Niche Hunting

If you're the type of SEO who builds and markets a variety of sites, there's something very satisfying about spotting an area that few people occupy, and making it your own!

There are various software programs available that help you find niches, often based on finding keyword terms with high traffic and low, or no, PPC bids. These tools can be very useful for keyword list building, however finding great niches requires a little more analysis to establish viability.

Let's take a look at a few ideas on how to weed out the most lucrative possibilities.

1. Choose An Area Of Interest

It's not necessary to pick an area you're interested in, but there are strong reasons to do so.

If you're passionate about something, you're more likely to go the extra mile, especially when the going gets tough. Any endevour involves a period of struggle where it's difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and often the only thing that keeps us going is sheer force of will. If you're interested in what you're doing, it's easier to ride out this period.

This doesn't mean you must pick an area you already know. You could pick an entirely new area that you'd like to learn more about. Make a list of areas that appeal to you. Think about business transactions and purchases you have been involved with, and see if any hold appeal in terms of interest, as if your aim is take make money, it's important that any niche you choose has a commercial imperative.

2. Solve A Problem

Make a list of areas you're interested in, or would be interested in learning about. Next to each topic or keyword term, outline a burning problem that needs to be solved associated with that topic. For example, the term "fishing" may be associated with the problem "how can I compare fishing vacations easily?".

It is more likely you will find a lucrative niche if you attempt to solve a real problem for people. Be careful to avoid imagined problems. For example, we might find that there are no rasberry-flavored beer available, which may well be an untapped niche, but a lack of raspberry-flavored beer isn't a real problem for people.

Then again...

3. How Much Do you Know?

Once you have a list of topics you're interested in, along with associated problems that need solving, ask yourself how much you know about each area.

Obviously, you'll save time if you already know a lot about an area, and it's unlikely you'll be able to exploit a niche if you don't know much about it. It's never a great position to be in where the customers know a lot more about a product or service than you do!

4. What Type Of Operation Suits You?

You'll likely make your money in one of five ways: advertising (i.e. adsense), affiliate, selling services, selling information, or selling product.

You may combine them, too, of course. Each has pros and cons, in terms of what suits your circumstances. Do you have room to hold stock? Do you enjoy direct contact with customers? Do you want full control, or are you happy to hand over fulfillment to a third-party?

Does the niche have appropriate suppliers that match the type of operation your wish to run?

5. Does The Niche Have Online Potential?

It may sound obvious, but not everything is suited for selling over the internet. Gas, for example.

There may be a good reason the niche you've spotted hasn't been tapped. Perhaps it just doesn't work on the internet. This is why it's important to test market before you dive in deep. Try setting up PPC campaigns that lead to a site designed to collect, say, e-mail sign-ups. This will help you gauge the level of interest, to a degree, without the cost of gearing up the back end.

Cut the losers early, run with the winners.

6. Who Are Your Customers?

Demographic reports, market reports and data can make for interesting reading. Check out free reports from research companies, such as Nielsen.

When it comes to online commerce, one important aspect to consider is the access your demographic has to credit or debit cards. The children's/youth market, for example. Or people with poor/no credit.

In some international markets, credit card use isn't as widespread as in the US.

7. Do Visitors Have Commercial Intent?

As you probably know, there are three types of searches: navigational, informational, and transational.

Unless you're looking for a hobby niche, and whilst there is some cross-over between the search types, you'll likely focus on areas where the intent is to transact - to perform a web-mediated activity, and that that activity has commercial intent.

Clues regarding search type are hinted at in the keyword phrase, such as "buy x", "where can I order y", are transactional, whereas "Microsoft" is likely navigational. There are many less overt permeations, too of course, however the point is to hone in on keywords that hint at commercial endevour.

8. Estimate How Much The Niche Is Worth

Get a rough guide of how much a niche might be worth. This will give you a feel for how much you can spend carving it out, or whether your time may be better spent on a more lucrative niche instead.

It's a good idea to look up the Adwords bids and traffic volumes. The higher the bids, the more lucrative an area tends to be, however if your niche is genuinely undiscovered, then it's likely to have traffic volume, but little bidder competition, as few other advertisers have spotted it.

Again, you can test market a niche using PPC and a basic website, where the aim is to see how many people click through from an advertisement, and perhaps show a level of buying interest. Once you have some idea of traffic, you can guess at a likely conversion rate - common industry guesstimates are around 3-8% - and then run your numbers. Conversion rates can be a lot higher if what you offer is in high demand, and in short supply, of course.

Sometimes, the figure you end up with might be too low for you to make any money, but it's good to know that now, rather than commit a lot of time and resources to an unworkable niche.

9. Market Trends

Is the market you plan to enter rising or falling? You can make money in either market, of course, but people tend to want to enter either fast rising new markets, or markets where demand is fairly steady, as opposed to diminishing.

Check out trend tools, such as Google Trends, Trendistic, and Microsoft Ad Intelligence.

Also,resources such as Trendspotting and TrendHuter.

10. What Are Your Competitors Doing?

If you're lucky enough to have found a niche with no competitors, well done. However, it is likely you'll have at least some competitors. It pays to know what they're doing, so you can emulate them, and go one better, or blow them out of the water by offering something they are not.

Look to see who is advertising via PPC, and who is doing SEO in your niche. How agressive are they? What approach are they taking? Can you make better offers that they make? Can you modify the niche slightly so you've not competing directly with them? Your customers will compare offers, so make sure your offer is competitive.

Check out competitive intelligence tools, such as Spy Fu, KeywordSpy and SEMRush

Social Spam Required by Bing & Google

If the social sites were isolated I would comfortably ignore them as a waste of time. Unfortunately, search engines are convinced there is signal to be had on social networks (in spite of how easy they are to game with promotions).

If I wasn't super busy I would run one such promotion to prove my point, but I am already drowning in email.

Bing + Facebook

Bing is pushing Facebook integration everywhere. TV ads, on the search results, etc.

"Open" Cultural Revolution

Shortly after gutting RSS & making authentication harder (to lock down their "open" platform) Twitter announced they were going to test in-stream ads & turned on sending out automated email spam.


How valuable is that email? How about "not at all" for $500 Alex?

I think Fantomaster is brilliant, but I would much rather read one of his blog posts that dozens or hundreds of Tweets. Sure knowing that 9,000 might have saw a message can be comforting, but 1 blog post will get you way more views (and with far deeper context & meaning).

How to Test the Value of Social Media

Want to see big numbers get small quickly? Try charging little as $1 & you will quickly see that social media is mostly garbage. Alternatively, try giving away $5 or paying for the in-stream ads that directly manipulate relevancy & once again you will see how worthless social media is as a signal...something that anyone can quickly buy.

Even scientists (who typically pursue the truth even if it is uncomfortable) are considering investing in manipulating their online reputation:

Online reputation is important to most researchers, and about 10% of respondents to our survey complained that they or their work have been misrepresented on the Internet. The web has a long memory, and rumours, lies and bad information can spiral out of control to be remembered by posterity.

Implementation Tips

For a lot of businesses the social media stuff will be nothing but blood & tears. A resource drain that money, time & hope gets poured into with nothing coming out the other end.

That said, I don't think ignoring it is a wise decision at this point. The best tip I have for most people is to try to set up automated systems that help your social signal grow automatically. That can mean onsite integration & perhaps a small token amount of advertising. Beyond that it is probably only participating as much as you enjoy it. And if you are more of a huckster/PR type, pay attention to how folks like Jason Calacanis leverage these channels.

The second best tip would be measure it with stats that actually matter. Revenue and profit are important. Time spent tracking the number of retweets is probably better spent building more content or improving your business in other ways. If you have something that works the rabbit hole goes deep, but if it isn't working then it is likely better spending your time being a bigger fish in a smaller pond.

Inspired by Barry's implementation, we recently added the social buttons to the left rail of the site. That is probably one of the best types of integration you can do, because it is out of the way for those who don't know what it is and/or want to ignore it, but it stays right in the same spot (always visible) for anyone who is interested in those types of buttons.

What Makes the Web Great (for Small Businesses)

Two things that make the web great are the ability to fail fast (and cheaply) & the ability to focus deeply. If social media increases the operating cost (being yet another hoop you have to jump through) & robs valuable attention that could go into your website then it is 0-for-2.

Sure there will be some edge case successes (like luxury brands maintaining their positions), but success from newer & smaller players will be uncommon exceptions (often operating outside the terms of service).

Google Leveraging Search to Push Social Junk

Google is pushing hard on identity to try to make search more social, with authorship markup & author highlighting within the search results.

It remains to be seen if an author will be able to carry his or her trust with them to their next gig, but if they can then that would make the media ecosystem more fluid & pull some amount of power away from traditional publishers. Some publishers are suggesting putting their book content online as HTML pages...well if they are doing that then why doesn't the author just install Wordpress and keep more of the value chain themselves (like J.K. Rowling just did)?

Google launched their Google+ social project & their +1 votes increase organic CTR (but highlighting that trend with "analytics" is almost like it is out of "Lying with Numbers" as one would expect a higher CTR since those who "vote" for you are more likely to be fans, who tend to be repeat visitors to your site ... which is exactly why we get more search traffic from Google for "seo book" than we do for "seo").

Google emailed AdWords advertisers encouraging them to mark up their pages with +1 & inside the AdSense interface Google also offers +1 integration tips:

The AdWords help files state clearly that +1 *is* a search relevancy signal:

+1's (whatever their source -- organic search, ads, or +1 buttons on publisher sites) is a signal that affects organic search ranking, but +1's do not change quality scores for ads and ad ranking.

Like any of the brand-related signals Google has been leaning into for the past couple years, the +1 button will favor big brands.

The impact & effect is so obvious that Google's help docs contain the following question: "Will the +1 button make it harder for my small business to compete with larger companies?"

Their answer to that question is generally "no" but that they would even ask themselves that question is fallacious Orwellian duplicity.

Would you trust the local plumber to work on your house if he was posting "exciting viral content" online about how some projects went astray? Now every plumber needs to become a marketing expert to not get driven off the web by Roto-Rooter & other chain-styled companies that can collect +1 signals from all their employees & some of their customers across the country or around the world.

Google knows they are tilting the search game toward those who have money. They even flaunt it in their display ads!

Google claimed that facial recognition was evil so that they could make Facebook look bad, but if you listen to Google for long enough you will see that they claim the opposite of their recent claims whenever it is convenient:

Google itself explains that not allowing its device maker partners to ship Skyhook's software was just, the way Google describes it, a necessary measure to prevent damage (Google says "detriment", which is the Anglicized version of the Latin word for "damage") from being caused to the whole ecosystem.

But Google does not want to allow Oracle to control Java the way Google controls Android.

Google today is saying that "social media is important." Just look at their wave of product announcements & their bonus structure.

I loathe the approach (and the message), but I accept it. ;)

Turning Traffic Into Customers

Why do we try to rank sites high in the search results?

Obviously, SEO is a traffic acquisition strategy. We seek to direct audiences who are interested in our products, services or ideas to our sites, rather than those of our competitors.

We expend time and energy getting a site to rank a few places higher, or for a wider range of keywords, but it also pays to focus our attention on what happens after visitors arrive. If visitors arrive, but click-back because a site isn't what they expected to see, then the effort we've put into ranking is wasted.

PPC marketers tend to focus a lot of their energy on what happens after the click. Because they are paying per click, there is significant jeopardy involved if visitors do click back, but it's also a discipline that can prove lucrative for SEOs. Many SEOs do this already, of course, however if you're new to the field, then it is easy to get bogged down in ranking methodology without giving much thought to what happens next.

Let's look at ways of making better use of the traffic we already have.

The State Of The Internet

In times past, producers could dictate to markets. You may recall Henry Ford's maxim when he talked about the Model T Ford: "You can have any color, so long as it is black!"

Producers were able to dictate to consumers when there wasn't much in the way of consumer choice. Markets weren't deep with competition. This was also sometimes a result of market sectors enjoying regulatory protection against new competitors.

The internet is the opposite.

The internet is a deep amalgamation of markets. Anyone, anywhere, can set up a "store front" - web presence - in a few days, or even a few minutes. There are few barriers to entry, and there are many new sites launching each second. This environment shifts the power from producer to consumer, as the consumer can exercise choice. On the internet, exercising that choice is often little more than a click of a mouse.

In such an environment, user-centric marketing is primary. If we don't satisfy visitors, it's very easy for them to go elsewhere. There is little point positioning #1 if the visitor is dissatisfied with what she sees, clicks back, and clicks on your competitors result further down the search result page instead. It could also be argued Google are using user behavior as a metric, so if enough users don't find what they were looking for on your site, this could, in turn, affect your ranking.

So what makes a visitor decide to leave or stay?

Typically, visitors will judge quickly. User testing has shown that visitors will first scan your page to see if it answers their query. If not, they go elsewhere. If you look at your stats, you might find this is the behavior of high proportion of your visitors. Visitors are also unlikely to wrestle with a site they don't intuitively understand, unless they really want what you've got, and you don't have any competitors.

Keep these points in mind:

  • users have choice
  • users will be quick to judge
  • users don't want to think

Three aspects need to work in tandem in order to get visitors to engage - design, usability and utility

Visual Design

First impressions count, hence the reason for appropriate graphic design.

What is "appropriate"? Naturally, it will differ for every site and audience, and largely comes down to how well you understand your visitors. A high-end fashion designer, who focuses on desirability and image is going to use a different visual design approach to a webmaster running a site for the academic community. The latter site design is more likely to focus on function as opposed to glossy form as commercial gloss can be perceived by an academic audience as being frivolous.

What both approaches have in common is that the visitor will be shown something they expect to see. This underscores the need to understand visitors. We'll look at ways you can approach this in the steps section below.

The next concept is.....


Once the visitor decides they are in the right place, the next step they need to take should be patently obvious. Usability is a practice that involves making sites easy to use. In terms of operation, sites should be made as simple as possible, and not indulge in complex navigation schemes.

Because users can easily go to another site, there is little incentive for them to wrestle with your site, so if you make it difficult for people to engage with you, many will not bother.


So, if we've got the visitor this far, they like the look of our site, and the visitor can find their way around easily.

But that isn't enough.

The visitor also needs a good reason to engage with us. What are you offering them? What do you offer them that is better than what the other guy offers? This is where your business strategy is important, especially your unique selling proposition. Do you offer something they really want? If not, rethink your offer.

Not only does the visitor need to be provided with a good reason to engage with you, this reason must be stated clearly. It must be self-evident. If the user has to go hunting for it, because it is buried in dense text on page three, then the visitor is likely to click back. Make sure your offer is writ large.

So, those are the three areas that need to tie together if we are to keep users: visual design, usability and utility.

Let's look at the practicalities.

Practical Tips

1. Create An Appropriate Design

Evaluate your competitors, especially your most successful competitors. Are there similarities in approach in terms of visual design? "Steal" ideas from the best, and twist them into something fresh, yet familiar.

Know your visitors. Who are they? What do they expect to see? You can often get demographic research reports from marketing companies that will help you profile your visitors. Surveys, polls and enabling comments are some other ways to get feedback.

Test. Use a/b testing to see how visitors react to different designs. There are free tools you can use, such as Google's Optimizer

Intuition and experience. Design often comes down to intuition, and what has worked in the past. If you're not a designer, employ someone who understands user-centric design and usability. Many web projects are blown by designers who focus on bells and whistles, as opposed to what is most appropriate.

2. Ensure Your Site Is Easy To Use

Read up on usability. Recommended resources include UseIt, Don't Make Me Think, and A List Apart (Usability Section)

Test. Track your logs to monitor user behavior. If you can, stand behind test users as they navigate your site. Look for any common impediments to their progress, and redesign as necessary.

3. Have you Articulated A Convincing Reason For People To Engage

Go back to your business case. Do you have a competitive offer? What is special about your pitch that will appeal to visitors?

Once you have identified the key points that differentiate you, ensure that these points are obvious to visitor. One good way to test this is with a spoken elevator pitch. Make an elevator pitch to your friends, and see if they are clear about what your offer is. What parts of the offer are they most responsive to, and why? Once you have honed a compelling pitch, translate this into the written word - or video - or sound file - on your website.

Address their objections. Not only do you need to appeal to what visitors want, you must also anticipate any objections they may have. Spell these out, then answer them.

Want to see an example of how this stuff comes together? Check out the front page of SEO Book.

Test :) As any PPC-er will tell you - always test.

Blekko Offers a Cool Blind Taste Test Tool

In any market where the leader has a monopolistic marketshare it is a great idea to encourage innovation elsewhere and promote further competition. In the past Blekko was a great SEO data source but I couldn't use it as a default search service because the auto-firing of their slashtags were in many cases too restrictive. They did a recent update which still fires slashtag results, but now rather than requiring results to be part of that slashtag they allow the slashtags to compliment their search results.

That change has put their relevancy on par with Google & Bing for many head search queries, though a larger index size would likely help them score better on tail search queries. To help end users compare the results from the 3 leading search engines Blekko launched a meta-search service named 3 engine monte, where you can do a blind taste test of the search results from all 3 engines side-by-side.

The 3 engine monte tool is a great way to troubleshoot SEO issues, allowing you to quickly see if you are having issues with a particular search engine, or if the problem is something happening across the board. It is also a useful tool for checking out some of the algorithmic differences between search engines to understand how things like the Panda/brand layer impacts Google.

Machine Readable Disclosure

You Must Disclose, or Else...

Matt Cutts has long stated that machine-readable disclosure of paid links is required to be within Google's guidelines.

The idea behind such Cassandra calls is that the web should be graded based on merit, rather than who has the largest ad budget. The Google founders harped on this in their early research:

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

Google is not the only search engine in town, and they have been less forthcoming with their own behavior than what they demand of others.

Ads as Content

Both SugarRae and I have highlighted how Google's investment in VigLink is (at best) sketchy given Google's approach to non-Google affiliate links. And now Google's "ads as content" program has spread to Youtube, where Google counts ad views as video views. The problem with this is that any external search service has no way to separate out which views were organic & which were driven by paid exposure.

(Google has access to that data since they charge the advertisers for each view, but there is no way for any external party to access that data, or know how Google is using it other than what Google states publicly).

That is the *exact* type of pollution Google claimed would undermine the web. But it is only bad when someone is doing it to Google (rather than the other way around).

Youtube = Wikipedia + Wikipedia + Wikipedia

As independent webmasters it can be annoying seeing Wikipedia rank for everything under the sun, but after Google's "universal search" push Youtube is far more dominant than Wikipedia. When the Panda update happened Youtube was around 4% of Google's downstream traffic. Youtube has grown their Google-referred traffic by about 4% a month since Panda, up until last month, in which it grew by 18.3% according to That now puts Youtube at over 5% of Google's downstream traffic (over 3x as much traffic as Wikipedia gets from Google)!

1 in 20 downstream clicks is landing onto a nepotistic property where Google has blurred the lines between ads and content, making it essentially impossible for competing search services to score relevancy (in addition to making features inaccessible, the data that is accessible is polluted). It is unsurprising that Youtube is a significant anti-trust issue:

Google acquired YouTube—and since then it has put in place a growing number of technical measures to restrict competing search engines from properly accessing it for their search results. Without proper access to YouTube, Bing and other search engines cannot stand with Google on an equal footing in returning search results with links to YouTube videos and that, of course, drives more users away from competitors and to Google.

Google promotes "openness" wherever they are weak, and then they erect proprietary barriers to erode competitive threat wherever they are strong.

Playing Politics

At some point it is hard to operate as a monopoly without being blindingly hypocritical. And this is at the core of why Google's leading engineers feel the need to write guest articles in Politico & Eric Schmidt is working directly with governments to prevent regulatory action. They understand that if they curry favor they can better limit the damage and have more control of what sacrificial anodes die in the eventual anti-trust proceedings.

Is Google Lying Again?

As a marketer & a publisher you can go bankrupt before governments react to monopolies. Thus you need to decide what risks are worthwhile & what suggestions carry any weight.

Here is the litmus test for "is this piece of information from Google more self-serving garbage" ... does Google apply the same principals to itself in markets it is easily winning AND markets it is losing badly?

If their suggestion doesn't apply to Google across-the-board then you can safely ignore it as more self-serving drivel from a monopolist.

The True Value Of Links

Do you know anyone who got their rankings back after Update Panda trashed their site?

There may be some, and there may be some people who get their rankings back eventually, but the problem is a fundamental one:

If the Google dragon flicks her tail in your direction, and all you rely on is rankings, you're screwed

That's life in SEO. Google flicks her tail, and some webmasters may never be heard from again. The solution to this problem isn't to hope and pray the dragon won't target you. The solution is to acknowledge that the dragon has the power to make your life miserable, and figure out ways to avoid that pain in future.

Develop Real Networks, Not Just Link Networks

Links are the arteries of the web. Traffic flows via links, be they PPC, hyperlinks, or Facebook friend requests.

Of course, SEO's worked out some time ago that hyperlinks have another value. Google uses links to "keep score". To paraphrase, if you have a lot of "good quality" links pointing to your page, Google gives you a high score, and rewards you with a high ranking.

This way of thinking can cause problems.

If our link building strategies only relate to ranking, and not link traffic, then we're vulnerable to changes in the way Google keeps score. If, however, we look at link building in terms of traffic, arriving via those links, then we're less vulnerable to Google's whims. If, for whatever reason, we are no longer ranked well, we'd still have traffic flows via the links.

This is not to say link building for the purposes of ranking is redundant. Google's not that clever. Yet. However, if we're overly focused on ranking, which is one form of traffic acquisition, and not spreading our traffic acquisition methods, then it leaves us vulnerable to Gogole's ranking methodology, over which we have no control.

What Is A Link?

A link is a connection between people.

Remember the six degrees of separation? The idea that everyone is approximately six steps away from any other person on Earth, so that a chain of, "a friend of a friend" statements can be made, on average, to connect any two people in six steps or fewer.

The connection on the web is more like one-to-one, especially when you can "friend" the President Of The United States on Facebook. Well, one of his staffers, but you get my drift :)

We're not that far away from other people.

The ability to connect with anyone on the web, in one step, is profound and powerful. Once connections are made between people, stuff happens. The stronger the connection, the more great stuff can happen. But this doesn't happen if we just view a link as a means to get a high ranking. We miss the opportunity to build something with greater staying power:

Real relationships.

And if you believe the pundits, Google will be looking more carefully at real relationships, as opposed to the...cough..."manufactured" kind, in future.

Techniques & Strategy

Here a few ideas on how to add another layer to your link building activities.

1. Identify The Top People In Your Niche

Who writes about what you do? Think reporters, bloggers, forums, industry leaders, pundits and conference organizers.

These people are also highly likely to link to you, if you give them a good enough reason. A good enough reason is unlikely to be "I've linked to you, so please link back". Remember, our aim is not just to get links, it is to get links that produce traffic, too.

A good enough reason is that you interest them. In order to do that, you need to learn a bit about them, such as what they've linked to in the past, and why. What are the current hot topics? Industry talking points? Where is the industry heading? Make a list of the top ten ranking sites, trace their back-links back, and see who is talking about those sites, and why.

2. Give Forward

Link out to them.

Linking to someone is a great way to get on their radar. Do you follow your inbound links to see who is linking to your site, and why? Chances are, they do, too.

Don't use any old link. Link to them from a well-considered, thoughtful, in-depth piece about a current industry talking point. Because when they follow the link back, they're more likely to engage with you if you've given them something to interesting to engage with. They also may feel they owe you something, as you have done something for them.

Consider what might make this person engage. Perhaps you stroke their ego a little. If you make them look good, chances are they'll want to highlight this fact to others. You could challenge their point of view, so they engage in a debate with you by responding back to you on their own site.

3. Start A Conversation

You could view #2 as one-off tactic, but it's more lucrative if you see it as part of an on-going process.

The world of SEO could be likened to a conversation that's been going on since 1995. The conversation now has many participants, many of whom cover exactly the same ground, however it's the unique, authoritative voices that stand out.

Chances are, their "voice" didn't just happen overnight. They participate constantly, and have done so for years. They get in-front of the industry, regularly, wherever the industry happens to be looking.

They also tend to lead it. If you want a lot of links that you never have to ask for, then it's a good idea to first give people something really worth linking to, and talking about, on a regular basis.

4. Get A Story

But what happens to the people who run a sales catalog? A brochure website? No one links to such sites anymore!

The strategy I'm outlining is about networks of people, as opposed to link networks that have little value, besides ranking factors. Consider Zappos. Consider the founder, Nick Swinmurn. People talk about the company - and link to it. People talk about the founder and CEO - and link up.

Few people link to the shoes, and even if they did, that's not a make or break for Zappos. The story is the interesting thing, and that resonates through different media, and results in links. Real links - the kind of links people travel down and end up customers.

Ok, so Zappos were very successful. Silicon Valley loves talking about successful tech companies. But this can happen in small, local niches, too. So long as you have a memorable, compelling story, that you hussle, links - real links - will follow. Do you give to local charities? Have you created interesting processes that small business sites may like to profile? It might not relate directly to what you're trying to sell, but it does result in building up real networks of people.

5. Carry On The Conversation

Link building is a tactic. We can buy links. We can automate links. We can spam it up!

But when Google changes the game, as they often do, you're not left with much if your entire strategy is based on technical hacks. Perhaps the richer, more secure long-term approach is to seek another level of value from your links. Go back to the original idea of a link, which was a connection between two people. Someone saying "hey this is interesting!". Once someone does that, we can engage in a conversation, and it can build from there.

Google can't kill that.

If you're interesting, and other people find you interesting, then ranking is no longer a make or break position.

101 Ways to Become a Brand

Is SEO Irreducibly Complex?

In his book, Origin of Species, Charles Darwin says that:

"If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down."

This is typically used by proponents of Intelligent Design to state their case against evolution by invoking the principle of Irreducible Complexity, which is to say that:

This applies to any system of interacting parts in which the removal of any one part destroys the function of the entire system. An irreducibly complex system, then, requires each and every component to be in place before it will function

Essentially the idea is that something that is irreducibly complex does not evolve to its state in a gradual manner (like evolution) and so the scientific research process of how X came into being is mostly irrelevant versus something that has evolved over time (like an algorithm). A man made algorithm fits into both categories.

What creature could be more complex than a creature which not only was part of natural evolution but also has elements of intelligent design within its core?

How does this apply to SEO? Google's algorithm evolves and it certainly fits precisely with how Darwin laid out the basis of his theory of evolution (numerous, successive, slight modifications in general) but by human hand and captured data.

Of course, sometimes Google makes a big update but generally speaking they make lots of minor updates per year.

Consider that a couple years back in 2009 they claim to have made just south of 500 updates in that year alone.

So the point I'm making is that SEO is both irreducibly complex (remove the hand of man and it would no longer evolve or even work as intended) and a product of a natural evolutionary process (the constantly adjusted algorithm) with layers and layers of thousands of changes over time, full of small and large complexities. These two characteristics make the process of trying to break it down to a stagnant formula with assigned percentages you can attribute to a majority of examples (with confidence) cumbersome and inaccurate.

Forcing Simplicity Creates Complexity

If you read a bunch of SEO blogs you might feel a bit overwhelmed with where to start and what to do. Some blogs tend to be information-heavy, some heavy in theory and (attempted) science, some straight news oriented, and some that are of the good old fashioned boot in your rear end "get something done now" genre.

I think it's important to pick blogs to read from those aforementioned areas of the industry to help get a well-rounded view of the SEO space. However, sometimes I think the more simple you try to make something, say like trying to whittle SEO down to a push button solution, the more complex you make things because then you need to have sound, reliable data to back up those kinds of claims and solutions.

If data starts reading out 50/50 or 60/40 probabilities then that's not really sound science at all. In fact, if anything, it just shows that some things cannot be broken down into a push button forumla or a statistic with any reliability whatsoever. It probably makes for good salesmanship when you want to wow a client with your superior knowledge but it also makes for laughable science, kind of like this kind of science:

The real problem is that Google claims to have more than 200 parts to its algorithm (which we obviously don't have available for studying :) ). Even if you call it an even 200 what about the different weight each factor has? Surely each does not represent 0.5% of the algorithm.

When you dive into trying to mathematically and scientifically break down a formula, of which you know an average (at best) amount of the variables + their direct effects, you actually create more confusion because you have to go out and find examples proving a specific theory while ignoring ones that point in the other direction.

Figuring Out the Variables

I think the annual SeoMoz Search Engine Ranking Factors is a worthy read as they pull data from lots and lots of respected folks in the industry and the presentation is top notch. I think overall it's a good representation of the factors you will need to face when conducting an SEO campaign.

Another good page to bookmark is this page from Search Engine Journal which has guesstimates of what they feel these elusive variables might be.

It can be hard to isolate really specific types of variables because of the constant Google updates, the other factors that are involved with your site and its ranking, and anything being done by the competition. You can test elements for sure, things like:

  • Does X link pass any pop?
  • Seeing if a couple pages pass juice on a 301 before 301-ing an entire site
  • On-page elements like title tag changes, internal linking, and external linking
  • An so on and so on..

The issues are still there though, even with "testing". It is still really, really hard to sell off a scientific breakdown of a consistent path to success beyond high-level ideas like:

  • Become a brand (brand signals, social media signals, offline branding, nice site design, etc)
  • Lots of links from unique domains (preferably good ones of course)
  • A good natural mix of anchor text
  • Great user experience and deep user engagement
  • Targeted content which gives the user exactly what they are looking for

I think that for someone looking to move forward in their SEO career it is important to try and remove the idea that you can break down the factors into exact numbers, as far as value of each individual variable goes. Anyone who practices SEO will likely tell you that you simply want to win more than you lose and even if you are on top of your game you still will have site failures here and there.

The issue of failing might not even be because of some current practice. You could be sailing right along and all of a sudden a Google update cleans your clock (another good reason to be involved with multiple projects).

You might spend more time agonizing over some magic formula or avoiding a project because some tool told you it was too competitive (rather than your knowledge) than building out multiple web properties to weather the expected storms and the ebbs and flows of the web.

Dealing with Complex & Unknown Variables

When faced with the prospect of working within a system where the variables that hold the key to your success are unknown, it can seem daunting. It can also make you want to run out and buy a shiny new tool to solve all your problems and get you that elusive Google ranking you've been waiting for.

The sad truth is if there was such a tool the person(s) who created it wouldn't be selling it to you for less than $100 or slightly higher (or even way higher!). They would be building sites in many verticals and making an absolute killing in the SERPS. By selling it to you they would just be creating more work for themselves and competition.

Not all tools are bad of course. I use the tools here at SeoBook as well as tools from Majestic, Raven, SeoMoz, and Caphyon (Advanced Web Ranking). The tools give you data and data points to work with as well as to cross reference. They do not provide answers for you at the push of a button.

The best thing to do is to start launching some sites and play around with different strategies. Over time you'll find that even strategies that worked in A, B, and C markets didn't work in D or E.

Things like algorithm's changing and competitor's stepping up their game can be factors as to why test results aren't always that accurate (at the real granular level) and why certain strategies worked here but not there.

Keeping Track of Wins & Losses

It makes sense to keep some kind of running journal on a site (why I did this, when I did that, etc) so you can go back and evaluate real (not theorized) data.

Running weekly rank checks isn't a bad idea and tools like Advanced Web Ranking and Raven have built in ways of you keeping notes (events for Raven) on a specific campaign or date-based events (added X links this day).

I happen to like Evernote for these kinds of things but most project management applications and information organizer tools have this kind of capability built in (as does having separate Word and Excel docs for your campaigns).

So if you are involved with a handful or four of projects, in addition to keeping track of strategies used, you can really get a solid handle on what is likely to work in the short to mid term and what really is working now.

A good example of this would be folks poo-pooing the idea of exact match domains being a golden egg of sorts over the years. If you were or are running any SEO campaigns you'll notice that the exact match benefit was quite real. So while pontificators were decrying their effectiveness, practitioners were laughing all the way to the bank.

There is no substitute for real experience and real data. Which group do you want to be in?

Mental Models

As we discussed above, the algorithm has a lot of components to it. There is generally no 1 correct universal right answer to each and every SERP. The gold usually lies in trying to understand where algorithms are heading and how they have changed.

As an example, in his recent post about exact match domains losing weight, Aaron used highlights to visually segment the search results in regards to "why is XYZ ranking". I'll include the image here:

This is a good example of the fact that when you build your own sites and you collect your data it helps you form and solidify your mental models.

The tricky part is how do you know who's advice is garbage vs who you should trust? You should take your independently arrived upon conclusions that you have repeatedly tested and see who is offering similar advice. Those are the folks who you can trust to tell you "what actually works" rather than "how to buy the number they are selling as a solution".

For another example of a mental model in action, you should check out Charlie Munger's piece on mental models and investing.

One more piece of advice here. Recently we wrote about the the importance of rank checking with a tie-in to analytics. It's vital to have both installed as you can get concrete before and after data. Without hard data relative to ongoing algorithm changes, you are kind of flying blind to the actual changes being made.

Being in the Know

The reason this community and many paid communities are successful is because there isn't a lot of noise or high pressure sales (like there are on free chat forums or message boards) and because experienced people are able to freely share ideas, thoughts, and data with like-minded people.

The more information and thoughts you get from people who are in the trenches on a daily basis can only help your efforts, knowledge, and experience because theories will only get you so far.

I think there is a scientific element to some factors like links, domain age, social signals, brand signals, anchor text (but at a high level, nothing overly exact) but overall I think it's too complex to break down into a reliable scientific formula.

It's important to pay attention to trends but your own experience and data is invaluable to your ongoing success. I believe that search is going to continue to get more complex but that's necessarily a bad thing if you have access to good information.

A friend gave me a great quote from Michael Lewis's book, Liar's Poker:

You spend a lot of time asking yourself questions: Are munis (municipal bonds) right for me? Are govys (government bonds) right for me? Are corporates (corporate bonds) right for me?

You spend a lot of time thinking about that. And you should.

But think about this: might be more important to choose a jungle guide than to choose your product.

When it comes to SEO, it's pretty important to choose your jungle guides correctly.

How to Super Size Your Listings in Google

As Google continues to push organic search results further down the page in favour of greater ad exposure and universal search, it is important to maximise the amount of space your website receives from the search giant. The more real estate your listings have, the more likely you are to receive visitors to your website. Below are 6 ways to increase your SERP (Search Engine Result Page) real estate.

1. Dual Rankings

If more than one of your pages is relevant for a search query on any given page, Google will reward you by grouping these listings together:

For example, imagine your homepage was listed in position 2 for the keyword “running”. On the second page of Google in position 11 you have a different URL that also ranks for the same keyword. If you build enough links to push the secondary listing to page 1, Google will automatically promote it to position 3. The marginal effort needed to push a listing from position 11 to position 10 is typically much less than moving it from say position 3 to 2. This technique can have a huge impact on the number of visitors to your website. A listing in position 11 will receive about 0.66% of all clicks compared to 6.03% in position 4. To achieve dual rankings, build both internal and external links to the lower ranking page using the anchor text of the keywords for which you wish to receive dual rankings.

2. Meta Description

The meta description is the summary that describes your website and should provide a compelling call to action to for any potential customers. I often see websites using just a few words for their meta descriptions, resulting in only a single line in the SERPs. By adding a few more words, a website can take advantage of the second line that Google allows them for describing their site. Each line of the SERPs is valuable real estate and you should make an informed decision about whether you are going to forgo any space. One creative technique that Darren Slatten uses is to incorporate ASCII art into his meta description, increasing it’s space by 250% compared to a normal listing:

3. Forums

Not only are forums an excellent tool to leverage the long tail of search but Google also rewards them with up to 4 additional listings in the SERPs. These extra listings not only take up more valuable SERP real estate, they also stand out and catch a user’s eye compared to a regular listing:

Forum listings will often also contain an additional line detailing the number of answers, as shown in the example above.

4. Rich Snippets

Rich snippets are designed for sites that contain reviews, products, business listings, recipes, or events. Depending on the type of information your site contains, rich snippets will not only enhance your rankings, making them stand out from the crowd and improve your CTRs but they will also increase the size of your listings, as shown in the examples below:

You can add Rich snippets to your website by using any of these three formats: microdata, microformats, or RDFa. Google, Microsoft and Yahoo recently announced a joint venture called Schema which provides webmasters with a shared collection of recognized rich snippets that are supported by the major search engines.

5. More Results

Google won’t usually show more than two listings for each domain on each of it’s pages. However, if your site is a good source of relevant information, Google will display an additional line under your listing:

You can increase the probability of Google showing this extra line by having a diverse set of content on your site, interlined with relevant anchor text.

6. Sitelinks

If Google believes your website is highly relevant for a keyword phrase, especially one that is navigational in nature, you may be rewarded with sitelinks:

Google generates sitelinks automatically, you can’t do anything specifically to receive them (though you can block any that you don’t want via your Google Webmasters account). To improve your chances of receiving sitelinks, you should follow the best practice of using informative, compact anchor and ALT text for any links to your site.

The techniques listed above can help increase your SERP real estate by 2 or 3 lines, doubling the amount of space a regular listing receives as well as helping your website stand out in a sea of homogenous listings.


David de Souza is the founder of, a website that allows your charitable donations to go twice as far. He is also the SEO strategist for the International Professors Project, a non profit that encourages professors to volunteer for teaching jobs abroad.

Schema, Scheme or Scam?

"I am just like a robot - following only what I have been told." - Katutu, Google toolbar testimonial

As long as end users get their Angry Birds they really don't care how it comes to them. But they should!

Right now, an aggregated link to this entry places higher in a search of the title than my own site, which is a Page Rank 5 site (i.e. it has a lot of "strong" links in and a lot of content). That is a snapshot of what is pushing the Media to spewing ever louder and more meaningless sounds and furies.
search engine offshoots have failed the nation, profoundly, deeply and irrevocably. - Charles Hugh Smith

Google & Bing recently launched Schema, a way to "help" publishers mark up & structure their content.

If you are the first person in your vertical to leverage these new formats that can help your listing look more appealing & help you capture a bit more of the traffic (for a while). But after a half-dozen sites in your vertical use it then it no longer becomes a competitive advantage, rather just an added cost of doing business (just like Google Checkout or +1).

Then eventually it becomes much worse. Rather than being a "top resource" you get to become a "top reference" (unlinked, of course).

Your content ends up in the search result and you are an unneeded artifact from the quaint & early days of the web.

"Many answers to search queries can be computed, rather than simply returning a list of links from an index." - Eric Schmidt

In *totally* unrelated news, ...

Google Places is at it again, brazenly borrowing reviews from Yelp. But this time it’s in their iPhone app and they are not even bothering to link back to Yelp or attribute where they are getting the reviews.
Apparently the issue is also happening with other sources of reviews and local data such as TripAdvisor. Google says it is a mistake and it is fixing it.

If you go outside Google's guidelines & they try to penalize you for it, simply remind them that it was a technical glitch, a misinterpretation, an accident. No need to worry, as you will fix it on your end at your leisure.

It is almost universally far more profitable to do what Google does, rather than to do what they tell you to do. A fact many webmasters are waking up to 100 days after Panda torched their websites.

On a related note, JC Penny (which flagrantly violated Google's guidelines with bulk link buying) was allowed to rank again after 90 days.

"You don’t want to be vindictive or punitive, so after three months the penalty was lifted." - Matt Cutts

Those that were hit by Panda are still left in the lurch over 100 days later.

If penalizing for greater than 90 days for flagrant guideline violations would be considered "vindictive" or "punitive" then how would one describe a 100-day penalty for not breaking the guidelines?

The slow recalculation isn't an accident.

Google whacking a webmaster & then paying someone to steal their content is no different than a crooked bank that commits accounting fraud & then throws their own customer in jail for the crime the bank committed! It could become temporarily inconvenient if the press covers it, but until then who cares?

Certainly not Google.

As the original content sources disappear from the web, the aggregators eat more clicks & get fatter on the no-cost, no-effort profits (in some cases their duplication not only replaces the original source, but drives the original source into bankruptcy, making the duplicate become "unique" content). Youtube's traffic from Google has grown over 4% a month for a few months in a row. Ask grew their Google search referral traffic by roughly 25% in a couple months (while starting from a rather large base).

Keep working on adding quality and value. Then mark up your work. Google will keep working on sucking profits out of the ecosystem.

Possession is nine-tenths of the law.

Set Up a Local PPC Campaign in 8 Easy Steps

Local PPC Tips

Recently, we did a post on the benefits of using PPC for Local SEO. In this post, we are going to go through how to structure a local PPC campaign for a small business.

This post is designed to show you how really easy it is to get a local PPC campaign up and running. If you want to streamline the campaign building process, choosing the right tools upfront can be a big help. Landing page creation can be a time-consuming and expensive task, but it doesn't have to be.

Step 1: Choosing a Landing Page Tool

For the quick generation of nicely designed landing pages, Unbounce is tough to beat. Unbounce has a variety of paid plans available. Unbounce hosts your pages on their site. You can use a CNAME record to have these pages look like they are on your domain via sub-pages or via a sub-domain. This is done very easily through your host and you can get the instructions as well as track the status right from the dashboard:

Unbounce Dashboard

I just set up this new account so it will be a little bit before this propagates. Once you arrive at the landing page dashboard, you just click the big shiny green button to create a new page:

Create New Page

You can choose from any of Unbounce's pre-designed templates (which are quite nice) or you can start with a blank template.

There are quite a few templates we can use, but since this is largely a lead generation campaign (for a local insurance agent) I'm going to grab one of the spiffy lead generation templates.

Customizing Unbounce

Unbounce has a Photoshop-like interface which makes changing text and imagery a breeze:

Unbounce Editor 1

Unbounce Editor 2

For a local insurance agent who sells maybe 3 or 4 different products to a small handful of towns, setting up his or her landing pages is really quite painless.

Alternative to Unbounce (for Wordpress Sites)

Once you start generating thousands of unique visits a month (hopefully!) Unbounce can get pricey. At that point, where you are presumably making lots of sales off of PPC, you might want to invest in having a designer start creating some custom landing pages rather than paying a hundred or hundreds of dollars per month on a service like Unbounce.

If you are using Wordpress and don't mind getting your hands into some basic coding then you should check out Premise (which is a relatively new Wordpress plugin from Copyblogger Media.

After doing some basic customizations on the look and feel of your template, you can quickly generate good looking and solid landing pages while getting copywriting advice built right in. Also, Premise comes with a ton of custom, well-designed graphics from their in-house graphic artist. The plugin works with any Wordpress theme.

Geordie did a review of Premise over at PPC Blog.

Step 2: Keyword List Generation

With local keyword research you'll most certainly run across a lack of data being returned to you by keyword tools. There are a few tips you can use when doing local keyword research to help get a better handle on a keyword list suitable for a PPC campaign.

Throughout this post we will be referring to a local insurance agency but this can apply to any campaign that is pursuing local PPC as an option.

Competing Sites

One of the first things I would do would be to check out the local sections of bigger websites. In the example of insurance there are plenty of large sites which act as lead aggregators and target local keywords (usually down to the state level).

You can very easily visit one of these sites and take a quick peak at their title tag and the on-page copy to determine what keywords they are targeting. In your market, like with insurance, there usually are related keywords that might overlap. Car insurance and auto insurance are classic examples in the insurance industry.

Looking at a few competing sites might give you an idea of whether or not most sites are pursuing keyword x versus keyword y. This can be a helpful data point to use when constructing your PPC campaign.

Google Trends

Google Trends is a nice tool to use when you are trying to discern between similar keywords and it offers trends by region, state, and city. For example, here are some charts for home insurance versus homeowners insurance versus homeowner insurance:

Google Trends

Here is the section where it shows trends by location (you can filter further, down to a city level)

Google Trends

I usually like to keep multiple variants in the PPC campaign to start just to test things out but using Trends to find which variant is appreciably higher in volume can help with choosing which keywords you should be looking to research further.

Your Own Knowledge

You know how your customers speak about products and you know the lingo of your industry best. That is how I usually would start a local keyword list. Then I would move into using Google Trends and looking at competing sites to see what the tools tell me about my initial take on a possible keyword list.

I would then further expand that list by entering those core terms into the Google AdWords Keyword Tool and the SeoBook Keyword Tool (our tool is powered by Wordtracker) and see what keywords I may be overlooking.

You can search in those tools for local terms like "boston car insurance" but the data, when you start to dig in to keyword research, gets almost non-existent for local terms past the point of a core term like "boston car insurance".

I would recommend taking the non-geo modified keywords you find with the processes mentioned above and entering them into a keyword list generator, along with the names of the towns and cities you service (and states). You can use our free keyword list generator :) .

SeoBook Keyword List Generator

This campaign happens to be in a small, rural area. So the strategy here is to get feedback ASAP to see if we are dealing with any palpable volume which would warrant further investment into a PPC campaign (outside of just testing search volume for SEO purposes).

I'm going to say that this agency sells car, home, life, and business insurance in 5 towns. There are some local PPC tools out there but for a campaign this size it won't be all that time consuming to set up.

What you can use is our free keyword list generator and export to either broad, phrase, or exact match after grouping everything together :)

Keyword Generator

Once you click "Generate" you get the results displayed like this:

Export that to CSV and you are good to go!

So basically, because the volume is small, we want to try and hit as many variations as possible. With local keywords you can have the following modifiers:

  • state spelled out or abbreviated
  • zip code
  • town or city
  • various combinations of the above 3 elements

You can choose to do your ad groups by a particular variable like city/town or product. As modifiers are playing a huge role in this campaign, and to keep things cleaner for me, I will do the ad groups by town and one for the state.

Step 3: Setting Up the Campaign

There are some initial steps you'll have to go through when you set up your AdWords account.

Choosing Local Settings

There are 2 areas for location targeting:

  • Location and Languages - where you would select specific language and location settings (country, state, town, custom map, etc)
  • Advanced Settings - where you can target by physical location and search intent, just physical location, or just search intent. You can also use Exclusion settings where you can exclude by physical location.

In the next section I'll show you why I chose certain settings for this specific campaign and when other options might be appropriate.

Location and Languages

With Location and Languages you get the following options:

Location Languages

In this campaign I am targeting one area of a particular state for a local business. There is no set rule here, preferences should be considered based on the client.

For instance, this is a local insurance agent in one part of the state with 2 offices in this particular area. It generally isn't wise to attempt to go after towns which are not within driving distance to the offices.

The selling point of a local agent is local service, a place you can drive to in order to talk with your agent about your policy, and so on. Most local agents do not have the technological ability to compete with direct writers like Geico and Progressive with respect to being able to adequately serve customers across the country. If the agency had multiple offices across the state I would reconsider my position on location targeting.

In any case, we are using broad matched geo-modified keywords and the surrounding states may have one or two overlapping town names so I'm going to use a custom map for location. The custom map works here because I can generally cover most of the areas where people who live in the area of the client either live or work.

Alternatively, I could choose (as states) Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island but then you could run into overlapping town issues (which is the concern with just going country wide). You could solve that by introducing the state modifier (CT or Connecticut in this case) into your keywords but that defeats the goal of starting with a low effort campaign to see if there's any volume in the first place (just using city/town and keyword as a broad match)

Just click on "Select one or more locations" and click the Custom tab in the dialog box that opens up:

Custom Map Dialog Box

You can click or drag to create your custom map. I like to click (must be 3 or more clicks) because I find it to be more precise when trying to isolate a location.

I've created a custom map targeting the locations where customers likely live and work:

Custom Map Results

By their very nature most local businesses service a specific, geographical segment of a particular market. In sticking with the insurance example, let's say you have an agency in Boston, Cape Cod, Springfield, and Worcester (hitting most of the major counties in Massachusetts).

In the case of multiple locations you'd want to run multiple campaigns targeting those specific locations and perhaps an extra campaign which didn't use geo-modifiers but used just the state for targeting. This way, even if you hit on a broad keyword from another area of the state it still is likely that you service that location within driving distance.

You could easily highlight the multiple office locations on a landing page whereas a competing agency that just has a location down on the Cape would generally benefit very little, if at all, from doing any sort of broad-based geographic targeting (targeting the whole state with non-geo keywords as an example).

Advanced Location Options

You have five options here:

Advanced Settings Locations

You can read more about the options here and I'm going to leave them as defaults based on my geo-only targeting.

I may come back to these options if I find the search volume is not high enough to warrant continued PPC investment. In this market, non-geo modified keywords are brutally priced for a small, local agent so I think starting a bit more cautiously is a good idea.

Google makes a good point regarding the usage of these options

These targeting methods might conflict with location terms in keywords. You should only use either the advanced targeting options or use keywords to accomplish your campaign goals, but not both methods.

So if you've got a campaign which is exclusively using geo-modified keywords and a specific locale you could really mess things up if add another layer of targeting on top of that (which would be unnecessary anyway).

Businesses that service a community wouldn't benefit as much, if at all, from using these options but a small or local business which does business all over the country, or promotes travel to the local area, or ships products to different locations can benefit from these kinds of options as described in the example Google gives on Napa Valley Wine.

Say you are a chocolatier in Vermont and you want to run multiple campaigns for Vermont (exclusively with location matching and geo-modified keywords) but then you want to run other campaigns targeting Canada and maybe one for the US as well, while excluding Vermont and/or geo modified searches. You can do these sort of things with the variety of location options AdWords provides.

Network and Devices

By default Google opts you in to the search network and display network. I would avoid the display network at this point and just focus on the search network for these particular keywords:

Networks Devices Ppc

Bidding and Budget

For a basic starter campaign like this, and for many campaigns quite frankly, you can skip some of the advanced bidding options and just use manual bidding and "show ads evenly over time".

Bidding And Budget

Generally I recommend that you should be comfortable assuming somewhere in the high hundreds to a couple thousand dollars worth of AdWords spend being lost due to testing and such (based on whatever your cost per click is). Even though it's a much more targeted way of advertising than say a local newspaper ad, you still have to go in expecting to lose a little bit upfront in order to find that sweet spot in your approach within your market.

I would say, if you could, budget $100.00 per day for a month and take a peek at it each day just to make sure things are running smoothly. You'll have to pay a bit more upfront on a brand new account while your account gains trust in the eyes of Google. The beauty of a daily budget is that you can change it at any time. After a month or so you should have a pretty good idea of what is going on unless your business is in its offseason.

Location Extensions

I would use both the address extension (from Google Places, and if your a local small business you absolutely should be in Google Places) and the phone extension. This helps your ad stand out against the other insurance ads from large companies with no local presence and insurance affiliates with no location at all.

Location Extensions

Advanced Settings

Starting off, I would recommend leaving these as default and come back to them later to adjust if you start to see things like conversions being heavily weighted to weekends versus weekdays or days and nights. With a local campaign though, chances are you might not have enough data for awhile to make those kinds of data-driven decisions.

Some of the options are N/A anyway because we are not using the content network.

Advanced Settings Ppc Campaign

Step 4: Ad Targeting Options

The examples given above were for keywords being geo-modified because the advertiser is mainly a local business servicing a very specific area of the state and the non-geo modified keywords for this market are brutally priced.

For most local businesses, especially to start, I recommend using a geo-modified keyword campaign and then moving into setting up another campaign which is more of a keyword driven campaign rather than a geographically driven campaign (from a keyword standpoint). Why? Mainly for the examples mentioned above and because starting out with a huge AdWords campaign can be overwhelming to a new user, which can lead to poor management and a poor account quality score right off the bat.

Once you get comfortable with AdWords and you are seeing some early success (or failure, like obvious lack of volume for instance) I would begin to consider moving into setting up that second campaign. By failure I specifically mean a lack of volume early on. If you are consistently showing in the top 1-5 spots in AdWords but are getting very, very little traffic then that means you need to broaden your campaign. If you are getting traffic but aren't converting then you need to tweak and test elements on your landing page and maybe consider other keywords you haven't bid on yet.

I would suggest launching the geo-targeted campaign first and do the initial steps for a broader, non-geo campaign in the background (keyword research, building landing pages, thinking about ad copy and ad group structure, and so on). Obviously this is quite a bit different than a company that happens to be located in Anytown, USA but mainly sells nationally with little or no local presence.

Step 5: Setting Up the Ad Groups

Eventually you may find yourself adding campaigns for non-geo modified keywords while utilizing the targeting options mentioned above, or maybe you want to target just the Display Network. In this case, especially for small business owners who are working with a campaign for the first time, simplicity is preferred in the face of the many options provided within the AdWords System.

The idea with ad groups is to align them as tightly as possible with specific keywords. Using the town or city as the main grouping variable, followed by the product, we can indeed have very tight ad groups. This will also allow us the ability to create a landing page which is super targeted to the keyword being bid on. For example, let's take the idea of two towns and two keywords (auto insurance, home insurance)

I would set up the ad groups as follows:

  • (ad group) Town 1, (keywords) Town 1 auto insurance | Town 1 car insurance
  • (ad group) Town 1, (keywords) Town 1 home insurance | Town 1 homeowner insurance *as well as other closely related terms like home owner, home owners, condo, renters, and tenants
  • (ad group) Town 2, (keywords) Town 1 auto insurance | Town 1 car insurance
  • (ad group) Town 2, (keywords) Town 1 home insurance | Town 1 homeowner insurance *as well as other closely related terms like home owner, home owners, condo, renters, and tenants
  • (ad group) State/State Abbreviation, (keywords) State (Massachusetts) auto insurance | State Abbreviation (MA) auto insurance (and so on)

I would repeat this process for as many towns, states, and product variations as needed. You can mix in copy and imagery to speak to similar words like auto and car, as well as to speak to similar products like homeowners, condo, and renters insurance

Since we targeted a specific area on the map, we can target just state level searches without worrying about someone searching from an area we cannot service.

Step 6: AdWords Copy

When you first set up the campaign you get the page where you can name the first ad group and set up the sales copy, with helpful ad previews on the right:

AdWords Preview Copy

Here, you will enter:

  • Headline
  • Description line 1
  • Description line 2
  • Display URL
  • Destination URL

These are fairly self-explanatory and ideally you want your headline to contain your targeted (or most of your targeted) keyword as it will be bolded when the ad shows to the user.

I usually use the first description line to describe the features or benefits of what I'm or the client is selling, and the second description line as a strong call to action

Your display URL is what the user sees and can be customized to speak more to your offer, while the destination URL is URL Google actually sends the user too (this would be your landing page URL).

So for example, if you were selling insurance in Boston and your domain was you could add /Boston to that in your display URL so it appears more relevant to the user (they do not see the destination URL)

Step 7: Install Analytics

AdWords offers PPC specific reports but installing, if you don't already have it, an analytics package is must if you want to really track your campaigns at deep levels. You'll want to be able to track conversions and typically that requires a multi-step process (even if you are just collecting emails) and having an analytics package can really take your data analysis to the next level.

You can use the AdWords Conversion Tracker for some conversion metrics but a full-featured analytics package gives you more options and data points to utilize. Some of the more popular and affordable analytics packages are:

AdWords offers built-in integration with Google Analytics, so for simplicity you might want to give that a shot upfront. Even though it's free, Google Analytics is a fully featured analytics provider suitable for large and small sites.

Step 8: Test, Tweak, and Adjust

Local campaigns can sometimes take a bit of time to return an appropriate amount of data needed to analyze and adjust to trends in your account. So, be careful not to make wholesale changes to a campaign off of a small amount of data. Try to be consistent for a bit and see what the data tells you over time.

Some tips on account maintenance would be:

  • If you get low relevancy messages or "ads not showing" messages on a keyword, isolate it in its own ad group with a super-targeted ad and landing page
  • Never let your credit card expire :) You can also prepay AdWords if you'd prefer'
  • Try different ad text copies from time to time, pointing out different benefits and using different calls to action
  • Try different elements on your landing page (maybe a click-thru button instead of an opt-in form, maybe a brief video, etc)
  • When adding new keywords keep the same tight ad group structure that you started out with
  • Use the Search Terms report to find exact keywords that triggered an ad click on your broad or phrase matched keywords
  • Use the keywords found in your Search Terms report as additions to your current PPC program and SEO planning, rinse and repeat

The more targeted your keywords are (and landing pages) the fewer clicks you should need to determine an appropriate level of feedback from your data. Over time you should pay attention to your conversion rates as they stabilize and look at feedback that way. In other words, if you typically convert at 30% and all of a sudden you go 0-100 on your next 100 clicks, something might be up. Where as if you convert at 5%, you'll need more clicks to determine anything from that data.

I'd peg the click amount to be somewhere in the hundreds when first setting up the account (assuming the keyword/landing page is super targeted). On a really targeted local campaign, I'd like to see a couple hundred clicks or so before I made any decisions on that particular keyword. Since local keywords are usually more trial and error upfront, pay close attention to the aforementioned Search Term report to find those really targeted keywords.

A local campaign is generally smaller in nature so it's a bit easier to have really tight ad group structuring (one or a few keywords per ad group). This makes it a bit easier on the local business owner because upfront set up is quicker and maintenance and tracking are both a bit more streamlined.

A local business that combines SEO and PPC can really clean up in the SERPS. To help get you started, you can pick up a 75$ AdWords credit below and if you are an agency you should check out the Engage program which gives you a generous amount of coupons for your clients.

Free Google AdWords Coupons

Google is advertising a free $75 coupon for new AdWords advertisers, and offers SEM firms up to $2,000 in free AdWords credits via their Engage program.