Google to Clone LendingTree?

Does brand matter? That seems to be a question Google wants to challenge. Eric Schmidt offers quotes like "brands are how you sort out the cesspool". Google's search algorithms this year have put more weight on domain authority (which is often associated with brands).

But while Google is telling everyone else to build a brand, Google might be looking to compete head on with brands in many large verticals. According to the NYT:

“LendingTree recently learned that Google imminently plans to launch a loan aggregation service in late August or early September of this year that would compete with LendingTree,” the complaint says. “Lending Tree has also learned that Mortech intends to make its pricing engine services available for use with Google’s new service and will send information related to mortgage loan offers to be displayed to consumer on Google’s Web site.”

The complaint further says that LendingTree has obtained screen shots of a trial version of Google’s service that further indicate that it plans to “provide customers with conditional loan offers in addition to lenders’ contact information.”

Google made a similar test in the UK last year. This is just more reason to develop longtail content and try to build distribution channels outside of search. It seems if you are too successful with search Google may do some self-serving to compete directly against you.

And We're Full!

When I launched the membership site about a year ago I decided to set a membership limit at 1,000. Recently we have been getting a lot of word of mouth marketing and our growth rate has surged beyond my wildest expectations. We recently raised our price to try to curb growth, but promotion associated with that caused another rush of sign ups and even after we raised our price we did not see any slowing down on new subscribers. We reached our capacity and are closing off new premium memberships for a while.

Ironic that success creates a host of other issues, but I care too much and work too long. And I don't want to lower the quality of our customer interaction and customer service to scale it to the moon. Recently I watched some TED videos about career crisis and motivation. One of the most ressonating quotes was Alain de Botton's "You can be successful at everything. We hear a lot of talk about work/life balance - nonsense. You can't have it all. So any vision of success has to admit what it is losing out on." It's so obvious to read that...but I certainly needed to hear it. ;)

In the worst recession in 80 years (perhaps a depression) I am not asking anyone to cry me a river for getting too much business. It is a problem most people would love to have. But we are drowning in opportunity with our other sites doing great and this site growing a bit quicker than I was planning on. Since opening I have made over 15,000 posts in the forums, and the rate of posting has only increased as our membership has risen. Just a couple months ago I was at ~ 12,000 posts.

As I have poured myself into this site we built a community I am proud of, but am falling behind on some other fronts - this week I was late writing a guest column for another site, I have 1,000+ emails in my inbox, and I have grown far too chubby (as seen in recent videos).

Our current customers will keep getting the same great customer service they have been, but I just turned off new paid submissions so I can lighten the load for a while. It is hard to justify letting my health slide to earn a bit more when so much of the earnings just get handed over to corrupt bankers. If I earn a lot but die young I can't really count that as getting ahead. Well I guess I could, but I don't want to. ;)

If you would like to be notified of when we have some capacity again please sign up for a free basic account (you get a bunch of cool bonuses) and I will let you know when we are open to new customers again!

Thanks for reading and thanks for your help in building this site into a strong well known brand with so many loyal customers! :)

Oh, and here are some last minute keyword tips!

There Is More To Optimization Than SEO

What is the purpose of that new page you're adding to your site?

Is it to rank highly for a keyword term? That's half the battle won, of course :)

After the visitor has arrived on your page, what do you want the visitor to do next?

According to Seth Godin, you probably want a visitor to do one of five things:

  • Click to go to another page on your site
  • Buy something
  • Register for something
  • Click on/view advertising
  • Pass your message on to a friend

So, if you build a landing page, and you're going to invest time and money to get people to visit it, it makes sense to optimize that page to accomplish just one of the things above. Perhaps two, but no more.

Keep that desired action firmly in mind when you design and optimize your pages. The first rule of optimization is to optimize for humans. Ranking a page, only to have visitors click away, is a waste of time and effort.

Optimize For Focus

In the SEOBook Forums, we offer site reviews as a service to members.

We often see sites where it isn't clear what they visitor needs to do. This is usually caused by too many options presented on one page. By trying to please all audiences, we often end up pleasing nobody.

Decide the key action you want people to take, and relegate all other options. Either move some options to a different page, or reduce the visual weight of other options relative to the main action you want a visitor to take.

Here's a great example of a site where the one key action is in clear focus:

An exception to this rule is when the user is very familiar with the site. A lack of options often means too many clicks to get things done. However, if your page is focused on the first time searcher, then simplicity and clarity is the way to go.

Visual Focus

Do you know where people's eyes focus when they land on your site?

Check out this tool at FenGui. The tool tries to work out how people will visually scan your site. Some web statistics packages, such as Google Analytics and ClickTracks, provide visual click tracking based on user activity.

Before deciding on a template for your site, it is a good idea to test out your ideas using PPC. Knock up a few different designs, run a short campaign and use split/run testing to determine which page layout result in the user taking the desired action most often. Armed with this information, you're less likely to waste time in your SEO campaign.

Design Considerations

There are few hard and fast rules when it comes to web design, because each element you add will affect what is already there. Or not there.

However, a few factors remain constant:

  • The eye will be attracted to color blocks
  • The eye will be attracted to human faces or forms
  • Whitespace promotes readability - keep paragraphs short, use headings and bulletpoints

Make sure all visual elements underscore the desired action.

Where Web Design/ SEO Often Goes Wrong

The success of a page should be measured by one criteria:

Does the visitor do what you want them to do?

Often, other criteria will blur this vision. For example, a designer who is more interested in winning awards than ensuring your pages do what they should, may make a page pretty, but sometimes pretty doesn't result in a desired action. An SEO can sometimes be overzealous in terms of keyword usage, which can result in dense text and odd-phrasing, which has the potential to put visitors off.

There is little point putting a lot of effort into attracting visitors if they don't do what you want them to do.

A Word About Adsense

Positioning of adsense can be the difference between making pocketmoney and making a living. Look at Adsense as a visual element, as opposed to a block of text. Typography and text layout are design elements, every bit as much as graphics.

Are your eyes drawn to Adsense as you scan the page? If not, you may need to tone down other visual display elements, including color, to make Adsense Ads stand out. If Adsense is the way you monetize, the desired user action is the click. Are other elements on your page, be they links or graphics, competing for that click?

Interview With Paul Sloan

Paul Sloan has been a good friend of mine who has worked in journalism far longer than I have been an SEO. In this interview we discussed journalism, marketing, and public relations.

You have been a journalist for a wide array of publications. How would you describe the differences between the various journalistic roles you have played at the various companies you have worked for?

Let’s start with the obvious: Journalism is in major upheaval and how it all shakes out is anyone’s guess. Here’s what I am certain of: The broader economy will rebound and the business of journalism will not. Traditional media -- by that I mean print newspapers and magazines -- were struggling before the general economy fell into this deep recession and no miracle will return them to their pre-Web glory. To which I say, thank goodness.
People working at newspapers are bemoaning the death of journalism. That’s just not the case. The business models are dying, or at least they’re very sick. But journalism is alive and evolving at an incredible pace. Look at the places I have worked -- CNN, Bloomberg, Fortune Magazine, Business 2.0, The Chicago Tribune, U.S. News & World Report . One is dead (Business 2.0), two probably should be dead (Fortune and U.S. News) and one, The Tribune, is bankrupt.

Sure it’s rough, but it’s exciting and opportunities are emerging at a fast pace. I’m still amazed that The New York Times, which held out forever before introducing color photographs to its pages, now has its reporters live blogging senate confirmation hearings and MacWorld keynotes. Makes the whole debate over color seems sort of silly.

The Web and blogosphere do a great job keeping biggies such as The New York Times on its toes--both watching over it for accuracy and keeping its reporters chasing stories. But for now, the Times, the Wall Street Journal and a few others are still super influential. So, naturally, plenty of businesses and startups want the coverage in the established media.

As a journalist, what do you look for most when considering a topic to write about and an angle to write from?

The number one thing I’ve always looked for is surprise. A predictable story is a dull story. And I love story, narrative. So I look for people. Too many reporters, especially tech reporters, just write about the technologies. That’s fine for blog posts, but often behind technologies exist stories of persistence or controversy that humanize a story and make it memorable.

You wrote about a wide range of business and start up ideas in your Playing the Angles. How do you come up with story topic ideas?

Funny you bring that up. I thought doing that column was sort of silly idea when my boss at the time Josh Quittner asked me to do it, but I really got into it and it became quite popular. The way I found topics was old-fashioned reporting: Calling around and talking to all sorts of people doing things that seemed interesting and instructive. Make enough calls and eventually you land on something surprising and compelling. I enjoyed it because it was about real people -- individuals figuring out creative ways to make money, usually on the Web.

That column died with Business 2.0, but to this day I get email from people asking about things I wrote about in those columns. So I recently decided to create a Website about entrepreneurs large and small. I was surprised, but was available, so I registered the name and we just launched it!

How often did/does your story and angle change drastically while researching it?

That can happen a lot. Good reporters -- and, more importantly, good editors -- know that stories change as you gather facts. Everyone goes into a story with an angle in mind; it’s impossible not to. And bad reporters doggedly cling to that angle even when all evidence points them in another direction.

Does a person need to "know people" to get media coverage? What sets apart the coverage-worthy from those who are not?

If you want coverage about your business or idea or just you, sure, it helps to know people in the business. But if you’re doing something interesting, reporters are always looking for things to write about. Shooting off a well-crafted email is by no means a waste of time.

What should they put in the email? What is the right amount of information? When is it too much information?

The main mistake people make is to oversell an idea, or a client. It's always better to be honest. You might be better off saying to a reporter something like, This idea might make a good little item, or maybe it could be part of a round up about others doing similar things. Too often people call to persuade you that their story is a really big story. In my experience, that's never the case. Tell me how big it is and my eyes are rolling.

Write a brief email brief and keep it in check with reality. Know something about the reporter so you can appeal to his or her interests or areas of coverage. (Yes, I’ve received many emails addressed to other people or to me but the wrong news organization). And ask to setup a quick call or meeting as a way of getting-to-know each other. If someone calls and says, I'd like you to meet so and so because you write a lot about digital music and my client has been involved in three music ventures, then I'm sold. Those meetings don't always lead to stories, but they're time well spent for both sides because the next time I'm writing about digital music, the chances are good that I will call that person. And then when you want to pitch a specific idea for a story, you will have a relationship with that reporter.

When you are looking into the background or credibility of a source what are key signs that make you comfortable trusting someone? What makes you feel a person is underqualified and/or not trustworthy?

That all depends on the type of story. I’ve had the experience of believing someone completely and finding out years later that that person was looking me in the eyes and lying. Unfortunately, lying is part of drill, especially among business and in business journalism. All you can do is trust your gut, double and triple check everything, talk to as many people as possible, and, when it makes sense, verify claims with numbers and data. In the get-it-out-now pace of today, I constantly see numbers tossed out by companies and taken as fact.

Did you ever end up writing a story that you later regretted writing? If so, did it create new filters for your future writing?

Anyone who’s written a story about a companies has regrets. These are not he said, she said, stories. I’m talking about the stories that go out on a limb and say something like, Why So and So is the Smartest CEO on the Planet. And then, low and behold, that CEO looses his job a month later. Fortunately, that’s never happened to me. But there are plenty of examples of this from the past year.

Marc Andreesseen, who’s had his share of press coverage, beginning with the 1996 cover of Time Magazine where he posed barefoot, told me that early on he learned to keep the press coverage in perspective. I’m paraphrasing, but he said something like: “You’re never as smart as they say you are, and you’re never as dumb as they say you are.” Marc is certainly right about that. Magazines like Fortune want to run bold covers that say, The Smartest CEO blah blah blah... Those sell, or at least they used to. But everyone knows they’re complete hyperbole.

Some of your stories have spread all over the web while others were less received. What do you feel separates the stories that spread from those that do not spread as far?

For starters, certain stories are naturals for setting the Web ablaze. At CNN, for example, they go out of their way to write about Apple because Apple has legions of fans who read anything and everything. People click, and CNN Money.Com makes money. It’s that simple. I wrote a couple of big stories about the domain world, and both of those were huge on the Web. It helped that they were surprising stories -- what? people are making money on domain names? Didn’t that end with the dot-com bust?. The second big piece, about Kevin Ham, spent a lot of time on AOL’s home page. These were discovery pieces in a way, and they had that lure to the reader that, hey, if these people can get so rich, you can too.

I started out at a newspaper in Anniston, Alabama, called The Anniston Star. I was always thrilled when readers wrote in about something I had written. Now, that feedback starts in minutes and can go on and on. I love that.

Did you ever like being pitched? If so, what was the best way to pitch you (and other journalists)?

This is a good question. I can count the number of stories I have written that began with a pitch on one hand, and they all have been little pieces that I did for the Web. The rule of thumb is that the good stories just don’t come from PR people. That said, there are no so many outlets for coverage and a limitless amount of space (the Internet vs. a newspaper or magazine), so PR people can be more successful.

Do you recommend hiring PR firms? What is the difference between good PR firms and bad ones, from a journalist's perspective?

I’ve been helping some startups deal with this lately. The mistakes that PR firms make are just unbelievable to me. I’ve taken meetings from PR people who know very little about their clients. If it’s a startup, they don’t know if it’s profitable, if it has venture backing or, if it doesn’t, who the main investors are. So my first piece of advice is make sure your PR firm knows the basics about you.

But here’s the other crime that PR people commit, and there’s just no excuse for it: They no nothing about the reporter they are pitching or what the reporter tends to write about. This often happens because PR agencies buy lists and start making cold calls. If you’re hiring people to do this, you’re wasting your money.

Even if the PR person isn’t working this way, it’s just inexcusable not to know something about the reporter you are calling. There’s this thing called Google. Surely you can use it before you pitch a story about digital music to someone who writes about banking.

These are just a few of the blunders that PR people routinely make.

What are some easy and affordable ways to appeal to media members? What are some of the most creative and best thought out things people did to get your attention (or the attention of your colleagues)?

Are you suggesting bribes? No one’s ever tried that on me, although people often try to buy dinner (I generally don’t let them) or fly me places (I would never allow).

When speaking to a media member should the person being interviewed research the background of the journalist? If so, what all should they look at?

Yes, yes, yes. As much a they can. They should read what that person has done, and get a sense of what interests that reporter.

As a popular blogger in a hot field I get many media enqueries and sometimes I get misquoted. What strategies should entreprenuers use when talking to the media to minimize the risk of misquotes?

Talk slowly and, if you’re really concerned, use a digital recorder. But you will get misquoted, the concern, I assume, is that you’re words and thoughts are getting misrepresented. Well, you’ve got a blog. So you can have your say. My friend Damon Darlin at the New York Times recently wrote a piece that was critical of the way some reporting takes place online. It was a fair column, it seemed to me, but one of the bloggers that Damon quoted, Techcrunch founder Mike Arrington wasn’t happy. TechCrunch has huge reach -- 7 million page views a month. And Mike, whom I also consider a friend, isn’t one to let matters die down. So he spoke up. The days of submitting a correction to the paper and hoping they run it are long over.

Who is the greatest guitarist of all time? Why?

Unanswerable question. The most underrated is Eddie Hazel, who was best known for his lead guitar work with Parliment Funkadelic. Soulful, biting and melodic at the same time. His playing on Red Hot Mama on Funkadelic’s Standing on the Verge of Getting it on is some of the tastiest and vicious guitar playing ever. This is a longer, live version:

How does writing a story compare with writing a guitar riff?

Bad writers often use too many words. Bad guitarists play too much, excluding genres such as metal that are all about notes and more notes.

A great guitar line, like a great piece of writing, has just the right blend of notes/words and rhythm.


Thanks Paul! Check out his new blog - Playing The Angles.

Source Code Validation > Common Sense

Website Validation = Important SEO Tip?

In April a web designer who came across our site gave me the following feedback "I don't know how you can advertise your skills in SEO when such a vital part of a good quality site is valid markup. Your homepage has 40 errors when I just checked."

To which I replied "...and yet I rank page 1 in Google for SEO. Who cares about valid code? Not me. And not Google. Oh well."

Imagine the paradox in the mind of a self-important web designer seeing high ranking sites that did not have perfect HTML. All he can do is lash out like a confused injured though he knew SEO and both I and Google were wrong.

Validation = Who Cares?

But looking at things in practical terms...

Question: What is validation?

Answer: How web designers try to justify over-charging for their work + pat each other on the back.

If you are a web designer (and/or want links from pretentious web designers) then validation is a great is core to the group circle-jerk amongst cool web designers. But for everyone else, it generally doesn't matter.

Taking a Look at Reality

The lack of understanding of basic SEO principals by web designers & web developers is a big part of what keeps SEOs in business.

One of the best ways to improve search relevancy is to use more data. But a September 2006 test by a Google engineer named Ian Hickson across billions of web pages showed that 93% of the pages did not use valid code. If valid code was rewarded by the algorithms (or invalid code was heavily penalized) then spammers would just use valid code, while search engines returned inferior search results because most quality websites do not validate. Google's Matt Cutts wrote:

Fellow Googler Ian Hickson contacted me with more recent numbers from a September 2006 survey that he did of several billion pages. Ian found the number of pages to be 78% if you ignore the two least critical errors, and 93% if you include those two errors. There isn’t a published report right now, but Ian has given those numbers out in public e-mail, so he said it was fine to mention the percentages.

These numbers pretty much put the nail in the coffin for the “Only return pages that are strictly correct” argument, because there wouldn’t be that many pages to work with. :) That said, if you can design and write your HTML code so that it’s well-formed and validates, it’s always a good habit to do so.

If I am paying a designer to make a custom web design for my site then I will demand clean code (in part so I can use it to score links from designers who care about that), but the truth is most sites do not validate. And few need to. Google doesn't, and they seem to be doing just fine.

When Web Design Has No Value

If a beautiful design gets no exposure then it has no value.
Traffic = opportunity.
No traffic = no opportunity.

When Web Design Has Value

If you have a big public relations driven launch then of course it makes sense to start off with a beautiful design. But most entrepreneurs can start out ugly and invest once capital starts rolling in. It worked for Google. And it worked for me. ;)

Once you have decent exposure great design can be worth a lot of money because it helps build trust, and increases your visitor value...allowing you to pay more for traffic and sell your products + services at a higher price point. But most small business sites can succeed with an average design and still be functional enough to get market feedback, sell stuff, build a customer base, and build a real business from. Eventually it might make sense to get a strong design, but if budget is limited then there are a ton of affordable starter options to bypass the costs of custom web design work.

Bootstrapped Design on the Cheap

The logo at the top of this page cost $99 about 5 years ago. When I color-matched the design to it this site was only moderately ugly. And the original site design we used was unbelievably ugly. Today the market is much more sophisticated with DIY design options.

Web design is being increasingly commoditized by tools & services like Dreamweaver, Artisteer, the Thesis Theme, other Wordpress themes, Themespress, open source designs, ThemeForest, iStockPhoto, logo software, 99Designs, PSD2HTML, etc.

As your budget/cash flow/traffic/reach increases paying extra for a good design makes sense & is a natural part of balancing your growth investment strategy.

LIE: "The SEO is in the Code"

What ***really*** annoys me about the arrogance of the web designers like the one quoted above is how they can know absolutely nothing about SEO and then claim that valid code is the key to SEO. It is a bogus lie used to promote their own trade at the expense of their clients.

Sure websites can have major issues that prevent a site from ranking. BUT the SEO is not just in the code. The whole reason Google was able to gain marketshare so fast was because they did sophisticated link analysis. If you are in a competitive market you need links to compete. Simple as that.

In 2004 I remember a web design firm quoting a new launching auto insurance firm (which wanted to buy SEO services) a design for $10,000 and then claiming that "the SEO was in the code" ... as though somehow there was no need for a link building/buying budget. The equivalently dishonest marketing angle would be an SEO grabbing a set of free web templates to go along with their SEO services and claim that everyone gets a free original professional custom website design as part of their SEO package.

Sure that was 2004 & that web design company was not as well known as it is today. And the above guy was just 1 random guy, so who cares, right? Well what annoyed me enough to make me write this post was seeing a recent copy of Web Designer magazine that my wife bought.

2009 Web Designer Magazine

In the top left of the magazine they advertise "TOP SEO TECHNIQUES"

And The Magazine Advertises SEO Circa 1998!!!

Their "top five tips for tackling SEO" include

  1. Choose one main keyword per page
  2. Increase the Keyword Density for each page
  3. HTML tags emphasis your keywords
  4. Include meta tags in your website
  5. Submit your website to major search engines

No mention of links. Why? The guy who wrote the article works for a company that has a business model built around offering cheap + useless services that scale - like keyword density analysis and search engine submission. I could do the same thing if I wanted to be a dishonest piece of trash, but I chose not to.

The article mentions some shoddy survey, that you can use their tools, and that "From only £100 a year, a company can implement a solution that will ensure much-improved rankings." They also flat out lied with this gem "Search engines expect the keyword or phrase on each webpage to make up six-to-ten percent of its content."

Equally Bad Website Design Tips

To apply the equivalent sort of advice to web design I would have to write truly useless design tips like

  1. set a large web design budget upwards of £100 a year
  2. spend ~ 100% of that budget by paying a designer to download an open source design they just got free
  3. if the site design fits your business then perfect
  4. if the site design looks ugly then it will stand out even more
  5. customers expect 6 to 10 percent of your text to be in a red marquee with a speed setting of 5

Many Web Designers Kick Ass

A lot of our best customers in our community are former web designers who got started doing design, but care about the success of their customers and began moving themselves up the value chain by offering web designs that come with real SEO services.

And you can learn a ton about not only web design but also marketing and running a business by reading tons of great web design blogs like Web Designer Wall, Smashing Magazine, and 37Signals.

But Some Web Designers Just Provide Azz Services, Though

But the web designers who lie about the importance of code validation for SEO and those scamming their customers with fake "in the code" SEO packages can go to hell as far as I am concerned.

May the bright colors light up their imaginations & help them become better charlatans who are excellent at optimizing valid code.

How To Buy SEO Services

You've launched your website. Everybody you show it to thinks that it is great. You're starting to get some traffic. You search Google for your site.

You can't find it anywhere.

If you've arrived at, chances are you're trying to solve that problem. Welcome to the world of SEO :)

SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. It is a process whereby websites can gain higher rankings in the search engines. If you find any of the terminology confusing, check out our SEO Glossary.

Can You Do It Yourself?

Of course! Here's how to do it for free.

Ensure that your pages are crawlable, and readable, by search engines. Make a list of around 20 keyword terms that relate to your topic, and write a page on each. Create a site map pointing to each page, and link all your pages to the site map. Finally, build links.

Also read:

Got some training budget? Well, we would recommend this training course - of course ;) Tells you all about SEO and internet marketing - and more - as well as providing personal support in the forums.

Should You Do It Yourself?

Like anything, doing it yourself requires a personal investment in terms of your time. It also requires a desire to dive into technical aspects of search engines and publishing on the web.

If you have neither the time nor the desire, there are many professional SEOs who can take care of the task for you.

How To Select An SEO Professional

Whilst there are training courses run by independent operators, there are no formal industry certifications for SEO providers.

The reason for this is that few SEOs agree on optimal process and practices. Secondly, the search engines have an uneasy relationship with SEO. This is mostly due to the fact SEO competes with the search engines click-driven business model, and overly-aggressive tactics used by some SEOs can degrade the quality of search results.

The way to judge SEO professionals isn't by any claimed qualifications. SEO professionals should be judged by their results. In the SEO world, talk is cheap.

What To Expect

An SEO will adapt content and links in an effort to get you more exposure in search engine results pages.

While it would be nice to be able to pay an SEO to get you a #1 ranking for a high trafficked term, forevermore, SEO doesn't work this way.

The search engines rank sites based on a number of criteria, and that criteria is a closely guarded secret. Secondly, even if SEOs did know the criteria, it may not help. For example, Google places weight on historical factors, such as links built up over a long period of time. These links may be very difficult to obtain.

The criteria is also in a state of flux. What worked a few years ago may not work now.

Typically, what an SEO will do is ensure your site is included in the search engine indexes. Some web design approaches make it impossible for search engines to index a site. The SEO will also tweak existing content, and add new content, with the aim of ranking pages for topic areas related to your business. This can be a hit and miss affair, but generally speaking, the more content you have on your site that the search engine is able to see, the more traffic you're likely to receive.

An SEO will also try and get links pointing to a site, as links are a big part of Google's ranking criteria. If you're feeling adventurous, here is the maths that lies behind Google.

Over time, you should expect search engine referrals from targeted visitors to rise after having implemented an SEO strategy.

What To Watch Out For

Poor Metrics/Illusion Of Action - Some SEOs use poor performance metrics, one of which is ranking.

If no-one searches on a particular phrase, then ranking for the phrase is pointless. It's the equivalent of putting up a sign in a desert, miles form the road - no one will see it. It is very easy to get a page to rank for a keyword term that has little competition. Mention the keyword phrase on your page somewhere, and it will likely rank.

Instead, consider defining performance goals based on your business metrics. Do you want more traffic from search engines? Do you want more conversions? Align these goals with your SEO goals. Ensure the terms you're ranking for translate into measurable business advantage.

Overly-Aggressive Tactics - the search engines take a dim view of aggressive tactics, which can result in a site ban. Whilst this is highly unlikely, it can happen. If you wish to remain cautious, then your SEO should stay within published search engine guidelines. There is an appeals process if your site is penalized, however this can take time.

This is largely a risk vs reward question. The reason some SEOs are aggressive is because it can get results when less aggressive techniques fail. This is not to say aggressive techniques will always work, or that less aggressive techniques won't. A lot depends on the site and the area in which you're competing.

Guarantees - there are no such thing as ranking guarantees, especially if they imply the SEO has control over the search engine results. They do not.

Carefully examine the terms of the guarantee. Worthwhile guarantees, as far as the client is concerned, are where the SEO promises to satisfy criteria based on measurable, business metrics.


For an indepth look at selecting an SEO provider, members can take a look at Aaron's "Buying SEO Services"

Google Adds Keyword Predictions to Search Insights Keyword Tool

Google recently upgraded their Insights for Search tool to include predicted keyword search volumes as well as interactive maps of how keyword search volume changes over time.

There are lots of business implications of the forecast data:

Having predictable trends for a search query or for a group of queries could have interesting ramifications. One could forecast the trends into the future, and use it as a "best guess" for various business decisions such as budget planning, marketing campaigns and resource allocations. One could identify deviation from such forecasting and identify new factors that are influencing the search volume as demonstrated in Flu Trends.

Some business categories are more predictable than other categories

  • Over half of the most popular Google search queries are predictable in a 12 month ahead forecast, with a mean absolute prediction error of about 12%.
  • Nearly half of the most popular queries are not predictable (with respect to the model we have used).
  • Some categories have particularly high fraction of predictable queries; for instance, Health (74%), Food & Drink (67%) and Travel (65%).
  • Some categories have particularly low fraction of predictable queries; for instance, Entertainment (35%) and Social Networks & Online Communities (27%).
  • The trends of aggregated queries per categories are much more predictable: 88% of the aggregated category search trends of over 600 categories in Insights for Search are predictable, with a mean absolute prediction error of of less than 6%.

If you were to launch a brand new business from scratch it might make sense to target a less predictable category since it would be more open to new market entrants & they would not appear on the radar of competitors as quickly.

And Google now make their Insights for Search charts embeddable in third party websites via iframes. :) Given that, I just added those data points to our keyword tool below the keyword data our tool returns, which is like having an instant second opinion on the keywords.

This allows you to instantly estimate the seasonality of a particular keyword. And if our search volume seems somewhat inflated and/or you are uncertain if it is accurate then you can look at the search volume graph for more data. If the keywords graph is quite spiky for a non-seasonal keyword (or if it has no data returned) then there is a good chance that there is a bit of noise in the data.

Fox News Blasts SEO

Fox News slammed SEO without even understanding what SEO is. On this slide from their Top Online Marketing Jobs to Leave You Friendless they cover SEO, and they do it with a typically Faux News sub-par form

Ever wonder why "nonsense" Web sites sometimes turn up in your search results on Google or Yahoo? That’s because search engine optimizing scammers work full-time to create thousands of other Web sites that link to the spam site. For example, the creator of is hoping to dupe would-be visitors to, a legitimate site that bills itself as an online security resource.

What is so idiotic about their example is it is a domain lander page, not even a site that has had any SEO practices done to it. Worse yet, the site consists of nothing but an ad feed from one of the search engines, so if that site is spam then so must be the search ads.

If you ever thought Fox News was real reporting then your political ideology trumps logic.

How is a slimy reporter who pushes fake news any more respectable than a marketer? The latter generally makes no claim to be unbiased, while the former prides themselves on lying through their teeth.

Worse yet, Fox has had an in-house SEO team for nearly as long as I have been in the SEO business, which is just one more layer demonstrating how shallow and worthless most of their reporting is. Faux News - worse than you thought!

I was just looking at the Fox News site (for literally 15 second) and guess what ad I saw? Yup the scammy reverse billing fraud fakevertising ads.

Who again is littering the web with scams Fox News? You are.

Update: Danny Sullivan did a follow up on this story. It turns out Fox News is using XML Sitemaps, robots.txt, meta description tags (which are all SEO tools). Further they are selling sitewide links that flow PageRank to advertiser websites. So if Fox News thinks SEO is a scam then they must hold themselves in low regard.

It would be nice to see Google ban Fox News for selling links, but they won't because...

  • Fox News is a big brand (and, allegedly, brands are how you sort out the cesspool)
  • Rupert Murdock is trying to lead publishers to do a bit of a revolt against Google (and Google does not want to give him any ammunition)
  • Google likes it when mainstream publishers write ignorant + poorly researched drivel attacking SEO because it helps lower the perceived value of quality SEO services and helps set in a market for lemons effect

The Pros & Cons Of The Affiliate Model

Are you making enough money from your website?

There are a number of ways to monetize a site. Aaron covers the options in extensive detail in the "Monetization" members area , however today we'll take a close look at just one aspect of monetization, Affiliate Marketing.

What Is Affiliate Marketing

Affiliate Marketing is a marketing method whereby one business rewards another business for sending customers, visitors and/or sales.

Mostly, affiliate marketing rewards come in the form of revenue share on a sale. Site A (the affiliate) funnels visitors to Site B (the merchant). If a transaction is completed by the merchant, the affiliate receives a commission on the sale. Do this numerous times a day in a high-margin area, such as loans, and both the affiliate and the merchant can make a lot of money.

Affiliate marketing is nothing new.

In the carpet markets in Turkey, you get pestered by salesmen whos job is to tempt you off the street and across the threshold of a carpet shop. He - its invariably a he - might get paid for bringing you to the door (the online equivalent is equivalent to cost-per-click), or, if you buy a carpet he receives a commission (cost per action). Or perhaps a mixture of the two.

The benefit to the merchant is that he doesn't have to pay the full time wages of the salesman, and he only pays him on performance. The benefit to the salesman is that he doesn't have to own a shop, carry merchandise, deal with transactions, or any of the other costs associated with running a carpet shop.


In 2006, MarketingSherpa estimated online affiliates worldwide earned US$6.5 billion in bounty and commissions

The Players & How It Works

The Affiliate Marketing industry consists of three core players:

  • The Merchant
  • The Affiliate
  • The Prospective Customer

As the affiliate model became big business, further levels emerged, including sub-affiliates and affiliate networks. We'll take a look at the role of the networks shortly.

The Pros Of Affiliate Marketing

Easy To Set-Up - You simply need to select a program, sign-up, add the tracking code to your site, and you're good to go.

Focus On Your Core Skills - If SEO is your key skill, you can focus 100% on rankings and traffic generation. You leave all the customer handling, sales, returns, legal issues and transactions to someone else.

You'll also be amongst esteemed company. The top affiliate marketers who use SEO to generate traffic typically rank amongst the highest-skilled SEOs. They live or die based solely on their ability to rank well in highly competitive areas.

Low Startup Costs - setting up commerce delivery online can require a lot of start-up investment. The affiliate need not invest anything other than some time. If one area doesn't work out, the affiliate can quickly move onto another area. The merchant has to too many sunk costs to do likewise.

Multiple Income Streams - once you've honed your sills in one area, you can apply them to any area you choose. There is no limit to the number of merchants you can work for, so you are free to develop multiple revenue streams. Some merchants will give you ongoing revenues based on customer activities, too.

Cons Of Affiliate Marketing

Low Level Of Control - Unless you have a close relationship with your merchant, you have little control over offers.

If their competitors are offering better services and/or lower prices, you can't counter unless the merchant changes their offer in line with the market. You're also pretty much stuck with the same standard offer available to every other affiliate you're competing against, making it difficult to differentiate.

There are exceptions.

Sometimes super affiliates - those affiliates who consistently put through high sales volumes - get offered special deals. It's unlikely you'll know what these deals are unless you become a super-affiliate. Some programs allow pricing control, but mostly, you're dealing with cookie cutter offers.

Customer Base Not Locked In - The merchant keeps the customer.

Typically, you deliver the customer, the merchant pays you a one-time commission, then that customer remains theirs for all subsequent purchases. The value of the merchants business increases the more customers they have.

As an affiliate, you don't tend to have lock-in on the customer. Some affiliate deals offer you on-going revenue, however.

High Competition - One of the pros of affiliate marketing is that is is easy to sign up and get started.

This is also a negative.

If it is easy for you to sign up, then it is easy for everyone to do likewise. There are new affiliate hordes arriving each and every day. The incentive for the merchant and affiliate network is to sign on as many performing affiliates as they can, so they don't really care if you face ever increasing levels of competition.

This is why top affiliates look for private deals. More on this shortly.

PS: As I stated above, you'll be amongst esteemed company. The top affiliate marketers who use SEO to generate traffic are typically very highly-skilled SEOs. They live or die based solely on their ability to rank well in highly competitive areas. These people will also be your competitors :)

Pay On Performance - This is a great option for the merchant. They only pay when they sell something. What this does is transfer all the advertising risk to you.

You may spend weeks or months on SEO and make no sales. This might not even be your fault. You get great rankings and traffic, but the merchant has an uncompetitive offer, or loses customers at the point of sale.

Middlemen - As the affiliate area has grown, so too have the number of middlemen.

The biggest middleman in the chain is the affiliate network. The affiliate network is the go-between linking the merchants with the affiliates. Commission Junction is one example.

The network often provides valuable reporting tools and tracking, as well as affiliate and merchant support. Of course, all this costs money and places an additional layer between the affiliate and the merchant. Whilst the network may provide benefits in terms of reporting and support, it also reduces the level of control and contact the affiliate has with the merchant.

Limited Growth Potential - Because you can't lock in your customers or adapt deals to suit changing market conditions, growth potential is limited. Like the carpet salesman, you rely on a new stream of visitors each and every day with no way to grow what you do, other than by adding sub-affiliates.

There is a solution to many of these problems, however.

Direct Partnerships

There are many affiliates making very good money following the model I have outlined above.

However, as affiliates get more and more successful, they often look to partner direct with merchants. This way, they cut out the middlemen - leaving more profit for the affiliate - and gain a closer relationship with the merchant.

Some affiliates structure the entire deal, and take a percentage of the merchants earnings over time. Whilst this approach requires upfront organization, the long term payoffs can be huge compared to the traditional network-driven affiliate model.

But how do you do it?

First, you need to look at areas where there is high returns and low levels of competition.

Make a list of merchants who have a web presence in your chosen area and have the ability to take online orders or inquiries. Approach these merchants directly. It's a good idea if you can demonstrate potential traffic levels and sales, so come armed with this information.

Look to sign up exclusively i.e. you're the only affiliate working with them. Also try to get a cut of ongoing revenue i.e. if the customers becomes a repeat customer, you receive repeat commissions. The bonus to the merchant is that you're a salesman willing to work on a commission basis. There is little risk involved for the merchant, and most will be only too happy to at least consider your proposition.

These types of deals require a high deal of trust and transparency, so it's unlikely you'll get everything you want right away. Suggest a trial run to prove your worth, then negotiate favorable terms once you've proved yourself. If the merchant turns you down at that point, then you simply go to his/her competition, with your accumulated data, and make the same offer.

This way, you should be able to build up a private label affiliate system. You can bring on your own hand-picked sub affiliates to work with you, too, and if you've selected your market correctly, you should face little or no competition. As you have a close, direct relationship with the merchant, you can work on structuring product and service offerings that remain competitive. It becomes more of a partnership that can be nurtured and made valuable over time.

Some of the biggest money-making affiliate opportunities you'll never hear about.

That's because they involve private label deals.

Google Caffeine

Just before last week's SES conference Google announced the launch of their new caffeine infrastructure:

For the last several months, a large team of Googlers has been working on a secret project: a next-generation architecture for Google's web search. It's the first step in a process that will let us push the envelope on size, indexing speed, accuracy, comprehensiveness and other dimensions. The new infrastructure sits "under the hood" of Google's search engine, which means that most users won't notice a difference in search results. But web developers and power searchers might notice a few differences, so we're opening up a web developer preview to collect feedback.

In the new infrastructure so far I think there is...

  • an increased weighting on domain authority & some authoritative tag type pages ranking (like Technorati tag pages + Facebook tag pages), as well as pages on sites like Scribd ranking for some long tail queries based mostly on domain authority and sorta spammy on page text
  • perhaps slightly more weight on exact match domain names
  • perhaps a bit better understanding of related words / synonyms
  • tuning down some of the exposure for video & some universal search results

You can check out the new results here and offers side by side comparisons of new Google + old Google - similar to the recent blind search service which compared Google, Yahoo!, & Bing results.

As highlighted by Matt Cutts, the aim of the infrastructure change is to allow further evolution of if you analyze the results a bunch now then what you are aiming for might look quite different than the search results which appear in November.

An article in The Register offers background info on Google Caffeine, and additional analysis has been done by David Naylor and Bill Hartzer.

This WMW thread mentions some relevant background on Google's approach to storage. In his post on the update John Andrews mentioned how smaller chunking of data could allow the algorithms to make SEO more challenging (or at least more holistic):

Smaller chunks means faster SERP generation…. and possibly more specific quality management (smaller more specific binning of URLs if desired) How this plays out for SEO is interesting now… and especially whether or not we will be able to influence various aspects independently from the whole.

The ROI on effective SEO campaigns is simply unbelievable, and Google is going to do everything in their power to diminish the ROI of algorithmically focused optimization efforts. As the cost of memory drops and the algorithms improve, the next couple years might separate the men from the boys in the SEO space. Those improvements will drive many SEO practitioners into parallel fields like niche publishing and public relations. 5 years ago was the perfect time to start building your empire. But starting today is far better than starting tomorrow.

Hanging Out At Established Places

In 2009, Google places a lot of trust in authority.

Authority, in terms of ranking, typically means "an established site with a high number of inbound links from authoritative sources".

Ranking might also have something to do with a sites popularity. And the usage patterns. And various other signals of "establishment" known only to the Google alchemists.

Whatever way you look at it, a new site is difficult to get ranked in competitive keyword areas.

So what are you to do while you're waiting for your authority signals to build?

Way, Way Off Site SEO Tactics

Consider placing content on established sites.

There are a number of reasons why you might do this, including increased exposure, the obvious back-link advantages, and the kudos that comes with appearing on a high profile site. Compare the effort of writing one killer article for a high profile site, with - say - begging other webmasters for links. The effort may be comparable, but the rewards of following the former path can be significantly higher.

Even if you get no link value from content placement, at very least you'll get your name seen. This can lead to people seeking you out, whether you rank or not. We'll look deeper into branding aspects shortly.

Piggy Back

Try putting up a page on, Squidoo, HubPages, Knol and any other established sites that allow user contribution. This also provides a testing ground to see if the keywords you have chosen are worth ranking for, before you attempt to rank for the same keywords on your own site.

Are you good with video? Make a few video's and place them on YouTube.

Win Friends And Influence People

A good, meaty reply to a popular blog post can garner you a lot of attention, particularly from the webmaster who runs the site.

Because webmasters deal with constant spam and low quality contributions, a well-considered comment from a new writer will really stand out. The webmaster may follow your link back to see where that great comment came from. You're now on their radar, which increases your likelihood of getting a mention.

Make sure you already have similarly high quality content on your own site that is link worthy. BTW, I follow every comment left on my SEOBook posts, and find it a great way to learn about what other webmasters are doing. Lurkers never appear on radars.

Q&A sites, such as Yahoo Answers, WikiAnswers, and LinkedIn Answers, often have well-ranked pages. If you provide a great answer to questions, people may follow your link back.

You'll also get a reasonable idea of the amount and quality of the traffic that a page ranking for your chosen term, receives.

Position Against The Market Leader

If you have a competing product to a product already reviewed on Amazon, it can be a good idea to provide your own lengthy review. This is an online way of positioning against the market leader.

Here's an example.

Check out this singing course. Now scroll down to the review comments. The first long review you see is by the author of a competing singing course product.

This is a cunning way to leverage the popularity of the established leader. Get your own product alongside the market leader, which will then encourage readers to draw comparisons. In this case, the first review is associated with a product that is significantly cheaper than the product it reviews, a point the writer alludes to in his opening line.

Why Brand Is Important

Some webmasters only consider the back-link possibilities of these strategies, but they're missing the big picture.

Links are, of course, important, but also aim to build brand recognition. There is little point getting in front of people if they don't remember you, so to get the most out of the above strategies, you must be consistent and memorable.

Individuals make themselves memorable by adding a personal photo. Companies make themselves memorable using brands. Brands are a way of helping consumers make associations between your products and their problems. Aaron goes into depth on branding and how to leverage brands for SEO in the members area. In short, your brand, as well as being memorable, needs to hit empathetic points with your customers. A brand must resonate.

If you can convince people that your brand is what they need, regardless of where they see it, then they will seek you out by typing your brand name into the search box. Whilst you're waiting to rank for generic keyword terms, direct your efforts into making people aware of your brand.

As an aside, when choosing a brand name, check out Aarons post on Domain Names As Natural Brands. Aaron quotes this great line from Rick Schwartz, which is killer:


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

Few small operators are going to have much money to spend on brand building, which is notoriously expensive. Weigh up the cost of getting a really good, memorable generic name. You're telling people who you are and what you do at the same time.

Try not to position yourself against an existing market leader with a strong brand. Instead, define a category you can be first in, and establish your brand there. I talk more about this aspect in my post"Marketing Driven SEO Strategy".


Look for ways you can contribute to other sites in order to build awareness, links and brand recognition. Find out where your competition is mentioned and try to get mentioned in the space. Leverage the authority of existing sites.

Do You Know the Way to SES San Jose?

I am going to be speaking at SES San Jose Tuesday of next week on SEO Tools stuff. My wife and I should be there for most of the conference roaming around. If you see us please say hi. :)

I am also hoping to be up in time to catch the Clay Shirky keynote on Tuesday. He has been right about the direction of the web on so many fronts including newspapers, micropayments, and communities. While his new book Here Comes Everybody book might be a bit idealistic, it is also one of the most compelling looks at the ever-changing nature of how the social aspects of the web intersect with our lives, and a nice counter view of the web to Nick Carr's The Big Switch.

Is Outing is a Sleazy Black Hat Marketing Strategy?

Rae Hoffman nailed it:

Is your Web site and marketing strategy really the best it can be? Focusing on what everyone else does and why your organic SEO life is so unfair distracts you from doing what will benefit you most - improving YOURSELF. The best thing you can do for your Web site is to focus on IT and not spend all your time whining about your competitors.

Reporting your competitors is no more an SEO strategy than a heavyset person complaining about what good genes her skinny friend has is a weight loss technique.

Life is never about being fair. Either you focus on what matters or you do not. If people are beating you with low grade spammy stuff then either you are not very good at marketing or you are not putting your full potential into your projects. Outing others because you are not good enough to compete is simply a sleazy business practice.

See also: Why SEO outing is bad + The SEO Police

You Will Respect My Authoritah

Anyone who is a member of of our community likely knows that I am a fan of Cartman. It all comes down to Cartman's understanding of marketing principals:

Being perceived as a trusted authority is a powerful marketing tool for many reasons. Here are a few examples...

  • People fear making bad decisions. The fear of loss is one of the biggest emotional hurdles in the conversion process. And so we turn to authorities to help us out. This is why...
    • Google is huge and only getting bigger.
    • many scammy diets run "As Seen on Oprah" or some such on the ads.
    • Fakevertising goes so far as telling you a fake weight loss story from a specific celebrity.
    • cumulative advantage is such an important concept for online marketers to understand.
  • When I was sitting in jury selection one potential juror did not feel it was fair that the DA had to prove guilt. She presumed guilt based simply on accusation, without any other facts.
  • Most people are ignorant to the sausage-like nature of media, the corruption that is core to large centralized governments, and the fraudulent private banking interests that skim off the top of every transaction and enslave society in debt. We are trained to be ignorant consumers who trust authority. How else could you justify virtually nobody caring about bankers & politicians robbing trillions of Dollars from the country while budget constraints are forcing some local sheriffs to call in the national guard for security. The head of the Federal Reserve put in a half-trillion Dollar short on the US Dollar to aid foreign central banks (at our expense) and yet nobody cares! Steal from the semi-rich, middle class, poor, super-poor, unborn, etc. and give to the super rich. Let them have another round of casino capitalism until the country is bankrupt.
  • If you ever want to sell anything, then people trusting you and seeing you as an authority makes sales far easier. Back when I sold a how to SEO ebook there was a month where Google rolled in a filter that whacked some branded sites from ranking for their brand. Even though our site was selling an SEO how to book ***while not ranking*** our sales that month were still 85% of the record month. Because the site had so much perceived authority it developed distribution channels outside of search strong enough to sell even when the rankings made the site look like it was (at least temporarily) lacking in credibility.
  • Think of how the vast majority of searchers click on the top few listings in the search results. That is because perceived relevancy and authority. Even if you most the most relevant result down the page, many people will still click the first listing because of the perceived authority of that ranking position.
  • Many of the quality links that can't be easily replicated and are actually organic only come about after you are established as an authority. I just got referenced on the Network Solutions blog in way those types of links happen unless you already have lots of established exposure and perceived authority. But how do you develop it?

Anyway, enough of my rambling.

Brian Clark recently announced a free report called Authority Rules. Its killer, and you should go check it out right now! There are tons of gems in there like

Brain scans show that the decision-making parts of our brains often shut down when we encounter authoritative advice or direction.

You Can't Be Everybody's Friends

Recently I saw Barry Ritholtz mentioned that he was selling video recordings of a conference he put on for only $69, and some of the people who commented on his site wrote garbage like this:

These people have enough capital to try to trade the markets, but spending $69 for one of the most in depth and most current pieces of information about their livelihood is completely out of the question. Imagine having the gall to register on someone's site to leave a comment like "where can we steal your work from."

And yet this is normal (and expected) behavior on the web, even in fields directly connected money / finance / investing!!!

Every day I get some non-customers who acts that way as well. The noise does wear you down, and it really does highlight the problems with free. When some people get hooked on free they have no end to the demands, and no respect or appreciation for the work.

I personally handle all customer correspondence, which is why I recently had to increase prices to slow down our rate of growth. I am only 1 person. Customers rarely wait as long as a day for a response. This guy never sent in 3 requests, was rude and demanding and demeaning, is not even a paying customer, and expects free phone support for software worth hundreds of dollars that we give away for free.

Why would I care if that guy used our tools for free? Since he is rude I hope he can't use them, such that any competent competitor interested in SEO has a competitive advantage over him. And that guy's rudeness shows that he probably lacks the social skills to be successful on a large distributed social network.

When you chose your customers you are picking how much you will enjoy your job.

There are a lot of potential bad customers like that, and you don't even want to suggest they become a paying customer. The only ways to handle people that are that rude are to either ignore them or tell them off to let them know they are not welcome in your business. If you play nice with a person that treats you like a doormat then it will only get worse in time.

The person who needs a lot of support BEFORE becoming a paying customer rarely becomes a profitable long-term customer. The person who needs a price break today expects a larger one tomorrow. They keep squeezing margins until you are a commodity and the model no longer works. It is just a path to self destruction because if you cater to such people you do not raise them up to your level, you lower yourself down to their level.

This reminds me of an important business lesson from a Dan Kennedy book called The Ultimate Success Secret that a great friend recommended I read about a year ago.

When I first started in the "success education business," one of the few people in the country who was consistently effective at selling self-improvement audiocassette programs direct, face-to-face to executives and salespeople, gave me what turned out to be very, very good advice - he said: "Don't waste your time trying to sell these materials to the people who need it the most. They won't buy it. You should focus on selling to successful people who want to get even better."

Over the years, I've demonstrated the validity of this to myself a number of different ways. And I've developed an explanation for it. There is what I now call "the self-esteem Catch-22 loop" at work here: in order for a person to invest directly in himself, which is what buying self-improvement materials is, he has to place value on himself, i.e. have high self-esteem, but if he has such high self-esteem, he is probably already doing well and does not have a critical need for this type of information; he will get marginal improvement out of it; but the person who needs it most does not place much value on himself, i.e. has relatively low self-esteem, which prohibits him from buying, believing in or using self-improvement materials.

I used to be all about making everything (or as much as possible) free because I liked helping people, but really most people won't act on advice or respect it much unless they pay for it. Human nature is what it is, and there is no point fighting it. ;)

At some point we may need to test moving from offering any tools for free to making everything paid just to filter out that noise. Such a move would likely cost us exposure, but most of that exposure is not leading to any tangible business anyhow.

Why 99%+ of Flat Rate SEO Services Are a Scam

SEO Question: Hello, How do site suchs as: ____ and _____ work with flat fees Where everyone else charges us up the wazoo.
Do you offer such a program for my business. - Thanks, Paul

Short answer: "Laws control the lesser man. Right conduct controls the greater one." - Mark Twain

Some People Provide Value, Others Steal Money

Long answer: Believe it or not, at one point in time I was an SEO client who bought a trashy scammy service. The site I was trying to market was terrible, they offered no link building solutions for it, and instead suggested I create copies of pages on the site with hidden links pointing back and forth to try to rank well for some obscure 5 word phrases that nobody searches for.

Now those people could have told me that my site was a poor website and I can improve it by doing x, y, and z. But they didn't care about the actual outcome of the work. They just wanted $149 and they got it. That was over six years ago, and they are still scamming people today.

Many Big Organizations Sell Scammy No-Value SEO Services

Most SEO buyers are allured by the prospect of free traffic and that free price-point sets their anchoring for the price. Further their first introduction to SEO comes from non-SEO. Many web hosts, domain registrars, clueless web designers (who talk up web standards but do no actual SEO research), and sleazy telemarketers offer low priced flat rate packages that have no value. Some of the domain registrars and web hosts run on such thin margins that they would be bankrupt without selling stuff like the scammy bolt on no value SEO packages. To highlight such scams I created to show how they did not work.

Which Creates a Market For Lemons Effect

John Andrews also highlighted this issue in the past, in a post about a market for lemons, comparing the market for SEO services to the used car market:

As non-selling good cars were removed from the market, masquerading “lemons” dominated, setting the tone for the used car market, and further blocking actually good used cars from appearing. In the end, the used car market becomes a market for lemons, not a used car market.

It seems SEO has the same problem. As “boiler-room” SEO firms cold-call companies and pitch ridiculously low prices for SEO contracts, based on old and incorrect SEO information readily accessible to consumers, high quality SEO firms start looking “too expensive”. Consumer research into SEO does not reveal better information, since that knowledge comprises a significant portion of the value SEO consulting, and is thus not freely published. The entire market for SEO services starts to become a market not for actual search engine optimization, but more a market for “snake oil SEO” than true SEO.

Consider the Baseline

To further put the economics of SEO in context, any great SEO should be able to profit from marketing their own websites about their own interests. If I was still interested in baseball cards (like I was in high school) I have no doubt that I could make 6 figures a year promoting a website about baseball cards. That interest faded. But any interests I have I can attempt to monetize. That sets the barrier kinda high for client services. Why would I market someone's thin affiliate site selling Viagra cheaply when if I poured the same effort into my own sites which I love I would make far more profits?

Competent SEOs Have Many Options

Because of snake oil SEO salesmen (and people who want to buy something cheap) the SEO market is very hard to extract money from in service based businesses unless...

  1. you run your own publishing business (monetized through affiliate ads, contextual ads, lead generation, direct ad sales, creating & selling your own products + services) and optimize your own websites (which we do)
  2. you sell information and/or tools that others can use to apply to learning SEO (which we do)
  3. you sell other niche services (like keyword research or link building) that help clients, but are only a piece of the overall strategy (we do not do too much of this, but sometimes do)
  4. you have very few select high end client relationships (which we do)
  5. you hire a bunch of salesmen to sell worthless trash to the bottom 80% of the consumer market. (which we do NOT do)

This site is about 90% of my labor and about 30% of our profit. But we still run it for a variety of reasons...

  • it is one of my favorite hobbies
  • income diversity
  • running this site (and interacting with hundreds of smart SEOs) helps give us more feedback on international markets and inform some of marketing strategies
  • there are a lot of ways to make money online that are somewhat dirty, but this site is pure as snow and helps thousands of families put food on their tables.

Some Markets Are Competitive & Expensive

Anyone who is selling flat rate SEO services is selling a service priced without exploring the market and learning how competitive it is. Ranking well for credit cards might be worth millions of dollars. But it might also cost that much to rank. Ranking for Salem, Oregon bus rental is far easier and can be done using less than 1% of the capital investment.

Worse yet (for the consumer of a flat rate SEO service), SEO is a winner take most market. Most people click on the first page of the search results, with most those clicks happening on the top few listings. So lets say one of the flat rate companies was surprisingly not a scam and actually gave a crap about your business. This is doubtful in most cases, but lets just consider it. Well if they under-price the flat rate and rank you on page 2 or 3 you still are not going to get very much traffic, and (in spite of them trying their best on limited resources) you still probably lost money because page 3 of the search results = fail.

Is Google Flat Rate?

And here is another way of looking at it. Google AdWords doesn't sell their keywords for a flat rate. The words live in an auction that rises and falls with consumer demand. At the same time, advertisers who are paying Google over $10,000,000,000 a year are starting to put some of that budget into organic SEO. With the average SEO employee earning roughly $80,000 a year it is hard to believe that an outsourced discount flat rate package can compete.

Flat Rate Dream Homes Located in _____ for Only $5,000

I am not sure who came up with this analogy. I think it was Danny Sullivan (he is always great with those), but how many contractors do flat rate home building? Probably 0 legitimate ones. Everything is important from the foundation, to the number of rooms, to the materials used, and any special requests need to be considered.

Knowing if the house is on the side of the mountain, if it needs rocks cleared away, if it is in a swamp and could sink is important. Likewise legitimate SEO consulting aims to know the direction of the market, understand the brand, evaluate domain name selection, survey the market, and assess strengths and weaknesses.

Only AFTER all that work has been done to establish a foundation then you have to establish a well researched market strategy and keyword strategy. Then you need to do push marketing and other forms of marketing to build links. You might need to build 100 or 100,000 to compete. No matter how perfect your site is optimized, you generally are not going to rank for competitive keywords until AFTER some link building has been done. On-page optimization has a glass ceiling.

Rarely, if ever, do flat rate SEO service providers build quality links. And if the do buy them, then it is generally to some prescribed generic schedule rather than a specific plan catered to your market and your website. And while the provider is stuck working within that flat rate someone else is subscribing to sites like this one, learning SEO, and aggressively reinvesting their profits to further build a competitive advantage.

It is very hard for an outsourced discount service to compete with a self-interested business owner.

In the markets worth being in, pre-defined flat rate SEO rarely gets it done.

NLP Trigger Words For Spammy Info Marketing Products Lacking in Value

Anytime any of these words are in the name of an informational product or software tool you can be 99%+ certain it is a scam:

Money Words

  • money
  • cash
  • wealth
  • income
  • unlimited
  • rich

Automated Words

  • automated
  • automatic
  • autopilot
  • magnet
  • easy
  • lazy
  • system
  • blueprint
  • plug and play
  • turnkey

MLM Words

  • network
  • downstream
  • empire

Social Power Words

  • power
  • secrets
  • seduction
  • hypnotic
  • domination
  • success

More Tips

Thumb rules...

  • if your not sure what it does then its not worth buying.
  • the quality of the product is often inversely related to the number of products the vendor has on the market.
  • the quality of the product is often inversely proportional to the number of people who email you about it.

Why write blog posts like this one?

Our tickets often get filled up by people who bought some scammy products from some hyped up marketer (who we have nothing to do with) and beg us for refunds. I figure if I write a few more posts on topics like this maybe I will get a few less of those support requests from people who bought garbage from someone else.

The Myth of Organic Marketing

Well they got that link because they were the best site out there. That was organic. It is a naive view of marketing to assume that if you are the best people will notice you and people will care. It is not enough to be the need others to say that you are. If anything the web is making most people more driven by self interest - rather than lending a helping hand.

Worse yet, due to the anonymous nature of the web (and other automated technologies), we are bombarded with every type of spam imaginable (auto-dial telemarketing, fakevertising, reverse billing fraud, phishing, bait & switch marketing, etc etc etc) and the people who have distribution are gaining a predisposition that if you contact them out of the blue with anything commercial you are a spammer. Further tools like Twitter pull links off the web graph and make conversations more shallow, limiting the discussion of many complex topics.

Affiliate programs are great for distribution (and whoring fake reviews), but most good affiliates typically target brands that already have their own gravity around them.

Even if you make someone millions of dollars they typically don't want to give a testimonial because they are afraid of creating competition for themselves.

Companies worth over $100 billion dollars - like Google - still need to buy ads and bribe customers for testimonials:

The site has a range of options for letting your company or organization know that you want it to “Go Google,” including things like fliers and pre-populated emails to send out.

And Google is also promising to give away “goodies” each week in August to users who have Gone Google and fill out a Google Doc describing their experience.

Eventually the goal of many forms of marketing is to create something that has enough targeted awareness that it begins to market itself. To become synonymous with a field. Kleenex & Xerox are great examples. But you have to use push marketing, begging, bribery, ass kissing, capital, sweat, blood, luck, and a bit talent to get in that type of position.

You can't be a successful market maker without first being a market manipulator. And even when you get to the top of a market you still have to try to control market perceptions. To get a refund for an Apple iPod that literally blows up you need to sign a confidentiality agreement:

The letter also stated that, in accepting the money, Mr Stanborough was to “agree that you will keep the terms and existence of this settlement agreement completely confidential”, and that any breach of confidentiality “may result in Apple seeking injunctive relief, damages and legal costs against the defaulting persons or parties”.

In spite of their strong market positions, Apple and Google are still heavily focused on manipulating public opinion of their products.

And Google's CEO Eric Schmidt sat on Apple's board to avail himself of key information. He sat on that board as Google attempted to clone the iPhone with Gphone, and stayed on it until his company pushed the FCC to go after Apple for blocking the Google Voice app: "Google brought down the disapproving scrutiny of the FCC onto Apple on Friday night, and on Monday morning Schmidt resigned. It is difficult not to make a connection between these two events."

And while Google paints the media as trustworthy, it rarely is. The news corporations do business deals to engage in cross-censorship in an attempt to increase short term corporate profits:

GE is using its control of NBC and MSNBC to ensure that there is no more reporting by Fox of its business activities in Iran or other embarrassing corporate activities, while News Corp. is ensuring that the lies spewed regularly by its top-rated commodity on Fox News are no longer reported by MSNBC. You don't have to agree with the reader's view of the value of this reporting to be highly disturbed that it is being censored.

One of the biggest flaws with the field of SEO is the presumption some people have that there is only 1 right way to do things, everything should be free, marketing should be entirely organic, you have to keep it all above board or you risk losing everything, and other BS pitched by companies trying to minimize and regulate the field.

The bigger risk for most businesses is being too conservative and thus remaining obscure, unknown, and unprofitable.