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The Future of SEO Campaigns with Jon Henshaw & Taylor Pratt from Raven

Raven SEO Interview.

Here is the audio if you'd prefer to listen :)

Play File (mp3 link)

Eric: All right, this is Eric over here at SEO Book and today I'm fortunate enough to be joined by Taylor Pratt and Jon Henshaw from Raven SEO Tools, thanks for joining us today guys.

Taylor Pratt: Yeah, thanks for having us.

Jon Henshaw: Yeah, good to see ya!

Eric: All right, so we just have some questions here that I think our readers will appreciate and some of our members have been interested to know about as well.

So, without further ado I'll jump right in here.

Obviously you guys are essentially the creators of an all-in-one SEO tool set which has kind of morphed into a Web marketing tool set now with all of the different things that you've added and certainly have a vested interest in being on the right side of forecasting the future of what will be important to search marketers here in the short and long-term and certainly there's a lot of changes going on at the moment especially in the social area.

So, I'd just like to get your thoughts on where you guys see search going with respect to what's going to be important for us as search marketers to track, study and report on the clients; things like rankings, analytics, social signals?

Jon Henshaw: Yeah, I mean I think I'll go first. This is Jon and as you said we kind of started out with just SEO and over time we have become more of that full-fledged internet marketing suite. And I would say that that was actually one of the first steps in sort of forecasting where things are going in the industry.

And at first while that was like our main focus what we started to see was sort of the merging of all of these different practices under one roof and so you saw a lot of people who just did SEO's, a lot of people who just did paid and they started to do both. And then social kind of came into that mix, that's the most recent thing, and so now you're seeing a lot of agencies doing all three and on top of that they're doing email marketing and that type of thing and so that was sort of our first step in saying SEO is not going to be enough; what we think is going to happen is most of these companies doing these sort of individual components of marketing are going to be doing them all.

So then the second thing which is really what we're dealing with now is so where is it going now? What is it that people need and I would say we're just sticking to how we approached it all along which is we're basically talking to the people who are doing the work out there. We're talking to the agencies, the individuals, the experts and we're asking them, what are your problems? Like, what are the problems that are still not being solved even just on the most practical level?

And so we take that information and we look at what we built and we go, okay, so how can we solve that problem with Raven? And that contributes a whole lot to at least our own roadmap. Taylor might want to talk more about sort of the future of things.

Taylor Pratt:Yeah and building off of what Jon's saying, when it comes to figuring out what I should be studying or reporting on I think we're seeing, especially like Jon said with social getting more into search, people having to turn to pay-for-click to get more data, having to study all disciplines of online marketing you can't just make the right call just by looking at what you can see in your analytics from an SEO perspective.

And so I think what we're seeing with people are that they're realizing, hey, I could be doing a lot better if I don't just look at my own stuff. I want to see what keywords are performing at the highest level on the pay-per-click side. I want to see what our audience is talking about on our fan page and on our Twitter account so that I know what topics I should be writing about that's going to get the most engagement.

And so I think we're moving towards a full landscape of online marketing and services and it's forcing SEO's to try and become more knowledgeable in those others fields as well.

And, as a result, you know, that's really what we were trying to do with Raven which was bringing together all that data so that you can be looking at it easily. Maybe I don't actually have to do the work when it comes to pay-per-click but I need to understand it and I need to know what I can take from that to improve my own SEO campaign.

And so really when it comes to reporting and actually managing that process we need people to be a lot more versatile in their skills, they can't just be focused on one niche anymore.

Eric: Those are all great points. I think too you guys must run into stuff like I think you could probably take ten people who are knowledgeable or successful with SEO that have been doing it for a while and they probably get four or five different opinions on what exactly SEO is. Is it...does it stop at rankings or does it stop at, you know, rankings plus traffic plus conversions plus leveraging all of the other data that you talked about. So that must be quite at challenge because I'm sure you guys have experience in the industry obviously and talking with some of the folks that you talk about, you must get a lot of different opinions on what exactly SEO is.

Jon Henshaw: Definitely. And you mentioned ranking which has been traditionally sort of a core component of what people think of when they're doing SEO and what they're actually reporting on to their clients.

And the thing is, is that what ranking was a few years ago, it's not the same as it is today. And I think we know why which is the search engines, particularly Google, it just depends on who you are, if you're logged in with your account, where you are, now obviously who you're connected with with G+ and because of all of those things who knows what results you're going to get..who knows what the results are going to be that you're going to get.

And so what's happening in sort of the rank checking world is it's getting really just unpredictable. I mean, you don't know what you're going to get. You have people at one end, and one of the biggest frustrations that I know rank checkers have, and I know this because we used to check them ourselves and now we, of course, use Authority Labs but I think all of them have the difficulty of that customer saying, well, this isn't what I'm seeing!

And so I think it's going to get worse and worse. And so I think what's changed with ranking is that ranking has become, or should be becoming, less important of a metric. And, instead the focus should be on organic referrals because that's really the most reliable thing that you can look at and report on.

So, in other words, if I were an agency or just even an individual SEO guy who was doing work for a customer I would make the metric be, am I increasing your organic traffic instead of where do I rank for your pet term? You know, and I think that's the biggest change. That's what I've seen over the past few years. There's still a lot of resistance to that just because they don't want it to be true but I think the reality is, is that rank checking is still going to be important because it still gives you an indication of health and gives you some idea of sort of how you're performing even if it's going to get to a point where it could never be 100% accurate.

So it'll still play a role and we're still going to keep having that data in our system but the big, big factor is going to be actually what Google Analytics is providing and whatever stacks package you use.

And to be able to say that we increased your organic traffic by 100% and on top of that your conversions went up. I think that's becoming more important.

Eric: Right, yeah. Do you guys have any plans to integrate that stuff? You do work with Authority Labs. Do they do a lot of stuff with their incorporating universal results that you guys might be able to do because I know some of the software tools do that? That could be helpful

I think especially on the agency side of things you find that people tend to lead their value add with rankings, right? I mean, you can but that's a big mistake. If anything, if you're going to have conversations about rankings you have to attach an element of conversion optimization to that too you can't just leave it at the door.

Jon Henshaw: Yeah, and that's something that we're talking to Authority Labs with right now and they actually do provide universal results with the data and they're trying to update the API that we're using so we can actually present that.

So as soon as we can present that we're going to and then on top of that as far as where we're taking things in the future, we're going to be supporting the ability to edit your ranking results, the ability to import ranking results from other third parties. So, yeah, so we're working on that, it's not available right now, but that is something that we know people have been asking for, for quite a while.

Eric: Okay. So, we talked about all of these things with how the sort of element of ranking being less and less of a flagship sort of metric to report, at least on client sites or even on sites that SEO's might run themselves, affiliate sites, or sites where revenue is driven by AdSense or something to that affect.

But I think what a lot of people would be interested to know, and I love getting opinions on this from a bunch of people all across the industry, that if you were starting in an SEO company today how would you approach the key elements of the business, you know, what are the core competencies that you think not only that are effective, but I think there's something a disconnect between what is actually or what should be a core competency for an SEO firm, you know, link outreach, all of these things, but some of those things are hard to quantify to a client.

You know, we've reached out to 400 sites and we obtained two links. Well, that can be a bit difficult to report on but with things like link outreach or just good old fashioned PR, social development, community building, rankings, conversions, all of those things, what would you promote to your clients as the value add that your agency or your company would bring to the table?

Taylor Pratt: You know, if it were me back in my agency days what we tried to focus on was... we all say that we want to focus on conversions but I think getting even more specific than that, having specific interaction goals for different aspects of your organic traffic. So what I'd probably do is talk about how we look at both branded and non-branded traffic and we separate them. I want to have specific goals for my branded traffic that I expect them to be able to complete if they came to us organically.

And then from a non-branded standpoint, I want to be able to do the exact same things. And building off of what we talked about earlier I think going into those meetings now and telling them, hey, you know, looking at releases like when Google announced the whole not provided thing, as an agency I need to be prepared to say to my client, well, you know what, we have a work around for that. We have a pay-per-click campaign that's going so we can still get the traffic insight behind each keyword so we know which ones we should be focusing on the most.

And I think presenting it to the client as you being able to adapt to the changing market and you not focusing just on one individual aspect is really going to be what shows them that they should be going with you over somebody else.

Eric: Right, yeah, and I think those are good points. Because I see it too, sometimes people are starting an agency, they look for things that they can…you know, like rankings are still such a big thing and I know there was some press last year about how rankings are dead. I know Jon wrote a post kind of countering that and I did as well. I don't think that's the case either but I think it seems like people are still, or in some cases, leading with rankings. But the problem is it takes X amount of months to get there for some terms and then you find out that the traffic isn't there in the first place really if you're relying on keyword tools.

So, that's interesting because I think right now we have a lot of people that read this blog and in the community that sort of run their own sites a little bit and then you've got people who are doing some client work. Are you seeing more of an increase in folks who maybe in the past where just sort of individual SEO's that are now filtering over to taking on some more client stuff?

Taylor Pratt: Yeah, you know, I can speak for myself personally. I'm starting to take over Raven's pay-per-click work and going into it I knew enough just pretty much what any SEO would know, pretty much what any SEO would know about pay-per-click.

I wouldn't know enough to run a campaign from start to finish so starting to ramp up on that. And it's interesting that over the last couple of months, really since not provided or at least have seen, a lot more articles around pay-per-click showing up on industry blogs. It's starting to get a lot more coverage and I think people are starting to realize that, hey, I could pretty much get more concrete results out of my SEO program if I would just focus a little bit more time in these other areas.

Because, like you said around figuring out that, hey, if I'm targeting one keyword and a couple of months down the line once I start ranking for it, I'm not getting the traffic I expected, well, we could have identified that if we just ran a traditional test just to see.

I mean, you can run pay-per-click tests without even getting clicks. I just want to see how many impressions I can get so I can estimate how much traffic I could potentially get if I was ranking for that keyword.

So trying to get a better fit or a better feel for those numbers, there's a lot that you could be doing with that.

Eric: Yeah, absolutely. The pay-per-click is absolutely the best keyword keyword research tool. So when you think of all of the time you spend digging through the AdWords keywords tool and then digging through like Wordtracker or other competitive research tools, if you took a few hundred bucks and threw it at PPC just for accidental clicks right and you threw a pay-per-click campaign up with all the keywords that you're looking at you'd be much better off.

Jon Henshaw: And, I was going to throw out that of course Google has done an excellent job of positioning it as one of your best options.

Eric: Yeah, yeah (laugh). And they're certainly not shy about throwing out those coupons either.

Taylor Pratt: No, they play me like a fiddle, that's for sure!

Eric: Yeah. I think the big thing, you know, in addition to on the SEO side of things with all of the stuff that Google's been doing and continues to do especially with the Plus 1 sort of approach, is the evolution of link building where a lot of times it's just been basic. Where we have all of these sort of tactics that have been working for a long time that I think it can be effective but I think if you're looking mid to long-term on trying to build out, if you run your own sites or even clients that you need to see that it is almost evolving into like a sales and PR type of role.

Do you think it's become a little bit less about pure link metrics like page rank or some of the other stuff that's out there like the (MAS) rank, (MAS) trust follow versus no follow or somewhere in the middle but I think it's definitely evolved towards being more of a relationship type of approach and a PR type of approach. I'd be interested to hear what you have to say about that.

Jon Henshaw: Yeah, I totally agree. If you look back on even the very early days of link building it was basically build a link anywhere you can get it. I mean, it didn't even matter what site it was, it didn't matter where it was on the page, then as that evolved Google evolved with that. It ended up becoming, well, you may not want it on the footer or you may want it in a different place or you might want to have it on a relevant page. There's still many industries, many site types that I would say even up to today, because I still hear stories from some pretty hardcore people out there that are like, oh yeah, footer links are still well alive for my particular thing.

But I think for the most part, for most people, you hit the nail on the head with it's about relationships. And so that's basically where we talk about predicting where things are going, well, we're seeing it as it's already there and it's only going to increase as far as what's important in link building is going to be building relationships with site owners, with editors, it will also be extremely important to build relationships socially so that you're connected with people who have some degree of influence socially. And so with that one of the things that you said is, is it important to care about (MAS) rank or page rank or any of these other things? And I think it still is important. So, and the way I approach it, which I think is a fairly practical way, is it's important to have as many pieces of data and metrics as possible.

It's the same reason why I think that rank checking will remain important to some extent. I think the same is true with these different metrics. It's not going to be, nor should it be, the main thing that you focus on. The main thing that you should focus on, in my opinion, are relationships with people who are relevant to what you're trying to market.

And that's where what you just mentioned a second ago, that's where PR comes in. It's very PR-like. So that's where I think it's going and that's what we're going to be focusing on but we're going to continue to include those other metrics just because I think they help you see the full picture so that, for example, when you're doing research, trying to find sites or people that you want to connect with, that data really kind of helps round out your decision like, okay, this is all of the things that kind of get in here and even what I'm just looking at and making a judgment on, looks pretty good. I think I'm going to contact this person.

Eric: Like when I look for people that I might want to bring on board to do some link building for some sites it's almost like you ignore, to a degree, SEO experience and what you're focusing on is, is this person salesy? Are they good at PR? Where before it was more of a like hunker down and look for stuff I'll reverse engineer this and that and pull this report, which is all still important certainly

Jon Henshaw: Right.

Eric: But for those really premium type links that I think competition can't get you really ought to have folks like that going forward.

Jon Henshaw: And I think content should be thrown out there too which is..and I don't mean as if you write good content you will rank type of thing but more along the lines of one of the best link building outreach methods is guest blogging. And if you can present yourself in a way that is one that's not too salesy, but, two, can really, really benefit that site meaning you better have a good writer on staff or somebody hired on a contract basis, it's altruistic in the sense that I can get you something really good.

In fact, I'm going to go out of my way and I'm going to spend over $15 dollars on something. I might spend $100 or $200 buck to have a really good article put on somebody else's site with the idea that I'm going to have a decent link to my site. It'll be on a relevant site. So that to me is a pretty important component and that's something that we focused on too and we're going to continue to focus on. So, for example, we've automated some of that which is you can go through Textbroker on Raven or you can have your own writers on staff or through contract and then they can log in and they can save the articles that they write and our content manager.

Eric: Yeah, definitely - content, yeah absolutely. That's a great feature of Raven too. The example that I give sometimes in the forums when people ask about creating…how do we create a piece of content that's time tested. Like, I always give the example of David Mihm who creates the local search ranking sites. You can do something like that for your industry, I mean, just think of things like that. Most industries you can come up with something that the competition isn't doing and then you just... you almost don't have to significantly promote it after the first couple of times. People just naturally look for it. So, yeah, that's definitely a big piece there.

And I think, you know, like I said before, we have a lot of folks inside the forums and that read the blog that are different it's such a hybrid of people who market their own sites and they monetize it in different ways. They've got clients and all of these other things. We always talk about how creating your own product, ultimately, you know, it typically ends up being the most rewarding in the long run, certainly other methods can significantly increase your companies revenue or an individual Web masters revenue. But, when we talk about long-term things and not relying on affiliate networks or AdSense serving or things like that we talk about products and I think, you know, Raven is a great case study in identifying a particular market, the need of a market, creating the product and then just marketing it.

Because, I think, sometimes people miss that. It's such a multi-step approach, it's not just find a market and exploit it with a great product. There's another piece to it which is the marketing which I think Raven does an excellent job on. So, what I would like to hear from you guys is, can you give us some insight into how you sort of went from thinking about Raven to developing it to marketing it and keep improving on it because that's the other piece too. It's not just create a product and dump it in the market and hope people buy it and never touch it again. You know, just some of the biggest hurdles you face, pitfalls and best practices.

Jon Henshaw: Sure, I can talk from a marketing standpoint of Raven since that's what my role is here. I joined Raven about two years ago and we had a pretty good idea with how we wanted to actually end up marketing the product and the first year that I was here, what we wanted to focus on was really cementing ourselves as a tool in the SEO industry. We wanted to let everyone know that these were powerful tools, they were things that they could rely on and we wanted to be known as an authority in that market. And last year what we really spent our time doing was focusing on becoming more of a workflow and collaboration tool. While we had these features before we needed to make it known that, hey, if you work with a team, if you want to collaborate on products with your clients or if you have a couple of contractors that you're outsourcing stuff to, this is a tool that will make that easier and so that's really our 2011 messaging was really focusing heavily on that.

But now what we run into is, Raven does more than just SEO. We have social media tools, pay-per-click tools, email is integrated into there so how do we now market to everyone and convince them that we're not just Raven SEO tools, we're Raven internet marketing tools? And I think that's really what our focus is going to be in 2012 is showing them that, one, you need to have a toolset that is flexible in all of those different areas and, two, that Raven actually fits those needs, we're not just SEO tools anymore.

Jon Henshaw: I think from a product standpoint we really started off working with other agencies and, in fact, we launched it and took it back offline, in a sense into like a very private beta for about six to nine months and we worked just side-by-side with several agencies; some in the US and some in the UK and they really helped us refine how the link manager should work and the types of things that need to be reported on. And then from there it was....
Eric:I think we lost him.

Taylor Pratt:Oh no.

Eric: Just wait for him to sign back on here. Just to continue talking about the marketing side of things a little bit, do you find that once you've started the marketing initially it seems like that's a good bit of work but it also seems like on the other end it's almost just as much work after you sort of establish yourself in the industry you've got to keep, you know, pushing and going to all of these different events and all of these other things.

Jon Henshaw: (completely unaware of the drop off :D ): I won't say because there are some secrets, you know. And so, you know, while Taylor and the marketing team, it's there job to really let people understand what the product does. It's our job, at least on the product side, to figure out is the product solving the problems that need to be solved in the market? And so if we're trying to approach SEO and social and PPC and other areas, are we know, they use our software, are we making it harder for them or are we making it easier for them? And of course we want to make it so that it's a no-brainer. It's, by then, simply using it and putting their team members on there they're saving money.

Not only are they saving money they're managing their data better and they're able to report the information easier to themselves or to their client and so that's sort of a high-level example without a whole lot of details. But, that's really what we're focused on is how can we make this easier, at the same time how can we make it more robust and do all of the things that people need it to do, how can we solve problems that are not being solved by anybody on the market right now? And that's really what we're focused on. And, of course, all of that includes trying to absorb all of the different feature requests which also gives us an idea of what people really need. It's not just we don't have to just sit there and guess or dream up something on our own in a bubble. The feature requests are something that's extremely helpful and we have a lot of them. We have people who use the system intensely and everyday and they come up with some pretty amazing ideas.

Eric: I think we cut out there a little bit after the beta discussion. But I think the gist of it is when people talk about creating products it's so much more involved than just develop, market and sell, right? I mean it's obvious and I think we're aware of that but I think when people hear the six to nine months that you took in beta and you were working with these other agencies, I think sometimes that's the point that gets missed. Because you look at Raven and it's like the interface is so clean, it's so easy to use that people think, wow, that's pretty simple right? I mean, I think its what Basecamp's competitors have been thinking for such a long time. It's so simple and easy, I could do that, right?

Jon Henshaw: I would say our biggest problem and the one that we're looking to solve this year is while you are somebody who knows exactly what you're doing, you know and when you get in there you know how to use the system, ah, that's simple. This does this I understand the terminology and what's going on here. It's not for the novice and so it's funny because there's that weird dichotomy there. And so you have somebody else that comes in and says this is the most complicated thing I've ever seen in my life.

I mean, and that's some of the cancellation messages that we get. It was like, what are you trying to do? And so our big or one of our big initiatives this year is to put education in place for those people and also for teams. We have a lot of agencies that are wanting the ability to say, hey, I really love what you're doing here, I get it.

I want my team to be on here but I need training. And so those are things that we're working on and then the other thing, on the product side, is incorporating more contextual help and so we've started to slowly roll out what we're calling the help box and so it's the first time that we've ever been to a tool in the system. You actually see this help box that pushes down everything else and that gives you a brief description, it gives you a really quick screen cast of what the tool does and then it also links you out to the knowledge base. So, those are things that as we grow and we sit back and kind of go, okay, where are we loosing people? Where are they getting confused? We know that that's something that we really have to work on.

Taylor Pratt: And there's an overlap with that with marketing too. I mean, we need to be teaching people how to use the tools. We're trying to do that more on the blog. You know, we also have that stance that we're not going to tell you how to do your job but we need to show you the benefits of using Raven when you are doing your job. And so like Jon said, that education, I think, is really going to be helpful for users who are still trying to figure out, all right, well, what's the logic behind this? Why is it important that these two tools are working together and we're trying to show that both within the tool itself but then outside too. So if you are just trying to evaluate it or you are looking for a tool and you're not sure if Raven does that, hopefully we'll be able to demonstrate that through our blog posts, our training Webinars what have you.

Eric: So, for 2012 are there any, you know, I'm sure no competitors are listening so feel free to just lay it all out there. For 2012, any product teases we can get? Anything you think that people might be interested in?

Jon Henshaw: Yeah, I'll tell you a few things that I've publicly talked about and then I'll hint towards one thing and then there are still several big things that I will not give a clue to that we're working on.

Eric: Fair enough :)

Jon Henshaw: And I will say also, if you go to our blog I think maybe in January or December I wrote an open letter to Raven customers and there's a really good rundown of all of the things that we did in 2011 and it's huge. I was actually shocked when I wrote it. I was like, I had no idea that we did all of this. It was a good year!
Eric: Yeah.

Jon Henshaw: But the things that we're going to be doing in 2012 I'm very confident is going to be a bigger year than 2011. And the other thing that makes me confident about that is we've been ramping up on developers. We are truly a software company now and we, I think, (this year) we've just had two developers start yesterday, I haven't even seen them yet, but it's something that we're getting even more aggressive on so I'm excited about that. The things that I can easily tell you about that we're going to be working on releasing soon is we have another major social update coming down the pipeline so when we launched our social stream, real time social streams, social monitoring, it didn't have everything I wanted but we did want to release it by (unintelligible) 32.19 so we had sort of finishing up some really awesome features that didn't quite make it in November will be coming out pretty soon.

We are actively working on the Chrome toolbar, that got delayed for several months but that is back on schedule. But you're going to see a lot of improvements in the social area particularly with Facebook and Twitter and the (stream). We're going to be doing more improvements on our AdWords management tool, so you'll see a lot of nice new things coming down there. We should be adding G+ and LinkedIn this year, probably first half of the year and we're also working on the ranking result importing which I mentioned earlier in the end of the year.

So, those are things that are more public. The one hint, the on thing that I will throw out there, just because it's really relevant to the conversation we've been having is we are focusing on relationships in a way that we haven't done in the system before. So there's going to be something exciting coming down the pipeline in regards to that as far as helping people who do link building outreach and other areas. So that's coming. I expect it in the first half of this year and that's something I'm really excited about.

Eric: Yeah, that definitely sounds interesting, I'll be watching for that. Well, it sounds like you've got a lot to do so I won't keep you much longer. I just wanted to take a moment to thank you guys for hoping on today. I'm going to get this up on the blog here. We'll put it in mp3 format so people can listen to it whenever they want, we'll get all of the text up there. For all of you listening out there, certainly give Raven a shot. I think you guys are still running 30-day trials, right?

Taylor Pratt: Oh yeah.

Eric: Definitely work with it a little bit. I personally have gone back and forth. I think a lot of folks maybe who are used to using software and things like that it might take an adjustment or two but I can personally let folks listening know that I'm going to put a lot more of my stuff in there. I just think it really just cuts down on a lot of the manual work; these crazy spreadsheets and my Dropbox is exploding and it's insane but definitely work with it and give it a shot.

It's going to be new especially to folks I think that do a lot of stuff that I might be doing with the software and stuff but it'll make your life a lot easier and the reporting is unreal. So, certainly give it a shot and, again, thanks to Jon and Taylor for hopping on with us today!

Taylor Pratt:Thanks for having us.

Jon Henshaw: Thanks for having us.

Eric: All right guys, take care.

From AdSense to SpamSense to Spam Cents

Google announced they rolled out their anti-overly-aggressive-ads algorithm. They didn't give a specific % on how much of the above the fold content can be ads, but suggest using their browser preview tool. Using that tool on's search results would of course score it as a spam site, but for some small AdSense webmasters that avoided Panda, Google may have drew first blood.

Much Quicker Updates

With a limited number of recoveries nearly a year after Panda, the first bite might seem like a big concern, however the "too many ads" algorithm updates far more frequently than Panda does:

If you decide to update your page layout, the page layout algorithm will automatically reflect the changes as we re-crawl and process enough pages from your site to assess the changes. How long that takes will depend on several factors, including the number of pages on your site and how efficiently Googlebot can crawl the content. On a typical website, it can take several weeks for Googlebot to crawl and process enough pages to reflect layout changes on the site.

And for those who got hit by Panda then tried to make up for those lower ad revenues with more AdSense ad units, they probably just got served round #2 of Panda Express. ;)

Is it Screen Layout, or Something Else?

In the past Google suggested to a nuked AdWords advertiser that more of his above-the-fold real estate should be content than ads.

However Google has such a rich data set with AdSense that I don't think they would just look at layout. If I were them I would factor in all sorts of metrics like

  • AdSense CTR
  • average page views per visitor
  • repeat visits & brand searches
  • bounce rate
  • clickstream data from Chrome & the Google toolbar (so even if you are using other ad networks, they can still sample the data)

Some sites are primarily driven off of mobile views while other sites might be seen on large monitors. When Google sees every page load & measures the CTRs, tacking actual user response is better than guestimating it.

They could come up with some pretty good metrics from those & then for any high traffic/high earning site they could manually review them to see if they deserve to get hit or not & adjust + refine the "algorithm" until those edge cases disappeared. Google's lack of credible competition in contextual & display ads means they can negotiate pretty tough terms with publishers that they feel are not adding enough value to the ecosystem.

It's Not Just Algorithms Cleaning Up AdSense

In addition to these sorts of algorithms, over the past year they have manually hit networks of sites with the doorway pages label & disabled ad serving on sites or entire accounts where they felt there was a bit too much arbitrage. One of our SEO Book members pointed me to this thread where a lot of Pakistani AdSense accounts got torched last October & another sent me a sample termination email from Google similar to this one:

Notice that in the above:

  • There was no claim of click fraud, copyright issues, or anything like that.
  • There was no claim of advertiser complaints.
  • Google offers no customer support phone number, no "you might want to work on this" advice, doesn't list which of the sites in the account they felt could be improved, and RETROACTIVELY nuked past "earnings" ... depending on where it is in the schedule that can amount to anywhere from 30 to 50+ days (I remember Teeceo mentioned how they waited until the day before the AdSense payday to smoke his stuff way back in the day to have maximum impact!)

On Google's latest quarterly earnings call they highlighted how year on year Google's revenues were up 25% but the network revenues only grew at 15%. They also explained the slower network revenue growth as being associated with improved search quality & algorithm updates like Panda.

Left unsaid in such a statement was that until those algorithms rolled out, Google admitted they funded spam. ;) The whole AdSense & content farm problem was created through incentive structures with unintended consequences.

Is the Garbage Disappearing, or Just Moving to a New Landfill?

If you track what is going on with the Google+ over-promotion (long overdue post coming on that front shortly!) or how Google is still pre-paying Demand Media to upload video "content" to Youtube, Google still may be funding the same model, but doing so while gaining a tighter control of relevancy so they can better sort good stuff from crap (when you host content & track user response you have all the metrics in the world to determine how relatively good you think it is). If they over-promote these sites then in the short run they create the same skewed business model problem.

Sure hosting the user experience makes it easier to sort the wheat from the chaff, but the other big risk here is the impact on the rest of the publishing ecosystem. There will be lots of thin spam from popular people on Google+ (anyone launched a celebrity-focused Pay-Per-Plus site yet?) & in-depth editorial content might not be economically feasible in certain categories where there literally is no organic SERP above the fold.

I will complement them on their efforts to clean up some of the worst offenses (from the prior generation of "bad incentives"). If you were hit by it, Panda was every bit as big/brutal as the famous Florida update. If this update is anything near as significant as the Panda update (in how it impacts smaller independent webmasters) then it is going to force more of them/us to move up the value chain.

That may mean pain in the short run, but (for those who take it as a wake up call to develop brand & organic non-search traffic streams) far more rewards in the longrun for those who remain after the herd is thinned.

Working for "The Company"

Larry Page's view on working for the company:

My grandfather was an autoworker, and I have a weapon he manufactured to protect himself from the company that he would carry to work. It's a big iron pipe with a hunk of lead on the head. I think about how far we've come as companies from those days, where workers had to protect themselves from the company.

I think for many SEOs the idea of starting over is painful, but the best SEOs often enjoy the forced evolution & the game of it all. They don't roll over & play dead or forget SEO. And if Google didn't put hard resets in every once in a while, then the big hedge funds would be mopping up the SERPs and cleaning our clocks with the help of Helicopter Ben.

Areas For Improvement

Of course this could be taken as a positive post toward Google (and it mostly is), but I don't want to come across as a fanboi, so I thought I should do a shout out to a couple things they still need to fix in order to be consistent:

  • If Google is going to tell people that thick deep content is needed to gain sustainable exposure then they shouldn't be ranking thin + pages in the SERPs just because it is a Google product. Even people who have *always* given Google the benefit of the doubt (full on fanbois) found the Google+ placement in the SERPs distasteful.
  • Google's AdSense is still sending out some of those automated "you are leaving money on the table" styled emails reminding publishers to use 3 ad units. If such behavior may lead to a smoke job, then the recommendation shouldn't be offered in the first place. Right below the "use 3 ad units" there needs to be a "proceed with caution" styled link (in red) that links to the recent "too many ads" post.
  • Old case studies that are no longer in line with best practices in the current market should have some sort of notice/notification added to them so new webmasters don't get the wrong idea.
  • Some of the AdSense heatmaps are roadmaps to penalization. These should have been fixed before yesterday's announcement, but if they are still up there next week then Google is willfully & intentionally trying to destroy any small business owner that follows that "best practice" advice.

Your Feedback Needed

Since this update impacted far fewer sites than the Panda update, there are fewer sample/example sites. Did any of your websites get hit? If so, how would you describe ...

  • your ad layout
  • your ad CTR
  • you mode of monetization (AdSense, other, both)
  • the level of impact on your site from the update

Is Google Selling Investors Private Search Data?

This is an interesting play:

BBVA, Spain’s second-largest bank by assets, is teaming up with Google to use its search engine results to provide advanced forecasts of hotel and tourism demand in the country, part of a plan to market real-time economic indicators to its clients.

The bank and internet group will announce on Monday a scheme called the “BBVA-Google tourism activity in Spain indicator”. The first pilot project has focused on measuring advance demand for hotel stays and tourism interest in Spain by using search engine data.

Private investors get to see that search data before anyone else does. If you have a retirement plan invested in stocks, then you are at an asymmetrical information disadvantage because Google is providing an in-depth look at that search data to competing investors who can trade on the information before it is public.

Is search traffic a big deal? Is there enough signal there to matter? Yes. And yes.

I read an investment report earlier today about a company where the hedge fund's rating & valuation was largely based on / justified by the SEO strategy of the underlying company & their current Google rankings...the report even had keyword ranking charts in it!

Was Google paid for giving BBVA access to the above data? Or was it thrown in as a freebie in exchange for getting over 100,000 BBVA workers to switch to the cloud & go Google on the enterprise software front?

If Google has over 90% search marketshare in many EU countries & is willing to leverage proprietary search data to win contracts in other fields, how does anyone compete against that data bundling?

Further, think of all the damage hedge funds & huge banks have done to societies the globe over this past decade & now Google is directly helping the bad guys.

That is Google's approach to their proprietary information: if you invest in their ecosystem and use their analytics tools you can't get your own analytics data (as they have to protect "user privacy"), but they will gladly sell that same data off to someone else.

If there is no public outrage at this "test" then the data units will start getting more granular. Rather than measuring categories Google may sell data on a per-site or per-company basis. Looking at how Google has consistently disintermediated "partners" everywhere else, if Google is feeling bold they may suggest that selling the data to others also permits Google to trade on the data as well.

What's far scarier than an angry search engineer looking at your large paid link buy or a rogue Google "contractor" hacking up your site? A Google hedge fund with a substantial short position on your stock. :D

Recall that Eric Schmidt has stated:

"One day we had a conversation where we figured we could just try and predict the stock market..." Eric Schmidt continues, "and then we decided it was illegal. So we stopped doing that."

Based on Mr. Schmidt's above comment, is it reasonable that Google now profits off leveraging their data for securities analysis? What made the above clearly illegal & what is going on now above board? What's the difference between them? Perhaps a "contractor" layer?

At the same time Google runs sweeping ad campaigns reminding people how Google protects them online, while hosting banking data in the cloud & making themselves a juicier hacking target.

Google warns publishers against using paywalls because it is a poor user experience while wiping out competing lead aggreagtors with new guidelines that are likely impossible to comply with. Sites like Highbeam Research get smoked by algorithms like Panda & the Google works with the folks who already have the legislature in their pocket to get them more data. The lesson here from Google is to provide a clean front end user experience and then sell the data back out the other end.

Everything is fine. Keep shopping (on + your Android phone)...Google will ensure the data is monetized to its full potential.

Was Google Caught in a Sting Operation in Kenya?

Wow...this is

According to this post, Google was caught scraping Mocality, calling the listed businesses, soliciting that they move to Google "Get Your Business Online", disparaged the directory they were scraping in the client call, and then lied about having the permission of the directory they were scraping to try to con businesses into working with Google.

A few select quotes:

There are absolutely no costs, and this will be agreed on before it’s put on… No one will come and tell you like Mocality used to do, someone tells you it’s free and then they come to ask for money. You know that Google doesn’t fool around here.
Mocality used to charge people and many of the people who used to be in Mocality we have taken them and transferred them here. Didn’t we also find you on Mocality?
Ai…they used to…but some people didn’t used to pay. They [Mocality] used to go and ask people to pay them around Ksh. 20,000 and people refused. It was things like that.)

Google's business model *is* buying or building things that are free and then later pulling back features and/or sneaking costs in on them. Whether it be clubbing Android carriers with compatibility, saying search ads are evil then placing them everywhere, Google Maps API terms changes, terms changes on the Google AdWords API, Google hotel place listings with endless price ads, or keyword (not provided) in web analytics while trying to force you to register in Google Webmaster Tools to get any keyword data at all!

As if that wasn't bad enough, when the fake business asked Google if Mocality was ok with this, this was the exchange:

My question is does Mocality know that you’re getting their con…our contacts from their directory?
Yah. They know. They know that very well. They have agreed with Google when they were on that thing.

I have long stated that the difference between spam and quality content is who is spamming. With the recent widely criticized over-promotion of Google+ in the search results and this sort of scrape, lie & disintermediate the source Google's true character is shining through.

Facebook & Twitter are smart not to leave the barn door open for Google.

All information wants to be free and wrapped in Google's ads. Or so the saying goes. But until they can be trusted it won't be. They have done A LOT of brand damage to themselves in the past couple months.

Update: Google was mortified that they got caught doing this:

We were mortified to learn that a team of people working on a Google project improperly used Mocality’s data and misrepresented our relationship with Mocality to encourage customers to create new websites. We’ve already unreservedly apologised to Mocality. We’re still investigating exactly how this happened, and as soon as we have all the facts, we’ll be taking the appropriate action with the people involved.

Scalable Link Outreach with Gmail and Boomerang

Sometimes it's the little things in life....Boomerang for Gmail (and Outlook) is an incredibly useful, lightweight, powerful link outreach app.

Link building has a special place in the SEO industry. Beyond being one of the harder skill-sets to master and acquire, link building is likely the most important element of an SEO campaign.

Link building can also be the most difficult job to:

  • Scale internally and externally
  • Train someone to do efficiently
  • Outsource
  • Hire someone for

How to hire link builders and how to train them are certainly worthy of their own (upcoming) blog posts but this post is going to sing the praises of a Gmail and Outlook plugin that is essential for my link building workflow.

Boomerang for Gmail (and Outlook)

Outside of the really cool name this plugin makes my workflow much more streamlined and efficient.

I don't use Outlook so I'll be focusing on the Gmail plug-in here. The Outlook plugin has most of the functionality of the Gmail edition (minus the Send On options) and you can check out the Outlook version here.

The key benefits to using Boomerang (referencing the Gmail app going forward) are:

  • Schedule emails to be sent at a later date/time
  • Set reminders on emails so they pop back up at a specified time
  • Set email reminders from your smartphone

Send Emails Later

You can install Boomerang for Gmail here. You can use this for Gmail and Google apps and you'll need to use Firefox or Chrome.

You'll manage Boomerang in two places; you can get to it in your Gmail toolbar:

From here you can access your scheduled messages to make any changes and access various help and how-to's.

The other area where you access Boomerang is in the email dialogue box. When you go to compose a new message or click to reply to one you'll see the Boomerang button and see all the options available for sending the message:

If you click on anything other than the specific time option at the bottom, the message is scheduled straight away.

If you need to access your Boomerang-ed messages, just go back to the top Gmail toolbar, click Boomerang, and click access Scheduled messages.

The other cool option when composing a new message is listed right below the subject line. From here you can have Boomerang return the message to your Inbox if no one replies or even if they do (marked as unread, starred, etc; these options can be changed in the "access scheduled messages" option on the top Gmail/Boomerang toolbar option):

You have the exact same option when replying to messages as well.

This is incredibly useful for a variety of link building actions such as:

  • Tracking the effectiveness of email pitches
  • Scheduling a bunch of pitches to line up with various promotions and outreach campaigns, in one shot
  • Using in conjunction with Gmail's canned responses for scalable link outreach and management
  • Never forget about a link prospect
  • Make Gmail a self-contained link outreach system for staff members
  • Avoid awkward time zone issues on email deliveries if you have staff outside your targeted market's location

Email Reminders

While the Send On features are the most useful for link outreach, the Reminder functions can be useful as well.

Boomerang has Gmail-like functionality in the way it auto-offers a solution. Here you can see I've got a Staples coupon that expires on January 16th. Boomerang is asking me if I'd like to return this to my inbox on that date:

Outside of that functionality you can click the Boomerang reminder icon in the toolbar to get the reminder options available to you:

So rather than setting something in your calendar or in your task management application, you can use Boomerang to re-populate the email when needed.

You can add a condition to this and say that you only want to be reminded of the message at the selected time "IF" no one responds, simply by checking that option above. Otherwise, it will come back whether someone responds or not.

You can also use your iPhone, Blackberry, or Android to set up a message for yourself to arrive in your inbox at a certain time with their mobile option.

Privacy Concerns

Letting an app access your data on shouldn't be taken lightly. Here is what they say about privacy:

Why does Boomerang for Gmail need access to my email account?

Like most other Gmail plugins, we need access to the full email data to be able to move and send messages. In our queries, we only store the headers of the message (subject, sender, time) so that we can uniquely ID the message you want to schedule. We don't store any message text.
Does it mean you have my Gmail password?

No, we don't have access to your Gmail password. You are authorizing through Google's official OpenID system.

Sign Up for Boomerang

You can get a full-featured pro account trial for free, for 30 days here. I am anxious for them to release the open/click tracking for even deeper link outreach analysis.

If you are looking for a more enterprise level solution, with team-wide tracking and monitoring, please check out our reviews of Buzzstream and Raven Tools.

Transparency vs Asymmetrical Information

"All things are subject to interpretation. Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth." - Friedrich Nietzsche

Everyone Except Me Should be Open

Being labeled as open or transparent is a great public relations strategy. Executed effectively it gets ditto heads to feel like they are part of a movement and spread your propaganda.

However actually being transparent is often a poor business strategy.

When WordAds opened up someone in the comments suggested that they should win by being open like Google. I read that and laughed. Where Google is losing you can count on them pushing the open label in order to build momentum & destroy the asymmetrical information advantages of existing market leaders. But where Google leads non-transparency is the norm.

A few examples & comparisons:

  • Claiming to run an open auction, while running obfuscated quality metrics that price gouge advertisers.
  • At the same time Google is trying to push social sites to offer transparent data, they decided to block some Google search referral data (unless you are paying for the clicks, then you get that data).
  • When planning some of the features behind Google+ one of their employees wrote a book about the social circles concept with Google's blessings. Then, after he wrote the book, Google revoked permission to publish it!
  • Nuking affiliate links of some websites & then investing in Viglink, a network that automatically turns links into affiliate links.
  • Burning some networks of websites for being doorway pages & then investing in the Whaleshark Media roll up & launching Google Places.
  • Nuking some UK financial comparison sites for link buying & then buying BeatThatQuote.
  • Suggesting 60 or 90 days of penalty is a reasonable penalty for sketchy links & allowing BeatThatQuote to rank 2 weeks after penalizing it without cleaning up any of the paid links.
  • Android is open but internal Google emails revealed that carriers were getting wise to Google using compatibility as a club.
  • Not sharing revenue share stats with AdSense partners for a half-decade.
  • When websites are nuked they are frequently given no explanation. Worse yet, their content often re-appears in the search results on some other domain that stole it, in many cases while being wrapped in AdSense ads.
  • Arbitrarily making it hard to export AdWords campaigns to other services (& making it against the TOS to do same via the API).
  • The Panda update was needed to rid the web of garbage content. And yet Google is pre-paying Demand Media to post videos on YouTube. Since the Panda update downstream Google traffic to YouTube has more than doubled & YouTube is serving over a trillion streams per year!
  • In spite of not having permission to do so, Google has been scanning books for nearly a decade now. Yet whenever Google goes to court they try to get the court documents sealed so that their statements couldn't be used against them.

Judge, Jury, Executioner

Calls for "transparency" in SEO may sound great on their face, but once you peal back the covers the absurdity is laughable. If Google didn't discriminate against certain types of players & if Google didn't compete in the very markets that it judges then perhaps transparency would be a good idea.

However Google is perhaps the single biggest direct competitor in many markets, so to be fully transparent with them when they are the opposite with you is a naive business strategy:

I also disagree that outing each other would make the industry less like a mafia, because SEOs aren't the mafia. SEO is a symbiotic marketing channel reliant on Google, until the next big search engine/method comes along. In a mafioso analogy, Google would be the mafia - as they control the market. Removing all webspam wouldn't necessarily create better search results or a fairer market, as Google still decides who wins and who loses. The biggest winner being Google itself, the next level being their friends.

Secrecy is also the cornerstone of all marketing channels. Social Media for instance works in a similar way to SEO, except they have secret voting methods rather than secret linking methods. You don't see major social media companies outing a rival's voting methods, as it would shine a torch on their own methods. Even outside of marketing, McDonalds probably worked out KFC's magic blend of herbs and spices decades ago, but it's not in their best interest to tell everybody.

Outing webspam helps an SEO blog to keep their UVs up and their VCs happy. It helps a failing newspaper to appear modern and edgy, whilst allowing the contributor to launch a protection racket off the back of another company's misery.

Do You Want SEOs to Seem More Professional?

How often do you see tier-1 public relations firms marketing themselves by smearing other PR firms?

You don't.

You might see a company like Google hire a PR firm to push a bogus study to smear the security of a competitor, but you rarely (if ever) will see one PR firm smear another in the media.

While some of the more intellectually challenged members of the SEO industry associate search spam with molesting children (talk to Google about that after their recent Chrome fiasco), those with a bit of intelligence and/or experience realize that many of the issues are gray and murky. What one person considers as spam one day they later sell as "advanced" months or years down the road. The ecosystem isn't some static black & white code:

The question is less whether black hat and webspam are a good thing or not, but if Google is the unbiased and benevolent instance who shall make the rules. Google is a business and persuits its very own interestes, since it is aware of its market power with a lot of arrogance, aggresivity and obviously double standards. That was also Aaron's point, but seomoz has been missing the point completly in the last time.

I expect an SEO portal/community to focus on how stuff actually works/can work, not to propagate how the monopolist does it want to work. It is their risk of doing business if they decide for an algorithm, not ours. It is our risk however, to decide whether to stick to the rules or not. And it's not only about ethics but has several practical implications...

Full Disclosure Required, Except From Us

On paid links Google claims to require machine AND human readable disclosure. Then on their own site they use an ad color background that literally fades to white on many monitors. Maybe it is legitimate that they are only able to fool some of the users some of the time. But some of their ad initiatives have 0 disclosure at all. None.

That is now part of the "organic" search results, but is that a paid ad?

You wouldn't know by looking at it, but according to the WSJ it is: "Google lists booking links to the airlines as advertisements, but the company declined to comment on how much money it makes from the arrangement."

There is no disclosure that you are in a paid ad funnel until the very last click. And those who fail to pay are either unlisted, listed last, or have a broken booking process where their brand is arbitraged in an attempt to flip the click to somewhere else. According to Leocha, “Google and the airlines have a sweetheart deal with each other, and the consumers are getting screwed.”

In the hotel market Google is also testing comparison ads & price ads.

Notice how little they care about relevancy so long as they keep the click on Google or are paid for the referral. They rank the car rental company Avis as a top Las Vegas hotel! And even the ad links that are sold off of that do not line up. Priceline pushes the Plazzo Luxury Suites & pushes the Venitian.

Retarding Investment in the Search Ecosystem

What do you suppose the above behavior does to cash flow & multiples of websites in that vertical? Of course it contracts them & retards investment. Who wants to start a new hotel website at this point? What other verticals have investment held back by the fear of Google's eventual entry?

If you only had to manage competing against other market competitors & staying inside Google's editorial guidelines then investment isn't that difficult, but if you have to stay within Google's guidelines in the short term yet try to build a business that is sustainable even after Google enters & destroys the market it is far more difficult.

Skimming the Cream

At any time Google can enter any market and skim off the cream: "An independent study from Leads360 showed consumers using Google’s comparison ads converted better than any other lead provider."

Other affiliate networks which do not own the search channel have to fight through quality issues if they try to build similar scale.

A Self-serving Bias You Can Count On

When Google enters a market it might buy out a competitor, buy out a supplier, bundle, use predatory pricing, grant themselves superior search placement, adjust the relevancy algorithms and/or editorial guidelines, violate IP, scrape 3rd party content, work with sketchy advertisers & publishers to undermine competing business models, or any combination of the above.

They are rarely transparent with their interests when they enter a market. Almost everything is labeled as "a beta" and "just a test." They promise to "act appropriately" & you may not be aware of the steamroller until you are under it.

Web Scrape Plus+ (Now With More Scraping)

When the +1 button & Google+ launched, Google highlighted how they would use the + button usage as a "relevancy" signal. Google recently started inserting + pages directly into the search results for brands & right from the very start they were using it as a scraper website that would outrank the original content source.

Google used the buy in from their promised relevancy signal to create a badge-based incentivized system which acts as a glorified PageRank funnel to further juice the rankings of these new pages on a domain name that already had a PageRank 10.

I recently read a blog post about how anyone could do the above & the opportunity is open to everyone. But the truth is, I can't state that something will become a relevancy signal that manipulates the search results in order to get buy in. Or, if I did something which actually had the same net effect, Google would likely chop my legs off for promoting a link scheme.

Recently the topic of Google+ as a scraper site came up yet again via Read Write Web & on Hacker News a Googler stated that it was "childish" to place any of the blame on Google!!!!!!

Google determines how much information is shown near each listing & can create "relevancy" signals in ways that things tied to Google get over-represented (look at the +1 count here). When they do that & it destroys other business models *of course* Google deserves 100% of the blame.

It may be more profitable for Google to squeeze out some of the players, but if Google's quest for free content manages to destroy business models & the ecosystem as a whole, then they are not "doing what is best for the user."

Things We Do Not Approve...

Google can bundle themselves into markets, but when others do the same it is a big no no:

A Google spokesman said "applications that are installed without clear disclosure, that are hard to remove and that modify users' experiences in unexpected ways are bad for users and the Web as a whole."

Google's founding research highlighted how bad ad-driven search engines were & then Google's core revenue engine of paid search was built on their violation of Overture's patent. They keep buying swaths of patents to protect against their other violations.

The business model of "violate & then buy protection" has helped lead to a protection-racket styled marketplace in patents that makes the risk of innovation for smaller players so expensive that it drives them under.

Where Google has gained a dominant position in a marketplace they can begin misdirecting for profit. Let's say you link to your own location on Google Maps to drive traffic to Google & help your users locate your office. Well in some cases they then reciprocate by confusing users by putting an ad in your location bubble.

Once again, you are forced to buy your own brand unless you teach your customers (and prospective customers) to avoid Google products.

Sure I May Have Failed, But at Least That Failure Was Transparent...

If you are fully transparent against an arbitrary set of guidelines when the company that judges you also competes against you & brushes up against the limits of the DOJ & FTC then you might lose for no reason other than being transparent. And not only are you competing directly against Google, but the algorithms are biased toward certain players.

Creating a Two-tier Web

In 2006 Google's Eric Schmidt admonished others for attempting to create a 2-tier web:

Today the Internet is an information highway where anybody — no matter how large or small, how traditional or unconventional — has equal access. But the phone and cable monopolies, who control almost all Internet access, want the power to choose who gets access to high-speed lanes and whose content gets seen first and fastest. They want to build a two-tiered system and block the on-ramps for those who can’t pay.

But when Google launched their Panda algorithm they did the same thing.

Their "quality content" thesis could have come across as being honest if they weren't still pre-paying Demand Media to upload "content" to YouTube.

You might get smoked by a Panda update or have your accounts arbitrarily frozen while operating at a 7 out of 10 level, and then you see Ask is Google's biggest advertiser, their arbitrage gets a pass, & that feed even monetizes misspelled searches for Google's brand. ;)


Risk is needed for adaptation, so some amount of risk is good, but...

If the old established corporate competition needs to be as good as you to compete then there is little risk to being transparent if the competition is doing nothing beyond following you around. But if the playing field is tilted and the competition only needs to be 5% as good as you are to beat you (and can easily come from behind to copy any success you have) then full on transparency brings much more risk than potential profits.

You Are the Ad

We are moving into a media world where the content becomes ads & even how people interact with the ads and content becomes a part of the ad.

Further Google uses their data advantage to create other asymmetrical advantages. While credit card companies sell personalized ads in network, Google is creating a marketplace to buy and sell user data.

Every time you view a page and click an ad (or even don't click an ad) you are feeding highly personal data back to Google. And they will use it as they wish. Here they are saying thousands of people like eBay, which is of course plenty reasonable, except for the fact they claim the people voted for that specific page rather than the site as a whole.

What's worse is that sometimes they will put your picture next to a listing and claim that YOU PERSONALLY voted for a specific page & use that to market that item to your friends and contacts. The problem with this is that:

  • even after you remove the vote for a site they still keep showing it
  • you may vote for site A & they will show your image as voting for site B
  • when they show your picture they claim you voted specifically for the page being advertised (even if that page is promoting a scam or something else you wouldn't endorse)

Once again, I will highlight that they use the votes against the wrong sites & pages and that they keep showing the votes even weeks after you remove them.

Where is the transparency in that deceptive crap?

Others Are Just as Bad, But Are Not Monopolies

But Aaron, you are just being hard on Google, why don't you ever mention Ask or Yahoo! or Bing?

I did mention Ask above. ;)

Bing has done numerous self-serving things, including some that are flat out sketchy.

Yahoo! offers a useless "buying guide" for fish tanks that is nothing more than a paid pointer to

If you click on their coupons tab on that fish tanks search Yahoo! shows you coupons for tank tops, which is pretty idiotic.

Why is this Yahoo! Shopping & Yahoo! Deals product so ugly? They outsourced it years ago. So it is a non-product & thus the integration can't be anything but crappy.

Why do Yahoo! & Bing typically get a pass? They own a fairly low search marketshare. Missing traffic from either or both of those is certainly significant enough to be felt, however even when they are combined it is still less than half of what Google controls in most markets. Market leaders are expected to operate in less conflicted & less self-serving ways than also ran players in their market do. If Microsoft would have had 10% or 15% marketshare for their operating system then it is unlikely their browser bundling would have come under such scrutiny.

Transparency in The Real World

In the past I highlighted how every form of media is manipulated in Why Outing is Bad, but I thought it would be fun to run through some other markets and highlight how transparency often exists only as an illusion (to lure in punters so they can be rooked).

TrueCar aimed to make that market more transparent by giving consumers pricing data online to remove some of the asymmetrical advantage dealers have & makes the sales process smoother for consumers. How does the automotive market respond? Honda issued threats to their dealers & now TrueCar has a hate video ranking for their brand.

This nontransparency is not something new, but rather the way it has always been.

It exists at every level of society. Countries spy on one another & companies may chose to show different views of the world to different markets.

And what they do internally doesn't match the story they share publicly. Look no further than the News of the World's hacking scandal:

News International’s leading profit centre, the News of the World, was dependent on a very ugly culture of lawbreaking, hacking and impunity. This freewheeling, ask-no-questions attitude spread to other parts of the organisation, such as the Times and the Sunday Times, both of which used have used illegal or unethical techniques. Even more troubling, when senior News International management were confronted with evidence of wrongdoing, the company made false statements and took actions which prevented key evidence from reaching the public domain.

The same company has not only been accused of hacking at some of its other news outlets (by its own employees no less) but was also accused of similar in other lines of business:

Both cases involve News America Marketing, an obscure but lucrative division of the News Corporation that is a big player in the business of retail marketing, including newspaper coupon inserts and in-store promotions. The company has come under scrutiny for a pattern of conduct that includes below-cost pricing, paying customers not to do business with competitors and accusations of computer hacking.

Were The Robber Barons Transparent?

Going back into history it is sort of hard to pick a starting point (one can go to the spice trade & orders that are unsealed at sea, or likely earlier than that) but to pick a somewhat recent starting point, we could look at the railroads:

So how did unnecessary, inefficient railroads get built? Because of government subsidies. In short, the federal government paid to build the railroads through massive financing subsidies and also gave them ample land grants. The trick to building a railroad was not knowing anything about railroads or even about business; it was having friends in Washington who could give you the right financing and land subsidies.

Even then, the railroads lost money. Not only was there insufficient demand for their services, but they were run by people who were generally incompetent. (For one thing, they didn’t even know their own costs of doing business.) Yet the people who owned the railroads made fabulous amounts of money (of which Stanford University is one symbol). The main way to do this was simple. The people who controlled a railroad (generally by putting up very little of their own money, thanks to the government subsidies) would also wholly own a construction company. They would cause the railroad to overpay the construction company to build the railroad—in effect transferring wealth from railroad stockholders and creditors into their own pockets

What did the Robber Barons invest in? In large part government, media & educational institutions so that they could help "educate" society on how to behave much more civilly than they have.

Corporate Advocacy

There are tons of marketing campaigns designed to "educate" society about the impacts of various companies. BP now markets the gulf coast economy they plundered.

AT&T's astroturfing campaign to acquire T-Mobile was so over the top that it actually backfired.

"Get the facts" styled campaigns are rarely about promoting a complete worldview.

Remember the $500 million fine for Google from them pushing ads selling overseas Viagra in the US? Now they promote scaremongering ads against fakes from filthy labs.

Coca-cola runs The Beverage Institute & has "doctors" highlight how healthy soda is.

At the same time, when Pepsi was sued over an alleged rat being in a can of Mountain Dew. Pepsi's defense claimed: "the mouse would have dissolved in the soda had it been in the can from the time of its bottling until the day the plaintiff drank it" turning the mouse into a 'jelly-like' substance. But don't worry folks, it's healthy. :D

At least we still have water.

When they are not busy making it illegal to collect rainwater, Bechtel wants you to follow them on Twitter.

It is hard to know what is in our food & those who label things as organic have to fill out more paperwork than those who manufacture frankenfood. Then there are the baseline chemicals sold as biodegradable which are not. ;)

Oh well, at least we have insurance.

State Farm is the #1 ranked bad faith insurance company, but at least they upload & advertise irrelevant funny videos to YouTube to create brand signal for Google.

Transparency in Everyday Life

Of course some of the worst affiliate offers, the most aggressive sales calls & other scams are designed to prey on ignorance of small print & rebilling, but even generally good businesses practice in asymmetrical skimming.

A few recent examples:

Is Our Financial System Transparent?

When one looks at the field of finance it is story after story of deception, nontransparency & lawlessness. It is a constant reminder that there is no such thing as business ethics.

  • Wachovia laundered $378.4 billion in drug money for violent drug cartels. As if that wasn't bad enough, we also sold them weapons that wound up at murder scenes with our own border patrol dead & the Koch brothers sold weapons to states that we brand as "rogue."
  • Bank of New York Mellon ripped off their clients with unsavory Forex rates: "As investigators sought to determine whether the bank overcharged clients to execute their currency trades, a senior BNY Mellon executive nicknamed "Rambo" urged traders not to tell clients how much money they made on trading, according to the informant."
  • A former Federal Reserve member writes about the Fed: "No matter the legalistic interpretation, the Fed is, working through the ECB, bailing out European banks and, indirectly, spendthrift European governments. It is difficult to count the number of things wrong with this arrangement."
  • Bank of America recently had to pay $335 million to settle a discrimination lawsuit against minorities, due to Countrywide (who is NOT on your side) charging juiced interest rates. Bank of America had to pay an $8.5 billion settlement to investors who bought some of the junk mortgages out the other end.
  • "What’s happened is that, almost overnight, we’ve switched from democracy in real-property recording to oligarchy in real-property recording. There was no court case behind this, no statute from Congress or the state legislatures. It was accomplished in a private corporate decision. The banks just did it." - Christopher Peterson
  • The financial markets are becoming glorified crack houses: "Frankly, I am concerned that Wall Street is becoming little more than a glorified crack house. Day after day, the sole focus of Wall Street is on more sugar, stronger sugar, Big Bazookas of sugar, unlimited sugar, and anything that will get somebody to deliver the sugar faster. This is like offering a lollipop to quiet down a 2-year old throwing a tantrum, and expecting that the result will be fewer tantrums. What we have increasingly observed over the past decade is nothing but the gradual destruction of the ability of the financial markets to allocate capital for the benefit of future growth. By preventing the natural discipline of the markets to impose losses on poor stewards of capital, and to impose interest rates high enough to force debtors to allocate the capital usefully, the world's policy makers are increasingly wrecking the prospects for long-term economic growth."
  • Companies are often brought private, leveraged up on debt & have their pension programs destroyed to make "profits" for private equity investors: "Nowadays private-equity firms often spend hundreds of millions of their own money on an acquisition (BW -- Feb. 27). Just as often, though, they load up the companies with debt and use the money to pay themselves special dividends and other fees that allow them to profit even if the company itself struggles. Then the backers take the company public, often pocketing the lion's share of the offering."
  • Individuals who put in extra hours of work because they are sold on the promise of their options may also find those disappear: "Taking away the value of options that are vested means that the concept of vesting becomes bogus. It doesn't matter whether the employee understood if this was the deal or not, it's a scummy practice, and it's ultimately self-defeating (both for the company and the industry as a whole). Who would go to work for Skype (or any PE-backed company) in the future? "
  • Limitless fraud before the courts & dancing on the graves of the newly homeless: "Court records show that the firm angered state court judges for alleged false statements and filing suspect documents. Arthur Schack, a state court judge in Brooklyn, in a 2010 ruling said that pleadings by the Baum firm on behalf of HSBC Bank, a unit of London-based HSBC Holdings, in a foreclosure case were "so incredible, outrageous, ludicrous and disingenuous that they should have been authorized by the late Rod Serling, creator of the famous science-fiction television series, The Twilight Zone."
    The law firm said it would shut down after New York Times columnist Joe Nocera in November published photographs of a 2010 Baum firm Halloween party in which employees dressed up as homeless people. Another showed part of Baum's office decorated to look like a row of foreclosed houses."
  • That theft of physical property is ongoing: "Also announced over the weekend was the jaw-dropping, yet illuminating fact that the MF Global bankruptcy was fraudulently, nefariously and illegally drawn up as a Chapter 7 BK for a SECURITIES DEALER and NOT a commodity brokerage as it should have been. Look, MF Global was the second-largest non-bank FCM in the United States next to NewEdge which is the old FIMAT. If MF Global wasn’t an FCM, then there are no FCMs. Of course it was an FCM. It had $7.2 billion in customer seg funds as of August 31, 2011. And yet MF Global was immediately, from the get-go, put into Chapter 7 BK as a SECURITIES FIRM. This is fraud. MF Global’s BK should have OBVIOUSLY been established under Subchapter IV of the Chapter 7 code as a COMMODITY BROKERAGE."
  • And as banking criminals literally steal money, destroy lives & undermine the rule of law to grow their "profits" sleazeballs like Jamie Dimon think that the reason people hate them is envy.

The above makes no mention of helping Greece hide governmental debt, bid-rigging bribes in Jefferson County, robosigning bogus foreclosure documents, and a host of other crimes. But one thing in common with all the above crimes is this: no jailtime for the banksters.

Since there is nothing stopping those criminals they keep up their crimes:

Big banks represent the ultimate in concentrated economic power in today’s economies. They are able to resist all meaningful reform that could really change their compensation schemes. Their executives want to get all the upside while facing none of the true downside.

But capitalism without the prospect of failure is not any kind of market economy. We are running a large-scale, nontransparent, and dangerous government subsidy scheme for the benefit primarily of a very few, extremely wealthy people.

The actions of the financial cartel are both obvious & predictable. And the damage they do is felt worldwide:

Credit-financed economic booms, by turns in private then public credit as one ratchets up the other over a series of booms and busts, are as irresistible to politicians as hookers and maids.
The failures of American FIRE Economy policies are behind the movements in Libya, Yemen, and Syria, as reflation measures, from quantitative easing to currency depreciation, steal purchasing power from low income families world wide, acting as the most regressive tax imaginable. Simmering hatreds are exacerbated by the developing global crisis over oil supplies and costs.
The so-called debate about debt ceilings, spending cuts, and entitlements reductions is a red herring. The public debt crisis arose from the 2007 - 2008 private credit market crisis, not the government liabilities that have been building for decades. The mistake of both the left and the right is thinking that we can escape an output gap without facing up to the politically unpopular task of demanding that creditors take a loss on loans taken out during the credit bubble era.

A creditor that makes bad loans deserves to go out of business. Their outsized compensation can't be justified unless they are also made to eat their losses. But rather than holding them accountable for their own actions, societies the world over absorb that pain.

"Fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power"- Benito Mussolini

Slavery, Debt & Freedom

There are currently more slaves alive than at any point in history. And many people who are not slaves are still being enslaved by crushing debt:

Money is a human construct. The fact that our money is now backed by nothing more than our collective future ability to "produce" relegates us to that of slaves.

Money=paper=blood hours.

Blood hours are a finite measure. Heartbeats.

What's in your wallet? Is it the new debt slavery card: "A personal bankruptcy is supposed to cut borrowers loose from lenders and debt collectors, but Capital One Financial Corp.—one of the nation's largest credit-card issuers—sometimes doesn't want to let go."

Citigroup has an "effective" strategy they employ in some 3rd world countries to deal with those who can't pay:

After dropping his younger daughter at school, Octa walked into Citibank’s credit card collection department on the fifth floor of the Jamsostek tower just after 10 a.m. Four hours later, he left the 25-story building slumped motionless in a wheelchair -- a victim of what police allege was a violent assault by debt collectors. Driven to a nearby hospital in a Citibank car, Octa was pronounced dead on arrival.

Unfortunately, even if you stay out of debt, you are forced to support banking scams:

before being bailed out by governments, banks had never made any return in their history, assuming that their assets are properly marked to market. Nor should they produce any return in the long run, as their business model remains identical to what it was before, with only cosmetic modifications concerning trading risks.

So the facts are clear. But, as individual taxpayers, we are helpless, because we do not control outcomes, owing to the concerted efforts of lobbyists, or, worse, economic policymakers. Our subsidizing of bank managers and executives is completely involuntary.

In the US the reason the government debt outlook is so bad is in part due to overpaying for "assets" owned by the likes of Citibank:

The way the banks make money now is by hiding their losers off balance-sheet, or by forcing them on the taxpayers, and after having themselves declared "systemically important," adjusting their on balance-sheet exposures accordingly, crashing the system and cashing out on their leveraged derivative bets, also at the taxpayers' expense.

In real life, if there is such a thing anymore, all of the major banks are arguably insolvent. So, in reality, they're not making any money at all, they are merely having it transferred to them by their political operatives in Congress and the Federal Reserve Bank. This, after all, is the modern purpose of the Congress, and has always been the purpose of the Federal Reserve System.

Even as they destroy savings, kill jobs & undermine the competitiveness of the economy, why does the government continue to support such scams? Without the scams & cost-shifting those in government wouldn't have as much wealth, power & influence. It is debt & cost-shifting that fuels them:

government and banks are stuck together like a couple of dogs screwing and we don't know which is on top. Here, Republicans need government to finance war and Democrats need it to finance social programs. Both need it to finance both, as that is how government attempts to maintain power and influence over the people this day and time.

The congress literally sells insider tips to hedge funds:

When Senate Democrats finally brokered a compromise over the proposed health-care law, a group of hedge funds were let in on the deal, learning details hours before a public announcement on Dec. 8, 2009.

The news was potentially worth millions of dollars to the investors, though none would publicly divulge how they used the information. They belong to a select group who pay for early, firsthand reports on Capitol Hill.

Since most money comes into circulation as debt (and due to the compounding nature of debt interest), if those at the top are not allowed to fail then those at the bottom will fall hard:

In the past, periods dominated by virtual credit money have also been periods where there have been social protections for debtors. Once you recognize that money is just a social construct, a credit, an IOU, then first of all what is to stop people from generating it endlessly? And how do you prevent the poor from falling into debt traps and becoming effectively enslaved to the rich? That’s why you had Mesopotamian clean slates, Biblical Jubilees, Medieval laws against usury in both Christianity and Islam and so on and so forth.

Since antiquity the worst-case scenario that everyone felt would lead to total social breakdown was a major debt crisis; ordinary people would become so indebted to the top one or two percent of the population that they would start selling family members into slavery, or eventually, even themselves.

Well, what happened this time around? Instead of creating some sort of overarching institution to protect debtors, they create these grandiose, world-scale institutions like the IMF or S&P to protect creditors. They essentially declare (in defiance of all traditional economic logic) that no debtor should ever be allowed to default. Needless to say the result is catastrophic. We are experiencing something that to me, at least, looks exactly like what the ancients were most afraid of: a population of debtors skating at the edge of disaster.

And, I might add, if Aristotle were around today, I very much doubt he would think that the distinction between renting yourself or members of your family out to work and selling yourself or members of your family to work was more than a legal nicety. He’d probably conclude that most Americans were, for all intents and purposes, slaves.
Clearly any pretence that markets maintain themselves, that debts always have to be honored, went by the boards in 2008. That’s one of the reasons I think you see the beginnings of a reaction in a remarkably similar form to what we saw during the heyday of the ‘Third World debt crisis’ – what got called, rather weirdly, the ‘anti-globalization movement’. This movement called for genuine democracy and actually tried to practice forms of direct, horizontal democracy. In the face of this there was the insidious alliance between financial elites and global bureaucrats (whether the IMF, World Bank, WTO, now EU, or what-have-you).

Those who have the least often give the most. Excessive income inequality (especially when driven by fraud) leads to a moral and cultural rot. Financial cartels & governments can only enslave people in so much debt & hand out so much soma before they either revolt or simply lose faith.

(On a related note, December saw record gun sales.)

State actors have repeatedly use violence to try to encourage a similar response. Instead they created a viral meme & the movement lives on.

Of course there are "opposition research" hacks willing to dig up dirt on anyone with wide reach who opposes the state-sponsored fraud: "It will be vital,” the memo says, “to understand who is funding it and what their backgrounds and motives are. If we can show that they have the same cynical motivation as a political opponent it will undermine their credibility in a profound way.”

The state has long manipulated mainstream media and has tools for spying on social networks, hacking accounts & astroturfing online, but sock puppets can only go so far against reality.

Who Does 100% Marketing Transparency Help & Who Does it Hurt?

We have an SEC that shreds over a decade of evidence (and engages in other illegal behaviors), a government that bails out the criminal enterprises & a court system that broadly makes it nearly impossible to win a financial fraud lawsuit.

The biggest companies & the biggest people in business at this point are simply above the rule of law & are not held accountable for their actions. Worse yet, the corrupt system has global influence.

  • In 2004 the FBI warned that there was an "epidemic" of mortgage fraud and that it would create a crisis.
  • "My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks," the president told them.
  • And, in spite of the FBI highlighting the massive mortgage fraud, and the above quote, the president (who is a horrible human being) aims to keep the population misinformed & ignorant, publicly stating that what Wall St did wasn't illegal!

Henry Kissinger has a famous quote about power: "Before the Freedom of Information Act, I used to say at meetings, ‘The illegal we do immediately; the unconstitutional takes a little longer.’ [laughter] But since the Freedom of Information Act, I’m afraid to say things like that." Since then government officials have become much more evasive & smooth talking. Unfortunately, freedom of the press only goes so far:

this is how the much-lauded "freedom of the press" myth in the US actually works. If you perform the job of an actual journalist, telling truth to power, forget about attending press conferences at the White House, Pentagon or State Department. You won't even be admitted in the building.

When you ask for total market transparency it changes nothing with the criminality at the top, but it does create a juicy data source for criminals while harming personal civil liberties & unpeople with limited power:

The people who most heavily rely on pseudonyms in online spaces are those who are most marginalized by systems of power. “Real names” policies aren’t empowering; they’re an authoritarian assertion of power over vulnerable people.

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That is what they say, typically at the bottom of the posts, in blog posts that equate Google Chrome to being the Internet & spread misinformation about how Chrome is good for small business.

  • some of those sites are paid posts and have live links in them to Google Chrome without using nofollow & talk about SEO in the same post as well!
  • some of those posts link to the example businesses Google was paying to have covered
  • and all the posts are effectively "buying YouTube video views" for this video

You can say they didn't require the links, that the links were incidental, that leaving nofollow off was an accident, etc. ... but does Google presume the same level of innocence when torching webmasters? They certainly did not to the bloggers who reviewed K-Mart & the Google reconsideration request form states:

“In general, sites that directly profit from traffic (e.g. search engine optimizers, affiliate programs, etc.) may need to provide more evidence of good faith before a site will be reconsidered.”

The Orwellian things about Google using the above strategy to market Chrome are:

  • Google has a clear pro-corporate big brand bias to their algorithms & layout (Vince & Panda updates + the part near the top of the SERPs for some searches that says "brands" as a filter type).
  • The more usage data Google collects the more stupid hoops it forces smaller businesses to jump through in order to compete, thereby further driving them under. (If small business owners didn't have enough time & resources for SEO, do they now also have time to get reviews, get local citations, deal with social stuff on Twitter + Facebook + Youtube + Google+ and a bit of SEO?)
  • Google polices how small businesses can even make income online. When K-Mart paid some small business bloggers to do sponsored posts Matt Cutts wrote a post ( about how he torched those small bloggers (while doing nothing to K-Mart) & equated that exercise to selling links that promote bogus brain cancer solutions. Yet Google Japan was already dinged for this sort of paid post activity & now Google is doing the same thing again.

The fact that Google is paying to spread that sort of misinformation about how their browser is helping small businesses is sort of like BP buying ads about doing tourism in the gulf. Only since Google destroying smaller businesses is something more abstract on virtual lands the PR propaganda campaign is much more effective, because (unlike oil washing ashore) people do not see what is not there. (The birds still die, but the black oil covered carcass isn't rotting on the beach).

Should you follow Google & buy ads on these sites? Are they christened & beyond reproach? I would sort of be afraid to buy exposure on the blogs where Google is buying coverage...if that latent public relations disaster eventually blows up in their face, they may assume others are as guilty as Google is & burn down the whole forest.

Google the dictator meet Google the marketer. You guys are going to get on well together!

Update: Danny highlighted how Google's Chrome ad buy created a lot of the low-quality filler pablum content that the Panda update was alleged to discourage.