The Future of Your SEO Career

Sep 28th

So here we are, aren't we? It's 2011, SEO is still not dead (despite a decade of claims to the contrary), but the landscape is very, very different in this post-Panda world. Most sites that have been hit by Panda (inclusive of all iterations) are still on ice some 7 months after the initial roll out.

Businesses have been destroyed, livelihoods ruined, and the future of a once thriving business is seemingly on the ropes for newcomers and seasoned veterans alike.

Seems like a good time to dial this up:

This all appears to be just fine with Google. As Eric Schmidt once said, "Brands are how you sort out the cesspool". How very elitist of you Mr. Schmidt.

What exactly is a brand anyway, to you? Is it content factories ranking for medical queries like "How to survive a heart attack" and other assorted medical terms?

Or maybe you think an article that is in the running for queries around avoiding heart attacks, written by a guy with an English degree, is something that isn't part of a cesspool?

Matt Cutts has highlighted health issues as a great example of why selling links was "evil." What his post didn't disclose at the time was that Google had built a half-billion Dollar enterprise selling illegal drug ads!

I don't know about you, but I sure don't want to read an article on a medical topic that could have life or death implications which is written by a guy with an English degree! The point is that the lines continue to become extremely blurred and the algorithm "adjustments" continue to become more and more severe.

The combination of those two attributes must give an SEO pause when thinking about short, mid, and long term strategies for their business model. One mistake or one algorithm update (completely out of your hands) can have devastating consequences for your business.

Talk is Cheap

Now we can queue the white hats (whatever the heck that means) who will now wax poetic about building "brands" the right way (whatever the heck that means) and begin to play the "I told you so" game as you struggle to survive. Keep in mind that salespeople will use your uncertainty against you, and try to calm your fears by telling you "everything is ok if you do things the right way".

Problem is, what is the "right" way and why aren't "they" doing it? There is no "right" way, rather, just all sorts of shades of gray.

Don't buy into the hype and save yourself a bit of sanity. The same people who will whip out their white hats at the first sign of algorithmic shifting are the same people who want to sell you something that, at its core whether it's a tool or product, is designed to give you information on how to manipulate search results (irrespective on how they frame the language).

Bottom line is that folks in the industry are confused, scared, nervous and it's easy for salespeople to prey on the scared and the informationally-poor to enhance their bottom line.

Keep this quote from Voltaire in mind when you are searching for answers or guidance in these times of uncertainty:

The comfort of the rich depends upon an abundant supply of the poor.

The best defense is education, experience, and information.

The Shrinking Google SERP

It's getting harder to breathe in the SERPS. We routinely point this out in various blog posts, but I thought now would be a good time to revisit this problem. As it continues to appear as if Panda was less about content farms and about something a bit more sinister the incredibly shrinking organic SERP is cause for concern as well:

Here you see one site with extended AdWords and organic sitelinks:

If you're not in the top 3, well then you're pretty much not in the game:

So much for SERP diversity:

A few key takeaways when looking at these results are that:

  • Competing and monetizing just on search traffic is probably not a good long term strategy (but can work short-mid term)
  • Google continues to layer on Google "stuff", becomes another competitor that is almost impossible to beat
  • You might want to explore PPC a bit more than you have in the past for more visibility, if the margins are available

It might make some sense to start evaluating the cost of your SEO efforts and figuring out how they could translate into getting your foot into other areas of traffic acquisition online via targeted advertising, media buys, monitoring blogs and forums for discussions about your market, keywords, or products. Spread the funds out to get maximum exposure in multiple areas (for both short term and long term positioning)

As you can see from the images, the long term viability of just relying on search engine traffic is likely to be a losing proposition.

Leveraging Your SEO Skills

SEO has long been more about marketing than making sure your title tags are perfect. A good SEO is a good marketer and it's been said on this blog over the years that SEO really should be part of a more holistic approach to an overall marketing strategy. However, many of you reading this might be in affiliate or Adsense camp rather than a full service SEO agency.

The good news for the SEO agency is that you have all sorts of ways to leverage your SEO skills. You can get into things like:

  • conversion optimization
  • email marketing
  • online media buys and adverts
  • analytics services
  • social media services
  • the venerable "design and development" market
  • offline advertising and tracking
  • local SEO and Google Places SEO as well as Yahoo! and Bing local

The options listed above are all items that can quite easily come up within the context of an SEO proposal or discussion and should make for fairly doable cross-sales or up-sells.

The problem with just selling rankings or traffic is that it's all too easy for the client to dismiss you after you've achieved rankings. What's worse, even if you achieve rankings there are no guarantees of results and going back to the client 4 months in to up-sell conversion optimization is usually a non-starter if the stuff you've delivered thus far is of little value ROI-wise.

No matter how effective your performance is, as an SEO you are working in someone else's ecosystem. Google may extend the AdWords ads or insert their own product search or local search or video search results right at the top and push your work down.

Part of your SEO career planning, if you are in it for the long haul, should involve you starting to take a serious look at some level of client work and/or refine your product offering to a more holistic one rather than one with a singular focus.

Affiliates Feeling the Squeeze

Since Google has clearly shown its true colors with respect to how they view affiliates on the AdWords side is it that hard to believe that is how they view affiliates on the organic side? In fact, one of our members received this email when applying their AdWords credit:

Hello Aaron Wall,
I just signed up for the Get $75 of Free AdWords with Google Adwords. After receiving an e-mail stating that I was to call an 877 number of Google Adwords, I was told in my phone call that affiliate marketing accounts were not accepted. I guess I confused by this statement. Is this in error? Or am I not understanding the Tip #3 for setting up an account for Google Adwords for promoting a website?
Thank you in advance for your time.
Sincerely,
Carole

Do you remember this video where the body language suggests AdSense is ok but OMG YOU'RE AN AFFILIATE (at approximately 0:38)!

Diversity, Diversity, Diversity

To counteract being viewed as a "thin affiliate", I'd suggest reading up on SugarRae's blog, specifically her affiliate marketing section.

Clearly you can build a quality affiliate site that is quite profitable, but how many can you reasonably expect to build out into thick, market leading sites without scaling high on internal costs to the point where margins become an issue or until Google monopolizes your SERPS?

Diversity is still key with respect to revenue streams but diversity between different revenue types (affiliate, adsense, client, product) is what you should be aiming for rather than just your garden variety diversity in revenue (just different sites of the same monetization method)

Where Do You Go From Here

The best thing you can do for your business is to stay out of debt. This is much easier said than done, especially if you live in the US where debt slavery is the norm and gets pretty ugly before you even have a chance to earn real money.

Being mostly debt free with some savings put away not only puts you in a better spot than most consumers but it also allows you to be less subjected to the whimsical nature of Google. Also, you can afford to be more patient, invest in new opportunities, and be less stressed out if some of your stuff turns down for a bit.

I'd venture to say that debt is probably a major reason why some folks went out of business after the Panda update and being debt free with some backup savings and income diversity helped keep some folks in the game.

Taking the First Steps

I would suggest that you take stock of your personal financial situation, your current revenue streams, your skill sets, and your feeling on the overall landscape of the industry and then start to make some decisions on the future of your career. With any update or change there are usually new opportunities that arise from the ashes of Google's scorched earth policy (or policies).

Now that Google is overtly spamming their own "organic" search results to try to capture the second click, riding as a parasite posting content on their own parasitical platforms is likely going to be an extremely profitable strategy in the coming years.

You might not make as much money posting content to Youtube as you made posting it to your own site, but you NEVER have to worry about Youtube disappearing from the search results.

The barrier to entry is getting much higher and rising fast. You need patience, capital, reliable/trusted information sources, and a bit of luck to succeed going forward. Within the span of a couple years it's gone from (mostly) the wild west to survival of the fittest. How do you plan on surviving?

SMX East 2011 Recap for SEOBook

Sep 21st

Useful Links:

SMX Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/searchmarketingexpo
Twitter # activity for the conference: http://twitter.com/#!/search/%23smx

Another successful SMX East is in the books. From all accounts, the event seemed to go through flawlessly and without a hitch. Kudos to Danny Sullivan, Claire Schoen, and crew as the caliber of speakers, sessions, and attendees was top notch, as always. Judging from the event, search marketing is alive and thriving more than ever before. There was a healthy mix of industry experts, consultants, large corporations, agencies, and small businesses. The sessions covered a broad range of topics from beginner link building fundamentals to more advanced technical SEO sessions covering site architecture, technical coding optimization and everything inbetween. A huge thank you goes out to the organizers for a job well done.

It seemed there were two themes that surfaced regularly - Panda and Google Plus/+1. Clearly, there are still many webmasters struggling with Panda and how to properly handle content in the new post-Panda world . The search engines are addressing this and giving webmasters and SEO’s more tools and information to organize their websites correctly. After some of the presentations, it seems Google is very dedicated to their Plus and +1 initiatives which will have a large affect on SEO should end user usage continue to increase.

Below are tidbits and takeaways from the conference, from an SEO perspective. Enjoy!



Schema.org, Rel=Author & Meta Tagging For 2012

Panelists:
Janet Driscoll Miller, Search Mojo http://twitter.com/#!/janetdmiller
Topher Kohan, CNN https://twitter.com/#!/Topheratl
Jack Menzel, Google http://twitter.com/#!/jackm

Microformats where the original snippet format, however, they have been replaced by the new and evolving standard, microdata (which is Schema.org/Google/Bing are developing for and placing resources towards). Some notes from the presentations:

  • General consensus is rich snippets can greatly help in getting your content noticed.
  • In one example given, Eatocracy added the hRecipe tag to their pages, and immediately saw a 47% increase in their recipes being picked up and indexed into Google (which does support this in their recipe search). Additionally, they saw a 22% increase in their recipe traffic.
  • CNN started using Yahoo SearchMonkey / RDFa, and saw a 35% increase in their video content on Google Video search, and saw a 22% increase in overall search traffic. However, they removed the additional code from their site as it increased their page load time. The take away on that is that you should think to integrate this into your down dev cycle, your cms, or your template.
  • Per Google, their studies show that sites w/ rich snippets have a better CTR as well. Rich Snippets Engineer at Google, RV Guha noted, “From our experiments, it seemed that giving the user a better idea of what to expect on the page increases the click-through rate on the search results. So if the webmasters do this, it’s really good for them. They get more traffic. It’s good for users because they have a better idea of what to expect on the page. And, overall, it’s good for the web.”
  • Rich snippets only work for one site (no cross site references).
  • Sites like LinkedIn and Google Profiles still use microformats. Google has also provided a tool in WMT, but it is a bit buggy and may throw false errors. If you don’t see your snippets show up in the SERP’s, it’s likely caused by longer than preferred latency load times, errors in your code, or a random Google bug - (per Google).
  • The current types of rich snippets: reviews, people, products, businesses & organizations, recipes*, events, music

Session - “Ask the Search Engines”

Panelists:
Tiffany Oberio - Google http://twitter.com/#!/tiffanyoberoi
Duane Forrester - Bing http://twitter.com/#!/duaneforrester
Rich Skrenta - Blekko http://twitter.com/#!/skrenta

  • One audience member asked how to handle ‘subcategory’ pages that are often created in ecommerce sites such as “Sort Prices $0-$5”, “Prices $5-$25” etc. The question was whether or not to use the “rel=canonical” tag and point the pages back to the main page. The panelists agreed that those pages should be blocked completely and should not use the canonical tag. The Google representative said not only do these pages not add value to the engine’s index, but they also eat up the sites crawl budget.
  • If you see the warning "we're seeing a high # of URL's" in Webmaster Tools, most times its a duplicate content issue.
  • One audience member asked: do you look at subdomain as part of the main domain?
    • Blekko - no inheritance from main domain
    • Google - "it depends". Sometimes it is inherited, sometimes not.
    • Bing - we look and try to determine if subdomain is a standalone business/website and will get treated differently based on that determination
  • One question touched on removing URL’s from Google’s index. Google advised that a removed URL may or may not stay in the index for a period of time, and that to expedite removal of a URL one should use Webmaster Tools remove-url tool
  • Duane from Bing was adamant about keeping your submitted sitemap clean. The threshold is 1%. If there are issues in your submitted sitemap >1%, Bing will “lose trust” for your website
  • Panelists advised to make your 404 pages useful to the user
  • It may not be breaking news, but Bing and Google both said unequivocally - duplicate content does hurts you
  • Google commented they are big fans of HTML 5 technology
  • At this point it seems Google will crawl a page if +1 is present, regardless of the robots.txt. This could possibly create issues with trying to not crawl certain pages to avoid dup content. More information found here: http://www.webmasterworld.com/google/4358033.htm
  • Panelists advised to spend a lot of energy “containing urls” on your website and to be thoughtful about which URLs you are getting out there
  • Bing and Google confirmed that “pagerank sculpting” is misunderstood and not effective. For example, if a page has 5 outgoing links and link juice is spread 20% to each of the 5 links, if you no follow one of the links, the link juice distribution will not become 25% to the remaining 4 links. It will remain 4 x 20%. In essence, you have just evaporated potential link juice

Google Plus and +1

These were hot topics at this year’s SMX East. Multiple session covered Google Plus and +1 in depth.

  • Speaker Benjamin Vigneron from Esearchvision covered the basics of Google Plus and +1 . He noted a +1 to a search result will +1 the ppc ad/landing page, too.
  • With PPC, +1 could have a significant affect on Adrank by affecting each of the Quality Score factors including quality of the landing page, CTR, and the ad’s past performance.
  • Interesting that Adwords could conceivably add segmenting on all information in Google Plus (similar to FB) ie males, ages, etc.
  • Christian Oestlien, the Google Product Manager for Google Plus, spoke about Google Plus features and fielded questions. He mentioned Google is testing and experimenting with celebrity endorsements +1'ing and showed an example SERP with a +1 annotation under the search result (for example “Kim Kardashian has +1’ed” Brand X or search result X). He noted Google is seeing much higher CTR with the +1 annotation and that usage for the “Circles” feature is relatively high.
  • Google software engineer Tiffany Oberoi was also present on the panel. She noted +1 is NOT a ranking factor, but social search is still of course implemented in search results. She confirmend Facebook likes have no impact on rankings but also noted regarding social signals, “explicit user feedback is like gold for us". She also touched on spam with +1 and said she is currently working with spam team. Regarding +1’s and spamming, she said to think of +1’s similarly to links. The same guidelines could apply. Google wants to use them as a real signal. Using in an unnatural way will not good for you.

Hardcore Local Search Tactics

Panelists:
Matt McGee - Search Engine Land
Mike Ramsey, - Nifty Marketing
Will Scott - Search Influence

Panelists here gave an encore presentation of the session these folks put on at SMX Advanced in Seattle. The content was excellent and definitely deserved another run through. Here are the notes:

  • July 21st, Google removed citations from their Places listings. While they have been removed for public viewing, they are still used. Sources like Whitespark (link: http://www.whitespark.ca/) can be very helpful in uncovering citation building opportunities.
  • Citation accuracy is among the most important factors in getting your business to rank in the O or 7-Pack. Doing a custom Google search of “business name”+”address”+”phone number” will help determine what other sources Google sees as citation sources.
  • Average number of IYP reviews of ranked listings vs non ranked listings showed to be a large gap, indicating that IYP reviews do in fact provide quite a bit of listing weight.
  • Offsite Citation’s / Data appear to be the no. 1 ranking factor in Places listings
  • Linking Root Domains appear to be the no. 2 ranking factor in Places listings
  • Exact match anchor links appear to be the no. 3 ranking factor in Places listings
  • Links are the new citations for local in 2011-12
  • Building a custom landing page to link your Places Listing to appears to be a huge success factor. Include your Name, Address, Phone (NAP) in the title tag
    • Design that landing page to mirror a Places listing on their site w/ a map, business hours, contact data, etc.
    • If needed, submit your contact/location page as your Places URL/Landing Page which will create a stronger geo scent
  • When trying to understand how users are searching for your client, Insights for Search is a great tool as you can find Geo targeted data w/ KW differentiation (ie Lawyer vs Attorney, which is used more in that area)
  • Local requires a different mindset from traditional SEO
    • Optimize location (local SEO) vs Optimize websites (traditional SEO)
    • Blended search is about matching them up
  • PageRank of Places URL does NOT seem to affect Local ranking -(source: David Mihm)
  • Multi-Location Tips
    • Flat site architecture beginning w/ a “Store Locator” page
      • Great Example, lakeland.co.uk/StoreLocator.action
    • Give each location its own page
      • Great Example, lakeland.co.uk/stores/aberdeen
    • Cross link nearby locations w/ geo anchor text
  • Ensure the use of KML Sitemap in Google WMT
  • Encourage Community Edits - Make Use of Google’s Map Maker
  • Include Geo data in Facebook pages and article engines

Panda Recovery Case Study - High Gear Media

Speaker Matt Heist from High Gear Media covered their experiences over the past 8 months with recovering from Panda. High Gear Media is an online publisher of auto news and reviews.

Heist walked through the company’s strategy pre-panda and explained their contrasting new post-panda strategy. The original strategy was many auto review niche sites across a broad range of auto makes, models and manufacturers. The company originally had 107 sites and 20+ writers and dispersed content amongst all the sites. The content was "splashing" everywhere, unfocused. The “large network of microsites” strategy was working and traffic was climbing each month. Then Panda hit - hard. Traffic plummeted beginning this past Spring. Leaders at High Gear was forced to reevaluate their strategy and concluded that a more focused approach was better for users and consequently would help search traffic recover.

High Gear took the following actions:

  • Eliminated most of their properties completely (301'ed) and pared them down to 7 total sites with 4 being ‘core’: FamilyCarGuide, Motorauthority, GreenCarReports, TheCarConnection.
  • Properly canonicalized duplicate content
  • Aggregated content with strong user engagement was KEPT, but not indexed
  • The made the hard decision to eliminate content that could be making money but not good for the long term
  • Dedicated significant resources to redesigning each of the 7 sites remaining sites

Their strategy seems to be working. Heist noted traffic has ‘flipped, plus some”. According to Heist, here are the learning's:

  • High Gear Media believes that premium content will prevail and that Panda will help that
  • Advertisers like bigger brands - it is now easier to sell ads and for more $ with fewer, more powerful sites
  • With evolution of Social (joining Search from a distribution perspective), premium content that is authoritative AND fresh with flourish

Raven Tools

We were able to meet up with the friendly staff over at Raven Tools, sit down with them, and learn a bit more about their product. We personally have been using Raven for about a year now, and highly recommend it. There are several features in the works that will make this even more of an incredible product. If you haven't used them, we would HIGHLY suggest giving the tools a run. They are partnering with new companies constantly, and as such, are building out a best in class seo management product.

Upcoming Features:

  • A new feature they are working on is a Chrome Toolbar to compliment the current Firefox toolbar
  • Another feature coming is “templated messaging” for link requests and manual link building which will include BCC’s back to records. Templated Messaging will be built into our Contact Manager, but they are working on making that functionality available in the toolbar.
  • Another upcoming features is file management. RavenTools engineers are looking at integrating Dropbox into the system to allow files to be associated with other data and records.
  • The Co-Founder Jon Henshaw alluded many times to the idea that link building and consequently their toolset will continue to become more and more based on relationships in the future. He also alluded to the idea that traffic can or in some cases should be associated with PEOPLE as the referrer, rather than a website (ie x amount of traffic came from person A, whether it be their facebook, twitter, blog, or website). In other words, a relationship management system looks to be a integral part of the future of Raventools.
  • For future updates, Raventools takes explicit user feedback greatly into account. If you have a feature request or a software integration request, please contact: http://raventools.com/feature-requests/
  • Regarding MajesticSEO and OSE/Linkscape, they will be more fully integrating it into the Research section of Raven. That means they’ll be adding as much functionality into Raven as their APIs will allow. In addition to getting more full access to that data, users will be able to easily add that data to other tools, like the Keyword and Competitor Managers, Rank Tracker, etc...
  • Speed is the number one priority right now. They have full-time staff that are solely dedicated to speeding up the system. The goal is to make it run as fast as a desktop app.
  • Long term - 3rd party integration will be a constant (and should accelerate) for the platform for the foreseeable future.
  • Screenshot of "Social Stream" prototype design http://cl.ly/1b2h0u3P3U441w000o1K/o
  • AdWords Insights: Flagged Pages: http://cloud.raven.im/9v8d
  • Link Clips link checker results with historical results: http://cloud.raven.im/9zgK/o

Other Notes

  • Regarding Panda, one panelist referenced what he called a website’s “Content Performance Ratio” referring to the % of content on a site that is good versus bad or ‘performing vs non performing’ and using that as a gauge as to the health of a website.
  • Panelists also noted in his experience it takes 3-4 requests on a 404 before search engine believes you and removes it from the index.
  • Panelists in the “Ask the SEO” session said to pay close attention to anchor text diversity and human engagement signals

Author bio:
Jake Puhl is the Co-Founder/Co-Owner of Firegang Digital Marketing, a Local search marketing company, specializing in all aspects "Local", including custom web design, SEO, Google Places, and local PPC advertising. Jake has personally consulted businesses from Hawaii to New York and everywhere in-between. Jake can be contacted at jacobpuhl at firegang.com.

Endless AdWords Profits

Sep 17th

"To thine own self be true"

In a word?

Prescient!

10 links in a single AdWords ad unit!

Then more ads below it. Then a single organic listing with huge sublinks too. And unless you have a huge monitor at that point you are "below the fold."

Negative advertising in AdWords is not allowed. So long as you build enough brand signals & pay the Google toll booth, public relations issues & reputation issues won't be accessible to searchers unless they learn to skip over the first screen of search results.

While it is generally against Google's TOS for advertisers to double dip in AdWords (outside of the official prescribed oversize ad units highlighted above), Google is doing exactly that with their multitude of brands.

BeatThatQuote is back yet again.

The line between ads & content is getting blurry. Mighty blurry.

Is it time yet for a new slogan?

Google: the sales engine!

Google+ Doorway Pages / Scraper Site

Sep 15th

Another friend sent me a message today: "just got a whole swathe of non-interlinked microsites torched today. Bastard! Just watching the rank reports coming in..."

I haven't seen his sites, but based on how he described them "whole swathe" I wouldn't guess the quality to be super high. One thing you could say for them was that they were unique.

Where putting in the effort to create original content falls flat on its face is when search engines chose to outrank aggregators (or later copies) over the original source. The issue has got so out of hand that Google has come right out & asked for help with it.

The big issue is that Google is often the culprit. Either indirectly through their ads programs & algorithmic biases or more directly through the launch of new features.

When Google launched Knol I was quick to flame them after I saw them ranking recycled content on Knol ahead of the original source. The Knol even highlighted similar works, showing that Google allowed Knol to outrank earlier sources of the same work.

In a recent WebmasterWorld thread Brett Tabke stated that Google is putting serious weight on Google+:

Some Google+ SEO factors now trump linking as prime algo ingredient. Google+ is already and clearly influencing rankings. I watched a presentation last night that definitely showed that rankings can occur from Google+ postings and photo's with no other means of support.

As Google+ grows - so will Google's understanding of how to use it as rankings signals.

We are not playing Google+ because we want too - we are playing Google+ because we have to.

I read that sorta half hoping he was wrong, but know he rarely is.

And then today Google hit me across the head with a 2x4, proving he was right again.

Business Insider is not some small niche site that Google can justify accidentally deleting from the web with 2 clicks of a mouse, yet when I was doing a *navigational* search, trying to find a piece of their content I had already read, guess what popped up in the search results.

Yup. Google+

What's worse is that isn't from a friend, isn't from the original source, is the full article wholesale, from Google Reader, and the source URL has Google's feedproxy in it.

If Google wants to add value to the ecosystem & insert themselves as a new layer of value then how can we do anything but welcome it. However, when they want to take 3rd party content & "wrap it in Google" it is absolutely unacceptable for them to outrank the original source with their copy of it, even if they feel the deserve to outrank it & have made multiple copies of it.

On large complex system I get that some advice will be self-serving and progress often comes with bumps and bruises.

But Google's dominance in search coupled with their dominance in display (from owning DoubleClick & YouTube) has led competing portals to team up to try to compete against Google with display ads.

And, if the big portals are struggling that much, then at the individual publisher level, how do you profitably produce content when Google takes your content & ranks their copy ahead of yours?

New Google "Search Results" Bar

Sep 14th

I recently got put in a test bucket for Google's new layout with a "search results" bar near the top of the page. Generally this impacts the search results in a couple ways:

  • First off, it is a much better looking design. In the past when the search results would move up and down with Google Instant it really felt like a hack rather than something you would see on the leading internet company's main website. Now with the results fixed it feels much cleaner & much more well put together.
  • The more stable basic layout of the SERP will allow Google to integrate yet more vertical data into it while making it still look & feel decent. Google may have localized search suggestions & the organic results for a significant period of time, but the combination of them with this new layout where the search results don't move feels much more cohesive.
  • To get the white space right on the new layout Google shifted from offering 5 Instant suggestion to 4. The Google Instant results don't disappear unless you hit enter, but because the interface doesn't change & move there isn't as much need to click enter. The search experience feels more fluid.
  • The horizontal line above the search results and the word "Search" in red in the upper left of the page is likely to pull some additional attention toward Google's vertical search features, helping Google to collect more feedback on them (and further use that user behavior to create a signal to drive further integration of the verticals into the regular organic search results).
  • On the flip side of this, in the past the center column would move up & down while the right column would remain stationary, so I would expect this to slightly diminish right column ad clicks (that appeared at the top even when the organic results moved downward) while boosting center column clicks to offset that.
  • In the past, when Google Instant would disappear from view, that would pull the center column organic results up a bit.
    • This always-on bar shifts the pixels above the first search result from about 123 to 184...so roughly 60 pixels downward.
    • As a baseline, a standard organic listing with no extensions is about 90 pixels tall, so this moves the search results down roughly 2/3 of a listing, which should drive more traffic to the top paid search ads & less to the organic results below them (offset by any diminished clicks on the right column ads).
    • This is a much cleaner way of taking advantage of white space than some of the cheesy & ugly-looking stuff they recently tested.

I tried to line up the results pretty closely on the new test results to show what they look like with Google Instant results showing & after you hit enter. Scroll over the below image to see how the result layout doesn't really change with Google Instant hidden or extended.

And here is an example image showing how the location is sometimes inserted directly into both the organic search results and the search suggestions.

Here is an image using Google's browser size tool to show how end users see the new search results. Note that in this example I used a keyword where Google has comparison/advisor ads, so in markets where they do not yet have those you would move all the organic results one spot up from what is shown below.

Google Offers a New Definition for Doorway Pages?

Sep 13th

In the past doorway pages could be loosely defined as "low-quality pages designed to rank for highly targeted search queries, typically designed to redirect searchers to a page with other advertisements."

The reason they are disliked is a click circus impact they have on web users as they keep clicking in an infinite loop of ads.

This would be a perfect example of that type of website:

However, ever since Google started to eat their "organic" search results, the definition of doorway pages has changed significantly.

A friend of mine told me that the reason CSN stores had to merge into a "brand" was not just because that was the direction of the algorithm, but also because they were hit with the "doorway page" penalty. I don't know if that is 100% accurate, but it sure sounds plausible, given that... (UPDATE: SEE COMMENTS BELOW)

  • recently multiple friends have told me they were hit with the "doorway page" issue
  • on WebmasterWorld there are multiple threads from small ecommerce players suggesting they were hit with the doorway page issue
    • "Today we received messages in our webmaster tools account, for all but 1 of our 20 domains, indicating that Google considers them doorway pages. We have also lost all of our SERP's for those sites." - Uncle_DK
    • "I was rather disappointed to see that before banning the site the rater visited a very drab and ordinary page on my site. Not a smoking gun of some incriminating evidence of a hacker break-in or some such I was looking for. Also disappointing is the fact that they visited one page only." - 1script
  • another friend today told me that one of their clients runs numerous websites & that ALL of the sites in the Google webmaster tools account blew up, getting hit with the "doorway page" label (and ALL the sites that were not in that webmaster tools account were missed by the Google engineers)


Like almost anything else Google offers, their webmaster tools are free, right up until Google changes their business objectives and one of their engineers decide that he should put you out of business.

I *knew* the point of the Panda update was not to kill content farms, but to use content farms as a convenient excuse to thin the herd of webmasters & consolidate markets. A couple obvious tells on that front were:

  • the update taking so long to happen
  • the first version of the Panda update embarrassingly missing eHow
  • the update hitting so many small ecommerce websites, even as it somehow missed eHow

Part of the brand bias in Google Panda allowed corporate branded doorway pages to rank higher than ever. Google's solution to this problem is, once again, to punish the victim - wiping independent webmasters off the web.

What is the new definition of doorway pages?

Pages on non-brand websites, that are not owned by a fortune 500 company, which aggressively monetizes web traffic without giving Google a piece of the action.

If you are not a brand you can be wiped out at any time with absolutely 0 recourse unless you can damage Google's brand or harm their standing before market regulators.

If you want to be an independent webmaster you better study public relations. Start here, with Edward Bernays.

Wal-Mart has received a bad reputation for how their dominant control of the supply chain sucked most the profits out of some markets & drove some of their suppliers into bankruptcy:

Young remembers begging Wal-Mart for relief. "They said, 'No way,' " says Young. "We said we'll increase the price"--even $3.49 would have helped tremendously--"and they said, 'If you do that, all the other products of yours we buy, we'll stop buying.' It was a clear threat."
...
Finally, Wal-Mart let Vlasic up for air. "The Wal-Mart guy's response was classic," Young recalls. "He said, 'Well, we've done to pickles what we did to orange juice. We've killed it. We can back off.' " Vlasic got to take it down to just over half a gallon of pickles, for $2.79. Not long after that, in January 2001, Vlasic filed for bankruptcy.

Such strong-arm business negotiation tactics might be sleazy, but you know one thing Wal-Mart does do? They tolerate multiple brands from a single manufacturer. In fact, many leading manufacturers are creating down market brands to compensate for the economic malaise we are going through:

P&G's roll out of Gain dish soap says a lot about the health of the American middle class: The world's largest maker of consumer products is now betting that the squeeze on middle America will be long lasting.

As far as publishing business models go, if Google starts calling ecommerce sites that are part of a network "doorway sites" then Google isn't really allow that sort of testing, unless the content comes from a fortune 500 or is content conveniently hosted on Google.com. As a publisher or merchant, how do you ever grow to scale if you are not allowed to test running multiple projects & products in parallel & keep reinvesting in whatever works best?

Even the biggest publishers are breaking some of their core brands into multiple sites (eg: Boston.com vs BostonGlobe.com) to test different business models. If you have scale that is fine, but if you are smaller that same strategy might soon be considered a black hat doorway strategy.

Meanwhile...

Algorithmic Journalism & The Rise of Corporate Content Farms

Sep 12th

The "Best" of Big Media

Large publishers who lobbied Google hard for a ranking boost got it when Panda launched:

“A private understanding was reached between the OPA and Google,” an office assistant with e-mail evidence told Politically Illustrated. “The organization is responsible for coordinating legal and legislative matters that impact our members, and one of the issues was applying pressure to Google to get them to adjust their search algorithm to favor our members.”

At the same time, said "premium publishers" were backfilling their websites padding them out with auto-generated junk created by companies like Daylife, where some of the pages offer Mahalo-inspired 100% recycled content.

My suspicion is that Google did not care about the auto-generated "news" garbage for a number of reasons

  • it helps subsidize the big media interests
  • they don't want to hit big media & cause a backlash
  • it is quite easy for Google to detect & demote whenever they want to
  • it gives Google more flexibility going forward when deciding how to deal with issues (if everyone is a spammer then Google has more flexibility in deciding how to handle "spam" to maximize their returns.)

It is the exact same reason that Google says link buying is bad, while tolerating "sponsored features" sections on large newspapers:

Machine Generated Journalism

Where Google winds up in trouble on this front is when start ups that create machine generated content go mainstream. (Unless Google buys them, then it is more free content for Google!)

The leaders of Narrative Science emphasized that their technology would be primarily a low-cost tool for publications to expand and enrich coverage when editorial budgets are under pressure. The company, founded last year, has 20 customers so far. Several are still experimenting with the technology, and Stuart Frankel, the chief executive of Narrative Science, wouldn’t name them. They include newspaper chains seeking to offer automated summary articles for more extensive coverage of local youth sports and to generate articles about the quarterly financial results of local public companies.

Official sources using "automated journalism" is a perfect response to Google's brand-focused algorithms:

Last fall, the Big Ten Network began using Narrative Science for updates of football and basketball games. Those reports helped drive a surge in referrals to the Web site from Google’s search algorithm, which highly ranks new content on popular subjects, Mr. Calderon says. The network’s Web traffic for football games last season was 40 percent higher than in 2009.

How expensive cheap is that technology?

The above linked article states that "the cost is far less, by industry estimates, than the average cost per article of local online news ventures like AOL’s Patch or answer sites, like those run by Demand Media."

Once again, even the lowest paid humans are too expensive when compared against the cost of robots.

And the exposure earned by the machine-generated content will be much greater than Demand Media gets, since Demand Media was torched by the Panda update AND many of the sites using this "algorithmic journalism" were given a ranking boost by Google due to their brand strength.

The improved cost structure for firms employing "algorithmic journalism" will evoke Gresham's law. This starts off on niche market edges to legitimize the application, fund improvement of the technology & "extend journalism" but a couple years into the game a company that is about to go under bets the farm. When the strategy proves a winner for them, competing publishers either adopt the same or go under.

That is the future.

Across thousands of cities, millions of topics & billions of people.

Even More Corporate Boosts

Just because something is large does not mean it is great across the board. Businesses have strengths and weaknesses. Sure I do like love shopping on eBay for vintage video games, but does that mean I want to buy books from eBay? Nope.

Likewise, Google's friend of a friend approach to social misses the mark. Do I care that someone I exchanged emails with is a fan of an athlete who promotes his own highlight reels? No I do not.

In a world where machine generated journalism exists, I might LOVE one article from a publication while loathing auto-generated garbage published elsewhere on the same site.

Line Extension & "Merging Without Merging"

At Macworld in 2007 Eric Schmidt said "What I liked about the new device and the architecture of the Internet is you can merge without merging. Each company should do the absolutely best thing they can do every time, and I think he's shown that today."

If you don't have the ability to algorithmically generate content to test new markets then one of the best ways to "merge without merging" is to sell traffic to partners via an affiliate program.

Google has no problem promoting their own affiliate network, investing in other affiliate networks, or inserting themselves as the affiliate.

Google is also fine with Google scraping 3rd party data & creating a content farm that inserts themselves in the traffic stream. After they have damaged the ecosystem badly enough they can then buy out a 2nd or 3rd tier market player for pennies on the Dollar & integrate them into a Google product featured front & center. (It is not hard to be better than the rest of the market after you have sucked the profits out of the vertical & destroyed the business models of competitors).

Others don't have the ability to arbitrarily insert themselves into the traffic stream. They have to earn the exposure. But if other people want to play the affiliate game, they need to have "brand."

Affiliates Not Welcome in the Google AdWords Marketplace

At Affiliate Summit last year Google's Frederick Vallaeys basically stated that they appreciated the work of affiliates, but as the brands have moved in the independent affiliates have largely become unneeded duplication in the AdWords ad system. To quote him verbatim, "just an unnecessary step in the sales funnel."

In our free SEO tips we send new members I recommend setting up AdWords and adCenter accounts to test traffic streams, so that you have the data needed to know what keywords to target. But affiliates need not apply:

Hello Aaron Wall,

I just signed up for the Get $75 of Free AdWords with Google Adwords. After receiving an e-mail stating that I was to call an 877 number of Google Adwords, I was told in my phone call that affiliate marketing accounts were not accepted. I guess I confused by this statement. Is this in error? Or am I not understanding the Tip #3 for setting up an account for Google Adwords for promoting a website?

Thank you in advance for your time.
Sincerely,
Carole

The same Google which allows itself to shamefully carry a "get rich quick" AdSense category considers affiliate marketing unacceptable.

Non-AdSense Affiliates Classified as Doorway Pages, Not Welcome in the Organic Search Results?

The exact same thing is happening in the organic search results right now. Maybe not on your keywords & maybe not today, but if you are an affiliate, the trend is not your friend. ;)

I have heard recently from multiple friends that some of their affiliate sites were penalized for being doorway & bridge pages. At the same time, another friend showed me some BeatThatQuote affiliates ranking thin websites.

What is worse, is that in many instances, Google considers networks of similar sites to be spam. Yet at the same time the quickly growing Google Ventures is investing in companies like Whaleshark Media - a roll up currently consisting of 7 *exceptionally* similar websites in the same vertical.

Larger companies like BankRate can run a half-dozen credit card affiliate websites & an affiliate network. And they can create risk-adjusted yield by buying out smaller competitors, largely because Google won't penalize them based on the site being owned by a fortune 500. However the independent affiliate is forced to sell out early due to the risk that Google can arbitrarily decide they are a doorway site at anytime.

The absurd thing is that if independent webmasters don't include revenue generation in their website then they don't have the capital *required* to invest in brand & further improving their website. How do you compete against automated journalism when Google gives the automated content a ranking boost? And if you want to do higher quality than the machine generated content, how do you hire employees if you are not even allowed to monetize?

I suppose there is AdSense.

Even though AdSense publishers are Google's affiliates they are still welcome to participate in Google's ecosystem.

Risks to Small Businesses

Small businesses not only have to compete against algorithmic journalism, Google's algorithmic bias toward brands, arbitrary "doorway page" editorial judgements cast against them by engineers & significant algorithm changes, but they also have to deal with loopholes Google leaves in the system that allow them to be arbitrarily removed from the ecosystem.

Google showing you "closed in error" wouldn't be such a big deal if they didn't copy code, violate patents, deal in patents to spread their ecosystem, aggressively bundle & advertise, engage in price dumping, and behave in other anti-competitive ways to put their "incorrect facts" in front of billions of people.

The big issue Google is facing on the content quality front is the incentive structure. They have got that wrong for a long time now. They may think that these big changes are motivating people to improve quality, but realistically the lack of certainty is prohibiting investment in real quality while ramping investment in exploitation.

How can anyone invest deeply over the long term in a search ecosystem where Google...

Google would spin Performics out of DoubleClick, and sell it to holding firm Publicis.

Only one major force inside of Google hated the plan. Guess who? Larry Page.

According to our source, Larry tried to sell the rest of Google's executive team on keeping Performics.

"He wanted to see how those things work. He wanted to experiment."

The problem with that is that most honest economic innovation (eg: not just exploitation) comes from small businesses. Going into peak cheap oil where food riots are becoming more common & pensions are about to blow up, we need the kings of information to encourage innovation, rather than relying on doing whatever is easy & trusting established old leaders while retarding risk taking from (& investment in) start ups.

In some markets being successful means staying small, building deeper into a niche, and keep adding value until you have a strong position. However some ecommerce sites that were not associated with big brands were torched by the Panda update.

Betting on Brand

As Google has tilted their algorithm toward brand, some ecommerce companies that focused on winning relevant niches are now watering down their competitive advantages by betting the company on brand:

CSN Stores is today consolidating its 200+ shopping sites into a single ecommerce website under one brand: Wayfair.com.
...
So why the change to Wayfair.com? Primarily for obvious branding reasons: the company has long been spending a huge amount of money on marketing a lot of separate websites, and now they can focus on advertising just one.
...
Other reasons for the consolidation of the separate shopping site are search engine optimization – which was apparently much needed after Google’s recent Panda update – and the fresh ability to make recommendations to shoppers based on their collective purchase history.

But, as some brands abuse Google the same way the content farms did, is that a good bet? I don't think it is.

What is so Bad About Content Farms?

  • low quality
  • headline over-promises, content under-delivers
  • anonymously written
  • written by people who are often ignorant of what they are writing about
  • add nothing new to the ecosystem, just a dumbed-down reshash of what already exists
  • done cheaply & in bulk, in a factory-line styled format
  • contains frequent spelling and grammatical errors
  • primarily focused on pulling in traffic from search engines
  • exists primarily to promote something else (ads or the above-the-fold ecommerce product listings)
  • etc. etc. etc.

Such behavior is *not* unique to the sites that were branded as content farms & is quickly spreading across fortune 500 websites.

Big Brands Become Content Farms

A friend sent me an email which highlighted how a well-known brand was ordering thousands of pieces of "content" in bulk for their branded site.

Here is the email, with blurring to protect the guilty.

The only difference between the "content farms" and the branded sites engaging in content farming is the logo up in the top-left corner of the page. The business process from how the content is created, to who it is created by, to what they are paid to create it, to the interface it is ordered through, on to how it is published is exactly the same.

Many of the same authors who had some of their eHow "articles" deleted are now writing dozens of "articles" for fortune 500 websites.

When Panda happened & I saw corporate doorway pages (& recycled republished tweets) ranking I hinted that we could expect this problem. I thought it would start with parasitic hosting on branded sites & maybe a few opportunistic brand extensions.

Then I expected it would likely take a couple years to go mainstream.

But with the economy being so weak (and back in yet another undeclared recession, actually honestly never having left the last one) this shift only took 6 months to happen. At this point I expect it to spread quickly, especially as the economy gets worse. The above fortune 500 company is one that got a strong boost from Panda & as their downstream traffic from Google picks up over the next month or 2 you can expect many of their competitors to copy the strategy.

This isn't a US-only phenomena. A community member sent me the following, from another fortune 500 company.

Now that fortune 500s are doing almost everything that smaller players could do (but with more capital, more scale, more algorithmic immunity, requiring smaller players to link to them to be listed & in some cases while replacing humans with algorithms) AND get the Google brand boost the future is growing more uncertain for independent webmasters that lack brand, relationships, and community.

Big brands are basically pushed across the finish line while smaller webmasters must run uphill with a 80 pound backpack full of gear - in ice & snow, naked, while being shot at. What's worse, is that brands are now being bought, sold & licensed - just one more tool in the marketer's toolbox (presuming you have the cash).

disclaimer: I am not saying that all content farming is bad (I am fairly agnostic...if it works & people like it, then it works), but the above trend highlights the absurdity of Google's notion of whether something is spam based not on the offense, but rather who is doing it, especially as big brands just quietly turned into content farms.

Google Eats Their Organic Search Results

Sep 8th

"The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed." - William Gibson

Not only do they monetize via AdWords, but Google has 6 listings in the "organic" search results.

Any Google search engineer care to have a public debate as to the legitimacy of that search result set?

If an SEO gets half of the search results (for anything other than his own brand) he is an overt spammer. If Google eats half of the search results with duplicating nepotism across their own house "brands" then it is legitimate.

Making the above even worse, smaller niche brands are regularly disappeared from Google's index. Google has the ability to redirect search intent to one that is easier to monetize & more along a path they approve of. I was searching for a post John Andrews (webmaster of johnon.com) wrote about Google censorship & what did Google do? They used their power over the dictionary to change the words I searched for on the fly & then promoted their ebooks offering yet again.

Note that listings 1 & 2 promote the exact same book. Google just lists the content they scraped into multiple categories that deserve to be showcased multiple times. How many ways did Google screw up the above search result?

  • they auto-corrected the search query to an unwanted alternate search
  • in spite of auto-correction, they still allowed their other verticals to be inserted in the results inline right near the top (when rare longtail searches are auto-corrected, one would expect them to be more adverse to embedding such an aggressive self-promotion in the search results)
  • they associate content hosted by them as being about their brand simply because they host it (even though that piece of content has no relation to them outside of them scraping it)
  • they list it not once but twice, right at the top of the results (even though it is duplicate content available elsewhere & both pages are the same on Google, with the exception of one promoting a recent version of the book & the other page promoting a decade older version of the exact same book)

As a publisher you are *required* to keep spending more money on deeper editorial to avoid being labeled as spam or tripping some arbitrary "algorithmic" threshold. And as you do so, Google is humping you from the backside to ensure your profit margins stay low, scraping whatever they can within the limits of the law & operating the types of websites that would be considered spam if anyone else ran them. Once regulatory pressures or public opinion catch on to Google's parasitic behavior, they buy a brand & leverage its content to legitimize their (often) illegitimate enterprise. :)

Oh, and how about a quote from the Censored Screams book: "censorship, like charity, should begin at home, but, unlike charity, it should end there.‎"






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