks that provide large amounts of content on their shows’ websites (either via user generated content, an official blog or some other way) should be able to easily rank for such queries.
- Competitors – Keywords that include the name of an online streaming competitor – [YouTube] (although some shows have branded YouTube channels that feature the network content), [sidereel], [tv duck], [blinkx], etc.
- Transactional – Keywords that represent specific series-related products that can be purchased online. These keywords represent a unique opportunity to increase conversions, as the potential customer is looking for the product directly related to the website; therefore it is safe to assume that they are ready to buy it. For example: [poster], [t-shirt], [dvd], etc.
A clear and representative picture of each of the above keyword groups was obtained by selecting the 10 keywords from each group that have appeared the most in our keyword database and that have the most relative popularity (i.e. number of searches in Google AdWords Keyword database):
There are two main ways to estimate the size of the potential market for each keyword:
- A look at the general number of prospective exact match searches. Exact match searches are searches that include the name of the show and the secondary keyword in question. For example, according to the above chart (figure 4), the keyword [poster] appears 16 times in the database and combined searches for keywords made up of the name of the series and [poster] ([downton abbey poster], [grey’s anatomy poster], [30 rock poster], etc.) were 14,669 globally, during the previous month.
- A calculation of the difference between the broad match keyword statistics and exact match keyword statistics. This number represents the volume of the related searches minus the number of the exact match searches performed each month. Since marketers usually target mostly head terms, the related, broad searches represent ‘low-hanging fruit’ targets that are promoted automatically through the promotion of main keywords. Therefore, the larger the gap between the broad and exact, the greater the opportunities for related keywords are.
The second approach – analyzing the keyword space through the prism of each series separately – reveals that there is a wide range of opportunities to be seized. On one end of the spectrum are shows like Grey’s Anatomy, where a gap between the exact match keyword volume and broad match is particularly wide (90.2%), as opposed to Veep where the gap is only about 16%. An even more extreme case is Boardwalk Empire, where exact match searches outnumber the broad match search volume by about 37%, meaning that the vast majority of searches are to be found in head keywords and there is relatively little added benefit in long tail keywords.
A slightly more balanced situation results if we perform the same analysis for each network, instead of for individual TV series:
As can be seen from the above graphs, large differences can emerge between the long tail and head keywords when comparing different series or TV networks; where the size percentage of head keywords is larger, so is the urgency for the network websites to capture the top rankings for those keywords. And the larger the relative size of the long tail keyword market, the more ranking opportunities there are with lower competition and the greater the ease for network sites (which naturally attract a lot of high-authority, high quality links) to rank.
A look at the division between long tail and head keywords among the keyword groups reveals that the distribution of keywords across these two categories is pretty uniform between different keyword groups:
There is a slightly larger gap between the head and long tail keywords within the online streaming group, but the difference in comparison to other groups is negligible.
Having reviewed the different keyword niches, we will now look at the rankings of different TV network websites for these keywords. Analyses of rankings should be done from both the network perspective and keyword group perspective (as outlined in figure 7, the keywords were divided into 4 groups: Online Streaming, Informational, Competition and Transactional queries). We divided rankings into 3:
- Top 5 –the most important group, as the majority of the traffic for the given keyword comes from the first 5 positions on a SERP.
- Top 10 – this group contains about 95% of overall organic traffic for every keyword, and connotes that the ranking page is relevant enough and of high enough authority and quality to appear on the first page. In this case, it is possible that some more focused efforts can achieve top 5 rankings.
- Not ranking – everything from the 2nd page onwards was considered ‘not ranking,’ since the vast majority of traffic is distributed among the sites ranking on the first page. The majority of searchers do not venture onto the second page to find what they are looking for.
As can be seen in figure 8, some networks are not ranking for more than 60% of the phrases relevant to their respective series. Honorable exceptions are Showtime, ABC and AMC, which not only have a relatively low number of phrases for which they don’t rank, but also have a relatively high number of phrases for which they rank in the top 5. This advantage is likely a case of a targeted SEO effort, since in a study we conducted about a year prior to this, the situation was different for those networks.
While the number of phrases Showtime, ABC and AMC are not ranking for has decreased, CBS, FOX and HBO have gone in the opposite direction and are currently ranking more poorly for their targeted phrases than they did in 2012. This is even more noticeable when looking at the change in the percentage of top 5 positions today, compared to the situation in 2012(figure 10):
Another interesting way of looking at rankings across the board is to compare the different ranking categories across keyword groups for each network(figure 11):
Some of the networks are performing very well for online streaming and informational queries, while none of them rank well for competitor-related keywords. We cannot know the differences in conversion rates among these keyword categories, but we can infer that online streaming (due to potentially large amounts of time spent on the site) and transactional queries (due to purchase intent) may be connected to particularly high conversion rates. A similar ranking trend can be noticed by looking at the percentages of keywords that are ranking further than the second page of results or are not ranking at all (figure 12):
Traffic Potential per Network
The rankings described above in figure 12 translate directly into traffic opportunities, which are, in many cases, missed. Publicly available data enables us to make rough estimates of the amount of traffic each of the ranking positions generates as well as the amount of traffic unrealized due to low rankings. Two data sources were used to estimate the missed traffic opportunities:
- Optify’s CTR Study – We’ve monitored rankings for over 1000 keywords relevant to different TV shows, as described above. After averaging the locations over a period of a week (to account for and neutralize SERP fluctuations), we used Optify’s CTR study to assign a percentage of traffic each position gets from the SERP. While the misgivings of such SERP CTR studies are known and documented, one such study helps give an idea of the rough estimates of traffic. These numbers should be used for the sake of comparison only and not as a predictive tool of the amount of traffic that is being or can be generated when the suggested rankings are achieved. The distribution of CTR according to this study is as follows (figure 13):
- Google AdWords Keyword Tool – We used the Exact Match keyword traffic figure from the AdWords Keyword Tool to calculate how much traffic each position can potentially receive, based on the above CTRs. Just as with CTRs for different rankings in SERPs, these numbers should not be used as real traffic numbers, but rather predictions of a ballpark number of visitors that search for each keyword on a monthly basis. These numbers include visitors from Google partner networks as well, a fact which further emphasizes the numbers’ lack of precision. However, when used as a benchmark for comparison, they are useful and indicative for the purposes of this study.
This data was used to calculate the potential amount of traffic that could be received by different network sites. We used these ratios, together with the exact match keyword traffic data from the AdWords Keyword Tool, relative to rankings achieved by each of the network websites to calculate how much better their websites could be performing in terms of traffic if they could manage to rank in the first position – or first two positions – in the SERPs. (If a URL from the same domain as the first ranking position, ranks for the second position, Google collates them and indents the second result under the first.)
The potential traffic increase numbers are significant, and this is assuming the sites only place at the first two positions. In some cases, these numbers are low to begin with (like in the case of Netflix) but in other cases (like AMC) the potential improvements are dramatic and are estimated in hundreds of thousands of monthly visitors. The possibility of achieving rankings within the Universal SERPs (Video, Images, Shopping or News) could make these numbers even higher. These figures paint an interesting picture of, on the one hand, a large amount of potential traffic unrealized by the TV networks which could rank for the majority of the checked phrases with a relatively small effort. On the other hand, they outline huge opportunities for smaller and more nimble players that can get onto the same SERPs through a combination of fast and efficient on-page and off-page search engine optimization strategies and capture this traffic for their own benefit.
Universal results in SERPs present a unique opportunity for websites to both rank highly with content that would otherwise hold much lower positions, and to have listings on the first page of the SERPs that stand out and thus receive a higher CTR than the regular listings. Therefore, it is interesting to see how many of the TV networks are utilizing these SERP opportunities. The natural choice for Universal results in this industry is video results. As can be seen below in figure 16, the majority of the keywords that contain Universal results indeed include video results in their SERPs. Out of 1,015 keywords checked in the course of this study, only 162 had no Universal results within the SERPs (84% of SERPs had Universal results on the first page). In order to see how many of the checked SERPs included universal results and how many of those results were occupied by the networks, we searched for network websites in Universal SERPs, including the branded channels belonging to some networks on popular social websites (for example, this CBS page on YouTube).
As can be seen, almost all of the networks are performing poorly in the Universal SERPs. The situation is especially dire in the News results on the organic SERPs, where no network appears whatsoever. This represents a significant missed opportunity, as Universal listings are visually more appealing, traditionally provide higher CTRs, and provide a great way for websites to appear on the first page of results when they normally wouldn’t or would have a harder time ranking on their own merit.
- While TV networks are the natural candidates to occupy top positions for keywords containing the names of the series they own, they rarely do so. Out of the 1,015 most popular keywords related to popular show names, top 5 positions are occupied by networks in only about 50% of cases (at most) and for some networks this percentage falls below 20%. There are a large number of opportunities in the TV niche for smaller players to capture the SERPs not currently capitalized by large TV networks.
- The size of the opportunity is exemplified by the potential increase of traffic for the TV network sites, assuming they are able to obtain the 1st or top 2 positions in SERPs – in some cases they could potentially increase their organic search traffic by over 700%.
- Some of the independent competitors in the field of online streaming are dominating the SERPs for keywords relevant to their names and the TV shows. Not in a single case checked for the purposes of this study did a large TV network rank for a keyword related to a streaming site (Sidereel, TV Duck, Blinkx, etc.). This is a missed opportunity, because many people search for related keywords.
- The majority of TV network websites are failing to capitalize on the traffic relevant to video streaming. While a majority of them offer online streaming of episodes, only CBS is doing a relatively good job of capturing organic search traffic from people looking to watch episodes online. As more and more people use mobile devices to stream media, this sub-niche is growing more important and early adopters will have a distinct advantage in capturing the top positions for those phrases.
- Universal listings are a tremendous untapped opportunity for TV networks to rank their sites easily and in a visually appealing way on the first search engine results page. Interestingly, the vast majority of these listings are occupied by other websites. News universal listings are a particularly obvious example, featuring not a single listing by large TV networks.
As a general observation, TV networks are doing a poor job of capitalizing on the authority and link capital they have earned through online and offline media campaigns. In every case where a minimal effort was made for ranking for certain kinds of keywords (online streaming keywords in the case of PBS and ABC, and informational queries in the case of ABC), TV network sites capture the majority of top positions in the SERPs. Transactional queries are also a largely unutilized facet of TV related search, where the potential for high ROI stands in stark contrast to a relatively low number of top 5 positions occupied by major TV networks.
About the Author
Branko Rihtman has been working in and contributing to the SEO industry since 2001. Since then he has helped numerous companies increase revenue in some of the most competitive online niches. Branko believes that the SEO competitive advantage is to be found in proper testing and analysis; he applies his scientific training to plan and execute extensive SEO experiments. Branko was a featured speaker at a number of leading SEO conferences in the US and in Europe, such as LinkLove London, SMX Advanced Seattle, Sphinncon, MIT Forum, and Affilicon. He is currently getting his PhD in Environmental Microbiology at the University of Warwick, UK.
Branko joined RankAbove in October 2011 as Senior Analyst.