Media is all about profit margins. eHow was originally founded in 1998 & had $36 million in venture capital behind it. But the original cost structure was flawed due to high content costs. The site failed so badly that it was sold in 2004 for $100,000. The original site owners had GoogleBot blocked. Simply by unblocking GoogleBot and doing basic SEO to existing content the site had a revenue run rate of $4 million Dollars within 2 years, which allowed the site to be flipped for a 400-fold profit.
People are arguing if Demand Media is overvalued at its current valuation, and at one point the NYT was debating buying Demand Media by rolling About.com into Demand & own 49% of the combined company. But the salient point to me is that we are talking about something that was bought for only $100,000 7 years ago. Sure the opportunities today may be smaller scale and different, but if you see value where others do not then recycling something that has been discarded can be quite valuable.
The key, he said, was to keep costs low. If possible, don't pay for the intellectual content. Look for material, he urged, on which the copyright has expired. Any book published in the U.S. before 1923 was available.
He said he was in the process of turning vanloads of old books into websites. With a few hours of labor, for example, you could take a turn-of-the-century Creole cookbook and transform it into the definitive site for vintage Creole recipes. Google's AdSense program would then load the thing up with ads for shrimp and cooking pots and spices and direct people looking for shrimp recipes to your website.
How did ArticlesBase grow to that size? It and Ezinearticles were a couple of the "selected few" which lasted through the last major burn down of article directories about 3 or 4 years ago. But it seems their model has peaked after this last Google update.
Search is Political
Content farms are proving to be a political issue in search. They are beginning to replace "the evil SEO" in the eye of the press as "what creates spam." Rich Skrenta created a spam clock which stated that a million spam pages are created every hour. He then followed up by banning 20 content farms from the Blekko search results & burning spam man. ;)
Microsoft also got in on the bashing, with Harry Shum highlighting that Google was funding web pollution. When Blekko's model is based on claiming Google polluted the web with crap, Microsoft says the same thing, and there is a rash of end user complaints, there are few independent experts the media can call upon to talk about Google - unless they decide to talk to SEOs, who tend to be quite happy to highlight Google's embarrassing hypocrisy. Freelance writers may claim that marketing is what screwed up the web, but ultimately Google has nobody credible and well known to defend them at this point. The only people who can defend Google's approach are those who have a taste in the revenue stream. Hence why Google had to act against content farms.
Google stepping up their public relations smear campaigns against Bing and others is leaving Google looking either hypocritical or ignorant in many instances, like when a Google engineer lambasted an ad network without realizing Google was serving the scam ad.
At first glance StackExchange's growth looks exciting, but it has basically gone nowhere outside of the programming niche. In my opinion they are going to need to find subject matter experts to lead some of their niche sites & either pay those experts or give them equity in the sites if they want to lead in other markets. Worse yet, few people are as well educated about online schemes as programmers, so the other sites will not only lack leadership, but will also be much harder to police. Just look at the junk on Yahoo! Answers! There are Wordpress themes and open source CMS tools for QnA sites, but I would pick a tight niche early if I was going to build one as the broader sites seem to be full of spam and the niche sites struggle to cross the chasm. As of writing this, fewer than 50 Mahalo answers pages currently indexed in Google have over 100 views. It flat out failed, even with financial bribes and a PR spin man behind it.
At the organizational level, Google is essentially chaos. In search quality in particular, once you've demonstrated that you can do useful stuff on your own, you're pretty much free to work on whatever you think is important. I don't think there's even a mechanism for shifting priorities like that.
We've been working on this issue for a long time, and made some progress. These efforts started long before the recent spat of news articles. I've personally been working on it for over a year. The central issue is that it's very difficult to make changes that sacrifice "on-topic-ness" for "good-ness" that don't make the results in general worse. You can expect some big changes here very shortly though.
A good example of the importance of padding out results with junk on-topic content to aid perceived relevancy can be seen by looking at the last screenshot of a search result here. Blekko banned the farms, but without them there is not much relevant content that is precisely on-topic. (In other words, content farms may be junk, but it is hard to have the same level of perceived relevancy without them).
Google created a Chrome plugin to solicit end user feedback on content mills, but that will likely only reach tech savvy folks & the feedback is private. Google can claim to use any justification for removing sites they do not like though, just like they do with select link buying engagements. Look the other way where it is beneficial, and remove those which you personally dislike.
In a recent WSJ article Amit Singhal was quoted as saying new signals have been added to Google's relevancy algorithms:
Singhal did say that the company added numerous “signals,” or factors it would incorporate into its algorithm for ranking sites. Among those signals are “how users interact with” a site. Google has said previously that, among other things, it often measures whether users click the “back” button quickly after visiting a search result, which might indicate a lack of satisfaction with the site.
In addition, Google got feedback from the hundreds of people outside the company that it hires to regularly evaluate changes. These “human raters” are asked to look at results for certain search queries and questions such as, “Would you give your credit card number to this site?” and “Would you take medical advice for your children from those sites,” Singhal said.
Evolving the Model
One interesting way to evolve the content farm model is through the use of tight editorial focus, a core handful of strong editors, and wiki software. WikiHow was launched by a former eHow owner, and when you consider how limited their relative resources are, their traffic level and perceived editorial quality are quite high. Jack Herrick has struck how-to gold twice!
Notice any content farms missing from the above list? Maybe the biggest one? Here is a list of some of eHow's closest competing sites (based on keywords, from SEM Rush). The ones in red got pummeled, the ones in yellow dropped as well & were fellow Demand Media sites, and the ones in green gained traffic.
Jason "will do anything for ink" Calacanis recently gave an about face speech claiming people need to step away from the content farm business model, and in doing so admitted that roughly everything he said about Mahalo over the past couple years was a complete lie. Surprise, surprise. The interesting bit is that the start up community - which used to fawn over his huckster PR driven ploys - no longer buys them. Jason claimed to have "pivoted" his business model again, but once again we see more garbage content. His credibility has been spent. And so have his rankings! Sistrix shows that not only is he ranking for fewer keywords, but that the graph has skewed downward to worse average positions.
After the Crash, What is Next?
The biggest content farms like Ask & eHow will still do well in the short run. Over the long run I see Google bringing the results of content farms to the attention of book publishers & then working to slowly rotate out from farmed content to published book content. Most readers do not know that most book writers are lucky if they earn $10,000 writing a 300 or 400 page tome. Publishers tell book authors that with the additional exposure they can often sell lots more other things, but unless the content is highly targeted that might not back out well for the author. But that cheap content is far better structured and far more vetted than the mill stuff is.
Over the past week I have been seeing more ebooks in the search results, though I am not entirely sure if that is just because I am searching for more rare technical stuff that simply might not be online.
But what they didn't mention is that eHow's rankings are actually up! In fact, their new distribution chart looks just like their old one, only skewed a bit to the left with higher rankings. eHow's profile is 15% better than it was before the update & the only site which gained more traffic from this update than eHow did was Youtube.
If you listen to Richard's interviews, you would never know him to be the type to redirect expired domains:
We really want to let Google speak for themselves. Whatever Matt Cutts and Google want to (say) about quality we totally support that because again that’s their corporate interest. What we said and would have said is we applaud Google removing duplicate content ... removing shallow, low quality content because it clogs the search results. Both we and Google are 100 percent focused on making the consumer happy. It’s the right thing to do and it’s good for our business.
If you syndicate Google's spin you can get away with things that a normal person can't. Which is why eHow renounced the content farm label even faster than they created it.
Article directories & topical hub sites have been online since before eHow was created. But eHow's marketing campaign was so caustic & so toxic that it literally destroyed the game for most of their competitors.
And now that Google has "fought content farms" (while managing to somehow miss eHow with TheAlgorithm) most of Demand Media's competitors are dead & Richard Rosenblatt gets to ride off into the sunset with another hundred million Dollars, as eHow is the chosen one. :D
Many of the changes we make are so subtle that very few people notice them. But in the last day or so we launched a pretty big algorithmic improvement to our ranking—a change that noticeably impacts 11.8% of our queries—and we wanted to let people know what’s going on. This update is designed to reduce rankings for low-quality sites—sites which are low-value add for users, copy content from other websites or sites that are just not very useful. At the same time, it will provide better rankings for high-quality sites—sites with original content and information such as research, in-depth reports, thoughtful analysis and so on.
Currently this update is US only, so if you are outside of the United States you may need to get a US VPN or add &gl=us to your search string's results on Google (likeso). Recent updates have had a variety of impacts and implications outside of content mills.
When I went to sleep last night all was well. When I woke up my inbox was exploded with angry emails about people getting dozens and dozens of emails from us...in some cases perhaps almost 100. Since we put the new design live on the site I think people are more receptive to it. And there are not many Drupal websites which have more registered users than our site does. The combination of improved usability (in some areas, still working on others), better design, and a fairly strong rate of growth in popularity have caused us to hit a bit of a breaking point.
Some of the plugins for Drupal work solidly up to a point. But everything has limits. Servers, software, etc.
When you use technology sometimes it breaks. And never at a good time!
We were getting ready to fully launch our membership site publicly, but we just had a bit of a meltdown.
I think what happened was that our autoresponder was emailing the first x people & then it would reset without ticking that the day was done and those same people would get pounded with the same exact emails again. That cycle sorta looked like this
We are still troubleshooting the autoresponder issue to fix it, but while we are troubleshooting it of course we have to turn it off. (The first step to fixing any problem is to stop digging & stop making it worse)!
But while the autoresponder is turned off, it breaks the autoresponder unsubscribe links.
So it is a pretty crappy deal no matter what we do. Even if we used something like Mailchimp going forward, it still wouldn't fix the issue from yesterday.
Lose/lose, so you get to see the rudest behavior in the world and chastised. Fun stuff. If a person is intentionally sending email spam of course they would vary the message, not do it from an account that they actually answer replies on, etc. But people assume the worst because most people get burned by scammy get-rich-quick stuff before they find their way to quality SEO information.
Anyhow, the autoresponder is off until we troubleshoot it. Sorry about the bulk emails. And I can only imagine what Scott Richter's inbox must look like! Lucky for him he doesn't actually read it. ;)
We run a fairly lean business & rely on giving away a ton of stuff to do our marketing for us to attract customers. Rather than bulking up on sales staff we decided to be lean and efficient. If a person wants a sales call to try to squeeze a free consult we say no thanks. This model has worked decently well for us, but whenever anything breaks it sucks because we don't have tons of slack built into our business.
The bright side of the issue is this: even though a minority of people who responded cursed, most people were actually surprisingly polite given how annoying that autoresponder repeat was. And while there are all sorts of food riots in the Middle East & countries collapsing, I feel a bit lucky to have myself as my biggest problem & to be able to run a site with so many great members who give us the benefit of the doubt when I shoot myself (and everyone else) in the foot. ;)
I'm going to borrow this quote from Seth Godin, who borrowed it from Kevin, who borrowed it from The Count Of Monte Cristo:
"I have been told," said the count, "that you do not always yourselves understand the signals you repeat."
"That is true, sir, and that is what I like best," said the man, smiling.
"Why do you like that best?"
"Because then I have no responsibility. I am a machine then, and nothing else, and so long as I work, nothing more is required of me."
In SEO, what do people say works vs what actually works?
Filthy Linking Rich
If you haven't already seen it, check out Mike Grehan's Filthy Linking Rich from 2004. It's as relevant today as when it was written. Mike makes the point those who are already rich, tend to get richer. Those sites that have the most links, tend to get more, because those sites have the wealth of exposure already.
This is why it can be tough to get a new site ranked.
Those sites that are link poor, no matter how great they are, will struggle to be found in the search engines. "If you're great, people will link to you" is not necessarily true because a link-poor site is unlikely to show up in the search results in the first place. Initial discovery will likely happen via other means.
Search Engines Don't Care About "Great"
The search engines don't reward information that is great. The search engines reward information that is popular, or appears on a site that is deemed popular.
If your aim is high rankings, then it could be argued it is better to focus on being popular, than it is to focus on creating quality. Look at a lot of the content on mainstream media news sites. Is such content really of higher quality than other sources, or does it just happen to appear on the right domain? If such content wasn't published on a popular domain, and was published on a brand new site instead, would it ever see the light of day?
When it comes to search engines, it really does matter who, not what, you know.
Test, Test, Test
People often repeat what they've heard.
I'd urge you to test, if only to be aware of the level of misinformation you're may be getting from SEO forums and blogs. There is a lot of "thuthiness" bouncing around the SEO echo chamber. But how much of it is based on evidence?
Challenge SEO punditry. By testing.
Search on a keyword phrase. If you search on a high volume phrase, chances are you'll see a page ranked at the top based largely on the link profile of the *site* on which it appears. The site will have many links, and this link value filters down through the pages. A few positions down the SERP, you'll likely see pages based on their inbound links, even if the site on which they appear doesn't have many links.
Take a look at the back-links.
How many of the sites you're seeing have backlinks that are clearly autogen? Blog spam, forum spam, etc?
Chances are, you might find quite a few.
I'm looking at a product-oriented serp right now that has Wikipedia at the top, followed by the brand holder of this product, followed by a site that has tens of thousands of auto-gen inbound links in position three. I kept scanning through the links until I found what I considered to be a great match to my query.
On page five.
Now, what I judge to be good might not be objectively great, of course. I've made a subjective judgement, just as Google has made a subjective judgement. Try it out yourself. Rather than rephrasing a query, scan through the pages until you find a page that does answer your query.
Then evaluate the sites above it. What, exactly, are they doing? How many of them are doing anything more complicated than "getting a lot of links"?
For all the fluff about 100's of ranking signals, it still appears that mass link bombing, from rubbish sites, works a treat.
Am I talking nonsense?
One way to find out.
For those new to SEO, be wary of what you read. A lot of it is conjecture. What the old skool SEO's used to do, and the more serious SEO's still do today, is test for themselves, as opposed to relying on the pundits.
Testing can be done with existing tools, like the SEO Toolbar - and the tool set for members. Little plug there ;) There are a huge number of tools around, but one of the most important is a tool that will allow you to analyze link structures.
Grab one of these tools and go through the sites you're competing with, and pay close attention to the backlink profile of both the root domain and the page that is ranking well. Make a note of what is working, without making a moral judgement about the validity of the techniques being used.
You can also test with throwaway domains. Register a new domain, for an obscure keyword within your niche, and try and isolate the effects. Point one link at the domain, see what happens. Point ten links at it. What happens? Point links from a variety of domains. What happens? Change the link text. What happens?
Simple stuff, right. But simple stuff that will teach you much more about SEO than reading the pundits blogs and tweets today.
A couple days ago there was a blog post on TheDomains about "how stupid SEOs are" and "the amazing power of domaining" where they highlighted how awesome domaining was because a guy registered a domain name he saw in a comic and it sent a bunch of traffic.
What that article failed to mention was:
That traffic wasn’t from the power of the domain name…that was the power of free advertising & the distribution of the comic strip.
The same domain name likely received ~ 0 traffic until it was featured in the comic strip. If it had an organic traffic stream for years before being highlighted it most likely would have already been purchased.
As that comic strip falls into the archives & into obscurity the organic traffic it was driving will drop back to roughly where it started at: 0.
The flood of new found traffic was hardly a goldmine anyhow. It was entirely irrelevant to his main business, and thus entirely worthless. The only exception there would be unless the person was offering information about comics, installing malware, pushing reverse billing scams, etc.
Being Ignorant Doesn't Create Profit
The laughable (and ignorant) thing about the comments on that post were that some of the people who were commenting were equating SEOs to misdirection & scams that sell traffic off to the highest bidder. Sorry, but that is what PPC domain parking is all about...the ad networks optimize yield & the publishers agnostically push whatever generates the most yield: often scams!
Stating that all SEOs are dumb spammers is precisely the same as stating that all domainers are cybersquatters. Neither are true, and neither serves much purpose, other than aiding the spread of ignorance.
Why Domainers View SEOs Dimly
Many domainers who try to hire SEOs fail badly because they are too cheap & buy from lousy service providers. They feel that since they bought domain x (and sat on it while literally doing nothing for a decade) that they somehow deserve to be the top ranked result. To be fair, it is pretty easy to become lazy and not want to change things when you register domain names & then literally watch them spit money at you. ;)
Against that approach, the smart SEOs (the ones actually worth hiring) realize that it is more profitable to buy their own domain names and keep all the cashflow for your efforts rather than doing 95% of the job for 5% of the revenues. Yes a good domain name is helpful, but with the right attitude you can still do quite well even on a hyphenated nasty looking .info domain name. ;)
Why SEOs View Domainers Dimly
A combination of squandered opportunity & arrogance.
I frequently tell myself that in 3 years or 5 years that the web will be so competitive that it will no longer be as profitable as it is today. And every year I have pushed that mindset back another year while we grew. But who knows how long that will last? Sure as long as there are signals there will be ways to influence them, but if you are not one of the favored parties then at some point it will be challenging to compete.
The Real Challenge: the Search Duopoly vs Publishers
When Google got into the web browser game, one of the big "innovations" was the Omnibox. They integrated search right into the address bar to help drive incremental search volume.
As they were a new browser it was not a big risk or big concern to domainers (as most people who use direct navigation are either people revisiting a website they already visited or people new to the web who are likely to use the most common default web browser - Internet Explorer). Nonetheless, address bar as search box highlighted things to come & a way the web would change.
When Google announced their Chrome OS they decided to do away with the CAPS LOCK BUTTON AND REPLACE IT WITH A SEARCH BUTTON. OOPS SORRY ABOUT THAT. Again, it is not a big deal today, but if that ever became standard the future would grow more challenging.
The big problem with Google doing such innovations is that whatever they do, they also give Microsoft permission to do. Google can't complain about what Microsoft is doing if Microsoft is only following Google's lead.
Just like the Omnibox, Internet Explorer 9 integrates search into the address bar.
As soon as IE9 rolls out, domainers can count on losing traffic month after month. This trend is non reversible in well established markets like the United States & Europe, and in 3rd world markets the ad markets pay crumbs.
If that happens, it won't impact domainers much, but if Microsoft copies it, then look out below on domain prices. You wouldn't be able to get to a domain name without first being intercepted by a search engine toll booth. In that environment, a PPC park page produces ~ $0. And even established sites that are generic might not be a great strategy for creating *sustainable* profits if/when the organic results are below the fold. People who invest in brand have some protection against pricing pressures & irrelevant search results, but those who are generic don't typically have much brand to protect their placement nor profits.
Google despised how Microsoft bundled services & believes all other competitors should win market by market based on the merit of the product. Google does not believe this line of thinking should be applied to TheGoogle though, as you need to be a seriously dominant market player to stay in the lead position while opting out of appearing in the search results of the default search engine.
Even on the regular web staying competitive is growing increasingly challenging due to these moves to lock up and redirect normal user behaviors to shift it through an increasingly ad dominated search channel.
Other Google Guy: Sorry, just shouting out "Thanks!" to Marissa. She left me a cup cake this morning. You were saying?
GoogleGuy: Our algo, it keeps returning low-quality farmer garbage
Other Google Guy: Ah, right. We're gone all "Alta Vista" a bit lately, huh. People are noticing....
Google Guy: Hey! No one mentions the AV word around here, OK!
Other Google Guy: Sorry dude. So, what shall we do?
Google Guy: We could invent a cool new algorithm, like Sergey and Larry did all those years ago
Other Google Guy: Hahahaha....you ain't Sergey or Larry, dude. Anyway, they're more concerned with self-drive cars these days, aren't they? Search is so 2001.....
Google Guy: Look, we've got to do something. The technorati are getting uppity. They're writing blog posts. Tweets. Everything. And let's not forget the JC Penny debacle. The shareholders could get angry about this. Well, they would if they understood it.....
Other Google Guy: Do they?
Google Guy: Probably not.
Other Google Guy: So, what's the problem? My data is showing most of our users couldn't give a toss about the farmer stuff. Some of them like learning about how to pour a glass of milk. It's just the valleywags getting grumpy, and no one listens to them.
Google Guy: Right, but this has the potential to filter out. It might get on FOX! Too many people might get the wrong end of the stick, and suddenly we're not cool anymore.
Other Google Guy: But we're not cool n.......
Google Guy: Shut it. We're still cool, OK.
Other Google Guy: Anything you say, boss
Google Guy: Hmmm.......what we could do is go "social media". So hot right now. We could crowdsource it! We'd look very cool with the hipsters.
Other Google Guy: Mmmmmm.....sauce.....
Google Guy: We'll give 'em a Chrome extension. Yes! Make them do all the work. At very least, it's going to shut them up. They won't have to look at anything they don't want to look at. It will make them feel superior, and we can collect some data about what sites techno dudes don't like
Other Google Guy: Brilliant! Superb! One problem - won't content farmers use this against each other in order to take each other out?
Google Guy : Nah, it's just a "ranking signal". We have hundreds of 'em we apply to every search, don't you know ;)
Other Google Guy: Hahahah..."ranking signal". Nice one, Google Guy. You can add it to the other two hundred! Or was it three hundred? Shareholders love that stuff.
Google Guy: Laughs. Oh...kay.....almost finished this extension. It'll push it out there.....
Ten seconds pass.....
Google Guy: Hey! The first data is in already!
Other Google Guy: People use Chrome? Opps...I mean "People use Chrome!" Which sites are they blocking?
With some lower traffic smaller sites it is easy to get outlier data that is skewed & somewhat irrelevant (especially true if you have a website which happens to have relevant content in a category that Ask is spamming the heck out of Google in), but one nice thing about comparing Yahoo! and Bing against each other is that they are generally driven by the same relevancy algorithm. Of course Yahoo! and Bing may have different promotions added to their interfaces for certain query types, but if you take websites that are ranking for a wide basket of keywords you can generally see how the search engines are doing against each other at driving traffic.
Some categories (think mom from the mid-west who is a casual internet user) might have a bias toward using Yahoo! Search, but outside of areas where you might expect that sort of skew, I am seeing Bing drive more organic search traffic than Yahoo! is. Here are analytics images from 3 different websites so far this month that get quite a significant search traffic stream. These sites target different demographics from people in their 20's to 30's to 40's. And all 3 of them are getting more search visits from Bing than Yahoo! Search. And, looking at the data, this shift has been fairly significant over the past couple months.
This site gets tons of longtail traffic & ranks across a wide array of keyword.
This site is primarily driven by a few popular keywords & ranks #1 in both Bing and Google for them.
The reason this 3rd one is so Google heavy is because the Google algorithm likes the older site more & it does not have as many fresh links (which Bing seems to like more). It is primarily focused on a few core keywords where it ranks #1 to #3 in Google and #4 to #7 in Bing.
I suspect that Bing is still somewhat more selective with showing search ads than Yahoo! is (as Microsoft's online operation has been losing billions of Dollars per year & Bing is trying to win marketshare from Google, whereas Yahoo! is all about maximizing revenues per search). Yahoo! ads likely get a greater portion of the search clicks due to...
ads being shown more frequently & more aggressively
ads taking up more visual space (when Bing puts 4 ads above the organic results they put the URL and the description on the same line, whereas Yahoo! spreads them out across multiple lines)
Since Bing is sending more searchers onto the organic search results it means their real search share is over-represented if you look only at organic search visitors, but then as an SEO that is the main thing you are looking for - opportunity. It is a bit of a shame that on the above sites Google is still driving ~ 84% of search visitors, whereas Bing is still in the 16% range.
As Google comes over the top to bury the organic results by...
expanding the default AdWords ad units to have longer headlines and a boatload of extensions
entering broad consumer verticals like books and finance and offering customized local results
running self serving ads in a bunch of categories like project management and even wedding planning
...they kill a lot of opportunity as their ecosystem becomes more closed and perverted.
If the trends hold true, then in some cases it seems like Google might drive SEOs below the fold for core keywords while still pushing strong traffic into tail. Bing still doesn't have the index depth to match Google's relevancy on longtail keywords, but at least they are not crowding out the organic results anywhere near as aggressively on core keywords.
How are you seeing Bing fare against Yahoo! & Google? Are you seeing growth from Bing? What sorts of sites are you seeing Bing do well on & what sorts of sites are you seeing Bing do poorly on?
Cash (lots of it). Work in PJ's from Home. Fame. Fake Twitter Friends. For many folks who decide to give SEO the good ol' college try those are likely some of the major reasons why they decide to dive into the industry.
Those same tenets are typically reinforced by slimy internet marketers most new entrants run across in their travels around the SEO world. They are strong selling points, no question about it, and they hit on the times we are currently living in.
Who wouldn't want to work from home, or work for themselves, or work whenever they want?
Unfortunately, by the time someone willing to do the work and learn about the business reaches a solid source of SEO information they might already have been taken for thousands of bucks by Joe Blow Internet Marketing Guru or Joe Schmo the Social Media Guru. In this economy most folks cannot afford to lose that amount upfront and either:
have enough resources to continue
have enough resources to continue + enough trust to continue
Or maybe someone really wants to get started in the industry but needs some tips on how to keep initial costs down while getting their feet wet and learning without losing their shirt.
For more on the exploits of some of the more well-known internet marketing folks, I'd suggest visiting the Salty Droid.
Run a Lean SEO Project
So to start an SEO project you need a couple of basic things (assuming you don't already have these and/or a business you are doing SEO for):
an idea of what your site is going to be about
product(s) to sell either yourself of via an affiliate program
You could also build a site about a topic or specific topics and utilize Google AdSense as a means of revenue.
You can even create your own product based on your knowledge and sell it via monthly e-newsletters, a video training series, consulting, and by sharing your knowledge via a community forum.
This model would likely be a bit more costly based on software needed, programming help you might need, etc. However, it is something you can eventually build towards as you earn revenue from other activities.
Places to Find Products
You can try applying to a variety of affiliate networks like:
Those are some of the bigger ones so you may not get accepted without a site or a referral. No worries though, you can try smaller networks like:
sidebar: Be aware many of the smaller affiliate networks are known for using their publisher data to compete directly against their publishers. Some also go so far as finding out where the publishers are buying ads to try to cut the affiliate out of the loop that way. Here is a short tip for how trustworthy an affiliate network is: if their leading offers are the types of offers that you will likely see covered by the FTC in 6 to 12 months (like the reverse billing fraud stuff for vaporware "products") then it might be worth skipping them, as any company which is built on pushing scams likely scams business partners as well.
Wordtracker is a well-known paid tool and it powers our free Keyword Tool. This can be helpful as an alternative to Google-provided data.
Many keyword tools sold by internet marketers are powered by Google, so all you are really paying for is a different UI and some (usually) useless metrics layered on by the marketer as a way to differentiate their tool from Google.
So now you've got an idea for a site, products to sell, and keywords to target. Your total cost = $0.00.
Domain Registration & Web Hosting
There are lots and lots of choices here. For the sake of simplicity let's look at some common options for both. For domain registration:
Sometimes you can find coupon codes for domain registrars simply by searching for them online. Inside our community forums members routinely share coupons they receive from domain registrars :)
Let's say you went with Moniker for your site, which at first glance offered the lowest initial price of a com as of this writing, and you opted for domain privacy for an additional cost.
Now you are up to roughly $14/year in costs.
Typically it is a good idea to keep registration and hosting separate for the sake of portability and reliability. For web hosting when first starting out you could certainly get by with hosting from reliable shared hosts like:
All these hosts are suitable for a new site that you are going to develop and grow judiciously. As traffic grows and grows you may want to upgrade to a dedicated server or a larger shared plan but for now a basic plan on these hosts is just fine.
Hostgator is a shared host you can scale up with, with respect to dedicated or virtual servers and such. So as of this writing you can snag one year's worth of hosting on their basic plan for approximately $66.72 ($5.56 per month if you prepay for a year).
So now you've got hosting, a domain, keywords to target, and products to sell for your site all for the annual cost of around $80.
Link Research Tools
There are link research tools that sell for upwards of $500 per month! Now, they might be just fine for enterprise level stuff but you can get a fair amount of data from some free tools and free accounts on paid services:
SoloSEO will give you a list of search operators you can use to find link opportunities in your niche (based on keyword entered) for free
OpenSiteExplorer.Org a intuitive link research tool with lots of features and data points. As of this writing a free trial is available and then it's $99/mo for access to SeoMoz's complete toolset.
Yahoo! Site Explorer a free tool which returns backlinks to a url, typically sorted by strongest top to bottom.
Blekko gives backlink data as well as anchor text information for free
Majestic SEO has perhaps the largest database of links and link data on the publicly available market. Plans vary from starter packages to enterprise solutions.
Naturally, our SEO Toolbar and Seo4Firefox both link through to free data sources within Open Site Explorer, Majestic SEO, and Yahoo!. :D
You can also access Majestic's paid data as part of a subscription to Raven SEO tools (which does a lot more than link research as you'll see).
Since you are starting/running one site you can take advantage of Raven's $19/mo pricing and access a ton of helpful tools and up to 10 Majestic reports (which is plenty on a monthly basis).
As you build links and acquire links, you'll want to track the status of those links and make sure the ones you've acquired are holding up their end of the bargain (not disappearing on you). You can track link building efforts manually with Word/Excel or through a CRM or through some other method. That gets old fast. Tracking links is something you don't want to do manually (making sure the links are still pointing to your site).
Raven's toolset has both of those bases covered. With their $19/mo plan you can monitor up to 500 links and manage up to 1,000 link records (managing new opportunities, pending links, etc). Raven's toolset is 100% in the cloud so all of the heavy lifting gets done on their servers.
Advanced Link Manager is a tool that is spoken highly of by many members of our community. You can get the basic account for just $99/year and get the ability to track a ton of links from within the program (software).
Alright so let's say you decided that while Advanced Link Manager is a great piece of software, you don't need the full power just yet and you decide to hit up Raven for link tracking, monitoring, and research at $19/mo.
So your annual recurring tab is $308 and you've got the following items covered:
keywords to target
links to target
stuff to sell
You can use Google Analytics which is free, save for the cost of your data :)
Some other analytics providers you can use for free or for a low cost are:
Piwik is free and you need to install it on your server, much like Mint. Mint is $30 per site, as a one time fee. Clicky has free plan but it has ads and lacks some of their better features.
Mint doesn't have some of goal tracking and custom functionality of Clicky and Clicky can be had for $29.99/yr if you prepay. You can scale up with Clicky and place more sites in your account as you start to develop more sites and such.
I like the additional features of Clicky and I'd rock either Clicky or Mint when first starting out. You can certainly choose Google Analytics, which is feature rich and free.
As a new site, with likely no branding while trying to monetize, I'd probably wait a bit until I started handing over data to Google. This post on why Google Analytics isn't really "free" is a must read.
As a side note, Raven integrates with Google Analytics in case you decide to go with GA. So now your running an annual bill of around $338 (if you choose Clicky or Mint).
Rank Checking Tools
We offer a free rank checker tool, which is also accessible via our SEO Toolbar, via our free firefox extensions. If you are looking for ways to make graphical charts via the data you get from our rank checker you can follow the tips listed here.
Advanced Web Ranking can be purchased as a standalone program or in conjunction with Advanced Link Manager as a bundle. Both programs are solid but they do have a slight learning curve, however the functionality of the software makes the learning part worth it. The basic packages do not include customized reports but you can easily export the data. The package deal is $149.
Even though AWR/ALM are fantastic options, since we are assuming you are already paying for Raven's suite of tools (and we are being cost-conscious) we can move ahead with rank checking from either Raven and/or our free Rank Checker.
Raven's rank checking runs once per week so it's handy to have another tool to spot check once and awhile (our Rank Checker can be run at anytime). So you are still at roughly $338. :D
Building the Site
Now that you've got most of the back-office stuff set up you can get your site on the web. Wordpress.Org is free, powerful, easy to use, and used by most web marketers that I know. Sometimes free themes can be dangerous so you have to be careful when installing those types of themes.
There are also premium Wordpress themes like Thesis and StudioPress where you can get a single license and theme for around $80. These themes have solid support and strong, built in design and SEO options (which reduces your reliance on plugins to some degree, at least the basic SEO-type ones).
If you are unfamiliar with Wordpress or HTML (if you decide to build your site outside of Wordpress) then you better become familiar with them. All the tools in the world, free or paid, won't help you if you aren't willing to learn how to use them or the underlying engine that drives them.
Lynda.Com has some solid training that covers just about everything and there are free online resources you can use like:
If you go with a free theme, or one that doesn't have SEO controls built in, then you'll want to consider the All In One SEO Pack for your SEO needs.
You can also find competent, affordable Wordpress developers or designers on sites like Elance or Odesk to help design or tweak the design of your theme.
Ok so you found a nicely designed, free theme over at Smashing Magazine and you've got the All in One SEO Pack ready to go. How about logos and content?
Logos and Content
If you want an icon for your business you can look around on a site like istockphoto.com for ideas and icon sets or you can get a ready made logo from the 99 Designs Logo Store for $99, which you can customize or have customized.
It's important to note that you don't have the rights to trademark either of these (or claim them as your own) and as time goes on and you start to brand your site, it would be wise to invest in a customized logo which you own the full rights to, can trademark as a symbol of your business, etc.
You can write the content yourself or use a service like TextBroker or the aforementioned Elance or Odesk.
For site graphics (buttons, icons, etc) you can use GraphicRiver (owned by the same folks at ThemeForest.Net) for nicely designed, affordable graphics.
You could easily budget a couple hundred bucks here for a logo, some graphical pieces, and some content (and even some stock photos from istockphoto.com) and probably have what you need to get started. Assuming that, your current cost for a 12 month period would be $538.
Promoting the Site
In just about any industry you enter, there are many ways for you to promote your site for free (minus the cost of your time of course). Twitter, Facebook, online forums, blogs, and so on are all ways to reach people in your market or niche. Using the SoloSEO link tool we mentioned before, you can find all sorts of blogs and communities related to your niche (by keyword).
You may want to hold off on monetizing the site if you are using AdSense and/or affiliate products until you've earned some semblance of trust within your market. Otherwise, you risk being shunned as someone who is just looking to make money and is not adding value or whatever.
Funny thing is, most people who'd shun you are online to make money too (weird how that works) but I digress. Point is to earn some trust (and links) before you start selling stuff or clicks.
For Twitter, you can use a site like Twellow to find people and businesses by categories and markets.
Time Cost vs $ Cost
Some of these "free" options are free in terms of $ but not in time. That's the trade off and there's no real way around it. You can likely outsource quite a bit of this stuff but then you risk losing the personal touch associated with your site or business that you are trying to brand.
Think of how often you are marketed to in a given day online.....whether its in your email, on Facebook and Twitter, those creepy ads that follow you around the web, etc. If you come out of the gate ready to add value and can hold off on monetizing for a bit (and integrate it smartly when you do) then your ahead of many other people that just want to come online and SELL SELL SELL!
Hopefully you can avoid a lot of unnecessary costs upfront which should help you with holding off on going commercial. We covered most aspects of getting started and ongoing tracking here, with a total 12/mo cost of less than $600!
Clearly if you are going into SEO on a shoestring budget, you don't want to compete for mega-competitive keywords but you can certainly take this approach with less competitive markets and scale up as needed.
Interesting post from Matt Cutts, talking about how Google is so much better now than it was in 2000.
But it’s a misconception that there was no spam on Google back then. Google in 2000 looked great in comparison with other engines at the time, but Google 2011 is much better than Google 2000. I know because back in October 2000 I sent 40,000+ queries to google.com and saved the results as a sort of search time capsule
40,000+ queries! I'm guessing he wasn't using the WebPositionGold Reporter! Little joke for the old-timers, there ;)
SEO's will notice Matt's yeark 2K SERP consists of some old skool domain spamming, with hyphen-loaded domains, which were de rigueur at the time.
How times change.
Whilst tempting to think the golden days of opportunity are behind us, the internet, and search, is still a baby.
Adwords, launched in 2000, and has created a multi-billion dollar industry. Adsense was launched in 2003. The affiliate market has grown in breadth and depth. Domain name acquisition, solely for the purposes of search positioning, is a more recent development. There has been a lot of opportunity for search marketers since 2000.
The Revolution Won't Be Televised
By the time most of us hear about the next big thing in internet marketing, the low hanging fruit will be gone.
The next money making opportunities in search, and internet marketing, will remain underground, because shouting new opportunities from the rooftops invites unwanted competition. A sure sign the horse has bolted is when someone launches an "all-new" get-rich-quick scheme on Clickbank. Consider that the mainstream media thinks SEO is new and exciting!
If we're going to continue to profit from internet marketing, then it helps to keep one eye on the future, rather than passively waiting for it to arrive.
How To See Around The Corner
Predicting the future is, of course, impossible.
However, by reading, watching and speculating we'll be less surprised when things do change. The only thing certain is change, and in internet marketing, the only thing certain is rapid change.
Here's a few ideas. If you've got some more, please share them in the comments.
Patent Filings - Bill looks at patents filed by Google and other search services. These often provide interesting insights into Google's future direction, although the filing of a patent is not an indicator that Google is making use of these ideas. Yet.
Product Announcements - watch out for new product announcements from companies related to your area of interest. Make use of Google News Alerts, and other automated news monitoring services.
Acquisitions & Mergers - Who is buying what and why? Figure out why Google wanted Groupon, and how Google's own search service could change as a result of launching a similar service.
There are a few red herrings, of course. Google acquired Blogger, and haven't done much with it. Recently, they've bought up companies who have developed speech synthesis, voice recognition, DRM, ebooks, and social gaming. At the time of writing, they're (still) interested in acquiring Twitter, as are Facebook.
History Repeats - history tends to work in cycles. The same things happen again, with a twist. Is Facebook that different from AOL, really? What previous tech trends may return, now that their time is right?
Not Typing Queries
Matt wrote what seemed like a throw-away line, or maybe he's just winding us up:
Wow, most queries were only a few words back then. And we had to type queries. How primitive!
Google claims that they do not want to police low quality content by trying to judge intent, that doing so would not be scalable enough to solve the problem, & that they need to do it algorithmically. At the same time, Google is willing to manually torch some sites and basically destroy the associated businesses. Talk to enough SEOs and you will find stories of carnage - complete decimation.
Economics Drive Everything
Content farms are driven by economics. Make them unprofitable (rather than funding them) and the problem solves itself - just like Google AdWords does with quality scores. Sure you can show up on AdWords where you don't belong and/or with a crappy scam offer, but you are priced out of the market so losses are guaranteed. Hello $100 clicks!
How many content farms would Google need to manually torch to deter investment in the category? 5? Maybe 10? 20 tops? Does that really require a new algorithmic approach on a web with 10's of millions of websites?
When Google nuked a ton of article banks a few years back the damage was fairly complete and lasted a long time. When Google nuked a ton of web directories a few years back the damage was fairly complete and lasted a long time. These were done in sweeps where on day you would see 50 sites lose their toolbar PageRank & see a swan dive in traffic. Yet content farms are a sacred cow that need an innovated "algorithmic" approach.
One Bad Page? TORCHED
If they feel an outright ban would be too much, then they could even dial the sites down over time if they desired to deter them without immediately killing them. Some bloggers who didn't know any better got torched based on a single blog post:
The Forrester report discusses a recent “sponsored conversation” from Kmart, but I doubt whether mentions that even in that small test, Google found multiple bloggers that violated our quality guidelines and we took corresponding action. Those blogs are not trusted in Google’s algorithms any more.
When you look at garbage content there are hundreds of words on the page screaming "I AM EXPLOITATIVE TRASH." Yet when you look at links they are often embedded inline and there is little context to tell if the link is paid or not, and determine if the link was an organic reference or something that is paid for.
Why is it that Google is comfortable implying intent with links, but must look the other way when it comes to content?
Media is a game of numbers, and so content companies have various layers of quality they mix in to make it harder for Google to find signal from noise. Yahoo! has fairly solid content in their sports category, but then fluff it out with top 10 lists and such from Associated Content. Now Yahoo! is hoping they can offset lower quality with a higher level of personalization:
The Yahoo platform aims to draw from a user’s declared preferences, search items, social media and other sources to find and highlight the most relevant content, according to the people familiar with the matter. It will be available on Yahoo’s Web site, but is optimized to work as an app on tablets and smartphones, and especially on Google Android and Apple devices, they said.
AOL made a big splash when they bought TechCrunch for $25 million. When AOL's editorial strategy was recently leaked it highlighted how they promoted cross linking their channels to drive SEO strategy. And, since acquisition, TechCrunch has only scaled up on the volume of content they produce. In the last 2 days I have seen 2 advertorials on TechCrunch where the conflicting relationship was only mentioned *after* you read the post. One was a Google employee suggesting Wikipedia needs ads, and the other was some social commerce platform guy promoting the social commerce revolution occurring on Facebook.
Being at the heart of technology is a great source of link equity to funnel around their websites. TechCrunch.com already has over 25% as many unique linking domains as AOL.com does. One of the few areas that is more connected on the social graph than technology is politics. AOL just bought Huffington Post for $315 million. The fusion of political bias, political connections, celebrity contributors, and pushing a guy who promoted (an ultimately empty) promise of hope and change quickly gave the Huffington Post even more link equity than TechCrunch has.
Ultimately this is where Google's head in the sand approach to content farms backfired. When content farms were isolated websites full of trash Google could have nuked them without much risk. But now that their is a blended approach and content farms are part of public companies backed by politically powerful individuals, Google can't do anything about them. Their hands are tied.
Trends in Journalism
Much like the middle class has been gutted in the United States, Ireland (and pretty much everywhere that is not Iceland) by economic policies that gut the average person to promote banking criminals, we are seeing the same thing happen online to the value of any type of online journalism. As we continue to ask people to do more for less we suffer through a lower quality user experience with more half-content that leaves out the essential bits.
The silver lining there is that if you are the employer your margins may grow, but if you are an employee & are just scraping by on $10 an hour then it increases the importance of doing something on the side to lower your perceived risk & increase your influence. A few years back Marshall Kirkpatrick started out on AOL's content farms. The tips he shared to stand out would be a competitive advantage in almost any vertical outside of technology & politics:
one day Michael Arrington called and hired me at TechCrunch. "You keep beating us to stories," he told me. I was able to do that because I was getting RSS feeds from key vendors in our market delivered by IM and SMS. That's standard practice among tech bloggers now, but at the time no one else was doing it, so I was able to cover lots of news first.
Three big tips from the "becoming a well known writer front" for new writers are...
if short form junk content is the standard then it is easier to stand out by creating long form well edited content
it is easier to be a big fish in a small pond than to try to get well known in a saturated area, so it is sometimes better to start working for niche publishers that have a strong spot in a smallish niche
if you want to target the bigger communities the most important thing to them (and the thing they are most likely to talk about) are themselves
Spam reports are prioritized by looking at how much visibility a potentially spammy site has in our search results, in order to help us focus on high-impact sites in a timely manner. For instance, we’re likely to prioritize the investigation of a site that regularly ranks on the first or second page over that of a site that only gets a few search impressions per month.
Given the widely echoed complaints on content farms, it seems Google has a different approach on content farms, especially considering that the top farms are seen by millions of searchers every month.
If end users can determine when links are paid (with limited context) then why not trust their input on judging the quality of the content as well? The Google Toolbar has a PageRank meter for assessing link authority. Why not add a meter for publisher reputation & content quality? I can hear people saying "people will use it to harm competitors" but I have also seen websites torched in Google because a competitor went on a link buying spree on behalf of their fellow webmaster. At least if someone gives you a bad rating for great content then the content still has a chance to defend its own quality.
With link stuff there is a final opinion and that is it. Not only are particular techniques of varying levels of risk, but THE prescribed analysis of intent depends on who is doing it!
Currently the theme shows the old SEO Book logo in it (as logo.gif in the theme's files). You can easily change that out with a custom logo from the likes of 99designs, CrowdSPRING, or Logo Design Works.
A couple notes of caution with that:
The dimensions of the current logo are 720 wide by a height of 154 pixels. If you change the height of the logo then you would want to adjust the height of the space above the top navigation. Currently the header div has a height of 173px, so it is set to logo height + 19 pixels.
If you order a logo you may want to color match it to the existing site design colors. For your convenience, there is a color swatch to the right & you can grab HTML colors using an extension like ColorZilla. The HTLML color code for the green is roughly #9bdc1d and the blue is roughly #5bacd8 (though both have a bit of gradient to them).
Editing the Site's Colors
Given the reliance on white in the design, it is fairly easy to change the design's colors simply by changing the color of a few images in the design. You can replace the green and blue with a wide variety of colors and still have it look good. I believe we did red and gray on PPC Blog for a while and it looked pretty good. This tool is a good tool for making gradient images. Then you can use something like SnagIt to size the images similar to the old design's images. Of course Photoshop experts should have no problems with editing the colors either. ;)
Editing the Site's Width
The white content area with a white page background makes it easy to change the theme's width in the CSS if you are pretty knowledgeable about CSS. The divs are pretty easy to understand. Container wraps around the content area. Each post div is within the content div & the sidebar is named sidebar. :)
General Disclaimers & Whatnot
First and foremost, since the theme is free it does not come with any sort of support. If you have doubts or concerns with using it then we suggest testing it out on a secondary site & customizing it as needed before putting it on your primary website.
There are a wide variety of other themes & Wordpress plugins that offer more granular SEO control. When using a theme like this one on our sites then typically we would use SEO title tag and a related posts plugin to help with SEO. If we are aiming for a fairly flat site structure then we would show excerpts on archive pages and use a different posts per page plugin to put something like 100 posts on each category page. But there are many other themes and plugins that do those sorts of things.
The template has a credit link in it. I would prefer you leave that there so others can find out how to get the theme, but if you do need to remove it all I ask is that you instead link to a charity you believe in & donate whatever you can to that charity. :)
Why Did We Switch Site Designs Here?
The above design was live on our site for nearly 5 years. And I would have kept rolling with it if our site didn't become so complex. One of the leading complaints about our old site was how navigation was inconsistent in different parts of the site.
The site started off as a blog which happened to sell an ebook, but over time as it grew to have dozens of tools, 100+ training modules, thousands of blog posts, etc. Given all the various user rolls and login permissions it was important for us to tighten up our navigation and make it more consistent (with the use of sitewide drop downs and such). I plan on using our old design on a few of our other websites that are less complex and more bloggy. And I hope you like it too! :)
How is this different to what a Content Farm does? So, if Content Farm pages are undesirable, so too is SEO content?
Low Quality Content?
Perhaps people take issue with low-quality content.
The problem with arguments about quality is that such arguments are subjective. Is Wikipedia quality? How about the Huffington Post? Wikipedia is full of inaccuracies, and the Huffington Post is not above fixating on trivia, like what - or who - Charlie Sheen did in the weekend. These exact same criticisms are often leveled against Content Farms.
One could argue that those two sources at least attempt to provide a high degree of quality, most of time. However, quality is in the eye of the beholder. eHow may not be to everyone's taste, but it isn't true to say eHow is all worthless, to all people, all of the time. Perhaps some people don't want to wade through the dense academia of Wikipedia. They simply want someone to tell them what that weird spot is on their cat's mouth.
How One Content Farm Describes Other Content Farms
What is a Content Farm, anyway? Is a magazine a Content Farm? Wikipedia's own definition of a Content Farm displays the same level of trite fluff often found on eHow:
"The articles in content farms are written by human beings but may not be written by a specialist in the area" The same could be said of many newspapers, websites and magazines. So what?
"Content farms are criticized for providing relatively low quality content as they maximize profit by producing just "good enough" rather than best possible quality articles". If that criteria was applied to all publishers, most would disappear overnight.
"A typical content writer is a female with children that contrasts with sites expecting voluntary unpaid contribution for the sake of idea....." . Seriously, WTF?
Economics Drive EVERYTHING
Now, I'm not saying I like the fact that Google searches often return fluff content. But that problem is a direct result of the economics of the web. It's difficult to publish "quality" web content that provides a return to the writer, so it shouldn't come as any surprise that publishers either drive down the cost of production, erect pay-walls, or simply never publish in the first place.
Who Hates Content Farms?
Criticism regarding Content Farms appears to be coming from two camps.
One camp consists of professional journalists and established publishers. This is hardly surprising, as the Content Farms are undermining their publishing model. If the reader doesn't care much about standards, then it's difficult to charge a premium for them.
The other camp is SEOs, which is odd, given that Demand Media appears to be built around an applied SEO model. Perhaps some people just don't like the competition.
I guess the important aspect, as far as SEOs are concerned, is how Google defines a Content Farm, and what they intend to do about them.
"As “pure webspam” has decreased over time, attention has shifted instead to “content farms,” which are sites with shallow or low-quality content. In 2010, we launched two major algorithmic changes focused on low-quality sites. Nonetheless, we hear the feedback from the web loud and clear: people are asking for even stronger action on content farms and sites that consist primarily of spammy or low-quality content."
Matt's definition of spam has been reasonably consistent over the years, and is detailed on Google's Webmaster Guidelines. The interesting bit is Google's definition of "low-quality content". Well, it would be if they would tell us, but they don't.
Six of One, a Half Dozen of the Other
Put it this way. Any algorithm that takes out Demand Media content is going to take out a lot of SEO content, too. SEO copy-writing? What is that? That's what Demand Media do. As I outlined in the first paragraph, a lot of SEO content in not that different, and any algorithm that targets Demand Media's content isn't going to see any difference. Keyword traffic stream identical to title tag? Yep. A couple of hundred words? Yep. SEO format? Yep. Repeats keywords and keyword phrases a few times? Yep. Contributes to the betterment of mankind? Nope.
SEO's need to be careful what they wish for.
Barry reports Google hasn't rolled out their Content Farm algo, if indeed there is such a thing: "After we spoke with Matt Cutts today, we learned that the new algorithm that went live last week is related to blocking low quality content scraper sites and not content farms".
A few months back I was running Advanced Web Ranking and noticed that Google and Bing were really starting to come in line on some keywords.
Of course there are still differences between Bing and Google.
Google has far more usage data built up over the years & a huge market share advantage over Bing in literally every global market. Microsoft's poor branding in search meant they had roughly 0 leverage in the marketplace until they launched the Bing brand. That longer experience in search is likely what gives Google the confidence to have a much deeper crawl.
That head start also means that Google has been working on understanding word meanings and adjusting their vocabulary far longer, which also gives them the confidence to be able to use word relationships more aggressively (when Bing came to market part of their ad campaign was built on teasing Google for this). The last big difference from an interface perspective would be that Google forces searchers down certain paths with their Google Instant search suggestions.
Who Copied Who?
But the similarities between the search engines are far greater than their differences.
At the core of Google's search relevancy algorithm is PageRank and link analysis. Bing places a lot of weight on those as well.
Google also factors in the domain name into their relevancy algorithms. So does Bing.
Google has long had universal search & Bing copied it.
Google has tried to innovate by localizing search results. Bing localizes results as well.
Bing moved the right rail ads closer to the organic search results. Google copied them.
Bing put a fourth ad above the organic search results. Google began listing vertical CPA ad units for mortgages and credit cards above the organic search results - a fourth ad unit.
Bing has a homepage background image. Google copied them by allowing you to upload a personalized homepage logo.
Bing offers left rail navigation to filter the search results. Google copied them by offering the same.
Bing innovated in travel search. Google is trying to buy the underlying data provider ITA Software.
Bing included Freebase content in their search results. Google bought Metawebs, which owns Freebase.
Bing offered infinite scroll and a unique image search experience that highlights the images. Google copied it.
Oh, The Outrage
Off the start Bing was playing catch up, but almost anything they have ever tried which has truly differentiated their experience ended up copied by Google. Recently Google conducted a black PR campaign to smear Bing for using usage data across multiple search engines to improve their relevancy. The money quote would be:
Those results from Google are then more likely to show up on Bing. Put another way, some Bing results increasingly look like an incomplete, stale version of Google results—a cheap imitation.
Perhaps why Google finds this so annoying is that it allows Microsoft to refine their "crawl" & relevancy process on tail keywords, which are the hardest ones to get right (because as engines get deeper into search they have fewer signals to work with and a lot more spam). It allows Microsoft to conduct tests which compare their own internal algorithms against Google's top listings on the fly & learn from them. It takes away some of Google's economies of scale advantages.
Is Google Eating Its Own Home Cooking (And Throwing UP?)
Here is what I don't get about Google's complaints though. Google had no problem borrowing a half-dozen innovations from Bing. But this is how Google describes Bing's "nefarious" activities:
“It’s cheating to me because we work incredibly hard and have done so for years but they just get there based on our hard work,” said Singhal. “I don’t know how else to call it but plain and simple cheating. Another analogy is that it’s like running a marathon and carrying someone else on your back, who jumps off just before the finish line.”
When a content site compiles reviews, creates editorial features to highlight the best reviews (and best reviewers), and works to create algorithms to filter out junk and spam then Google is fine with Google eating all that work for free. Google then jumps off their backs just before the finish line and throws the repurposed reviews in front of Google searchers.
This public blanket admission of Microsoft using clickstream data for relevancy purposes is helpful. But outside of the PR smear campaign from Google there wasn't much new to learn here, as this has been a bit of an open secret amongst those in the know in the search space for well over a year now.
But the idea of using existing traffic stream data as a signal increases the value of having a strong diversified traffic flow which leverages:
Recently we tested adding ads on one of our websites that had a fairly uninspired design on it. After adding the ads (which make the site feel a bit less credible) the new design was so much better fitting than the old one that the site now gets 26% more pageviews per visit. Anytime you can put something on your website which increases monetization, sends visitors away & yet still get more user engagement you are making a positive change!
If You Can't Beat Em, Filter
I was being a bit of a joker when I created this, but the point remains that as larger search engines force feed junk (content mills and vertical search results) down end user's throats that some of the best ways for upstart search engines to compete is to filter that stuff out. Both DuckDuckGo and Blekko have done just that.