Prospering When The Keyword Is "Not Provided"

So, Google has pulled the chair out from under the SEO industry.

Google is no longer passing (much) keyword referrer data. This has been coming for a while, although many people didn’t expect most keyword data to disappear, and not quite this quickly.

As Aaron noted just last month:

Google is not only hiding half of their own keyword referral data, but they are hiding so much more than half that even when you mix in Bing and Yahoo! you still get over 50% of the total hidden.Google's 86% of the 26,233 searches is 22,560 searches.
Keyword (not provided) being shown for 13,413 is 59% of 22,560. That means Google is hiding at least 59% of the keyword data for organic search. While they are passing a significant share of mobile search referrers, there is still a decent chunk that is not accounted for in the change this past week

Google, citing privacy concerns, has been increasingly withholding keyword data in the form of “not provided”. In the past week, they’ve been pretty on track for 100%, and things look set to stay that way.

In the interests of user privacy.

On yesterday's "This Week in Google," a Google engineer called Matt Cutts revealed that the company started encrypting its queries in 2008 after reading my novel Little Brother

Strangely, privacy doesn’t seem to be an issue when it comes to Adwords. 100% of the keyword referral data remains available via Google’s proprietary advertising channel. I guess the lesson here is that user privacy is much less of an issue, so long as you’re paying Google to see it.


Opposite Sides

If anyone is still in any doubt about Google’s relationship with SEOs, then hopefully they’re left in no doubt now. There was no industry consultation, Google unilaterally made these changes and thus broke a search industry standard that has been in place since the search industry began. This move makes life harder for all SEOs.

In terms of privacy issues, there is some truth in it. Problem is, because privacy doesn’t extend to Adwords, the explanation isn’t particularly convincing. The message is that if you want keyword data, then you have to pay to get it via Adwords.

One of the cornerstones of SEO is optimization based on keyword terms. Since last century, SEOs have mined data for keyword terms. They have constructed pages and sites based on those terms with the aim of ranking well for those terms. In theory, everyone wins. The searcher finds what they’re looking for, the search engine looks relevant, and the webmaster receives traffic.

This model has developed some serious cracks over the years.

One problem is PPC. The search engine now has split incentives. They want the results to be relevant, so visitors return often, but, perversely, they also have an incentive for the user not to click on the results, but to click on the advertising links, instead.

This becomes a business problem when an intermediary - an SEO - runs a service that competes with the advertising. The value proposition of the SEO is to get the click on the non-advertising links. Not only is the search engine being deprived of the click, the SEO is likely dissuading, or removing the need, for the site owner spending more on PPC.

So, the SEO is a competitor, although potentially useful in a couple of respects.

One, they encourage sites to be more crawler friendly than they would otherwise be. There was a time when there were a lot of Flash sites, and sites designed, often unwittingly, as uncrawlable brochures. These have mostly been eliminated due to the imperatives of search. SEOs encouraged webmasters to focus more on the production of crawlable content. Secondly, SEOs acted as a defacto-sales force for adwords. If a client saw search as important, then PPC was likely to be part of the mix to help extend reach.

However, as the search engines filled with crawlable content, and a lot of it was junk, the search engines had to get better at determining relevance, and not just by matching keywords. They’ve largely achieved this, so the SEO is no longer offering the search engine much they don’t already now have in abundance - crawlable content they can easily classify.

So, that just leaves the SEO as a competitor and a potential defacto-sales force for a higher Adwords spend. So, removing keyword referral data was a clever move. It will drive more search spend to Adwords and make life harder for Adwords competitors, namely SEOs. If you’re doing Adwords, you’re a customer, if you’re doing SEO, you’re a competitor.

What’s Next?

For some, it will mean a significant change in strategy.

Google don’t need pages optimized against a keyword phrase. In response, SEOs could look at broader page-level metrics, like traffic volumes and conversion rates. They could adopt publishing strategies, backed by sales funnel analytics and optimization. For example, a webmaster may sell a variety of products and spend more time watching out for the on-site links users click on the most in order to determine searcher intent. They optimize what happens after the click. In order to get the click in the first place, they might throw out a fairly wide content net of on-topic pages, and hope to scoop up a lot of fish.

Some will bite the bullet and spend more on Adwords. Adwords will reveal the search keywords linked with volume, and this data can then be fed through into SEO campaigns. We’ll likely see a return to rank checking and matching of these ranks against visitor activity on site.

SEOs could also use proxy information from other search engines, such as Bing. The problem with that other engines have low traffic volumes, meaning comparisons to Google traffic will be inaccurate due to small sample sizes. Still, better than nothing. Webmaster Tools data is available, although this isn’t persistent and is pretty clunky compared to keyword data within analytics packages. No doubt new keyword mining and tracking tools will spring up that will help approximate Google keyword traffic. It will be interesting to see what happens in this space, so if anyone spots any of these services, please add them to the comments.

However, a bigger problem for SEOs still hovers beyond the horizon. If SEOs are competitors to Adwords, then SEOs can expect ongoing changes from Google that will further reduce their ability to compete with Adwords. Another day, another inbound missile. No one should be in any doubt that Google will have a series of missiles lined up.

Vince. Panda. Penguin. Knowledge Graph. Link disavow tool. Decommissioned keyword research tool. Keyword (not provided). More to come.

Adopt A Wider Digital Strategy

One approach is to learn more about the visitor using other metrics at the page and site level.

The point of SEO is to get relevant traffic. Keyword data helped SEOs to target pages and go some way to understanding user intent. However, determining intent by the keyword alone has always been a hit and miss affair. Sometimes, the intent is obvious, particularly on long keyword strings. But the more generic the keyword term, the less you can tell about visitor intent, which then leads to the visitor clicking-back and refining their search.

We should be looking for a richer determination of visitor intent.

Of course, we can watch and measure what visitors do after they arrive on site. If they click back, we know we’re off-topic for that user. Or not attractive enough. Or not getting the message across clearly. Or perhaps we have targeted the wrong demographic. Could the users be segmented a lot further than we already do? We could run A/B testing to learn more about the audience. We could offer multiple paths and see which are the most promising in terms of engagement. If so doing, we understand a lot more about visitors than just guessing based on the keywords they use.

SEOs will likely be looking more at content strategy. Is this content really what the user wants? Is a site offering text when what users really want video? Does the site have a strategy to test content types against one and other? And the placement thereof? We can establish this by gaining a deep understanding of analytics and incorporating demographic information, and other third-party research.

Engagement metrics are a big thing post-Panda. Are people clicking back straight away, or clicking further into the site? Refine content and links until bounce rates come down. These elements can also be tested on Adwords landing pages. If the engagement metrics are right on an adwords landing page, they are likely right if a similar page is used for SEO. The ranking for an individual keyword doesn’t matter so much, just as long as enough of the audience who do arrive are engaging.

Look at optimizing the user experience in terms of better usability and watching the paths they take through the site. Where are we losing people? Could the funnels be made more evident? And which users are we talking about? i.e. young visitors vs old visitors, returning visitor vs new visitors?

There are some high end tools that can help with this, such as Foresters Technographics and Adobe Neolane, however there are other more-than-adequate approaches, mixing readily available tools with a little best practice. Consider website surveys and polls, and third-party profiling tools, like SEMRush, to quantify your competition.

In "Digital Marketing Analytics: Making Sense Of Consumer Data In A Digital World", the authors give a lot of practical advice on mining the various channels so as to better understand your customer, and configure your website to meet their needs. Only a small fraction of this can be gleaned from keyword data.

For example, mining social media channels tells you a lot about your potential audience. How they talk, who they talk to, what their interests are, who they are connected to, where they are, who influences who, and who shares what with who. Social profile and activity analysis offers rich audience insight, often more so than keywords. You can segment and understand your audiences in ways that would be difficult to do using keywords alone.

So, losing keywords makes life difficult. But it also present opportunities.

As Much As Things Change, They Stay The Same

The promise of search marketing is to deliver the right message to the right people at the right time. That’s the same promise for all digital marketing, keyword driven or otherwise. We should place just as much emphasis, if not more, on measuring audience behaviour over time i.e. what happens well before the click, and what happens after it, as we do on the keyword, itself.

The better we understand the audience, the better we are able to serve their needs, which likely leads to a more profitable business that those who understand less. Keywords help, but they’re not the be-all and end-all. Google still has the exact same user base. Someone still has to rank #1 against a given keyword term. So long as you're doing Adwords, your competitors have no better idea regarding keywords than you do, so the playing field is still level in that respect.

Those putting more effort into page-level metrics, site metrics, and brand in order to better understand visitors now stand to gain advantage. The fundamentals haven't changed:

  • Who is the audience?
  • Where are they located?
  • What does the audience know?
  • What are they interested in?
  • What do the audience need?

When SEO becomes harder, the barrier is raised, meaning those who jump that barrier are in a more dependable position than they were before. Remember, most of you will have archived keyword data. New entrants to the SEO field will not, and will find it very difficult, if not impossible, to acquire.

The game just got harder. For everyone.

Google Keyword (Not Provided)

Just a follow up on the prior (not provided) post, as Google has shot the moon since our last post on this. Here's a quick YouTube video.

The above video references the following:

Matt Cutts when secured search first rolled out:

Google software engineer Matt Cutts, who’s been involved with the privacy changes, wouldn’t give an exact figure but told me he estimated even at full roll-out, this would still be in the single-digit percentages of all Google searchers on

This Week in Google (TWIG) show 211, where Matt mentioned the inspiration for encrypted search:

we actually started doing in 2008 and one of the guys who did a lot of heavy lifting on that, his name is Evan, and he actually reports to me. And we started that after I read Little Brother, and we said "we've got to encrypt the web."

The integration of organic search performance data inside AdWords.

The esteemed AdWords advertiser David Whitaker.

When asked about the recent increase in (not provided), a Google representative stated the following:

We want to provide SSL protection to as many users as we can, in as many regions as we can — we added non-signed-in Chrome omnibox searches earlier this year, and more recently other users who aren’t signed in. We’re going to continue expanding our use of SSL in our services because we believe it’s a good thing for users….

The motivation here is not to drive the ads side — it’s for our search users.

What an excellent time for Google to block paid search referrals as well.

If the move is important for user safety then it should apply to the ads as well.

How To Think About Your Next SEO Project

The independent webmaster has taken a beating over the last couple of years. Risk has become harder to spread, labor costs have gone up, outreach has become more difficult and more expensive as Google's webspam team and the growing ranks of the Search Police spread the FUD far and wide.

The web is still a great place to be and still offers incredible opportunity that is largely unavailable, without much more capital intensive risk, in the offline world.

There's still plenty of success to be had in the web-based business model but like any strategy we have to refine it from time to time. I thought I'd share the core processes I go through when starting a new site.

Look for Signal, Look Past the Noise

Online marketers, celebrities, and brands pretty much power the Twittersphere and the 140 character limit invariably leads to statements full of bluster (and shallowness) like:

  • Links are dead
  • Forget links get social likes, +1's, RT's, and so on
  • Guest posting is dead
  • Infographics are dead
  • SEO is dead

None of that is true but when folks try to become prognosticators they will just keep saying the same thing over and over, with some slight re-framing, until they finally get it right.

All you have to do is look at the really ridiculous statements over the years about how ranking "doesn't matter". These statements have gone back to at least 2006-ish, craziness.

Or look at the past couple years where we get "social shares are the new link" shoved down our throats despite the data that flies in the face of that statement, at least as it pertains to organic search growth.


Yet, years later both of these "industry trends" would have cost you significant amounts of revenue and search share. We don't have to debate the spam links vs non-spam links here either. No one here is advocating for you to build crappy links and you don't need to.

Establishing Your Portfolio

It's quite likely, as an independent webmaster, that you will have sites that serve different purposes. I have sites that:

  • are actively being built into online brands (or trying at least :D )
  • exist as pure, longer-standing SEO plays that are cash cows used to fund more sustainable long-term projects
  • are built to initially live off of paid traffic, direct outreach, and/or social campaigns with organic search as a tertiary method of traffic acquisition
  • exist solely to test new ideas or new products before building an actual site/brand

I also work a select type of client. One thing I found helpful was to set up a spreadsheet with some very basic information to help me keep track of things at a 10,000 foot view.

So I have a column for:

  • Domain
  • Purpose Tag (one of the areas I described above)
  • Net Monthly Revenue (multiple columns)
  • Rolling 12 month Net Revenue
  • Same monthly/rolling numbers for costs

From there, I do a quick chart to show what areas most of the revenue is coming from and where the investment is going. Over time, I try to make sure the online brand area (where we are getting traffic and revenue from a healthly mix of multiple sources) is outpacing the pure SEO plays in both areas and we try to shy away from making too many expensive pure SEO plays where no mid-long term "brandability" exists.

We also like to see growth in client areas as well, but only for the right kind of client. The wrong kind of client can have a really destructive effect on a small team.

Staying small, lean, and profitable are also big keys to this strategy. If you are up against it on debt and overhead you will probably be less likely to make the proper decisions for your long-term viability on the 'net.

Considerations When Starting a New Site

I think most small teams or individual publishers can probably handle 2-3 branded sites at a time (stipulating that a branded site is one where there are just about all elements of online marketing involved). The first step I take is to determine what bucket the site will go in.

A testing site is easy enough to decide on. I might have an idea for a new product so I'll just throw up a small Wordpress site, a landing page, and test it out via PPC. Part of the initial research here is to determine whether there is any existing "search" demand or if you'll be tasked with creating demand on your own.

You can certainly build an online product that will be driven, initially, mostly by offline demand if you have the right networking in place. For the most part we try to stick to stuff where there is some initial demand online as the offline networking component tends to involve, in my experience, a lot more initial work, more stakeholders, etc.

When we look at a "product" we consider the following as "stuff" we could sell:

  • knowledge
  • physical product
  • digital products

Certainly a site can have any combination of those elements but generally those are the three basic types of things we'd consider selling. From there we would want to figure out:

  • brand name and domain (I prefer one or two word domains here, keyword not required)
  • search volume estimates and the length of the tail for each core keyword
  • if conversations are taking place across the web for the broader topic or lateral topics where we can insert ourselves/product
  • if our product can be a niche of an already successful, broader product offering
  • does the product have a reasonable chance of success in the social media realm
  • if we can make it better than what exists now

Example of a Product Idea

So one example, as I also dabble in real estate a bit, that I'll give is a CRM/PM solution for real estate investors. Most of the products out there aren't what I would consider "good". Many of the solutions are either just not very good or require some hook into a complex solution like Microsoft Dynamics CRM.

There's demand for the product on the web and there's a lot that could be done, more elegantly, with technologies that are available today to help connect all the things that go into an investment decision and investment management.

This is something I'm kicking around and it's a good example of our strategy of trying to find a successful, broad market where opportunity exists for niches to be served in a more direct, elegant manner.

We could do 2 of 3 product types here, but would likely start with just the online product itself and maybe hang training or courses off of it later.

You Need a Product


If you want to stick around online I believe you need at least 1 product and brand that can sustain the up and down nature of search cycles. You could argue that client work is your product and I'd buy that.

However, I think client work is still an area where you are more beholden to the decisions of others, in a more abrupt fashion (internal client spend decisions, taking things in-house, etc), than you are if you have your own product or service especially at the price points charged to clients.

I could also make the case that if you are selling direct to consumers you are beholden to them as well. Yet, I think the risk is better spread out over an SaaS model, subscription model, or direct product model than it is selling to either a handful of large clients or handfuls of large clients that require a large team of people and all that goes into the management of a team like that.

Opportunity Abounds

There still is a ton of opportunity on the web, there is no doubt about that. The practice of finding a broad market and picking a niche in there has worked out well for us in the last year or so.

In some areas we start off with no connections at all. So in areas where we are behind the 8 ball on relationships we will often hire writers from boards like ProBlogger.Net where will we specifically ask for folks who are in that industry with an existing site and active social following to write for us.

We will also ask them to promote what they write for us on their social channels and site while hooking their authorship profile into the posts they do for us. This helps us, in certain industries anyway, really grow an audience for short money and establish relationships with established, trusted people in the space.

Sell Something

Finding that balance between passion and monetary potential is difficult and there's often some level of tradeoff. If you use the items I listed earlier as a guide to determine how to move forward with an idea, or if moving forward even makes sense for the idea, then I think you'll be starting off in a solid position.

The last couple of years have been really turbulent but that also has created more opportunities in different areas and while it's nice to throw out the word "diversify" it's also good to take a more boots on the ground approach than a theoretical one.

The core hallmarks of a traditional SEO campaign are still largely the same but there's no reason why you can't stick around and take advantage of these opportunities, especially with all the experience you have in multiple areas of online marketing from being an independent webmaster in the golden age of SEO.

Design Thinking

One of the problems with analysing data is the potential to get trapped in the past, when we could be imagining the future. Past performance can be no indication of future success, especially when it comes to Google’s shifting whims.

We see problems, we devise a solution. But projecting forward by measuring the past, and coming up with “the best solution” may lead to missing some obvious opportunities.

Design Thinking

In 1972, psychologist, architect and design researcher Bryan Lawson created an empirical study to understand the difference between problem-based solvers and solution-based solvers. He took two groups of students – final year students in architecture and post-graduate science students – and asked them to create one-story structures from a set of colored blocks. The perimeter of the building was to optimize either the red or the blue color, however, there were unspecified rules governing the placement and relationship of some of the blocks.
Lawson found that:

The scientists adopted a technique of trying out a series of designs which used as many different blocks and combinations of blocks as possible as quickly as possible. Thus they tried to maximize the information available to them about the allowed combinations. If they could discover the rule governing which combinations of blocks were allowed they could then search for an arrangement which would optimize the required color around the design. By contrast, the architects selected their blocks in order to achieve the appropriately colored perimeter. If this proved not to be an acceptable combination, then the next most favorably colored block combination would be substituted and so on until an acceptable solution was discovered.

Nigel Cross concludes from Lawson's studies that "scientific problem solving is done by analysis, while designers problem solve through synthesis”

Design thinking tends to start with the solution, rather than the problem. A lot of problem based-thinking focuses on finding the one correct solution to a problem, whereas design thinking tends to offer a variety of solutions around a common theme. It’s a different mindset.

One of the criticisms of Google, made by Google’s former design leader Douglas Bowman, was that Google were too data centric in their decision making:

When a company is filled with engineers, it turns to engineering to solve problems. Reduce each decision to a simple logic problem. Remove all subjectivity and just look at the data...that data eventually becomes a crutch for every decision, paralyzing the company and preventing it from making any daring design decisions…

There’s nothing wrong with being data-driven, of course. It’s essential. However, if companies only think in those terms, then they may be missing opportunities. If we imagine “what could be”, rather than looking at “what was”, opportunities present themselves. Google realise this, too, which is why they have Google X, a division devoted to imagining the future.

What search terms might people use that don’t necessarily show up on keyword mining tools? What search terms will people use six months from now in our vertical? Will customers contact us more often if we target them this way, rather than that way? Does our copy connect with our customers, of just search engines? Given Google is withholding more search referral data, which is making it harder to target keywords, adding some design thinking to the mix, if you don’t already, might prove useful.

Tools For Design Thinking

In the book, Designing For Growth, authors Jeanne Liedtka and Tim Ogilvie outline some tools for thinking about opportunities and business in ways that aren’t data-driven. One famous proponent of the intuitive, design-led approach was, of course, Steve Jobs.

It's really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them

The iphone or iPad couldn’t have been designed by looking solely at the past. They mostly came about because Jobs had an innate understanding of what people wanted. He was proven right by the resulting sales volume.

Design starts with empathy. It forces you to put yourself in the customers shoes. It means identifying real people with real problems.

In order to do this, we need to put past data aside and watch people, listen to people, and talk with people. The simple act of doing this is a rich source of keyword and business ideas because people often frame a problem in ways you may not expect.

For example, a lot of people see stopping smoking as a goal-setting issue, like a fitness regime, rather than a medical issue. Advertising copy based around medical terminology and keywords might not work as well as copy oriented around goal setting and achieving physical fitness. This shift in the frame of reference certainly conjures up an entirely different world of ad copy, and possibly keywords, too. That different frame might be difficult to determine from analytics and keyword trends alone, but might be relatively easy to spot simply by talking to potential customers.

Four Questions

Designing For Growth is worth a read if you’re feeling bogged down in data and looking for new ways to tackle problems and develop new opportunities. I don’t think there’s anything particularly new in it, and it can come across as "the shiny new buzzword" at times, but the fundamental ideas are strong. I think there is value in applying some of these ideas directly to current SEO issues.

Designing For Growth recommends asking the following questions.

What is?

What is the current reality? What is the problem your customers are trying to solve? Xerox solved a problem customers didn’t even know that had when Xerox invented the fax machine. Same goes for the Polaroid camera. And the microwave oven. Customers probably couldn’t describe those things until they saw and understood them, but the problem would have been evident had someone looked closely at the problems they faced i.e. people really wanted faster, easier ways of completing common tasks.

What do your customers most dislike about the current state of affairs? About your industry? How often do you ask them?

One way of representing this information is with a flowchart. Map the current user experience from when they have a problem, to imagining keywords, to searching, to seeing the results, to clicking on one of those results, to finding your site, interacting to your site, to taking desired action. Could any of the results or steps be better?

Usability tests use the same method. It’s good to watch actual customers as they do this, if possible. Conduct a few interviews. Ask questions. Listen to the language people use. We can glean some of this information from data mining, but there’s a lot more we can get by direct observation, especially when people don’t click on something, as non-activity seldom registers in a meaningful way in analytics.

What if?

What would “something better” look like?

Rather than think in terms of what is practical and the constraints that might prevent you from doing something, imagine what an ideal solution would look like if it weren’t for those practicalities and constraints.

Perhaps draw pictures. Make mock-ups. Tell a story. Anything that fires the imagination. Use emotion. Intuition. Feeling. Just going through such a process will lead to making connections that are difficult to make by staring at a spreadsheet.

A lot of usability testers create personas. These are fictional characters based on real or potential customers and are used try to gain an understanding of what they might search for, what problems they are trying to solve, and what they expect to see on our site. Is this persona a busy person? Well educated? Do they use the internet a lot? Are they buying for themselves, or on behalf of others? Do they tend to react emotionally, or are they logical? What incentives would this persona respond to?

Personas tend to work best when they’re based on actual people. Watch and observe. Read up on relevant case studies. Trawl back through your emails from customers. Make use of story-boards to capture their potential actions and thoughts. Stories are great ways to understand motivations and thoughts.

What are those things your competition does, and how could they be better? What would those things look like in the best possible world, a world free of constraints?

What wows?

“What wows” is especially important for social media and SEO going forward.

Consider Matt Cutts statement about frogs:

Those other sites are not bringing additional value. While they’re not duplicates they bring nothing new to the table. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with what these people have done, but they should not expect this type of content to rank.
Google would seek to detect that there is no real differentiation between these results and show only one of them so we could offer users different types of sites in the other search results

Cutts talks about the creation of new value. If one site is saying pretty much the same as another site, then those sites may not be duplicates, but one is not adding much in the way of value, either. The new site may be relegated simply for being “too samey”.

It's the opposite of the Zygna path:

"I don't fucking want innovation," an anonymous ex-employee recalls Pincus saying in 2010, according to the SF Weekly. "You're not smarter than your competitor. Just copy what they do and do it until you get their numbers."

Generally speaking, up-and-coming sites should focus on wowing their audience with added depth and/or a new perspective. This, in turn, means having something worth remarking upon, which then attracts mentions across social media, and generates more links.

Is this certain to happen? Nothing is certain as far as Google is concerned. They could still bury you on a whim, but wowing an audience is a better bet than simply imitating long-established players using similar content and link structures. At some point, those long-established players had to wow their audience to get the attention and rankings they enjoy today. They did something remarkably different at some point. Instead of digging the same hole deeper, dig a new hole.

In SEO, change tends to be experimental. It’s iterative. We’re not quite sure what works ahead of time, and no amount of measuring the past tells us all we want to know, but we try a few things and see what works. If a site is not ranking well, we try something else, until it does.

Which leads us to….

What works?

Do searchers go for it? Do they do that thing we want them to do, which is click on an ad, or sign up, or buy something?

SEOs are pretty accomplished at this step. Experimentation in areas that are difficult to quantify - the algorithms - have been an intrinsic part of SEO.

The tricky part is not all things work the same everywhere & much like modern health pathologies, Google has clever delays in their algorithms:

Many modern public health pathologies – obesity, substance abuse, smoking – share a common trait: the people affected by them are failing to manage something whose cause and effect are separated by a huge amount of time and space. If every drag on a cigarette brought up a tumour, it would be much harder to start smoking and much easier to quit.

One site's rankings are more stable because another person can't get around the sandbox or their links get them penalized. The same strategy and those same links might work great for another site.

Changes in user behavior are more directly & immediately measurable than SEO.

Consider using change experiments as an opportunity to open up a conversation with potential users. “Do you like our changes? Tell us”. Perhaps use a prompt asking people to initiate a chat, or participate on a poll. Engagement that has many benefits. It will likely prevent a fast click back, you get to see the words people use and how they frame their problems, and you learn more about them. You become more responsive and empathetic sympathetic to their needs.

Beyond Design Thinking

There’s more detail to design thinking, but, really, it’s mostly just common sense. Another framework to add, especially if you feel you’re getting stuck in faceless data.

Design thinking is not a panacea. It is a process, just as Six Sigma is a process. Both have their place in the modern enterprise. The quest for efficiency hasn't gone away and in fact, in our economically straitened times, it's sensible to search for ever more rigorous savings anywhere you can

What's best about it, I feel, is this type of thinking helps break strategy and data problems down and give it a human face.

In this world, designers can continue to create extraordinary value. They are the people who have, or could have, the laterality needed to solve problems, the sensing skills needed to hear what the world wants, and the databases required to build for the long haul and the big trajectories. Designers can be definers, making the world more intelligible, more habitable

Jim Boykin Interview

Jim Boykin has been a longtime friend & was one of the early SEOs who was ahead of the game back in the day. While many people have came and went, Jim remains as relevant as ever today. We interviewed him about SEO, including scaling his company, disavow & how Google has changed the landscape over the past couple years.

Aaron: How did you get into the field of SEO?

Jim: In 1999 I started We Build Pages as a one man show designing and marketing websites...I never really became much of a designer, but luckily I had much more success in the marketing side. Somehow that little one man show grew to about 100 ninjas, and includes some communities and forums I grew up on (WebmasterWorld, SEOChat, Cre8asiteForums), and I get to work with people like Kris Jones, Ann Smarty, Chris Boggs, Joe Hall, Kim Krause Berg, and so many others at Ninjas who aren't as famous but are just as valuable to me, and Ninjas has really become a family over the years. I still wonder at times how this all happened, but I feel lucky with where we're at.

Aaron: When I got started in SEO some folks considered all link building to be spam. I looked at what worked, and it appeared to be link building. Whenever I thought I came up with a new clever way to hound for links & would hunted around, most the times it seems you got there first. Who were some of the people you looked to for ideas when you first got into SEO?

Jim: Well, I remember going to my first SEO conference in 2002 and meeting people like Danny Sullivan, Jill Whalen, and Bruce Clay. I also remember Bob Massa being the first person "dinged" by google for selling links...that was back in 2002 I think...I grew up on Webmasterworld and I learned a ton from the people in there like: Tedster, Todd Friesen, Greg Boser, Brett Tabke, Shak, Bill, Rae Hoffman, Roger Montti, and so many others in there over the years...they were some of my first influencers....I also used to hang around with Morgan Carey, and Patrick Gavin a lot too. Then this guy selling an SEO Book kept showing up on all my high PR pages where I was getting my links....hehe...

Aaron: One of the phrases in search that engineers may use is "in an ideal world...". There is always some amount of gap between what is advocated & what actually works. With all the algorithmic changes that have happened in the past few years, how would you describe that "gap" between what works & what is advocated?

Jim: I feel there's really been a tipping point with the Google Penguin updates. Maybe it should be "What works best short term" and "What works best long term"....anything that is not natural may work great in the short term, but your odds of getting zinged by Google go way up. If you're doing "natural things" to get citations and links, then it may tend to take a bit longer to see results (in conjunction with all you're doing), but at least you can sleep at night doing natural things (and not worrying about Google Penalties).  It's not like years ago when getting exact targeted anchor text for the phrases you want to rank on was the way to go if you wanted to compete for search rankings. Today it's much more involved to send natural signals to a clients website.  To send in natural signals you must do things like work up the brand signals, trusted citations, return visitors, good user experience, community, authors, social, yada yada....SEO is becming less a "link thing"...and more a "great signals from many trusted people", as well as it's a branding game now. I really like how SEO is evolving....for years Google used to say things like "Think of the users" when talking of the algorthym, but we all laughed and said "Yea, yea, we all know that it's all about the Backlinks"....but today, I think Google has crossed a tipping point where yes, to do great SEO, you must focus on the users, and not the links....the best SEO is getting as many citations and trusted signals to your site than your competitors...and there's a lot of trusted signals which we, as internet marketers, can be working's more complicated, and some SEO's won't survive this game...they'll continue to aim for short term gains on short tail keyword phrases...and they'll do things in bulk....and their network will be filtered, and possibly penalized.

Every website owner has to measure the risks, and the time involved, and the expected's not a cheap game any more....doing real marketing involves brains and not buttons...if you can't invest in really building something "special" (ideally many special things), on your site to get signals (links/social), then you're going to find it pretty hard to get links that look natural and don't run a risk of getting penalized.  The SEO game has really matured, the other option is to take a high risk of penalization.

Aaron: In terms of disavow, how deep does one has to cut there?

Jim: as deep as it needs to be to remove every unantural link. If you have 1000 backlinks and 900 are on pages that were created for "unnatural purposes (to give links)" then all 900 have to be disavowed...if you have 1000 backlinks, and only 100 are not "natural" then only 100 need to be disavowed... what percent has to be disavowed to untrip an algorthymitic filter? I'm not sure...but almost always the links which I disavow have zero value (in my opinion) anyways.  Rip the band-aid off, get over it, take your marketing department and start doing real things to attract attention, and to keep it.

Aaron: In terms of recoveries, are most penalized sites "recoverable"? What does the typical recovery period look like in terms of duration & restoration?

Jim: oh...this is a bee's nest you're asking me..... are sites recoverable....yes, most....if a site has 1000 domains that link to it, and 900 of those are artificial and I disavow them, there might not be much of a recovery depending on what that 100 links left, if I disavow all link text of "green widgets" that goes to your site, and you used to rank #1 for "green widgets" prior to being hit by a Penguin update, then I wouldn't expect to "recover" on the first page for that phrase..... where you recover seems to depend on "what do you have for natural links that are left after the disavow?"....the time period....well.... we've seen some partial recoveries in as soon as 1 month, and some 3 months after the disavow...and some we're still waiting on....

To explain, Google says that when you add links to the disavow document, then way it works is that the next time Google crawls any page that links to you, they will assign a "no follow" to the link at that you have to wait until enough of the links have been recrawled, and now assigned the no follow, to untrip the filter....but one of the big problems I see is that many of the pages Google shows as linking to you, well, they're not cached in Google!....I see some really spammy pages where Google was there (they record your link), but it's like Google has tossed the page out of the index even though they show the page as linking to I have to ask myself, when will Google return to those pages?...will Google ever return to those pages???  It looks like if  you had a ton of backlinks that were on pages that were so bad in the eyes of Google that they don't even show those pages in their index anymore...we might be waiting a long long time for google to return to those pages to crawl them again....unless you do something to get Google to go back to those pages sooner (I won't elaborate on that one).

Aaron: I notice you launched a link disavow tool & earlier tonight you were showing me a few other cool private tools you have for working on disavow analysis, are you going to make any of those other tools live to the public?

Jim: Well, we have about 12 internal private disavow analysis tools, and only 1 public disavow tool....we are looking to have a few more public tools for analyzing links for disavow analysis in the coming weeks, and in a few months we'll release our Ultimate Disavow Tool...but for the moment, they're not ready for the public, some of those are fairly expensive to run and very database intensive...but I'm pretty sure I'm looking at more link patterns than anyone else in the world when I'm analyzing backlinks for doing disavows. When I'm tired of doing disavows maybe I'll sell access to some of these.

Aaron: Do you see Google folding in the aggregate disavow data at some point? How might they use it?

Jim: um.....I guess if 50,000 disavow documents have listed in their disavows, then Google could consider that might be a spammy website.....but then again, with people disavowing links who don't know what they're doing, I'm sure their's a ton of great sites getting listed in Disavow documents in Webmaster Tools.

Aaron: When approaching link building after recovering from a penalty, how does the approach differ from link building for a site that has never been penalized?

Jim: it doesn't really matter....unless you were getting unnatural/artificial links or things in bulk in the past, then, yes, you have to stop doing that now...that game is over if you've been hit...that game is over even if you haven't been hit....Stop doing the artificial link building stuff. Get real citations from real people (and often "by accident") and you should be ok.

Aaron: You mentioned "natural" links. Recently Google has hinted that infographics, press releases & other sorts of links should use nofollow by default. Does Google aim to take some "natural" link sources off the table after they are widely used? Or are those links they never really wanted to count anyhow (and perhaps sometimes didn't) & they are just now reflecting that.

Jim: I think ~most of these didn't count for years anyways....but it's been impossible for Google to nail every directory, or every article syndication site, or every Press Release site, or everything that people can do in bulk..and it's harder to get all occurances of widgets and mentions of it's probably just a "Google, Google says, "Don't do it, No Follow them" (and I think they say that because it often works), and the less of a pattern there is, the harder for Google to catch it (ie, widgets and infographics) ...I think too much of any 1 thing (be it a "type of link") can be a bad well as things like "too many links from pages that get no traffic", or "no clicks from links to your site". In most cases, because of keyword abuse, Google doesn't want to count them...links like this may be fine (and ok to follow) in moderation...but if you have 1000 widgets links, and they all have commercial keywords as link text, then you're treading on what could certainly turn into a negative signal, and so then you might want to consider no following those.

Aaron: There is a bit of a paradox in terms of scaling effective quality SEO services for clients while doing things that are not seen as scalable (and thus future friendly & effective). Can you discuss some of the biggest challenges you faced when scaling IMN? How were you able to scale to your current size without watering things down the way that most larger SEO companies do?

Jim: Scaling and keep quality has certainly been a challenge in the past. I know that scaling content was an issue for us for a can you scale quality content?....Well, we've found that by connecting real people, the real writers, the people with real social influence...and by taking these people and connecting them to the brands we work these real people then become "Brand Evangelist"...and getting these real people who know what they're talking about to then write for our clients, well, when we did that we found that we could scale the content issue. We can scale things like link building by merging with the other "mentions", and specifically targeting industries and people and working on building up associations and relations with others has helped to we're always building tools to help us scale while keeping quality. It's always a challenge, but we've been pretty good at solving many of those issues.

I think we've been really good at scaling in house....many content marketers are now more like community managers and content managers....we've been close to 100 employees for a few years it's more how can we do more with the existing people we have...and we've been able to do that by connecting real people to the clients so we can actually have better content and better marketing around that content....I'm really happy that the # of employees has been roughly the same for past few years, but we're doing more business, and the quality keeps getting better....there's not as many content marketers today as there was a few years ago, but there's many more people working on helping authors build up their authorship value and produce more "great marketing" campaigns where as a bi-product, we happen to get some links and social citations.

Aaron: One of the things I noticed with your site over the past couple years is the sales copy has promoted the fusion of branding and SEO. I looked at your old site in over the years & have seen quite an amazing shift in terms of sales approach. Has Google squeezed out most of the smaller players for good & does effective sustainable SEO typically require working for larger trusted entities? When I first got into SEO about 80%+ of the hands in the audiences at conferences were smaller independent players. At the last conference I was at it seemed that about 80% of the hands in the audience worked for big companies (or provided services to big companies). Is this shift in the market irreversible? How would you compare/contrast approach in working with smaller & larger clients?

Jim: Today it's down to "Who really can afford to invest in their Brand?" and "Who can do real things to get real citations from the web?"....and who can think way beyond "links"...if you can't do those things, then you can't have an effective sustainable online marketing program.... we once were a "link building company" for many, many years.... but for the past 3 years we've moved into full service, offering way more than what was "link building services".... yea, SEO was about "links" for years, and it still is to a large degree....but unless you want to get penalized, you have to take the "it's way more than links" approach... in order for SEO to work (w/o fear of getting penalized) today, you have to look at sending in natural thus, you must do "natural" things...things that will get others "talking" about it, and about you....SEO has evolved a lot over the years....Google used to recommend 1 thing (create a great site and create great things), but for years we all knew that SEO was about links and anchor,, I think Google has caught up with (to some degree) with the user, and with "real signals"...yesterday is was "gaming" the it's about doing real things...real marketing...and getting you name out to the community via creating great things that spread, and that get people to come back to your site....those SEO's and businesses who don't realize that the game has changed, will probably be doing a lot of disavowing at some time in the future, and many SEO's will be out of business if they think it's a game where you can do "fake things" to "get links" in a few years we'll see who's still around for internet marketing companies...those who are still around will be those who do real marketing using real people and promoting to other real people...the link game itself has the past we looked a link we look at people graphs....who is talking about you, what are they's way more than "who links to me, and how do they link to me"....Google is turning it into a "everyone gets a vote", and "everyone has a value"...and in order to rank, you'll need real people of value talking about your site...and you'll need a great user experience when they get there, and you'll need loyal people who continue to return to your site, and you'll need to continue to do great things that get mentions....

SEO is no longer a game of some linking algorithm, it's now really a game of "how can you create a great user experience and get a buzz around your pages and brand".

Aaron: With as much as SEO has changed over the years, it is easy to get tripped up at some point, particularly if one is primarily focused on the short term. One of the more impressive bits about you is that I don't think I've ever seen you unhappy. The "I'm feeling lucky" bit seems to be more than just a motto. How do you manage to maintain that worldview no matter what's changing & how things are going?

Jim: Well, I don't always feel lucky...I know in 2008 when Google hit a few of our clients because we were buying links for them I didn't feel lucky (though the day before, when they ranked #1, I felt lucky)....but I'm in this industry for the long term...I've been doing this for almost 15 years....and yes, we've had to constantly change over the year, and continue to grow, and growing isn't always easy...but it is exciting to me, and I do feel lucky for what I have...I have a job I love, I get to work with people whom I love, in an industry I love, I get to travel around the world and meet wonderful people and see cool places...and employee 100 people and win "Best Places to work" awards, and I'm able to give back to the community and to society, and to the earth...those things make me feel lucky...SEO has always been like a fun game of chess to me...I'm trying to do the best I can with any move, but I'm also trying to think a few steps ahead, and trying to think what Google is thinking on the other side of the table.....ok...yea, I do feel lucky....maybe it's the old hippy in me...I always see the glass half full, and I'm always dreaming of a better tomorrow....

If I can have lots of happy clients, and happy employees, and do things to make the world a little better along the way, then I'm happy...sometimes I'm a little stressed, but that comes with the end, there's nothing I'd rather be doing than what I currently do....and I always have big dreams of tomorrow that always make the trials of today seem worth it for the goals of what I want to achieve for tomorrow.

Aaron: Thanks Jim!

Jim Boykin is the CEO of the Internet Marketing Ninjas company, and a Blogger and public speaker. You can find Jim on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus.