Mike Grehan Interview

Many thanks for talking with us today, Mike. We've spent a few messy evenings drinking girly Merlots, but for those who don't know you, can you be so kind as to introduce yourself?

Ahhhh… those halcyon Merlot fuelled days… I remember them well… (truth be known, with all that Merlot, I don't remember much at all!).

So for those folks who are new to the industry, I can give a little background.

I first invented the Internet back in the 1960s. I had a young whippersnapper working for me as my assistant at the time. Al Gore was his name. I believe he grew up and took some sort of job with the government. Not sure where he is now.

In about 1965 I coined the term “hypertext,” which I was thrilled about. It didn't actually mean anything, but it sounded really cool. I used to drink with a guy called Ted Nelson who thought this was a pretty cool word, too. Ted's an old scientist living here in New York. And we do laugh when we get together about all of those people who have assumed that it was him who coined the term. Boy, must we have been drunk that night.

After messing around in physics (it being the new rock and roll, of course) I moved to Geneva, Switzerland and took a job at the European Organization for Nuclear Research. It was a pretty dull job actually – same thing day-in, day-out. Atomic nuclei can get pretty boring to interact with. Plus I didn't like the special suit.

On one occasion, I was working with a complete dunderhead by the name of Tim Berners Lee. He was one of those guys that you just knew was never going to amount to anything in life. I explained to him that, during my morning shower, I had this brilliant idea to apply hypertext to the internet. He was so excited.. Mike, he said, I think you've just invented the… interweb!

Stupid boy!

Anyway, after being knighted by Her Majesty the Queen for my sterling work inventing what we now know as the “World Wide Web,” I thought I'd better do something practical with it. By now there was a lot of stuff out there and it was getting difficult to find anything. I was a visiting lecturer at Stanford University at the time and hooked up with a couple of kids called Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

This was not a good experience for me. These guys came to my dorm one night and stole a paper I had written called, “The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine.” I even had a pet name for it. I called it “Google.” I thought that was quite cool and trendy, what with Google being a play on the word goggle, which means to ogle women. Some time later, I read some bullshit from these guys who stole my idea that it had something to do with "googol," which is the Californian pronunciation for a word which also means to ogle women… er… I think.

I'm in the process of suing these Google jokers for almost 600 bucks to cover the amount of time it took me to write the paper. I'm not stupid… I'll get every penny of it, I bet!

Eventually, I moved away from search, mainly because it doesn't work properly and never will. So, I invented my latest toy, which I call Twitter. I called it Twitter because it's full of twits talking bits of shit to each other. Shitter.com had already gone by then, unfortunately.

Oh! Fancy me forgetting to mention Wikipedia! I actually invented that as a joke and people started taking it seriously. What fun!! People are failing exams because it's full of false crap. Some people have been seriously injured for the rest of their lives for taking some of the medical advice… ROFL

I'm on the verge of leaving the internet space to work on my new invention, which is very much a green thing. Imagine this: Reusable toilet paper! Heh! How cool is that. Some people have called it a flannel. In fact, some have called it a face cloth. Dood, I wouldn't want that near my face knowing where it had been before. Eeeuuwww!

Anyway… these are just some of the excellent things I've done in my extremely interesting life. What other brilliant things do you need to know about me? Being as modest as I am, I may not be able to answer all of your questions of course…

Every word Mike says is true :)

In your paper "New Signals To Search Engines", you frame search in a historical context - where it has been, where it is now, and where it might be going. What are the major changes coming up that will have the most impact on current SEO practices and goals?

Grehan now puts serious head on…

I've talked about how search engine optimization evolved in the first instance. It was driven by the limitations of the technology used by search engines. Basically, the World Wide Web was developed to do one thing – but everyone wants it to do another. So, crawling the web using the HTTP protocol was the obvious route to go for search engines back then.

But if Google is saying they now have seen a trillion URLs and have no certainty that they'll ever be able to crawl them in a timely fashion, maybe we've reached the zenith of the crawl. Not only that, the end user is expecting a much richer experience. So if the main job of SEO was to optimize static web pages and make them available to crawlers, it's all becoming a little passé now.

Have we seen the end of HTML and the crawler? Absolutely not. But the level of requirement for SEO work is going to diminish, rather like that of the blacksmith when motorized transport was introduced. Do we still have blacksmiths today? For sure, but they're not as required as they used to be.

The main changes will be in existing SEO shops either moving into other technical/development work or retraining in other online marketing disciplines. It's a very exciting time in search. Most marketers can see that. But those people from a purely technical background and used to just doing geeky code for a crawler don't see it that way.

You mention that user trails - as provided by the toolbar, tagging etc - will become some of the strongest signals. That's pretty much the death knell of traditional SEO, isn't it?

If we take what I said in the answer to the last question, you can see that traditional SEO as we know it has had to evolve anyway. I don't really think of link building as SEO, to be honest. For me, link building is the by-product of good marketing. Whereas fixing pages for a crawler is purely a technical process.

What needs to be taken into account most importantly is not where SEO goes to next, or whether it survives at all. It's about where search goes to next and how the end user evolves with those changes. Making pages for crawlers and getting links for the sole purpose of getting links omits one thing from the equation: the end user experience.

So, now that search engines can follow end users they can see where they started and where they dropped off. That kind of data is so important. It's the wisdom of crowds. It's the people's vote. So how does a marketer get involved there? It's going to be a little clichéd, but create an experience - not a web page.

Last year, Eric Schmidt CEO of Google, said an interesting thing in an interview. He mentioned - and I'm paraphrasing here - "that the Internet is a "cesspool" where false information thrives, and that "brands are the way to rise above the cesspool". Do you think brands might be an important signal of quality?

I read that interview too.

He was stating the obvious to be honest. People have long bemoaned the fact that smaller businesses don't get the same shelf space in search as the big brands (the same applies offline, of course). Brand building is all about good marketing. It's all about building trust and reputation. But wait for this… It's not just about the big boys. A local store can build up as much trust and reputation within its community as well as a high street chain.

Social networking sites are all about people building up trust and reputation on a personal level. So, I think the notion of brands as we've known them – such as multi-nationals like Exxon – is going away. I think we're moving more into social search and that's all about tapping into a network of trust.

Addressing your question directly: "Do you think brands might be an important signal of quality?" As long as those brands belong to the end user and not large corporations, and that's certainly what's happening, then yes, a great signal of quality.

Social media, for want of a better term, is a "place" where most content is being generated, and increasingly where many people are spending their time. What are your thoughts on, say, Twitter? What are the implications for Google and other big search engines when people rely on real-time wisdom-of-crowds, and communities, for answers?

So we've already touched on this a little when talking about tapping into a network of trust. Absolutely this is a very important move. The results you get at search engines are hardly verified results and they can be manipulated. That means you have what a mathematical formula (the algorithm) believes are the best ranked documents. And then you have a little re-ranking going on when Ralph Tegtmeir gets to them!

However, if you tap into a network of trust, such as a parenting group, and ask them a about a child's allergy, the information is likely to be much more verified. If 500 parents all agree that a certain method works then that's more trustworthy information than a search engine algorithm can provide.

But there's a whole lot more to it than me Tweeting my followers and asking which is the best Irish pub in New York and wanting an answer now!

Can we talk a little about formats. You make the point that HTML may have served us well up to now, but things are changing. The web is becoming media rich. What does this mean for SEO? Do search marketers become multi-media positioners?

I saw a quote from a senior scientist at Google where he said we’re moving "away from a web of content to a web of applications." So it's more about the end user experience and the method of delivery, as opposed to one protocol over another. I don't think HTTP/HTML is going away anytime soon. But it's not going to be the primary method for internet search going forward.

People are already talking about new platforms. One idea is Flash. I like that. Or maybe pure java. Most certainly social search into networks of trust and live search via apps such as Twitter will further develop in the future.

We spend a lot of time on SEOBook connecting-the-dots between areas such as seo, brand and traditional marketing. You've said "connected marketing" is the future of marketing. Can you talk a little about this? This is the point where big worlds collide, isn't it?

Connected marketing is a kind of generic term for the new audience of always-on, 24-hour-a-day networks. I use the iPhone as a primary example of how to connect with your audience in so many different ways. Sure, it could be the HTTP/HTML route as it comes with a browser. But there are also so many apps you can download. You can get to your audience via email, txt, Twitter. You'll be surprised at this… you can even use it as a telephone!

It is about big worlds colliding. It's not just that technology has changed so we market via different channels to the same people. It's more about how the audience has changed. And so we have to change the way we connect with them.

I don't think that conventional methods such as the 30-second spot are going away anytime soon. But we need to examine all areas of this new marketing mix and get our messaging aligned.

If traditional SEO is at a point of diminishing value, what are the things an SEO can do to adapt to this brave new world?

First of all, stop using just SEO. The job we've been doing to help search engines do a job they should have been doing themselves is not as critical as it was. Crawlers are getting smarter and the communication between search engines and SEOs is much more transparent now. Search engines provide many tools to make the process of letting them know that you have good indexable content available.

But as the end user demands a much richer experience, search engines need to know a lot more about other types of content. Not just the textual HTML pages that SEOs labor over.

It is a brave new world of marketing. It's tremendously exciting. But you do have to start and think more about smart marketing and less about smart HTML coding.

There's a plethora of books and information on social media, optimizing video and perhaps, more importantly, analytics which open up this whole new world of marketing. As the value of providing pure SEO services diminishes, the value of new services increases. This is not a bad time for search marketing: It's the best it has ever been!

Many thanks, Mike.

Mike Grehan is Global KDM Officer with Acronym Media, a leading search marketing company based in New York's landmark Empire State Building. Follow Mike on Twitter here.

Review of SES NYC by Khalid Saleh

Conferences are especially interesting especially in a tough economy. Truth be told, I had low expectations for SES NY when all I was reading was companies scaling back and downsizing.

But the first tweets about SES painted a brighter picture. And with close to 5,000 marketers registered for the conference it was shaping up to be an excellent conference. As I walked through the exhibit hall vendors had a very good show and were very pleased with the large numbers of crowds that showed up. Of all the different SES shows I have attended over the last few years, this particular SES NY had to top the list in both the quality of the lectures, the speaker list and even the small details such as quality of the food J.

Here is a quick wrap up of some of the highlights

I thought that Guy Kawasaki’s choice of topic on using “Twitter As A Tool For Social Media” was an interesting one. And although I am a fan of Guy, my assumption was that most everyone in attendance must have used twitter for some time. I was really wondering if I am going to learn many new things from session. The room was over flowing with people and the few who showed up late had to spend the hour or so standing.

Guy made 9 main points:

  1. Forget the A list (sort of funny coming from A lister ;) )
  2. Defocus
  3. Increase your followers
  4. Monitor the conversation
  5. Copy best practices
  6. Use search
  7. Use the right tools
  8. Squeeze the triggers
  9. Make it easy to share

Guy’s favorite tools to use in conjunction with Twitter

My favorite portion in the presentation was the section on search and utilizing advance search parameters to look for terms people are using. That can be a valuable tool to increase business. Let say you are a web designer who is looking for work. You can setup a search for a term such as web design referrals. That is an excellent time to jump in and introduce yourself.

Twitter hawk is a tool that can be used to send automatic “paid” messages when people search for a term. I am not familiar with the tool but I see the potential to use it for business development. I am sure there are many who will debate the tactics Guy suggested in the session. If you are a believer in pure social media, I think there are many things that will turn your stomach.

The session on Meaningful SEO Metrics focused on measurements that help generate better ROI. Traditional metrics focus on number of visitors, pages per visit, time on site, etc. Ray "Catfish" Comstock discussed how bounce rates for keywords is critical in the process of conversion optimization. Ray suggested examining:

  • High Bounce Rate keyword phrases: which indicate keyword phrases that are generating traffic but users are not finding what they want.
  • High Conversion Rate keyword phrases: which indicate keywords that are working and therefore which phrases you should focus more resources on.

I did not really appreciate the importance of mobile SEO until I chatted with an SEO for a large auto site. He mentioned that their site traffic usually peaks on Mondays and Tuesdays. That is the time where people are searching for cars. The traffic usually dies off on weekends when people are out shopping. If you think about it, people actually shopping in real life is perfect time for Mobile SEO. That discussion was enough to convince me to attend Mobile seo best practices. Cindy Krum who specializes in mobile marketing consulting did a great job covering Mobile Marketing Strategies. While visitors of traditional marketing can arrive at a site at different stages of the buying process, mobile search usually indicate immediate intent. Cindy pointed out that real mobile web browsing, flat-rate data pricing, and faster download speed are all factors help that make mobile web more relevant. Cindy’s advice for basic mobile seo includes:

  • Follow all Traditional & Local SEO Best Practices
  • Submit your Site to Mobile Search Engines & Directories
  • Avoid using flash, scripts, popup windows.
  • Follow XHTML standards
  • Use external CSS

The panel discussion on the most common search marketing mistakes CMOs make promised to deliver an interesting topic. My favorite of the mistakes was failing to assign $ value to every conversion on a website. There are too many times when we focus on a generating sales or leads via a website and forget about the other conversions that can take place. These other conversions might not have the same dollar value as a sale but they are the still conversions. A visitor might subscribe to a newsletter, download a white paper or subscribe to a blog. Assign a dollar value for each of these activities.

The extreme makeover session with a focus on conversion made for an entertaining afternoon. Jeffry Eisenberg of Future Now, Tim Ash of SiteTuners and Ethan Griffin of Groove Commerce took on a discussion of one of the sites Groove Commerce worked on. You can tell right away the different approach to optimization each of these guys takes. Jeffry is evaluating different customers, looking at what might work for them. Tim is focused on the testing aspect. Ethan is considering optimization as well as implementation details. Jeffry and Tim seemed to disagree even when they were making the same point. As a listed to the panelist go back and forth on what to test and what to remove, some sitting next to me asked, so who should we listen to here? I smiled and said, listen to your visitors!

Night time at conferences is as valuable as day time and SES New York was no exception. So, on the first night of SES NY I stayed up until 4 AM with Frank Watson (AussieWebmaster AKA crocodile man in some Hollywood circles) and Patrick Sexton (who you know from SEOish or his latest venture GetListed.org), every muscle in my body was aching. I am just not sure how Frank was planning to stay up for few more hours.

B2B complex sales involve longer cycles, many stages and different people in each stage. The session on B2B marketing focused on search marketing tactics that can help deal with some of these complexities. Segmenting data becomes more critical in complex sales. This can be done through allowing customers to identify what segment they belong to (enterprise, small business, etc). Another important factor when it comes to complex sales is going beyond the cost per lead to cost per action which is a good indicator of the quality of leads.

Another panel discussion I attended at SES was Slash Your Search Budget. As you can imagine the title hit home with what many companies have to deal with nowadays. Unfortunately, this session was perhaps the most disappointing discussion in the conference. The speakers did not offer real ways to slash marketing budgets. The talk of mobile SEO as an alternative to traditional SEO threw me off completely. How would that relate to slashing a marketing budget? Talk of utilizing social media as a way to generate hits did not resonate with me either. Social media takes a lot of nurturing and a lot of budget. So, at that point, I could not help but raise my hand and ask how is using social media help in cutting SEM budgets? There was a bit of silence there.

The only exception was Aaron Kahlow of the online marketing summit. He offered candid suggestions: It is better to take charge of the budget discussion. Approach your manager/boss and tell him you want to slash the budget. Evaluate which parts SEM activities are not producing results. By doing so, you will be guaranteed a seat at the table.

The 2 nd night at SES included attending live web master radio show hosted by David Szetela, learning more about the SEO community from Jim Hedger and enjoying a lengthy discussion on online marketing with @webanalytic J .

On the third day of SES, I attended News search and SEO. Most notable on that panel was John Shehata of who specializes in news search seo . John provided many valuable tips that ranged from the basic to more advance level. Some of the tips included:

  • Use trends/buzz keyword tools when writing news for online audience (Google hot trends, Yahoo Buzz, Google Zeitgeist, seomoz popular)
  • Print headlines sell the story, optimized web headlines tell the story

Well, before I sign off, I have to congratulate Matt McGowan and his team for an excellent show and raised the bar for upcoming search events. I think Matt is on his way to Australia at this point. If you enjoyed this post and would like to connect, then follow me on twitter.

How Many Trillions Does it Take to Put a Banker in Jail?

About to go to jury duty here in about 15 minutes...which got me thinking about the concept of justice.

I don't mind paying a lot of taxes if it goes toward creating a better society, but in California when you get toward the upper end of the tax bracket you can pay ~ 60% (federal + state + local + self employment/social security) of your income in taxes. And those tax payments probably do not even offset the handouts we are giving to bankers that gambled with trillions of dollars and lost.

News of additional bailouts via a public private partnership (that makes almost all the reward private and almost all the risk taxpayer funded) have spurred Bank of America and Citibank into buying more of the toxic assets that they allegedly need help clearing off the books.

A guy writes $7,000 in bad checks and gets a 24 year prison sentence. These bankers cost tax payers trillions of dollars. So much money stolen that they debased the currency, and they are awarded with free money for being incompetent.

I am not sure what will come of today, but if this country actually had any sense of justice then there would be at least a half dozen bankers serving a few decades in jail. The fact that none of them have been locked up yet shows how perverse our justice system is and how little you should trust the U.S. government. Politicians work for the bankers.

Obama has a poll allowing voters to ask questions about the economy. Most of the questions are about "what about me I am broke and don't know what to do" and "I need some relief" etc. And that is how they will remain until our financial system is fixed. And by fixed I mean these bankers serve the jail-time they earned and pay back their "earnings." Billions of hours of labor have been wasted propping up a ponzi scheme that promotes insider/bank traders winning on both sides of the trade, while handing you the losses.

Is there any wonder why so many people feel overextended?

These bankers put teeth in the consumer bankruptcy law (lying using bogus statistics to pass it) then they wanted a decade long ride on the free money train for their company.

What's worse is that children who have yet to be born have interest working against them starting from the day they are born. They are in the hole from their first breath, having done nothing wrong other than being born into corruption. The politicians take care of their own children, just not our children.

We are so afraid of terrorism...and financial terrorists that cost us trillions of dollars are somehow just part of how the system works. No big deal.

Sorry, but I don't need to pay for someone else's second yacht or fourth home. If anything these career criminals should be scrubbing my floors and taking out my trash. You and I are the people who are actually paying their salaries (and bonuses) through a collective billions of hours of OUR LABOR that was confiscated and handed over to the banks. This makes me angry enough to want to go unemployed and stop working and/or move to another country. I hope I get to be a juror over a banker some day. And I hope you do too!

Update: here are a couple relevant articles in Rolling Stone & The Atlantic, and a nice video.

Google Expands Snippets & Related Searches Word Relationships

Google announced that they are rolling out a new technology to better understand word relationships and extend their snippets on longer search queries.

Starting today, we're deploying a new technology that can better understand associations and concepts related to your search, and one of its first applications lets us offer you even more useful related searches (the terms found at the bottom, and sometimes at the top, of the search results page).

Note that they claimed that this is "one of its first applications." If they can improve relevancy with integrating this technology directly into the core search algorithms then it will lower the importance of on page optimization (since you only need to be close rather than use the specific words that were searched for). Such a change would likely decrease the traffic to low authority sites held up largely by strong site structure and on page SEO, while increasing the amount of traffic going to high authority sites and well branded sites that are poorly structured from an SEO perspective.

I am not sure if this sort of algorithm change would favor shorter or longer content pages. In most cases I would guess longer pages if they were kept on theme, and broken up to relevant chunks. The expanded snippets on longer search queries show a lot more information directly in Google's search results, which helps thicker pages show off their offering more than thinner pages, but cedes more control of the information over to Google as they can show close to 250 characters in the search results.

If the technology was applied to anchor text it might also limit the value of anchor text manipulation by boosting up the value of related phrases (if Google knows that the word Salesforce is relevant to CRM then they might count that anchor text more).

Greg Sterling noted that this change came from the Orion technology that was purchased by Google from Ori Allon in 2006. He also interviewed them:

I spoke yesterday to Google and Ori Allon. To the extent that I understood his discussion of the way Orion’s technology had been applied to refinements here’s what’s going on at a high level: pages are being scanned in “real-time” by Google after a query is entered. Conceptually and contextually related sites/pages are then identified and expressed in the form of the improved refinements. This is not solely keyword based but derived from an “understanding” of content and context.

It is hard to speculate if/when this technology will move from sideshow to becoming a big deal. The current usage is fairly trivial, but it could get much more well ingrained into many parts of the relevancy algorithms.

As search engines get more sophisticated with how they show word relationships (on branded and non-branded search queries) that is one more thing that can be optimized, though likely one that will require a holistic marketing strategy to optimize, because you will need to create a lot of co-citation (or some other signal of relevancy) across many pages on the web.

A couple years ago Lord Maurice Saatchi described their brand strategy as being built off of One Word Equity.

In this new business model, companies seek to build one word equity - to define the one characteristic they most want instantly associated with their brand around the world, and then own it. That is one-word equity.

It is the modern equivalent of the best location in the high street, except the location is in the mind.

Is Your Website Credible?

I saw a link-bait article at the top of TechMeme this past weekend entitled ""Why Advertising Is Failing On The Internet".

The article outlines how internet advertising will fail because it (apparently) holds people captive and forces them to watch ads (huh?). I'm paraphrasing, but that's the jist of the conclusion reached by the author, Eric Clemons, of the University of Pennsylvania.

I certainly hope a lot of would-be advertisers listen to his view on search advertising, because it will reduce the bid competition for the rest of us:

Misdirection, or sending customers to web locations other than the ones for which they are searching. This is Google’s business model....Misdirection most frequently takes the form of diverting customers to companies that they do not wish to find, simply because the customer’s preferred company underbid"


For starters, what is the searchers "preferred" company? That statement assumes the searcher already knows what company they are looking for. Perhaps, as is often the case, they are looking to solve a problem, not locate a specific company.

Secondly, anyone who has paid for ads would know that the last thing you want to do as a search advertiser is to "misdirect" visitors to your site i.e. visitors who aren't interested in what you're selling. It costs a fortune, makes no money, and Google will likely demote such ads due to a poor quality score.

Sergey Brin is of the opinion that advertising can add value, so long as it is relevant:

"....it fits with the notion of Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page that ads can and should be at least as useful to people as search results and other online content. "We believe there is real value to seeing ads about the things that interest you,"

Of course, he would say that, but I think it is true. Ad content need not be intrusive. Relevant advertising, delivered when the customer wants it, can and does solve problems, and thus adds value. Advertising also facilitates a lot of web content that simply couldn't be offered for free if the advertising didn't support it. Google itself could not exist without advertising.

Anyway, Danny Sullivan does a good fisk of the article. We'll worth a read.

Website Credibility

Danny brought up an interesting aside about credibility, which I thought I'd riff on and hopefully we can share some ideas in the comments.

Here is how Danny decides if a travel website is credible:

I have this “travel guide” test to use to help determine if an expert source knows what they’re talking about. Ever struggle to decide which travel book for some vacation destination might be the best one? Me, if it’s a travel series, I pull the guide for a destination I know well, like my hometown. I know my local area in an expert way — and if the travel guide suggests good stuff for my area, then I feel better about trusting it in other areas.

In this case, because Danny has established the credibility of the source, he is more likely to go to places the guide recommends. He is certainly more likely to keep reading the site, which means more opportunity for advertisers to be seen.

What Makes A Website Credible?

Credibility means the quality of being believable or trustworthy.

The markers we use to determine credibility online have a lot in common with the way we determine credibility offline: are we familiar with this person or business? Have we had previous, beneficial dealings with them? Do they come recommended by someone we trust? Does it look and feel right? This last point might be more important than we've been led to believe. More on this shortly.

Various articles have pointed to prescriptive credibility markers, such as displaying your address, having a privacy policy, showing a photo of the site owner etc, but I'd argue these are pretty much useless unless more fundamental credibility markers have been established first.

One of the problems on the internet in terms of establishing credibility, is that the internet is largely unregulated and anonymous:

the Internet has no government or ethical regulations controlling the majority of its available content. This unregulated flow of information presents a new problem to those seeking information, as more credible sources become harder to distinguish from less credible sources (Andie, 1997). Moreover, without knowing the exact URL of a given site, the amount of information offered through keyword searches can make finding a predetermined site difficult as well as increase the likelihood of encountering sites containing false information

The task of deciding the level of credibility lies mostly with the individual, rather than an external agency. A research report by Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab found:

The data showed that the average consumer paid far more attention to the superficial aspects of a site, such as visual cues, than to its content. For example, nearly half of all consumers (or 46.1%) in the study assessed the credibility of sites based in part on the appeal of the overall visual design of a site, including layout, typography, font size and color schemes.This reliance on a site's overall visual appeal to gauge its credibility occurred more often with some categories of sites then others. Consumer credibility-related comments about visual design issues occurred with more frequency with finance (54.6%), search engines (52.6%), travel (50.5%), and e-commerce sites (46.2%), and with less frequency when assessing health (41.8%), news (39.6%), and nonprofit (39.4%) sites. In comparison, the parallel Sliced Bread Design study revealed that health and finance experts were far less concerned about the surface aspects of these industry-specific types of sites and more concerned about the breadth, depth, and quality of a site's information.

The emphasis people place on a sites visual design when trying to determine credibility is interesting. This is not to say having a blinged-up site will make you appear more credible, as it very much depends what market you're in. A slick site is likely be credible if you're selling lipstick to teenagers, but not if you're providing weather data to climatologists. Wikipedia and Google appear credible as information resources partly because they look staid and academic.

So the first step to making your site credible is to know your audience, and meet their expectations in terms of look and feel.

Accuracy Of Information

The studies also point to the accuracy of information as a credibility marker.

It stands to reason that a site that contains obvious lies or inaccuracies, as perceived by the reader, isn't going to be credible. Having said that, there are plenty of scam artists on the internet, and people pedaling incorrect information, but the difference is that their readers aren't aware they are being lied to or being given incorrect information.

This is why it can often pay to cite known authorities to add credibility to your content. Besides the value of citation in terms of establishing accuracy, naming a credible resource can make you appear more credible by association. Go to Yahoo Answers are notice how most answers lack credibility. Those answer that are credible tend to cite external known authorities.

A Way With Words

Closely related to visual presentation is format and the way you use words.

In a study by Indianna University, Matthew Eastin looked at the credibility markers for online health information:

More recently, Rieh & Belkin (1998) identified criteria used when evaluating online information......they found that: (1) institutional sites were seen as more credible than individual sites, and (2) accuracy of content was used to assess online information. Respondents used knowledge of citations within the content and the functionality of hyperlinks as cues to evaluate the information. ....in addition to source and link accuracy, they also recommend that users consider peer evaluation, navigability, and feedback options (i.e., email, chat room, etc.)

Academic essays sound authoritative, even if what they say is nonsense, because they are long winded and use big words. Even the length of an essay can lend credibility. For example, long Wikipedia pages appear more credible that short pages, simply by virtue of their length. Various studies in the direct marketing field appear to back this up, which is why you'll often see those long, single page sales letters. Short letters don't sell so well. "Thoroughness" either reduces anxiety in the buyer, or ehances the credibility of the seller, or most likely both.

Again, the way you use words depends on your audience. An academic approach isn't much use if people can't comprehend what you're saying. Likewise, if a an article is lightweight and flippant, it isn't going to appear to an academic community.

In The Cluetrain Manifesto, a book that looks at communication within markets in the internet age, the authors assert that markets are conversations. And that conversation is conducted in the human voice, not the cliche ridden hype language of the marketing brochure. The use of colloquial "voice" often carries a lot of credibility on the web, presumably because it signifies a human presence.

The Reef Fish Effect

People like to go where other people are.

There is perceived to be less risk in crowds. This is why Amazon's customer reviews are so powerful. People's choices are affirmed by the wisdom of the crowd. It just feels safer.

Include as many human touches as you can. Reviews from known authorities, signs of activity, signs that other people have visited your site before, and their experience has been positive. Being a known quantity makes you appear more credible.

What do you look for when trying to determine credibility?

SEO & Marketing Links of Interest

I have been saving these links up since January 21st. Time to share about 50 of them. :)

Niche SEO Guides

The Rising Commoditization of Everything But Experience

Graywolf shared this great video about the ongoing process of commoditization.

  • materials get commoditized
  • due to competition products become materials
  • customized service and personalization help create sustained value

The Fear of Success in Creative Arts

This Elizabeth Gilbert TED video talks about how to live with knowing your best work is likely behind you, which is true for many popular artists and authors.

More Search News

Yahoo! Search makes it easy to embed videos & docs with SearchMonkey.

Amazon is trying to use DMCA to block other ebooks from getting onto Kindles. Sony and Google partnered up to make 500,000 ebooks freely available on the Sony ebook reader.

Yelp was accused of extortion. Pay us or that negative review stays at the top. Lovely mafia-styled business model :)

Bryan Todd shares a powerful story about how words are powerful:

There is no such thing as right language or wrong language, good grammar or bad grammar, correct English or incorrect English. There is only language that got you want you wanted, or didn't.

Perry Marshall highlights how Google considers some businesses to be illegitimate businesses. If only they would get to the government grant stimulus ad scams.

Gab Goldenberg offers tips on online branding. Lance Loveday wrote a great article about the overlap between search and branding. In our member forums I started a thread called branding in the search channel.

George Michie explains why budgeting search is a bad idea and offered some SEM RFP questions worth asking. Generally I have avoided clients that needed an RFP because I felt they were still in the shopping phase.

Searchers have been using longer search queries.

John Andrews explained how he thought Sphinn moved on from its roots.

CJ shares some ideas for how search engines can hunt for paid links.

Joel Spolsky highlighted why you should not use Google apps for anything important. I am really hoping they never screw up my email account!

Michael Gray took a look at the influence of article directories on organic rankings.

Debra Mastaler offers a link building stimulus plan.

Rob explains how some sales techniques, particularly in social settings, work well by hiding the upsells in the price. Online if you sell a non-commodity you can make the core price higher (to increase perceived value) and then let people de-select the pieces they do not want or need.

Back in January Robert Scoble highlighted that Facebook is studying sentiment behavior.

Andrew Goodman highlighted how dumb some clever nanotargeted marketing is. Funny :)

Marissa Mayer and Eric Schmidt were on the Charlie Rose show. A couple interesting quotes...

  • from Eric - Technology has brought us closer together, but makes us more stressed.
  • from Marissa - speech to text technology on Youtube that is searchable should be around in 5 to 10 years
  • from Marissa - credit card companies know if you are going to get divoriced with 98% certainty something like 2 years ahead of time.

Eric Schmidt also suggested that as netbooks get cheaper they may subsidize them to buy marketshare.

The Economist published a story about Brewster Kahle and the idea of an open library.

Tons of great free research from FutureLab.

Seth Godin

Seth Godin riffs on the purpose of schooling, including ideas like...Teach future citizens how to conform & Teach future consumers how to desire

Here he talks about the concept behind his new book Tribes.

Danny Sullivan Highlights Google's 2 Tier Justice System

Danny highlighted how many aggregators of aggregators and content cesspools are bogusly clogging up Google's search results with sites that would be viewed as spam if the owner was not socially well connected:

You kind of feel sorry for Joe Schmoe. Build a name by once having worked for Apple or by having written a few marketing books, and you seem to get much better treatment than Joe would get if he pulled the same SEO play stunts.

Alltop, Mahalo, Squidoo -- none of them dominate Google. But seriously, Squidoo has a PR8 home page? Alltop has a PR7? Search Engine Land, which actually produces original content, sits with a PR6 -- but these guys that simply compile content from others get a big fat PR kiss on the lips?

Hey, I don't fret about PR scores. I know how meaningless they can be. But Joe Schmoe who tried to launch one of these types of sites wouldn't get any PR at all. Google would have shut them down long ago. Lesson here? To be a really successful SEO, get successful at something else, then jump into your SEO play.

Danny Sullivan is probably the only neutral reporter in the search space with a decade + of experience AND a background in traditional journalism. He is usually quite neutral, so for him to say that, you know Google is screwing up pretty bad.

If you are good at public relations you can have all the PageRank you want. Can't afford a proper public relations campaign? Have no brand equity other than being branded as an SEO? You are the scum that makes the internet a cesspool. Better luck next life!

If you can't be found you don't exist. As Google's "spam team" grows more subjective with the definition of spam (hey I know him it's not spam, never heard of him it's spam, etc.) the web loses out on its diversity. Meanwhile how about you view some great fraudulent government grant ads through AdWords.

Google's public relations team publicly lied about cleaning those fraudulent ads up.

"Our AdWords Content Policy does not permit ads for sites that make false claims, and we investigate and remove any ads that violate our policies," said Google in a statement e-mailed to ClickZ News. "We have discussed these issues with the Federal Trade Commission and reaffirmed our commitment to protecting users from scam ads."

The above LIE was quoted from an article published 3 weeks ago, but Google is still making over $10,000 a day carpet-bombing searchers with that reverse billing fraud (and probably $10,000's more on the content network).

Spam is only spam *if* the spammer is not paying Google and they are too small to fight back against the often arbitrary and injust decisions of the irrational Google engineers that "fight spam" while turning a blind eye to grant scam ads.

Pretty worthless hypocrisy, Google. Who is trying to turn the web into a cesspool full of fraudulent ads and corporate misinformation? This company:

SEM Rush Uncovered : Interview of Michael Goldfinch

I have been a big fan of the SEM Rush project since it launched, and recently interviewed their CEO, Michael Goldfinch. We discussed their software projects, and how they got into the field of SEO.

You guys have had a strong string of hits in the SEO space with SEO Digger, Ads Spy, SEO Quake, and SEM Rush. How did you guys get involved in the SEO space? What do you attribute your string of successes to?

SeoQuake Team became active in the Internet at the end of 90s, when Spedia were alive. Since then we have developed a lot of web projects. In 2000 we started doing SEO. We did SEO for Altavista and NorthernLight. Happy times they were! I remember that we made pages with enough keywords and after entering captcha got top1 immediately. After that we worked for different companies (SEO and web-developing).

SeoQuake and SeoDigger are public products and they make a small share of our work. SeoQuake Team made them public to demonstrate its ability to develop such products. SeoQuake and SeoDigger are extremely popular for a reason: they are helpful, user-friendly, and affordable. They are innovative and developed with users’ needs in mind.

So you guys have created a pretty cool tool in SEM Rush. What made you guys decide to create it?

In summer of 2008, after the shy start of AdsSpy.com, we were playing with different ideas of AdWords keywords research, AdWords arbitrage and competitors’ keywords. And when we found out that Velocityscape plan to launch their new version of Spyfu we launched SEMRush. This was a nice joke, I suppose. When we saw PPC web spy – we just integrate SEMRush AdWords data into SeoQuake =)

When you guys created SEM Rush you closed down SEO Digger. Is there any reason you didn't do a 301 redirect during the transition? What made you feel that a new brand was needed after SEO Digger was already so well known amongst the SEO community?

SeoDigger has not been closed yet. API access for all registered users is still active :) We plan to close it after the integration with Market Samurai is finished. We gave a new name to the project to emphasize its novelty. Besides, the product value is more important for us, then its name.

How hard is it to crawl and update that much data from Google? Do you guys need a lot of beefy servers to grab all that data and serve it up?

It can be really difficult for anyone except Google, but we like this problem. With some relevant experience it becomes not so hard. Without going into details of the technology I have to say that a lot of developers do not bother with their codes and databases optimization, and therefore, they need large server farms. Instead of this we use a lot of C++. Also we use new technologies – SSD (solid-state drives) on servers and so on. Of course we have a number of servers in different data-centers to monitor Google and other search engines geo-targeted SERPs.

Recently Google tested showing AJAX search results to some searchers. If they roll out such a program will you guys still be able to gather all that great data?

We have not tested it yet. But I believe that SEMRush will be still working. Google can block all their analyzers, but why would they do that? Such tools help advertisers, SEOs, and other people working in the web. They make Google AdWords more popular. In addition, I suppose that Ajax-SERP is interesting for geeks, not for mass users.

One of the most interesting SEM Rush features (that I have not seen in any other competitive research tools) is the ability to cross compare the organic rankings for one site and the AdWords ads for another site. What gave you guys the idea to do that?

Our programmer far away in Siberia did this on his own without being asked. The team decided to leave it “as is” :) We like this feature and we plan to improve it.

SEM Rush does a break down of the value of each ranking. What statistics do you use to determine the difference between say a #3 and a #5 ranking?

SEMRush use open statistics about CTR dependence of URL’s position in SERP. in addition it uses statistics from our own sites.

You guys created a list of some of the most valuable and high traffic domains with great organic Google rankings. Have you guys thought about putting together a list of the most valuable keywords as well?

Now everybody sells “expensive” keywords, “huge” keywords databases, “profitable” keywords lists etc. SeoQuake Team is going to sell more valuable information – domains related to top adwords spenders! Full version of SEMRush rank will be available soon. You will be able to download lists of high organic traffic domains (with stats) and lists with high adwords traffic domains (with traffic and costs details). I think this info is really important to SEO firms and adwords professionals.

There is a version of SEM Rush for the German market and one for the Russian market. Are these both primarily based on Google rankings? Are there any other similar tools that serve these markets, or are you guys first to market in these markets? Have you guys considered making a French version and/or a UK version?

Yes. We made them to simplify google.de and google.ru analysis. As you know Keywordspy try to do this for German, and nobody do this for Russian version of Google. SEMRUsh.de (German version of SEMRush ) is still beta for today. There are some problems with keywords traffic estimation for local markets, because there are no accurate stats for German, Uk of French keywords. As you can see there is no enough geo-stats about these keywords at even Google Keyword Tool. And there is a problem in sorting keywords database: you can easily detect specific keywords, but what should you do with universal keywords like cnn? We try to make accurate keywords packs for local markets and we are open to cooperation with anyone who can give us this information.

What are some of the most interesting ways people have used SEM Rush to boost their business?

SEMrush users don’t report us about their success, because the silence is golden. I can only say that for last month our users performed 1.5 million different queries for Google AdWords and organic keywords reports for different sites.

Do you guys have any other new analytics tools or other SEO related tools in the works?

Our users keep giving us tons of great ideas and we generate a lot of them too. So we constantly develop different tools – quite simple ones and I’d rather not discuss them now, because they are not ready yet. When we launch them – you will notice it, my promise! One of them will be for brands analysis. This is not only SEO, but we believe this is interesting too.

Do you guys plan on adding support for subdomains (like seeing the subdomains as their own site)?

We recognize top-level domains using this list https://wiki.mozilla.org/TLD_List. SEMRush already supports reports for URLs and for domains. Correct recognition of subdomains is a problem. There are no rules about what is the subdomain – different site or just a site’s directory. Some other day we will solve this problem, not today.


Thanks Michael. Check out SEM Rush if you would like to learn more about their new competitive research tool. You may also want to check out our review from when SEM Rush launched.

'Professional' Content vs Content Actually Worth Reading

Some media executives are bitching about Google ranking blogs and sites not controlled by the mainstream media. Of course Google has been tilting their algorithms in the direction of brands, and even includes trusted news partners directly in the search results for recent news items. But that is not enough to make bloated media companies profitable.

"The original source, and the source with real access, should somehow be recognized as the most important in the delivery of results."

Google subsidizes these media companies with additional exposure by

  • weighting domain authority
  • giving them first mover advantage in the search rankings (through direct inclusion of recent news results in the organic search results)
  • featuring their content (yet again) in their news search product
  • favoring informational content over commercial content

If a big business has "real access" and yet loses out to people rewriting the story, it means the original source did one (or more) of the following

  • did a pretty crummy job of reporting
  • did a pretty crummy job of SEO
  • erected barriers that made them not linkworthy
  • fought off niche brands with a generic brand that does not resonate as well with the market

Google could give these media companies almost 100% of the search traffic and many would still go bankrupt because their business models simply do not fit the web. Online ad rates are lower, most of the media infrastructure is unneeded bloat, and individuals and brands are starting to create their own media.

When I click the publish button, 10's of thousands of people will read this post. Its not your fault or my fault that big media was too lazy to create niche brands offering relevant regularly updated content.

Ironically, the quote from AdAge, begging for coverage of the original source, did not have a name on it. You can quote it, but there is no source. These clowns whine about something and are not willing to put their names behind their own words. Maybe that has something to do with why people would rather read elsewhere.

This is the same media that pushed the bogus Iraq war, laughed and joked about those errors (while people were still dying), and missed the financial terrorism occurring back home. Why again is the original source more important than those who dig a bit deeper and add further context?

If the relevancy algorithms are your enemy, then maybe your work is no longer relevant.

Maybe they can work on stuff that matters.

New SEO Tools

Get Listed is a cool tool for seeing how your website looks in local search, and to aid you in submitting your site to local search engines.

Wordtracker announced they will be launching a new version of their keyword tool soon.

FairShare helps you track scrapers publishing your content.

WebReader makes it easy for people to click a button that makes your blog speech enabled.

Wiep highlighted a new link building and public relations tool called BuzzStream.

SEOmoz announced they retooled their backlink anchor text analysis tool using their Linkscape data, which they also released an API for.

Majestic SEO created a neighboring sites search.

Wolfram Alpha is to launch in May as an answer engine. I predict that launch strategy will create branding issues (like not being able to outsource the blame for their poor algorithms onto spammers - like Google does) but if the tool is decent it might be a great tool to use when researching content generation ideas. The new CashKeywords toolbar also looks quite useful for researching content ideas.

In January Google started offering a new, more-advanced sitemap generator, and made Jaiku (a Twitter-like tool) open source.

Mozilla is testing collecting usage data to create open research, hopefully they don't pull an AOL with the data though.

Some developers are creating new tools to analyze Wikipedia.

Links & Relationships vs the 'Social' Media Monster

John Andrews highlighted how the narcissistic "social" media platforms are in many ways replacing links

The players producing platforms are manipulating the currency that they see those platforms aggregate — which is mostly links. As you type type type your content into Twitter or Wordpress.com or Wikipedia you are fueling the coffers of an elite group of benefactors, and if they continue to manipulate the open web, we lose the “free” benefits of our world wide web. They used to encourage you to sign onto their systems, but now they need you. We’re not linking because our tools don’t make it easy enough to express our linking selves. Those who make the flexible tools today do so for personal gains, not the betterment of the web, and so they manage the linking. Greed is the new black.

If enough such platforms keep growing then Google will have to evolve their algorithms to look beyond links, placing significant weight on other factors and/or some nofollowed links.

A while ago I mentioned how Twitter was pulling blog links away from bloggers (lowering the ROI of blogging from super explosive to only explosive). This trend is not only spoke about in the SEO industry, but is starting to receive coverage in broader channels. Brian Solis recently mentioned this trend, noting that many of the top blogs are seeing lower link counts in Technorati. People would rather write about their status than spend the effort needed to digest and compile something deeper.

Since more links are occurring on networks like Twitter that will lead to a rise of tools like BackTweets. Until the search relevancy algorithms evolve more, we need to look for ways to encourage as much conversation as possible to happen on independent websites. How do we do that? I have a few ideas, but would love to read some of yours first. :)

Hyperlinks Subvert Hierarchy

One of the first books I read about the web which really helped me understand the culture of the web and the concept of the web as a social network was the Cluetrain Manifesto. In it, David Weinberger stated "hyperlinks subvert hierarchies," a concept that helps explain a lot of the chaos in the current world.

The staggering rate of change and seeing cracks in imperfect structures makes us more likely to question authority. Fear slows down economic activity but it also creates the conditions to help speed up change through creative destruction, as insolvent structures crumble and are replaced by thousands and millions of online experiments ran in parallel due to forced entrepreneurship. As Clay Shriky puts it:

That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place.

Each link creates a new opportunity, which in turn creates new opportunities, giving our social nervous system many senses. And the web is just getting started. Watch this Tim Berners-Lee video and try to predict the future of the web. You can't do it.

As the web grows (and grows smarter) two of the biggest risks are machines learning too much about us (through spying on our browsing habits) and proprietary databases that lock away pieces of our culture while surfacing other favorable pieces (the divisions could be nationalistic, idealistic, or commercially driven - like "brands" that we are apparently "hard wired" to). For both of those reasons, Google's market dominance scares me.

On the above video by Tim Berners-Lee, Ralph Tegtmeier wrote the following

As long as we don't seriously do something about protecting people from the very abuse of their personal data (more often than not linked without their express acquiescence), we're merrily lighting the fuse to a humungous collective powder keg. (And it's really not helpful at all shrugging such concerns off with pejorative epitheta such as "tin foil hat", "conspiracy theories" etc. as is so common across the board.

Let's never forget that all the major atrocities committed in "civilized" countries ever since the 19th century, ranging from genocide to mass destruction, ethnic cleansings, wars, the holocaust etc. were only as scalable as they eventually proved to be because of just that: "linked data" ruthlessly leveraged and deployed by those who could get their hands on it.

Think about how distributed (and targeted) ad based business models work in a republic / quasi-democracy. Buy ads that change the opinion of couple percent of people and you change the course of a country, and perhaps the course of civilization. Think about how well Google intends to know your flaws, and sell them off to the highest bidder in any medium they can:

users that spend a long time bartering instead of stealing in a game may suggests that they are interested in the best deals rather than the flashiest items so the system may show ads reflecting value. As another example, users that spend a lot of time exploring suggest that they maybe interested in vacations, so the system may show ads for vacations. As another example, users that spend a lot of time chatting instead of fighting or performing other activities in online games suggest that they like to chat, so the system may show ads for cell phones, ads for long distance plans, chat messengers, etc.
The dialogue could indicate that the player is aggressive, profane, polite, literate, illiterate, influenced by current culture or subculture, etc. Also decisions made by the players may provide more information such as whether the player is a risk taker, risk averse, aggressive, passive, intelligent, follower, leader, etc. This information may be used and analyzed in order to help select and deliver more relevant ads to users.

And while we are being profiled, pieces of our culture are being locked up via anti-competitive agreements. Richard Sarnoff, the chairman of the Association of American Publishers, noted how they were hoodwinked in a deal with the devil:

Sarnoff also speculated that … [l]egal hurdles may make it infeasible for any other firms to build a search engine comparable to Google Book Search.

Many power structures that are being killed off by the web are the walking wounded, making deals that are rational only when paired against death. And we are stuck living with the consequences of those decisions.

With Google being so profit driven they are leaving room for a pure search play, if only someone that got branding, marketing, and the web would step up. I hope Rich Skrenta (or anyone) provides real competition to Google soon, before spying is seen as respectable and too much of our culture gets locked up in exclusive deals.

Bigger, Louder, & More Obnoxious Ad Units

Some larger online publishers are facing declining display ads with a bold strategy: bigger, louder, and more obnoxious ad units. AdWeek reports:

  • The fixed panel, a 336-by-860-pixel banner that is wider than the standard skyscraper and follows users as they scroll down the page.
  • The XXL box, a 468-by-648-pixel unit that can expand with video.
  • The pushdown, a 970-by-418-pixel placement that takes up over half of the page before rolling up.

We recently added a slideup and a popup to the site here, but you should be able to click them once and not see them again (at least until you clear cookies), and at least they are marketing our own site.

But the idea of making larger and more obnoxious ad units some sort of standard for cross-selling seems to be against what is working. Most of Google's ad revenues come from tiny text ads that are relevant to user demand. One of the best ways to have relevant ads is to create what users want and sell it. If they are going to spend that many pixels on the ads, rather than making bigger ad units the publishers should use the content area to sell and add premium services to their sites and start selling content.

Phorm/Google Behavioral Ad Targeting - Based on Your Browsing Data

Phorm, a UK company that partnered with BT to run secret trials to target ads based on usage data, was roasted by the media with article titles like Phorm’s All-Seeing Parasite Cookie.

Google, which has long stayed away from behavioral targeting due to privacy (and negative publicity) concerns, announced they are jumping into the behavioral ad targeting market:

Google will use data it collects about what Web sites users visit and what it knows about the content of those sites to sort its massive audience of users into groups such as hockey fans or travel enthusiasts. The data won't be drawn from users' search queries, but from text files known as cookies that Google installs on the Web browsers of users who visit pages where it serves ads.

DoubleClick, AdSense, Google Toolbar, Gmail, Youtube, Blogger, Google Groups, Google Checkout, Google Chrome, Google Analytics...there are lots of ways to track you, even if you do not want to be tracked. Google will allow users to opt out of such targeting, with yet another cookie, but if you clear cookies then you are back in the matrix again.

And while Google claims they are not using search queries in their current behavioral targing, Danny Sullivan wrote:

Google confirmed in a session I moderated at the Omniture Summit last month that they have tested behaviorial targeted ads using past search history data. Again, that doesn’t seem to be part of this release, but it could come in the future.

As discovered during early Google research titled The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine:

we expect that advertising funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers.

Indeed. Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the world wide web, spoke out against behavioral targeting:

"People use the web in a crisis, when wondering whether they have a sexually transmitted disease, or cancer, when wondering if they are homosexual and whether to talk about it … to discuss political views."
"The power of this information is so great that the commercial incentive for companies or individuals to misuse it will be huge," he said. "It is absolutely essential to have absolute clarity that it is illegal."

If Google continues down this path unquestioned, then in due time you may not be able to get health insurance because of a web page you viewed or a keyword you trusted Google enough to search for. Better luck next life!

Soft-Bundling: The Value of Perceived Authenticity & Transparency

Brian Clark notes the rise of the word authenticity in the field of marketing. Clay Shirky wrote that transparency is the new marketing. For individuals these are true, because if some people grow to like you some will grow to hate you, and it can wear you down to try to fight off a bad reputation in a sound byte culture. Just ask Jim Cramer about Bear Stearns

But for larger companies perceived transparency & authenticity is far more important than actual having either.

Google's Free Ride

Because Google provides a valuable service for free and is easy for end users to like they can get away with a lot of stuff that a company like Microsoft could never do.

Paid Posts

Google's search engineers have waged a war on paid blog posts. Google Japan knew they were operating outside of the guidelines when they were buying links in blogs. Google attempted to sweep the story under the rug until after they knew it was going to get enough exposure that they couldn't effectively do it, and then it became a case study for their anti-spam team, when they applied a fake penalty against their site.

Click Fraud

One of my AdWords content campaigns had an image ad unit that was pulling a 2% clickthrough rate and getting over 600 clicks a day, for a cost near $100 a day. I have already blocked a lot of the nasty no-value exclusion categories but I spent the last couple days blocking some more, and the above $100 a day spend was reduced to $5.42 once the fraud and skimming was removed.

I know Google says they offer some refunds for fraudulent clicks, but some of the stuff in their networks is so fraudulent that the only way to police it is to remove it completely. Over the past year some of these fraudulent sites have got hundreds and thousands of dollars from me for setting up nothing more than a thinly veiled click fraud botnet - feels more like Yahoo! than Google when I looked at the traffic, but at least I was able to filter it out after they stole some of my money.

Such fraud damages the entire ad ecosystem - advertisers have their budgets depleted due to click fraud, legitimate publishers are paid less because content is viewed to have less value when so much of the advertiser ad budgets are blown on click fraud, and web users see lower quality ads because some of the best ads had their budgets blown on click fraud.

Support Piracy

BearShare is an official Google search partner. At one point years ago I saw ads for a company supporting illegal downloads of their very own copyright work. Now Google has moved on toward promoting keywords with Torrent in them on brand searches.

If the domain name has leech, domain, or torrent in it then you know most advertisers do not want to subsidize it. Google needs to make a category for downloads and warez sites. The only reason they have not is because doing so would make people realize how bad some of the content network is.

Reverse Billing Fraud

Many services are marketed as being free or complimentary or just pay shipping, and then in 6 point text in the footer there is a disclaimer about how your credit card will be charged $20 3 times a month until you notice it. These typically promote broad market fads & services like acai berry diets, ringtones, credit checks, and free government grants. A group of con men / scam artists jump from one opportunity to the next to scam consumers using the Google ad network.

The government grants scam made enough of a footprint that the FTC is getting involved. Google claims that they are sorting out the issue:

"Our AdWords Content Policy does not permit ads for sites that make false claims, and we investigate and remove any ads that violate our policies," said Google in a statement e-mailed to ClickZ News. "We have discussed these issues with the Federal Trade Commission and reaffirmed our commitment to protecting users from scam ads."

but a Google search for government grants shows the ads still are running.

Microsoft Gets the Shaft

The Opera CEO believes that Microsoft giving users the option to turn IE 8 off is not enough, and the EU is trying to rip Microsoft apart day by day. Even if Microsoft is able to buy Yahoo! Search it will not be enough to compete. Why? Even when you use Microsoft's products they recommend Google's stuff over their own.

Google's Momentum

While Microsoft is busy fighting off competitors in many markets, Google keeps gaining market-share and market leverage in new verticals through soft-bundling.

One of my clients that did not use Google Checkout simply had to stop advertising on AdWords until Checkout was enabled, because without it the usually slim profit margins on AdWords turned negative. It turns out that pricing ads based on "quality" with a discount for a higher clickthrough rates allows the highest quality advertiser to rank #1, so long as they are using Google Checkout to give Google more market data and another chance at monetization. ;)

The Google Chrome browser is recommended on Youtube, advertised all over the AdSense network, and pushed via bundling partnerships with the likes of the Real player and Divx. Its release forced Microsoft to make some of their security products free, and will keep costing both companies money, with the hope that it costs Microsoft more than it costs Google.

Google is still crying to the EU that Microsoft's business behaviors are uncompetitive. Once you get branded it is hard to get un-branded. In spite of the recent slowdown in search volume Google still has a lot of market momentum behind them. You will know Google is in trouble when the market stops giving them leeway and treats them more like Microsoft.

How You Can Apply This to Your Business Today

1.) Always push to own a market default position and once you achieve that position keep investing in maintaining it, while reminding the market that your growth was organic due to your superior quality.

2.) Even if the business model is not there you can always create one/bolt one on if you get enough exposure. In the age of soft bundling it is no accident that we offer some of the best free distributed SEO tools like the SEO Toolbar and SEO 4 Firefox, with intent of helping push this site into a default market status.

3.) What sorts of distributed marketing can your site benefit from?

  • real time data
  • unique data interfaces
  • widgets
  • tools
  • open source software
  • mashups
  • etc.

Each day more options will reveal themselves.

The Point of Increasing Returns

when I got on the web one of the first mistakes I made was trying to go after the cheap traffic on the second and third tier networks. I arbitraged one of them and was pulling a 300% ROI selling them back their own traffic - but the wankers never paid me a cent.

It can be appealing to think of how to do things cheaper...and sure in the short term it might make sense to do something half-way to get it up and going and then to keep making incremental improvements. But people like Philip M. Parker have created automated technologies to write books. Cheaper is a hard way to compete in the content business.

If you are just fishing for nickels and do not intend to take the market head on then any of the following can take you out:

  • algorithm updates
  • remote quality rater or spam report
  • self-sabotage through doing something a little too clever
  • more established niche competitors accidentally or intentionally copying you
  • large general competitors accidentally or intentionally copying you

With search many early successes will be longtail keywords, but eventually you want to go after the biggest and best that you can achieve. Why? Once you have status you enjoy cumulative advantage in everything else you do. Things that are somewhat remarkable become quite remarkable just because who is doing them.

It can take a long time to work yourself to the top of a hierarchy. Most people who succeed ignore the hierarchy and look for a way to dominate a related niche

Ideally, a new player wants to come in with a fresh approach that doesn’t necessarily threaten the existing hierarchy. This allows you to develop an audience by sharing with existing players, not necessarily competing with them.

What you’re looking to do is intensify the niche by doing something more, or differently (or maybe even better) than the existing players. You do this by first evaluating and understanding where the niche is currently, and position your content in a way that pushes the envelope.

Unless you are really well established there is a lot of uncertainty in what you do online. Each additional investment can seem like you are getting closer to the point of diminishing returns, wasting your time. But then surprisingly one day things go way better than expected, and things are received much better than expected. You get a dopamine rush and the sun shines a bit brighter. Network effects kick in and you have reached the point of increasing returns - where each $ invested returns 10s or 100s of dollars back. I think Seth refers to this concept as The Dip - its what separates market winners from people who wasted their time.

But you usually have to lose $50,000 to $100,000 in sweat equity to get to that point, at least on your first successful project. The good news is that once you have already done that work nobody (except for you) can really take it away from you. Even if Google or some other market maker does not like you then you still have other social leverage and exposure which can be used to help generate revenue, launch new websites and projects, or (God forbid) get a real job.

I posted the cartoon version of this post about a month ago.

Review of Amazon Kindle 2

My wife recently bought me a Kindle 2. Here are some of the things I loved about it

  • easy to change font size
  • easy to read - Jakob Nielson said it is roughly the same speed as reading a regular book
  • lightweight - 10.2 ounces
  • easy to travel with
  • solves my buying too many books and bookshelves problem
  • you can store notes in it (everything is backed up on Amazon's servers)
  • You can search against all your books and notes in it (which really turns it into a powerful reference library...makes me want to buy about 3 or 4 of them to store different topics in) . This should be VERY powerful for looking well researched and finding money quotes. Steven Johnson (one of my favorite authors) uses Devonthink when he writes a book.
  • it has an audio/reader version baked in
  • it has an Oxford dictionary baked in
  • new books are typically only $9.99 and take less than a minute to download
  • it starts off where you last read

While it has many shades of gray, it lacks color and does not have a touch screen interface. It is a nice device and will make moving far easier than it would have been if I kept buying so many physical books.

If books get more interactive with more permiable barriers when they are digitized then they may play a much bigger role in the web graph. Google's copyright settlement with authors and publishers may make Google more likely to promote books:

“When someone goes to Google, they've got a question in mind and an answer they need,” Jennie Johnson, a Google spokesper son told DMNews. “We don't really care where [on the Web] that answer comes from. If it comes from a book, great; if it comes from a Web page, fine.”

One of the things I regret over the past couple years is that I let my reading slide. If early usage is any indication of future usage then hopefully the Kindle will help me get into reading more often.

Interview of Jonathan Mendez

I have been a follower of Jonathan Mendez's Optimize and Prophesize for a while, and recently interviewed him.

At SES in New York you are speaking on a panel titled "search becomes the display OS" - what does that mean, why is this shift happening?

The shift is part of the Darwinian evolution of the web. Many people have mistakenly viewed search as a channel when in reality it is a behavior. It is the way people use the web. This is clear as YouTube is now the #2 search engine, Facebook, eBay & Craigslist are in the top 10 search engines and Twitter is trying to position itself as a real-time search. Search is integral to the web experience.

From the display standpoint we need to keep in mind that this medium does not need ads to support it nor are ads part of the experience. Display advertising was built as a parallel platform - not weaved into the web like search but placed on top of it. Display has always had its own ecosystem of real estate, content and serving that is separate from the public web.

What we’ve witnessed with display’s lackluster performance and the inevitable crash of CPM rates is the idea of it being a stand-alone platform was wrong. Display needs to be an application that is integrated with web platform and the way people use the web. It should be based on user controls and rules based delivery of content. To truly be relevant and useful for people, publishers and advertisers, it must become a web service like search.

Search is currently at the center of the web. Do you foresee any technologies or services that might shift its position?

On the contrary I think it will become more entrenched and important since everyday millions of new pieces of content data keep getting added to the web and older content gets digitized. As I mentioned search is basic human behavior. We all go online with a goal in mind to either recover information and content or discover information and content. Those behaviors are primal. No technology or services will shift them.

How do you place value on a search impression?

The value is based on what you do with the information. Impressions are the ultimate arbiter of interest and demand. Of course if you go to Google trends often you will become somewhat worried about the collective psyche of this country. In all seriousness however, this is business intelligence. Quick story about impressions - a few years ago I was working with a big client and they were launching a new product. We had purchased the category kw for this product over a year and it hardly had any impressions. We strongly advised them against spending two million dollars to launch this product because there was no demand for it. They didn’t listen to the “search” guys. Within a year the CMO was fired because the product flopped. So in that instance I would say those couple hundred impressions were worth two million dollars.

One of the most powerful pieces of search is that the ad unit looks just like the content. What can publishers do to maximize ad integration without risking their perceived credibility?

In my experience you add credibility as a publisher if you provide helpful, useful and interesting content. There’s no reason that can’t be an ad. Most everyone I know has clicked on a Google ad. Sometimes it is preferable. This creates value to Google as a publisher. Ads that are helpful and interesting will add value to other publishers in the same manner because they are helping their visitors. People rarely forget who helped them in a useful way whether it be a website or “in real life.” In fact there is a large intangible value that is not even being captured when this happens. I think some people even refer to it as branding.

What can publishers and vendors learn from the dominance of search when thinking about how to build and brand their websites? What are some easy ways to make our user experiences more relevant?

Give people control over the delivery of content. The most successful online segmentation strategy is when a person tells you what they want -- self-segmentation. That is the beauty of search. The keyword is the ultimate expression of people’s goals. No website or advertiser knows more about what I want than I do! It explains why the best and most successful experiences on the web (Google, eBay, Craigslist, Yelp) have query fields and lots of text links and it is something I always keep in mind in doing page design. As far as branding I think that goes back to what we were just talking about, the site experience. Great experiences build brands and that is the same online as well as off. Keep in mind all of this should be tested and optimized. It is no accident that Google is the #1 brand in the world without spending a penny on advertising. From day one no one has tested online experience more than Google.

Many people have been promoting Twitter as a Google-killer in real-time search. Why are they wrong?

You mean besides the fact that Google made $21B in ad revenue last year has $8B in cash, owns half a million servers and Twitter search has probably 10 employees and no revenue?

There are some major problems with RTS. First let’s start with the way people search. This has been studied and very clearly defined over the years by brilliant people like Andrei Broder, Daniel Rose and others. I recently took the query classifications they defined and applied it to RTS (http://www.optimizeandprophesize.com/jonathan_mendezs_blog/2009/02/misguided-notions-a-study-of-the-value-creation-in-realtime-search.html). I came to the conclusion that with optimal RTS - which is a huge challenge as I’ll get to - that less than 20% of all queries would benefit in anyway from RTS.

As far as the technical challenges spamming would be very hard to filter in real-time. Also authority as we know from PageRank is a fundamental driver of relevance. How do you define authority in real time? If you do not rank results than is it just a noisy stream? I’ve come to the conclusion that if it RTS becomes anything useful it will be a search vertical, like travel. Helpful for certain things but nowhere near a primary search tool. It is still a great addition to the web but not something Google needs to be concerned with. In fact I think Google is in the position to provide RTS for the entire web which is much more useful than RTS for a single app.

How slow and painful will the transition of ad dollars from offline to online be? What will be the catalyst that allows ad agencies to push search and online aggressively?

Very slow, but this shouldn’t be painful. We know the attention is online so dollars will continue to increase but I think a $25 billion dollar online industry is pretty good right now. It’s grown much faster the past few years than even the most bullish forecasts from five years ago. The catalyst will be innovation and the businesses themselves that must demand performance. Bill Gross the inventor of PPC said it best, “the true value of the Internet is in its accountability…performance guarantees have to be the model for paying for media.” As soon as we embrace performance for all advertising, even so called brand advertising, we will prove our value and grow our industry. Google stands as proof of concept for this. But the battle over performance will be long and bloody. In just the past couple of weeks we’ve had groups like the IAB and the AAAA speaking out against performance and metrics. This type of rhetoric and their fear of accountability are actually helping to slow down the transition.

How many newspaper companies do you see lasting through this economic downturn?

Not too many. Besides the fact that their authority over the past years has waned with bloggers and false reporting the real problem is that newspapers are not an efficient means of information compared to everything else we have today. What percentage of the paper is relevant or interesting to you? 5%? 15%? Yet you are paying for the entire paper when you buy it. Doesn’t make sense. We used to have town criers too, but then newspapers came along. I don’t think most people will miss them. Times have changed. Maybe we’ve just come full circle – people getting their news from other people they trust is the best way to disseminate information. Who trusts the papers?

What will the online vs offline divide look like in 2 years? 5 years? 10 years?

I’m not so sure we’ll have a divide in 5 or 10 years. The kids graduating high school this year were 8 years old when Google was started. I see kids 4 and 5 years old naturally manipulating iPhones. Many of us have persistent web connection and we like it - we feel uncomfortable without it! Of course it’s nice to get off the grid sometimes but what is happening with digital technology is the great story of our age. Everything is becoming digital, addressable and connected via the web. All of us lucky enough to be working here will reap the rewards of that in the coming years because the growth of digital will far outpace the amount of talent in the workforce. We should have bigger paychecks in 5 years!

Many people focus on one particular segment of the market, whereas you seem to have a well-rounded knowledge of SEO, PPC, user experience, and conversion strategies. How did you find the time to tie all these different disciplines together?

Well, I’ve been at it 11 years so that accounts for the time. It is corny but I love the web and I am passionate about trying to make it more relevant to everything we do. Looking back my career path from Site>Email>SEO>UX>SEM>LPO>Display, it seems like a very natural progression to me. Basically, with one stop for UX I have just been a marketer trying to stay ahead of the advances in marketing technology. Also, I love learning how people use the web and all the disciplines I have worked in are fundamentally rooted in the same thing -- understanding people’s goals and optimizing the delivery and presentation of information to meet those goals. As an industry we tend to divide the web into vectors but we often lose sight that the web experience for people is linear. The more holistic understanding we have generally the better our results.

_____________________ Thanks Jonathan! To read more of his thoughts check out Optimize and Prophesize.

SEO Linguistics: Updates, Changes, Glitches, Semantics, & NOISE

A lot of our best SEO tips are shared on the blog here. That strategy originally came to be because my original business model (for this site) was to sell an ebook, and it was hard to stuff everything inside 1 ebook and expect it to come out congruent, especially

  • while selling it to a wide audience
  • when revising it many times
  • with SEO touching upon so many other disciplines like psychology, sociology, public relations, branding, advertising, content creation, information architecture, social networking, algorithm testing, etc.

Admitedly the ebook was a work in progress. As the search algorithms evolved and my knowledge of the field of marketing improved there were always new ideas I could add (or remove or change)...things where I said "hey I could make this part way better." But to be able to do that, you have to be able to look at your old work and admit where you were wrong or ignorant (or correct, but shortsighted).

After 4 years of making such updates, you get a lot better at seeing some of your own flaws and thinking about things you could do better, and you get better at seeing underlying trends in the search algorithms...especially as you grow your sites, track the search results, read customer feedback, read search research, read algorithm patents, read Google's internal company documents, and listen to engineers speak in Fed Speak. Each data point adds value to the next.

When I was new to the SEO field, learning SEO was much less complex because the algorithms were less complex and because the market did not have the noise it has in it today. Today there is no shortage of complexity in the SEO industry. But then the SEO industry is made to seem even more complex than it is by people playing semantic games, people willfully misinforming others, and those so desperate for attention that they are willing to write anything in hopes of getting a link or a mention in social media channels.

Rather than calling the update an update (as they are traditionally called) Matt Cutts preferred to call (what we saw as an update) a change, but as Michael Gray mentioned, those semantics are irrelevant unless Matt chooses to share more information

When you go around stating there was no update (your definition), when we can clearly see there was an update (our definition), we’ve got a problem. It looks like you’re trying to perform some Jedi mind trick, if you keep repeating there was no update and waving your hand eventually we’ll all believe you. Even worse it’s like you’re trying to tell us what we’re seeing isn’t really there and this is one of those “these aren’t my pants officer” moments from cops.

Language is powerful. If you control the language you control the conversation.

Even after Matt Cutts said in a video that they made a change, people began passing around that video on Twitter noting how I was wrong about the update and that there was no update. Some of them were probably the same people who denounced the position 6 issue we mentioned - a penalty/filter that was denied, changed/fixed, and then - and only then - a glitch.

I am not sure what sort of bizarro world those "I told you it was not an update" people claiming to be SEOs come from, but I thank them for polluting the free SEO content available on the web and misinforming so many people...they are part of what makes our training program so popular and profitable. They also make the search results less competitive - anyone who is listening to them is heading in the wrong direction building a weak foundation. :)

Download SEO Book Torrent: Should Google Recommend That?

In the following video Matt Cutts highlighted that he did not feel that the update was driven by brand, but more in concepts of trust, PageRank, and authority:

RankPulse, a tool I used in my analysis of the algorithm change, is powered by the Google SOAP API, which Google will soon stop supporting. Matt played down the size of the algorithm update made by a Googler named Vince. But John Andrews takes a contrarian view, looking at Google's behavior after the algorithm update was analyzed:

You might say that Google’s API,via custom third-party innovations like RankPulse.com, enabled us to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” (which is Google’s corporate mission statement, by the way).

It sure seems contradictory for Google, a company based on the collection and permanent storage of others’ web page content, to forbid others from doing the same. It is also quite egregious for Google to expect to operate secretly, with no accountability (such as might be obtained through archiving of Google results), when Google exerts so much influence over Internet commerce.

One of Google's initial complaints, as mentioned by Joshua Sciarrino, was that search information was too secretive:

At the same time, search engines have migrated from the academic domain to the commercial. Up until now most search engine development has gone on at companies with little publication of technical details. This causes search engine technology to remain largely a black art and to be advertising oriented (see Appendix A). With Google, we have a strong goal to push more development and understanding into the academic realm.......However, it is very difficult to get this (academic) data, mainly because it is considered commercially valuable.

As Google gobbles up your content while shielding its results from unauthorized access, it creates a weakness which a new search service could exploit...by being far more open.

While Google doesn't want anyone to access their proprietary business secrets, if you search for my brand they recommend you look for a torrent to go download an old copy of my ebook.

sounds like a fair trade, eh? No big deal. Google is a common carrier, and intends to use that to their business advantage whenever and wherever possible.

I hope you (and your business model) are not allergic to peanuts!

Lots of SEO Conferences Coming up Soon

As paid search's growth slows, marketers are looking to invest more into organic SEO strategies.

There are a lot of SEO conferences in the next month. One of the easiest ways to grow in a down market is to network. Why? The web is a social network, and sometimes just a few links separates the top player from a #3 ranking, and the people who can afford to invest in education and marketing in a down market are clearly successful (and, thus, worth networking with and learning from).

  • SearchFest is in Portland, OR on March 10th
  • Pubcon South is in Austin, TX from March 11-13
  • Search Engine Strategies is in New York, NY from March 23-27. Here is a coupon for 15% off SES NY15BK. If you use the coupon please make sure to attend the IM Charity party to give back some of the money you saved, as a lot of charities are hurting this year as budgets get cut back. SES also has an Amsterdam conference and training in Denver & Atlanta coming up soon.
  • IM Spring Break is in Deerfield Beach, FL from April 2-4.
  • SMX Advanced is not too far off either...it is in Seattle, WA from June 2-3. In our member's area we have a coupon for $100 off of SMX. Between now and that conference SMX also has conferences in Toronto, Sydney, Munich, London, and Madrid!

If you have never attended a conference, it is worth attending at least 1 or 2 to see what they are like, do a bit of networking, and learn more about the space. With the conferences occurring all over the country (and world) it is quite easy to find one that suits your calendar and budget.

Aaron interviews Ben and Karl from Conversion Rate Experts (CRE)

A few months ago, I hired Conversion Rate Experts to work on my business. I have learned loads from them. So far they have grown our conversion rate by 124%, and have given me great insights into the thought process of consumers hitting this site...reminding me why they buy, and how ineffectively we were conveying the value of all the different components of our offering. 124% is a good start, and we still have a lot of things to improve upon.

Earlier this week, I interviewed them for this blog, so you can benefit from their advice too. The interview contains loads of tips you can implement today to grow your business.

Aaron: What made you guys start Conversion Rate Experts?

Karl: Several years ago, I started working with Ben, who had been working in web marketing for years. I have a Ph.D. in rocket science, and we discussed how we could take a scientific approach to increasing the conversion rate of our employer’s website. Within twelve months, we tripled the website’s profits, to $9.1 million.

At that time, we had just bought SEO Book, and claimed our free 20-minute call with you, Aaron. We asked for your advice, and you recommended we “Give away as much valuable information as possible”. We took your advice, and, a few weeks later, launched Conversion-Rate-Experts.com with a free report called Google Website Optimizer 101, which described some of the techniques we had developed.

The report went viral, getting on the homepages of Digg and Delicious. By the end of the week, we’d been featured on the Alexa.com home page as the third-fastest-growing website, in their “Movers & Shakers” list.

The following day we were contacted, out of the blue, by Google’s Tom Leung, who suggested we partner with them to offer consulting services. We said no at first (what were we thinking?!) but, six months later, we decided to go for it. Since then, we have had some fantastic successes for clients in some highly competitive industries—including weight loss, travel, gaming, technology and health and fitness.

Aaron: Lets say I have no idea who my customer is...but my boss wants me to give a report on the topic at the end of next week. What should I do?

Ben: Speak with your sales people—or customer support people. They understand your customers in much more depth than any web analytics report could give. They know what the customers care about, and what their major objections are. If you have no customer support people, consider temporarily adding a phone number to your website, just to give yourself an opportunity to speak with customers.

To show you the extremes we go to to hear the “voice of the customer”, here are a few of the things we have done to get face to face with real prospects:

  • Sold travel products in airports, from a stand that was rented for a few days.
  • Sold phones at a market. (We were in a hurry to gather objections for a new product, and the market allowed us to just turn up on the day.)
  • Joined a local slimming club. (This was by far the most embarrassing.)
  • Attended a local bingo hall.
  • Opened up Japan’s first-ever Nokia store.
  • Ordered antibodies through the post. (They’re still here on the desk—we don’t know how to get rid of them!)

Other great services include Crazy Egg, Kampyle, ClickTale…and of course, web analytics software. We created a summary of some of the services we use regularly.

Aaron: Testing…personas…consistency in messaging. What is more important for improving conversion rates?

Karl: Consistency in messaging should be a given. If your messaging isn’t consistent, you’ve got a “dog’s dinner” of a website.

Testing, too, should be a prerequisite; without testing, you can’t confidently be sure whether you have improved your conversion rate or not.

You definitely need to understand your visitors’ intentions and mindset. This should be done by real research, not just “ivory towers” guesswork. Many web marketers fall short at this point. They ask us how to increase their conversion rates, and the first question we ask is, “Why are most of your visitors leaving without spending a penny”…and they can’t answer the question! These people would struggle to create just one realistic persona, never mind five of them. Personas can be a useful way of considering different types of visitor, but as long as the personas are based on a real understanding of your visitors—otherwise you’re just sitting in an office, creating soap opera characters.

Aaron: What is the single biggest thing most sites screw up in the conversion process?

Karl: Most web marketers work on the wrong part of their conversion funnel. For example, they might over-obsess on their landing page, but forget that they don’t have a refer-a-friend program.

One of the first things we do is to look at the whole conversion process—from visitor to repeat customer—and look for the opportunities in the chain. We have an immediate advantage because we can see the website with fresh eyes.

Aaron: Did you ever make a mistake during the conversion testing process that surprised you and worked really well?

Ben: We regularly carry out usability tests on our clients’ websites. During one test, the participant mentioned that he’d prefer the page to have a different background colour (the color to the left- and right-hand side of the page). We mentioned it to the client in passing, who then tested it. The client saw a 9% improvement in the site’s conversion rate, worth $400,000 per year. We were amazed that such a subtle change could make such a massive difference to a business.

Aaron: Many of the internet marketers that do email-based marketing are willing to lie to make a sale. It makes sense that get rich quick people are easy to monetize since they want to buy a dream. How does one compete with such a sales strategy in a field where competing businesses overtly lie?

Ben: Prospects are hungry for proof—and they’re surprisingly good at detecting lies. If you can show irrefutable evidence that your offering is best, you have an enormous advantage. SEO Book’s success is largely due to your integrity, and the high quality of your information. You might call it “white hat” conversion! And, as with “white hat” SEO, it’s the easiest way of building a long-term sustainable business.

Aaron: Sales optimization vs exploitation: some people push it too far, whereas most businesses are way under-monetized. Where do you draw the line between improving conversion rates and misleading people? Is misleading people ever profitable in the longrun, or do the people who do that need to keep starting over again and again.

Karl: The best approach is to offer people what they want—and then deliver it. Monetization doesn’t mean exploitation. We regularly ask this question to our clients’ customers: “What would persuade you to use us more often?”

You’d be surprised how many customers ask the company to offer more products or services to them.

Aaron: From my experiences, with Adsense and ad click based business models it seems like it would be easier to monetize people of limited topical knowledge and limited knowledge of the web. And some people who have been around forever feel they already know everything. Yet some models work best monetizing at the higher end. How does a business owner know what types of customers they should target?

Ben: There’s no one right answer. Some companies—such as 37 Signals, with their collaboration tools—target the lower end of the market, and some—such as Accenture—target the high end. It depends on which segments of the market are currently being neglected by vendors, and how you feel you can add the most value.

Aaron: If a person targeted the wrong audience for years, is it easy to later shift to the right target? How does one shift without losing market momentum?

Karl: Here’s a great way to identify your company’s opportunities: Quickly write down two lists:

  • List your company’s strengths. These are the things that you company is good at, and that competitors would struggle to compete with you at, because there’s some “barrier to entry”—whether that’s because of a skill you have, or an asset you have. For example, SEO Book has an enormous readership, a reputation for integrity and intelligent commentary, true expertise in SEO, many successful customers, and a large number of respected contacts in the SEO world. Any new competitors would struggle to compete with those things.
  • List your company’s opportunities, in terms of what people are willing to spend money on. The best way to get this is by understanding your customers. If you don’t know what they’d like to spend money on, ask them, in person or by survey.

By studying these two lists, you should be able to find opportunities that you are best-positioned to serve. The question to ask is, “How much money could be made from this opportunity, and could my company be the best in the world at providing this service?”

Often, you’ll find that your biggest opportunities are right under your nose.

Often, the answer is to narrow down the opportunity to a very specific focus. For example, rather than aiming to provide SEO services to everyone, maybe SEO Book could specialize in providing linkbait services to small businesses.

It can be scary to narrow down your focus, but it’s often the most lucrative strategy. To get a good understanding of how to focus and positioning can help a business, read the chapter “Positioning and Focus”, pp. 103–127, in the book Selling The Invisible by Harry Beckwith.

By the way, the above exercise isn’t just useful for businesses—it can be really useful for planning your own career.

Aaron: Do you ever use public relations as part of your conversion enhancing strategies?

Ben: Yes, frequently. We have managed to get our clients into magazines such as TIME magazine and the Wall Street Journal. Press mentions can lend loads of credibility to a product or service—and they can’t be used by competitors.

While working on a weight loss website that generates $5 million/year, we noticed that the company had a fantastic press testimonial that wasn’t prominently displayed on their website. By moving this information “above the fold”—and reformatting it—we managed to create an overnight 67% increase in sales.

Aaron: How important is social proof of value to sales?

Ben: Social proof can be extremely persuasive, particularly when other forms of proof are scarce. For those of your readers who don’t know what social proof is, it’s often known as “herd behavior”; when people are unable to determine how to behave, they will tend to imitate the behavior of others. Marketers often use social proof by demonstrating how other people are using their services. Here are a few examples of social proof:

McDonald’s “Over 99 Billion Served”

The Elvis album entitled “One Million Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong”

Aaron: Many customers who like a product or service do not give feedback about it. How do you encourage them to do so?

Ben: Most companies don’t have this problem: they just don’t ask for feedback, because they’re scared to hear it. When was the last time you went to a restaurant and they genuinely wanted to know what you thought of the meal?

Karl: However, sometimes your best customers are also your busiest customers, so you need to reward them for sparing some time to give feedback. In these cases, you may consider rewarding them for sparing the time.

Aaron: Throughout my blogging history I have seen an amazing correlation between controversy and sales. Do you ever suggest clients make a ruckus to gain exposure and increase their sales?

Karl: We haven’t done so, but mainly because it’s more a traffic technique than a conversion one. The client would need to feel comfortable with “riding the storm of controversy”, which tends to scare a lot of people.

Aaron: What type of traffic converts best?

Karl: Existing customers convert very well, as do visitors from refer-a-friend programs.

Aaron: Is search traffic the best type of traffic to test conversion principles on? What other sources are worth testing aggressively?

Ben: We test on whatever traffic the website is currently getting—but avoiding, where possible, traffic that is transient, such as one-off campaigns.

Aaron: Do you prefer to do straight A/B split testing, or to test changing many variables at once?

Karl: We recommend clients start with A/B split testing, because it’s less complex. Multivariate testing is just carrying out several A/B tests simultaneously.

Aaron: When does it make sense to do incremental changes? When does it make sense to blow things up and start from scratch?

Karl: It’s a case of “baby steps” versus “giant steps”. If you’re confident that your giant step will be a winner, then it’s often worth testing, especially because large improvements can be detected much faster.

Aaron: If someone clones one of your products and makes it free how do you counter that from a marketing standpoint?

Karl: This is a question that many industries, such as the music industry, are currently facing.

It’s important to bear in mind that people pay for SEO Book’s training program because of the following: the community, the mentions in the world’s press, the popular blog, the fact they know and like you. Those things can’t easily be cloned.

Kevin Kelly wrote a great article about this difficult subject. The article is worth reading, but here is a summary of it, as it pertains to SEO Book:

Immediacy: people will pay a premium to have first-access to something. For example, people would pay extra to have early preview copies of new content on SEO Book.

Personalization: people will pay to have something that’s personalized for them (even though the personalization doesn’t need to be extreme). For example, people would pay more just to have someone tell them which parts of SEO Book’s training program they should focus on first.

Interpretation: people will pay to have something explained to them. For example, Google Website Optimizer is free software, but many clients pay to have help in setting it up.

Authenticity: people will pay more just to know that their copy is authentic (up-to-date, legal, free of erroneous information, etc.)

Accessibility: people will pay to have instant access to a hosted service, rather than having to look after and manage it themselves. With SEO Book, people would rather have access to the continually updated membership site rather having to constantly have to keep all the training videos up to date on their own computer.

Embodiment: people will often pay more to have the product in a “real” format. They may prefer to have SEO Book’s courses available in a printable format, so they can read it by their bedside, or they may prefer to attend an Elite Retreat session, so they can see you and your colleagues speak in person.

Patronage: sometimes people want to pay the product creator, because it allows them to connect.

Findability: sometimes, the main service a company makes it to raise the awareness of a product. For example, many people wouldn’t be aware of the SEO Book training program if it weren’t for all the channels (blog referrals, search rankings, affiliates, etc.) that direct visitors towards the seobook.com website.

Aaron: What were your biggest personal business hang-ups, and how did you get over them?

Karl: We tend to be perfectionists, and our blog readers often complain that we don’t publish enough. On the upside, our reports tend to get loads of attention when we publish them. If you would like to learn more about conversion, I’d suggest you view the free reports on our website, and sign up for our free newsletter.


Thanks for the great interview guys!

How Much of YOUR PageRank Are You Wasting on Twitter?

Did you know that search.twitter.com/search?q=%23superbowl currently ranks #9 in Google for superbowl (it was #7 earlier today). Think how much PageRank & link equity is needed to rank for that keyword!!!

All that PageRank must come from somewhere. When people mention you on that silly network, you probably don't get anything of lasting value...it simply steals links that would have occurred on the real web, and replaces them with junk rel=nofollow links, surrounded by trivial bits of content.

Hyperlinks subvert hierarchies. rel=nofollows subvert that subversion (thanks Matt!)

Twitter is interesting and fun tool to play with for a while, and an easy story to hype, but it is just a tool.

Venture Beat says that Twitter made Dell a million dollars. That's nuts. Did the phone company make Dell a billion dollars? Just because people used the phone to order their Dell doesn't mean that the phone was a marketing medium. It was a connecting medium. Big difference.

How big will this black hole grow? How long until spammers start exploiting it?

Is a spam page ranking on Twitter somehow better than me getting credit for the work I actually did to build a following there? I would love to sit down with a search engineer and have them try to answer that questions with a straight face.

Life's not fair. Neither are search engines. Nor blog posts. ;)

The web of opportunity is phase - a brief moment in time. There is plenty of time for digital sharecropping and being someone else's user generated content after retirement. I am going to cut back on social media for the next year or two...its not worth the effort. It builds no real value. It wastes opportunity. It wastes links. It wastes life. :)

Hugo Guzman: Deconstructing the Google 'Brand?' Algorithm

So here we are on Tuesday, March 3 rd, and I’m still trying to fully digest the implications of Aaron’s “Heavy emphasis on Brandings” post from last Wednesday, February 25. The data that was presented, the context that was provided and the labyrinth of insightful user comments that were spawned left me reeling for days. So much so that I wouldn’t be surprised if the annals of SEO history associate February 25, 2009 as the infamous “Aaron Wall” update.

In all seriousness, though, this really is a big deal, especially for folks like me who spend their days attempting to optimize mainstream “Big Brand” web sites for a living. I’m fortunate enough work for an interactive agency that takes SEO seriously, and my team strives to deliver a truly comprehensive approach to SEO – blending site-side factors, link building, social media elements, and analytics. We usually do a pretty darn good job, despite the myriad of obstacles and pitfalls associated with trying to implement SEO for a large, lumbering, Fortune 500 web portal. And sadly, like many big firms out there, we have occasionally chalked up our shortcomings to a lack of implementation and cooperation on the part of the client. It’s that typical “not our fault, it’s a crappy big brand site” copout that many of us have heard a thousand times before.

Then along comes Aaron with his revelations about Google’s recent algorithm shift and its ramifications for big brands, and all hell breaks loose:

  • I immediately spiral into self-doubt regarding me and my team’s marketing abilities
  • I start scrambling to deconstruct this alleged algorithm shift
  • I start emailing all of my senior team members asking them to attempt deconstructing the algorithm shift
  • they roll their eyes and one of them tells me stop sending so many random emails at 10 o’clock at night

I’ve calmed down a bit since then, but I’m still hard at work trying to figure out exactly what levers have caused certain “Big Brand” sites to skyrocket in the SERPs while others remain mired in search engine mediocrity. As with most things in life, the best course of action is to introduce a bit of the old scientific method, systematically isolating variables in an attempt to identify predictable patterns that can be replicated.

After taking a high-level look at each of the keywords outlined in Aaron’s post, and the corresponding brand sites that made the jump onto the front page, several possible culprits become apparent. Here are a couple that jumped out at me:

Social Media Signals – companies like University of Phoenix have made a concerted effort to engage users via social media channels, and those social reverberations could be a key facet in Google’s newly refined algorithm, especially if some of those reverberations include mention of the phrase “online degree.”

Increased weighting of anchor text within internal site linkage – companies like American Airlines seem to be leveraging both their own internal site pages as well partner sites to increase the volume of anchor text occurrences for the term “airline tickets” (although they’re missing out on some seriously low-hanging fruit by failing to optimize the alt. image attribute on their global logo image link). If Google has decided to increase the potency of this element, then large brand portals with voluminous amounts of internal pages and partner sites (or branded micro sites) could gain an upper hand for highly competitive terms.

Increased sensitivity to offline marketing campaigns – Perhaps Google’s algorithm is getting better at recognizing site traffic associated with offline marketing campaigns. This would extremely difficult to do without having direct access to a site’s analytics data (although Google Analytics conspiracy theorists are convinced that this is already the case for sites using GA) but perhaps Google is using signals such as the relative volume of specific search queries (e.g. branded queries like “State Farm”) and somehow tying that data back to terms that the algorithm associates with the given brand query (e.g. State Farm = Auto Insurance).

Disclaimer: I haven’t been able to actually test these hypotheses out thoroughly or with any real semblance of scientific method. After all, it’s only been five days since I read the post, and I do have other things to do besides ponder the ramifications of this alleged algorithm shift (it’s 10pm so I have to start annoying my team with random emails again).

Besides, Google’s results could roll back at any moment, rendering all of these insights (nearly) moot. Still, if you’re in any way involved in optimizing web sites for big brands (or if you just want to improve your eye for SEO) it’s probably a good idea to start doing a little scientific testing of your own.

If you liked this post (or even if you thought it was a flaming pile of dog excrement) feel free to reach out to me via my Twitter handle: http://twitter.com/hugoguzman11

How Salesmanship Can be Undermined by Competency & Expertise

In February I wrote a post about how for many people (who actually care about the quality of their work), low self esteem is one of the largest competitors to getting a fair market rate for the work they do. And low self-esteem can happen to anyone at any level of business:

What should have been asked, but wasn’t, is this: A-Rod, putting aside the Y&S line — since you weren’t that young, and you certainly aren’t that stupid — where does your low self-esteem fit into this equation?

Because that — low self-esteem — serves as the pure truth when explaining why a guy who already was by far the best shortstop in the game, if not the best overall player, would decide that steroids are the way to go. Low self-esteem is what makes a player of A-Rod’s abilities turn to Scott Boras, an agent who eliminates all other factors — comfort level, compatibility, organizational professionalism — and makes the number of zeroes at the end of your contract the only thing that matters when counseling his clients.

Self Doubt is a Strong Self Protective Strategy

The rub of it is that self-confidence is often counter-intuitive. Real experts are often self skeptical, challenging their own experiences & assumptions.

Approval is not the goal of investing. In fact, approval is often counter-productive because it sedates the brain and makes it less receptive to new facts or a re-examination of conclusions formed earlier. Beware the investment activity that produces applause; the great moves are usually greeted by yawns. - Warren Buffett [PDF]

Public Relations Hacks

Whereas the fake experts just sell junk:

Baker, author of the new book "Plunder and Blunder: The Rise and Fall of the Bubble Economy," comments: "If someone works for a trade association, they're there to push the industry line. Talk to someone with another perspective."

And they often do so EVEN WHEN they know they are wrong:

Q: Were you wrong to be so bullish?
A: I worked for an association promoting housing, and it was my job to represent their interests. If you look at my actual forecasts, the numbers were right inline with most forecasts. The difference was that I put a positive spin on it It was easy to do during boom times, harder when times weren’t good. I never thought the whole national real estate market would burst.

Do You Trust Sales Copy?

The lies baked into sales copy and public relations make sales harder than it needs to be because they teach consumers to be distrusting, and what marketers are selling is hope. Some people can sell get rich programs and pyramid schemes with a smile on their face, whereas others under-sell their own potential due to modesty and uncertainty.

The truth rarely ends up in marketing copy, so we discount much of what we read, assuming some of it to be false or over-stated. A person that is mostly driven by being an expert will likely have sales copy that sounds wishy-washy, especially when compared against a person who does nothing but write sales copy (or spin public relations) for a living.

Businesses have to hold contests to pry testimonials out of consumers, because without them all we have is sales copy, and people generally don't share specific numbers unless they are paid to (in one way or another).

Marketers Sell Hope

It is not that marketing is evil, but that consumers are gullible. The market for something to believe in is infinite, but we want to get behind a person with confidence so we are certain they are right. That is why there are so many hyped up launches with big guarantees and little substance behind the products...they work because we are suckers that want to pay for certainty, even if that certainty is nothing more than smoke and mirrors.

Excessive Self Confidence Crushes Longterm Returns

Ironically, the more confident a person is, the more likely they are to be ignorant:

“There are many incompetent people in the world. Dr. David A. Dunning is haunted by the fear he might be one of them. Dr. Dunning, a professor of psychology at Cornell, worries about this because, according to his research, most incompetent people do not know that they are incompetent.

“On the contrary. People who do things badly, Dr. Dunning has found in studies conducted with a graduate student, Justin Kruger, are usually supremely confident of their abilities — more confident, in fact, than people who do things well.”

As Jill Whalen recently wrote in this great article, the answer to many SEO questions is "it depends." Which is why it is important for SEOs to keep launching new websites and have multiple data points to compare their experiences against. It helps keep us honest and uncertain and learning.

But the less confident you sound, the more sales you lose if/when you sell how to information.

Brian Clark Rocks

I generally have been better at giving people other copy tips than I have been at writing our own copy. A sales letter is rarely a good spot to be self-depreciating or hold back, but for me it seems a self-aggrandizing feat unless it is broken down into chunks, patterned after another starting point, and/or done with the help of a master copywriter. This is proven by how Brian Clark killed it when he helped us out in the past, and proven once again with the great work of our current conversion boosting partners.

Interactive Sales Copy Writing

When you run a community website your sales copy selects who joins the community. Push conversion too hard and you get a community that looks nothing like the great community we have been lucky enough to build.

We have been working again on making our sales copy sharper and more confident with more concrete stuff in it...and the sales increased much more than I would have expected because I mistakenly assume people are far more rational than they are and know me way better than they do. That is not to say we try to state anything false to make a sale, but we have the input from people who are confident and sales/conversion oriented...they come up with ideas and we implement the best bits that really fit what we feel fits our brand.

Learning From My Mistakes

In years past I believed that you could do everything yourself, but this is probably one of my biggest flaws from a business perspective. One has to recognize their own limitations (or be held back by them for a lifetime). In some cases it is best if the person providing the service lets someone else help write the sales copy...works for me! :)

SEO Book Competitive Research Tool Review

I recently created a video walkthrough of our competitive research tool, which is powered by SEM Rush, and has a couple extra data points added in. It is about 8 minutes long, and should give you at least a couple good ideas for how to use competitive research tools to make more money from your websites.