I Wish I Knew Then What I Know Now

What were the things you know now that you wished someone had told you when you started out?

Personally, I wonder whether I would have actually listened had someone told me. Some things I just had to learn by making dumb mistakes.

Sometimes twice!

But if you are starting out on the web, and you want to skip all that hassle and expense, here is my list.

Old-hands may recognize a few mistakes that they have made, too. Please share your words of wisdom in the comments.

1. Business Case Comes First

Don't start by building a website. Start by building a business case.

I wasted time on domains and activities that would never be profitable because I didn't ask and answer some fundamental questions. Web design, SEO, blogging, social media marketing, writing, networking, posting on forums - all these activities can be worthwhile, but if your aim is to make money, they only bear fruit if they support your business case.

Otherwise, they're a waste of your time.

Ask yourself:

  • How will this activity make money?
  • What are the unmet needs in the market, and am I able to fill those needs?
  • How much time/money do I need to put into this, and will it pay back more that the input cost?

2. Don't Be Cheap

Competing on price only works if you can do volume.

Competing on price is ultimately a losers game. There will always be someone else who can undercut you. There are waves of third-world SEOs/E-Commerce Operators/Marketers who can survive each day on a lot less than you can. Where do you go when they undercut your price? You follow them down, until one of you goes broke.

If you can't do enough volume to make small margins worthwhile, then focus on quality and service aspects.

What is that you do that adds more value than the other guy? Do you have something unique to offer? What can you do better than anyone else? Find out if that one thing is in demand and profitable, and do it.

There is another good reason not to compete on price. People tend to value things that are expensive.

It's a curious aspect of human psychology that if we believe something is valuable, then it is. Conversely, if you put a low price tag on something, people perceive it as being junk.

3. Give People Three Options

Say a retailer wants to sell one particular refrigerator. Does she stock only that refrigerator? No, she doesn't. What she does is she carries one low priced refrigerator, one mid-priced refrigerator (the one she sells a lot of), and one expensive refrigerator.

Most people will choose the middle refrigerator, even if the features are similar across all three. The customers price expectation has been set by being able to compare low/mid/high. They tend to go for the middle, "sensible" choice. Not too cheap, not too expensive.

Always structure a deal that creates a basis for comparison. And put the choice you want the customer to take in the middle.

There is a danger in giving too many options, however. People get confused by too many choices, and when people feel confused, their perception of risk increases. When their perception of risk increases, they are more likely to back away.

4. It's Not About You, It's About Them

People don't care about you.

They just don't.

They don't care if your site runs on Linux. They don't care how much you've invested in usability. They don't care if you're the (self-proclaimed) "best".

They care about solving their own problems.

Your language must be their language. Everything you do must be geared towards identifying and solving their problem.

5. Business Is About Human Relationships

Business isn't about Lear jets. It isn't about business cards. It isn't about conferences, lunches or expense accounts.

Business is about the relationships between people.

Business is all about what you can do for someone, and what someone can do for you. If that relationship creates more value that you can do so by yourself, you've got the makings of a business that can grow.

A characteristic common to successful business people is they have large personal networks. They constantly leverage these networks. It really is about who, not what, you know.

Learn to stay in touch with old friends, learn to ask for help, give out before you get back,and understand that everyone you meet is going to know things that you do not.

6. Where Possible, Avoid Intermediaries

When I first used the internet, in 1993, you didn't need to buy domain names. You could get one just by asking for one!

What if I'd known then what I know now? What if I'd seen domain names for what they really were - undeveloped, directly accessible real estate in a gold mining town.

Learn the lesson of domain names. You should take positions where you don't rely too much on the whims of others. SEO, in itself, is a risky business model because your income is susceptible to underlying changes in the search engines sort algorithms. There is an entity between you and the customer, over which you have no control.

MLM? Forget it. You need to be the guy at the top of the chain.

PPC/SEO? Find a way to lock in those customers so you don't re-advertise to the same people.

7. Know The Power Of Compounding Interest


What's this topic doing in a web column?

Well, what are you going to do with your web income once you get it?

This is one of those concepts that is so simple, true and fundamental to "living well" in a capitalist society it should be drummed into people the minute they start school. Money literally makes money.

What are you doing with that money you're making on the web? Are you buying stuff? What is the true cost of that thing you're buying? It's not just the price of the thing itself, it's also the opportunity cost of that money had you chosen to invest it.

If you've buying something on credit, chances are you're enslaving yourself to your future self, unless that credit is used for something that can generate further income or capital gain.

8. Invest Money Across Investment Classes

The old "don't put all your eggs in one basket" rule.

The internet can be a difficult place to make money. At times, it can be really easy. But ask anyone who has been in the game a while, and they'll tell you it is always flaky. It is flaky, in terms of generating income, because it moves and changes very quickly. Most business operations find it difficult to move and adapt very quickly and maintain the same income level.

One way to overcome this risk is to have income coming in from different asset classes.

I do this by taking a percentage of my earnings and putting it into rental property and shares. I've done this for many years now. The rental property market, compared to the internet business, is very dull and predictable. But that's a good thing. The steady rental streams cover any down weeks I have in the flaky internet game. The share market returns above all other asset classes over time.

Being dependent on one source of income can be precarious.

9. Live Within Your Means

My share broker recently gave a seminar in which he asked the question "can you take a 50% drop in house price and a 50% drop in income, and still be happy?"

If the answer is yes, you'll survive this recession with a smile on your face. Or any recession, for that matter. Boom and bust cycles are inevitable in market-driven, interventionist economies, so expect them and plan for them.

Living within your means creates a buffer zone.

Is there big income to be had by leveraging? Of course, but the current crash is showing the downside problems that can occur if you're over leveraged. When betting, try not to use your own money, but make sure you can cover that bet if it doesn't go your way.

10. Those Who Have The Most Time Are Rich

Having stuff is easy. If you can get credit, you can get stuff.

But what do people complain about not having most these days?

Invariably, the answer is time.

One of the best things about running your own internet business is that time is your own. Want to go fishing for a few hours? You don't need to ask anyone. To me, that's the most valuable thing in the world. I have stuff, but given a choice between acquiring more stuff, or having more experiences, I choose experiences. And you need to have time for that.

There's a book called "Avoid Retirement And Stay Alive". The idea is that retirement has no place in modern society. If you can make work enjoyable by balancing it against the other things you want to do, then you can live like you've got all the time in the world.

If you could tell your 18 year old self a few things, what would they be?

Fantomaster Interviewed!

Ralph Tegtmeier (aka fantomaster) has been known for many years as having one of the most insightful minds and original voices in the search game. Years ago I wanted to interview him, and only recently did we get to do that.

What did you do before you got into search?

In contrast to the maverick background and achievements my old friend Mike Grehan revealed in his recent interview with SEOBook, my life before search was positively boring. I was born in Egypt and grew up in the Middle East and Asia, where my father served terms in the German diplomatic service. Later, I mastered in Comparative Literature, English Literature and Portuguese philology at Bonn University in Germany. Even before that, I had founded and run (together with two fellow students) an occult bookshop there and went into freelance translation and writing after that.

As a translator, I hooked up with IT almost as soon as it became available, though I did study the subject in some depth before I finally purchased my first PC, a Victor Sirius 286 hybrid that was both IBM and Sirius compatible.

Came the Internet in Fall of 1994, came the "taxBomber" - that was my thentime nom de guerre as an online marketer in the offshore finance, alternate citizenship and privacy protection field.

Before the Web proper was made accessible to all, I'd been on CompuServe and tested the waters there in terms of online marketing, but there were some pretty severe limits to that so it didn't really scale that well. The WWW really changed all that.

As you may expect, in the mid-to-end 90s, optimizing a web site for the search engines was a lot more simplistic than today: keyword stuffing, multiple title tags, invisible text on page - all these techniques worked like a song.

In 1998, I teamed up with my old school buddy Dirk Brockhausen, who by that time held a doctorate in physics and was a certified SAP consultant, working for companies such as IBM and others.

How did you end up in the search field?

My first online business caught on immediately. Competition wasn't too fierce though definitely existent. One day, I stumbled across a report on how to game the search engines - quite probably the first of its kind. I purchased it, implemented a lot of the techniques outlined, and bang! - rankings improved even more! There was a lot of deadweight tied to that approach at the time, e.g. signing up for FFA sites which would bring me a ton of spam mails, etc., quite a nuisance, really. So it became essential to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Around the same time I hit upon the late Corey Rudel's stuff which was an eye opener in terms of efficient marketing, especially the American kind. Lots of impulses from that and still profiting from the impact.

When Dirk an I decided to set up shop, it was a given that we would develop software, the only question was: what kind of application? So we researched the market at some length, caught onto SEO, tested our stuff thoroughly and finally went public with it.

You built the #1 brand in the cloaking space. What were some of the key steps to doing that?

We conducted about a year and half's intense research, experimenting with all kinds of SEO in a variety of niches. Cloaking beat them all stone cold, so that's what we went for in the end.

It was quite obvious from the start that efficient, reliable cloaking requires an equally efficient and reliable database of verified search engine spiders to work from, so that's what we focused on first: the fantomas spiderSpy(TM) service which to this date boasts the world's most comprehensive list of verified search engine spiders. We've been building this list since 1999 and it's generally considered to be best of breed - and these aren't my words, mind you, but what out customers say about it.

As for cloaking proper, at first it was single page cloaking only, giving you mixed sites with both cloaked and non-cloaked pages. Later, as the major search engines began to adopt a more adversarial stance, we developed the fantomas shadowMaker(TM) which generates entire stand-alone cloaked sites, what we tagged Shadow Domains(TM) - a term Google initially stole from us in the first versions of their Webmaster guidelines. (They dropped it again later.)

Much of this was due to our being fed up with having to build SDs manually for our SEO clients, so we decided to automate the process. And so, the fantomas shadowMaker(TM) was born. We're currently working on a new version that will include a ton of additional powerful features to reflect the ever changing search environment.

Is cloaking today as relevant as it was 5 years ago? Do web 2.0 sites and other easy link sources & hosts still make it quite profitable? How has cloaking changed over the years?

Like all things search, cloaking has changed in the course of the years. Initially, it was sufficient to simply cloak single pages on your site, giving you a mix of cloaked and open pages. Then, it was more about foregoing risks for your money sites plus enhanced scalability by deploying self-contained, independent cloaked sites - those Shadow Domains(TM) I mentioned -, effectively restricting your cloaking efforts to these SDs which could be discarded and easily replaced by fresh ones should they be caught out by the search engines.

Today, cloaking has evolved to both include and target RSS feeds, promoting them via the aggregators and feed directories, for example. Our forthcoming new version of the shadowMaker will also include new functionality enhancing page structure variance, inclusion of graphics, CSS, etc. to make the SDs appear even more organic to the spiders. Finally, it will also offer a vastly improved text generation module as well.

Of course, up until now cloaking has generally only addressed on site factors, optimizing webpages for the search engine spiders. What it doesn't do per se is attend to off site stuff such as link building. So once you've started to roll out your SDs, you'll still have to throw a decent amount of good links at them to make their rankings sticky. However, this isn't a change in technology so much as in SEO strategy: once links became more all-important, you had to add link building to your arsenal of SEO techniques just like everyone else.

Is it still relevant i.e. effective? Most certainly - provided you know what you're doing by running a tight ship strategy wise. Essentially, this is nothing new: it simply comes with changing search engine algos, new platforms (such as blogs or social bookmarking sites etc.).

Another, entirely new cloaking technology is still in an experimental stage. It's what we've tagged "Mosaic Cloaking". Here, only specific parts of an otherwise "normal" web page are cloaked for spider fodder, displaying different content to human visitors. This will effectively lead us back, at least in part, to the mixed sites of yore, featuring both cloaked and non-cloaked content on the same domain. Once we have sufficient empirical data on hand to make this technology viable for general deployment, we hope to integrate it into our software, of course.

As for Web 2.0 sites, we're mainly leveraging them for both link building and traffic generation. It's actually quite easy to promote cloaked sites or pages via the social networking platforms these days because people have become so well accustomed to being redirected when browsing the Web that it doesn't tend to raise any eyebrows anymore.

Some well funded web 2.0 sites do things like list "relevant keywords" and "keywords sending traffic to this page"... what is the difference between cloaking and such an automated approach to keyword rich content generation? Why is one considered bad with the other being considered fine?

Well, cloaking or IP delivery in the technical sense is, of course, about displaying different content to search engine spiders than to human visitors. What these Web 2.0 sites are actually doing is going for the old worn keyword stuffing technique, not cloaking proper. (Well, not as a rule, anyway.)

It's actually quite funny to see well-trafficked sites like that adopt an amateurish level of purported search engine optimization which we, as professional SEOs, have long demoted as no longer effective enough. There's many plausible explanations for this, though in the main it's probably all about fundamental cluelessness. But because these sites are getting tons of traffic from other sources than organic search, and in view of the fact that the search engines are concerned about losing large chunks of their traffic and search market shares (think Facebook and Twitter for two prime examples), they seem to be giving them an unabashed preferential treatment which no ordinary mom-and-pop web site can ever hope to be blessed with.

To the uninformed, this may actually seem to endorse such dated SEO techniques though this is an entirely false conclusions. Because it's actually not the keyword and link stuffing at all that helps these sites achieve to high rankings, PageRank etc. - rather, it's all those other factors your run-of-the-mill site cannot easily emulate.

On the client front, we're experiencing a lot more openness towards "black hat" SEO such as cloaking etc. than e.g. 3-4 years ago. Generally, people aren't as impressed or as easily conned by the search engines' (especially Google's) FUD tactics regarding anything they don't like. Sure, they're worried about possibly losing their sites in the search engine indices, but the number of people who'll simply swallow everything Google feeds them by way of their peculiar gospel of what a "good boy or girl" should do or refrain from in terms of SEO is positively on the decrease.

As Google pushed nofollow and became more liberal with the "black hat" label it seems there is less discussion about black hat vs white hat. Do you agree with that? And if so, why has that conversation died down?

I think it's because people are getting more pragmatic about things. Maybe it's the novelty of doing business on the Web which has worn off, maybe it's the vast variety of divergent opinions and schools of thought of SEO and the unprecedented exposure the importance of organic search engine optimization is enjoying in the media.

Whatever it may actually be, I agree that the debate has become de-emotionalized, less religious even. When we started off with formal SEO services back in the late nineties, the debate was all about "ethical" versus "unethical" SEO. Lots of gut level reactions then to what was, after all, merely a technological, not a theological or moral issue. Add to that the increasingly competitive environment people have to cope with on the Internet and it all figures rather nicely. You might arguably say that Web commerce as a whole has matured, as, of course, has the SEO industry proper.

These days, when you speak with clients they won't flinch one bit if you ask them whether they want to opt for a "white hat" or a "black hat" approach. Rather, they'll inquire about efficacy, the relative risks and so on. So it's a pretty much unexcited, hands-on discussion which is a very good thing.

Matt Cutts often tries to equate search engine manipulators with criminals. And yet the same search results will sell exposure to virtually anyone willing to pay for it. From a linguistic and framing standpoint, what gives Google such dominance over the SEO conversation?

I've recently dubbed Matt Cutts as Google's "FUD Czar" for this very reason, not that I expect it will stop him from pursuing that course in future. Next thing we may find him equating black hat SEOs with kiddie porn peddlers, Columbian drug cartels and white slavery racketeers...

I find this a fairly worrying though certainly not an unexpected development. It's an established scare tactics we've seen deployed ever and again in human history: lump your detractors with anywhich foes everyone is concerned about to make all that muck rub off. It's how witch hunts and, in the political field, totalitarian propaganda, especially the fascist kind, have always been conducted.

I know I may get quite a bit of flak for this, but the way I view things Google as a corporation has subscribed to an essentially totalitarian mindset. It's quite clear for anyone to see: in their public statements, in the way they tend to react to criticism, and of course, even more importantly, in the vast array of technologies and data conduits they're rolling out to dominate all the time.

This being the Information Age, information is equated with power - this is a pervasive meme that's dominated Western culture for centuries if not millenia. And this is precisely what Google is trying to monopolize - alas, quite successfully.

But not to worry, I won't set out on a rant with a long winded academic analysis of Google's crypto fascist ideology and praxis here. Suffice it to say that I've studied these matters in some depth for more than 40 years now. This isn't about some whacko conspiracy theory, it's about cold, hard nosed and sober analysis and evaluation of verifiable facts. But let's let it rest there for the time being.

Many ad networks promote fraud because they promote whatever generates the most money (and additional profit margins are often created through fraud). Why is it that the media generally talks about SEO as though it is a black practice shady industry, and pay per click ads are rarely given coverage for promoting things like cookie pushing, adultery, reverse billing fraud, etc.?

For one, advertising is the media's mainstay, their commercial backbone. So we can't reasonably expect them to bite the hand that feeds them and hope to survive the exercise. Essentially, this makes them utterly blind on that score by default. At the very least, they're not given to be unduly reflective about these things.

Second, SEO is still very much a "black art" in the sense that about 99% of all media workers don't know it from scratch anyway. Let's face it: while the basic concepts of SEO are fairly straightforward and easy to explain, actually running successful SEO campaigns is quite another ballgame. Also, what with time and attention spans mutating into ever more expensive and rare commodities, most media workers simply won't (and quite possibly: cannot, even if they would) bother reading your own excellent SEO book or Mike Grehan's outlines - they're too long, too technical and effectively too specialized for your average media hack to invest time and dig into.

Third, while there is certainly an entirely real SEO industry out there now, it's still very much a fledgling operation. Yes, every man and his dog in upper management may know about the importance of SEO for their Web marketing efforts - but which SEO are we actually talking about? Ten experts, eleven opinions, right? To the outsider, it's confusing, it's mysterious, it's dark, and yes: more often than not all this discomfort translates into viewing SEO as being "shady", like it or not.

Fourth, most SEO agencies I know about are actually focused on PPC management. They may offer organic search optimization alright, but overall PPC is a pretty easy sell whereas organic SEO generally isn't. PPC is easy to understand, it's fast and it's still fairly complex enough to require expert assistance if you don't want to sink your advertising budget into uneffective campaigns at a breathtaking pace.

All this makes people feel a lot more comfortable with PPC than with organic SEO, I guess.

But what I actually find a lot more worrisome is that click fraud as a media topic seems to have been pushed snugly to the back burner for years. Unfortunately, this applies to the SEO industry as a whole as well: they don't seem to be too keen on discussing this issue which, in my view at least, is actually doing their clients a great disservice...

Google has a video game patent to exploit video game players based on their mental weaknesses (like a need for security, gambling addictions, or making rush decisons). You had a great post on Sphinn mentioning the hazards of trusting data mining companies too much and the concept of systemic mechanisms of "reality production". Whenever I mention that sort of stuff people assume I am a cynic and look at me like I am crazy. How can you spread the message about such topics without being seen as crazy?

Well, who says we aren't? (Laughs) But seriously: if you define "craziness" as implying a generally unacceptable divergence from the ruling norms and prevailing views of mainstream society, I'd actually wonder if I wasn't into some terrible mistake if people DIDN'T think I was crazy when airing such views. Plus, the original "cynics" in Ancient Greece were the "dog philosophers" which is what the term actually implies: an eminently contrarian crowd in bitter opposition to the fattened, smug establishment of conventional philosophy. So in a way it's really a badge of honor, don't you think?

It's about the violation of comfort levels, I suppose. People are having a very hard time coping with the pace at which current technology is changing the world, both emotionally and intellectually. If all you're worried about is somehow making ends meet, feeding your family, coughing up money for your mortgage, for medical care and paying for your kids' schooling, you'll tend to reduce your outlook to a tunnel vision. It's called "focus", I know, but more often than not it's a type of mental self-amputation resulting in narrow mindedness, simplistic views of the world and, what's worse, a general refusal do deal with anything unfamiliar if it threatens to shake that less than stable edifice you may mistake for a life.

Once you start putting matters into a larger perspective, they tend to confuse people even more. This, in turn, evokes emtional, gut level reactions - quite irrational, true, but very easy to explain, too: "So what's Google gotta do with fascism now - is that all you can think of, weirdo?"

Actually, this is nothing new at all. Personally, I and many members of my generation experienced a lot of this in the sixties when more or less all members of the political and economic establishment felt threatened by the hippy movement, the anti Vietnam war protests and a general criticism of capitalist and corporate values. Different contentions, to be sure, but the same mechanisms at work nevertheless.

In a Twitter post you made you mentioned something about the web becoming more narcissistic. What is driving that? How can it be prevented on an individual and group level?

To address your second question first, I don't think it can be "prevented" in any pro-active way unless you want to pull the plug on it all e.g. by canning the platforms allowing for it - hardly a realistic scenario, I would think. I'm fairly certain that it will abate to some extent once people's attention starts shifting to other matters, rather than playing voyeurs to some narcissistic exhibitionists. As it stands, it seems to reflect what's been going on in terms of TV show entertainment for many years now: people exhibiting all kinds of entirely personal quirks and traits, with tons of viewers obviously enjoying it, too.

So what's actually driving it? In a nutshell: atomization. With large families and tightly knit rural communities losing ground in favor of "individualism" and an ever more disrupted social fabric, overall societal stability can only be achieved by marginalizing the individual, feeding it (and dumbing it down) with lots of vicarious pleasures in lieu of actual participation in political, economic and societal power - call it the ideology of consumism, if you will. It's one price we're paying for our physical mobility and mental flexibility: the waning influence of the individual i.e. the very same atomization I've mentioned.

What the Web does offer us is a slew of possibilities to at least create some noise and garner a bit of attention - without more immediate social controls being in place to set us stringent limits like we would have experienced them in meatspace. Further, anonymization helps forego even those controls that have actually been implemented: if your forum moderator chucks your account for whatever reason, it's dead easy to sign up under a different identity to continue creating a stink if that's what you're up to.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not bashing the Web in any way - it offers everyone an incredible amount of wonderful possibilities we've never seen before at such a scale. Think of all the options you have in terms of gathering information on anywhich topic, or of mustering support for a cause you feel strongly about, to name but two examples.

But there's an obvious downside to it as well: as everything is essentially accessible to everyone, you're bound to hit upon lots of people you may find obnoxious or boring or outré - certainly more than you did at college or in your rural community where you grew up in pre-Web times.

Why is it that Google thinks highly of public relations (even if founded on lies) but thinks poorly of most other bulk link building strategies?

Well, as Bob Massa never tires of pointing out, a search engine's primary objective is NOT to "delivery relevance" as so many people are fond of fooling themselves and others, it's to make a profit, period. Verbatim: "A search engine's primary purpose is NOT to deliver relevancy. A search engine's primary purpose is to deliver revenue. That is not the same thing."

While many SEOs still seem to find it hard to come to terms with that, it's pretty obvious that the folks over at Google were pretty slow to learn that lesson themselves. Oh, they certainly did so in the end, and with a vengeance, too. But along with this came all the other trimmings that will make or unmake just about any commercial enterprise, an ingrained preference for low pay being compensated with lots of feelgood high talk for the suckers included. See Michael Arrington's summary "Why Google Employees Quit" for some pretty telling insights.

Of course, hypocrisy plays a major role in this field as well: just like "spam" is always what the other guy is doing, not you yourself, "public relations" is always ok for Google if it helps you ramp up your company to potential client status. At the end of the day you'll have to conduct a lot of public relations to be able to afford some serious AdWords advertising - simple as that. So it makes no sense killing the cows you actually want to milk further down the road.

By contrast, however, undetected paid links will negatively impact Google's fundamental business platform because they can't really deal with them effectively, being so very link biassed as they are (or used to be) - so they're bound to be slated as a big no-no from their point of view.

None of this is illogical in any way - but of course that doesn't mean that we as SEOs have got to like or condone it. I know for sure that I don't...

In many ways (nofollow, nepotism, publishers requiring payment for links) the "organic" link has died a slow and painful death. Do you see Google and other search engines moving away from linking as a core component in their relevancy algorithms?

Personally, I tend to view Google's ongoing campaign of stressing the "evils" of undisclosed paid linking as a sign of utter desperation. Yahoo! and MSN/Live as well as Ask, while still relying heavily on links themselves, aren't half as outspoken or, more precisely, as hysterical about it.

I am also on record umpteen times as having pointed out that PageRank and, in fact, all ranking technologies unduly biassed towards inlinks are suffering from a fundamental fallacy. Because links may be lots of different things to many people, but they're definitely not simple "votes" in the sense of unequivocal acceptance, recommendation or endorsement, i.e. quality. At the very least, that's only a tiny fraction constituting their overall functionality.

To reiterate, PageRank in its original form was nothing but an overblown and hyped citation index, directly derived from academia's predilections: in the past 40 years or so it's become a very popular metrics to grade scholars by the number of citations they can ramp up, very much in line with their overall "publish or perish" career criteria. Allow me to point out, however, that this is essentially a culture thing: on the whole, European academics, to cite a contrarian example, have always staid aloof of this mindset. Plus, competition is just as fierce and cut throat in their world as it is in the "outside world" of regular commerce. I'm not sure there's actually a lot of "citation buying" going on in the academic universe, but frankly I wouldn't be too surprised if there were.

Be that as it may, a citation index makes even less sense in a commercial environment than it may possibly do in academia. Why should you want to link to your competitors? Why should they link to you? And if I happen to link to some article of yours I happen to be in violent disagreement with, trying to refute it in all bitterness, and ridiculing you on the same stride - does that link constitute a "vote" even in terms of "relevancy"? Or a "quality" indicator? That's like arguing that Jewish activist sites rightly pointing out anti-semitic or racist pages they are in disagreement with are actually endorsing them. So what if thousands of Jewish pages are linking out to the same revisionist neo-fascist site until it starts ranking above them all? That's plain ridiculous.

I mean, is any old "reference" a "vote" or even an indicator of "relevancy"? Sure, pointing to your sources to underpin your arguments will lend them (and you) more credibility, just like in academe. But make no mistake: such questions aren't as clear cut and easy to answer as one may wish to think - after all, philosophers have been wrestling with such issues for centuries for a slew of good reasons.

So if linking as a signal of relevancy is flawed at the very best, what alternatives do the search engines actually have? And in a more direct response to your question proper: I am seeing a lot of experimentation being conducted these days, ranging from behavioral metrics to personalization of search. SERP hand jobs seem to be hitting it big now, too, certainly as far as extremely competitive niches are concerned, think PPC in the "black hat" sense of "pills, porn and casino" sites.

While it may still be premature to term this the "return of on page factors" as a critical ranking element, we're actually seeing a lot of this happening again, albeit in a very pussy footed manner.

As more people compete for attention online do you see that increasing or decreasing the quality of the web as a whole?

That's a bit like asking whether the glass is half full or half empty, I'd say. The Web is expanding, that's a fact, of course. Obviously, this applies to what you or I may consider the "bad" as much as it does to what we deem to be "good", whether it's sources of information or common behavioral traits.

In many ways it's like a commotion on the rural market place: the more people join in the fray, the louder it tends to get - and the more aggressive you'll have to be when competing for attention.

But if you shun the crowd to retire to your private club and meet with your peers, things tend to get a lot more quiet and comfy again. This is actually happening at quite a large scale these days: there's lots of "closed shop" forums and communities online who will strictly vet their members to keep out the riffraff.

Google's CEO recently stated that "brands are how you sort out the cesspool" and that humans were hardwired for brands. Did it surprise you when he said that?

Frankly, I hope I'll never live to see the day when the likes of Eric Schmidt actually manage to surprise me. I mean, what to make of a man who is on record for blithely stating that World War I was caused by a "lack of understanding" between nations - something he claims Google will actually help prevent? Sure, this may be the Reader's Digest naive version of how WW I came about, but it certainly doesn't reflect reality in any meaningful let alone accurate or verifiable way. What it does reveal, of course, is a picayune, self-serving and utterly petit-bourgeois mindset. (And no, I won't dig into the question of where the 20th century fascists used to recruit the lion's share of their followers...)

Ok, so he's obviouly no qualified historian - but is he an anthropologist, then, making even more asinine claims like this one? "Hardwired" according to Mr Schmidt the neurologist, eh? And what, pray, makes the Web a "cesspool", anyway?

No, I'm not surprised at all: brands are what Schmidt and his chums are comfortable with, what they flatter themselves to understand well. Well, perhaps they actually do, but really, my only reasonable comment on this one is: "garbage in, garbage out"...

Search penalties are well known to be two tier depending on things like "brand." How does one know how far to push while staying within their desired risk/reward ratio?

For all the ballyhoo ramped up around "scientific SEO" (and, for that matter, "scientific marketing" - of which SEO is arguably but a minor subset), it's always been about trial and error and - and this is really important! - educated guesswork. Because the cards have always been stacked from day 1: the search engines won't allow us to study and review their ranking algorithms (which, from their perspective, is perfectly understandable, of course). Also, they can exploit vast amounts of usage data no single SEO company can ever attain to even remotely - and thus they're always leaving us with the short end of the stick. Which, in statistical terms, means that we as SEOs can never hope to get the full picture anyway.

But even if it's a David vs. Goliath kind of scenario, the search engines' major weakness is their requirement to turn a buck. This makes them just as vulnerable to advertiser pressure tactics as most classic deadwood newspapers are and, in fact, always were.

When all is said and done, you cannot ever really know for sure how much is too much of anything: every niche is different and there's no such thing as a golden key to them all. So it's a question of learning, usually the hard way, of trying out different things, both old and new, of testing, testing, testing.

On the upside, if you're not concerned with branding so much, you can easily skew that risk/reward ratio in your favor by essentially cloning your sites (yes, modify them a bit so their not all-out dupes) and run various SEO strategies for them. That way, you'll probably get more exposure while minimizing your risks. Should one or several of your sites underperform or even get penalized, you'll still have others that should perform well enough. So it's really about scaling done properly.

The reliance on brand and domain authority has lowered result diversity on many fronts. Will the fear of spam cause Google to keep clamping down on diversity, or will mom and pop shops still have a chance online 5 to 10 years from now?

This will probably depend on how the search market will evolve in general. If people should get fed up with getting served more and more brands they've known about anyway, this approach may lead to a dramatic loss of market share. If so, Google's only choice will be to push back brands in favor of lesser sites and more diversity again.

Nor is this entirely unrealistic: brands are one thing, but consumer experience with these brands' products is quite another. Personally, if I want to know more about some product being offered online, I'll inquire on Twitter where I'll typically get a ton of useful responses in a whiffy - no way Google or any other major search engine can match this presently. And I'm certainly not alone: I know lots of people who are doing exactly the same now.

Then, when I'm finally ready to buy, I don't need Google to compare offers and prices, either. Once I've bookmarked my favorite comparison sites, I can merrily fulfill my consumer duties without hitting any major search engine at all in the process.

What I'm not sure about is whether people will actually go to the lengths of explicitly demanding other, better search results from Google etc. It seems more likely that they'll simply vote with their mice and go elsewhere - that's a lot easier and faster to do than having to deal with a sluggish, unresponsive behemoth of a corporation.

Generally speaking, I'm afraid I don't see mom-and-pop shops gaining any leeway within the foreseeable future as there's nothing to indicate currently that they actually will. But then, 5 to 10 years is a time span I'd be loath to predict for anyway: too many unknown variables at work here. Two to three years seems a more tangible time frame, and I doubt we'll see any major improvement of small web sites' clout and standing within that span.

Is search an already won natural monopoly? If not, what do you see hurting Google from a competitive standpoint?

For all its undisputable explosion and evolution in the past 15 years or so, search is still in a very primitive, almost primeval stage in my view. Think "Deep Web" which has hardly been scratched superficially as yet - and yes, think "relevancy", too: we're still very much experiencing the Stone Age of search currently. By inference, search is bound to undergo some very fundamental changes pretty soon, and so will searchers' requirements and expectations.

The way many Web 2.0 sites are starting to impact search as we knew it is a good case in point. I've mentioned my own Twitter usage by way of some anecdotal evidence. Sure, Twitter may still turn out to be a mere ephemereal fad in the end, the way MySpace hasn't managed to live up to its original overblown promise. There's many people predicting just that, and who knows - maybe they're right.

But no matter who will evolve to become the biggest boys on the block in the end, and it seems very likely that there'll be several of them, this is where current crawler based all-purpose search is certainly beginning to hurt. If eyeballs are really everything, I for my part wouldn't want to bet the farm on Google maintaining its current monopoly of the search space for very much longer. And I don't see Google being all smug and ignorant about it, either: it's one of the reasons why they're expanding into so many different fields ranging from mobile communication technology to trans Pacific data cables, book digitalization and online document storage, to mention but a few.

For all we know, we may possibly witness the return of the vertical fairly soon as well. This would actually dovetail nicely with the prevailing trend towards ever more granular specialization and specificity. Highly specialized information archives, focused on specific fields of expertise and an equally selective user demographics only, be it directories or portals or crowd sourced networks or databases may well be the one big thing to watch out for.

What have you been up to lately? Do you have any new products or services launching soon?

While we're best known for our cloaking applications, our activities are actual a lot more varied than that. For example, our 100% "white hat" "10 Links A Day" link building service over at http://10LinksADay.net/ is another major focus of ours.

Beyond that, we're very busy developing proprietary technology in the field of automated content creation: targeted towards clients' specific requirements in terms of topicality, keywords and links in a scalable manner, this is what I'm most involved in myself currently. Moreover, the content we're creating is all 100% readable and entirely unique stuff of an unprecedented quality, if I say so myself.

Having presented this to our 10 Links A Day clients as a special, subscribers only offer up until now, we'll soon roll it out as a stand alone service named "Customized Content Creation" (CCC).


Thanks a bunch Ralph! To read his latest thoughts on search, check out his blog at http://fantomaster.com/fantomNews/

Brand Considerations When Choosing Domain Names

Choosing a domain name for a new project can be a little daunting.

All the good names are gone. Once you find something acceptable, you'll have to be sure you can live with it for a long time. And what about the implications for SEO?

So many considerations.

Do You Want A Disposable Domain Name?

Some domains are throw-away, so the domain name doesn't matter so much. buy-viagra-online-cheapest.com might be just fine for someones 100th pharma site. We all know it's going to be blitzed eventually, anyhow ;)

For such domains, brand is never going to be a major consideration. But for most other projects, I'd recommend devoting time to brand considerations and credibility factors.


Traffic Comes From Everywhere

Obviously, traffic doesn't just originate at search engines. The way things are going, the webmasters who used to frequently link to sites will just Twitter about you instead!

Word of mouth is becoming more and more important on the web. The most popular websites today facilitate personal publishing.

In order to capitalize on this, it is helpful to have a brand name that is easy for people to remember. It should be distinctive. It should be credible. It should be something people feel comfortable passing on.

When people mention you in the context of a social network, are they going to talk about cheap-mp3-online-buy-cheapest.com? Would they feel comfortable recommending it to their friends and networks of contacts? Does it make them look good? Will they remember your domain name five minutes later? Would it be something they'll pass on?

Even those webmasters who do link out tend to be cagey about where they link. The last place they'll link to is the trashy looking domain name.

The credibility of a domain name in such an environment counts for a lot.

Brand Naming Strategy

Brand is a is a collection of experiences and associations connected with a service, a person or any other entity

What does "Google.com" mean to you? An incorrectly spelled mathematical term meaning 1 followed by 100 zeros?

I'm guessing Google means finding things, making money, technology, the future, and various other experiences. That's the power of brand. Made-up, memorable "meaningless" words become incredibly valuable and significant.

That's ok for big companies who spend a lot of money on building these associations, but what about the site owned by the little guy?

One idea is to use soft branding. Leverage off a concept that is already known, and twist it a little.

For example, an xml feed product that acts like a mail client might use the term "mail" in the brand name, because people are already familiar with the concept of mail. "Hotmail" is an example of soft branding. AfterMail is a service that retains copies of emails sent by employees and holds them in a central database. The brand name is partly unique and memorable, and partly describes the function.

Good Domain Names Appreciate

Once you have a good, brand-able domain name, it will very likely appreciate.

As time goes on, good domain names become more scarce. Add to this the associations you're building, and the domain name can become a valuable asset in it's own right. This is seldom, if ever, the case with disposable domain names.

How much is SEOBook.com worth? Would it have been near as valuable now if Aaron had called it learn-seo-online.com? Possibly, but I suspect the latter is always going to have credibility issues, not to mention the dreaded hyphens.

Exact Match

There is a lot of debate about exact match domain names. There is evidence to suggest Google weights this factor highly, but ask different SEOs and you'll likely get different answers.

SEO considerations aside, exact match has a bonus when it comes to PPC. Check out this article by Frank Schilling:

What do you suppose would happen if I advertised my URL under the key-phrase that matches the name? Well, I tried it and I found that because my URL matched the key-phrase people were searching for, I had to bid less for traffic. People were more apt to click on a link when it matched the URL.. and the power of .com just reaffirmed to Jane Public that she had found the market leader.

What has this got to do with brand? If you build a brand to the point where it becomes a searchable phrase i.e "seo book" you'll enjoy the same benefit as the guys who own the exact match names. You'll find it easier, and cheaper, to dominate both organic and PPC listings.

It's harder to do that with a watered-down generic name.

Linking Factors

If people do link to you, it's desirable to have a keyword in url. However, sometimes this conflicts with brand imperatives i.e. being memorable and distinctive.

So what do you do?

Try using a byline.

For example, if your domain name is Acme.com, you could add a byline that describes what you do i.e "Acme.com - SEO Services". People may well link the full description, or use that phrase when talking about you. The by-line becomes an integral part of your brand. This approach is especially important when trying to convince directory owners to link to you with addition keywords.

For a lot more information on domain naming strategies, check out Aaron's domain naming lesson in the members section.

The Link Economy is Ruthless

Jeff Jarvis explained why our current media machinery does not fit the web:

Every minute of a journalist’s time will need to go to adding unique value to the news ecosystem: reporting, curating, organizing. This efficiency is necessitated by the reduction of resources. But it is also a product of the link and search economy: The only way to stand out is to add unique value and quality. My advice in the past has been: If you can’t imagine why someone would link to what you’re doing, you probably shouldn’t be doing it. And: Do what you do best and link to the rest. The link economy is ruthless in judging value.

Part of making sure that what you create counts is creating something great, but another (often overlooked piece) is to content for the right markets. Links alone won't make you money. Some websites want to limit exposure.

Geocities, which was bought for $2.87 billion (in cash) will close before the year is out, as Yahoo! looks to cut costs and focus on their core business. Many new sites are blocking exposure in low earning markets:

Last year, Veoh, a video-sharing site operated from San Diego, decided to block its service from users in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe, citing the dim prospects of making money and the high cost of delivering video there.

It is far easier to program something like Chartly than it is to create something that generates millions of needed daily page-views to become profitable. Even if you pick the right markets (and are building off a big network) there is no guarantee you will be profitable, which is part of the reason why many media companies will start building more interactive sites with more tools on them. The media needs to shift from being a spot you read the news to a spot where you interact with and discuss the news. Perhaps even a spot where you help share and create the news.

Don't get me wrong, I love amazing content like this, but it just doesn't make money.

Does Google LOVE.COM Spam?

The bigger you are the harder you can spam. AOL recently soft-launched Love.com

The site has a home directory at love.com, and topic sites are organized under subdomains. Current content on literally anything you can think of (or at least that I could think of) is there: dogs, The Beatles, sex, money, rock and roll. Hamsters. Barack Obama. You get the picture. Search engines love this stuff.

Love.com is a mashup of remixed twitter posts, youtube videos, aggressive 3rd party content snippets, automated cross linking, frame-jacked 3rd party content, pop-ups, automated subdomain spam, all pushed on a purchased domain name that had existing links.

Love.com is so bad that it inspired this quote from noted SEO expert Jeremy Luebke, "This stuff make Mahalo look like the best site on the net."

What did Eric Schmidt say? "brands are how you sort out the cesspool." As soon as Google started dialing up on brand, brand owners got the message, and have reacted quickly.

Counter to Eric Schmidt's claims, any objective viewer of search would note that brands are creating the cesspool.

This is the driving corporate SEO strategy across MANY verticals today: make up for ad declines by polluting Google with recycled garbage. The formula is...

  • recycle/steal content
  • grab from enough sources that it almost looks unique
  • automate it
  • cross link from the network of other sites (as needed)
  • repeat again and again until it no longer increases profits

Most of these companies are typically far spammier than even aggressive SEOs would suggest being, but that is not surprising given the lack of risk. Brand can spam as they see fit.

Google's original strategy with the authority-centric algorithm was a false belief that the emphasis on authority would make the web a deeper and richer experience. New content would need to be better than older established content to outrank it. But as media companies face sharp losses Google is quickly finding out that their authority emphasis is creating a shallower web, where most of the big networks have 2 primary roles: create garbage and recycle garbage.

I hope after Google eats about 50 more crappy sites like Love.com they see the flaw of their ways. Regular searchers (who don't give a damn about brand) already notice it.

Image source: Matt Cutts

The Importance Of Graphics In SEO

The Importance Of Graphics In SEO

We get a lot of positive feedback about our flowcharts.

It pays to remember the attention grabbing, and link-grabbing, power of graphics. It can be counter-intuitive for SEOs to use images, because we spend so much time thinking about the written (key)word.

This is a hunch, but I'm guessing peoples attention spans on the web are getting shorter, especially as they become accustomed to "quick hit" sites like Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Digg, et al. Images help hook people in. Also, people scan web pages. Jakob Nielsen has long advocated breaking up copy using large headings, thus providing visual cues that help readers deal with large blocks of text.

And let's not forget easy top ten placement in Google's universal search results....

New Zealand Google Results

Or the conversion potential of placing Adsense near images...

So, rather than type a lot of words, I'll just let a series of images do the talking. At the end of the post, I'll provide some SEO tips for dealing with images.

1. A Picture Is Worth A Thousand (Really Boring) Words

US Spending Out Of Control

2. Flowchart A Process

SEO Process Flowchart

3. Outline A Strategy

PPC Process Flowchart

4. Mention Matt Cutts (Only Known To Get Mileage In SEO Circles)


5. Post A "We're All Having A Laugh At A Conference" Pic (Also Helpful If It Includes Matt Cutts)

Matt Cutts Naked

6. Make A Complicated Graph That Looks Authoritative, But No One Knows What It Really Means

Seriously, WTF!

7. You Know Who This Is Without Me Saying A Word, Right?

Cool SEO Blog

8. Not Sure How That Got In There

Sexy Girl

9. Or That

Sexy Guy

10. Can't Be Bothered Typing A Post? YouTube It Instead!

Tips On SEO-ing Images

  • Use the alt attribute and be descriptive
  • Put your images somewhere authoritative - like on Picassa, Wikipedia, or Flickr, and link them back to your site, where possible
  • Put words and descriptions around your graphics to provide context and be sure to tag photos with keyword loaded data
  • Link your images and graphics to other posts on your site
  • Use the keyword as the name of the image

Buying Links vs Buying Rankings vs Stealing Content vs Selling Scams

SEOmoz Recommends Black Hat SEO Techniques

Remember back when Rand was saying that he thought it was a good idea for SEOs to police the action of other SEOs?

"Outing manipulative practices (or ANY practices for that matter) that put a page at the top of the rankings is part of our job"

It looks like he finally gave up on that bogus (anti-SEO) mindset, as SEOmoz just recommended buying and 301 redirecting expired domains for their links to boost your Google rankings.

They certainly can't justify blogging about cleaning up manipulative spam anymore if they are going to offer that up as a friendly SEO tip.

Google considers redirecting expired domains for links to be a black hat SEO practice. Danny Sullivan recently quoted Matt Cutts on buying domain names:

"The sort of stuff our systems would be designed to detect would be things like someone trying to buy expired domains or buying domains just for links." - Matt Cutts

What Matt reveals is how Google would work in an ideal world, however some domains slip through. If Google ever finds them then they may ignore it or they may burn everything to the ground based on some small percentage of the site's link profile relying on expired links. Matt Cutts got started building the webspam team at Google when he found an expired domain (with a link from the W3C) that was converted to a porn website.

Screw Buying Links, Buy Rankings

If Matt Cutts claims that he does not like the buying of sites for links, what about buying sites for their rankings? (Isn't that what the links are for?) Could buying rankings possibly be any better? Bankrate's CEO admited to buying CreditCardGuide.com for Google rankings in the media (and in a press release published at investor.bankrate.com/releasedetail.cfm?ReleaseID=334008 )

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

If I issued a press release about buying a site for its strong links or strong rankings the Google engineering team would probably burn it to the ground on principal. It would not last a day. But it is ok if BankRate does it.

Many Businesses Are Built Off Search

Lots of sites are bought for their links. Business models are built off of extending out a shell of a site with links. Look at the (low) quality of content published on sites like eHow. Would such incentivized user generated content like that have any chance at ranking if it were not built on an old trusted domain purchased for the project?

If Google wants to corrupt many new links with nofollow and put excessive weight on old websites then people will buy old sites. It is simply a game of economics. Every algorithm move causes an obvious reaction. There is already a market in selling Facebook profiles. What is so bad about buying and selling domain names and websites?

Search Engines Aid Illegal Businesses

Content is bought and sold. And sometimes it is stolen

If Google was concerned with what was "fair" they wouldn't wrap nearly 70% of the stolen content on the web in their ads. Google knows about that stat, but since it makes them money they look the other way.

It is no secret that Google is being called the next pirate bay. And with good reason, for anyone selling content online. If you sell desirable content, Google will recommend the torrent, a practice which likely makes them liable for contributory infringement and/or vicarious infringement.

Have cash and want some editorial links? There is probably a good court case to be had suing Google for that infringement.

It hurts the mainstream media's credibility when they steal a bit of content, but most of those millions of pages of stolen content wrapped in AdSense have no brand or legitimate business to protect.

Just like the scammers offering "free" government grants (complete with reverse billing fraud) through AdWords. Google's public relations team lied to ClickZ and the FTC when they said they cleaned up those grant ads over a month ago, as those scam ads are still running.

Google's Lack of Morals

Which is worse

  • buying a link or site that may have a commercial offer on it
  • claiming to be the moral police of the web, while knowingly selling ads to advertisers that are defrauding consumers, and lying about cleaning it up once questioned by authorities?

Google added a feature to search for similar images and has a claim your content feature for video, but what is taking Google so long to create a similar system for textual content? It won't appear until they get enough blowback that it makes financial sense for it to appear.

Search is Not About Relevancy (or User Experience)

If search engines were concerned with user experience they wouldn't sell ads to scammers (and lie about cleaning it up).

If search was about relevancy go compare would at least rank for their brand name. But they don't. And so would John Chow and Text Link Ads. But they do not.

Search is not about relevancy or the user. It is about ensuring profits and maintaining the perception of control. It's simple as that, really.

Bob Dylan Offers Sage SEO Advice for New Websites & New Webmasters

"When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose
You're invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal." - Bob Dylan

When your website's got no rankings, you got no traffic to lose
You're website is invisible now, you got no links to conceal.

Do not let another organization's self-serving (and hypocritical) guidelines control your every move...especially if you are so new and unestablished that your biggest risk is never gaining traction.

The biggest risk you can ever take is taking no risk at all.

  • You can't benefit from pull marketing unless you first do push marketing.
  • You can't be a market maker without first being a market manipulator.
  • If you are new, network effects are working against you right now.

YouTube used a legal loophole to loot billions of dollars of copyright content. Had they "played by the rules" they wouldn't have been bought by Google for $1.65 billion. And you would not get to enjoy this wonderful video right now

Why You Do Not Need To Be A Wizard To Be A Competent SEO

Somewhere, just across the Mexican border, a small cabal of search gurus meet.

They sit in a low lit, smoke filled room. The location is only known to the few, because membership of this club is exclusive. It is highly unlikely you will ever be asked to be a member.

That's just how it is.

In order to be invited, you need to bring some serious benefits to the table. But once you're a member of this club, you get to learn "the secret". The secret is the recipe for how to rank high on Google, Yahoo & MSN.

Want to be a member of this club?

Hey, who doesn't!

Many new to SEO, and some not so new, may well imagine such a club. They scour message boards and blogs for "the secret" in the hope "the secret" will be leak out somewhere.

It's a fools quest, of course.

There are only two ways to get such a secret. Work for the upper echelons of Google, Yahoo or MSN, or engage in some heavy reverse engineering. If someone did discover something by reverse engineering, are they going to post it to a blog or a forum? Would you?

Ok, I will.

Are you ready?

Hack a site to host your content, which forces redirects on end users, and then hack a few other sites to link at those hacked pages

Doesn't really help, does it.

SEO Wizadry & Why You Don't Need It

The fact is, you don't need to be a technical wizard to be a competent SEO, or to benefit from SEO.

Those who benefit most from SEO probably aren't focusing much on SEO at all, because SEO is only one part of the puzzle.

Take Wikipedia, for example. Wikipedia is top ten for countless terms, yet the SEO is simple, solid, and basic. What separates Wikipedia from the rest is that they combine basic SEO with a sound business model. They have found a way to have people create content for them for nothing, and to talk them up.

The same lesson applies to any site. Integrate good, solid SEO, just as you would integrate copywriting, design, market analysis, and other aspects essential to success on the web, and lay it on top of a sound business model.

Wikipedia's "Advanced" SEO

Want to know the "advanced" pieces of the Wikipedia SEO strategy? They encourage systematic content theft:

As I perused the wikipedia notes for editors back then, I came across a discussion about linking out. When is it proper to link out from a wikipedia article to a web page on the Internet? The answer was scary to me at the time. Wikipedia editors were told to look at the web page and consider if the information it held could be taken and rewritten as part of the wikipedia article. If it could, do that and don’t link out because that web page would have become redundant: it’s information would now be part of wikipedia. If it could not be so hijacked (my word), then yes, consider linking out to it.That early observation set my course for competing with wikipedia. I knew where they stood, and that they had a plan to disintermediate me as a web publisher.

And then they automate internal linking and slap the label of "open" on the content to make the marketing story powerful. That accumulates PageRank, which they then funnel on through to commercial Wikia pages that are growing hot on the heals of Wikipedia.

Such a system is "revolutionary" and "displays a new and glorious side of humanity" ... so long as it is not your content that they are stealing.

The "advanced" piece of the Wikipedia strategy comes down to business & marketing strategy. Creating the marketing story that make people perceive something as being better than it is, while hiding the externalities. Had they not pushed the story "Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge" then they would not have been able to steal so much content, and they would not have accumulated enough link equity to make their for-profit business work.

Essential SEO Advice

Most SEO advice you'll see boils down a variation on the following:

  • Focus your efforts on keyword terms that relate to your market segment
  • Make sure a spider can crawl the content
  • Build content that people will link to
  • Actively pursue links

Of course, there are various how-to's on how to achieve those four points, and for that you should buy the book ;)

Once these aspects are covered, there is marginal return in arcane trickery for most people. Your time is almost certainly better spent focusing on business fundamentals & holistic marketing strategy, because you have a lot of control over these areas.

If the business fundamentals are wrong, SEO trickery won't help.

People may arrive on a site, but then what? Do you provide something others want? Does it cost less to provide that something that the price you can charge for it? Is your offering better than your competition?

Someone who has asked those questions and satisfactorily answered them will always be a step ahead of those who haven't.

When I was new to SEO, I wish someone had told me how it really was. It would have saved me a lot of time and effort. I got sites ranking that didn't have sound business models, and they rightly failed. We've all been there, I'm sure.

So, for those new to SEO, make sure you cover the basics of both SEO and business.

Essentials Of SEO

Essentials Of Business

Beyond that, it's as complicated as you want to make it :)

In a Galaxy Far Far Away...

I have been interviewed and/or profiled and/or done some guest columns around the web that I have not yet mentioned here. Here is a short list of some such media worth checking out...

Guest Columns

Some recent columns I wrote for Search Engine Land: 5 Ways To Rise Above The Noise and Are You Sitting On A Good Idea? and Recovering from the Blue Screen of Death as an SEO.


Here is a video interview by Dr. Ralph Wilson about some ways you can make money off of looking through your website analytics data

Here are text interviews from SEO Boy & Wildfire Marketing Group.

Other Additional Mentions & Contributions

My buddy Matt Siltala asked me a few questions for 8 Gurus that "get" Twitter Answer Questions.

ProspectMX featured a quote from me in their universal search guide.

What Is Better Than Free?

Have you noticed a lot of content is turning into paid content lately?

In many cases, it's because the advertising revenue model isn't working so well.

Bob Massa posted in the SEOBook forums recently:

Internet advertising in all its glorious forms we know it doesn't work. If it did, newspapers and magazines would be enjoying a season of power and control they haven't held since the early 20th century. But they are not. Instead they are dying. Same goes for the entire TV industrial complex. And keep in mind that if anyone on the planet knows advertising and how to sell it, it would be TV and print. But they are dying while trying very hard to find a way to wiggle in and salvage some face, (and revenue).

It's a good point.

If advertising is so lucrative, why are advertising driven companies, like newspapers, struggling? If this advertising worked well, then the advertising rates would surely be a lot higher than they are now.

Of course, people do make money with internet advertising. Just look at Google. But, for those without massive scale, traffic is getting more and more niche-ified and dispersed, yet conversion rates are staying around the same level - 3-4%. The task of making money out of your site becomes harder and harder. There are only so many advertisers to go around, and there is a low barrier to entry to markets, which means a steady stream of competition.

How many people are frustrated with Adsense? The Adsense model relies on sending people away from your site. Without an increasing stream of visitors prepared to click on the ads, this model is difficult to scale, especially in high value niches.

The Economist recently featured an article entitled "The End Of The Free Lunch Again":

Google’s ability to place small, targeted text advertisements next to internet-search results, and on other websites, meant that many of the business models thought to have been killed by the dotcom bust now rose from the grave. It seemed there was indeed money to be made from internet advertising, provided you could target it accurately—a problem that could be conveniently outsourced to Google. The only reason it had not worked the first time around, it was generally agreed, was a shortage of broadband connections. The pursuit of eyeballs began again, and a series of new internet stars emerged: MySpace, YouTube, Facebook and now Twitter. Each provided a free service in order to attract a large audience that would then—at some unspecified point in the future—attract large amounts of advertising revenue.

Now the bubble has burst, internet companies are again laying people off and closing their doors. It turns out not many businesses can live off advertising alone, especially in a slump.

So, if advertising isn't really working, what can you do instead?

Better Than Free

You've heard the saying "information wants to be free"?

Information may want to be free, and those consuming the information may want it to be free, but how will the publisher earn a living? If the publisher isn't paid, s/he will stop publishing and do something else. Publishing high quality material consistently takes a lot of time and effort.

But the internet makes information easy to copy and redistribute, thus driving down it's value in dollar terms.

The newspaper business is stuck in this trap. Stories can be copied. Stories are abundant. Newspapers only survived up until now because they have been able to exploit monopoly positions based on geography. The internet has blown that barrier to entry wide open.

There's a great article on The Technium which helps illustrate both the problem, and the solution. It's a great read.

When copies are super abundant, they become worthless.When copies are super abundant, stuff which can't be copied becomes scarce and valuable. When copies are free, you need to sell things which can not be copied".

We've talked a lot on this blog about networking and building up brand. Part of the reason this strategy works in the long term is that you're building up something that cannot be copied. In so doing, you're creating a barrier to entry.

So what can't be copied?

Technium proposes adopting some of the following qualities

  • Trust - When all else is equal, you'll prefer to deal with someone you trust
  • Immediacy - many people will pay to see new release films, but little for or nothing for them six months later. Be first.
  • Personalization - customize an offering to individual preferences. It is more time consuming, but it encourages a relationship
  • Interpretation - Red Hat give Linux away but sells the support service. So is the software really "free"?
  • Authenticity - if you buy a knock off, it doesn't feel like the real thing.
  • Accessibility - could you make free products more accessible? Charge for that service. Related to nterpretation.
  • Embodiment - the music is free, the concert is expensive
  • Patronage - people WANT to pay. It lets them offer a token of their appreciation. Make it very easy to do.
  • Findability - Google works on this premise.

What aspects can you roll into your service or product? What other qualities are "better than free"?

SEO, Popularity And The Way Forward

Google's Eric Schmidt identifies one of Google's core problems:

...you've got somebody who really is very trustworthy, but they're not as well-known and they compete against people who are better known, and they don't "in their view" get high enough ranking. We have not come up with a way to algorithmically handle that in a coherent way

The Google algorithm is essentially a popularity contest.

Google doesn't know what information is worthwhile and what isn't. It looks at the signals provided by others as to decide what is and isn't worthwhile. What people deem noteworthy may not be worthwhile, right or truthful, to you, of course.

We see this same problem in SEO punditry.

There is a wealth of SEO information published each and every day. How does anyone know if this information is right or wrong?

Typically, if someone who is well known to the SEO tribe writes an article, and the article sounds authoritative, it will be deemed by the SEO tribe to be "quality". If you're unknown, and write the exact same article, it is likely to get buried. SEO punditry has largely become a cult of personality.

Recently, news outlets have been arguing that because they are established news outlets, they provide "quality". This self-serving circular argument appears to be what Google also believes, because it favors established media in the form of Google News.

But just look at the atrocious journalistic standards that some established news outlets provide:

For April Fool’s Day we posted a video of a fake mission where it appeared that we had lost our judgment and crashed a funeral. We fooled thousands of angry YouTube users into thinking it was real. The biggest fools of all were the CW 11 news team who reported on the funeral as if it actually happened. They didn’t do one bit of research or fact checking, they simply broadcast a YouTube video and reported it as fact

Right now, it's not about quality. It's about entrenched power structures and popularity.

On SEOBook.com, we've been writing a lot about the intersection between SEO with related fields such as marketing, PR, advertising and business strategy.

This is the way SEO is going. SEO is being integrated into other forms of promotion. Without undertaking such promotion, ranking will be that much harder, especially in crowded niches.

Ranking signals have traditionally been about links, however code tweaking and link begging is fast becoming a marginal activity. Ranking signals in the future will be about attention.

Those who command the most attention, win.

So let tie the concepts we've been discussing together into a strategy.

1. Be Popular, Or Appear To Be Popular

  • Get in front of an established audience. Offer to write for someone who has authority already, and get a link from that site. Or offer to interview them. Speak at conferences. Post detailed, informative posts to forums. Post detailed, informative posts to other people's blogs. Find out where your audience hangs out, and get in front of them any way you can. The aim is to generate awareness.
  • Once you have signs of credibility and activity make them obvious. Encourage comments and actively respond to them. Have a lot of subscribers? Put a Feedburner widget with subscriber count in your sidebar. Get mentioned in the media? Add a "as seen in" section.
  • Build a personal network. Figure out what you can do for people, and give forward. In future, it will be easier to get your stuff noticed if you can call in favors from friends.
  • Establish a cult of personality. Have an opinion, and beat it to death. No one likes wishy-washy. Objective doesn't sell. Subjective views, stated boldy - sell. Make your name synonymous with your brand. It is very difficult to counter a brand build on personality. Ask Incisive Media if Danny Sullivan can ever be replaced.

2. Create A Viral Message So People Spread The Word For You

  • Have you given people something to talk about? Give people a message they feel compelled to repeat. If that doesn't happen, the message is wrong. Rework it until you find an angle worth repeating.
  • What incentive do people have to repeat your message? Does it make them look smart? Does it earn them money? Does it increase their status? Does it enable them to help a friend? Does it enrich them?
  • How should they talk about you? Should they link to you? Should they write about you? Should they tweet you? Have you made it obvious to people what you want them to do? (By the way, if this post has proved in any way valuable to you, we would be eternally grateful to you for a link. Or a mention. Or a comment ;)

3. Carve Out Your Niche, Focus On Quality And Building Critical Mass

It might not seem like it now, but providing quality information amidst the noise is the holy grail Google, and others, are working towards.

Ultimately, Google, or any knowledge management tool, must return sufficiently high quality information in order to survive as the aggregator of choice. "Sufficient" means "better than the other guy". Google also piles on the value by giving away quality mail tools, stats tools, and more. In a competitive niche, popularity won't be enough to sustain position. The popular aggegator that provides the most quality, and the most value, wins.

Quality will be the next layer of differentiation.

  • Do the same thing as Google. How can you add value? What can you do that other guy is not doing? What can you give away that the other guy is selling? How can you be better that other guy? Figure out what your audience wants - ask them directly, if need be - and give it to them.
  • Pick your niche and own it. Niche too competitive or too broad? Keep slicing it finer (go niche within a niche - e.g. rather than take on travel, become the biggest authority on Fiji) until you find space in which you can compete. If your aim is to make money, be careful to pick a niche that is worth slicing. How do you know if a niche is worth slicing? Look at the value of AdWords bids in that niche and the volume of searches. The Search-based keyword tool is your friend.
  • Make sure anyone searching that niche knows your name. Advertise on other sites in that niche. Appear on other sites in that niche. Figure out a way to lock people into what you're doing. It might be as simple as encouraging them comment on your blog. The aim is to get them to remember you, to interact with you, to internalize your message, then to pass it on.

4. Build Brand

Brand will be so important. What is yours?

If someone mentions your niche, do they mention your site or your name? You must be synonymous with your niche, so that if Google doesn't rank you number one, people would think Google was deficient for omitting you. This is how BMW can break Google's rules and get a free pass. To not find BMW would make Google look bad. To not find cool-bmw-owners-discussion-forum.com is of no concern. Can you imagine searching for the term "seo book" and not seeing this site top ten? You'd think Google was deficient.

That's where your brand needs to be.

Hope we've been giving you some food for thought :)

The Importance Of Brand And Networking

SEO used to be about tweaking code, but these days, it has more in common with traditional PR and marketing.

Those who command the most attention also get great rankings, no matter how sloppy their code, and they don't need to beg for links.

Google's Eric Schmidt recently indicated that Google may be looking to brand metrics as a means of determining search quality. That's not to say merely having any old brand will mean you rank highly, but the brand building process has synergies with the metrics Google uses to rank sites.

Let's take a look at a few ideas on how to turn this to your advantage.

Carve Out A Niche

When you start a site, you don't have much in the way of leverage. You don't have an established reputation, which can make it difficult to get attention and get links.

One effective way to get attention quickly is to carve out an existing niche.

Let me give you an example. Copyblogger is, as the name suggests, a copy writing blog. Copyblogger competes in the "blogging-about-blogging" niche, which is pretty crowded.

However, by focusing on one aspect - copy writing - and going deep, the writer received a lot of attention, and links, from the established blogs in that space because he wasn't seen as direct competition. Rather, he offered a complementary service.

If you're entering a crowded niche with a new site, this might be a good approach to take.

Personal Networking And How To Tie It Into Your Brand

SEOs talk a lot about PR as in page rank, but sometimes overlook the value of PR, as in "personal relationships".

One advantage the little guy has against the big companies is the cult of personality. A brand tied into a personality is very difficult to counter, no matter how much money the competition throws at it, because personalities are unique.

Building up a personal network makes it easier to get links, because it's easy to talk about you if people already know you. There are the obvious things you can do to build you network, such as attending , or talking at, meetings and conferences, and spending time where your potential audience hangs out on the web. The aim is make your name synonymous with your niche, and it also helps if you have a brand that contains keyword elements.

People will naturally use your keyword terms when they speak about you, both in links, and in context.

For example, when Aaron started SEOBOook.com, the search book market was pretty crowded, and very few people searched on the term "seo book".

Now, a lot of people use that search term - as both a brand search and a description - and associate it with the name Aaron Wall. Aaron pretty much owns that term for as long as he wants it.

This doesn't happen overnight, of course. Aaron did a lot of work building up the site, speaking at conferences, building a personal network, of people who would link to him and help spread the word. The pay off is that Aaron has become synonymous with the term "SEO book", and a wealth of related terms.

To see how this is happening more overtly now than in the past, check out Big Brands? Google Brand Promotion: New Search Engine Rankings Place Heavy Emphasis on Branding

Cult Of Personality

Once you've carved out your niche, and your personal brand, these effects start to snowball.

Not only will your rankings get better, you may well become a source for media. You might attain a level of celebrity in your niche. Oscar Wilde had a good quote, "the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about".

I suspect this is the direction Google will be heading. They will be using a lot more quality signals than links. They'll be looking at personal metrics, including social media metrics, like bookmarking. They'll be looking at the terms people use most when talking about a brand or person.

And if few people are mentioning that brand, it will become increasingly invisible in search engine results.

FTC To Clamp Down On Social Media Marketing

Some sites like MySpace have begun policing ads:

The main reason that they killed the dating ads was that people were using copyright images as well as girls under 18 to advertise for CPA sites. It got to a point where the ad approval team couldn’t police them anymore. The dieting ads were killed cause the FTC is just starting to crack down on the fake blogs that promote the diet offers.

But the efforts might be too little too late, and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is planning to regulate online social marketing. Yes, that includes blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of social networking.

In December 2008, the FTC proposed rule changes relating to endorsements, where bloggers and other site owners may be help liable for claims made about a product or service.

For example, companies giving trial products to bloggers might constitute an endorsement. So flippant comments about the product or service in a social media context may come under the same scrutiny as print advertising. So, best be careful blogging or Twittering about the efficacy of that affiliate weight loss program ;)

Is Regulation a Bad Thing?

In this interview with Shoemoney, Seth Godin explained why he thought this regulation was good, noting that

  • there will always be someone operating sleazier than you are
  • the sleazy operators steal from everyone on the network, and increase the trust barrier that legitimate businesses must overcome

If the internet was not anonymous then you wouldn't have Google AdWords ad reps stealing your keywords from your AdWords account and bidding on your trademark. Much of the advertising & affiliate driven fraud would quickly disappear.

If these measures are approved, what will this mean for social media marketers?

1. Go Easy On The Snake Oil

If a claim is outrageous, best be careful about repeating it. Check that any claim has studies to back it up.

2. Typical Results

Not only do results have to be shown to be achievable, they must be typical. The FTC will likely investigate claims if the average consumer is likely to be mislead about results that can be achieved.

This can be tricky, as most testimonials in the internet marketing space are essentially nepotistic or bought (particularly for "all-in-on" Earth shattering courses costing $1,997). Perry Marshall highlighted how hard it is to find out the "average" when your customers have little incentive to tell you something is working (and if they actually put in any effort when it is not).

3. Affiliates Beware Of Being Thrown Under A Bus

The FTC are likely to focus on endorsements by third parties.

Often, parent companies may be unwilling to make certain claims, but are more than happy for their affiliates to do so. This, of course, transfers risk to the affiliate.

Make sure both your stories are in sync.

4. Disclose

If you're being compensated for something, whether by money or materials, it's best to say so.

Meanwhile, the FDA is also tightening regulation, and this will have an impact on search advertising:

Last week the U.S. Food and Drug Administration wagged its finger at more than a dozen pharmaceutical companies over their use of paid search advertising.In one day, the agency sent an unheard-of 14 warning letters to pharmaceutical companies regarding their use of search ads on behalf of more than 40 drugs. The list of brands mentioned included such top sellers as Lexapro (an antidepressant) and Plavix (a blood thinner). GlaxoSmithKline, Sanofi-Aventis, Merck, and Eli Lilly were among those to receive letters.

Industry observer Mark Senak said it looked like the FDA was trying to clean up pharmaceutical search engine marketing by playing "whack the mole" rather than issuing some regulatory guidance. But an FDA spokesperson said the agency found "a plethora of violations across all classes of drugs," and noted the FDA's policy is to enforce the same standards in all media.

The common thread is that enforcement bodies are looking to apply the same standards found in print to online media.

Perry Marshall & Aaron Wall Present the 2009 Business Bailout - Free AdWords + SEO Advice on April 15th, 2009

It seems everyone (but you) is getting a bailout right now, and we didn't think that was fair. So we decided to do something about it - on tax day. :)

On Wednesday, April 15 at 2pm Central, I'll be interviewing Perry Marshall on Google AdWords and Pay Per Click strategies.

Perry is author of the Definitive Guide to Google AdWords and is the most referenced AdWords specialist on the Internet.

Perry will explain how to get AdWords clicks for 20% to 70% less money than your competition is paying for the same traffic, and how to get maximum leverage out of your advertising investment. He'll discuss why "SEO people" often avoid Pay Per Click and how to blend both worlds together for not just 2X results, but 3X.

Time: 2:00pm Central Time (3pm EST / 12pm Pacific / 19:00 GMT)
Date: Wednesday April 15, 2009
MP3's/transcripts will be available for purchase.

Reserve your spot at http://www.perrymarshall.com/aaron/

This call is perfect for beginner and intermediate AdWords advertisers. If you're spending more than $100 per month on Google clicks, this information is essential.

The economic downturn has driven more companies to advertise on Google; Google had a record quarter at the end of '08 and it's more important than ever before to employ the right tactics with AdWords!

Perry will show you how to structure a Pay Per Click campaign and discuss recent changes to Google's system that require a different approach.


Perry will also be interviewing me 2 hours earlier, at 12pm Central time. I'll be giving his audience my tips for Search Engine Optimization techniques and what's working in 2009.

What better way to "celebrate" Tax Day than to get more visitors to your website and more sales after they get there? Talk to you then!

Aaron Wall
- and Perry Marshall

Tony Mandarich Recommends Us!

How cool is this? Back in 1989 I started collecting sports cards and Tony Mandarich was the #2 draft pick in the NFL. He has since built an SEO company, and was recently interviewed by Patrick Gavin:

So my wife and I started from scratch, learning the web design and SEO business. That was five years ago. I had an above-average understanding of how the Internet worked, for someone who wasn’t doing it full time. Once I committed to learning it and applying it to our own business of photography and videography, within 6 months we were ranked on the first page of Google for the key phrases we were going after. The one crucial piece of literature that helped me immensely in SEO was Aaron Wall’s “SEO Book”. I applied his principles and – Voila – it worked!

A couple of our members recently reviewed our site. From SEO Rabbit:

SeoBook is not a fancy 8 hour long SEM workshop for which you have to pay several grand, only to leave with more questions then you originally had, or to very quickly figure out that the only fancy thing about persons conducting the workshop is their ability to market themselves. SEOBook community is a workshop that constantly asks questions and does its best to answer them, more often then not it does. Being a member for few months made me realize that members don’t hold back when it comes to sharing experiences, giving advices, and answering questions.

I recommend SEOBook for anyone who is serious about Internet marketing. The only way I can see that SeoBook membership is not worth it, is if you don’t use it or don’t participate.

Tom Demers from Wordstream:

Even if you are a very sophisticated marketer and/or have spent a lot of time with the training modules, the SEO Book forums are excellent. They’re populated with:

  • Aaron Himself – He responds to seemingly every post (he has over 11k posts on the board). I have asked three or four questions and started a handful of threads, and he’s answered/participated in every one. The answers are outstanding. If you think of this type of access in terms of what it would cost outside of this offer (to have a top SEO on retainer) a price point of 100 dollars a month is a pretty staggering value.
  • The Moderators – I don’t know what kind of arrangement is set up with the moderators but they are all experienced Web marketers and are extremely active and helpful answering questions, as well. This makes the 100 feel like it’s going towards a team of consultants (or “coaches”).
  • The “Customers” – The really fascinating thing here is that the people who are “members” are often affiliates and/or marketers themselves; the people asking very basic questions are hungry to learn (they actually paid to get in!) and then seem to come up the curb quickly to start contributing some great stuff. Affiliate marketers investing this kind of time to discuss and learn tactics are often the people doing the testing, and generally have bleeding edge insight into the way the Web works.

Since I signed up I’ve probably found three or four really great link sources that I wouldn’t have otherwise known about, and that would be worthless if they were published on a free blog. I’ve also had multiple questions given a lot of attention and lengthy responses.

Most SEO Strategies Are Not Focused on Hitting Home Runs

Seth Godin explained that the most reliable and highest converting SEO strategy is that of the white page variety. Build a brand and own a unique word. But at the same time he dismissed the concept of most other SEO strategies

The problem: how to be the first listing, because being the 40th listing is fairly worthless.

The answer: You probably won't be. There are 14 million matches for Plumber, and no, you won't be #1 or #2. You lost. In fact, in just about every keyword worth owning, your chances are winning are small.

Most people do not want to rank for something as generic as plumber. If they want to rank for that broad of a keyword for a local service they should

  • use geo-targeted AdWords
  • optimize for local search inclusion (see image below)
  • consider building their regular SEO strategy around more specific keywords

None of those require luck. Just patience, effort, and investment.

When I searched Google for plumber I saw this in the search results

It looks like some of the local players have a good chance at ranking if they believe the relevancy algorithms to be more than luck, particularly if they read this document and local search blogs like this one.

There is little point in trying to rank for a big money keyword right out of the gate. Smart SEOs generally insist on ensuring you use relevant keyword modifiers and alternative word forms. Why? Longtail keywords have less competition, are easier to rank for, rank quicker, and are more likely to convert (since they are more targeted).

Rather than making the page title plumber you could make it something like Oakland Plumbers - 24 Hour Local Plumbing Repair in Oakland, CA. That type of page title helps make the page relevant for a wide array of relevant keywords like

  • oakland plumbers
  • oakland plumbing repair
  • oakland, ca plumbers
  • plumbers in oakland
  • etc.

Google claims that from 20% to 25% of search queries are unique.

Some of our pages rank for hundreds of unique keyword phrases because we employed in-depth keyword research, appealing page titles, and strong on page optimization strategies. Even when we rank #1 for link building, that page still gets way more traffic for related longtail keywords.

Once you begin to profit from the long tail keywords then you can reinvest in going after some of the more competitive and broader related keywords. And you can use your AdWords data, search analytics data, and organic ranking data to help you figure out what keywords to focus on next.

When I have a great idea do I try to turn it into a home run? Yes. But it is doing all the other things that makes the occasional home run so powerful. A strong foundation increases the value of everything you do.

Creating content that is well optimized not only helps you rank for a wide array of relevant keywords, but it also makes your content easier to find down the road. Generally I am a big fan of Seth, and I cite him often. I am a rather sophisticated searcher, but sometimes it can take me 15 minutes to find one of his posts because Seth is so dismissive of some SEO best practices...which is a bit unfortunate for the thousands of people who are not finding his blog ranked as well as it could, and are instead landing on inferior content that was published using better SEO strategies.

It perplexes me how Seth can be so forward thinking and brilliant with so many marketing concepts, and then not really see SEO as a viable channel.

If your SEO strategy is reliant on some misconceived notion of the natural order then you are losing money. Hope is not a business strategy. Neither is content without promotion, particularly in markets saturated with similar competing products. And that is why SEO is important.

Links Based Economy? No. Passion Based Economy? Yes

Speaking at a conference for newspapers Eric Schmidt said:

"We've been careful not to bias it using our own judgment of trust because we're never sure if we get it right. So we use complicated ranking signals, as they're called, to determine rank and relevance. And we change them periodically, which drives everybody crazy, as or algorithms get better. ... The usual problem is you've got somebody who really is very trustworthy, but they're not as well-known and they compete against people who are better known, and they don't 'in their view' get high enough ranking. We have not come up with a way to algorithmically handle that in a coherent way."

So the big flaw in the algorithm there is "to be well known." SEOs have exploited that since Google first got on the web - buying, trading, borrowing, and stealing links as needed. Arianna Huffington claims that to succeed today you need to work in the links based economy

But what won't work -- what can't work -- is to act like the last 15 years never happened, that we are still operating in the old content economy as opposed to the new link economy, and that the survival of the industry will be found by "protecting" content behind walled gardens.

But the problem with that line of thinking is that the link based economy is quietly disappearing. Links are not flowing as well as they once would have. Take for example, this post - it covers a currently hot topic, is 8 pages long, contains multiple custom images, is easy to consume, and is published on a blog with over 30,000 RSS subscribers. The reward for such work? Less than 30 links so far, and maybe a total of 5 links if you back out the temporal social media links. (And some of those 5 links are on sites that routinely link back and forth).

Would you be willing to write for 4 or 5 hours to only get 5 links to a fairly non-commercial page of a site that already has over 1 million inbound links? No way...totally not worth the effort if we were operating in a "links-based economy."

A couple days ago I talked with a friend who works for some news companies, and they wanted to use rel=nofollow on their editorial selected links because they were afraid of leaking PageRank. To say that we are entering a links based economy is to ignore the corruption of nofollow and how "social" media is pulling editorial links away from those who earned it. But the web changes, and so must we, lest we become the mainstream media writing our own obituary each dawn.

We have moved past the links-based economy into a passion based economy.

In Someone Can Charge for News Content, but Who? John Andrews reminds us of today's most popular news programs:

Today Bill O’Reilly reports the news, and Jon Stewart reports the news. Very popular news shows, right? Think about it.

If the links are not counting in the algorithms then you need to get paid another way to make creating in depth high value content worthwhile. To do that, you need to publish content that is aligned with a particular passion, niche, and/or bias.

Call it tribe based or fan driven marketing. Your customers must play a critical role in your marketing for you to succeed.

Trying to maintain a false appearance of objectivity (as the media does) simply can't compete with deep rooted biases founded in passion, experience, and expertise. I would rather trust a known bias than fake objective with hidden agendas I later need to figure out.

  • The mainstream media sites can profitably build businesses if they focus on high value niches and create stand alone brands for each that are worth charging for access to.
  • The mainstream media sites can profitably arbitrage Google's organic search results by filling their sites up with eHow-like junk content that costs less than $5 per page to produce.
  • But doing what they doing, half-assed generic publishing while slowly trimming costs off huge inefficient organizations guarantees bankruptcies & consolidation. Their current strategy gives them neither passion driven content nor cost efficiency...they are wounded animals mindlessly roaming awaiting their death - the one topic they cover with passion.

Ironically, some of the best content online comes in the form of walled garden paid membership websites. But, it turns out, we don't need the media to figure out who shares our passions.

Links VS Content VS Rankings VS Search Traffic

Majestic SEO just released free graphs tracking link growth rates, which can be used to compare the overall link profile of competing sites, and how they are growing month to month

Such data can be used to compare sites against traffic growth of sites.

You can further analyze the number of pages indexed in Google (and how it has evolved over time).

These data points can by synched up to help evaluate if a site is particularly strong or weak in any area, and how to address that weakness or build off that strength to further grow a site.

  • Have way more links than competing sites, but few pages? Create content.
  • Have way more content than competing sites, but few links? Work on link building.

Such data can further be refined by plugging sites into our competitive research tool to see what they rank for, and coming up with more ideas by looking through our complete guide to competitive research.

In A Down Economy, Add Value

When an economy is booming, companies can risk being sub-optimal.

They can get away waste and inefficiency. They can get away with providing less value, because customers aren't as focused on the bottom line as they are when cash is tight.

In a down economy, it is less likely people will be prepared to pay too much for things they don't really need.

So now we're in a down economy, how will things change? What can the webmaster do to adapt to these changes?

Here are a couple of interesting articles:

One on Gapingvoid.com, which predicts a return to value. Another on UnlockTheGame, where a 96 year-old ex-business woman talks about what happened during the last depression.

.... I remember seeing bankers standing in their fancy suits at street corners selling apples......there are millionaires made in good times and in bad times.so the lesson there is the "times" have nothing to do with it.......If you're going to read the news, it's important to read it separating yourself from it. .....Read between the lines and look for the silver lining, because behind every negative news story is a turnaround success story waiting to happen.

While the Gaping Void article makes a number of broad assumptions, the important points of those two articles are that things are going to change, and where there is change, there is opportunity.

So where is the opportunity going to come from?

The Gaping Void article points out:

It was quite a disconnect for me to hear the guys on CNN yapping endlessly on about THE RECESSION, in contrast to all the groovy cats I met at SXSW, who told me how their businesses were booming. It was like two alternate universes colliding. Which one was the real one?"

Been hearing those stories a lot lately? So have I.

It is probable that traditional marketing money (i.e. television, radio, print) is shifting to internet channels, because the internet is seen as providing better value. Also, people may use their cars less often, and shop on the internet to save money. Bad for brick n mortar retailers, good for internet stores.

The UnlockTheGame article talked about surviving the last depression by adding value i.e. selling a freezer stock full of meat.

A good approach in a down economy, especially for the little guy who seldom does enough volume to compete on price alone, is to think about ways to add value.

It is good we're in the internet game :)

How To Add Value

1.Re-Focus On User Needs

What do users really need? As money gets tight, people focus more on their needs than their wants. If you're selling a "want", can you twist it round into being perceived as a need?

For example, one of the first areas to get cut from corporate budgets during a downturn is marketing spend. But a company still needs to talk to consumers. If you sell internet advertising, you could address this need by comparing various channels i.e internet vs tv/radio/print.

Frame your message in terms of results and benefits. In a down economy, positioning is often a lot less important than the bottom line.

2. Segment Your Market

Typically, the wider your market, the more average your service or product. By being all things to all people, chances are you aren't delivering excellent value to some.

If customers are more driven by excellent value because cash is short, the generic products and services may miss out to a competitor more focused on a segments needs. Look for ways to segment your existing market.

3. Improve

Can you be more timely? More convenient? More accurate? Can your offering be customized? Can it be made more usable?

What more can you do for people?

4. Seek Feedback

Your users and customers know what their needs are. Do you make it easy for them to tell you? Ever asked them about it? How do you currently evaluate their needs?

5. Partner

Are there opportunities you see, but can't act on because you don't have the resources? Does someone else have those resources? Are there opportunities to partner up to create more value?

How about within your own company? Is every member of your team focused on providing customer value? Make every team member a partner in the adding value process.

6. Assess The Value Of Existing Relationships

It might seem like a strange time to cut customers, but the customers that aren't making much money present a huge opportunity cost to provide real value to someone else. Assess which customers make you the most money and focus on their needs. What extra value can you create for them?

Which Form of Advertising is More Efficient & Effective?

The above billboard's ad inventory (behind the tree) promoted an important charity. But less than 1 in 1000 people who passed by it knew what was being advertised. They couldn't see it even if they wanted to, but few people wanted to, which is why they could only afford the discount billboard inventory. Almost all traditional advertising is heading in that direction - noise to be ignored.

Worse yet, when you buy ads you usually end up paying for some such ad inventory...

  • the phantom distribution created by newspapers and magazines that were printed then burned (or never even printed in the first place)
  • the newspaper website that creates inventory by refreshing the page every 5 minutes
  • the TV ad that runs at the wrong time and/or is delivered to the wrong audience
  • the niche clean traffic source that pads their numbers with low value & low cost social media traffic
  • the ad unit at the bottom of the page that nobody sees
  • the incidental ad clicks in Gmail
  • the social media and warez junk your AdWords account subsidizes if you stick with default settings
  • the "cheap" AdSense ad clicks that are clicked on by nothing but robots
  • the shady Yahoo! Search "partners" which make AdSense look like a clean source of traffic and allow Google to charge 3X as much per click

By the time there is a standard ad unit advertisers and publishers are busy perverting it while everyone else is learning to ignore it. The best advertising typically looks more like information than advertising.

The liquor store looks like something right out of the white pages. Simple, direct, effective. They could have a fancy sign that is hard to read, but the clarity and location of the sign makes it compelling.

I think that picture is a strong analogy when comparing the efficacy of advertising elsewhere versus making your own website better and creating a service that is worthy of word of mouth marketing. Make your site better & deliver more value and anyone who finds you has an opportunity to benefit from it. There are a lot of ways you can improve your authority, but the stuff you do on your site is generally going to have the best ROI

Advertising that looks like advertising is rarely as effective as the type of advertising you can generate by creating something remarkable. People spend money with the goal to influence and manipulate. But when you get word of mouth coverage it is more like helpful tips, advice, and information from a friend. Just yesterday there were 2 unsolicited Tweets about our membership program.

Each of their kind reviews is worth far more than 20 or 50 or 100 typical AdWords clicks because we don't trust advertisers - particularly in the internet marketing space. A customer who bought something and likes it provides independent social proof of value. Customer recommendations become a form of advertising that resonates.

Advertising That Resonates

In the 1960s, advertising was all about the faceless masses.

The idea was that you devise and build a product, throw it over the wall to the marketing department, who would figure out an angle, then engage in a marketing blitz. They'd try and get in front of as many eyeballs as possible, for the lowest CPM.

In the cynical, jaded 00's, advertising works on a more personal level. People are bombarded with messages, so instinctively tune most of them out. The most effective messages are those that people internalize, make personal, and pass on.

Marketing Models

Traditional marketing looked like this:

Very linear.

Modern marketing looks more like this:

Who controls the message now?

The audience.

The audience is no longer a passive recipient. The audience can pass a message on. They become a vector by which your message travels. If people don't pass your message on, chances are your message is dead.

The audience has control, because they have their hand on the remote, and on the mouse, so bombarding them or interrupting them no longer works. This is why companies try to engage people on a personal level, Google being a fine example.

Word of mouth, in other words.

Why Is Word Of Mouth King in 2009?

Word of mouth advertising is powerful because it resonates on a personal level, and it travels via established, personal networks. Those networks by-pass the mass marketing blitz, which people have long since tuned out, as those channels are low trust. They aren't trusted because they are impersonal, and politics in the 00's is all about me, me, me.

And my friends.

Word of mouth is how social media marketing is going to work. It isn't going to work using interruption or mass market techniques.

Review you message to see if it has a word of mouth quality. Is it remarkable enough for people to repeat to their friends?

Seth Godin, who I like to quote, because he puts his ideas in such a way as you want to repeat them, illustrates it like this:

First, Ten

This, in two words, is the secret of the new marketing.

Find ten people. Ten people who trust you/respect you/need you/listen to you...

Those ten people need what you have to sell, or want it. And if they love it, you win. If they love it, they'll each find you ten more people (or a hundred or a thousand or, perhaps, just three). Repeat.

If they don't love it, you need a new product. Start over.

Your idea spreads. Your business grows. Not as fast as you want, but faster than you could ever imagine.

This approach changes the posture and timing of everything you do.

You can no longer market to the anonymous masses. They're not anonymous and they're not masses. You can only market to people who are willing participants. Like this group of ten".

The thing I often find frustrating about Seth Godin is that he offers few practical examples. Perhaps his goal is to make us think.

Let's start with a checklist:

  • Is you product or service remarkable? If not, can you twist and shape it so that it is? If not, start again.
  • Who are the ten people in your niche who matter? Identify them. You need to spend your time and money being remarkable to them
  • Who are the ten people who are really resonating with your brand? Survey them. Find out why they are attracted to your service. Give them tools and reasons to spread the word

One example that springs to mind is the MLM sales launch.

These launches often target trusted industry players first, who in turn spread the message to their readers. It's celebrity endorsement. The tools are the free giveaways and marketing collateral.

Social media marketing is going to work in much the same way. In social media, people listen to people, not networks. So find out who the ten people are you need to talk to, and make your message remarkable to them. Hopefully, they'll do the rest. Handing a bottle of expensive water to Paris Hilton was no doubt a good idea.

Check out this post on developing a social network platform. Notice how he integrates outside people into the internal processes of the company.

Perhaps that's the new version of MLM.....

Differences Between Word Of Mouth And Going Viral

One of the differences between word of mouth and going viral is that in order to go viral, people need to become part of the network in order to pass the message on.

Roelof Botha, the guy behind PayPal and YouTube points out:

Many people think the word "viral" is interchangeable with "word of mouth"--implying that the product or service is so good that people are compelled to talk it up with their friends. But there's more to it than that. Google and Amazon.com are both great Internet companies, but they aren't viral businesses....word of mouth is when I tell you to shop on Zappos because I think the service is great," explains Botha. "It becomes viral when you have to be ‘in the system’ to use it. For example I can post a video on YouTube but then you would need to go to the site in order to see it

Where Does SEO/SEM Fit?

But hang on, I hear you say. I'm an SEO/SEM, what does this have to do with me?

You're already slicing up the niche and targeting via keywords. But if you're buying clicks, or targeting SERPs, you're wasting a valuable opportunity if people visit your site and forget you the moment they click away. Perhaps that person didn't buy or sign up now, but they might tell someone else about you if your message resonates with them. Your message could then skip from the search channel into their closed social networks - Twitter, Facebook, et al - which increases your exposure and reach.

To do this, your message needs to be remarkable on a personal level.

Does your site convey such a message? If I click on it for the first time, do I know the one unique thing you do that no one else can? The problem you solve for me? And would I tell my friends about it? And will you provide me with the means/tools to do so?

Shining a Light on The Dark Arts of Search Engine Optimization

I recently read a story in Forbes about how Rupert Murdock thinks Google is undermining copyright

"Should we be allowing Google to steal all our copyrights?" asked the News Corp. chief at a cable industry confab in Washington, D.C., Thursday. The answer, said Murdoch, should be, " 'Thanks, but no thanks.' "

and came across a quote about how SEO is some dark art, which kinda annoyed me. In the past I have posted examples of how media is often corrupted, but I figured another round wouldn't hurt.

Google Manipulates the Media for Profit

Direct Manipulation

Have you been negative about some of Google's new products? They might blacklist your organization.

Google Inc. has blacklisted all CNET reporters for a year, after the popular technology news website published personal information of one of Google's founders in a story about growing privacy concerns for the Internet search engine, according to a CNET statement.

Have you generally been fairly positive in covering Google's new products? Google might accidentally land the mother of all linkbaits in your lap a day early. They were keen to promote early users of Google Checkout as well. After Google bought Youtube they heavily promoted the service directly in Google's organic search results via their "universal search" strategy. They also promote select news sites directly via "universal search" in spite of how many of those newspapers complaining about allegedly getting a raw deal.

Indirect Unofficial Partnerships With Thieves

Google strategically undermines copyright, but not just in the way that guys like Rupert Murdock think. The way they *really* do it is through ranking whoever stole your content if you chose not to be indexed. Simply put, Google has partnered with virtually every online content thief (as needed) to force premium content providers to make their stuff available. Either you get credit for your work, or someone else does.

To quote Google's leaked internal review documents:

Lyrics, poems, ringtones (that the user programs rather than downloads), quotes, and proverbs have no central authority. When you see pages with this content, you cannot judge it to have been copied, and the pages should not be assigned a Spam label.

Unfortunately, some content is written specifically for Spam pages and you will not find it on another source. Although you may be convinced that the intent is to deceive, if the content makes sense and appears original, you will not be able to label such pages Spam.

If you brand something and build up perceived value and demand for it Google will offer customers "solutions."

Google further harms intellectual property holders by recommending search suggestions, and not cleansing the suggestions of illegal activities. 70% of the population doesn't care that much that 30% of the population is involved with music or software piracy, but when they conduct a Google search for "Stylewriter" and see that the some of the most popular searches for that software program are torrents then that adds social proof of value to the concept of stealing (and distributing) that copyright software. That forces publishers to offer a free trial download, or lose out on the opportunity to engage with many potential customers intercepted and misdirected by Google.

Offer Matching

Google's ad network is optimized to agnostically maximize earnings. Earnings are often optimized through the promotion of scams, fraud, and offers with hidden costs in them. Machines do an excellent job of maximizing earnings, in large part because machines have no morals.

A month ago the Google public relations team lied about cleaning up the scammy reverse billing fraud government grant ads that were polluting the web via AdWords and AdSense

"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."

In spite of allegedly being handled a month ago, those scam ads (Google's words, not mine) are still on Google today!

In spite of such scams in broad daylight, how often do you here of the dark arts of AdWords?

If you look at their video game patents they want to go so far as understanding personality flaws and character weaknesses such that they can target ads against them.

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.

What might behavioral ads target at your flaws? How much could that cost you in your lifetime?

The Media Manipulates the Media for Profit

Shaping News to Generate Favorable Public Policy

In the following video Rupert Murdock mentions that he attempts to shape the news to promote some of his goal and promote things like the bogus war in Iraq.

Such "free" media campaigns had a hidden cost of about a trillion dollars and thousands of lives.

In spite of such scams in broad daylight, how often do you here of the dark arts of mainstream media?

Ads as Content

About a year ago I remember seeing a local Fox News affiliate site in Google News, and when I clicked into the "news" article, the page was actually nothing but a lead generation form. :)

Have you looked at WebMD recently? Look at how the line between ads and content has vanished with custom "sponsored content" sections published on their site. If you didn't look closely you would think that this webmd.com/learning-manage-depression/ was editorial content. As many bad health practices as there are, it is quite scary to think of all the bad health practices still practiced, and how filtered public health information is.

Shady pharmaceutical advertising is getting so bad that the FDA is warning about it.

SEO Manipulates the Media for Profit

SEO = Dark Arts

From the Forbes.com article that forced me to write this entry:

Sites like WSJ.com rely on Google to send them readers, working hard to game how they appear on Google through the dark arts of search engine optimization

If the media is employing the tactics and seeing results then why are they still using that stupid dark arts lens to describe SEO? Even Forbes.com is selling text links to pass PageRank (example pictured below).

Forbes.com = the Darth Vader of SEO

Forbes has worked with at least 3 different SEO firms, has hosted many high profit doorway pages, blatantly violate search engine guidelines by selling links to drive PageRank, and yet they still call SEO "dark arts" as though it is some type of voodoo.

How ignorant can a reporter be of why his job is going away and why their employer can not compete? If you were a reporter by trade, wouldn't there be a mite of curiosity that causes you to actually research what you are writing about, especially if it involved your own job security?

What can we do to cure reporters of their SEO ignorance?

Amazon Cans PPC Affiliates

Via an email to affiliates, Amazon.com announced they are scaling back their associates program in North America by disallowing direct linking from paid search results:

After careful review of how we are investing our advertising resources, we have made the decision to no longer pay referral fees to Associates who send users to www.amazon.com, www.amazon.ca, or www.endless.com through keyword bidding and other paid search on Google, Yahoo, MSN, and other search engines, and their extended search networks. If you're not sure if this change affects you, please visit this page for FAQs.

As of May 1, 2009, Associates will not be paid referral fees for paid search traffic. Also, in connection with this change, as of May 1, 2009, Amazon will no longer make data feeds available to Associates for the purpose of sending users to the Amazon websites in the US or Canada via paid search.

As the paid search market has matured and competitive research tools have improved the value of using affiliates for discovering new keywords has been sharply reduced. Other merchants will follow Amazon's lead. Some might wait for the economy to pick up first, but the fact that Amazon is trimming this in a down market (recession/possible depression) shows how little they feel they benefit from affiliate arbitrage of paid search results.

Yet another reason to find SEO based affiliate work more stable than PPC affiliate efforts. Any PPC-based affiliate that is sick of having to rebuild from the ground up over and over again would be smart to (and is welcome to) taking the enlightened path :)

Secret Matt Cutts Video Unveiled

Proven Instant Automatic Wealth Attraction Secrets - Autopilot Cash

Everywhere you look on the internet, there are people who try to convince you that marketing success can be reduced to a formula.

Get rich quick ebooks are a classic example. Hand over $97, follow the guaranteed steps, and you'll get the exact results the author claims. Yes, you, too, will be able to hold up a huge, comedy check, featuring lots of zeros!

SEO forums are filled with questions that presume prescriptive answers: "what keyword density should I use?", "How many links do I need to rank #1?" "How many words should I have on a page?" "How many outbound links are too many? "

Unfortunately, a successful internet business can't be reduced to a simple, paint-by-numbers prescription. If it could, those e-books would be selling for a lot more money, and nobody would be giving away tips in forums.

Paint-by-numbers marketing produces a facsimile of where someone has already been, but the market has long since moved on.

Take A Holistic Approach

The way to approach internet marketing is to do so in a holistic manner.

Once you understand the underlying philosophy of various tactics and strategies, you'll be more likely to apply them successfully, and adapt them to devise new strategies.

There are underlying patterns common to the most successful sites. Once you identify and and internalize these patterns, you can easily out-maneuver any competitors who may be locked into a more inflexible, prescriptive approach.

Bad Artists Borrow, Great Artists Steal

That quote is often attributed to Pablo Picasso. What I suspect he was getting at is that bad artists copy surface techniques. Great artists, on the other hand, get inside an idea. They internalize it. Then they innovate to produce something genuinely new.

For example, many people will advise you to start a blog.

Whilst that might have been an attention-getting idea in 2001, starting a blog today isn't worth remarking upon. Blogs generated a lot of attention early on because they provided an easy way for people to become citizen journalists, and the writing style was somewhat new, at least in when compared to conventional journalism.

Blogging used the personal voice of the opinions pages, as opposed to impersonal voice to the reporting pages. Blogs also provided immediacy in the days before Google News. Twitter has now leap-frogged blogs and news outlets to provide that very function.

These days, the biggest sites on the internet use nothing but the personal voice i.e Twitter, Facebook etc - and the barriers to producing content are very low. Anyone can publish web content. So the blogging Cluetrain has long since left the station.

Instead of copying the format - the surface - try to provide the type of information people want. That's where the idea for blogs came from. That's where newspapers came from. They solved an information problem for people.

One trend right now is social networking, but this results in a shallow surface of unreliable information. There is a growing flight to quality information, which people will pay to read. Some of the best information on the web is now being locked up behind pay walls.

Ask yourself the fundamental questions. What need is your site serving? Is that need changing? Where will your sites audience be in six months or a years time?

That's where you should aim now.

The future is where Google focuses their efforts:

We started with the early-adopter crowd. That was on purpose. We wanted to build a product for people who were getting hundreds of e-mails a day, because we believe by focusing on the power user, you're designing the product the rest of the market will want in a couple years when everyone's usage habits catch up to the most active users.

Barrier To Entry

When some guru tells you "a secret" - i.e. to get into mobile ring tones - he's safe in the knowledge the area is already saturated and he has moved on.

Once you see that sort of information published in the public domain, it's too late. The horse has bolted. But he will still tell you the market is ripe and that you should sign up under his affiliate link. Even if you lose money he still profits from your efforts. You are the key ingredient of their wealth generation formula, you just don't know it yet. ;)

One good way to evaluate the worth of such prescriptions is to evaluate the barrier to entry. A barrier to entry is some condition that makes it difficult for late entrants to enter a market. An example of a barrier to entry would be, say, the start-up cost of an airline. The capital investment required is significant, which disqualifies most of us ever starting one.

On the internet, if anyone can copy a technique cheaply and easily, then it almost certainly won't work. Once a technique is out there, too many people will copy it, which dilutes the market to the point where it fast becomes uneconomic. Do you think starting a blog today and running Adsense on it will make you money? It might, but it will also require a lot of work, luck and a significant point of difference. Without those fundamentals, it will remain unread, and is highly unlikely to make money.

So look for areas that have a barrier to entry. Do you have an established brand you can leverage? Can you partner with someone who does? Can you spot a niche where none of the players are spending much? What happens if you throw some money at it? Do you have a means of grabbing attention that other people don't have?

What is your point of difference? And can you make it defensible?

Steal A Business Plan, Apply It To A Different Niche

In the financial world, investment firms often use forensic accountants to deconstruct the tactics and strategies of their competitors.

One famous example is Harry Markopolus, who worked out that Bernie Madoff was running a Ponzi scheme. Markopolus bosses wanted to learn how they could match Madoff's double-digit returns. He was assigned to deconstruct Madoff's strategy to see if he could replicate it.

If you've found a new niche, try applying a model that has already proved to be successful in another niche. Deconstruct the features, tactics and philosophies of the successful site, and either go head to head, or even better, apply those same strategies to a new niche.

For example, one characteristic common to many successful sites is that they were first movers. They were in the niche early enough to command attention simply by existing. Can you slice the niche you're in even finer in order to be seen as a first mover?

You could also try the same idea in different geographic locations. TradeMe is a New Zealand version of Ebay. New Zealand is a tiny market, but TradeMe recently sold for $700 million, mainly because it was a big fish in a small pond. The business idea was the same proven idea as Ebay, simply applied to a different regional niche.

Show Leadership & Connect People

As Seth Godin notes, what works today is leading:

Leading a (relatively) small group of people. Taking them somewhere they'd like to go. Connecting them to one another....a tiny sliver of the market is enough. Bill Niman used to run Niman Ranch, a cooperative raising meat for fancy restaurants and markets. That was already a sliver of the huge huge market for meat. He moved on to start BN, a 1000 acre farm raising goats for a subset of that subset. It's enough. It's enough if the tribe you lead knows about you and cares about you and wants to follow you.....go down the list of online success stories. The big winners are organizations that give tribes of people a platform to connect.....People want to connect. They want you to do the connecting.

If you look around the search niche, you'll find the biggest sites have very clear leadership. These sites also serve as connectors for the community. The least significant search blogs follow others and repeat information. But the audience doesn't want that. Someone who follows the followers isn't valuable to them.

You don't need to pull in a big community, you simply need to lead whatever niche you happen to be in. Look for ways you can carve out you own leadership niche, then connect people within that niche.

People want to be led. They want someone to follow.

What can you teach others? What can you help them to do? How can you connect them to each other?

If You Don't Rank, Did You Fail?

There's a great Nike commercial starring Michael Jordan.

I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed

How many SEO goals are aimed at winning the battle, and not the war?

Rankings vs Profits

One of the big mistakes those new to SEO make is to focus too much attention on rankings. It's easy to see why, as rankings provide such an obvious scorecard. You either rank or you don't.

The trouble is, rankings are seldom an appropriate measure of success, just as Michael Jordan shooting or missing an easy shot doesn't make him a success or a failure.

For example, I recently saw a comment on a leading SEO site whereby the commenter chastised the site owner for not appearing top ten for the phrase "search engine optimization". As far as the commenter was concerned, this meant the SEO was a failure at SEO, because he didn't rank for that industry-defining phrase.

What the commenter failed to grasp, of course, was the big picture.

What is Your Primary Objective?

I would estimate the site in question receives 100s of thousands of visitors, and that their business model delivers significant revenue. The fact they don't rank for the phrase "search engine optimization" is pretty much irrelevant in terms of their primary objective, which is to make money.

Secondly, the term "search engine optimization" isn't the prize some might imagine. The people who use the term "search engine optimization" may well be optimizers, not potential customers. That's fine if your target market is other SEOs, but not if you're selling services to customers.

Thirdly, you would need to put a lot of effort into ranking for such a term, and you'd have to question whether it would ever pay off. Contrast this with the effort required to rank well for a wide range of related keyword terms that, when aggregated, produce more highly targeted traffic than "Search engine optimization" ever would. This site may well have lost the ranking battle for that keyword term, but they're probably winning the war.

Business is About Making Money

The guy who focuses too much on ranking as an end goal will ultimately fail, because ranking is not a business goal. This is not to say rankings aren't important - a number one ranking for a lucrative term is worth a lot of money - but if the ranking isn't tied into your business goals, then how do you really know if you're succeeding or not?

Michael Jordan's is probably the greatest basketball player of all time. The greatest SEO of all time probably doesn't care that much about rankings day to day, s/he probably cares about the overall goal, which is almost always to make money.

What an Online Business Needs to Succeed

There's an interview here with Shoemoney where he talks about the three things an internet business needs to work:

  • Has To Make Money
  • Has To Grow Virally
  • Provides A Needed Service

Note that those goals are all business orientated. He doesn't say rank well, or get the most traffic, or appear in Technorati's Top 100. Those aspects might be part of a strategy, but if those are an SEOs end goals, then they're probably not going to be in the internet game very long.

Creating Engagement

That second point is one often overlooked by SEOs. If you rank well, and get traffic, and that traffic only engages with you once, then does that really support your business goals? Someone who visits once and leaves is not nearly as valuable as the visitor who returns often, or helps spread the word about you. Does you strategy focus on achieving that very valuable outcome?

Consider the value of an average site visitor to this site versus a person who subscribes to the RSS feed, sets up a user account, installs our SEO tools in their browser, and hopefully becomes a premium member. The average visitor comes and goes - thousands of them, every single day. Most of them are worthless to our business objectives, but those who commit to repeated engagement generate word of mouth marketing and are more likely to become customers. We give our visitors about a half dozen ways to engage with us. The increased engagement builds trust. That leads to subscriptions, and anytime we have an important announcement, we know over 100,000 people will see it.

In the book "The Dip", by Seth Godin, Seth offers some practical suggestions on how you can turn failure to your advantage. Just as Michael Jordan probably learned a lot from the shots he missed, so can we by redefining failure as an inevitable part of success.

when you see failure as a learning event, not a destination, it makes you smarter, faster

In this interview, Seth illustrates how big companies can focus on the wrong (expensive) battles, and lose the war:

Here's an easy one—Bud TV. They've spent more than $40 million on it so far, yet if we look at their traffic numbers they do worse than a site on sheet rubber sales. What happened? Budweiser had a top down, we-speak-to-the-public mindset when it comes to commercials. They buy Super Bowl commercials for $2 million or $3 million each because they can. Bud TV was all about "let's send messages straight to consumers." Hold that up next to YouTube, which was built from the ground up around individuals sharing with each other, and Bud TV lost. Wouldn't it have been better if they had just embraced YouTube and used it for what it was good at, rather than trying to build their own channel and invent their own form of new media?

We Have Failed, Just Like Bud

Not every site we launch is profitable. Sometimes we start a site and then realize we lack the passion to go through with it, other times major algorithm shifts and/or competitors shifting strategies have made sites heavily reliant on certain models/ideas/strategies no longer profitable.

The beauty of failure online is that it costs almost nothing to leave a failed website running, and you can always come back to it later, or use it nepotistically to help make it pay for itself. If you lose $10,000 on building a website then it only needs to about 3 years for it to pay for itself if it makes $10 a day - and less time if you are using it nepotistically. How much does it cost to rent a good link from the clean parts of the web?

And that leads to one of the best tips in the SEO space. If you are successful somewhere, try to work related markets such that you can take best practice knowledge to make your future projects much more successful. You are better off dominating a market than being an average to slightly below average playing in a dozen markets.

And we have sites that have worked far better than expected. Tools like SEO for Firefox give you a good idea of roughly how competitive a market is, but it is hard to know what lucky breaks you will get or be 100% certain you will rank a brand new site in a competitive market. Strategy and experience increase your odds of success, but algorithms can and do change. Take what the search engines give you and keep doing what is working. Sometimes that means buying a site they already like. Don't hate Google, simply create (and replicate) what they want.

What Are Your Goals? Why?

Constantly re-evaluate your marketing strategy to see if it is leading you towards winning the battle, but losing the war.

What are you measures of success and failure in terms of SEO? What are you measuring, and how?

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