Eight Reasons Why Now May Be The Right Time To Invest In Your Site

Oct 31st
posted in

The game changed September 15, 2008.

As world markets came tumbling down, the future of many internet start-ups also turned to dust. The message from the financiers is clear - they will be no more money. Web watchers, such as TechCrunch, feature a deadpool of failed internet start-ups. That list is going to grow exponentially in the new year as company after company runs out of cash.

Not good.

However, history tells us that where there is chaos, there is opportunity.

After all, we've been here before.

Take, for example, this memo by Ron Conway, founder and managing partner of the Angel Investors LP funds who backed Google, PayPal, and more.

"....I was an active investor in 2000 when the "bubble burst" and remember it vividly and want to give you the SAME EXACT advice I gave to my portfolio company CEOs back then.I have pasted in the e-mails I sent on April 17th 2000 and May 10th 2000 and every word applies today. Unfortunately history DOES repeat itself but I hope we can learn from history and prevent the turmoil from occurring again. The message is simple. Raising capital will be much more difficult now".

Once of the benefits of market cycles is that history often repeats itself. This allows us to learn the lessons of the past, and apply them to the present.

I'd recommend you watch this presentation by Sequoia Capital, entitled RIP:Good Times.

So the good times are over. Now what? Sequoia recommends managing spending, revising growth and earnings assumptions, to focus on quality. lower risk, and reduce debt.

In 2000, Google was still a struggling start-up. The tech bubble had just burst. One year later, hijacked jets hit the Twin Towers, sending markets, and our collective notion of global security, into a tailspin.

Yet, it was during these seemingly turbulent times that Google rose to become the powerhouse it is today.

Part of that success was due to a focus on quality, careful spending (Google never spent a lot on advertising), network effects, and failure of the competition to grasp opportunities. Everyone else was distracted. Google remained focused on building value.

Research shows that companies that spend money on marketing during a recession tend to benefit the most.

Over the years hundreds of studies have been conducted to prove companies should maintain advertising during a recession. In the 1920’s advertising executive Roland S. Vaile tracked 200 companies through the recession of 1923. He reported in the April 1927 issue of the Harvard Business Review that the biggest sales increases throughout the period were rung up by companies that advertised the most. ....The findings of six more recession studies to date by the group present formidable evidence that cutting advertising in times of economic downturns can result in both immediate and long-term negative effects on sales and profit levels. Meldrum & Fewsmith’s former Senior VP, J. Welsey Rosberg reports “ I have yet to see any study that proves timidity is the route to success. Studies consistently have proven that companies that have the intelligence and guts to maintain or increase their overall marketing and advertising efforts in times of business downturns will get the edge on their timid competitors.

Marketing is an investment, not just an expense. And just like in the stock market, that investment can pay the biggest dividends when assets are under-priced, because everyone else is selling, not buying.

Let's look at a few features of a down market that you can turn to your advantage.

Down Market = Cheaper Ads

Advertising markets are cracking. One of the first casualties in an economic downturn is marketing spend. Not great if you sell advertising, but great if you buy it.

In down markets, you can get a lot more advertising reach for a lot less money than during boom times.If your strategy involves building brand awareness, then now might be a good time focus on this aspect. Being visible creates a sense of familiarity, and that's much easier to do when your competition isn't flooding the channel with noise.

Note: A lot of advertising spend will shift from traditional channels to the internet as people seek value.

We forecast that the Internet advertising market will continue to expand at a strong pace in the immediate future (with a predicted 31.4% increase in expenditure in the UK in 2008), and that it will experience a less steep but steady momentum thereafter, to 2012.

Fight In Short Bursts

One idea, often used by offline marketers on television and radio, is to bombard an advertising channel with short bursts of intensive advertising and then go off the air completely for a few weeks. It is a lot cheaper than maintaining a constant advertising presence, and with fewer advertisers to compete with, you costs should be lower, and your impact higher.

It's a high impact strategy that will fit well with sites looking to build brand.

Follow Warren Buffett

Warren Buffet is the worlds most successful investor. And what is Buffett doing at the moment?

He's buying assets while everyone else is selling.

Might now be a good time to buy up websites, too?

Competitors Cutting Costs And Losing Focus

One of the problems during the 1930s depression was that government cut spending. When government started spending again, the economy picked up. Governments have learned from this mistake, which is why we're seeing government making cash injections.

It's more complex that this, but the takeaway point here is that cutting costs and losing focus on the goal might also ensure you never reach it. Going into hands-off cruise mode could be costly.

If you have the cash, then sowing the seeds of growth now, whilst everyone else is navel gazing and slashing their costs, makes it hard for them to catch up with you again when they do start spending.

Diversify Marketing Spend

Take a strategic approach. Spending aggressively in a down market doesn't mean throwing your money at everything.

In this article, Recession Marketing, Amanda Stock outlines how you can diversify within a search marketing strategy:

It is also important to take a strategic approach when you diversify your marketing budget. For example, if you are currently investing the majority of your marketing efforts in a Pay-Per-Click campaign, you may want to allocated half of that budget to an SEO campaign which, in the long term, can increase the return on investment and decrease dependency on paid search.

Key Tips: Advertisers with a solid PPC track-record have an incredible advantage for venturing into organic search (SEO) because the PPC data such as which keywords converted best and which led to the highest volume of sales or average ticket price can now be a major factor in prioritizing the SEO targets. Since SEO is long term you want to be absolutely sure you’re targeting the right keywords long before you reach the first page for them.

Build Network Effect Advantages Into Your Work

But what if you're cash strapped?

Try to build network effects into your strategy. A network effect is the effect one user of a good or service has on the value of that product to other users. An example is the telephone. The more people who own telephones, the more valuable the telephone is to each owner. Similarly, auction and social network sites become more valuable the more people use them.

One marketing advantage of a network effect is good word of mouth. Word of mouth is the cheapest and most effective form of marketing there is. Again, because the channels are quieter during a down market, chances are you'll be heard more easily if you're one of the few outfits making noise.

In this article on Forbes, Roelof Botha, the venture capitalist who backed PayPal & YouTube, advocates taking word of mouth one step further, using viral strategies to boost consumer adoption:

A truly viral business is "like a disease," says Botha. "It needs to be transmitted from one person to another"--and the other person has to catch it. Once the next person catches it, he or she becomes a carrier too. Here are some good examples:

-- PayPal. If Bob sends Mary $25, Mary has to join PayPal in order to claim her money.

-- Evite. John e-mails you an invitation to his bachelor party but in order to read the details such as when and where, and to RSVP, you have to log onto Evite. E-card vendors work the same way.

-- Plaxo. A friend or business associate sends you an e-mail asking you to update your contact information. Once you log onto Plaxo to correct your phone number, you’ve caught the virus. Other services such as Birthday Alarm use the same strategy.

-- Skype. In the beginning, the only way you could make a free phone call over Skype’s Internet voice service was if the person you were calling was also a Skype member.

PayPal & YouTube also made it a strategy to be part of other networks. In so doing, they grabbed those networks audience share, and without the need to go into partnership.

eBay had an open software platform, which meant sellers could insert their own HTML code such as icons and visitor counters onto their auction pages. So PayPal built a tiny piece of code that allowed eBay merchants to include a PayPal payment button. By the time eBay got around to buying its own payment service, PayPal had infiltrated its business so deeply that eBay’s customers wouldn’t hear of using anything else....YouTube similarly benefited by becoming an insidious element on MySpace and other social networks and blogs.

Focus On Quality

Word of mouth comes about when you focus on being remarkable.

Learn the lesson of Google and PayPal, both of whom flourished during economic downturns. Provide a quality service, and people will use it, and talk about it.

Go back to basics. What is your value proposition? It needs to be compelling. When people are short of cash, they focus their spending on the the essentials, not the frivolous. Are you solving a real problem for people? Do you really know your customer? Ask not what they want, ask what do they need.

Focus On Essentials And Value

People who are worried about where their next dollar is coming from are going to be hesitant about signing up for expensive items, or long term deals. If you're selling an essential service or product, as opposed to a desirable product, you're going to find it easier. When the buyer has less discretionary spend, they're unlikely to be talked into non-essential deals.

Instead, focus on building relationships. This can be as simple as communicating well, showing integrity, and being passionate about what you do. When people do have more money to spend in the future, they'll remember you.

Deeper vs Broader: Exposure vs Engagement

Oct 30th

One of the most salient points of Seth Godin's Tribes book is that in the long run it is much more profitable for most businesses to create a deeper community with stronger and more passionate connections than it is to create a broader one that has strong reach but no message.

Without Relevancy, Nobody Cares

Do you remember the hype around the launch of John Reese's BlogRush about a year or so back? It was a blog focused ad network promoted through a MLM / pyramid scheme. The viral nature of blogs and the pyramid scheme helped it spread far and wide, but in spite of great growth it failed:

While the service is still going strong (serving a few million impressions a day) I just don’t see things improving for our users. The click-rates across the network are dreadfully low (and getting worse) as so many Internet users now ‘tune out’ links and other ads on sites.

Because of this, and many other issues, I’ve made the tough decision to shutdown the service.

John couldn't even get people to click the links because

  • everyone in the program was a webmaster
  • most of them were writing blogs targeted to webmasters
  • webmasters rarely click on ads
  • the links looked like ads
  • there was no relevancy in the ads (other than many being part of the webmaster blog demographic)

There are a wide array of ad network based start ups - with virtually all of them destined to fail, largely because they can't compete with Google on relevancy. If a person learned only one thing from search it should be that relevancy is a key to engagement.

Content Becomes Advertising

But even beyond advertising...what happens if we think this process through to content strategy? If the web keeps getting more saturated, more relevant, more biased, with more niche competitors, and people are willing to give away content to help do their marketing, then eventually the user engagement with your content becomes far more important than what you advertise. Content is advertising.

The plain truth is, great content is the most effective way to advertise online, because to be considered great content, it can’t look anything like what we consider advertising. But great content does need to naturally demonstrate that you’re knowledgeable about your field of expertise, and that’s why it works so well.

Think about it… the advertising we actually enjoy is often witty and entertaining, but it doesn’t persuade us to do anything. Even a dry article about tax savings tips has more promotional value than most hip television commercials.

Selling Ads to Yourself

One of the biggest flaws that new bloggers make is putting too many ads on a blog before they gain enough market momentum to build a strong revenue stream, thus segmenting themselves into the perceived group of "spammy" blogs by other webmasters who could offer powerful links.

If BlogRush makes so little per pageview that John Reese can't justify running it (even with the benefit of being able to give himself a large percentage of the ad impressions for free) then how could there be any ROI for an end user/publisher? Wouldn't that publisher make more money by featuring some of their own best content in the sidebar to build a deeper relationship with their readers?

Increasing User Engagement

Traffic is nowhere near as important as engagement and conversion are:

One other thing you can do is get hooked on the traffic, focus on building your top line number. Keep working on sensational controversies or clever images, robust controversies or other link bait that keeps the silly traffic coming back

I think it’s more productive to worry about two other things instead.
1. Engage your existing users far more deeply. Increase their participation, their devotion, their interconnection and their value.
2. Turn those existing users into ambassadors, charged with the idea of bring you traffic that is focused, traffic with intent.

A big part of why I changed my business model (from serving 13,000 + customers at $79 each to serving hundreds of customers at $100/month each) is because it became obvious that as the web expands and search becomes more relevant, what you can offer packaged loses perceived value (unless it is quite unique and/or you are good at doing hype driven launches), while the value of depth of interaction keeps increasing.

Why Web Design Matters

Oct 29th
posted in

You know what would be really cool?

Your whole site redesigned in Flash!

We could really liven it up. We could do animated navigation! Edgy!

We're cutting-edge web designers. We've designed stuff that's won tons of design awards! Let's take your boring site and totally reinvent it! Make it interactive! Your visitors will love it dude!

Erm...uh-huh. Maybe not.

It's little wonder that SEOs often come into conflict with the web designers. Those designers who design-for-designs'-sake can cause serious problems when it comes to internet marketing strategy, and getting seen in search engines.

Thankfully, there are also enough good designers who do understand that web design is a balancing act.

On the flip-side, there are SEOs who underestimate the power of good design. It's one thing to get a visitor to a site, but what happens once they get there? If the visitor finds a design unappealing, confusing or lacking in credibility, they are likely to click back. The cost of not spending a few hundred/thousand dollars on good design could be significant.

If you're thinking of hiring a designer, and SEO and web marketing is important to you, then you need to make sure they follow a few guidelines. Here's a checklist that will help you and your designer come up with the ultimate, well-crafted design that both appeals to your visitors, and complements your marketing efforts.

The point of synergy between SEO and design lies mostly in structure.

1. Purpose/Know Your Audience

The first, and by far the most import aspect of web design, is to clarify the purpose of the site.

Write down these three questions, and answer them in as much detail as you can.

  • Who will use the website?
  • What will people use the website to do?
  • How will people find the website?

Who Will Use The Website?

The "who" question is about meeting expectations.

If your audience are tree-huggers, they aren't going to respond to a slick, corporate site. It's like wearing a suit to an interview for a pool-guy position - the image doesn't fit the purpose.

Put yourself in the users shoes. What are their likes? Dislikes? What type of language do they use? How old are they? What is their demographic? Are they web-savvy? Can they read small fonts? Write down as many characteristics as you can in order to build up a profile of your user base.

When you first visit a competitor site targeting your audience, what attracts to you to it, and what annoys you? Why? What are your expectations?

Your site must reflect the values, needs and desires of your target audience.

Let's take a look at a couple of examples where the designer has got this right:

Smashing Magazine

The audience are web designers. People who are visually-oriented. People who want news about the latest trends and techniques. The design and format reflects these values and desires. It is based around large, bright attractive visuals. Text is kept to minimum. Smashing Magazine uses a blog format to facilitate the dissemination of news. All other functions are relegated.

UseIT

The audience for this site are people interested in usability, in particular, the writings of Jakob Nielsen. Nielsen has strong, and often divisive, views about the role of simplicity in web design. Some may say the site is not designed at all, but they'd be wrong. The site is Nielsen's theories and agenda made form. The design reinforces the idea that structure is more important than gloss.

What Will People Use The Website To Do?

What is the primary function of your site? The function needs to be crystal clear. What do you want users to do? Do you want users to sign up and discuss topics? If so, then you need to orient your design around serving that function. The layout, the graphics, and the text should all encourage a user towards taking that action. Relegate all other design aspects to secondary status. If the design gets in the way of a user completing that function, it isn't good design, no matter how pretty it looks.

How Will People Find The Website?

How the user will find the website is often overlooked be designers.

If visitors are going to use a search engine to find your site, then your site must be oriented around SEO. That means fast, crawlable, and content rich.

If users find your site because they are already aware of your brand, then seo considerations may be less important. The user merely needs to be assured they've arrived at the right site. Such sites usually put heavy emphasis on branding.

Will most of your uses find you via StumbleUpon? Again, there are design features that appeal to this audience.

2. Visual Culture

This is a summary for a course offered by the University Of Wisconsin. It sums up the nature of our visual culture well:

Ours is a visual culture. Our workplaces are visually saturated environments and our dominant pastimes (films, television, video games, and the internet) are visual media. Moreover, we communicate visually when we are trying to cross over cultural boundaries; think, for example, of the graphics devised for international signage. Knowledge is often communicated visually: scientists chart brain activity, economists graph fiscal trends, geographers map territory and detectives photograph evidence. The growth of the web as an information distribution system has made an understanding of visual design factors indispensable in every field of study. The visual also our access to the past. The earliest recorded communications are pictorial and artifacts are central to the reconstruction of history

This is where both the graphical element of web design, and spacial relationships on the page itself, play a significant role.

Graphics convey meaning in different ways to text. The saying "a picture is worth a thousand words" is apt here. Ensure your graphics reinforce the values and needs of your audience. Make sure the graphics help people, not hinder them. Too often, graphics are self-consciously used to impress.

Obviously, web design is not just about appropriate and pleasing graphics. It's also about form, and that includes text. What do you feel when you see a huge block of text in tiny print? Most people feel that, hey, this is work!

Spacial considerations are an important way to convey meaning, and also useful for SEO. Split pages up into headlines and short paragraphs. This technique serves two purposes. You can include extra keywords in heading tags, and you can focus attention where it needs to go. When people arrive at your site via a search engine, they will scan your page for their keyword phrase. Make sure they find it quickly and easily.

3. Clarity

Your website doesn't exist in isolation. How often do you glance at a website before clicking back or retyping your search query? Do you spin your scroll wheel immediately after arriving at a site, scanning for the exact information you require? No doubt you do it hundreds of times a day. Chances are, so does everyone else.

Therefore, clarity, both visually, and in terms of conveying meaning, is very important. If you can't convey to a visitor "you've found the right place" quickly, then you run the chance of losing that visitor.

All the linking and SEO in the world won't solve that problem.

4. Crawlability

Obviously, a website that can't be crawled is invisible to the search engines. Include a Google Site Map, and make your navigation text based, where possible. If you must use scripted links, then duplicate the navigation for crawlers. No matter what some designers might say, navigation is not the place to get funky. It's the place to get simple.

Consider cars. If you drive one car, you can drive them all. Why? The controls are all in the same place. Car designers don't get funky with the main control mechanism. The same goes for websites. Where navigation is concerned, stick to convention.

Personally, I'd avoid any designer who tries to get clever with navigation. They don't understand the web.

5. KISS

If faced with a design decision, go for the simple over the complex.

The web favors simplicity.

It's the nature of the beast.

6. Branding Is The Experience

Brand is often thought of purely in terms of identity. But this is an oversimplification.

Take, for example, McDonalds.

If people were asked to think of the brand of McDonalds, they'd think of the big, stylized letter "M". Or Ronald McDonald. But the McDonalds brand is made up of much more. The McDonald's brand is about fast service. It's about cheap food. It's about generic, yet tasty food. It's about the layout of the store. Every aspect of McDonald's store design and process is rolled into the brand. It's the entire experience. The M is really just a badge.

It's the same with websites. The brand isn't the graphical logo. The brand is the speed your pages load at. The clear layout. The ease of navigation. The tone of your writing. The fact you answer queries quickly. The fact it's easy to contact you in the first place. Your web design must not get in the way of these aspects. It must complement and reinforce them.

7. Speed

Your pages must load as fast as your visitors expect pages to load. And these days, that means Google fast! If need be, sacrifice graphics and features for speed. Speed is not just important. Speed is everything. It is too easy for a visitor to click back.

8. Read Point 7 Again

Really important. Really :)

9. Conflicting Agenda

One conflicting agenda between designers and SEOs often has to do with style over substance.

The main point of this post is to reinforce the idea that substance and style are inseparable. Both designers and SEOs must find a middle ground in order to arrive at one goal: a successful site. Avoid designers whose aim is to win awards, unless of course, winning design awards is part of your marketing strategy. The designers agenda should closely match your own.

10. Design Is Mostly About Structure

I was having a chat recently with a web designer who has formal graphic design qualifications, has won Webby Awards, runs his own web design shop employing 50 people, and has worked on multi-million dollar web projects. He's come round to admitting - very reluctantly - that on the web, graphic design doesn't really matter much. The design is mostly about structure. The information flow. Facilitating the interaction.

And he's right.

What we've often come to think of as design is more than just graphics and appearance. That's the icing. Design is about facilitating a process. It's about the way people move around and follow steps. A web site that makes that process complicated will not work, no matter how good the presentation.

A good designer will understand this.

Many do.

Try to avoid those who don't.

Further Reading

Review of Seth Godin's Tribes

Oct 29th

Seth recently wrote a book named Tribes, discussing the fusion of leadership, creating movements, and marketing based on word of mouth. Over the last year I have not read as many books as I would like to, but I am glad Seth wrote this one and am glad I took time out to read it. It is affordable and easy to read...I recommend you buy a copy today. :)

Here are my notes and quotes from the book

  • a Tribe needs a shared interest and a way to communicate
  • the marketplace embraces and rewards heretics "It's clearly more fun to make the rules than to follow them, and for the first time, it's also profitable, powerful, and productive to do just that."
  • growth for most new businesses comes from those who want to support change, rather than from competing businesses
  • creating a tighter tribe and/or "transforming the shared interest into a passionate goal and desire for change" usually leads to much more impact than trying to make a tribe bigger. beyond public relations and awareness related benefits, measuring the breadth of spread of an idea is not as important as looking at the depth of commitment and interaction of true fans, who end up being the people who recruit most new members
  • a movement consists of a story, a connection between the tribe and the leader, and something that needs to be done
  • "Life's too short to fight the forces of change. Life's too short to hate what you do all day. Life's way too short to make mediocre stuff. And almost everything that is standard is now viewed as mediocre." - killer quote for motivating people to embrace change
  • "Leadership is scarce because few people are willing to go through the discomfort required to lead. This scarcity makes leadership valuable."
  • "Ultimately, people are most easily led where they wanted to go all along." - a nice way of explaining the importance of bias in publishing
  • "When you fall in love with the system you lose the ability to grow."
  • "At first, the new thing is rarely as good as the old thing was. If you need the alternative to be better than the status quo from the very start, you'll never begin."
  • "Being charismatic doesn't make you a leader. Being a leader makes you charismatic."

And to appreciate how strong of a marketer Seth is, I somehow ended up with 3 copies of this book by launch date. I am not sure how that happened, but I think I got1 from Seth, 1 from Amazon.com, and 1 from speaking at a conference Seth spoke at. When I was first getting started on the web I read his book Purple Cow, and then bought a bunch of them in exchange for a one day training at his office. I was so stoked when I saw some of his marketing examples on the table matching things I took pictures of thinking they were good marketing...it was an early sign that I might have had a chance of doing ok on the Internet. :) Thanks for the great books Seth!

I also felt very privledged to be speaking at a conference that guys like Seth and Jakob Nielson were speaking at. When I was speaking I looked out into the audience and saw Jakob Nielson and felt a bit weird about being the guy at the podium...I also remembered reading Jakob's Designing Web Usability when I first got started on the web...and that was only about 5 years ago.

This Internet thing can send a lot of good luck your way if you stick with it for a few years. :)

The SEO Police

Oct 29th


I was a bit disappointed when I saw Rand out yet another website recently. Why was the site outed? Because they were ranking for SEO company and Rand didn't feel that their backlinks should count (and Rand wanted another excuse to promote his new LinkScape tool).

In his post Rand...

  • claimed that the site ranking #1 for SEO company was an embarrassment to Google and other search engines
  • wrote "Outing manipulative practices (or ANY practices for that matter) that put a page at the top of the rankings is part of our job"
  • wrote "Isn't the goal of a successful web marketing campaign to build a strategy that is legitimate to survive a manual review by the engines and strong enough to be defensible even to those who peer review or investigate?"

While some may not feel the post was outing, that was the intent of the post...to cause harm to the business highlighted, and to do so for potential personal profit. As Nick Wilsdon wrote:

Yes, Google probably already knows about them but that's not the point. Once a SERP or a naughty company becomes a public embarrassment, it then gets "cleaned up". Google can't be seen to be gamed. There's an element of politics involved.

ShoeMoney also spoke about that topic in this video, titled Don't Make Google Look Stupid

And that in itself becomes an issue. Sure most of us want to be able to have our sites pass a hand review and stand the test of time, but when things are covered with a negative connotation from a negative frame it makes Google more likely to act against the "spam"...even if it was something that was fine for years.

I had a lively conversation with a search engineer about one of my sites where he stated that he thought the site's marketing tactics were a bit spammy. 2 other search engines chose to promote that same site editorially with shortcuts. Because of who owns a site it can be seen as being spammy, while the same site is seen as the clear cut category leader worthy of promotion by other search employees who do not have anti-SEO goggles on.

Where this "out everything on principal" strategy goes astray is when a person's assumption of how the algorithms and editorial policies should work do not match what the search engineers believe. To appreciate that, consider the SEO Book affiliate program. It passed PageRank for years. And then Rand outed it and it stopped passing PageRank.

Recently Rand wrote that Google engineers said that affiliate programs should pass PageRank. So based on what Google engineers say in public, editorial links promoting my affiliate program should pass PageRank, but because Rand chose to out it, it probably never again will.

Shockingly, when asked point blank if affiliate programs that employed juice-passing links (those not using nofollow) were against guidelines or if they would be discounted, the engineers all agreed with the position taken by Sean Suchter of Yahoo!. He said, in no uncertain terms, that if affiliate links came from valuable, relevant, trust-worthy sources - bloggers endorsing a product, affiliates of high quality, etc. - they would be counted in link algorithms. Aaron from Google and Nathan from Microsoft both agreed that good affiliate links would be counted by their engines and that it was not necessary to mark these with a nofollow or other method of blocking link value.

Editorial affiliate links should count, but it was Rand asking "who does Google come down on" that was intended to harm my business to give himself a better competitive position. It was similar to the strategy of blasting Aviva to promote a list of directories people should buy - a profitable strategy, but not one with a north pointing ethical compass.

As to the absurdity to claiming that as a professional SEO's job to police the organic search results...I can only assume that a person stating such has never had a site hand edited (while seeing factually incorrect sites with spammier links and worse site designs continue to rank in the same results). If you read the Google remote rater documents you can see how things are open to interpretation. If you read the remote search quality rater documents leaked from 2003, 2005, and 2007 you can see how they changed over the years.

Years ago I might have thought reporting all spam was a good idea, but after experiencing and seeing the arbitrary and uneven nature of the editing it is not what I would consider a relevant mindset for SEO in 2008. When I was starting out in search my mentor told me "you can't really appreciate how the game works until you lose a site" and once you do, feeling like it is your job to out spam seems a bit small minded and short sighted.

If Rand really believes that "Outing manipulative practices (or ANY practices for that matter) that put a page at the top of the rankings is part of our job" then why does he offer a testimonial on the Text Link Ads website when Matt Cutts has clearly stated that buying text links is manipulative and outside their guidelines? Does he turn in his own clients for link buying?

Patrick's dedication to providing excellent services echoes in all of his employees and the company as a whole. Support and response times are exceptionally fast, and the process of buying links couldn't be easier. - Rand Fishkin

How can you suggest people should buy links and then out them for doing so? Someone is either being intellectually dishonest or economical with the truth.

SEO for Firefox - Now With SEO X-ray

Oct 28th

We recently added an SEO X-ray feature to SEO for Firefox. You must use Firefox 3.0 or above to see these features, but if you want to see...

  • how the on page optimization of any page looks (headings, meta description, page title)
  • the keyword density of the page and popular phrases on the page
  • how many links point into a page (total links, or links from external resources)
  • how many links point out of a page (as well as the anchor text of these links, nofollow vs follow, internal vs external - all exportable in CSV format)

then this new feature makes it quick and easy to do all of that. Simply right click on the page you are viewing, scroll down to SEO for Firefox, and click on SEO X-ray.

That will show you an overlay on the screen like this

We are planning on doing another update in the next couple days, and may add...

  • the IP address of the site (and links to other sites on the same IP address)
  • character and word counts for page title and meta description body content
  • a link to the domain tools overview page for the associated site

If you are using Firefox 3 and SEO for Firefox please give this a try and let us know what you think.

Earning Trust One Click At A Time

Oct 28th
posted in

When we talk about "trust" in terms of websites, we often refer to elements such as adding details such as you address and contact details, a privacy policy, and a guarantee. But trust is also a process.Trust is something earned with every interaction.

For example, once a music artist has built up a fan base, their new album is bound to sell more units than a new artist. The fans place a higher level of trust in someone with whom they have positive, prior experience. It's not just about the intrinsic quality of the music, it's also about the conditions that lead to a valued relationship. The same goes for websites.

Thinking of trust as a process can help build momentum, build your name, and build your reputation. In order to get users to engage with your site, they need to first place a level of trust in your site. Thankfully, the bar is reasonably low. You don't have to convince them to hand over their life savings, you only need to convince them that engaging with your site will provide them with value and not waste their time. And in order to keep them over the long term, you must maintain that trust.

Let's look at a few broad principles about trust as a process.

Ease Of Interaction

Make it easy for people to interact with the site. Learn the self-evident lessons of usability. Go beyond usability. Offer easy ways for people to interact. Why is interaction important? The most important trends in the web space in recent times have been about community and shared space. Think Facebook, blogging, Wikipedia, feed readers, and cloud computing. They're all about interaction, as opposed to the mid 90's web, which was mostly about top-down publishing.

Interaction will become an increasingly important factor over the coming few years, especially as the global recession bites deeper. Here's an exert from Jason Calacanis' latest email letter:

"The good news in all of this is that folks are going to be spending a lot of time online, playing video games and consuming things that are not expensive. They're going to be looking for "experiences over expenses. ...Why will there be a boom in traffic, engagement and participation?

Well, people will have time on their hands and the desire to socialize. Group behavior makes people feel better. One of the best cures for the blues is sharing a meal with friends.

Blogging became a phenomenon not because of some technological advance, but because between 2002 and 2005 there were a lot of unemployed--and underemployed--individuals with a lot to say and a lot of freetime. Bloggers like Peter Rojas, Michael Arrington, Nick Denton, Rafat Ali, Xeni Jardin and Om Malik broke out in the down market--not the upmarket."

Awards

People like to feel important. Offer them an award or an elevated status level. You see this technique used in forums. Members are given classifications, from Newbie through to Moderator. Bestowing moderator status not only assigns an administrative role in itself a form of hierarchy - but it also elevates their status within the community. Similarly, the granting of stars, boosting posts to sticky status, or boosting posts to the front page has a similar effect.

So long as an award process is transparent and consistent, people will come to trust in it, which, in turn, leads to greater levels of engagement.

Voting

People like to feel their opinion matters. Give people an opportunity to vote. Voting helps make people feel included, and that they are influencing outcomes. An obvious example of such a system is Digg. Digg is a community built around voting and a forum for expressing personal opinion. It could be argued that the downside of Digg is that some people's votes appear to matter more than those of others. The lack of transparency is, to my mind, Diggs biggest flaw. If people feel that voting is skewed, they are less inclined to trust the system.

Meet Expectations

Deliver what your users expect.

Google had a problem. They wanted to index subscription-only material, but clearly publishers did not want to give this material away. This led to a situation where Google users would click on a result, but not get the article they expected, based on their previous experience of using Google i.e. clicking on a result leads directly to the indexed content. This situation leads to a decrease in trust. So Google came with First Click Free. First Click Free allows users to skip over the subscription page on their first visit.

The lesson is to try and maintain consistency. If users get something other than they've come to expect, they'll leave.

A Sense Of Belonging

People like to feel they belong. Cultivate a sense of belonging, and look to include people, wherever possible. Be accessible. Talk in terms of the group, rather than the individual. Examine the language you use. Does your language speak of a sense of community, involvement, and shared values? Of course, this won't apply to every type of site, but if you've got a strategy based around user interaction, then look for ways to make people feel as if they belong. It might be something as simple as responding to people's comments in timely fashion, or providing a personalized welcome message, or using inclusive language.

Social Proof Of Value

People like to go where other people are. Think about ways in which you can demonstrate that other people use, and place a high value upon, your site.

Methods include visitor counters, positive mentions you've received in the popular press, recent comments on your site, feed reader subscription stats (like those offered by FeedBurner), third party traffic stats (from sites like Alexa and Compete.com) and quotes from known influencers. Make sure that people who are new to your site see these social proofs as soon as possible. Don't bury them deep - put them up front, loud and proud. Don't be afraid to blow your own horn.

Social proof is an increasingly important aspect of internet marketing. Some things gain currency for no other reason than everyone else likes it. No one wants to eat at an empty restaurant, even if the food is just as good as the heaving restaurant next door. People like to be where other people hang out.

To get there, you need to establish momentum. But how on earth do you build that momentum from scratch? The answer isn't pretty - it's hard - but there three concepts you are helpful.

Have a read of this article, Filthy Linking Rich & Getting Richer by Mike Grehan, if you haven't read it already:

"The great twentieth century sociologist Robert Merton dubbed it the "Mathew effect" as a reference to a passage in the Bible, in which Mathew observes, "For unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance; but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath." The Mathew effect, when applied to networks, basically equates to well connected nodes being more likely to attract new links, while poorly connected nodes are disproportionately likely to remain poor.....It has been proposed that "the rich get richer" effect drives the evolution of real networks. If one node has twice as many links as another node, then it is precisely twice as likely to receive a new link."

This is also known as cumulative advantage.

Also take a look at this article in the New York Times, entitled "Is Justin Timberlake a Product of Cumulative Advantage?". To summarize, the article talks about how social influence plays a large a role in determining the market share of successful songs as differences in quality.

"The long-run success of a song depends so sensitively on the decisions of a few early-arriving individuals, whose choices are subsequently amplified and eventually locked in by the cumulative-advantage process, and because the particular individuals who play this important role are chosen randomly and may make different decisions from one moment to the next, the resulting unpredictability is inherent to the nature of the market.....If one object happens to be slightly more popular than another at just the right point, it will tend to become more popular still. As a result, even tiny, random fluctuations can blow up, generating potentially enormous long-run differences among even indistinguishable competitors. "

So, popularity is an impossible process to replicate and systematize. Popularity is due to a combination of factors, which could include take-up by a few influencers, being in the right place at the right time, gaining the momentum affect as others get on board, and a large dose of luck.

However, there are, I think, three main lessons here.

One is the role of influencers. Influencers is a fairly broad term, which can include people who hold sway over large communities, to those who are merely inclined to pass on a good find to another person. You need to make it easy for those people to engage with your site. To trust you. It's old fashioned word-of-mouth, and it's still the most powerful marketing method there is.

In practical terms, try linking out to the inflencers and saying good things about them. Or bait them. Give them things. Make it easy for them to talk about you.

Secondly, identify the hubs with a sphere of influence. All communities have a few, central authorities around which the entire community orbits. Try to get seen on those sites, whether it's by buying advertising, posting articles, or participating in discussion.

Thirdly, leverage off a trust process.

SEO is an example of leveraging off a trust process. The user trusts Google to find the best results. The searcher searches on a phrase, and chooses a result from the left hand side of the page. The user will often choose one of the top three listings.

The key to achieving these things is tenacity. And to build and maintain trust.

SEO for Charity Websites: an Interview of Dominic Mapstone

Oct 28th

This is an interview of my friend Dominic Mapstone, who uses SEO to help influence the media and make social change.

What is the hardest part about marketing a non-profit website online?

  1. Having the client’s permission to divulge confidential information or even a photo of them in non-profit marketing is a big roadblock for all non-profits.


Most have to hire actors or dress a staff member up to pose for a staged photo, and they use hypothetical situations or characters in their advertising – nothing from a real case file.
On our website about homeless people all our stories are real and often include photos of the person and even the place they sleep at night.

At the end of each story you can click through to a forum thread and talk with the person in the story. Except for a homeless man Andrew, he was murdered so can’t really come to the forums right now.

I get client’s permission, give them an alias and am very well respected on the street so they know I will protect their interests. Far and away though, getting content and connections like this is the most difficult factor for non-profit marketing.

If you have permission to use content and record the stories and photos:

  1. Knowing what stories to tell or picture to paint, from a marketing perspective is the next hardest thing. One story on our site is about a homeless girl who killed someone when she was robbing a store to fuel a drug binge.

On face value you wouldn’t imagine a story like that painting a flattering story of the homeless. But get into the context and follow her story as it unravels and it’s an educational and engaging story.

By the end of the page:

  • you are cheering her on
  • you understand homelessness more
  • you have an idea of what I’m about
  • and even know the name of my dog

A lot of people non-profits help aren’t that marketable. So picking the right story to present and knowing what facts to include and what to leave out is difficult. We have 100 stories we can’t use for every one that has potential.

  1. If your topic area is exclusively non-profit, competing with powerful government websites which are usually PR8 or PR7 is to be expected and more recently Wikipedia always ranks well in non-profit topic areas.

Our websites tick a lot of the right SEO boxes, but the one factor we really outperform in is one not widely held as important in SEO circles.

When people visit our sites, they usually have found what they are looking for and don’t quickly click away. A number of people have emailed me reporting they have spent five hours or more reading our content.

With any website, researching what people are searching for in the long tail and in the popular keyword phrases and SEOing for it is important. But delivering on quality content once they find your website, from my experience has paid off.

Maybe there isn’t a ‘time spent on site’ gland that gets tickled at Google, maybe it’s just the old school SEO I’ve done all along.

Maybe the Google ‘time spent on site’ gland works the other way round – if people usually navigate away from your site promptly and revisit search results it’s telling Google a thing or two about the value of your place in their search results.

Either way:

Delivering on what your place in the search results promises for people clicking through to your site is food for thought for all website owners.

  1. The other big challenge is chasing keywords in a for profit market with a non-profit educational website. SEO smarts are really helpful when your competition has a large marketing budget.


In Australia when teenagers graduate high school they head to the nearest beach for a week of partying. It’s a tradition known as Schoolies.
Tens of millions of dollars are spent at tourist destinations around the country so our competitors have a lot of motivation and strong marketing budgets.

Gold Coast Schoolies attracts over 50,000 people and destinations along the Great Barrier Reef such as Whitsundays Schoolies books out entirely.

Our Social Work interest in Schoolies as the most significant youth event in the national social calendar is protecting the interests of the young people and providing a peer education program for them (Schoolies Survival Guide).

Problems such a sexual assault, street violence, alcohol poisoning, drug overdose, and suicide are significant. There are also consumer rights and fair trading issues we get involved in to protect young people.

Maintaining a prominent position in search results has enabled us to engage young people via the Schoolies Forums and give them a voice and place to explore issues they will face at Schoolies.

When did you know that the web was going to be a key part of your strategy?

Back in 2003, I used SEO techniques, and applied marketing principals… to a few websites and then had more unique visitors than I had anticipated and some cash flowing into our non-profit from online sources.

  • Being able to reach a wide audience attracted me.

Unique visitors per month for the websites: homeless.org.au 55,000 and schoolies.org.au 30,000.

  • Being able to earn a passive income really caught my attention.

As an example of online passive income: I wrote a page detailing my experience catching and cooking mud crab. Checking our website stats I was surprised that it got attention online so I put some Adsense ads on it and the page brings in some funds for us every month.

It’s unrelated to our work and on a side website we own, but the concept of providing quality content people want to read and earning some bank from it, while I’m off doing what I really want to do on the streets is great.

  • On a personal note the internet as a creative outlet and SEO as a competitive outlet have been great. Winding down after a difficult day by reading some blogs, getting into forums and updating sites is great for lowering stress.

How many people have you helped over the years? 

I started volunteering with the homeless when I was 17, in 1994. I graduated my Social Work Degree in 1999, and founded a non-profit organization in 2003.

A central philosophy of Social Work is to understand an individual’s situation in the broader context of society; and change society and social policy for the better, not just the individual’s situation.

So while I’d say it’s quite a number of individuals, the real business of it all is to change society and social policy for the better.

My SEO experience behind our websites has significantly increased the number of people I’ve been able to engage with and enlist in community development and social change.

I believe you run a forum to help homeless people. How do you lift up the spirits and give hope to a person who may be sleeping in an unknown location that night? How do you keep the tone positive when many people are struggling to survive?

Unknown location? They are all staying at the Million Star Hotel!

The tone doesn’t have to remain positive. Sure we try and keep a glass half full thing going on, but the fact that people are sharing and exploring their own brokenness with people as open about their own brokenness tends to make it a genuine comfortable place for everyone, even on a bad day.

Our greatest asset in the Homeless Forums is an excellent team of moderators / forum leaders who in the main are current or formerly homeless people themselves so have great familiarity with the problems faced by other members.

Every now and again someone throws a chair, but people understand in that community space, and moderators are expressly trained to be patient (to a degree) and engage members supportively.

A big deal with homelessness is the disconnection from family and the community. So the Homeless Forums enable people with similar life experiences to connect with each other in a supportive way.

A student recently asked in a thread why people visit the forums, here is one reply:

“When I got off the street I cut most of my connections with old friends on the street as I didn't want to slip back into many bad habits i.e. drugs.
I have trouble relating to most mainstream people so for me this is a place I can talk to people who not only understand a lot of my experiences but empathise and don't criticize.
When I'm here I can be myself rather than hiding my past or hiding from it.
Where else could I say hi I'm an ex-prostitute and recovering alcoholic and druggie now turned university student.”

I can take credit for the idea to promote a forum for homeless people, but the 3,000+ members especially the moderators are the ones who have developed it into such an effective gathering place.

Two notable threads include the personal journal of a homeless girl over the course of four years moving out of street life. The thread has had over 50,000 page views helping to educate people about homelessness.

In another thread, a homeless man in London is exposing a disgusting practice of wetting down foot paths where homeless people sleep to move them on. His efforts to confront this degrading policy of the Corporation of London via the forums have been covered by the BBC and other news outlets.

I receive a number of emails from people saying they have spent some time reading the forum threads and that they learnt more about homelessness then they could imagine from a book or university course. So it’s great to hear those interested in learning about homelessness are finding educational reading in the forums.

Shout out to Chicago Homeless, Los Angeles Homeless and San Francisco Homeless we haven’t heard much from you yet.

How do people find your site? What do you do to encourage them to register and contribute?

I’ve optimized the site to return in a number of homeless related searches and invite visitors to the website into the forums.

One of the most effective ways has been to share five stories of homeless people on our website and at the end of each story, invite readers into the forums to a designated thread where they can leave a message of support for the homeless person they just read about and read replies to their message directly from the person in the story.

We also encourage homeless members to print out a flyer promoting the forums and post it at homeless service providers they frequent.

Service providers who provide internet access to homeless people can use a start page I designed for them to set as their default homepage, with search boxes for the major search engines and links to popular email services along with links to sections of the forums: Homeless Homepage.

Do you see SEO growing as a strategy for you? Do you have to have other exposure to do well in search? What core SEO principals should be applied to non-profit websites?

Certainly, SEO has served us well so I continue to follow developments in the industry and invest time in our websites.

Links from newspaper articles are another great source of exposure and bring exceptional SEO benefit. Radio and television interviews are great exposure also. Regardless of if the site is for-profit or non-profit.

The media’s daily hunger for content is so significant as it needs just as much more content tomorrow and the next day as it published today. So there are some great opportunities for exposure via the media.

The most underutilized SEO technique in the non-profit sector is deep linking and the most common mistake is simply trying to elevate their brand, rather than chasing topical keywords or geographical distinctions.

How does your online presence influence life offline? How do you get the media involved in issues?

We get a lot of phone calls as a result of prominence in search results, so I feel like a switch board sometimes, directing people to the appropriate service.

One of the upsides is that the media also call looking for the best person to talk to about the latest news angle they want to cover, so I get first lick of the ice cream and can take media opportunities I’m interested in.

For anyone wanting media coverage:

  1. The best starting point is to read the recent coverage of your topic on Google News and get a good understanding of the kind of news that gets covered.
  2. Then pick out a journalist from these stories. Write a good press release and send it to the journalist.
  3. Note the easiest stories to get in on are industry or other people’s news. You don’t have to be newsworthy, just be able to supply a timely comment about what is newsworthy.
  4. Having a media contacts page listed on your website is a good practice also.

We also get weird and wonderful requests from people who find us online. One lady gave us a whole lamb from her butcher as some kind of offering in memory of her father who died recently.

I had to call a priest to check if it was some weird religious thing I should avoid getting involved with, but he said it was fine, just her way of celebrating her father’s life. So the homeless staying at our shelter ate every kind of lamb cut there is for the next few weeks.

As a non-profit, every keyword topic area we are involved in and dominate online strengthens our Social Work position offline – impacting people’s lives.

Should non-profits buy links? How do they get exposure online when the network is already so saturated?

Rather than buy links I’d encourage non-profits to hire a Masters student or PHD student in to do some writing for them (just call your local university and ask the faculty to recommend a student), or allocate some staff time if you have in-house experts.

Workshop in-house your topic area and ask what’s missing in terms of information online? Have a really quality position paper or article written on that topic, publish it on your website and update the Wikipedia to reference the article.

Consider the reference worthy content you could create for a few thousand dollars and you would now own highly link worthy content.

The document would also be great for long tail searches and the writing style and substance would no doubt register on Google’s semantics quality score.

Quality substantive content needs a lot less link juice to attract search traffic.

Here are some potential link sources free for non-profits:

Non-profit organizations are also forever in contact with each other so use your existing real life networks to make some online linking connections. They are the best contacts to ask for deep links with descriptive anchor text – to programs or events you profile on internal pages, reports or even just your contact us page.

YouTube

  • Google really hasn’t got a handle on YouTube yet; the search function is crap and doesn’t help with misspellings like Google organic search does.
  • At any rate, Google is heavily promoting YouTube videos in organic search results. The potential for SEO’s from all backgrounds to take advantage of this is wide open.

Have you used any for profit sites to help fund non-profit sites? Should non-profit sites consider adding for profit sections to their site to help subsidize the costs of running their website and organization?

I do some work as a Life Coach and feed the funds into our non-profit work. I also do some Search Engine Optimization and increasingly funds are flowing in from this work. In the future I’d like to get more involved in Reputation Management as I know the media and public relations side of it and think there is a growing market for it from a dual public relations and SEO perspective.

It’s not likely that a lot of non-profits are in a position to operate a for profit website on the side as a means of raising funds. But where it is possible it can be a productive source of income.

Why Are Young Liberals 'Destroying the Internet'?

Oct 26th

In the following interview of Jon Stewart, Bill O'Reilly mentioned that Jon's audience was younger and left leaning.

Recent research from a survey of 3,036 Americans confirms that people who contribute content to the web are skewed toward being young, left-leaning, and more passionate about the sites they contribute content on.


In Online Communities and Their Impact on Business [PDF] Rubicon Consulting highlights the following:

Most frequent contributors are different from the average web user. They're more ethnically diverse; more technically skilled; more likely to be single; more likely to work in technology, entertainment, or communications companies; and more likely to be Democrats. But most of all, they are younger than typical web users. Half of the web's most frequent contributors are under age 22.


The common stereotype for the Digg crowd also applies across many other sites and industries.

That's not to say you should try to appeal to the Digg audience, but if a disproportionate amount of content is created by young liberals then there is business sense in appealing to that demographic. Appealing to the 10% of people who create content makes you look better to the other 90% of people who use the web.

If you look at a traditional user adoption curve the people to the far left are the people who have blogs and the people who leave feedback on other websites. The interaction with the loud users is what helps potential customers build confidence. These loud stakeholders are influencers.

A site which has more user generated content on it has the following benefits

  • a broader range of unique textual content to rank against (which helps it build a larger organic audience)
  • built in social proof of value/cumulative advantage (people think it is popular, and perhaps more authoritative, because others contribute to the site)
  • built in loyalty (people who contribute to your site have a vested interest in spreading the word about your site, and seeing to the success of your site)
  • more editorial reviews that turn searchers into shoppers into buyers (reviews increase consumer confidence and make them more likely to purchase)
  • more inbound links (people are more likely to link at a page full of editorial reviews, and the people who review products are more likely to own websites)
  • faster and cheaper market feedback
  • a broader reach with new releases (particularly if you build an audience by offering an email newsletter or a regularly updated blog)
  • lower traffic acquisition costs, lower marketing cost, and higher value per visitor (due to many of the above points)

The Rubicon research also states that young people are more likely to be influenced by online reviews, and are more likely to search online for support issues...so having a search accessible FAQ section can drastically lower customer support costs.

New Wordpress Hacking Strategy Using Cloaking to Target Google IP Addresses

Oct 23rd

Stay Protected

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

If you want to prevent any of your Wordpress blogs from getting hacked make sure you keep your software up to date, and follow other basic Wordpress protection strategies, like - securing your admin folder, removing the Wordpress version number from your theme's header.php file, creating an index.html file in your plug-ins directory, and removing other common Wordpress oriented footprints like a "powered by Wordpress" signature in the page footer.

Get an Early Warning

Another thing you can do to protect yourself is to get an early warning if/when your blog does get hacked. You can subscribe to a Google Alert for site:yoursite.com viagra OR cialis OR levitra, and so on...as Patrick explains on Blogstorm.

If one of your blogs gets hacked fix the others before it is too late. Some plug ins make it easy to update/re-install Wordpress.

Stopping Comment Spam

Not quite as bad as full hacking, but comment spam is still annoying. There are a couple good plug ins to help prevent comment spam as well, including Akismet and Spam Karma.

Other easy suggestions on this front are to require a captcha and force first time comments to be moderated before appearing on the site.

Google IP Address Targeted Hacking + Cloaked Spam

One of my blogs was recently targeted by a blog hacker that inserted links into the site that could *only be viewed by GoogleBot*. You typically would not notice such a hack unless you subscribed to a Google Alert for your site, saw yourself ranking for some of the spam terms, and/or when your Google Search Traffic started to fall.

The issue with such a hack is that it is hard to know if you wiped it out, even if you update everything. When you use Firefox's User Agent Switcher you still will not see the links because you are not surfing from one of GoogleBot's IP addresses.

In fact, for this particular hack you can't even see the links on Google's cached version of a page unless you view the text cache version of the page.

Once you click the text only cache link tons of pharmacy links appear in the page footer. This screenshot was taken from a Texas Instruments blog post on security and safety

Google currently has indexed over 20,000 pages with this particular hack.

How This Type of Hack Influences Google Traffic

Earlier this week one of my writers who loves blogging complained that search traffic was dropping slightly, and then after a few days of minor decay the search traffic was cut in half. Keep in mind this site gets much of it's traffic from organic links.

Our Google traffic started to fall off slowly, and as more of the pages with spam in them got indexed the fall off became sharper. After a week or so traffic may be a small % of what it was...or if they just spam a couple pages the change in traffic may be so minor that you never notice it. The traffic decay rate depends on...

  • the crawl priority of your site (how frequently it gets crawled)
  • the number of pages you have on your site
  • how bad your site gets spammed (number of spammy links and pages, etc.

You can see what portion of your site got hit by searching Google for "spammy footprint" site:example.com and comparing that count to the total number of pages Google shows indexed for site:example.com.

How to Clean Up Your Wordpress Blog

Regular updates are a plus to make it easy to revert to a prior version if needed. And if you find yourself upgrading software after a hack make sure your server is clean (save old files elsewhere) and install fresh. You probably want to change your database and Wordpress passwords after upgrading, and if you are not sure where the hack was you may also want to change your theme.

There are a lot of different ways people can hack into a Wordpress blog. Some spam hunting ideas include...

Using SSH to look for recently modified files and/or weird new files that were added to your site. Some hackers may also add files to the root of your site, or above it hidden somewhere on your web server.

Some hacks may be via a Wordpress plug-in. If you have inessential plug-ins installed see if others have complained about them getting hacked, and see if you can remove them. I think some hackers that get into Wordpress go so far as adding plug-ins that position spam throughout the blog.

If your database contains spam in it then you can run the following MySQL query (from Michael VanDeMar) to find many of the most common types of Wordpress link hacks.

If you can't find any spam in your Wordpress database, then...

  • look for files that have been added or modified
  • back up your files and database
  • disable plug ins
  • delete all files (except for maybe your config file and .htaccess file - and verify those have not been edited as well)
  • update your blog to the newest version of Wordpress
  • change your MySQL password and your Wordpress password
  • install a new theme
  • download necessary plug-ins from their original sources if you want to keep using them
  • make sure you performed all the steps at the top of this article to try to keep your blog safe.
  • if your problem was a shoddy host that got compromised then its a good idea to shift to a better Wordpress hosting solution

If The Hacker Was Using IP Cloaking...

If the hacker was using IP cloaking you can't be 100% certain that the spam is gone until Google tries to index new pages on your site and/or re-indexes old pages that were hacked.

You can find files that have been indexed in the last day or last week by using Google's date based filters.

If you updated your blog a few hours ago you can also do a regular site:www.example.com search on Google and set the results to 100 per page to find any pages that have been re-indexed in the last few hours. Once the search results come up you can search the search results page for hours ago.

One note of caution is to check the actual page's cache date at the top of the page. Sometimes when a cache is really new clicking on the link will show you the new page, but sometimes it will show you a cached page from a few days back. When you see a new cached page without the spam links hopefully your spam problems are almost over and your site is on the road to recovery, with rankings improving as Google caches more pages from your site.

Remember to set up a Google Alert for your site so you can track if any spam links magically re-appear.

Your Turn

I have only had a couple blogs hacked in my many years of blogging. Did I miss any obvious tips and/or wisdom you can add to the above post?

The Art of Pitching - What's Wrong With Link Building Email Requests?

Oct 23rd

We've all, at some point, received the "request-for-a-link" email.

Such emails are useless, on a number of levels, the main reason being that the offer is lousy. However, such emails also tend to get the pitch wrong, so further limit the chances of getting the link. Getting the pitch right - the way the offer is described - is a bit of an art.

I've been looking back through the emails I've received and there are common characteristics displayed in those I ignored, and those I responded to.

There are two aspects common to all such emails, the offer and the pitch.

The Offer

The offer must be compelling. No matter how good the pitch, if the offer doesn't advantage the recipient in some way, then the sender is unlikely to receive a response.

Take, for example, the PR offer.

I receive a lot of these. They don't get read. Why? There's no advantage for me in doing so. There is advantage for the company that wants free coverage, of course, but not me. Unless the information is ground-breaking, and hasn't been circulated widely in the public domain, then the typical PR email "offer" is very poor. The offer is essentially this: "give us your time and effort for nothing so we can advance our cause"

Well, no. No I won't :)

But lets say the offer is to my advantage. Either I'm receiving some genuinely useful information, a good opportunity, or a good incentive. It can still be let down by the quality of the pitch.

The Pitch

Here is an email Aaron received recently:

Subject: About an Advertisement on Your Blog

Hellow.
I've recently created a software for automated social bookmarking.

Just wanted to ask, if it is possible to order a post about our tool on your blog, written by you ?
You don't even need to install and actually test the software if you don't want to, just mention that there is something out there that is worth using for seo purposes.
Here is a website: (removed)

Thanks.

There are a few obvious problems in terms of both the offer and the pitch.

  • "Hellow". The very first word is misspelled. This is unprofessional.
  • Does not include the recipients name. It's not personal.
  • Asks about advertising, then demands coverage, with no transition. What's in it for me? Where's the incentive?
  • Asks us to post about the software without trying it. Again, why would we do that? Our credibility would be at stake, for starters.
  • Domain misspelled. You'll have to take my word on that one, but it was :)
  • Does not have the senders name in the email. Again, unprofessional.
  • Their domain is a scrolling sales letter with no other content. Why would we recommend our readers, who tend to be very web-savvy, to such a site? We'd lose credibility.

Not only is the offer a poor one, but we can't take the pitch seriously either. It could have worked if they'd thought a little bit more about the offer, and pitched correctly.

How To Pitch An Email

1. Make It Personal

Imagine a telephone call where the caller launched straight into their message, but with time spent on social niceties. Even telemarketers make some effort to establish rapport.

The same goes with email. You need to know who you're writing to and address that person by name. Read their About Us page, read their site, Google them, get to know them. It can be a good idea to make contact with them, and build a rapport, some time before making your request for a favor. Try to pay it forward. Give them something first.

It's also a good idea to clearly outline a connection you have with the recipient, if such a fact isn't already established. For example, "I read your article "SEOmoz's Linkscape: Why the Backlash is Overblown" and wanted to ask you a question...." or "I was talking to a friend of yours, Aaron Wall, and he suggested I....."

2. Keep It Professional

Hi Arren,

I waas wanting too no if you would link to my site?

Spelling and grammar matter. No one expects William Shakespeare, but poor spelling and grammar screams "unprofessional". An obvious exception is when you know someone well. The better you know someone, the less the technical aspects of communication tend to matter.

3. Tone

If you don't know someone well, it is best to use a professional tone. Too conversational can come over as "not serious", especially in email correspondence. Remember, it's not like dealing face-to-face, where nuance, inflection, expression and gestures become important signifiers of meaning.

So keep it clean, clear, precise and professional. Be particularly careful with humor. What sounds like a joke to you may get lost in translation, especially if the person you're emailing is from a different country.

If in doubt, play it straight.

4. Message Title

So much depends on the title.

Put yourself in the recipients shoes. Like you, they're probably busy. They're focused on their own stuff. They might have an inbox that is full to bursting, and they're feeling a little guilty about not clearing it out. One more message is just one more problem they must deal with.

Then your message arrives.

In this context, how do you make sure your message desirable?

The trick with email is to make the title personal. Relate it directly to the recipient in some way. Arouse curiosity, praise people, describe a benefit, or pose a direct question. But put a personal spin on it.

A lot of email marketing strategy gets this wrong, particularly in relation to benefits. Titles loaded with benefits, such as ""Do You Hate Your Job? Discover Seven Secrets..." will be viewed as spam. Titles like that may work if you are in the spam business, but they are highly unlikely to work anywhere else. If you do use benefit statements, then try to personalize them.

5. What's In It For The Recipient

This is possibly the most important aspect in getting the recipient to act.

Outline the benefit to the recipient, and do so before they switch off.

Be concise.

Too lengthy, and it's unlikely the recipient will read to the end. A big block of text can be very off-putting. The first contact should be brief. You can go into detail latter. Think of the first email contact as a covering letter.

Try to offer them something of value. A discount code, a free trial, a free product. It should be something of real value.

Ok, so let's try and rewrite the email, using the guidelines. Note: the intent of the original email was a little ambiguous. It sounded as if the person who wrote it wanted a pay-per-post deal. However, SEOBook doesn't do those types of deals, so I've refocused on how it should be pitched, if the writer had bothered to first research SEOBook.com's editorial policy :)

New SEO Software Your Readers Might Like

Hi Aaron,

I'm a loyal reader of SEOBook.com, and I've written a piece of software that you and your readers might be interested in.

The software automates social bookmarking.

You can use the software to help build links and increase traffic to your site. If you'd like to try it out, here is a link to a free copy. I've included a recent case study showing how we took a site from 1,000 visitors to 4,000 visitors in less than a week.

I'd be very interested in hearing any feedback you may have.

Kind regards,

Joe Emailer

acme.com

Not perfect, but it only took one minute to write. I'm sure we can all agree that it is an improvement on the first one.

Aaron might even have answered it....

Political Marketing & Advertising

Oct 22nd
posted in

All Political Views Are Imperfect

Political Differences Come From Non-political Sources

Here is one take by Jonathan Haidt on the differences between conservatives and liberals...it may not be entirely correct, but an interesting take nonetheless.

"Truth" & the Reptilian Brain

During the last election I saved mail spam that was sent to my house. One of the pieces claimed that John Kerry was the most liberal member of congress. What does it mean to be "the most liberal member of congress"?

When a person I know well reminded me that "Obama is bad for America, and the most liberal member of congress" I showed them the matching attack ad mail pieces from 2004 and 2008.

Once the political marketers find a story that triggers the reptilian brain they stick with it...but it is hard to get people to see past their own biases when the reptilian brain is activated. They just want to yell at you or punch you, apparently because it is easier than being logical.

A couple years ago the Neuromarketing blog referenced a study about political marketing:

“We did not see any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning,” said Drew Westen, director of clinical psychology at Emory University. “What we saw instead was a network of emotion circuits lighting up, including circuits hypothesized to be involved in regulating emotion, and circuits known to be involved in resolving conflicts.”

The test subjects on both sides of the political aisle reached totally biased conclusions by ignoring information that could not rationally be discounted, Westen and his colleagues say.

Then, with their minds made up, brain activity ceased in the areas that deal with negative emotions such as disgust. But activity spiked in the circuits involved in reward, a response similar to what addicts experience when they get a fix, Westen explained.

The study points to a total lack of reason in political decision-making.

Market Idealisms Are False

Sometimes politics causes fights that are unneeded, as the reptilian portions of our brains fight each other based on emotions and ideological errors that push for "the truth." But the end game of unrestrained belief in a strategy creates a heavily flawed system that leads toward self-destruction until the pendulum swings in the other direction. And, as the pendulum swings from one direction to the next short term opportunistic businesses look for "legitimate" ways to fraud people. Unregulated markets end up no better than the worst parts of socialism.

BILL MOYERS:One of the British newspapers this morning had a headline, "Welcome to Socialism." It's not going that way, is it?

GEORGE SOROS:Well, you know, it's very interesting. Actually, these market fundamentalists are making the same mistake as Marx did. You see, socialism would have worked very well if the rulers had the interests of the people really at heart. But they were pursuing their self-interests. Now, in the housing market, the people who originated the houses earned the fee.

And the people who then owned the mortgages their interests were not actually looked after by the agents that were selling them the mortgages. So you have a, what is called an agent principle problem in socialism. And you have the same agent principle problem in this free market fundamentalism.

Form Your Vision of the Truth, Then Compile Anecdotal Evidence

Revisionist History

People who do not understand the mortgage market meltdown like to claim liberal were at fault, offering quotes like this one, when the truth was that the fallout was caused by unrestrained greed, excessive leverage, low interest rates, and short term opportunism.

To Win, Politicians Must Lie

The party ideals have little to do with what the individuals intend to do because politicians are first and foremost marketers. To be a successful politician at the highest level in the United States being a liar is a prerequisite.

And that’s what we have in America today, only one side. Everybody’s on his own side, only speaking to himself, like-minded people. Who’s going to change the equation? Certainly not politicians, elected officials. Obama’s got to say he’s for drilling to get elected, because the person paying four bucks a gallon doesn’t know that it’ll take eons for said oil to reach the pump. We’ve got the businessmen raping and pillaging, the politicians lying, at best being expedient, and the only people we can count on to speak the truth have abdicated their power, their duty, their role. That’s what the job of the artist is. To question authority, challenge convention, speak the unpopular, if it’s the truth.

Clarity Wins

If politicians are well organized and articulate they should not need to spend much on advertising to get their message to spread. Consider how old the Keating 5 story is, and yet just the recent announcement of it lead to millions of video views, which lead to more media coverage. Politicians have the ability to create search volume out of thin air and make up new keywords simply by using them.

Framing

How Framing Works

Rather than being focused on getting the facts straight, politicians focus on idea association through naming. If you want to misinform and misdirect the consumer, rather than using the name "estate tax" you could rebrand the concept as "death tax" and then begin trashing it.

Can You Re-frame Issues?

John Kerry is sponsoring a site called Truth Fights Back, aiming to counter some anti-Obama claims. The site is raising money to be marketed on AdWords. But politicians connecting with people online should be able to spread their messages organically and virally...ads would not be as effective as encouraging linking and quoting. Also a big error that is made in "advertising the truth" is that by referencing the frame of thought and words of the liar you are giving into their framing.

If nothing else, Truth Fights Back is an indication that John Kerry still has no idea why he lost the election. If one wanted to fight McCain's lies a better brand would be something like How To Lie...with McCain's picture and personal brand stamped all over it.

Most people online multi-task. They read the headline, maybe skim a bit, and draw a conclusion. If you use headlines for misdirections (or quote others who are doing so) then people still associate the topics. For example, if you wrote an article stating Obama is not a Muslim then many people will still think Obama and Muslim are associated.

Put another way...

"A lie told often enough becomes truth" - Vladimir Lenin

If Obama wanted to re-brand the religious stuff he could do things like Huckabee did in this video...subtly hint another story without directly addressing the lies.

Rather than saying x is not true, it is best to just convey a different image.

A One Word Brand

Maurice Saatchi wrote:

The word is the saviour because in each category of global business, it will only be possible for one brand to own one particular word. And some of them have already been booked. Each brand can only own one word. Each word can only be owned by one brand. Take great care before you pick your word. It is going to be the god of your brand.

Within a brand you can of course have sub-brands and sub-products, but if you are going for a big launch you really want to make sure you pick the strategy and make it consistent with the larger brand strategy.

If the global brand strategy is built on ideas like openness and sharing, and then later introducing secrecy, that cuts away at past marketing efforts. There was a good example of this in the SEO industry where many people felt they were lied to and/or mislead. And if the marketing would have been consistent throughout that feeling of betrayal would not exist.

Great Books on Framing & Word Usage

A large part of why Al Gore and John Kerry lost to George W Bush was because they were too stiff and programmed. The Republican party is much better at crafting phrases the evoke emotions.Two great books that talk about political framing and using words to evoke emotions are George Lakoff's Don't Think of An Elephant (left leaning) and Frank Luntz's Words That Work (right leaning). Reading either of those (or better yet, both) will teach you more about marketing than most marketing blogs or books ever could.

Website Checklist: Getting To The Close

Oct 22nd
posted in

Sales people talk a lot about about "closing the deal", the final stage in the sales process needed to get people to sign on the dotted line.

Typically, the stages leading up to the "close" are affordability, no perceived need, no hurry, or no trust. Sales people are trained on how to spot and deal with this issues, and ways in which to overcome a customers objections. Sales training is partly systematic, and part art. After all, everyone is different.

It's the same on the web, however unlike the salesperson, you can't engage a person, one-on-one. But there are things you can do to increase the chances of making the sale.

Checklist

I thought I'd put together a simple checklist for beginners on ways in which you can get a visitor to take a desired action. I've included links to some great resources for those who want to dig deeper and see practical examples.

But what if you don't sell things?

Really, every web site "sells" something, be it a good, a service, or an opinion. This checklist can be used, and adapted for any site. Sometimes, a simple change or two is all that is required to go from good to great.

For example, Amazon, a company that builds conversion techniques into their powerful sales platform, made one simple change that made them millions of dollars in extra revenue. Rather than phrase match search results, they displayed products most people purchased after searching on any given query. By doing this, they increased relevance. The result? A revenue increase of 3%, which amounted to millions of dollars in extra sales each year.

You can read more about what Amazon did in this free report "Controlled Experiments On The Web: Survey And Practical Guide"

1. Never Make It Difficult For People To Pay You

Once someone has said "yes" to an idea, you need to get them to sign on the dotted line as quickly as possible. Leave too much time, and people may reflect, have second thoughts, get distracted, or otherwise lose momentum. Think about bricks 'n mortar stores. It's always immediately obvious where, and how, to make payment. If the store is smart, they don't make you wait to pay.

One exception to this rule is if you have a good chance of upselling. However, overplay this strategy, and you might lose the customer altogether. A certain, large domain name registrar springs to mind.....

Further Reading:

2. Be Relevant

Learn the lesson of Amazon. What do you your visitors really want from you?

If you're not what the visitor wants, then all the SEO, testing and tweaks in the world won't help. Monitor what people do on your site after they arrive. Do you know how many visitors click the back button after arriving? If too many visitors click the back button, you've clearly got a relevancy problem.

Obvious, right? What's not so obvious is what to do about it. Which brings me on to point 3....

3. Measure & Iterate

Good analytics are important. What's even more important is acting on the data.

Look at your website as a constant work in progress. It should be always "under construction". Watch what your visitors do, and what they don't do. Make changes, measure the results, then make further changes in response to those results. Repeat.

Converting visitors to action is part science, part art. There is no one way of doing it. What works for you may not work for others.

Further Reading:

4. Reassure People

The web is often nebulous. Unlike a physical store, or face-to-face dealings, it can be hard for the visitor to gauge credibility. Therefore, you need to go the extra mile to reassue people your site is legitimate. You need to include as many credibility markers as possible.

Examples of credibility markers include your contact details, testimonials, money-back guarantees where appropriate, a physical address and phone number, credit-card security measures, and privacy and data collecting policies. Tell people what to do when/if the process goes wrong.

Further Reading:

5. Make Your Call To Action Crystal Clear

A call to action is a description of the activity you want your visitor to take.

Do you know where your visitors look and click? Using tools such as CrazyEgg, amongst others, you can approximate eye patterns, and see where visitors click most often. This is where your call to action should be located, if practical.

Eye paths are are also important. What visual or textual elements grab people's attention the most? Try changing the size of the headline. Try changing the separation between the headline and other page elements. Place the headline next to a picture.

Take a look at this before and after:

Before:

http://meclabs.com/resources/hyp1.jpg

After:

http://meclabs.com/resources/hyp2.jpg

The "after" page, with enhanced credibility markers and clearer eye paths and call to action, increased the conversion rate by 40.7%

Further Reading:

6. Provide Clear Signposts

Because the web is non-linear, it can be difficult for people to determine where in the process they are, and what happens next. Try to make this explicit by using signposts.

For example, you could outline in the first step of a sales process that the process will take five steps. Then, at each step, clearly show what step people are at. Signposts can be both visual and text.

7. Encourage People

Sometimes, the visitor might be unsure if they are following the process correctly. Encourage people at each step, reinforcing that what they are doing is correct. Create thank you pages and send responder emails. Tell the visitor who to contact if they have any concerns.

8. Give Visitors A Reason To Return

Most visitors aren't ready to buy or commit to action. They're tyre-kicking, they're researching, they're browsing. Try and "capture" these people, and hopefully they'll convert to desired action next time they visit.

Encourage them to do something painless, like bookmarking the site. Offer them a something free in return for their email address. Think about what you can give people in order to make them feel indebted to you. Clearly outline the benefits they'll get if they do return. What's in it for them?

9. Create A Sense Of Urgency

As a seller, you might have a sense of urgency, but the buyer may not. One way to help close the deal is to create a sense of urgency in the buyers mind. Methods such as the time sensitive offer work well i.e. if a visitor orders today, the visitor receives a special discount.

Further Reading:

10. Personalize Your Communication

The very existence of a blog or newsletter on your site reinforces the idea that there is a real person behind the site. If appropriate, sharing your views and experiences is a powerful way to engage visitors on a personal level. Careful, though. Over-familiarity can also be annoying. It may also be inappropriate in some environments i.e. old-school corporate.

Amazon features authors statements, reviews, and personal feedback. You really get the feeling the website is a place, in which real people reside and communicate with one another.

Further Reading:

How to Know if a Link (or Redirect) Passes PageRank/Reputation/Authority

Oct 21st

Due to the rough scale of PageRank, outdated toolbar PageRank scores, hand editing of toolbar PageRank, and a variety of other factors, it is somewhat hard to get confirmation from Google if a link source passes PageRank. The slow way to test is to make 1 link be the only link you point at a site and then let it age for a few months. Then, if a toolbar PageRank score appears it probably passed PageRank.

If you are competing on the competitive parts of the web, building only one link and waiting around for a few months is likely an ineffective SEO strategy. So then what else can be done? How can we speed things up and get the show on the road?

If you control the linking source it is quite easy to tell if that site passes reputation. Simply link to another site with slightly misspelled anchor text, and if the target shows up you know that the link is passing some reputation and authority. For example, someone could link to this site using seoq book, and then if this site started ranking for that then I would assume that the link is passing some amount of reputation and authority. Then you could later go back and fix that spelling error.

If you *do not* control the linking source, then it gets a bit harder to test it. What you could do is add a modifier to the anchor text. For example, if this site did not yet rank in Google for best SEO book you could use that as the anchor text, and see if it shows up in the search results after the linking source is indexed.

You can also use this sort of technique to test 301 redirects & see if they pass link authority. Please note that when using redirects it is best to keep the topic fairly well aligned to minimize the risk that the PageRank might go away.

SEOmoz's Linkscape: Why the Backlash is Overblown

Oct 21st

Right after I finished writing a post about how being likeable is a great business strategy, I went back to Sphinn and saw it erupted with controversy and negative feedback about SEOmoz's Linkscape. Since then threads have been open, closed, and open. People are worried about everything from the index size to how to remove your site to why you shouldn't label your site with an obvious SEO footprint.

So my timing on that last post was a bit off, but I still think the general thesis is valid. But now that there has been so much negative feedback I figure it is my job to play devil's advocate and highlight reasons why most SEOs do not need to be too worried about Linkscape.

Cool Features

Unique Linking Domains

One of the coolest features of this tool is knowing the number of unique linking domains pointing links at a specific site, but that feature is for paying members only.

A competing tool by the name of Majestic SEO allows you to see that data as part of their free overview. Click on the image below for an example.

If your competitor has high authority links then you need more than just quantity to compete, but if most of their backlinks are garbage then this is a good stat to have, along with many other stats you can get from tools like SEO for Firefox.

Spam Reporting

Not that I advocate spam reporting (as the official guidelines have departed from reality so much that almost everyone that ranks is spamming and/or spammed in the past to get to their current market position), but for professional SEOs that own dozens of sites and like doing spam reports to Google this might be a good tool for outing competitors, since it makes it easy to find some noscript links, links from off the page, inbound 301 redirects, but the average webmaster probably does not need to worry about that.

A Bit Top Heavy

One of the biggest limitations in Linkscape is that you can only go 500 results deep unless you want to buy a custom report. They allow you to see various lenses of 500 at a time through search features and filters, but a big recommendation I can make on this front is for them to allow you to see all that data, even if it requires exporting data to CSV...they already spent the money to collect the data, so if you're a customer they may as well give it to you...it helps nobody if nobody sees it.

Majestic SEO appears to have a similar sized database as Linkscape, and they allow you to do a full data export for your own domain free of charge. Other domains they charge a scaling price for depending on the number of links to the domain.

More Cool Features?

Nick Gerner promised more features in the next version of Linkscape, but unless they start buying usage data and become more like Compete.com I am not sure if it will be a game changer. On to explaining why...

1. Editorial Rules

When Linkscape was announced Danny Sullivan said:

Personally, I'm not too worried. You want to compete with me and get links in places where I'm listed? We get listed in places where editorial rules. So just knowing where we're at doesn't get you in the door -- you have to be good enough to walk in. And if you are good enough, well, good I guess.

The highest quality links typically tend to be editorial in nature, with many of those being driven by social relationships. No matter how much one decides to analyze link patterns, they can't re-create most of the link relationships if they don't already have the content quality, market exposure, and awareness. And if you copy someone's idea after they already did it you need to greatly improve upon it to get credit for it.

2. Tons of Alternative Data Sources

Common link analysis questions...

How do I Get a Basic Competitive Overview of the Search Results?

Search Google with SEO for Firefox turned on. Make sure you are pulling data in the automatic mode while searching.

I Want to do Anchor Text Analysis. How do I Analyze Links?

Some options include...

  • SEO Link Analysis - a free Firefox extension that adds anchor text to Google Webmaster Central and Yahoo! Site Explorer.
  • Link Diagnosis - another useful Firefox extension.
  • Link Analysis Tool - shows the PageRank and number of inlinks to each page on a site, though it requires you to set up a MySQL database.
  • Both Google Webmaster Central and Majestic SEO allow you to download backlink profiles for your own sites after you authenticate your sites.
  • Backlink Analyzer - a free desktop based tool I had created a few years ago that pulls data from the Yahoo! API. Make sure to watch the video on the download page before using it.

I Want to Find New Links to Competing Sites

If you want to find what someone's best ideas are all you have to do is subscribe to the Google Blogsearch feed for links to their site, like so. That should list many of the people who are talking about this site.

A paid option on this front is Advanced Link Manager. It costs $199 (or $299 if you package it with Advanced Web Ranking) and scrapes data from Yahoo!, keeping track of the date when the link was found.

I Want to Find New Links to My Site

This is the same as competing sites, but you can also use your web analytics and server logs to dig up additional information. You can also look inside Google Webmaster Central to download backlink reports.

I Want to Find The Most Authoritative Links Pointing at a Site

Yahoo! Site Explorer generally orders backlinks roughly in terms of authority, with some of the most authoritative backlinks showing up at the top of their results.

I Want to Find .edu Links

Yahoo! Search offers a wide array of advanced link operators. Here are .edu & .gov links pointing at searchengineland.com.

I Want to Get an Estimate of Unique Linking Domains

Majestic SEO offers a free estimate...though, like LinkScape, their crawl is not as comprehensive as Yahoo!'s.

I Want to Find Hub Links?

What Sites Drive the Most Traffic to My Competitors?

The best way I have found to get this data is from Compete.com Referral Analytics, though it requires a $500 a month subscription...which is a nice chunk of change, unless you are already doing quite well!

Do I Have Any Broken Links?

3. All Link Graphs Are Unique

Each search engine has its own crawling priorities and own web graph. Google has probably spent hundreds of millions of dollars building and refining their crawling sequence. No two crawls are the same.

Image from Google Touchgraph.

4. Yahoo! Search Counts Link Weight Differently Based on Page Segmentation

Google's PageRank was designed based on a random walk theory, where browsers click a random link on the page. But search engines are looking to move beyond the random walk model.

Yahoo! Search's Priyank Garg stated:

The irrelevant links at the bottom of a page, which will not be as valuable for a user, don’t add to the quality of the user experience, so we don’t account for those in our ranking. All of those links might still be useful for crawl discovery, but they won’t support the ranking.

5. Microsoft May be Looking to Heavily Incorporate Usage Data

Microsoft did research on BrowseRank, which aims to use actual usage data to augment (or perhaps replace) their link graph. Be default, Internet Explorer 8 sends usage data to Microsoft...when you know what 80% of web users are doing you do not need to rely on a random walk.

Think of having access to the majority of the web's usage data like this:

  • If Google's algorithms are more relevant than Microsoft, then putting weight on usage data allows Microsoft to quickly catch up by weighting whatever Google is weighting
  • Microsoft could theoretically be better than Google at filtering out paid links, as most paid links in a sidebar or footer do not send much traffic...and thus could easily be weighted less than links in content - though with Google owning so many products they could improve significantly on this front as well, if they decided to use their AdSense data, analytics data, Chrome browser data, Feedburner data, and toolbar data.

6. Google Does a Lot of Hand Editing

Google hires 10,000 remote quality raters.

Beyond those editors there are many search engineers inside the webspam team offering a variety of techniques to throw off SEOs, including

  • stripping all PageRank from a site and killing all its rankings
  • stripping some portion of a site's PageRank and ranking abilities
  • stripping PageRank from the toolbar but still allowing sites to rank
  • showing full PageRank in the toolbar, but killing the ability of a link to pass PageRank

Without working inside of Google and/or buying and testing lots of links across a wide array of sites and verticals it would be hard to know if any particular site passes PageRank, and how much it might pass. For instance, a link from Text-Link-Ads.com's website is one of my highest MozRank links, but I doubt Google places much weight on that link since Google does not let Text Link Ads rank for their own brand.

Read Eric Schmidt's perspective on brands to consider how Google holds different sites to different standards.

7. Search Engine Editorial Policies are Selective, & Constantly Changing

According to Udi Manber, Google did 450 search algorithm updates last year. Even if you could somehow catch up with all the editorial stuff search engines were doing to manipulate their version of the link based web graph, you would have a hard time of keeping up with it - let alone accounting for the hoards of usage data the search engines have.

The status of a link (and its ability to pass PageRank) may arbitrarily change based on media exposure. In the past many websites were hijacked by 302 affiliate links (this even happened to Google's site, and this is still happening today to corporate sites as big as Snapnames).

At an SEO conference about 3 or 4 months back someone highlighted that some large sites use 301 redirects on affiliate links. This topic came up once again at SMX East, where it was deemed an acceptable marketing practice:

Shockingly, when asked point blank if affiliate programs that employed juice-passing links (those not using nofollow) were against guidelines or if they would be discounted, the engineers all agreed with the position taken by Sean Suchter of Yahoo!. He said, in no uncertain terms, that if affiliate links came from valuable, relevant, trust-worthy sources - bloggers endorsing a product, affiliates of high quality, etc. - they would be counted in link algorithms. Aaron from Google and Nathan from Microsoft both agreed that good affiliate links would be counted by their engines and that it was not necessary to mark these with a nofollow or other method of blocking link value.

A few years ago I set up my affiliate program to use 301 redirects to prevent hijacking, and get any link benefits I could. But right after I changed by business model to a membership site my affiliate program was featured/outed in this interview, and it no longer passes PageRank.

Watch the above video and see how at 2 minutes and 15 seconds in my site was put up for review to any Google engineer that happened to watch it.

The same set of links, to the same site, using the same format, under similar circumstances...

  • counts for most major corporations (and is allegedly an approved and legitimate strategy)
  • counted for this site for years
  • stopped counting around the time they were outed by a popular SEO blogger

8. Temporal Algorithms + Domains Expire, & May Lose PageRank

Search engines may place weight not only on the number of links pointing at a page, but also on the rate at which links are accumulated. Even if you know the raw number of links and the site age it still does not tell you how many links were built last month or in the last year.

Not only are links born, but some of them rot. The web graph as a whole is over a decade old. Linkrot was a big issue in 1998, and it is still a big issue today. In 1998 6% of links were broken, and the DotBot crawl shows 7% of links being broken.

To appreciate how bad linkrot is...

Some domains that expire may keep their PageRank, but many expiring domains lose their PageRank. With how hard it is to build links today and 1 in 7 links broke there are SEO tools designed around trying to capture this link equity

The domains that die off may later be re-registered and re-purposed. And keep in mind that the 1 in 7 broken links number is actually much higher than that when you consider how many people buy expired domain names and build them out.

By creating an index of the web in 2008 a person would have no idea if...

  • the links occurred recently
  • if the links are old
  • if the site expired and potentially lost much of its link weight

And Matt Cutts generally hates re-purposing expired domain names. Why? The very first spam site he found was a high PageRank expired domain linked from the W3C. That site was converted to a porn site, and ever since then (before Matt was the head of the webspam group - before Google even had a webspam group) Matt has not liked expired domains.

Matt offers background on that story 30 seconds into this video:

9. Advancing Algorithms That Move Away From PageRank & Anchor Text

Paid links have been an obvious weak spot in the relevancy algorithms for years. PageRank and anchor text are still both important, but Google also considers other factors like...

  • domain age / link age
  • domain name (and extension)
  • domain history (ie: spam infractions/penalties, etc.)
  • site authority
  • signals of locality (hosting location, TLD, link sources, etc.)
  • searcher intent (Google's Amit Singhal stated "the same query can mean entirely different things in different countries. For example, [Côte d'Or] is a geographic region in France - but it is a large chocolate manufacturer in neighboring French-speaking Belgium")
  • other forms of search personalization (past searches, user subscriptions, frequently visited sites, etc.)
  • editorial partnerships with news companies & other universal search categories (like Google Shopping Search and the maps local onebox)
  • usage data (especially with sites they host, like YouTube)
  • content age (read up on the Query Deserves Freshness algorithm)

Look at some of the search results from Google's 2001 index and compare them to current search results to see how much Google has moved away from a raw PageRank model. Yahoo! Search's Priyank Garg also stated that they have moved away from placing so much weight on links:

All of those links might still be useful for crawl discovery, but they won’t support the ranking. That’s what we are constantly looking at in algorithms. I can tell you one thing, that over the last few years as we have been building out our search engine and incorporating lots of data, the absolute percentage contribution of links and anchor text to the natural ranking of algorithms or to the importance in our ranking algorithms has gone down somewhat.

Final Thoughts

It is not that Linkscape is a bad tool, it is just aiming to do something incredibly complex, and as long as Yahoo! Site Explorer gives us a decent free sample (and other tools let us layer data on top of Yahoo!) we can get a good idea of the approximate level of competition for free. But with Yahoo! at $12 a share, if Yahoo! gets bought out and Site Explorer goes away then Linkscape (or Majestic SEO, depending on who does a better job of innovation) might be one of the best SEO investments one can make.

Seven Ways To Be More Persuasive

Oct 20th
posted in

We spend a lot of time thinking about how to get visitors to our sites, but how much time do we spend thinking about better ways to persuade people once they've arrived?

Such topics are often talked about in terms of conversion and split/run testing. However, I'm like to talk talking about something a little more subtle.

The gentle art of persuasion.

Is Your Web Site Persuasive?

Every site "sells" something. It might be a product, a service, an opinion, or an increased level of engagement. You might wish to sign up members. You might want someone to bookmark your site, and return at a later date. You might want someone comment on your blog post. How can we best achieve these aims?

In "Yes, 50 Secrets From The Science of Persuasion", there is a great example of how to inconvenience your customers in order to make a sale. Colleen Szot, a leading infomercial writer, changed three words in an infomercial line which resulted in a significant increase in the number of people who purchased her product. What is remarkable is she seemingly made ordering more of a hassle.

What were those three words?

Instead of saying "Operators are waiting, please call now", she said "If operators are busy, please call back".

It seems odd that informing the customers they might have to wait would work, After all, the revised line implies the customer might have to redial a few times. However, the change worked because it used the principle of social proof. i.e. if people are uncertain about looking to perform a social action, then they'll look beyond their own judgment for a guide on what action to take.

"Operators are waiting to take your call" conjures up a mental image of rows of bored operators waiting for the phone to ring. Nobody is buying. However, by suggesting the operators might be busy, we imagine that many people are buying the product. If other people are buying it, it must be good. Of course, this isn't logical, but it is how people act. They perceive there to be safety in numbers.

We can take these ideas and apply them to websites, too. Here are seven. These ideas are all documented in "Yes, 50 Secrets From The Science of Persuasion".

I'm not getting any kickbacks for mentioning it. I just really enjoyed the book :)

1. Establish Social Proof

Look at ways in which you can demonstrate other people have taken this course of action.

Typical examples on the web include personal recommendations and endorsements. More subtle indicators include a running total of the number of comments made, indicators as to the size of the community, and the number of people who have visited the site. RSS counters. Social network plug-ins, such as MyBlogLog . All indicators that other people congregate here.

Think of the web as a place.

This is another reason the brochure web site is dying a death compared to interactive sites. There are few social markers on brochure sites, and there is seldom a sense of place. People want to be where are other people are.

No one wants to eat in an empty restaurant.

2. Don't Give People Too Many Options.

In a study of over 800,000 workers, behavioral scientist Sheena Lyengar studied company sponsored retirement programs. The study found that the more choices that were offered, the less likely employees were to enroll in the program. Giving people too many options forces people to differentiate. This can lead to confusion and disengagement from the task at hand.

When you consider that an exit on the web is only one click away, it becomes vitally important that people do not become disengaged. Decide on a limited number of desired actions you want visitors to take, and focus people's attention on those few options.

3. The Middle Option

I've covered this tactic before in Predictable Irrational Marketing Strategies, but it's such a great persuasive technique, it can't hurt to revisit it :)

If you want to people to take a desired action, frame it alongside two less desirable options.

For example, let's say you're offering TVs for sale. If you offer a cheap TV and an expensive TV, you're forcing people to make a choice based on price. People will tend to pick the lowest price option if forced into a decision based solely on price. However, if you offer a third option the decision becomes less focused on price. It becomes a compromise choice based on both price and features.

Given this option, people tend to pick the middle option. Consider that the middle option was the expensive option in the first either/or offer :)

4. Scare 'Em

A persuasive technique favored by politicians. "Terrorists!". "Your Savings Will Be Wiped Out!". "Your Jobs Will Go Offshore!".

These threat messages work because humans are conditioned to look out for threats. It's a survival mechanism. You can incorporate this persuasive technique in a more subtle way, however.

People experience fear on a number of different levels, i.e. they may simply fear that by not having your product, service or blog in their feed reader, they may be missing out. Describe the threats your product or service can alleviate, and provide a clear, concise course of action the visitor must take.

This technique must be used carefully however, as fear can also lead to inaction. Hence the phrase "paralyzed by fear", which can also occur if you offer too many options. People are afraid they'll pick the wrong one.

5. Give Forward

Reciprocity is a strong human driver. We want to give back to those people who give to us as we feel obligated. Curiously, studies show that we don't even have to like the person to feel indebted.

One of the most ridiculous pitches in web marketing is the link swap email. Someone asks you for a link, and once that link is in place, they'll link back to you. Typically they want a prominent link from your site, in return for a link on a page buried deep in their site, alongside thousands of other links.

Not much of an offer, really.

Some people try and twist the idea by giving a link first, but will retract it if you don't reciprocate. Once again, this isn't really giving anything away.

A much better approach is to simply link out to the target site. Webmasters tend to follow links back to see who is linking to them. Your link becomes a subtle form of advertising. If you then praise that website, and offer great content, you're significantly raising your chances of getting a link back.

Ask not the question "who can help me", but "whom can I help?".

6. The Post It Note

Research shows that a post-it note attached to a document tends to increase response rates. Why? Partly it has to do with the bright post-it note acts as a highlighter, and partly it has to do with the fact someone has added a personal touch

You can see the post-it note technique creeping into web design. People use a post-it note graphics, like this one on CopyBlogger. There's also a design trend to add "hand writing" as a form of personalization. Check out a few examples on Smashing Magazine.

The more personalized a request, the more likely people are to agree to it.

7. Labeling

When Luke persuaded Darth Vader to turn against the dark side, he said "I know there is still good in you! There's good in you. I can sense it". This is known as labeling. BTW: That link has little to do with this point, but it is funny :)

I digress...

The technique is to assign a trait, attitude or belief to another person and then make a request of that person consistent with that label.

For example, if you were selling accounting books, you could suggest that people who buy accounting books are also big consumers of your finance titles. Then offer them a finance title. This also works in terms of social proof.

Your Turn

What are your favorite persuasion techniques?

Information vs Noise

Oct 20th

If you love reading, JOHO has an interesting article about information...a bit beyond the scope of SEO, but interesting. :)

Noise is the sound of the world refusing abstraction, insisting on differences that are never the same as every other difference. If we are indeed exiting the age of information, perhaps we are entering — have entered — the age of noise.

Maki explains how noise appears in online publishing

Blogs that just repeat information already published elsewhere are providing value that can be substituted. To put it another way, these sites are completely dispensable. They lose out when a choice has to be made due to time/attention scarcity. These sites are usually the ones that just regurgitate content released on mainstream media or other larger blogs. Their identity is virtually unrecognizable. A great logo and design won’t save them.

If you want to avoid your work becoming "the commons" in The Tragedy of the Commons what is the solution for sustained distribution and profits?

Either you need a unique lens that adds enough value that makes people want to talk about you (Jon Stewart style)

or unique information sources (both TechCrunch and The Wall Street Journal benefits from news leaks)

or specialization and in depth knowledge, as recommended by Vannevar Bush in his As We May Think from 1945:

There is a growing mountain of research. But there is increased evidence that we are being bogged down today as specialization extends. The investigator is staggered by the findings and conclusions of thousands of other workers—conclusions which he cannot find time to grasp, much less to remember, as they appear. Yet specialization becomes increasingly necessary for progress, and the effort to bridge between disciplines is correspondingly superficial.

Professionally our methods of transmitting and reviewing the results of research are generations old and by now are totally inadequate for their purpose.

Information in one market is noise in the next. The quality level needed to get to the top is determined by the competition. Summing up a competitive online marketing strategy in a saturated field can be done with 2 bits:

  • Are people talking about you?
  • Are they talking about you more than the competition?

In the long run search engines are just counting the bits.

Why Being Likeable is a Profitable Business Strategy

Oct 18th
posted in

4 Reasons You Want to be Liked

One thing that has always fascinated me about Rand Fishkin is how likeable he is. Being known and likeable is an effective business strategy for 4 big reasons

  • People prefer to spend money with people they like and trust. We purchase based on emotion and then use logic to justify our emotions. (This gives a likeable person a higher visitor value, and thus ROI.)
  • People give you the benefit of the doubt. (This allows one to do aggressive things that would be considered wrong or spammy if a lesser competitor did them.)
  • Even if you to betray someone, they usually let it slide rather than roasting you. (This allows you to make content from topics that you should not have covered, like private conversations).
  • If people like you they will be more likely to do favors for you. (On a competitive network using one channel to establish relationships that allow you to promote sites that are more commercial in less well connected industries can help build a sustained competitive link advantage).

To put the above thesis in context lets compare some of the market reactions to various ideas and offerings.

Case Study in Likeability

Majestic SEO: People Are Suspicious of the Unknown

Majestic SEO, a new web based link analysis tool which got a favorable review on Search Engine Journal was met with harsh criticism on Sphinn:

Can we keep you off our websites so our competitors can't access our information through your service? Or does your bot not obey the robots protocol?

Does Ann Smarty think through the implications of the tools she is recommending? Do you really want to support dropping your pants and bending over for this service? Come on folks, think this through all the way to the bitter end. Do some critical thinking.

SEOmoz: Benefit of the Doubt

Rand's team launched Linkscape (a similar but perhaps more advanced version of Majestic SEO with a slicker front end interface). In spite of having an in house lawyer, they did not find the LBI Netrank LinkScape trademark prior to naming their tool LinkScape.

In the post announcing the launch, Rand mentioned that their tool required crawling the web, and some people wanted to know how to block it using robots.txt and meta robots tags. Pierre from eKtreme highlighted that he did not think SEOmoz was crawling the web, but relying on a series of web based APIs from companies that were. Rand later revealed potential LinkScape data sources. Michael VanDeMar mentioned that he thought Rand's opening post about LinkScape lied about crawling the web:

I have to admit, Rand, it’s pretty bold to basically admit this late in the game that you guys lied through your teeth and grossly misrepresented the facts, just so you could appear to have accomplished a much bigger task than you actually did, all in the name of getting more money from webmasters. That’s a much bigger admission than saying you cloaked your bot, if you ask me.

Michael's post made Sphinn with 40+ Sphinns, and only had 1 negative comment on it a day after making the homepage.

When I consider everything I've read I can only conclude that you did mislead the SEO community and only when it was apparent that the truth would be found out, did you begin to "come clean". While your approach may not have any bearing on the value of the tool, it does demonstrate a conscious effort to misrepresent your product.

And if Michael had not had an established distaste for SEOmoz built up from the past (ie: if he liked Rand half as much as most of us do) it is likely he would not have went through the effort to write the LinkScape post he did, and there would have been no lasting negative press on the topic.

The Negative Brand Approach

Can you build a big audience without being likeable, but by being sarcastic and ripping things apart? Absolutely, but the problems with that are

  • Most people who are attracted by negativity are not buyers (and they work to drive away the types of people who would be buyers). In the SEO field you could call this the "Threadwatch effect"
  • The people who do buy based on negativity are usually of a cult-like state of being against some other organization. Once the hated brand/personality/organization (or even the news around the brand/personality/organization) dies down, then so does the support from the paying customers built on this negative energy, whereas the positive businesses keep growing logarithmically year after year without needing to reset the business and capture a new fad.

You can have a common enemy that you and your readers are fighting, but it is important that your overall approach is still positive if you want to build something that is profitable with sustained growing profits.

Interesting Blog Posts

Oct 18th
posted in

Brian Ussery tested how Google is indexing Flash.

David Naylor saw Google's bad advice on "no need to rewrite your URLs" in action, when a competing site reverted their URLs to uglier versions and promptly saw their rankings tank.

Kentucky seized a bunch of online gambling domains.

“”"”The court recognizes that as to any of the 141 defendants domain names that identify websites as informational only, the seizure order must be rescinded.”"

However the court found that “Internet gambling operators and their domain names are present in Kentucky.” So if you have a parking page the Commonwealth has no jurisdiction but if your operating a site, then your doing business in the state and your subject to its jurisdiction.

While on the topic of gambling domains, Google is allowing gaming ads in the UK.

Neil Patel is looking to help fund some start ups.

Google blocked the use of their Chrome browser in Syria and Iran.

Free Online SEO Presentation on October 21st

Oct 17th

I am doing a free web seminar with SEMPDX on Tuesday, October 21, 2008 at 12:00 PM Pacific Time (US & Canada). You can learn more about it and register for free here.

No sales pitches. Just an hour of pure SEO goodness :)

Web Publishing: Strategies To Help You Stand Out From The Crowd

Oct 17th
posted in

Web publishing has a low barrier to entry. This is great, because it enables anyone to be a publisher, and to reach a world wide audience.

The downside is that because there is a low barrier to entry, the web is saturated with content!

So, how do you choose topics to write about that stand out from the crowd? How do you stay ahead of everyone else? How do you stay ahead of those who have more time/money/energy to publish than you do? One way, of course, is to work smarter.

In this article, we'll look at strategies and tools that will help you do just that. But before we do, let's take a look at the state of the web..

The Evolution Of Personal Publishing

Personal publishing is in a constant state of evolution.

Take blogs, for example.

At one time, is was good enough simply to link to topics. The first blog, Robot Wisdom, took this approach. However, with the rise of social media, like Digg & Twitter, this approach - apart from a few, long-established exceptions aside - is a dead duck.

Next came the "rewriting news stories" approach. This approach still works, but in crowded niches, every blog ends up publishing the same thing. If you're a late follower in a niche, it's unlikely you'll make much headway using this technique, because it doesn't offer anything people can't get - and aren't already getting - elsewhere.

Next came providing opinion, analysis and context to news stories. This works well if the opinions on offer are new, insightful, and unique. This is the current state of the blogshere, and chances are the top blogs you read take this approach. They address a need in the market - i.e. a need for depth and analysis . I suspect you're already reading less and less of the blogs that either just point to sources or rewrite news stories.

It's not quite as linear as I'm making out, but the point is wish to make is that as content more plentiful, the bar gets raised on the quality level of content you need to produce in order to stand out.

Plenty of new opportunities lie in synergising information to provide readers with the new angles and editorial depth they crave. If you aggregate from different sources, and can spot trends before others do, you stand a good chance of standing out from the crowd.

But how do you do this?

Tools & Strategies

1. RSS Reader

Chances are you already use one. But if you don't, an RSS reader is possibly the single most important tool for article and information discovery. An RSS reader brings information to you. It brings the information to you soon after it is published. It's like having your own personal newspaper which auto-updates every few minutes.

The main advantage of an RSS reader is that you can scan a huge number of sources in very little time. Aim to monitor a lot of sources, across related industry verticals.

There are plenty of RSS readers to choose from. Here are a few to get you started: Google Reader, Bloglines, and NewsFox.

2. Have A Point Of View About Future Direction

Try to form opinions about the way your market or niche is heading, rather than where it is now, then analyse information through this filter. If asked, could you say where internet marketing is now, and where it will be in five years time? What will it look like? What are the stages it will move through to get there?

If you use such a mental filter, you should be able to spot the nuances in sources more easily. The aim is to weed out the tired, repetitive and redundant. Specifically, try to look for the points where people's behaviors start to deviate from an established norm.

Services like Compete and Google Trends are great for spotting these types of changes. There are a variety of sources data can be pulled from, including government, industry bodies, and free secondary research.

Here's a graphical comparison of various Google services. I'm sure there's an article topic in there somewhere ;)

Of course, you need to watch out for bias. One famous example of the problems of biased data was the 1948 election:

On Election night, the Chicago Tribune printed the headline DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN, which turned out to be mistaken. In the morning the grinning President-Elect, Harry S. Truman, was photographed holding a newspaper bearing this headline. The reason the Tribune was mistaken is that their editor trusted the results of a phone survey. Survey research was then in its infancy, and few academics realized that a sample of telephone users was not representative of the general population. Telephones were not yet widespread, and those who had them tended to be prosperous and have stable addresses

This is why cross-checking is often a good idea. One example, in the field of SEO, is keyword data. Some keyword research tools pull data from small, third party search engines, whilst Adwords data might be a more reliable indicator of the numbers of searches on Google for a specified keyword term, if that's what you're aiming to measure.

TrendWatching.com offers a good definition of trends:

A (new trend) is a manifestation of something that has unlocked or newly serviced an existing (and hardly ever changing) consumer need,* desire, want, or value.

"At the core of this statement is the assumption that human beings, and thus consumers, don't change that much. Their deep needs remain the same, yet can be unlocked or newly serviced. The 'unlockers' can be anything from changes in societal norms and values, to a breakthrough in technology, to a rise in prosperity."

Can you spot anything people have recently started doing differently?

One example was PPC advertising. Before PPC advertising came about, SEOs wouldn't dream of paying for clicks. Why would they when they could get them for free?

So, the established norm was a group of marketers who operated on the principle of getting clicks for free.

PPC emerged because there were a group of advertsiers that were prepared to pay per click, rather than spend time, money and effort in the hit and miss field of SEO. PPC addressed a deep need. PPC, of course, quickly grew into a multi-billion dollar industry.

3. Monitor Cross-Industry

Monitor not just your own vertical, but also look across related industries. What's hot and emerging in one market may not have hit your market yet. See if there is a natural synergy between the two. If there is, and no one is writing about it yet - great - you've just discovered a ground breaking content idea.

4. Aggregators

There are a wide range of aggregators available, with new options popping up all the time. Aggregators are particularly good for finding new sources. Try Techmeme, FriendFeed, StumbleUpon, Popurls, Topix, and, of course, the recently updated Google Blog Search.

5. Set Up A tips@ Email Address

Your readers might be a rich source of ideas. Some may also have some insider information that they might not feel comfortable publishing yourself.

Set up a tips@ email address, and encourage people to email you with information. Make it easy for them to do so.

BTW, if anyone does have some insider information they want to share, or answers you need, or article suggestions, please email us at seobook@gmail.com. :)

6. Cultivate News Stories Using Social Media

Start a Digg-style news community for your niche. Try to create communities of people who enjoy mining for information on a given topic. One search-oriented example of such a community is Sphinn.com.

If you don't have the inclination to set-up a community yourself, find existing communities and monitor them.

Check out:

Pligg.com
Sphinn.com
Mixx.com

7. RSS Remixing

RSS remixing is agrregating different RSS feeds into one feed. You can remix each industry vertical, rather than have multiple feeds, which can make it easier to scan.

Add each feed to your reader, aggregate them into the one big feed, the same folder or view, and viola - you have your own niche news mining engine.
Also check out remixers such as FeedRinse, FeedDigest, and BlastFeed.

8. URL Monitoring On Digg

In the Digg search option, choose "URL only" and "upcoming stories". Type in the domain name of any site you want to watch. You should see an orange RSS button in the right hand corner. Click on it and save the results as an Rss feed.

9. Google Alerts

Why search for news when Google can do it for you? For those who don't know, Google Alerts is an email service that monitors Google result sets for the keyword of your choice.

For example, you can monitor when people talk about you or your site, you can keep track of your competitors or industry, and stay on top of breaking news.

Also check out Track Engine. Similar to Google Alerts, Track Engine can be used to identify when websites update, without you having to visit them. You can also set tracking perameters so customise the information you receive.

10. Google Insights

Insights For Search is a hugely useful tool.

You can use it in a number of ways. For example, you can track seasonal trends. This chart shows when interest is highest in basketball. The pattern of interest is a consistent, shape year after year. You could use this information to dictate the timing of your stories on certain topics.

11. Random Stumbling & Association

Sometimes stumbling about in unknown territory can be a great way to get the creative juices flowing.

Another fun option are Oblique Strategies cards.

Try famous quotes. Quotes contain universal truths, which you might be able to apply to your area of interest, in order to view things in a different way.

Image collections are another. Search on various themes, and see what image comes back. Does the image prompt a fresh way of thinking?

Hold multiple, disconnected ideas in your head and see if you can discover a synergy. For example, a famous example is:

  • A Red Traffic Light
  • A cigarette

This led to the little red mark on cigarettes encouraging smokers to stop smoking when the cigarette burned down to that point, and thereby they could control their habit. More likely, it was a ruse to get smokers to go through a pack faster.

Got any strategies on how to generate story ideas? Add 'em to the comments below.

Further Reading

Tracking the Evolution of Search Spam

Oct 16th
posted in

As part of their 10th birthday celebrations, Google recently released a 2001 index, to show us how much things have changed.

It is fascinating to look into the past, especially from an SEO point of view. Has the nature of spam changed since 2001? How has Google changed in order to nullify the affects of spam?

When Google filed their registration statement prior to IPO, Google identified a number of risk factors.

One of these risks was:

We are susceptible to index spammers who could harm the integrity of our web search results

There is an ongoing and increasing effort by “index spammers” to develop ways to manipulate our web search results. For example, because our web search technology ranks a web page’s relevance based in part on the importance of the web sites that link to it, people have attempted to link a group of web sites together to manipulate web search results. We take this problem very seriously because providing relevant information to users is critical to our success. If our efforts to combat these and other types of index spamming are unsuccessful, our reputation for delivering relevant information could be diminished. This could result in a decline in user traffic, which would damage our business."

Curious how Google conflates spamming with relevance, eh. While it could be true that manipulating rank could lead to lower relevance, that isn't a given. The manipulation could, after all, produce relevant results. "Relevant" being a subjective judgement made by the user.

I digress...

What Google are really getting at is the type of manipulation that leads to less relevant results, commonly referred to as search engine spam. In this respect, what has changed since 2001?

Has Search Spam Been Defeated?

Or, to put another way, what changes have Google made to reduce the business risk of non-relevant search results?

Compare the following examples with the results we see today:

Buy Viagra
Viagra

Now try searching on those two phrases in today's index. How many differences can you spot? How have the result sets changes? Are they less "spammy"?

Here are a few aspects I noticed:

  1. The search results are much tighter and much more well policed. You wouldn't find the penis-envy.com site's link exchange page ranking in Google's 2008 search results for Paxil search queries.
  2. Google used to match keyword strings a lot more than it does today. This is the reason why a lot of on-page optimization techniques have become redundant, and the reason why effective on page optimization in 2008 is more about diversity than repeating words.
  3. Blogs have came from an obscure force to category leaders in many markets.
  4. If you happen to be searching outside the US, Google now incorporates, and boosts, regional results.
  5. Google now incorporates YouTube, news, and other related informational sources, thus forcing results from smaller sites further down the page
  6. There used to be a lot more hyphenated domain names showing up top ten. Not so much these days.
  7. Wikipedia, then called Nupedia, had only just started in 2001, so wasn't yet appearing in every single search result ;)

When Google first emerged, algorithmic search was in real danger of becoming unusable. Engines like Alta Vista were losing the war against spammers, and result sets were becoming increasingly irrelevant. Sergey Brin once declared that it wasn't possible to spam Google. When Google came along, they had defeated spam forever using a clever link analysis algorithm. No more spam!

Well, not really.

Spam hasn't gone away. But it is fair to say that Google is doing a pretty good job of maintaining relevance, and in many cases, eliminating the worst forms of spam. For example, it is now uncommon to see the type of deceptive redirects that were common in 1997, whereby if you clicked on a link, you were led you to a site that was unrelated to the link text.

We've seen the rise of the authoritative domain, and the relegation of the influence of many smaller sites. Pages hosted on authoritative domains are more likely to rank higher than pages on sites that haven't established authority. This has, in turn, led to a different type of spam. People hack into authoritative sites in order to place their links, or entire pages, on these domains. Wikipedia has an ongoing battle to keep their pages free from "commercial imperatives".

The target has, in many ways, shifted down a level.

Big Changes

Since 2001, Google has incorporated verticals.

In this article, Danny Sullivan outlined the use of "invisible tags" in the delivery of search results.

"The solution I see coming is something I call "invisible tabs." Quietly, behind the scenes, search engines will automatically push the correct tab for your query and retrieve specialized search results. This should ultimately prove an improvement over the situation now, where you're handed 10 or 20 matching web pages."

Result sets have increasingly become query dependent, as if you'd pre-selected a topic tab. For example, if your query is determined to have an informational intent, you're unlikely to receive a commercially oriented result set. It is has become a lot more difficult to get off-topic listings - which in this specific case would be commercial pages - into such result sets.

We've also seen the structure of search results pages change markedly. We see images, videos, news, related searches, sub pages, onebox results boxes, personalized results, desktop results, and Adwords. This leaves less and less room for other types of pages, as the search results orient more heavily around a wider variety of data types.

However, in the end, the SERP is still just a list, that looks much like the old list. What will search, and search spam, look like in another tens years?

The Future

Over $10 billion dollars are chasing paid search each year, and that figure will surely grow as media spend increasingly shifts online. There is still a strong incentive to use all means necessary to get to the top of the list.

Google will, of course, continue to try and counter this threat to their business model. The PageRank has likely been changed considerably to when it was first published. Google is likely to continue to incorporate usage metrics, making it more and more difficult for less relevant pages to gain a foothold.

On the flip side, will search be important as it is now? There appears to be a trend for more information to be pushed our way, rather than going out and finding it ourselves. RSS, recommendation engines (Amazon, YouTube, et al), community models (Facebook), and more. Will our surfing habits be (voluntarily) monitored, and answers provided before we we're even aware of the question? We're already seeing the early stages of this with contextual Adwords in Gmail. These changes will, in turn, give rise to a new breed of spam. While the commercial incentive remains, there will always be a level of spam.

The game of cat and mouse continues...

The Google 2001 Search Index is a Great SEO Tool

Having a glimpse of the past reminds us of how things changes, which might help us think of why they changed and how they may change going forward.

The 2001 index provides for a great tool to show past popular SEO techniques that have become irrelevant, which is useful when the boss uncovers an old spammy strategy that they feel you must follow to succeed. It not only helps us inform employers, but also allows us to talk about and highlight overt forms of spam without the worry of "outing" a page that is currently ranking.

Domain Names as Natural Brands

Oct 15th

Rick Schwartz, one of the leading domainers and creator of the TRAFFIC domain conference, highlighted the value of descriptive domains from a brand perspective:

NATURAL BRANDING or BUILD and CREATE BRANDING

This alone is worth the price of admission. Brad told us his story of spending millions and millions to advertise and brand with his original 3 word creative domain name. When he switched and used a fraction of those ad dollars to buy a category killer domain name, he transformed his business. The dollars he was using to brand was now freed up to do other acquisitions and grow his business in a more dramatic way. NATURAL BRANDING may be the simplest way to describe what a great domain brings to the table.

If you have to make people aware of who you are AND what you do then you are going to need to spend a lot more money on marketing than a business which is built around existing market demand.

What is the leading brand of hammocks? If there is not a clear market leader then Hammocks.com would be a nice spot to set up business.

As the web gets more competitive and generics get established as category leaders there will still be a need for specific brands to differentiate between services, but if you are part of the 99% of small business marketers lacking a large branding budget then buying a category leading domain is an obvious sustainable competitive advantage over other businesses that are in the same position you are. Every market has to have a winner...may as well be you. :)

2008 WebmasterWorld Pubcon Coupons

Oct 14th

Webmaster World's Pubcon in Las Vegas from November 11th through 14th is the only mainstream SEO conference I will be speaking at this year. I have a session on link buying and a session on making money from contextual ads on November 13th. Brett Tabke gave me a 20% off coupon code to share with readers. Registration is currently $899, but if you use the discount code wa-67720 in the next 2 weeks you can save $180 off your conference admission price.

And I worked out a special deal such that SEO Book community members get 30% off. If you are a paying member you can get that special code here.

Let me know if you are going. Hope to say hi to many blog readers. :)

How Much is a Link Worth (to YOUR Business)?

Oct 14th

Pricing a Link

When trying to understand the value of a link a variety of factors can be considered, including:

  • PageRank / link equity
  • anchor text (if you can influence it to align with your keywords that increases the value significantly)
  • link location (inline links are more likely to be trusted than links in the footer of a page near a bunch of other obvious paid links)
  • direct traffic the link sends
  • site quality & brand exposure
  • endorsement value (if any is given)

Risk Tolerance

Some links (bought links on SEO blogs, paid links near pharmacy/porn/gambling links) are almost certain to get your site noticed in the wrong way.

Large brands can get away with being far more aggressive than thin affiliate sites can.

Many people who heavily rent links still have not exhausted other cheap and easy link building strategies they could be using.

The Bottom Line

In some markets you need to own a billion dollar brand, have an old site, or rent links to compete. In other markets link renting may pose an unnecessary risk.

The most important aspect of link renting is the one people rarely talk about - the actual value to your business. To determine that you need to analyze not only the quality of the link, but also

  • where you are
  • where the competition is
  • what is needed to bridge that gap
  • any potential risks associated with the link buying

Along those lines, I thought it would be good to compare a couple sites to each other, to demonstrate how widely the value of links can spread.

Rich, Average, Poor

$17,000 Per Link

BankRate recently bought CreditCardGuide.com for $34M and it had about 2,000 inbound links on the day of purchase. BankRate may have overpaid for that site, but Rafael David made at least $17,000 per link to his website!

Think about all the crazy public relations stunts you could pull and make money if you got paid $17,000 per link! You could pay an entire town to tattoo your brand on their foreheads...or maybe do something a bit more tasteful than that. Where links are hard to get and lead value is high you can afford to pay a lot for links.

But BankRate was not just buying links, they were buying traffic and rankings...a set of links that fit the criteria needed to get a lot of organic Google search traffic. If Mr. David would have acquired half as many links he might only have 10% the traffic and his site may have sold at a much smaller multiple. When selling a site your base and your growth rate both feed into the multiple you can sell a site for.

In media stories about buying the site, Thomas R. Evans, BankRate CEO, said they bought the site largely because of its Google rankings:

"As an affiliate of Nationwide Card Services, which we acquired this past December, we have worked with CreditCardGuide and have been able to watch their growth and momentum firsthand," stated Thomas R. Evans, President and CEO of Bankrate. "CCG has done a great job of developing its organic traffic and ranks highly in a number of important credit card search terms. Adding more direct, high-quality traffic to our credit card business will grow our revenue and improve the margins in this important category," Mr. Evans added.

Affiliate Rankings: Strong Cashflow or Break Even

Some of my friends have affiliate sites that do anywhere from 0 to 10 leads a day at ~ $30/lead. They rank well enough to get good traffic, then their rankings slip. And they keep bouncing back and forth. Buying just a couple strong links could take a $150/day average earnings and boost it to $300...thus yielding a monthly return of $4,500.

If you are an affiliate selling the same crap that all the other affiliates sells, you will see that most the search traffic goes to the top couple ranked sites. As an example, one of my friends saw their Google ranking go from #3 to #2 for a huge phrase that is most of the site's traffic...and their overall site traffic (and profits) went up 50%. If a company is primarily search driven and is in a high value niche they can see huge returns from just a couple quality links.

When you think about the opportunity cost a site making $150 a day might not be worth running. But every dollar it makes over its baseline is profit that can either be used to reinvest into quicker growth or fund other projects.

$1 Per Link

Some SEO and technology blogs have hundreds of thousands or millions of inbound links. For such authoritative sites the average value of each link might be less than $1.

If the competition has 1 million links and you only have 50,000 you might not get enough traffic for the site to be worth maintaining, especially if it is in a saturated market with limited traffic value.

Example Charts

Across Industries

These values are a bit arbitrary, but this chart does a good job of helping conceptualize how the value of links can change based on your vertical, your business model, and the associated lifetime customer value.

Example Link Values for Various Verticals
  Tech Blogs Credit Cards
(high traffic value)
Porn
(few clean link sources)
PageRank 0 0.03 8 10
PageRank 1 .1 25 30
PageRank 2 .3 40 50
PageRank 3 .75 75 100
PageRank 4 3 125 200
PageRank 5 9 250 300
PageRank 6 12 400 risky?
PageRank 7 20 600 risky?
PageRank 8 50 risky? risky?
PageRank 9 100 risky? risky?
PageRank 10 300 risky? risky?

Within Industries

The value of links not only depends on what vertical you are in, but also on how you monetize your website. For instance, a ticket broker can earn more per link than a sports blog can.

Example Link Values for Various Business Models
  Sports Blogs Fantasy Sports
(high traffic value)
Ticket Broker
(few clean link sources)
PageRank 0 0.25 4 10
PageRank 1 .5 12 30
PageRank 2 1 20 50
PageRank 3 3 40 100
PageRank 4 6 75 200
PageRank 5 15 150 300
PageRank 6 25 200 500
PageRank 7 40 300 800
PageRank 8 100 500 1,200
PageRank 9 250 risky? risky?
PageRank 10 500 risky? risky?

Disclaimer: keep in mind that the above charts were more for showing examples of relative values than to offer a formula for specific link prices...every situation, every site, and every link is unique.

Link Marketing Strategy

Survey Your Position (and the Competitive Landscape)

If you don't have any organic links then it is going to be hard to buy your way to the top in competitive markets, especially if competing sites have strong advertising and brand budgets.

The key to understanding link buying is understanding the upside potential and how many links are needed to get there. If you are in a saturated market with limited cashflow and are ranking on page 37 at #362 then should you rent links? Probably not. You would be better off investing into awareness, branding, publicity, and developing organic links first.

If you are in the top couple pages and are in the game then renting a few links could help you achieve an explosive return on investment.

All Advertising Has Some Fat on It

Many links that you buy or rent will be filtered algorithmically and have little to no SEO value. But if they help you achieve a positive return on average within an acceptable risk profile then the purchase is worth it. That is how I always viewed directory links. Before Google whacked them I used to submit to about 100 of them. Maybe only 40 or 50 counted, but in aggregate the ROI was still there. Now I may only submit to a half dozen or dozen directories, but in aggregate the ROI is there.

URL Canonicalization: The Missing Manual

Oct 13th
posted in

Canonicalization can be a confusing area for webmasters, so let's take a look at what it is, and ways to avoid it causing problems.

What Is Canonicalization?

Canonicalization is the process by which URLs are standardized. For example, www.acme.com and www.acme.com/ are treated as the same page, even though the syntax of the URL is different.

Why Is Canonicalization An Issue For SEO?

Problems can occur when the search engine doesn't normalize URLs properly.

For example, a search engine might see http://www.acme.com and http://acme.com as different pages. In this instance, the search engine has the host names confused.

Why Is This a Problem?

If the search engines sees a page as being published at many separate URLs, the search engine may rank your pages lower than they would otherwise, or not rank them at all.

Canonicalization issues can split link juice between pages if people link to variants of the URL. Not only does this affect rank (less PageRank = lower rank), but it can also affect crawl depth (if PageRank is spent on duplicate content it is not being spent getting other unique content indexed).

To appreciate what a dramatic effect canonicalization issues can have on search traffic look at the following example, and notice that for the given example proper canonicalization increased traffic for that keyword by 300%

  Link Equity Google Ranking Position % of Search Traffic Daily Traffic Volume Traffic Increase
split 1 60% 8 3% 50 -
split 2 40% 15, filtered = 0 0% 0 -
canonical 100% 2 12% 200 300%

What Conditions Can Cause This Problem?

There are various conditions, but the following are amongst the most common:

  • Different host names i.e. www.acme.com vs acme.com
  • Redirects pointing to different URLs i.e. 302 used inappropriately
  • Forwarding multiple URLs to the same content, and/or publishing the same content on multiple domains
  • Improperly configured dynamic URLs i.e. any url rewriting based on changing conditions
  • Two index pages appearing in the same location i.e. Index.htm vs Index.html
  • Different protocols i.e. https://www vs http://www
  • Multiple slashes in the filepath i.e. www.acme.com/ vs www.acme.com//
  • Scripts that generate alternate URLs for the same content i.e. some blogging and forum software, ecommerce software that adds tracking URLs
  • Port numbers in the domain name i.e. acme.com/4430 : can sometimes be seen in virtual hosting environments.
  • Capitalization - i.e. www.acme.com/Index.html vs www.acme.com/index.html
  • URLs "built" from the path you take to reach a page i.e. tracking software may incorporate the click path in the URL for statistical purposes.
  • Trailing questions marks, with or without parameters i.e. www.acme.com/? or www.acme.com/?source=cnn (a common tagging strategy amongst ad buys)

How Can I Tell If Canonicalization Issues Are Affecting My Site?

Besides working through the checklist performing a manual check, you can also use Google's cache date.

Previously, you would have been able to use Google's supplemental index marker, although Google have recently done away with this feature.

The supplemental index is a secondary index, seperate from Google's main index. It is a graveyard, of sorts, containing outdated pages, pages with low trust scores, duplicate content, and other erroneous pages. As duplicate pages often reside in the supplemental index, appearing in the supplemental index can be an indicator you may have canonicalization issues, all else being equal.

Before Google removed the supplemental index label, many SEOs noticed that supplemental pages had an old cache date and that cache date is a good proxy for trust. If your page is not indexed frequently, and you think it should be, chances are the page is residing in the supplemental index.

Michael Gray at Wolf-Howl" outlines a method to easily check for this data. In summary, you add a date and unique field to each page, wait a couple of months, then search on this term.

How Can I Avoid Canonicalization Issues?

Good Site Planning

Using good site planning and architecture, from the start, can save you a lot of problems later on. Pick a convention for linking, and stick with it.

Maintain Consistent Linking Conventions

It's an important point, so I'll repeat it ;) Always link to www.acme.com, rather than sometimes linking to acme.com/index.htm, and sometimes linking to www.acme.com.

301 Redirect Non-www to www , Or Vice Versa

You can force resolution to one URL only. To do this, you create a 301 redirect.

Here's a typical 301 redirect script:

RewriteEngine On RewriteCond %{HTTP_HOST} ^seobook.com [NC] RewriteRule ^(.*)$ http://www.seobook.com/$1 [L,R=301]

For a more detailed analysis on how to use redirects, see .htaccess, 301 Redirects & SEO.

Use The Website Health Check Tool

This tool, and accompanying video, shows you how to spot a number of site architecture problems, including canonicalization issues.

Download the tool, check the www vs non-www option box, and hit the Analyze button.

If you have a large site you may not be able to surface all the canonicalization issues using the default tool settings. You may need to use the date based filter options to get a deep view of recently indexed pages...many canonicalization issues occur sitewide, so looking deeply at new pages should help you detect problems.

Another free, but far more time consuming option, is to use the date based filters on Google's advanced search page.

Workaround For Https://

Sometimes Google will index both the http:// and the https:// versions of a site.

One way around this is to tell the bots not to index the https:// version.

Tony Spencer outlines two ways to do this in .htaccess, 301 Redirects & SEO. One is to cloak the robots.txt file, the other is to create a conditional php script.

Use Absolute, As Opposed To Relative Links

An absolute link specifies the exact location of a file on a webserver. For example, http://www.acme.com/filename.html

A relative link is, as the name suggests, relative to a pages' location on the server.

A relative link looks like this:
"/directory/filename.htm"

There are various issues to consider, not related to canonicalization issues, when deciding to using either format. These issues include page download speed, server access times, and design conventions. The point to remember is to remain consistent. Absolute links tend to make doing so easier, as there is only ever one URL format for a file, regardless of context.

Don't Link To Multiple Versions Of The Page

In some cases, you may intend to have duplicate content on your site.

For example, some software, such as blog and forum software, aggregates posts into archives. Always link to the original version of the post, as opposed to the archive, or any other, location i.e. www.acme.com/todays-post.htm , not www.acme.com/archive/december/todays-post.htm.

If your software program links to a duplicate version of the content (like an individual post from a forum thread) consider adding rel=nofollow to those links.

Use 301s, not 302s On Internal Affiliate Redirects

A 301 redirect is a permanent redirect, which indicates a page has been moved permanently. 301s typically pass PageRank, and do not cause canonicalization issues.

A 302 redirect is a temporary redirect. If you use 302s the wrong page may rank. Google's Matt Cutts claims they are trying to fix the problem:

we’ve changed our heuristics to make showing the source url for 302 redirects much more rare. We are moving to a framework for handling redirects in which we will almost always show the destination url. Yahoo handles 302 redirects by usually showing the destination url, and we are in the middle of transitioning to a similar set of heuristics. Note that Yahoo reserves the right to have exceptions on redirect handling, and Google does too. Based on our analysis, we will show the source url for a 302 redirect less than half a percent of the time (basically, when we have strong reason to think the source url is correct)

but if you use 302s on affiliate links the affiliate page may rank in the search results, as shown in the below SnapNames search. This, in turn, would credit the affiliate with a commission anytime someone buys through that link in the search results...effectively cutting the margins of the end merchant.

Specify preferred urls in Google Webmaster Tools

Google Webmaster Tools provides an area where you can specify which version of URL i.e. http://www.acme or http//acme Google should use.

Note: It is important not to use the remove URL tool to try and fix these domain issues. Doing so may result in your entire domain, as opposed to one page, being removed from the index.

Further Reading

Rank Checker Feedback and Questions

Oct 12th
posted in

With the old thread having nearly 300 comments I thought it was good time to start a new thread. Have feedback and/or questions about our Firefox Rank Checker extension? If so, ask below

Update: another full thread...so the new one is here

How Important is Branding to Search Engine Marketing?

Oct 10th

Do you have a brand? If not, your site is part of a "cesspool." In AdAge Google's CEO Eric Schmidt explains the AdWords quality score and organic ranking algorithms in laymans terms:

The internet is fast becoming a "cesspool" where false information thrives, Google CEO Eric Schmidt said yesterday. Speaking with an audience of magazine executives visiting the Google campus here as part of their annual industry conference, he said their brands were increasingly important signals that content can be trusted.

"Brands are the solution, not the problem," Mr. Schmidt said. "Brands are how you sort out the cesspool."

"Brand affinity is clearly hard wired," he said. "It is so fundamental to human existence that it's not going away. It must have a genetic component."

The key to understanding the above is to appreciate that not only do the large brands have more money and more exposure, but they are less likely to be policed if they do the same thing that a smaller webmaster does. It is why a billion dollar company's affiliate program passes PageRank and my affiliate links do not.

Simply put, big brands should spam. Smart people like you, who read the algorithms as a profession, already knew this, but a large segment of publishers think search is mostly trickery and voodoo.

Build a brand and buy links. If your brand is big enough you most likely will not get policed out of the search results. It has been that way for years. If only the AdWords support team or Matt Cutts spoke with Mr. Schmidt's level of clarity!

Google as Affiliate, Affiliate Network, Ad Network, & Ad Agency

Oct 10th

Google recently expanded their ad offering by inserting AdSense ads on maps, putting AdSense image ads & banners on image search results, opening up AdSense for Games, and monetizing Youtube with affiliate ads for Amazon.com and Apple iTunes.

The NYT article on AdSense for Games (linked above) promises a couple more new ad units in the coming weeks, and highlights Google's new ad strategy

For the text and graphic ads (but not video) Google will also look at the context of the game and the page it is on for clues that might indicate whether some of the ads targeted by keyword are appropriate.

Mr. Oestlien indicated one small feature of Google’s program that may represent a significant change in the company’s approach: It is starting to broker deals between game publishers and advertisers to have their products integrated into the actual play of the games. For example, a dog food company could have its latest kibble built into Pet Society, a game on Facebook that now has Google ads.

On the high end for brand advertisers Google is becoming something that looks, smells, walks, and talks like an agency. Take a look at this ad unit.

And on the lead and retail front, Google is looking to become the web's largest affiliate. Everyone in search marketing (and online media) need to take a strong look at the merchant beta test Google conducted

How long until Google goes after other online ad markets that are worth hundreds of millions or billions each? More and more Google searches may end up clicking through to a Google property or a Google navigational aid. If Google can get enough merchants to buy in, any (or all) of these could become affiliate links. If the data can be structured Google can take their tax.


AdWords effectively killed the longtail by recycle brand ads on longtail search queries. Look for that consolidation to continue. If the SERPs hold custom ad units by Google, is your lead value and brand big enough to be able to pay for the leads? If not, how can you deepen your experience to create a citation-worthy service that goes deeper than Google is willing to go?

Update: As John Andrews highlighted, Google aggressively cashes in on branding, so if you own a brand you owe it to them to be liberal with their guidelines.

Why Bloggers Need To Think About Marketing Strategy

Oct 9th

I started a blog on search engines in 2002.

In those days, the idea of blogging about anything other than politics, or blogging, or what your cat had for breakfast, was new. In fact, the idea of blogs was new. Most people's reaction to the word blog was "huh"?

I quickly built up an audience, and links, mostly because I had first mover advantage, and I threw in a few social media basics. It certainly wasn't rocket science. But, at the time, I was doing something unique and "remarkable", in the Seth Godin sense of the word.

Fast forward to today, and the landscape is very different.

There are thousands - perhaps tens of thousands - of blogs on search, and most of those go unread. A blog on search is no longer remarkable.

Unless you have first-class insider information, and can produce it on a regular basis, I wouldn't advise anyone start a generalist search engine blog these days. The low hanging fruit is gone, but there are still easy pickings in other areas, it's simply a matter of finding them, identifying your strengths, and exploiting them.

How Many Blogs Are Out There?

This years "State Of The Blogsphere" report indicates there are around 133 million blogs, and they are only the blogs indexed by Technorati since 2002.

Even if we assume that half of those are spam blogs, or cobweb blogs, that's still a lot of "personal journals". Are there 133 million readers?

ComScore MediaMetrix (August 2008)
Blogs: 77.7 million unique visitors in the US
Facebook: 41.0 million | MySpace 75.1 million
Total internet audience 188.9 million
eMarketer (May 2008)
94.1 million US blog readers in 2007 (50% of Internet users)
22.6 million US bloggers in 2007 (12%)
Universal McCann (March 2008)
184 million WW have started a blog | 26.4 US
346 million WW read blogs | 60.3 US
77% of active Internet users read blogs

Would a generalist blog do well in such a market? It could, but it's highly unlikely. Such deep markets tend to favor a niche approach.

So, instead of a blog on search, one strategy might be simply to go deep on one aspect of that market. How about a blog on the mathematics of search engine algorithms? Or search marketing for a specific region? Or search marketing in one industry vertical, such as travel?

How To Find And Test A Niche

First up, read these posts:

Once you've decided on a niche, you can further test the validity of your idea, and your approach, by asking questions.

One formalized way of doing this is called a SWOT analysis. It's a high-brow marketing term, but the idea is simple in practice. Swot stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats.

Make a list:

  • Strengths - why do I do well?
  • Weaknesses - What do I do poorly?
  • Opportunities - What upcoming trends fit with my strengths? What am I doing now that could be leveraged?
  • Threats - What internal problems do I face? What external problems do I face?

You then detail how you can use each strength, how you can improve each weakness, how you exploit each opportunity, and how you mitigate each risk.

Simply going through such exercises can open a world of possibilities. It is important to write it down. I find the simple act of writing something down seems to make an idea less abstract and more concrete.

One of the big threats in the blog world is the low barrier to entry. Anyone can start a blog within minutes.

Ask yourself how will you stay ahead of the person who starts in the next hour? The ten people who have started by tomorrow? The hundreds of people who have started by next week, not to mention the big, established names who already have a dedicated share of an audience that isn't really growing.

Tough call. There are no easy answers to such a question, as it really depends on your individual strengths and weaknesses, which is why asking questions like these can provide valuable insight.

Philip Kotler, a renowned marketing guru, suggests asking the following questions of any new business plan or idea:

  • Does this strategy contain exciting new opportunities?
  • Is the plan clear at defining a target market?
  • Will the customer in each target market see our offering as superior?
  • Do the strategies see, coherent? Are the right tools being used?
  • What is the probability that the plan will achieve its stated objectives?
  • What would you eliminate from the plan if you only had 80% of your budget?
  • What would you add to the plan if you only had 120% of your budget?

Those last two might seem a little odd in this context, but they certainly are applicable. What would you do if you had more of a budget to promote your blog? Would you spend it on advertising? If so, where, specifically, would you spend it?

Asking these questions can suggest all manner of options. By pretending you have more of a budget, you might identify great advertising partners, but because, in reality, you might not have this budget, you could instead suggest you write guest articles for them, and thus achieve much the same result.

SEO For Blogs

The latest shift in SEO, as Aaron details in Social Interaction & Advertising Are The Modern Day Search Engine Submission & Link Building, is towards relationship marketing, which is why SEOs are increasingly adopting marketing and PR strategies in order to operate more effectively.

Let's face it - SEO for blogs is a cakewalk. Blog software, such as Wordpress, is already search friendly, right out of the box. If you want to tweak it further, there are a wealth of available tools and instruction. Anyone can do it, and that's a problem.

But it's not really about the tools. It's how you use them. The key part to success in doing SEO on blogs is the way you interact.

Specific Strategies To Consider

Quote And Link To Popular Bloggers

Apart from the obvious potential that a blogger will follow inbound links back to their source (you!), meme aggregators, such as Techmeme and Google Blog News, are becoming more prevalent.

These sites aggregate similar conversations together. Simply by talking about what others are talking about, and adding to the conversation, you might get a link and/or attention.

Leave Valuable Useful Comments On Popular Related Blogs

Go where the crowd already is.

For example, I follow most comments in these blog posts back to the authors, and if they have left a site name, I check it out.

Most are then added to my RSS feed reader.

Write Articles For Other Popular Blogs

Think of this as advertising. Advertising costs, and in this case, that cost is your time. The benefits of contributing editorial can be fantastic, however, as you can reach a large, established market quickly.

Create Community Based Ideas, Ask For Feedback Before Launching

This is cheap and cheerful market research. You also give your audience an opportunity for buy-in on the outcome. If the audience feels they are part of the process, they are more likely to accept it, and even promote it.

Add Value To Ideas So People Reference You When Talking About Them

Besides the obvious link benefit involved, it is also great for your brand. Your name becomes your brand, and the more people mention your name, the further your brand spreads. Seth Godin is a master at this, and if you aren't reading his blog already, you should be.

See! It just happened. Twice, in this post, in fact.

Actively Solicit Comments And Reply To Them

One over-looked value of comments is that people are providing crawlable, unique content. Usually I find the more contentious the post, the more comments you receive. So don't be afraid to stir the hornets nest every one in a while ;)

Encouraging Contribution From Others And Highlighting Their Contribution Builds Community

The best situation is win-win. Are you giving your readers and community members a chance to do so?

This is one of the reasons I think black hole SEO is short-sighted, especially for community sites and blogs. It doesn't allow others to win, too.

Network Offline At Industry Trade Shows

I once worked with a guy who had been a very successful investment banker on Wall Street. He says he ignores the University qualifications and information in the public domain, as the real business world works on inside information and who you know. There's no doubt that the best place to get insider search information, and great contacts, is in the bars between conferences.

Every community has an epicenter - a group of people who most others take a lead from - and that epicenter might be as small as three or four highly influential people. Those are the people you need to talk to.

Don’t Be Afraid Of Controversy

If you gain mindshare and authority, some people will hate you for it.

This is related to my "stir-the-hornets-nest" point above. Once you start getting attention, you also become a target. You have little choice but to go with the flow, and keep in mind you cannot please all the people, all the time. Sometimes, it even pays not to please them. People are more likely to engage if they feel passionate, and especially if they passionately believe you are wrong!

Reminds me of a great quote by Oscar Wilde: "The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about!"

Further Reading

Social Interaction & Advertising Are The Modern Day Search Engine Submission & Link Building

Oct 8th

Years ago (well before I was an SEO, or knew what SEO was) search engine submission was a huge phrase. Only recently has search engine marketing replaced search engine submission in popularity.

Search engine submission was big part of the optimization game when search relevancy algorithms were heavily reliant on meta tags and on the page content. As search got polluted with on the page spam you needed to more than submit to compete for coveted valuable phrases, you had to build signals of trust from other sites. Link building was a requirement.

Many of the links that you could easily "build" have effectively disappeared from the web, through the use of nofollow and Google editing the PageRank of many (perhaps most) web directories. Recently Google removed their recommendations for directory submission and link building when these 2 points disappeared from their guidelines

  • Have other relevant sites link to yours.
  • Submit your site to relevant directories such as the Open Directory Project and Yahoo!, as well as to other industry-specific expert sites.

Might their reliance on directories be waning?

Absolutely.

Each additional link created and each additional web page published make Google smarter.

The web is a social network and search engines follow people. Once you think of the web from that perspective you have a HUGE advantage over competitors who are "building" one link at a time.

Google wants those who are well connected (and those who can afford to advertise) to succeed. Thus the evolution of SEO looks like...

  • search engine submission
  • on page optimization
  • link "building"
  • advertising, branding, viral marketing, public relations, & social interaction

Getting the basics right (keyword research, site structure, on page optimization) help make everything else you do more effective. But each day that passes you need a bit more (economic and/or social) capital to compete. What social interactions are built into your site? Why should bloggers write about your business?

Relationship Marketing Via Consumer Interaction

Oct 7th
posted in

There was a time when people bought from those people who knew them.

You went to the local butcher or baker, and he knew your name, and your kids names. Personal interaction was a valuable sales and marketing tool.

We can apply this strategy to the web, too.

Interaction Marketing

Interaction marketing, as the name suggests, is about the marketing benefit that can be had from engaging with a visitor in a more personalized way.

It works well in an environment of anonymous, mee-too sameness, because people still crave uniqueness and personal attention. This startegy isn't limited to commerce, either. It applies to all kinds of sites, including blogs.

What Are The Benefits Of Encouraging Interaction?

Encouraging interaction can result in more repeat visits, more sales, more loyalty, and more attention. In many cases, it's quite a simple thing to do, and the pay-offs can be enormous.

A well-known example is: "Do you want fries with that?". McDonald's upsell is an example of interaction marketing. They're asking the right question at just the right time, and they're personalizing the service. And it works, to the tune of billions in extra revenue per year.

The Blogs Squeaky Wheel

One of the problems with blogs, this one included, is that the audience isn't just one audience. There are many audiences.

Some people are experienced SEOs and have been reading here for a long time. Others might have only just learned what the phrase SEO means. Most people are spread across the continuum.

How do you deliver an experience that works well for everyone?

Distinguish Between New And Returning Visitors

Seth Godin advocates distinguishing between new and returning visitors to your site, and targeting them with slightly different messages.

For example, new commentors could be delivered to a special welcome page, informing them about various, important areas of your site. You wouldn't necessarily want to do this for long-time users of the site, because it would slow them down, and might be seen as condesending rather than helpful.


One opportunity that's underused is the idea of using cookies to treat returning visitors differently than newbies. It's more work at first, but it can offer two experiences to two different sorts of people.

Here is a Wordpress plugin that will do just that: Wordpress Commentor PlugIn.

By default, new visitors to your blog will see a small box above each post containing the words "If you're new here, you may want to subscribe to my RSS feed. Thanks for visiting!" After 5 visits the message disappears. You can customize this message, its lifespan, and its location."

You could also try this one: Comment Redirect PlugIn

Another way to achieve the same thing is to send an email to new commentors upon registration, outlining the top posts and welcoming them.

You're customizing the experience only slightly, but the payoffs in terms of relationship building could be considerable. The user are more likely to perceive the interaction as helpful and personalized.

Ask For A Link In The Order Confirmation E-mail

That is certainly one of those "why-didn't-I-think-of-that" moments.

You could ask customers, or new sign ups, to link to you. Your customers are prime candidates to approach for links, because they are already familiar with you, presumably like you, and the relationship has already been established.

Amazon-Style Feedback Reminder

Amazon, and their partners, ask for a review a few days after you buy something.

Not only is this a great way to get feedback, customers may also provide you with content. Make it easy for them to do so.

Selective Advertising

Advertising can annoy visitors, and compromise your brand. You can give people added value by removing advertising for those who join up.

Similarly, you could leave advertising off new content. Create a different template, that includes ads, for your archived content. By doing so, you can monetarize most of your content without annoying your regular readers.

Further Reading

Copyright in Reverse? How Will THAT Change Marketing?

Oct 6th

Interesting story about the success of Guitar Hero, and the music included in Guitar Hero

The use of a sound recording in a video game is not subject to any sort of statutory royalty – the game maker must receive a license negotiated with the copyright holder of the recording – usually the record company. In previous editions of the game, Guitar Hero has paid for music rights. However, now that the game has proved its value in promoting the sale of music, the head of Activision, the company that owns the game, has suggested in a Wall Street Journal interview that it should be the record companies that are paying him to include the music in the game – and no doubt many artists would gladly do so for the promotional value they realize from the game.

A while ago I mentioned something along the lines of "the information you sell today, you might be willing to pay people to consume in a couple years." In some markets there is a lot of strategic value in asymmetrical information distribution, but...

  • the decline of copyright
  • the ease of local substitution
  • the near infinite level of competition online

make keeping secrets hard, and make selling information a difficult practice unless you...

  • keep adding to what you are selling
  • are aggressive at public relations and marketing and/or become synonymous with an information format or type of transaction
  • can build enough exposure to flip the business model around (like Activision's CEO is planning on doing)
  • interact with customers and personalize the experience
  • dig deeper than competing services and invest into infrastructure to provide a barrier to entry

The network quickly changes itself as imitators imitate market leaders and effective marketing strategies, quickly turning what was once a smart technique into dirty spam...constantly burning out and reinventing the field of marketing.

If you have a competitive advantage and/or find that something is particularly effective it is probably in your best interest to either burn it out quickly before competitors can also use it, or share the information publicly and become synonymous with the technique.

If a market seems saturated then pick a different niche or write from the opposite perspective that most the talking heads write from. The best time to buy a great domain, set up a new site, and build competitive search advantages is before the competition is aware of the value of a market or marketing technique.

Is Buying Links Stupid?

Oct 3rd
posted in

This old chestnut.

There is a post over at Search Engine Land by Danny Sullivan entitled "Conversation With An Idiot Link Broker". To cut a long story short, some guy tries to broker a link deal with Danny, seemingly not knowing who Danny is, and Danny plays him along. Danny reports him to the Google spam team.

For the sake of furthering discussion, I'll play devils advocate :)

Regardless of anyone's views on link buying, it is wrong to mislead people. Danny clearly felt this guy was being misleading, and gave him a number of chances to clarify his position. But is buying and selling links really as "risky" a behavior as is being made out?

It might be considered a risky behavior if you spend a lot of time obsessing about Google, as SEOs tend to do. However, links are the glue that binds the web. Link buying and selling started long before Google existed. It will always happen.

It's called advertising.

But it would be disingenuous not to see what Danny is really talking about here. He's talking about buying links for the sole purpose of gaining link juice. I can understand why Google takes a dim view of this practice. . Paid links compromises Google's business model.

Fair enough. If I worked for Google, I'd take the same stance.

For Danny Sullivan, given the level of exposure of his site in the search world, the risks presented by link trading would be significant. Regardless of Danny's personal opinion on such practices, such a deal would clearly be a non-starter. The link seller is a fool for, above all else, failing to identify his customer.

However, for most sites, the reality is that the risk of link buying and selling is probably negligible.

Google taking out the occasional site amidst a storm of publicity doesn't mean much when there are tens of thousands of sites that clearly do not receive the exact same treatment. If one site in two got hammered, it would be a different story, but it is likely the figures run into one site in thousands. It then becomes a matter of weighing one's chances of being detected and punished by Google against the potential rewards on offer.

For example, there are credible, Fortune 500 companies engaged in buying and selling links. The risk of big names being taken out for any longer than a day or two is near zero. If you run the sort of big name site searchers expect to see in the results, Google probably aren't going to leave you out on a technicality. This would compromise their business model, because Google must deliver relevant results.

Is it up to the link seller to outline all the potential risks involved? Apart from the comical farce of a link seller failing to identify Danny Sullivan, how big a moral crime has the guy really committed? Do Google outline all the risks associated with using their products and services? Or is Danny cunningly implying that Google's algorithm cannot determine which links are paid, and in fact relies on people filing reports? ;)

A moral tone runs through such discussions, and I'm not sure it is entirely consistent.

Google are a business and their pronouncements must be considered in this context. They will act in their own interest, and those interest may or may not align with your own. Are we at risk of ceding the assumption of moral superiority to Google when they may not deserve it? Google, like you, are trying to earn a crust, and any organization may not be entirely transparent and morally consistent in all they do. Who do you call out, and who gets a free pass?

Google certainly holds the power, and if being in the SERPs matters a lot to you, then you should stay within Google's guidelines. It's also fair to say that, these days, even this approach offers no guarantees.

Tread wisely :)

Further Reading

How To Choose Domain Names For SEO

Oct 1st

Domaining.

It has been a hot topic for a while now, yet many domineers aren't overly active in the SEO space. Yet.

Domaining is when you register a domain, or buy a domain on the seondary market, with the intention of deriving traffic, and turning that traffic into revenue. Traffic comes from type in traffic. i.e. people type a keyword into the address bar and add .com on the end. Domains can be valuable internet real estate, because, unlike a search engine, there is no middleman between you and the visitor. A lucrative pursuit, if you choose the right names.

Let's take a look at how domineering strategy can be applied to SEO.

Background

Aaron has a great interview with Frank Schilling. Frank is one of the biggest domaineers on the planet, and an articulate advocate of this strategy.

Add this lot to your feed reader:

http://www.sevenmile.com/
http://rickschwartz.typepad.com/
http://www.whizzbangsblog.com/
http://www.domainnews.com/

If anyone has other suggestions for great domaining blogs, please add them to the comments.

How To Select A Domain Name

Google tends to give weight to keywords in the domain name. This increases the importance of selecting a good name.

When choosing a domain name for SEO purposes, there are three main factors to consider:

  • Brand
  • Rankability
  • Linkability

Brand

Should you use hyphenated, multi-term domain like search-engine-marketing-services.com?

I'd avoid such names like the plague.

Why?

They have no branding value. They have limited SEO value. Even if you do manage to get such a domain top ten, you're probably going to need to sell on the first visit, as few people are going to remember it once they leave. It is too generic, and it lacks credibility.

In a crowded market, brand offers a point of distinction.

It is easier to build links to branded domain names. People take these name more seriously that keyword-keyword-keyword-keyword.com, which looks spammy and isn't fooling anyone. Would you link to such a name? By doing so, it devalues your own content .

It can even difficult to get such domain names linked to when you pay for the privilege! Directory editors often reject these names on sight, because such names are often associated with low-quality content. Imagine how many free links you might be losing by choosing such a name.

Is there a downside to using branded names?

Yes.

Unless you have a huge marketing budget, no one is going to search for perseefgxcbtrfy.com, which is a new killer, brand I just made up ;)

Thankfully, there is a happy medium between brand and SEO strategy.

Rankability

SEOs release the value of keywords. When naming your site, and deciding on a domain name, try combining the lessons of SEO, branding and domaining.

Genric + term is a good approach to use. Take your chosen keyword, and simply add another word on the end. SeoBook, Travelocity, FlightsCity, CarHub, etc. These words have SEO value built into them, because people are forced to use your keywords in the link. Also, Google (currently) values a keyword within the domain name for ranking purposes. Finally, such a name retains an element of unique branding.

These types of domain names score high on the rank-ability and link-ability meter. They are generic enough to rank well for the keyword term, yet contain just enough branding difference to be memorable.

The SEO Advantage

There is another advantage for SEOs in the domain space.

Dot com's can sell for 5-20 times as much as a .org or .net. Keyword + .com can sell for millions of dollars, depending on the domain name.

Expensive, huh.

But...

By registering or buying the cheaper .net or .org equivilent, building out the site, and ranking well for the keyword + net, or +org, you increase the value of the domain name markedly. Sure, you're one step away from pure domaineering and you still have Google to contend with, but you'll be head and shoulders above those who are undervaluing these names.

A lot of domaineers aren't operating in this space.

Yet.

Other Tips And Ideas

Leave The Keyword Out Entirely

Used the related search function on Google ~ + keyword and see if any of the related keyword terms fit. This can be a good strategy to use if all the good generic keyword names are gone. It might get you close enough to the action, without the enormous price tag. Might be more memorable, too.

How To Test A Domain Name For Penalties Before Buying It

  • Verify the site is not blocking GoogleBot in their robots.txt file
  • Point a link at the domain from a trusted site and see if Google indexes it
  • Within a couple weeks (at most a month) Google should list the site when you search for it in Google using site:domainname.com

Further Reading:






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