Originally when we published this we were going to make it subscriber only content, but the change is so important that I thought we should share some of it with the entire SEO industry. This post starts off with a brief history of recent algorithm updates, and shows the enormous weight Google is placing on branded search results.
The Google Florida Update
I got started in the search field in 2003, and one of the things that helped get my name on the map was when I wrote about the November 14th Google Florida update in a cheeky article titled Google Sells Christmas . To this day many are not certain exactly what Google changed back then, but the algorithm update seemed to hit a lot of low level SEO techniques. Many pages that exhibited the following characteristics simply disappeared from the search results
repetitive inbound anchor text with little diversity
heavy repetition of the keyword phrase in the page title and on the page
words is a phrase exhibiting close proximity with few occurrences of the keywords spread apart
a lack of related/supporting vocabulary in the page copy
The Google Florida update was the first update that made SEO complicated enough to where most people could not figure out how to do it. Before that update all you needed to do was buy and/or trade links with your target keyword in the link anchor text, and after enough repetition you stood a good chance of ranking.
Google Austin, Other Filters/Penalties/Updates/etc.
In the years since Google has worked on creating other filters and penalties. At one point they tried to stop artificial anchor text manipulation so much that they accidentally filtered out some brands for their official names .
The algorithms have got so complex on some fronts that Google engineers do not even know about some of the filters/penalties/bugs (the difference between the 3 labels often being an issue of semantics). In December 2007, a lot of pages that ranked #1 suddenly ended up ranking no better than position #6  for their core target keyword (and many related keywords). When questioned about this, Matt Cutts denied the problem until after he said they had already fixed it. 
When Barry asked me about "position 6" in late December, I said that I didn't know of anything that would cause that. But about a week or so after that, my attention was brought to something that could exhibit that behavior. We're in the process of changing the behavior; I think the change is live at some datacenters already and will be live at most data centers in the next few weeks.
Recent Structural Changes to the Search Results
Google helped change the structure of the web in January 2005 when they proposed a link rel=nofollow tag . Originally it was said to stop blog spam, but by September of the same year, Matt Cutts changed his tune to where you were considered a spammer if you were buying links without using rel=nofollow on them. Matt Cutts documented some of his repeated warnings on the Google Webmaster Central blog. 
A bunch of allegedly "social" websites have adopted the use of the nofollow tag,  turning their users into digital share-croppers  and eroding the link value  that came as a part of being a well known publisher who created link-worthy content.
In May of 2007 Google rolled out Universal search , which mixes in select content from vertical search databases directly into the organic search results. This promoted
Youtube videos (and other video content)
Google Product Search
select other Google verticals, like Google Books
These 3 moves (rel=nofollow, social media, and universal search), coupled with over 10,000 remote quality raters , has made it much harder to manipulate the search results quickly and cheaply unless you have a legitimate well trusted site that many people vouch for. (And it does not hurt to have spent a couple hours reading their 2003, 2005, and 2007 remote quality guidelines that were leaked into the SEO industry. 
Tracking Users Limits Need for "Random" Walk
The PageRank model is an algorithm built on a random walk of links on the web graph. But if you have enough usage data, you may not need to base your view of the web on that perspective since you can use actual surfing data to help influence the search results. Microsoft has done research on this concept, under the name of BrowseRank.  In Internet Explorer 8 usage data is sent to Microsoft by default.
Google's Chrome browser phones home  and Google also has the ability to track people (and how they interact with content) through Google Accounts, Google Analytics, Google AdSense, DoubleClick, Google AdWords, Google Reader, iGoogle, Feedburner, and Youtube.
Yesterday we launched a well received linkbait, and the same day our rankings for our most valuable keywords were lifted in both Live and Google, part of that may have been the new links, but I would be willing to bet some of it was caused from 10,000's of users finding their way to our site.
Google's Eric Schmidt Offers Great SEO Advice
If you ask Matt Cutts what big SEO changes are coming up he will tell you "make great content" and so on...never wanting to reveal the weaknesses of their search algorithms. Eric Schmidt, on the other hand, is frequently talking to media and investors with intent of pushing Google's agendas and all the exciting stuff that is coming out. In the last 6 months Mr. Schmidt has made a couple quotes that smart SEOs should incorporate into their optimization strategies - one on brands , and another on word relationships .
Here is Mr. Schmidt's take on brands from last October
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."
And here is his take on word relationships from the most recent earnings call
“Wouldn’t it be nice if Google understood the meaning of your phrase rather than just the words that are in that phrase? We have a lot of discoveries in that area that are going to roll out in the next little while.”
The January 18th Google Update Was Bigger Than Florida, but Few People Noticed it
Tools like RankPulse  allow you to track the day to day Google ranking changes for many keywords.
4 airlines recently began ranking for "airline tickets"
At least 90% of the first page of search results for auto insurance is owned by large national brands.
3 boot brands / manufacturers rose from nowhere to ranking at the top of the search results.
3 of the most well recognized diet programs began ranking for diets.
4 multi-billion dollar health insurance providers just began ranking, with Aetna bouncing between positions #1 and 2.
3 of the largest online education providers began ranking for online degree.
5 watch brands jumped onto the first page of search results for watches. To be honest I have never heard of Nixon Now.
The above images are just some examples. Radioshack.com recently started ranking for electronics and Hallmark.com just recently started ranking for gifts. The illustrations do not list all brands that are ranking, but brands that just started ranking. Add in other brands that were already ranking, and in some cases brands have 80% or 90% of the first page search results for some of the most valuable keywords. There are thousands of other such examples across all industries if you take the time to do the research, but the trend is clear - Google is promoting brands for big money core category keywords.
When launching a brand new website in a competitive marketplace you have a lot of network effects working against you. Your competition has years of conversion data, an older trusted site, tons of content, and thousands of organic inbound links. Try to beat them right from the start for the most potent high-value keywords and you will likely fail.
Any new website has opportunity cost. One of my first goals with a new site is to get it to self-sustaining while it is still growing rapidly. In doing that, I can afford to lock up that capital with no returns because I know I am buying market-share in a fairly organic manner, and few competitors will operate at that strategic level or see me coming. Whenever the site has enough exposure then advertising (and other promotional spending) can be cut as needed.
If I target the most competitive keywords first (without a strong competitive advantage - like a network of sites to build off, an old trusted website, a huge brand, or a strong domain name) then I might never get to self-sustaining. There is no award, little traffic, and virtually no value for ranking on page 2 or page 3, even if it is for an exceptionally competitive and high traffic keyword like credit cards.
Longtail keywords are easier to rank for. If you can pick off mid-tier phrases and rank at the top of the search results then you can build a revenue stream from them, which can be reinvested to further buy marketshare and distribution.
There is more value in...
using your core pages (and link anchor text) to target lower competition variations of your core keywords (like best credit cards or compare credit cards) rather than targeting just the core competitive keyword credit cards
ensuring that each particular deep page is well optimized and can pull in relevant traffic
than there is *almost* ranking for credit cards.
Core keywords require domain age, good anchor text, trusted links from a variety of sources, and perhaps links from within your topical community. It takes time to build all those external signals of quality. You can rank for longtail keywords much faster, because you control your on page optimization.
Longtail keywords have less competition, and are thus far easier to rank for, as illustrated below.
And the good news is that if you target best credit cards or compare credit cards that will help you rank for credit cards as your site gains link authority and trust in Google.
Eventually you want to rank your site for many of the most valuable phrases, but you need to build a revenue stream to support those efforts. By focusing on the second tier and third tier keywords first, you enable yourself an opportunity to earn (and buy) the exposure needed to rank for the core keywords.
This site does not rank well for SEO just because I decided to target that keyword, but because we helped create many paths into this site...which helped to build the authority of the site...which helps it rank better for the core keywords.
I have been a big promoter of the SEM Rush service because I think it rocks. As an extension of that, I partnered with with SEM Rush to license their data and offer the organic search piece of their service as a free bonus to our SEO training & community members.
You can use it to find the most valuable or highest traffic rankings for competing sites
Page Specific Competitive Intelligence
You can use it to find the most valuable or highest traffic rankings for a specific page
Similar Keyword Audience
You can use it to find sites that have a large overlap in search rankings / audience
Easily Export Data
The columns are sortable and it is easily to export 1,000 listings in a couple of seconds.
On the competitive research tool page I list 10 high powered ways to use this tool. I would share them publicly, but if you only find one of those tips applicable to your site & situation you should still be able to make far more than $300 from it - making the cost of the subscription free.
Try it Now
If you are a subscriber try it now. If you are not a paying subscriber you may want to join. We keep trying our best to add new content and goodies each month :)
Jason "SEO is dead" Calacanas, founder of Mahalo, used "SEO is dead" as a publicity stunt to help launch his made for AdSense scraper website. In the past we have noted how he was caught ranking pages without any original content - in clear violation of Google's guidelines. And now he has taken his spam strategy one step further, by creating a widget that bloggers can embed on their blogs.
The following link list looks like something you would find on an autogenerated spam website, but was actually on Hack A Day, a well respected technology blog with lots of PageRank.
Your site's ranking in Google search results is partly based on analysis of those sites that link to you. The quantity, quality, and relevance of links count towards your rating. The sites that link to you can provide context about the subject matter of your site, and can indicate its quality and popularity. However, some webmasters engage in link exchange schemes and build partner pages exclusively for the sake of cross-linking, disregarding the quality of the links, the sources, and the long-term impact it will have on their sites. This is in violation of Google's webmaster guidelines and can negatively impact your site's ranking in search results. Examples of link schemes can include:
Links intended to manipulate PageRank
Links to web spammers or bad neighborhoods on the web
Excessive reciprocal links or excessive link exchanging ("Link to me and I'll link to you.")
Buying or selling links that pass PageRank
The above links not only appear on hackaday, but Mahalo is actually creating a "Mahalo Blog Network" that cross links to other Mahalo promoting blogs and exists for the purpose of flowing PageRank into high paying Mahalo pages.
Do the venture capitalists that invested in Mahalo support such Google gaming and PageRank selling strategies? When will Google act on this blatant violation of their guidelines? Jason has a clear history of operating outside the spirit of their guidelines, and if Google lets this slide then many other people are going to start spamming them too. Google has an obligation to protect searchers from such devious behavior, lest they let it slide and promote the creation of more spam.
Update: This Looks Worse Than I Originally Thought!
While leveraging blog sidebars to pump PageRank and anchor text is pretty bad, at least it was not in the editorial content of blog posts. But it looks like many Mahalo employees not only put links in their sidebars, but they publish posts that consist of little but a link laundry list pointing at various seasonally hot parts of the Mahalo site.
The above is just a small sample of such posts promoting Mahalo. There are probably hundreds or thousands of suchs posts floating around the web. What makes that strategy any better than the "evil" Pay Per Post strategy that Jason Calacanis was allegedly against? I guess it is only bad when someone else is profiting from it.
As we all know, the last thing Google wants to do is make life easy for SEOs, so we'll just have to live with the constant change. One of the biggest changes SEOs have had to adapt to in recent times has been algorithm shifts that reward big players.
For example, Google results heavily feature YouTube (owned by Google, of course) and Wikipedia pages in against almost every search we make.
Let's look at some of the advantages of big business, and ways the small guy can counter them.
Advantages Of The Big Players
Unlike the small business, large businesses have access to significant amounts of capital. They can use this capital, indirectly, to buy position.
They can run large ongoing media campaigns that ensure visitors, links and attention, and all the resulting ranking advantages that provides. Big business can cross promote their properties, which makes it easier to launch new sites. They can buy out competitors (Google - YouTube) and trounce the competition, even though they enter late. They have many employees they can throw at problems, and waves of lawyers to throw problems at others.
What does the little guy have?
An internet connection.
Google Has Devalued Easy Tricks
The low hanging fruit is gone.
Google will always be a moving target. As the structure of the web changes, Google changes with it.
In the last few years, Google have devalued on page factors, they've made link building a lot more difficult, and the playing field is far from level. When the big guys get caught out using aggressive SEO, they're often given a free pass back into the index, because to not have them showing would devalue Google. The little guy is likely to be excluded for some time.
Because they are big, they can often only operate in tried and tested ways. For example, there's a Telecoms company that have just wasted tens of millions of dollars on a website that most bedroom SEOs could have beaten in their sleep. The site has recently been shut down.
The site was uneconomic because the only way this big Telecoms company knew how to operate was by using the biggest and "best" suppliers. So that meant hiring in consultants from the big consultancy firms. That meant employing large vendors to do their programming. It meant above-the-line advertising at prime time, and saturation advertising across newspapers and radio. It meant hiring teams of people and organizing them in the tried and tested organization structure.
Because that's how they've always released products and services.
Also consider that a lot of Web 2.0 operations, lauded in the media for the past few years as "the bright young things to watch", are now crashing to earth as their big-money funding dries up. Turns out that was the only thing keeping them going. Meanwhile, a lot of SEO-aware webmasters are enjoying a growing income because they're always had the revenue equation right.
In both cases, the access to big capital was a disadvantage. It meant these companies didn't need to be smart.
So what, specifically, can the smart, little, SEO-aware guy do?
You can take big bets.
The big guys tend to be conservative, but we don't need to be. We can have a crazy idea one morning, and make it a reality by that afternoon. We can ask ourselves "Is this idea crazy enough!".
The big company finds it very hard to do that.
Big company people often fret about their jobs and reputation, they have to convince a lot of stakeholders, and there's always someone waiting to stab them in the back.
The big company might not be able to make money out a small niche.
In the Telecoms company example I used above, their bloated structure and operating methodology drove costs way above the potential return. However, a smaller company with lower overheads could have made a success of it.
There are thousands and thousands of small niches the big companies can never compete in.
But you can.
Personal Trust Networks
Big companies have problems personalizing their services and relationships.
The web is about to change again. And when the web changes Google changes, too. The big change is a social one.
Twitter, social media, bookmarking sites are all about "the personal". They're hard for a big company to centrally control. That suits the small guy.
Look to build up a high degree of trust with small, tightly linked networks of people. Use a blog to keep in contact. Not just any old blog - really work it. Make it unique and own your ideas. Have an opinion and shout it loud.
Try to talk to those one hundred people in your little niche who make a difference. Talk to those 100 people who think the same way you do. If they know you and trust you, they'll do a lot of your marketing for you. There remains no more effective marketing than word of mouth.
Ask your friends to help out. Cross promote their stuff. Go into joint ventures. Really work the personal, trusted relationship side, because that's the way the web is going. Trust is being decentralized.
This is one area in which the big guys are going to have a lot of problems competing.
Friendgine - Friend Search Engine
Aaron has a great idea called "Friendgine".
Set up your own, personal Google or Yahoo search engine that includes the sites of all your friends and personal network colleagues. If you ever need to link to an external article, search your friendgine first, and link to your friends if they have relevant content.
This is a subtle way to keep in contact. They'll also likely reciprocate the favor. By creating these mini trust webs you'll make it difficult for other people who haven't established such relationships, to follow. You'll have your own nepotistic closed circle :)
After Google Japan got caught buying paid blog reviews it was claimed that Google penalized their own site. Sure their toolbar PageRank score matters, but did it do anything to their actual rankings? Not so far as I can tell.
Search Google for John Chow or Text Link Ads and try to find the official branded sites...that is what a real penalty looks like. It looks like The SEO Commandments don't apply equally to everyone.
Thou shalt bear witness against all thy competitors, spying and snitching and ratting on them whenever thou perceivest a purported spam causing grief to Mine index and My corporate ego. And My profits. For thus shalt thou spare Me labor and the expense of attending to Mine Own job. And if thou wilt not lay it to heart to give glory to My name in this manner, behold, I will corrupt thy ranking, and spread dung upon thy name, and castigate thee as unethical, and thine SEO agency shall be damned and misranked in all eternity. For verily, I am a jealous Search Engine.
This is going to be a bit of a personal post...if that weirds you out, then please skip it. :) It explains how my lack of self-confidence developed, and how I slowly developed confidence over the years - and used it to build a thriving online business.
A Lack of Confidence Limits Success
One of the biggest things that separates really successful people from people who are only moderately successful or just getting by is self esteem. I have always been a bit cynical in my perspective, and have been consumed with self doubt since sometime grade school. It turns out this is quite common, though few people admit it publicly.
Establishing Seeds of Doubt
One of my weird attributes is that at times it seems I have a photographic memory, but I was on the border of being legally blind - without knowing it. Whenever I would get an eye exam I would fail them in school, and then when it came time to go to an eye doctor somehow I would squint or cheat or something (to this day I am not sure how I passed them). Perhaps it was because I didn't want to be flawed or different. About half way through high school I got glasses and it made a world of difference to improving my confidence. But it only went from super low to low. ;)
My older brothers were a bit of troublemakers and picked on me a bit, which was not so good...though my sister was very caring and nurturing toward me. 2 weeks after high school I joined the Navy. The current military is not the military my grandpa served. They generally only teach you what you did that was wrong, and structure and orders did not get along well with me. So after about 6 years of that I started playing on the web, and within the first year was doing well enough to quit my job. But a lot of my flaws and self destructive behaviors did not disappear right away...many lingered for years.
I did decent off the start, but earned somewhere in the 2% to 3% of my potential. A lot of the 97% of potential revenue was missed simply because I did things to keep busy and did not act as a business person - going to SEO conferences but not really selling anything, spending thousand of hours on forums, and offering a better customer service to $79 ebook buyers than most SEO companies offer when they are getting thousands per month from their clients.
When I started making enough money to get by I was happy with that. When you go from making nothing to doing pretty well (even only relatively) it can feel a bit weird. What helped me decide to earn more was when Traffic Power sent a bogus lawsuit my way, costing about $40,000 in legal fees from a lawyer that told me that the $5,000 retainer was more than enough to cover the case. At that point I decided it made sense to build up a bit of a war chest in case anyone tried to screw me over again with some bogus crap like that.
Ignorance vs Scholarship
Some people are academics. Some people have street knowledge. A rare breed of person has both, while still finding enough time to do self promotion to make it all worthwhile.
The people who know the least often scream the loudest, and I have always worked hard to try to balance learning vs selling...making sure to keep myself way over on the learning end of the spectrum. The problem with that type of strategy is that unless you sell aggressively and/or apply that knowledge to the right verticals, you are simply killing your profit potential as opportunities around you disappear.
I recently heard an audio interview of a multi-millionaire info-marketer who stated that he started online marketing via bulk email spam, but did not make any money doing it. His first real moneymaker was selling an information product on how to make easy money online. Think about that...here is a guy who had no success, straight out teaching others on how they can easily gain success. Sorta feels like fraud, and yet the guy can say it with a straight face and confidence. It takes a lot of self-confidence to be able to do that.
Another internet marketing company that has sold 10s of millions of dollars of internet marketing products bought my ebook and said they loved it passing it around the office. They asked beginner level SEO questions, and less than a month later they were selling an SEO info-product. Years later one of their senior members joined our training program because he was struggling to rank websites and said that he was blown away at the ideas I came up with.
Another top selling SEO course actually lifted lines from my ebook to put in their product. I am not sure if they intentionally did it, but when they asked to get an up to date copy of my ebook for the second launch of their product I was pretty certain that it wasn't an accident.
Everyone is Broken
I also get to talk to some internet marketers off the record, and some of them have revealed things like that they were about to go bankrupt, and that they created a project out of thin air because they had to in order to prevent their business from going under. Seeing that others are just as flawed behind the curtain makes it easier to be comfortable with ones own flaws.
Asking for Reciprocity
Another info-marketer in the golf space bought my ebook and then tried to use that as a free ticket for about 10 hours of consulting. I answered a number of his questions, with the end answer being "your site(s) are nothing more than cheesy spammy looking salesletters that offer the web no value whatsoever until after people give you money." Eventually I asked him if he valued his own time at $8 an hour, because I could use some help with my swing. About 2 years later my wife read a book about info-marketing millionaires, and saw this guy profiled in the book. Offer discount pricing and people will not respect you or listen to you. They will waste your time though.
Change Takes Time
Even AFTER I ranked well in the search results with many sites, spoke at dozens of SEO conferences, and was recruited by a Microsoft headhunter to head their SEO team, I still was lacking in confidence. Part of why I stuck with the ebook model so long was just general self doubt. It was working well enough, and in spite of selling $1 million worth of the ebook, helping to make many multi-millionaires (as per customer feedback), and ranking for many high value keywords, I still wondered if I knew enough to be a teacher.
There is Always an Excuse
My general lack of respect for authority made the idea of being perceived as an authority confusing. And seeing how marketing is sometimes used in exploitative manners made it hard for me to push too hard on that front. And I didn't even like subscription based business models because of how shady pharma corporations hook customers on drugs that solve symptoms rather than problems.
Markets Drive Value Toward Price
If you do not value yourself properly then the market will work to help discount the value of your time. And, considering that we are all going to die someday, it is quite self-defeating to put arbitrary limits on your potential. Yet we all do it in some ways virtually every day.
Your Are Your #1 Competitor
The whole point of this winding post is that until I gained enough self confidence there were always excuses to say "this is good enough" and/or "I can't do that." Online you have lots of competition. And any bias self-imposed limit that clouds your judgement lowers your perceived value and your ability to create profit. Your biggest competitor is yourself.
Until I met my wife I was so longing for connection that I actually used to respond to emails like this one
"plz sir i am starting a new blog can you tell me that how i have to start its search engine optimization .
The details are not required but just the steps you follow while doing your work .
Please sir i am a boy of 18 years old help me i want money very urgently .
sir u know that now there is a hard competition in world of seo so anybody recieving this male please forward to Mr. Aaron for GOD sake Please .
Thanking you .
who is reading please forward thi message to Mr Aaron Wall"
There are billions of people in the world, but billions of them are unwilling to put the effort in needed to become successful.
After about 5 years of answering those types of emails, I learned the hard way that if people do not pay for help they intrinsically value your time and advice at $0 (or really close to it). Help the wrong people who are unwilling to do work and you not only waste your own time, but you get their internal frustrations cast on to you...further lowering your sense of self value. I can really see the difference in quality between free and paid when I venture off our forums to check out some of the "free" ones...a lot of misinformation to be had!
Sage Advice on Resonance
I really wish I would have listened better to one of my mentors when in 2005 he said:
I think the best brands, the best sites have a large portion of their founders personality in them. Never be afraid to be yourself, after all there are 1/2 billion people on the www, not all of them have to agree with you. Concentrate on the ones that share your views, concentrate on making their experience the very best it can be, the rest forget them.
Or to put it another way, the best sites say - this is what we do, this is how we do it, if you don't like it go somewhere else.
What helped me gain adequate self-confidence?
My wife meeting me and falling in love with me. She thinks far more of me than I do!
My wife pushing me to charge more and do better (at first this created stress because I took it as me not being good enough...but she was right all along. To this day she still has way more self confidence than I do and I am so lucky to have her in my life.)
Working with some of my mentors. I was stoked when we hired Peter to help work on the blog here because he was one of the 3 people I tried to pattern my initial online strategy after (Seth Godin and a friend from the UK nicknamed NFFC being the other 2).
Working with my partner the caveman to optimize some of the largest and most complex websites of companies worth 10s of billions of dollars...and getting repeat business from those clients (even though they have internal seo teams).
Using the power of SEO & marketing to promote good stuff - like PBS :)
A better and deeper connection with our customers afforded by the membership site business model where you get to see people learn in real time and see the excitement of their progress when top rankings roll in.
Still Have Some Bumps & Bruises
If you don't fail then you never tried to do anything great.
I still fall short on many goals. Today was the 1 year anniversary of the change in our business model, and I wanted to have made 10,000 forum posts in the first year, but I only made 9,928 so far...falling 72 short. I still spend too much time sitting at the computer and do not exercise or read books as much as I should. I still am a bit overweight, but I will start working on that soon...and in spite of that, I have way more self-confidence than I did a couple years ago when I was able to run a sub 6 minute mile.
Given the complete fraud that is our corrupt taxation policy and fascist banking system (everyone should be in debt forever except for the bankers who destroy trillions in wealth and loot the treasury) I have a renewed sense of cynicism, but at least I am not lacking in self-confidence! :)
Don't you hate sales letters than begin with "Dear Friend"? :)
Sleazy sales letters peddling get rich quick scams will be familiar to anyone who has spent any time on the internet. Seemingly written by some self-aggrandizing, ex-timeshare salesman, they attempt to press every conceivable button in order to make a quick sale. The downside is that they can make your product or service look low-rent.
However, whilst the execution of these letters is often mangled, the underlying psychology works. Most copywriters use these very same psychological techniques.
Let's discuss a few common sales writing techniques, the underlying psychology, and how these techniques can be used in different ways.
1. Avoid Cliches
Some sales letters start with outdated phrases such as "From The Desk Of: [name]", and "Dear Friend".
Perhaps an updated version would be "From The Computer Of:". Still sounds hokey :)
The problem with this approach is that consumers in the 2000s are cynical, jaded and media savvy. Bombarded with commercial messages, they've learned to filter commercial messages out. By using jaded, outdated phrases associated with sales copy, you increase the likelihood your message will be filtered out.
A more contemporary approach is to make your copy direct, honest and colloquial. For example, take a look at Copyblogger. The writing on CopyBlogger uses a lot of the classic, direct marketing techniques, yet it doesn't sound jaded, because the writer is using an informal, self-aware style of writing.
One qualification: this does depend on your audience. The older your audience are, the less likely dated phrases will turn them off.
2. Appeal To Self Interest
It's still all about them, not you.
Sales letters are big on outlining the benefits for the consumer, and this is one area that hasn't changed. However, to be most effective, you need to know your audience well. Depending on your audience, this might mean using no words at all.
Take a look at the Gucci site. Luxury brands seldom resort to explicitly listing benefits, because as far as the manufacturer and consumer are concerned, the benefits should be self-evident. If they need explaining, then they've got a problem, so very much a case of show, don't tell. Could you imagine using a long-winded, cliche ridden sales letter to sell Gucci? It would undermine, rather than enhance the brand.
Listing benefits can be very powerful. Take a look at how SEOBook does it. Aaron tells me the conversion rate jumped after he moved to spelling out benefits in this focused, punchy way. Notice that page also integrates a strong call-to-action, and examples of social proof.
More on these aspects shortly.
If your audience feels engaged, they're more likely to buy.
Forrester Research conducted a study(PDF) of over 200 companies, and found that companies expected to benefit in terms of more sales, increased loyalty, and peer recommendations by engaging their customers on a deeper level. Customers often want more than a transaction, they want to feel part of something.
A clumsy way to invoke engagement is to use over-familiar phrases like "Dear Friend". It's a little dishonest, given the anonymous nature of the relationship. A better way is to relate genuine shared experiences. Shared stories and experiences create a feeling of empathy, which leads to a greater degree of engagement.
There are many ways to do this, of course.
Take a look at the way Apple markets to their customers. You're very much buying into an familiar and shared identity - a style conscious one - when you buy Apple, as opposed to simply buying a computer or an MP3 player.
Telling stories about how you solved a problem is a good approach, and one that sales letters often do well.
Another approach is to let the customers tell their own stories. Amazon does this with the user feedback facility. Think of ways you can combine interaction, engagement and brand identity.
4. Social Proof
If other people have done something, it feels safer.
Buying carries risk - risk that you'll lose money. In the traditional sales letter, you'll see testimonials from seemingly delighted users. These testimonials often appear alongside stock photos - erm, genuine photos of the letter writer ;) - and often feature a scanned signature.
The underlying truth is that humans are like reef-fish. We think, sometimes unwisely, that there is safety in numbers. So if we see other people buying a product, then it is safe for us to buy it as well.
There are a number of ways to provide social proof. Testimonials are very powerful, but people are likely to be suspicious of testimonials from people they don't know. Try and get testimonials from people your audience are already familiar with. Link to the sites of people who provided the testimonials. Give people a means to check credibility.
One method used a lot in the SEO world is to have your photo taken at a search conference, usually alongside some guru. The implication is that the person has been sharing secret SEO techniques all evening, when in all likelihood the person pictured has just asked "hey, can I get a photo with you?".
The photos are another example of social proof - the person pictured is "in the know", and seems to be best friends with some guru the audience already knows, and thus becomes a reliable source of advice on search.
We've all done it :)
5. Call To Action
Give people a clear indication of what they should do next.
This is an important aspect of all direct marketing, and you'll see calls to action peppered throughout sales letters. Calls to action work well because they help close the sales deal. They move the prospect from thinking to action.
The call to action in the sales letter usually involves jumping straight to the close - BUY NOW!! - but it needn't be. Calls to action take many forms, including a request for the prospect to join a mailing list, call the company, remember a piece of information, or send an email.
Keep in mind what you want your audience to do, and spell it out. Don't leave it up in the air.
I was sad to see some people who claim to be search experts actually syndicate that John Dvorak article stating that it was good. Of course there are some scammers in every piece of the marketing industry because anywhere where there is demand for a marketing service opportunistic people will look to take advantage of people, but not all SEO techniques are seedy or shifty. In fact, most are not.
Steven Arnold wrote "Gaming search engines for fun or profit is of zero interest to me as are those who practice these dark arts," and he wrote that content was the secret. "SEO is a way for content free sites to game the indexing systems. Content, Aaron Wall, content. Not tricks, spoofs, and carnival tricks." That is the mindset of a guy who has probably spent thousands of hours researching search. Bizarre.
Sure SEO can be used to temporarily promote garbage, but it is also used to make quality publishing business models profitable.
It is no secret that many publishing business models are no longer effective. Mainstream publishing businesses are going bankrupt. They have nearly limitless content, but even with their huge online archives, it does not create enough traffic and profit to effectively subsidize the cost of new content production.
So here is a publishing company with a strong brand, tons of content, losing money, and their growth strategy is hoping that competitors go bankrupt before they do. These newspapers get direct promotion in the search results through the Google News OneBox (a rankings boost subsidy), and yet they still can't turn a profit. That really shows the flaw of the "content" mindset in the age of the internet.
As Robert Thomson, the managing editor of the Wall Street Journal explains:
But one of the — Google — I mean, the harsh way of just defining it, Google devalues everything it touches. Google is great for Google, but it’s terrible for content providers, because it divides that content quantitatively rather than qualitatively. And if you are going to get people to pay for content, you have to encourage them to make qualitative decisions about that content.
Relevancy algorithms are built around making sure the search ad network makes money (even while many publishers do not). Some people run businesses. Others are bankrupt, but are just not aware of it yet.
I have sites with great content that went nowhere.
I had a few sites with sub-par content that got tons of rankings and exposure.
Some of our sites make good money.
Other projects have lost more than I care to mention.
And we have sites at just about every level in between.
What is the difference between all of them? Marketing. SEO is a subset of marketing. It can be done effectively or ineffectively. It just depends on how healthy the target market is, who is doing the work, and how much they care for the project.
Many businesses struggle for survival or flourish based on a tiny couple percent change in profit margins. If you routinely rank #5 in the search results then it is pretty easy to see the potential upside from a #1 ranking.
Based on eye-tracking studies, we know that people tend to scan the search results in order. They start from the first result and continue down the list until they find a result they consider helpful and click it — or until they decide to refine their query. The heatmap below shows the activity of 34 usability study participants scanning a typical Google results page. The darker the pattern, the more time they spent looking at that part of the page. This pattern suggests that the order in which Google returned the results was successful; most users found what they were looking for among the first two results and they never needed to go further down the page.
Like people, businesses are born, grow, then die. A solid SEO strategy can be the difference between a solid company and a company that no longer exists.
As many of the newspaper companies go bankrupt with tons of “content,” our sites (and profits) will keep growing. Not because of “content” but because we leverage marketing & SEO to ensure our content garners enough exposure to turn a profit.
Search engine optimization (SEO) has turned into a big business, and from what I can tell it's the modern version of snake oil. The unproven nonsense spewed by so-called "SEO experts" simply doesn't work. And worse, it's screwing up the elegance of the Web.
How did John come to these results? Well he changed his URLs based on "free" advice, and he got what he paid for. People who expect the world handed to them for free are always disappointed with the results, and expect a steady paycheck for bitching about and externalizing their own character flaws & ignorance.
A person can claim that SEO is ineffective if they are clueless about it, but if it were actually ineffective snake oil would...
Many of the media outlets that publicly dismiss SEO have an in house SEO team? (On multiple ocassions I have been called or emailed - the same day - with questions from an in house SEO at a publishing company that just published a piece denouncing SEO)
"It is not surprising that search engines know the value of SEO. The only thing I find surprising is them openly admitting it," Aaron Wall of SEOBook tells me. "Google always tries to shape, control, and minimize the scope of the field of SEO. And here Yahoo! is trying to expand it. Exciting stuff!"
Now SEO is constantly changing. Search engine crawlers are getting more sophisticated. Mechanical SEO is practiced by many people, and so it may not offer a sustainable competitive advantage. But SEO is not just a mechanical process as it draws upon market research, psychology, sociology, public relations, branding, advertising, and both online and offline marketing.
Outbound links show up in referral logs and act as a marketing tool. Plus they help establish & develop social relationships, such that when you have important news to share, some of those people might be willing to reference your works. There is a cumulative advantage effect.
Getting just an extra little bit of coverage on a few more channels leads to many additional citations (hey everyone is talking about this, so it must be important). For every publisher that is an original thinker there are dozens (maybe hundreds?) of followers. Many of those followers also write blogs, bookmark resources on Delicious, use Twitter, promote stories on social news sites. Some latent links come from ignorant journalists that are too lazy to do real research and just quote from whatever sources are easily accessible via a Google search.
When you get new links into key parts of your site, they not only pass PageRank, but also pass anchor text. Having inlinks from a variety of trusted domains with targeted anchor text pointing at relevant pages is MUCH more valuable than raw PageRank score.
When people link at you in editorial channels, they not only link, but in many cases leave behind an endorsement. Assuming they are writing to a relevant targeted audience then you just gained a bunch of social proof of value and reached a wider audience in a means that is much cheaper and more effective than traditional advertising.
Unlike John Dvorak, professional SEOs do not need to lie and pull sleazy tricks to get "hits"... we rank for high value keywords and turn that traffic stream into real business. His publishing strategy is so inauthentic and cheesy that he writes by number:
One Youtube comment on the above video says "What a clown. Journalist? Snake oil salesman more like." Funny, that sounds familiar.
If someone comes to you with a 'great' product that just needs some marketing, the game is probably already over. - Seth Godin
Bolt on Publicity
Some companies give exclusives to people willing to syndicate their misinformation, but that is not without cost. It is getting harder to push stories without merit via public relations because things are becoming more transparent and media outlets are outing each other - a trend that will only increase as the media business models get squeezed.
Consider Daniel Lyons take on the media and Apple's public relations: "It's one thing for PR flacks to tell lies. That is, after all, what they get paid to do. But it's another thing for the media to join in on the action." He was (at least temporarily) booted of MSNBC for his bluntness.
I blogged from cabs, using my BlackBerry. I blogged in the middle of the night, having awakened with an idea. I rationalized this insane behavior by telling myself that at the end of this rainbow I would find a huge pot of gold. But reality kept interfering with this fantasy. My first epiphany occurred in August 2007, when The New York Times ran a story revealing my identity, which until then I'd kept secret. On that day more than 500,000 people hit my site—by far the biggest day I'd ever had—and through Google's AdSense program I earned about a hundred bucks. Over the course of that entire month, in which my site was visited by 1.5 million people, I earned a whopping total of $1,039.81
Over the past year, it became increasingly clear that the majority of our business was in the execution of these more complex media programs. So when the economy began its nose-dive last Fall, we reached out to our marketing and publishing partners to ask what they wanted from us. Most told us that they need us now more than ever. They value above all else our ability to create highly engaging, cost effective media experiences that allow marketers to connect with their customers. It's high-impact marketing, but it's also time-intensive and nuanced work. We are realigning much of our staff to support the marketers and content creators who make these programs sing by expanding our Strategic Programs and Major Accounts teams. Unfortunately, it also means that we need to lose some staff in our more traditional advertising support business.
the Japanese blogosphere today is filled with reports about Google hiring Cyberbuzz, a Tokyo-based Internet marketing company to promote the keyword feature (its widget version) with a pay-per-post campaign. And in fact, the search string “Google Hot Keywords Ranking+Blog Widget+CyberBuzz” in Japanese in Google’s own Blog Search leads to a few dozen results, indicating the reports aren’t made up of thin air. This blogger, for example, integrated the keyword widget and praises the list as being very useful to be kept up-to-date on what is going on in the world. This one says the keywords change every 20 minutes and that the new Google feature once quickly helped in obtaining information on a Japanese TV star. All postings end with a disclosure that says: “I am taking part in the Cyberbuzz campaign”.
Apparently Google's view of organic marketing changes when they are not a market leading monopoly. :)
The bull-biased business press is financed with advertising by financial services firms that primarily sell equities-based mutual funds and stock index funds products, stock brokerage firms that sell stock brokerage services, and stock trading firms that sell trading platforms and tools. It plays up greed-fear in bull markets with the message that you can’t afford to stay out of the rising market, and never mind the bubble. During bear markets they play down loss-fear with the message that if you stay out of the market you’ll miss the big rally.
"People always assume that if someone doesn't know something, it's because they haven't paid attention or haven't yet figured it out," Proctor says. "But ignorance also comes from people literally suppressing truth—or drowning it out—or trying to make it so confusing that people stop caring about what's true and what's not."
After years of celebrating the information revolution, we need to focus on the countervailing force: The disinformation revolution. The ur-example of what Proctor calls an agnotological campaign is the funding of bogus studies by cigarette companies trying to link lung cancer to baldness, viruses—anything but their product.
Niche magazines in fields ranging from tech to business are see sharp drops in ad revenues. Traditional advertising is not working as well as it once did, forcing traditional media outlets to cater to advertiser interests.
Mass Pollution Erodes Trust
With the web getting polluted with machine generated personalization, slick infomercials, fake information, crowd-sourced recycled incorrect information, spyware, reverse billing fraud, and fake reviews our general trust for the medium will go down. The barrier to conversion will increase...requiring more steps in the conversion process.
The Value of a Known Trustworthy Voice & Bias
When compared with the advertiser bias of most large media outfits, personalized media with a known friendly voice and bias like this and this become more welcoming, more appealing, and easier to trust.
Search Engine Land started out with ads for other services on their site, but now they push co-branded ads, their conferences, and subscription area...once a business publishing brand is known well enough, it should be able to get more value out of its traffic than it can get by selling that attention to third parties...giving its offerings premium positions and selling backfill / remnant inventory to the highest bidder.
I remember when I bought your ebook way back in 2003. You introduced me to Seth Godin, Rob Frankel, and many other clean parts of Internet marketing vs the sleazy stuff someone could waste years and 10s of thousands of dollars on, while getting nowhere ...so I just wanted to say thanks for that. :)
That's great to hear - you certainly took the ball and ran with it. Godin is a boundless phenomenon. Frankel on the other hand I have rarely given a thought to in all these years!
How would you compare your old ebook with your physical books?
Back in the day you could just come out with stuff and try out big ideas, and find an audience. You didn't have to get it all perfect. Time was of the essence. I had no "coaches" save for a few small voices in the wilderness... luckily they were intelligent voices talking about how to go about producing and pricing an ebook, and writers like Godin and Emmanuel Rosen talking about how to promote something like that.
The print book is more systematic and more professional with a prettier cover. And I have learned not to discount the human touch of handing a book (even a signed copy) to someone I meet. The memento aspect of a print book is indeed significant.
Fortunately, my publisher (McGraw-Hill) saw things my way enough to let my ragged, "unprofessional" personality come through... especially in the 2nd edition. I think we still got most of the stats right and the headings and stuff make sense. :)
How many copies of your ebook did you sell?
Tens of thousands, at various price points. The exact number is classified.
What caused you to shift from an ebook model to writing a physical book?
The opportunity. There is a hole in the capabilities of an ebook, even though it makes you more money typically (directly anyway). You can't be introduced as the author of "x ebook" that you self-published, if you want to be taken seriously on the global speaking circuit, just to use an example. It depends on the audience but it's basically fair to say that a print book is a better long term lead generator for a company like mine.
I think you have to be wary of piling on into a crowded category, though. Seems everyone is writing a book right now. You want to be the category leader. I don't have to explain this to you. Most people have heard of your ebook for example. You're not the fifth name that comes to mind when people think "SEO book."
Winning Results with Google AdWords, Second Edition was quite a major update from the prior version that was about 3 years old. What are some of the biggest changes you have seen from AdWords in the last couple years? What might be coming soon from Google?
In many respects, the complexities of Quality Score are a huge challenge -- mainly because they are difficult to understand. But the system was clunkier before with too many hiccups in how principles were being put into practice. So it's actually an improvement in many ways.
The algorithm there is just a fascinating piece of work. Google is not content to stop at CTR's as a factor for ad ranking; nor are they content to stop at landing page and website quality. They are looking at relevancy signals in quite a radical way, in my opinion. New accounts and new campaigns are especially vulnerable to the algo's predictive data, and must be managed meticulously.
There are numerous small and large policy changes behind the scenes that largely don't make it into the book because the book is pitched to Intermediate (not Advanced or agency level) strategy. Those who do this full time know it pays to be inquisitive and to use negotiating skills and diplomacy to make the most out of the Google relationship.
Campaign supports, such as Google Website Optimizer for landing page testing, are great strides for the industry -- requiring equally significant commitment and expertise to take maximum advantage of them.
In the "coming soon" area, we can talk about sexy stuff like expansion into print, mobile, radio, TV, etc. -- but what's remarkable is that Google has actually stalled in some of those areas - especially print.
Most of the big things that come out of Google are completely separate, new products/software, that don't directly relate to search or monetization. It seems like they'll be attempting to cross a few chasms. Hard to say if they'll get there from a business sense in many of their new categories. Certainly Google Search (PageRank and other innovations that made it great), and Google AdWords were remarkable exercises in soft innovation that taken all together, come across as Big Ideas and Great Leaps Forward. From a financial standpoint, some analysts insist that they remain a one-trick pony.
The argument goes: what if Google's many other soft innovations, Big Ideas, and Great Leaps Forward don't turn into business? It's possible. Luckily they have the resources to wait it out as many pieces of their grand vision are developed. Since the costs are so enormous, you really wonder if they can pay for all of it with advertising revenues. If not, what are the new business models going to look like? How will they make money giving away an operating system, etc.?
What made you become attracted to the AdWords model so early in its existence?
I think it was one of those experiences where you sign up and try it and immediately get it. I'd tried GoTo/Overture, of course. With AdWords, you saw yourself rising up to the top as you tested your ads for CTR. You got to play with matching options. You got much nicer reporting. And the beat kept going on from there.
Just the simple game of watching two ads "race" each other for CTR at first, and then ROI (right in the interface) after the Conversion Tracker was released, was addictive in the extreme. Many of us didn't even know we had a little direct marketer inside us waiting to come out. We were hooked immediately.
Keep in mind that along with Overture, this was the first monetization platform for search that didn't end up killing the audience for the search engine or discrediting the company implementing it! It was a huge step for our industry. When companies like Infoseek pondered the monetization issue they were just plain naive.
What did you do before you got into search?
I was close to finishing a doctorate in Political Science. I was doing research and teaching courses in Political Philosophy, Public Policy, etc. There are a lot of great people in those fields, but they produced too many of us by a factor of 5-10X over the available jobs. I like to say I sacrificed my academic career to watch my wife go on to thrive in hers, but it was also the pull of the dot com bubble and everything it represented (both good and bad). I found myself living online and finding new passions and new friends. Life began moving at a different pace. So on my own, I'd been dabbling with Internet businesses, reading Business 2.0, and all of that stuff, prior to making the move.
When does it make sense to create an ad that gets a high CTR? When does it make sense to disqualify most potential visitors?
Savvy question. The literal interpretation of testing ads would have us look only at ROI or CPA numbers, right? But Google so strongly rewards CTR that we need to keep testing and maybe tip our hat to CTR in the overall mix... especially as the account gets established.
A CTR bias is not a terrible thing - you just need to refine carefully from there, to move towards a variant that has a relatively strong ROI among several high-CTR candidates (what I like to call a "double win"). Sounds impossible, but it isn't. That's one way to approach it, anyway.
5 to 10 years down the road, do you still see Google being the center of the web in the US, Canada, and many European countries?
Need a longer answer?
They will face some hurdles globally as regulators won't like some of what they try to do. As long as their cash flow remains as strong as it is now, they're determined to build powerful, fast applications and systems that keep us locked in, that outdo similar offerings from competitors. That's not going to be good for their profitability, but it'll be nice for market share and generalized dominance.
Google has grown more aggressive with adding shortcuts (maps, flight search, real estate search, etc.) directly in the organic search results. Do you see them eventually monetizing these?
They'll turn up the heat on monetizing a proportion of their successful properties. They've definitely started doing this on YouTube - if successful, imagine the revenue growth there. We've only seen just the beginning of what they're likely to attempt in the local and classifieds space.
In the UK Google did a merchant search beta test where they basically put a lead form inside a house AdWords ad. Do you see Google eventually shifting the AdWords product away from a CPC model to more of a CPA model?
I think a lot of that is experimental. Some of their little experiments don't lead much of anywhere. A CPA model would be damaging to Google unless carefully controlled. The CPC or effective CPM methods of payment are juicier.
In September of 2003 Nick Denton wrote "Imagine a web in which Google and Overture text ads are everywhere . Not only beside search results, but next to every article and weblog post. Ubiquity breeds contempt. Text ads, coupled with content targeting, are more effective than graphic ads for many advertisers; but they too, like banners, will suffer reader burnout." Do you see any indication of ad burnout from web users yet?
Jakob Nielsen also wrote about text ad blindness potential, on April 28, 2003, so he beat Nick to the punch. Well, iPods are ubiquitous. Gillette spent billions of dollars on TV ads over the years. Are they held in contempt? On the other hand, eBay still shows up way too much on generic queries, with those lame text ads. I think that does breed contempt and has hurt eBay's brand, much as people auctioning off their toenails has done.
So the answer is definitely that it's highly situational. Users look at this as navigation, not advertising, and as long as there's full disclosure and they aren't annoyed by the ads, I find it hard to believe that clicking on a link to Kayak.com or Hilton Hotels when I'm searching for travel information is going to be associated with "burnout." It's efficient and the ads aren't shouting.
Is the content network a good buy? What sorts of business models and markets do well with it? Which ones perform poorly?
The content network has made huge strides judging by the ROI numbers in our campaigns.
It's tough to generalize about verticals. As long as there are some quality content sites, discussion forums, or even parked domains in the relevant vertical, the links do convert a certain amount of the time, so it's a matter of bidding right.
High ticket, complex services and hard-to-find or high-tech products seem to do better in general, though. If you're selling cashmere sweaters there just aren't enough sites where people are high enough up in the purchase funnel to be swayed by ads for cashmere sweaters. People buy from recommendations in content, but those tend to be direct recommendations or reviews, right?
Some advertisers are using the network for brand reasons, in concert with more of an integrated campaign. In general advertisers need to be trying more banner creative sizes and types - and more publishers should be more open to them. The system began with text ads only and there is a certain inertia in that.
I have been seeing a lot of AdWords ads about "free trials" and "only $1" government stimulus secrets packages with fine print that mentions that the "service" is a subscription that costs $50 a month. Should Google be responsible for cleaning up such ads? Why do they let some such ads run when they spend so much capital policing the organic search results & creating quality scores?
I agree. The website quality side is policed more on the search end of things, so these kinds of come-ons tend to leak over into content, where there is more of a dearth of advertisers for some of the inventory.
On the whole, it's very hard to police unscrupulous come-ons. Many if not most legitimate businesses in some fields are built around lead generation, free trials, free samples, free downloads, etc.
I'm sure it's on Google's to-do list. They're working very hard on policing the search side (mostly algorithmically). The standard will always be more lax on the content side, but it seems like it should be beefed up some.
Google will tell you it's largely user driven. I would love to know if, beyond panel testing, Google actually maintains a sort of "user advocacy" "ripoff squad" in house these days. The problem is, once you start to go down that path, it's hard to stop. You start making all these value judgments. So anything that is going well past what the law actually says is suspect, especially when it seems to be Google taking issue with direct competitors, such as directories, media companies, etc.
I wish I had an easy answer. But the short answer is, AdWords loves conventional businesses with physical presences, whether they ship physical goods, services, or software, and whether they are B2B or B2C. They are harder on online pure plays, especially those that buy ads to sell ads, and to a significant degree, affiliates.
That's not all that hard to figure out at the end of the day. Google's job in the ad program is to connect customers with businesses, not to connect customers with another couple of clicks through that may or may not result in a satisfactory search experience.
Searchers just respond better to "conventional" businesses - be they brands or reputable small businesses. And people have valid concerns about privacy policies and the identities and legitimacy of the businesses they are dealing with. So of course they are freaked out by appearances, poor disclosure, affiliate codes, and other "weird-looking" stuff. They're being asked to provide their information and credit card numbers, so they have every right to expect some protection against those who operate in the shadows.
Are you seeing small players pushed out of the ad market? Has the downturn shifted the make up of the types of ads Google is showing?
No, small players in niches that fit the above profile (conventional businesses) do very well if they're optimized and know their customers.
Of course the downturn is affecting things in areas you might expect: the ecosystem around finance, real estate, and much more besides. Advertiser behavior is odd, though. Many companies don't seem to have the wherewithal to deal with economic slowdowns through bid adjustments, so the auction may remain hostile to marginal players (bids still prohibitively high to reach the top 4-5 ad positions). Companies seem to overbid their way through an economic cycle, then get cold feet and shut things off completely. That's not how you do it!
So smaller companies actually have nimbler decision-making and don't "budget" in these all-or-nothing ways, as some large bureaucratic companies still have to do.
Yahoo!'s recent change in terms of service were ugly. Do you see them getting bought out by Microsoft? Or what can they do to get back in the search game and stop bleeding market-share?
What are they waiting for? Consolidation here would be healthy. I bled purple for a few years. But as Air Supply once sang (paraphrasing slightly), "I'm All Out of Blood". With both Microsoft and Yahoo we all feel the need for clarity in our industry; a sense of who we are buying from, what the future holds, and so on.
Can you share a surprising PPC secret that you thought you wouldn't share with anyone in a public interview? :)
I'd be happy to. An old AdWords account of mine, mainly aimed at selling my ebook, was slapped with low Quality Scores. It's been dormant for a couple of years. Trying to revive it just to point to the page on the Page Zero site that talks about the nice, happy, white hat print book (that you can buy at Amazon.com for all of $17)... no-go, Landing Page Quality is still deemed Poor. We're working on the problem, but if it's an arbitrary call, what are you going to do?
Some days it does seem that it would pay to turn "black hat" and just work for "Google Cash" instead of clients. After all... if they're willing to slap the "good guys"...
But really, I can't see myself just sitting on a beach half naked year round, snorkeling and windsurfing and making millions of dollars spamming the system. That would be so dull!
Saving the most important topic for last, what makes peanut butter taste SOOO good? When does your line of premium luxury gourmet peanut butters hit the shelves at the local grocery store? :)
I think mainly what makes it taste good is the jam, rye toast, and milk you have it with. Which just goes to show, we always need a little help from our friends. Peanut butter is no exception.
But honestly, organic cashews are where it's at now. You've gotta go where the puck is going, Aaron. :) Thanks & best wishes.
You could have just written the greatest article on SEO. You might be giving away a killer new tool. For free. And what happens?
Unfortunately, people are just too busy. Everybody is competing for attention, and sometimes it's just easier for others to Twitter about something, than to write a blog post and link to you. That's if they even bother to do that much!
Here's are a few ideas on how to get around this problem, and get noticed.
1. If It's Free, Make It Look Like It Isn't
People often value things based on the price they pay for it. So if you aren't charging for something, some people will assume it is worthless.
Dress the product up as though you are charging for it. That is, create a brand, make the graphics and site layout look good. Try to create a perception of value by using the same tools as if you were selling a product.
2. Don't Publish Your Article/Idea As A Blog Post
Blog posts are perceived as low value.
Create a dedicated branded site, or dedicated branded page for your product, service or idea. By all means create a blog post to link to your branded site or page, but try to make the presentation of your idea different that what you normally do.
For example, Aaron recently released the SEO Toolbar. This toolbar is free, but Aaron treated it the same as if he was charging for it. It has it's own dedicated page and dedicated brand.
3. Brand It
People take brands seriously. And they remember them. What is more memorable - a regular blog post in which you bestow awards, or a branded SEO awards site.
If you create a logo, people may use the logo when talking about you. This helps spread your idea, and your identity. $100 spent on a logo is nothing if it helps get you a few high profile links.
4. Save The Advertising For Later
Do you link to pages with Adsense all over them?
If a page is plastered with ads, it can look low value, and people may be reluctant to link to it. The exception is if you have already established a high level of trust with your audience. Even so, it's probably better to strip out the ads, at least initially, as your primary aim is to get attention and links.
You can always put the ads back in later.
5. Establish Social Proof Of Value
You need to prepare your market.
A few weeks or months out, start approaching people in your niche. Try to get the attention of people who have influence in the space. Comment on their blogs. Get your name known. Then, when it comes to your launch, you're already a familiar name.
Once you've launched, ask for feed-back, and be sure to quote any mentions you've had in the press. If people see that big name sites they are already familiar with have covered your stuff, they are more likely to be receptive to your ideas.
6. Learn PR
PR emails can be tedious, but they can work if done well.
Send out some well-targeted, personalized emails to a hand-picked group of industry commentators. Try to offer them something for covering you i.e. offer them a free service, or product, or links, etc. Many people will just be happy to spread the word if you're offering something truly unique and interesting.
7. Be Everywhere
Try to get seen in as many channels as possible.
Vertical search provides a number of opportunities if you can repeat your idea in different mediums. For example, you could create a video and put it on YouTube. Release your post as an audio track, or a presentation.
Twitter your stuff and remind people to check out your blog post. On your blog post, incorporate buttons that enable people to bookmark your page, or vote it up on Digg, or other aggregation services.
If you build it, they will come. The web is full of people looking for your product. Maybe, but if it were that easy, competition would saturate the field, increasing the effort and investment required to compete. Building a real business is hard work
People are sitting at their computers right now. But they are not waiting for you. You have to research the market, know who your potential customers are, and appeal to THEIR interests, THEIR passions, and THEIR biases.
Many scammers sell a one size fits all marketing system based on arbitraging a sliver of opportunity (one which is usually already closed BEFORE their info-product hits the market), selling it to dreamers who think that other people are dumb enough to give away the golden goose for $37. But nobody is going to sell you the key to success. You have to earn it.
Some people think that they Google will send them a lot of traffic, and if only they had that traffic, they would make a lot of money. But it is usually the other way around. Bob Massa put it most eloquently when he said "search engines follow people." So rather than waiting for Google to roll out the red carpet for you, it is best to start making connections. SEO is an ongoing process.
Which means to capture lasting Google rankings, you have to be where the people are. Some connections can be bought, but only some limited number before the investment strategy grows risky. And established market players likely have a bigger budget, a higher customer value, and more cashflow than a person just starting out does. Outspending is a very expensive way to try to catch up.
You can try to fight the algorithm, but no matter how well you learn "the algorithm" you can't defeat it on your own if you are trying to build a lasting website and a strong business.
Which means to capture lasting Google rankings, you have to be where the people are. But there is a problem with that. Whenever you start out in a new field you are the outsider - everyone else is in their own little clique, and you somehow have to work yourself into that social group.
The obvious way to do that is to be loud and be proud.
But if you are known to talk out of turn and share falsehoods people think of you as a big mouth annoying spammer. You areThe Tragedy of The Commons that most people are trying to avoid.
Few people need more spam in their lives, and communities are protective of their members
If you capture attention through acting like a jerk, nobody will buy from you and people will spit in your face. Success breeds hate... just ask Mike Arrington:
I draw the line at being spat on. It’s one step away from something far more violent.
Something very few people know: last year over the summer an off balance individual threatened to kill me and my family. He wasn’t very stealthy about it - he called our office number, sent me emails and even posted threats on his blog, so it wasn’t hard to determine who he was. The threats were, in the opinion of security experts we consulted, serious. The individual has a felony record and owns a gun
They will only buy from you if they think you can help solve their problems. So the key to climbing the ladder of success is to appeal to their interests.
One of the easiest ways to do this is to build from your passions. It doesn't matter if you are into bow and arrow or space exploration. There is a market of other people with similar interests.
If you are unsure where to start from, start a blog and write it as though nobody is reading. Build a few links for it and hopefully over time it will start drawing readers.
The trick here is to not be boring. You usually can't succeed just by following someone else. Too many people try that. You can draw inspiration from others, and apply those concepts to other markets, but if you do something that already exists it is not remarkable. Investing in being boring is not a winning strategy in a citation based economy.
I think the best brands, the best sites have a large portion of their founders personality in them. Never be afraid to be yourself, after all there are 1/2 billion people on the www, not all of them have to agree with you. Concentrate on the ones that share your views, concentrate on making their experience the very best it can be, the rest forget them.
Or to put it another way, the best sites say - this is what we do, this is how we do it, if you don't like it go somewhere else.
Winning is not just about ranking. Even if people can find you, they still have to trust you enough to buy from you. With so much free content online, selling content is not easy.
Conversion (and brand building) are not a single event, where you cross the chasm.
They are a series of small steps you take each day.
Find the people who resonate with you, and keep moving them toward conversion.
Many of them will shop.
And a few of them will buy.
People do not buy when they feel something is a fair price. An economic exchange only occurs when there is a perceived double inequality of value. So people have to think your products and services are worth more than their price to want to buy from you.
It is not easy to become the winner in a saturated marketplace. You have to help a lot of people out.
You need others to feel invested in your brand. You need them to want to tell others about your brand.
Some people view markets as a hierarchy, but they actually operate more like this - with a bit of chaos.
See that orange guy at the bottom center with his head firmly planted in the rectum of the green guy above him? That is one way up the ladder of success. The yellow guy just below the top rung has a different technique. A few are working together, but many are fighting for exposure.
Markets can be nasty, unfair, and unjust. They typically are, which is why you need to use marketing to tell your story. When you start growing there will be blow back from some of the people who came before you, who are afraid that you are going to take their market position.
You can only help so many people before you run out of hours in the day.
Maintaining (and growing) your brand and social network while running into a scarcity of time and attention is a bit like juggling - not an easy task. You have to create automated mechanisms to qualify and filter.
After a few years of good moves you can end up a winner in your marketplace.
Hopefully there is still enough profit potential in it to make it worth that arduous investment, not for the least of reasons because competition is coming soon :)
This is the first of a two-part article to help those looking to buy SEO and other search marketing services.
Unlike traditional media buying, where placement is guaranteed, SEO can appear to be hit and miss.
This is because SEO is a strategic process, whereby the SEO will align your site with the often cryptic requirements of the search engines, with the intent of gaining higher visibility for your site in search listings.
The SEO doesn't purchase placement, rather, s/he will try to earn you that placement. The closer your site is aligned with the search engines unwritten criteria, usually the more successful the SEO campaign will be.
All search marketing services should increase the level of exposure you receive on search engines. The trick lies in measuring the level of that exposure, and measuring the value it provides.
What exactly are people buying when they buy an SEO service? Why are SEO offerings so different? What is the difference between a service that costs a few hundred and a service costing tens of thousands?
Before you consider buying SEO services, step back and assess your goals for your site.
What problem are you trying to solve? Do you want to drive traffic from search engines? Do you want to reduce your PPC spend? Do you want to increase conversion rates? Depending on how you answer such questions, the level of SEO service you require will vary considerably.
Search marketing is most effective when it increases the level of visitor traffic to your site, that visitor traffic arrives at an acceptable cost, and the visitor traffic engages in desired action. If you keep these metrics in mind, you'll should avoid falling victim to some of the scams prevalent in the darker corners of the industry.
Done well, however, SEO is a very powerful, cost effective channel. A steady flow of new visitors will arrive for years after your initial investment is made.
You Get What you Pay For
Some SEO services deliver a greater level of exposure in the search listings. Other services take a more holistic, marketing-driven approach, which can include conversion metrics and visitor behavior evaluation. Most services lie somewhere in between.
Your selection of vendor will depend very much on your requirements and budget. SEO vendors who include conversion metrics tend to be more expensive, as this type of service requires diverse skill sets, and is more time intensive.
One Time Fee
Generally speaking, the more competitive your keyword area, the more work involved.
One good way to measure how competitive your keyword area is, is to look at the PPC bid prices. PPC bid prices can range from a few cents per click, to hundreds of dollars. The higher the figure, the more competitive the keyword area. The exception is if you have an established, reputable brand. Established sites can often dominate competitive areas with little additional work.
If you're operating in a area that isn't competitive, a one off SEO service might be all you need.
The SEO should ensure your site is able to be crawled and indexed by the search engines, contains appropriate content that aligns with keyword terms, and should build a few links pointing to your site from outside sources. If an SEO does their job correctly, you should see an uptick of visitor traffic from the search engines in your log files. If you are happy with this level of traffic, that is where the service ends.
If you operate in a competitive space, the SEO will need to spend a lot of time building - and in some cases buying - links. If you're measuring visitor behavior, and adjusting the site in response, the SEO will need to make regular changes.
Such services are typically ongoing, whereby the SEO charges a monthly fee. The monthly fee also covers reporting and evaluation, with the aim of maintaining your position, or increasing your reach.
Whether you choose a one -off service or ongoing very much depends on your goals.
Metrics Not Aligned With Business Goals
One common metric used in search marketing is ranking. The problem with this metric is that ranking for keyword x may not result in any increase in visitor traffic, because few people search for keyword term x.
If you examine your current log files, you might find you already rank for some keyword terms. So long as the search engine has indexed your site, you'll invariably rank for obscure terms by virtue of having words on your pages.
Less-reputable SEO firms will include obscure terms on your pages, show you a subsequent ranking for these terms, and thus justify their fee. Unfortunately, this is the offline equivalent of putting billboard in the middle of a desert, miles from the road. Few people will ever see it.
Instead, look for an up-tick in search visitor numbers. You may want to go one step further, and measure what those visitors do once they arrive at your site. Do they buy? Do they fill out your inquiry form?
Some firms offer guaranteed placement, but the reality is that no one, outside the search engine, controls their results. The SEO will attempt to meet pre-agreed performance criteria, and if they do, then the contract is fulfilled.
Sounds low risk?
Guarantees are only worth the backing they receive. Will the firm still be around in a few months? Will they honor your request? Are they located in a legal jurisdiction where you can chase them? Will the cost of doing so exceed the return?
If buying into such a guarantee, be wary of letting the SEO firm establish the metric of achievement. Instead, define the metric yourself, in line with your business goals. The less reputable operators will likely shy away from such an arrangement. They rely on setting easily achievable ranking goals, which, like the billboard in the middle of a desert, seldom offers any real benefit.
The relationship between SEOs and the search engines is gray. There are a number of techniques the search engines frown upon, which may result in your site being penalized, or delisted.
If you are risk adverse, ask the SEO company if they work within the search engines guidelines. You can find the Google's guidelines here.
A more aggressive approach, especially in highly competitive keyword areas, might be required, however a good SEO firm should be upfront about the level of risk their techniques involved. Having said that, the risks of getting banned, even with techniques outside the guidelines are relatively low.
The Magic Wand
Another risk might be your own preconceptions.
One of the expectations clients often have is that the SEO will be able to wave a wand and work miracles. Keep in mind that SEO generally requires changes to your site, which might be significant. Designers, developers and copywriters often need to buy into the process. SEO results can also take time to show, as search engines don't reflect changes over-night.
Ask the SEO company to provide time frames, and outline the specific work that will be involved.
Trouble is, what happens to existing tools? Plugins? Rank checkers? Stats and other referral tracking packages? All tools that rely on Google passing data in order to work.
Many tool vendors would likely adapt, but as Michael points out, what happens if all the referral data shows as coming from Google.com i.e. no keyword data is passed?
Browsers do not include that data in the referrer string, and it is never sent to the server. Therefore, all referrals from a Google AJAX driven search currently make it look as if you are getting traffic from Google’s homepage itself. Now, while this kind of information showing up in your tracking programs might be quite a boost to the ego if you don’t know any better, and will work wonders for picking up women in bars (”guess who links to me from their homepage, baby!”), for actual keyword tracking it is of course utterly useless.
Perhaps the only place you'll be able to get this data is Google Analytics? Is this the next step - a lock-in?
It has happened before.
Remember the changes to Adsense? Google introduced a new form of tracking code that can't be tracked by third party tools. However, that data is available within Google Analytics.
This obviously puts other tracking vendors at a competitive disadvantage, and signals to the webmaster community just where the ownership of that data lies.
Data Lock In
There appears to be an emerging trend, of late, whereby networks are leveraging their power against the interests of individual webmasters in terms of data ownership. Having been locked out themselves for a few years, the middle men are trying to squeeze their way back in again.
The wording in GroupM's new T&Cs, which are attached to all the insertion orders and contracts it submits to online publishers beginning this year, amends the current industry standard by adding, the following: "Notwithstanding the foregoing or any other provision herein to the contrary, it is expressly agreed that all data generated or collected by Media Company in performing under this Agreement shall be deemed 'Confidential Information' of Agency/Advertiser......Experts familiar with online advertising contracts say the term is a smoking gun, because it raises a broader industry debate over who actually owns the data generated when an advertiser serves an ad on a publisher's page. Is it the advertiser's data? Is it the agency's data? Is it the publisher's data? Under the current industry standard, the data is considered "co-owned" by all sides of the process, but some believe the new GroupM wording seeks to shift the rights over data ownership exclusively to the advertiser and the agency.
The article also suggests that other ad providers may follow suit. What this may mean is that your can't leverage data in other ways. You might not even be able to collect it.
Whilst this issue has popped up again of late, it is nothing new. There has long been a battle for consumer data because it is so valuable. The ad networks can create a lot of valuable data as a by-product of their advertising placement, because they can leverage network effects and scale in the way the individual webmaster cannot. Naturally the next step is to lock it up and protect it.
The cost of protecting that data may come at the webmasters expense. As the MediaPost article says, who does the data belong to? The publisher or the ad network? Both?
Traditionally, it's been both. But that might be about to change, if the above contract is anything to go by.
Incidentally, other contracts really push the boat out when it comes depriving webmasters of control. Techcrunch reported that the Glam Network, a large ad provider made up of advertising affiliates, includes this little clause in their contract:
10. Right of First Refusal
a. Notice. If at any time Affiliate proposes to sell, license, lease or otherwise transfer all or any portion of its interest in any of the Affiliate Websites, then Affiliate shall promptly give Glam written notice of Affiliate’s intention to sell....
Essentially, if you want to sell your website, and you've agreed to these terms, then Glam have first right of refusal on the sale! Nice.
What this all might lead to is less ownership, less control, and less flexibility for the individual webmaster when dealing with big networks.
Or perhaps, in the case of Google, they're going to find other ways to pass data and just haven't outlined how yet.
The problem: big publishers "borrowing" stories from smaller publishers, redrafting them, and republishing them. Because the bigger publisher has greater domain authority, "their" story achieves higher rank.
Can you pick "who made who" in the following examples?
Of course, the publishers of these specific examples may not of been aware of each others existence. Great minds can think alike. But there are so many examples of coincidence out there, one suspects it isn't all purely a matter of chance.
Whilst borrowing of ideas is nothing new, if you're a publisher, content borrowing can wreak havoc with your seo strategies. The big and powerful sites dominate, and the little guy often gets relegated. Google's linking algorithms reward the already rich, and make them richer.
The sad reality is that whilst the web started out with the intention of being a democracy of information, it now closely resembles the power structures of the offline world. By the time you read this article, it has very likely been reproduced without attribution.
Here are a few ideas on how the little guy can fight back.
1. The Power Of Relationships/Distribution
It is said that business can be boiled down to two essential elements: to sell something for more than it costs to produce, and the ability to nurture relationships.
If you're a publisher, you can leverage the relationship you have with your readers in order to protect you from "the borrowers". Once you readers, and indirect competitors, are aware of your work, it becomes harder for your competitors to talk to that same market, using your ideas.
Think about what you can do for your readers to instill a sense of loyalty. Give them something of value. Make them feel indebted to you. Give people a stake in your success.
Consider allowing people to republish your content under certain conditions. i.e. when you have sufficient page rank, allow others to copy parts of your work, so long as they link back to the original. Such a policy might turn those who would ordinarily steal from you into allies who supply free link juice.
Try to make your content an identifiable part of your brand.
For example, part of your brand might be your a stylistic approach to writing. It would be very difficult to directly rip off Dave Barry, because he writes himself into his articles.
Typically, the more generic a piece is, the easier it is to borrow, so try to weave something unique to you, or your site, into the article. Perhaps use arguments and points that rely on a link to one of your previous articles, in order that they make sense.
3. Launch Hard
When you create a new site, or a new piece of content, shout loud about it.
Use all the channels. Twitter about it. Email your subscribers. Submit your article to aggregation networks. Pitch your article to other publishers with whom you've built a strong relationship, and who you know will link back and credit you.
In tight communities, like the SEO world, it will be harder to rip you off if you've made yourself visible in all the channels the community uses.
4. Create A Publicity Storm
If you're very sure of your ground i.e. someone has blatantly copied and republished your content without permission, you could create a lot of media mileage by outing them. If they won't acknowledge you, then their direct competitors might be very open to highlighting the borrowers contemptible practices. Use the same approach you do when you launch hard.
Say it often, and spread the (negative) message wide. Done correctly, a publicity storm might generate more back-links links than the original article. In any case, they'll certainly think twice about taking your stuff in future.
5. Fire Fight
Another approach is the cavalry charge.
Contact the publisher, contact the people linking to them, have your friends write about the culprit. Do it each and every time someone steals your work. Do it on Twitter. Do it on their site. You could even hire an army of cheap Mechanical Turks to do the job for you.
The problem with the above approaches is that they can take a lot of your time.
Where you really want to be is so big that your direct competitors wouldn't dare take your stuff. The smaller upstarts who take your stuff won't be able to rank against you anyway.
This last point is where I'd put most of my efforts. As frustrating as it is, the web is a very difficult environment in which to enforce copyright. Spending a lot of time fighting that fact won't make the interweb leopard change it's spots.
It's like the spam reporting approach. Do you spend all your time dobbing in spammers above you in the vain hope they'll all disappear, or do you beat them by building an authoritative, trusted domain?
Nurture those relationships to help you get there :)
Given the recent economic uncertainty in the world, I find myself reading more stuff about economics...a field which I currently find far more complex and fascinating than SEO.
I came across an article pitching the idea of another potential great depression. I don't know if that will happen, but these 3 bullet points from that article are particularly appealing to the entrepreneur in me:
Circa 2000 – It doesn't matter that Internet stocks are trading at multiples of revenue because 'these companies are going to change the way we do business'.
Circa 2005 – It doesn't matter that people are borrowing 125% of the home purchase price because 'the price of homes always goes up'.
Circa 2009 – US government 'T-bills and T-bonds are risk free', so the federal government can borrow unlimited amounts of money. This example of bubble-mentality thinking not only ignores the defaults by countless governments, it also ignores the history of US sovereign defaults (gold in 1933 and silver in 1967) as well as the continuing debasement of the sorry US dollar from inflation.
Whenever and wherever people are looking to pay for certainty and safety, they are paying a premium for that privilege, often yielding a net negative real return. The future does not mirror the recent past, but we are inclined to operate in a herd/bubble mentality. This, and our emotions, are why it is so easy to lose money in the stock market. By the time US actors and rappers are asking to be paid in Euros, all the dumb money is on that side of that trade, and the market is about to shift the other direction.
Business opportunities are like buses, there's always another one coming. - Richard Branson
Business opportunities are like buses, but you can't just sit around waiting for them to pull up. If an opportunity has to be "proven" before you are willing to try it, then maybe there won't be much opportunity left by the time you go after it. If there is already a "make easy money using xyz" ebook on the market, then the opportunity is probably already closed for most new market participants.
Group-think is the enemy of success. You usually have to create and believe in the value system you are selling to others for it to spread. You can't create the ideas and movements that spread if you are only following someone else's lead.
How does this concept of uncertainty vs profit potential apply online?
Overture (and Google) built their search marketplaces on uncertainty
early domainers built their empires on uncertainty
the first bloggers built on uncertainty
those trying new online business models and publishing formats right now are building into uncertainty
I got on the web in 2003, way late to the party (and broke). But in my first year of observing the web I saw that search was going to become the center of the web, noticed that domain names were important (buying domains SeoBook.com WhiteHatSeo.com BlackHatSeo.com & SearchEngineHistory.com), and quickly built a blog (because I saw other bloggers getting lots of links - primarily because they published blogs).
Simply by interacting online and observing trends you can see where the web is headed in a way that most people can not. Where others see risk, you see opportunity. Your knowledge of fields like search, blogs, commerce, affiliate marketing, and adverting lower the risk of failure for any new project you start. Each additional discipline you are aware of adds value to your other skill sets.
The cost of testing things online is minimal. Even less if you already have built up a widely read distribution channel. In the coming years new trends will augment or take the place of blogging, search, and domain names. But you have to be willing to "take risks" if you want to reap big rewards.
With ads falling off a cliff, people have been ramping up other attempts at monetization, looking for ways to be better than free and find new ways to monetize their data.
What about the oldest trick in the book: actually charging people for your goods and services? This is where the real innovation will flourish in a down economy. It's now time for entrepreneurs to innovate, not just with new products, but new business models.
Time to catch the bus. Are you feeling "risky"? Today is the day. No point waiting around until things seem "safe." :)