Last October Vendran Tomic wrote a guide for local SEO which has since become one of the more popular pages on our site, so we decided to follow up with a QnA on some of the latest changes in local search.
Q: Google appears to have settled their monopolistic abuse charges in Europe. As part of that settlement they have to list 3 competing offers in their result set from other vertical databases. If Google charges for the particular type of listing then these competitors compete in an ad auction, whereas if the vertical is free those clicks to competitors are free. How long do we have until Google's local product has a paid inclusion element to it?
A: Local advertising market is huge. It's a market that Google still hasn't mastered. It's a market still dominated by IYP platforms.
Since search in general is stagnant, Google will be looking to increase their share of the market.
That was obvious to anyone who was covering Google's attempt to acquire Groupon since social couponing is a local marketing phenomenon mostly.
Their new dashboard is not only more stable with a slicker interface, but also capable of facilitating any paid inclusion module.
I would guess that Google will not wait a long time to launch a paid inclusion product or something similar, since they want to keep their shareholders happy.
Q: In the past there have been fiascos with things like local page cross-integration with Google+. How "solved" are these problems, and how hard is it to isolate these sorts of issues from other potential issues?
A: Traditionally, Google had the most trouble with their "local" products. Over the years, they were losing listings, reviews, merging listings, duplicating them etc. Someone called their attempts "a train wreck at the junction." They were also notoriously bad with providing guidance that would help local businesses navigate the complexity of the environment Google created.
Google has also faced some branding challenges - confusing even the most seasoned local search professionals with their branding.
Having said that, things have been changing for the better. Google has introduced phone support which is, I must say, very useful. In addition, the changes they made in a way they deal with local data made things more stable.
However, I'd still say that Google's local products are their biggest challenge.
Q: Yelp just had strong quaterly results and Yahoo! has recently added a knowledge-graph like pane to their search results. How important is local search on platforms away from Google? How aligned are the various local platforms on ranking criteria?
A: Just like organic search is mostly about two functions - importance and relevance, local search is about location prominence, proximity and relevance (where location prominence is an equivalent to importance in general SEO).
All local search platforms have ranking factors that are based on these principles.
The only thing that's different is what they consider ranking signals and the way they place on each. For example, to rank high in Yahoo! Local, one needs to be very close to the centroid of the town, have something in the title of their business that matches the query of the search and have a few reviews.
Google is more sophisticated, but the principles are the same.
The less sophisticated local search platforms use less signals in their algorithm, and are usually geared more towards proximity as a ranking signal.
It's also important to note that local search functions as a very interconnected ecosystem, and that changes made in order to boost visibility in one platform, might hurt you in another.
Q: There was a Google patent where they mentioned using driving directions to help as a relevancy signal. And Bing recently invested in and licensed data from Foursquare. Are these the sorts of signals you see taking weight from things like proximity over time?
A: I see these signals becoming/increasing in importance over time as they would be a useful ranking signal. However, to Google, local search is also about location sensitivity, and these signals will probably not be used outside of this context.
If you read a patent named "Methods And Systems For Improving A Search Ranking Using Location Awareness" (Amit Singhal is one of the inventors), you will see that Google, in fact, is aware that people have different sensitivities fo different types of services/queries. You don't necessarily care where your plumber will come from, but you do care where the pizza places are where you search for pizza in your location.
I don't see driving directions as a signal ever de-throning proximity, because proximity is closer to the nature of the offline/online interaction.
Q: There are many different local directories which are highly relevant to local, while there are also vertical specific directories which might be tied to travel reviews or listing doctors. Some of these services (say like OpenTable) also manage bookings and so on. How important is it that local businesses "spread around" their marketing efforts? When does it make sense to focus deeply on a specific platform or channel vs to promote on many of them?
A: This is a great question, Aaron! About 5 years ago, I believed that the only true game in town for any local business is Google. This was because, at that time, I wasn't invested in proper measurement of outcomes and metrics such as cost of customer acquisition, lead acqusition etc.
Local businesses, famous for their lack of budgets, should always "give" vertical platforms a try, even IYP type sites. This is why:
one needs to decrease dependance on Google because it's an increasingly fickle channel of traffic acquisition (Penguin and Panda didn't spare local websites),
sometimes, those vertical websites can produce great returns. I was positively surprised by the number of inquiries/leads one of our law firm clients got from a well known vertical platform.
using different marketing channels and measuring the right things can improve your marketing skills.
Keep in mind, basics need to be covered first: data aggregators, Google Places, creating a professional/usable/persuasive website, as well as developing a measurement model.
Q: What is the difference between incentivizing a reasonable number of reviews & being so aggressive that something is likely to be flagged as spam? How do you draw the line with trying to encourage customer reviews?
A: Reviews and review management have always been tricky, as well as important. We know two objective things about reviews:
consumers care about reviews when making a purchase and
reviews are important for your local search visibility.
Every local search/review platform worth its weight in salt will have a policy in place discouraging incentivizing and "buying" reviews. They will enforce this policy using algorithms or humans. We all know that.
Small and medium sized businesses make a mistake of trying to get as many reviews as humanly possible, and direct them to one or two local search platforms. Here, they make two mistakes:
1. they're driven by a belief that one needs a huge number of reviews on Google and
2. one needs to direct all their review efforts at Google.
This behavior forces them to be flagged algorithmically or manually. Neither Google nor Yelp want you to solicit reviews.
However, if you change your approach from aggressively asking for reviews to a survey-based approach, you should be fine.
What do I mean by that?
A survey-based approach means you solicit your customers' opinions on different services/products to improve your operations - and then ask them to share their opinion on the web while giving them plenty of choices.
This approach will get you much further than mindlessly begging people for reviews and sending them to Google.
The problem with clear distinction between the right and wrong way in handling reviews, as far as Google goes, lies in their constant changing of guidelines regarding reviews.
Things to remember are: try to get reviews on plenty of sites, while surveying your customers and never get too aggressive. Slow and steady wins the race.
Q: On many local searches people are now getting carouseled away from generic searches toward branded searches before clicking through, and then there is keyword(not provided) on top of that. What are some of the more cost efficient ways a small business can track & improve their ranking performance when so much of the performance data is hidden/disconnected?
A: Are you referring to ranking in Maps or organic part of the results? I'm asking because Google doesn't blend anymore.
Q: I meant organic search
A: OK. My advice has always been to not obsess over rankings, but over customer acquisition numbers, leads, lifetime customer value etc.
However, rankings are objectively a very important piece of the puzzle. Here are my suggestions when it comes to more cost efficient ways to track and improve ranking performance:
When it comes to tracking, I'd use Advanced Web Ranking (AWR) or Authority Labs, both of which are not very expensive.
Improving ranking performance is another story. Local websites should be optimized based on the same principles that would work for any site (copy should be written for conversion, pages should be focused on narrow topics, titles should be written for clickthrough rates etc).
On the link building side of things, I'd suggest taking care of data aggregators first as a very impactful, yet cost effective strategy. Then, I would go after vertical platforms that link directly to a website, that have profiles chockfull of structured data. I would also make sure to join relevant industry and business associations, and generally go after links that only a real local business can get - or that come as a result of broader marketing initiatives. For example, one can organize events in the offline world that can result in links and citations, effectively increasing their search visibility without spending too much.
Q: If you are a local locksmith, how do you rise above the spam which people have publicly complained about for at least 5 years straight now?
A: If I were a local locksmith, I would seriously consider moving my operations close to the centroid of my town/city. I would also make sure my business data across the web is highly consistent.
In addition, I would make sure to facilitate getting reviews on many platforms. If this wouldn't be enough (as it often isn't enough in many markets), I would be public about Google's inability to handle locksmiths spam in my town - using their forums, and any other medium.
Q: In many cities do you feel the potential ROI would be high enough to justify paying for downtown real estate then? Or would you suggest having a mailing related address or such?
A: The ROI of getting a legitimate downtown address would greatly depend on customer lifetime value. For example, if I were a personal injury attorney in a major city, I would definitely consider opening a small office near a center of my city/town.
Another thing to consider would be the search radius/location sensitivity. If the location sensitivity for a set of keywords is high, I would be more inclined to invest in a downtown office.
I wouldn't advocate PO boxes or virtual offices, since Google is getting more aggressive about weeding those out.
Q: Google recently started supporting microformats for things like hours of operation, phone numbers, and menus. How important is it for local businesses to use these sorts of features?
A: It is not a crucial ranking factor, and is unlikely to be any time in the near future. However, Google tends to reward businesses that embrace their new features - at least in local search. I would definitely recommend embracing microformats in local search.
Q: As a blogger I've noticed an increase in comment spam with NAP information in it. Do you see Google eventually penalizing people for that? Is this likely to turn into yet another commonplace form of negative SEO?
A: This is a difficult question. Knowing how Google operates, it's possible they start penalizing that practice. However, I don't see that type of spam being particularly effective.
Most blogs cannot do a lot to enhance the location prominence. But if that turned into a negative SEO avenue, I would say that Google wouldn't handle it well (based on their track records).
Q: Last year you wrote a popular guide to local search. What major changes have happened to the ecosystem since then? Would you change any of the advice you gave back then? Or has local search started to become more stable recently?
A: There weren't huge changes in the local ecosystem. Google has made a lot of progress in transferring accounts to the new dashboard, improving the Bulk upload function. They also changed their UX slightly.
Moz entered the local search space with their Moz Local product.
Q: When doing a local SEO campaign, how much of the workload tends to be upfront stuff versus ongoing maintenance work? For many campaigns is a one-off effort enough to last for a significant period of time? How do you determine the best approach for a client in terms of figuring out the mix of upfront versus maintenance and how long it will take results to show and so on?
A: This largely depends on the objective of the campaign, the market and the budget. There are verticals where local Internet marketing is extremely competitive, and tends to be a constant battle.
Some markets, on the other hand, are easy and can largely be a one-off thing. For example, if you're a plumber or an electrician in a small town with a service area limited to that town, you really don't need much maintenance, if any.
However, if you are a roofing company that wants to be a market leader in greater Houston, TX your approach has to be much different.
The upfront work tends to be more intense if the business has NAP inconsistencies, never did any Internet marketing and doesn't excel at offline marketing.
If you're a brand offline and know to tie your offline and online marketing efforts, you will have a much easier time getting the most out of the web.
In most smaller markets, the results can be seen in a span of just a few months. More competitive markets, in my experience, require more time and a larger investment.
Q: When does it make sense for a local business to DIY versus hiring help? What tools do you recommend they use if they do it themselves?
A: If local business owner is in a position where doing local Internet marketing is their highest value activity, it would make sense to do it themselves.
However, more often than not, this is not the case even for the smallest of businesses. Being successful in local Internet marketing in a small market is not that difficult. But it does come with a learning curve and a cost in time.
Having said that, if the market is not that competitive, taking care of data aggregators, a few major local search platforms and acquisition of a handful of industry links would do the trick.
For data aggregators, one might go directly to them or use a tool such as UBM or Moz Local.
To dig for citations, Whitespark's citation tool is pretty good and not that expensive.
Q: The WSJ recently published a fairly unflatering article about some of the larger local search firms which primarily manage AdWords for 10's of thousands of clients & rely on aggressive outbound marketing to offset high levels of churn. Should a small business consider paid search & local as being separate from one another or part of the same thing? If someone hires help on these fronts, where's the best place to find responsive help?
A: "Big box" local search companies were always better about client acquisition than performance. It always seemed as if performance wasn't an integral part of their business model.
However, small businesses cannot take that approach when it comes to performance. Generally speaking, the more web is connected to business, the better of a small business is. This means that a local Internet marketing strategy should start with business objectives.
Everyone should ask themselves 2 questions:
1. What's my lifetime customer value?
2. How much can I afford to spend on acquiring a customer?
Every online marketing endeavor should be judged through this lens. This means greater integration.
Q: What are some of the best resources people can use to get the fundamentals of local search & to keep up with the changing search landscape?
Vedran Tomic is a member of SEOBook and founder of Local Ants LLC, a local internet marketing agency. Please feel free to use the comments below to ask any local search questions you have, as Vedran will be checking in periodically to answer them over the next couple days.
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 on....it'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 ROI....it'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 are....ie, 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 time.....so 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 you...so 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 spammywebsite.com listed in their disavows, then Google could consider that spammywebsite.com 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 infographics...so it's probably just a "Google Scare....ie, 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 signal....as 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 while....how 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 with.....so 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 scale...plus 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 now..so 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 Archive.org 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 signals...so 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 text....today, ...today, I think Google has caught up with (to some degree) with the user, and with "real signals"...yesterday is was "gaming" the system....today 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 bulk....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 changes...in the past we looked a link graphs...today we look at people graphs....who is talking about you, what are they saying....it'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 life....in 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.
For a long time Yahoo! provided great link data, but most other search engines were more reserved with sharing link data for competing sites. What were some of the driving forces behind Bing opening up on this front?
Bing values the power of strong partnerships as one way to spur innovation and deliver compelling experiences for our users. For any partnership to be effective, remaining as transparent as possible is critical, including those we forge with agency and publisher partners. Sharing link information was something very clearly asked for by tool users, so after doing the internal work to see if we could provide the information, it was an easy decision to build this tool when the answer came back positive. You wanted it, we had it and could share it. Done.
As a search engine your web index is much much larger than most SEO tools. On Twitter Rand mentioned that the index size of Bing's new Link Explorer was fairly comparable to Open Site Explorer. Is the link data offered in the tool a select slice of the index? Were you trying to highlight the highest quality link sources for each site?
We see the entire index, or at least "can" see the entire index and link ecosystem. We’re limited to the actual number we can show at any given time, however.
Currently it appears as though the tool lists link source URLs & page titles. Will the tool also add anchor text listings at some point?
On the list – sometimes we run into data sourcing issues, so when we hit those walls, it takes us longer to add features. Bing WMT pulls data from all the sources available within Bing Search, and sometimes those have limits imposed for other reasons. In those cases, we must abide by those rules or seek to influence changes to increase our own access/capacities. A search engine is a complex thing it turns out… J
There are filters for "anchor text" and "additional query." What are the differences between these filters?
Anchor Text is pretty clear to most SEOs. "Additional Query" allows you to look for, as an example, a page with "N" text appearing on it. So text not just as "anchor text", but simply appearing on the page.
Currently if I search for "car" I believe it will match pages that have something like "carson" on it. In the future will there be a way to search for an exact word without extra characters?
I’m going to split this answer. Users can enable “Strict” filtering to only see “cars” data by selecting the “Strict” box. To your point, however, this is what some of our tools are Beta. We will continually refine them as time goes on, adding features folks find useful.
Will you guys also offer TLD-based filters at some point?
First time anyone's mentioned it, so I’ll add this to our list for consideration.
A few years ago my wife was at a PPC seminar where a Bing representative stated that the keyword search data provided in the tools matched your internal data. Is this still the case?
Bing Advertising is completely separate from Webmaster Tools. I’m not sure if that rep was meaning data within the adCenter tools matches data or what. Bing WMT does import CPC data to showcase alongside keywords which sent traffic to your site. That data matches as we pull direct from adCenter. The data we show through our tools comes direct from Bing Search, so that’s a match if this is what you’re referring to.
Bing's Webmaster tools offers an API with keyword research & link data. Bing's Ad Intelligence is easily one of my 3 favorite SEO tools. Will Bing eventually offer a similar SEO-oriented plugin for Excel?
No plans on the roadmap for an Excel plugin.
At SMX Derrick Connell suggested that there was a relevancy perception gap perhaps due to branding. What are some of the features people should try or things they should search for that really highlight where Bing is much stronger than competing services?
Without doubt people should be logging in and using the Facebook integration when searching. This feature is tremendously helpful when you’re researching something, for example, as you can reach out directly to friends for input during your research process. While searching, keep your eyes open for the caret that indicates there is more data about a specific result. Hovering over that activates the “snapshot” showing the richer experience we have for that result. Businesses need to make sure they focus on social and managing it properly. It’s not going away and those who lag will find themselves facing stiff, new competition from those getting social right. Businesses also need to get moving adopting rich snippets on their sites. This data helps us provide the deeper experiences the new consumer interface is capable of in some cases.
You have wrote a couple books & done a significant amount of offline marketing. One big trend that has been highlighted for years and years is everything moving online, but as search advances do you see offline marketing as becoming an important point of differentiation for many online plays?
In a way yes. In fact, with the simplification of SEO via tools like our own and many others, more and more businesses can get things done to a level on their own. SEO will eventually become a common marketing tactic, and when that hits, we’re right back to a more traditional view of marketing: where all tactics are brought to bear to sell a product or service. Think of this…email marketing is still one of the single best converting forms of marketing in existence. Yet so many businesses focus on SEO (drive new traffic!) instead of email (work with current, proven shoppers!).
In fact, neither alone is the "best" strategy for most online businesses. It’s a blend of everything. Social happens either with you or without you. You can influence it, and by participating, the signals the engines see change. We can see those changes and it helps us understand if a searcher might or might not have a good experience with you. That can influence (when combined with a ton of other factors, obviously) how we rank you. Everything is connected today. Complex? Sure, but back in the day marketers faced similar complexity with their own programs. Just a new "complex" for us today. More in the mix to manage.
What is the best part about being an SEO who also works for a search engine?
On Wednesday, June 6th at 10AM PST, I was part of the team that brought a new level of tools forward, resetting expectations around what Webmaster Tools should deliver to users. Easily one of the proudest moments of my life was that release. While I’m an SEO and I work for the engine, the PM and Lead Engineer on the WMT product are also SEOs. ;) To say Bing is investing in building the partnership with SEOs is no mere boast. Great tools like this happen because the people building them live the life of the user.
What is the hardest part about being an SEO who also works for a search engine?
Still so few people around me that speak this language. The main difficulty is in trying to understand the sheer scope of search. Because everything you thought you knew as an SEO take son an entirely different dimension when you’re inside the engine. Imagine taking every SEO conversation and viewing it through a prism. So many more things to consider.
And, finally, nothing against Matt here, but why are dogs so much better than cats?
1 – they listen to you and execute commands like a soldier
2 – generally, they don’t crap in your house
3 – you can have a genuine conversation with a dog
4 – one of my dogs drives
5 – when was the last time your cat fetched anything for you?
6 – your dog might look at you funny, but won’t hiss at you
7 – guard cat? Hardly… you’d be better off with peacocks in the yard.
8 – dogs make great alarm clocks
9 – even YOU know you look strange walking your cat on a leash…
10 – dogs inspire you to be a better person
Brett Tabke is one of the most well known names in the SEO vertical, playing a crucial roll in building up Webmaster World & the Pubcon conference. We recently interviewed him about some of the latest changes in search & where online publishing is heading.
One of the more famous pieces of content on WMW (or really the whole of the SEO industry) over the years has been Successful Site in 12 Months with Google Alone: 26 steps to 15k a day. That predates my entry into the SEO niche & yet seems surprisingly relevant over a decade later. Are you surprised how well that has held up given how much search has changed? If you were to write it today, what would you add or change?
The surprise was how well received it was at the time. I wrote that piece in about an hour start-to-finish. It has held up well because it is a article about content production first and SEO second. If I had to rewrite it, I would drop the references to specific timings and numbers. Those numbers have been washed away with progress over the years.
At a recent SEO conference a few months back someone asked who was a big brand or worked for big brands & something like 80%+ of hands in the audience went up. When I got into search it was sort of the other way around, where most attendees were small publishers & affiliates. Originally when I got into search I felt that some conferences were a bit more corporate & Pubcon had far more "in the know" independent affiliate types who test lots of things out & such. How has Pubcon done such a good job of staying relevant throughout the shift in landscape of the industry?
Part of it is our 10 year game plan. I didn't realize I had a 10 year game plan in 2001, but I did. That plan was to add just "one thing more" to each conference. One thing more awesome that the last. We have done that for 10 years running, and each time we do, the conference grows a little bit in that direction. We make sure that as the audience grows in their knowledge, then we do too.
The other part of it, is our roots. We have been committed to sticking with the successful 'independent' website owners. By making sure we support them, we know that we have tapped into people who are experts in their particular field. We are not a 'vertical niche' conference. We are 8 to 10 'vertical niche' conferences combined. I always felt the niche conferences were great (blogging, affiliates, webhosting, domaining), but people have needs that cross over from discipline to discipline. By stretching across those genres, we attract the corporates that need to reach them, and keep the experts that are "in the know".
A lot of people who speak on authority about search & the SEO niche claim that the shift to big business is natural, legitimate & the way it should be. Do you agree with that, or feel that is mostly self-serving advice?
I don't believe SEO has become "big business". I do believe that SEO is no longer a question of SEO, but rather general marketing. It is a tricky and potentially inflammatory topic. I've come to realize, that you can't go on gut instinct alone in this business. We have been in-the-trenches with SEO since 95. Our whole world outlook has been through SEO. To stick our heads in the sand and not see the winds of change would be both foolish and detrimental to our bottom lines.
Yes, SEO has changed remarkably over the years. We started by just trying to get listed in the directory or search engine at all. Then we went on to on-the-page optimization. Google came along and turned it into "all links all the time" era. Finally today, we are into an obtuse era, where the the genres of optimization are so diverse from maps, to local, to authorship, to what friends you have on social networks. It has left alot of SEO's wondering where they should focus their energies at.
I've talked with many website owners that are starting to wonder if Google has become a losing value proposition for them. They are getting more traffic now from other engines and social sites. They wonder if Google actually wants to send them traffic. That the value of their website to Google, is nothing more than the data it can provide to train the machine for other SERP's and not theirs.
Facebook has so far failed to disrupt search and BingHoo has failed to disrupt Google. Do you see anything on the horizon that will change the search landscape?
I disagree. I think $100 billion IPO disproves that theory. Facebook just did an IPO for 100 x Gross income. Wow. Lets think about that for awhile. If you or I go to sell our businesses, we are going to be lucky to get 3x to 4x in this climate and Facebook just took on investors that were tagged to 100x their yearly gross!? Fantasy land. That is the same fantasy that a handful of guys at Instagram built into $1bilion dollar sale.
Facebook has totally disrupted Google and BingHoo. We just need to adjust our thinking. People know how to find what they want on the web. The great days of random web exploration are over. The grand days of social interaction are here.
Look at all those changes that Google has done the last 4 years: Google local push, Google Instant, Google Plus Network, and even partially Android. Those changes are a result of social media - of Facebook and Twitter. Those changes were not part of the 'grand plan' - they were short term and reactionary.
In SEO, in many cases those who lie are often heralded as being "white hat" while being granted greater access, whereas those who have knowledge and openly share it are often branded as being "black hat." Does this trend at some point reverse course? How many people can be labeled as black hat before the label lacks meaning?
As long as people focus on their own sites, and work to promoting them, there are no hats - only marketing. What you do on the privacy of your own site, is your business. As long as no laws are broken, there are no hats.
What is the most trite & least correct SEO tip that is shared publicly relentlessly?
Great question. About 2 years ago I heard a well known SEO suggest that you should remove all outbound links from your site in order to 'sculpt' page rank on your site. This spring, I heard that same SEO tell people they need to link out to make their links and site "look natural". The 'sculpt pagerank SILO'ing articles were based out of my work on Theme Pyramid from 2001. While the outbound linking was directly from previously mentioned 26 Steps article. I took alot of heat in "26 Steps to 15k a Day" for recommending that people link out to other sites. The theory then was that clearly SE's were going to look at outbound links to determine a sites theme. There are alot of metrics that outbound linking can be used as a quality (or lack their of) signal for search algos.
I think I saw you mention something about getting links that drive traffic. Why are links that drive traffic more valuable than those which do not?
Google is using every signal it can. They have:
Google Chrome browser.
They can track traffic over most of the web. They know what sites people spend time on and what links get clicked most. Links that drive traffic tend to drive higher SERP rankings.
If enough independent SEOs get driven out of the ecosystem, won't that at some point have a knock on effect on the wages of in-house SEOs at larger companies?
I don't think so. It is rare to run into "single task" SEO's at all but the largest corporations. Even the big media sites with well known SEO's require those people to work in other marketing areas as well. The knowledge of the general SEO today is vastly further along that we were just a few years ago.
The financial fall out from 2008 was that advertising and marketing agency budgets were cut to the bone in late '08. As those agencies were jettisoned, in house marketing people were given the task of SEO. In 08, we saw our InHouse panel attendance go from a few dozen to a few hundred as corporations sent their people to be trained. It was a breath taking switch. Those corporations learned the value of a good SEO fairly quickly in 2009. That trend has continued today with InHouse divisions paying more than ever before for quality SEO's.
As the table keeps getting tilted, at some point do smaller independent players decide to opt out of search en mass, sort of like you did with the robots.txt blog? Does more and more featured content eventually end up behind paywalls as ad-based models are seen as less reliable among algorithmic uncertainties?
Well, paywalls are also finding where their wall is at. There has to be some huge value add to having a pay wall. I think we have seen the failures of many pay wall sites as well as some huge successes. The big problem with pay walls, is that it is hard to keep it behind the wall.
I do think we are seeing people playing with more revenue opportunities than ever before. Ads, affiliates, and links are all being explored as viable alternatives. There is also a second (or is this the third?) wave of ecom sites being built. The big change this time is the reliance on conversion. People are getting pretty savvy about building sites that convert.
A lot of the biggest algorithmic holes & flaws that have been created over the years were created by attempts to over-compensate for other issues. Do you see brand (or brand-type) signals & usage signals dominating search for years to come?
Yes, yes I do. There is no other way around it. People want the authority of brand. Google can only give them so much before they wander back to big brands as the authority in various spaces.
Is authority bias / brand bias / etc. a crutch until enough vertical search technology has been deployed to where the regular organic results are largely irrelevant and below the fold for any query with a sniff of commercial intent? Are we moving from open ecosystems to closed ones? If so, is it a trend that reverses at some point?
I do think we are transitioning from a 100% search based traffic economy to a greater percentage being driven by other traffic sources. Social media will continue to grab more and more of the traffic pie.
The new tablet and phone traffic economies are more suited for social than search. Search is a proactive, brain-fully-engaged activity. Social is much more of a click and 'let it come to me' experience. Search is about products, and research, and finding the right bits of information. Social is about chilling with the tablet in the easy chair while watching reruns on your Netflix TV and surfing your buddies Facebook pictures. There is also the coming wave of new intelligent TV's that will lean them selves to more of a passive social experience than an active search experience. Those new technologies are disruptive to the old search economy.
If companies like Amazon.com create large distributed ad networks won't that eventually push Google to back off their authority bias?
I don't think anyone but Facebook could dislodge Google's ad dominance.
One can find free consumer reviews by the boatload on authority sites & vertical marketplaces, but are in-depth expert reviews being driven out of the marketplace due to shifts in algorithmic preferences?
I agree to a degree. The one push back on that, is Quora. Other than that, the Bizarre Voice driven review model continues to grow without any major competitors.
What is something people will see at Pubcon that they can't find elsewhere?
Expertise. 55% of Pubcon attendees consider themselves to be experts in their field, while another 30% consider themselves to be advanced. That leads us to ask speakers to bring their Grade A1+ game to their presentations and they do. I feel our level of content is the highest in the entire educational conference space. That, and we keep the conference reasonably priced for the average techhead.
Thanks Brett. This year's Pubcon is once again in Las Vegas, Nevada & takes place the week of October 15 through 18.
Internet Marketing Ninja Jim Boykin has promoted link building since before I even knew what SEO was. Nearly a decade later so many things have changed in SEO (including renaming We Build Pages to Internet Marketing Ninjas), but he still sees links as a key SEO driver (as do I). I recently interviewed him about links & the changing face of SEO.
so, links links links ... these were the backbone of ranking in Google for years and years. are they still? Is social a huge signal, or something that has been over-hyped?
Yes, I do see backlinks at the backbone of rankings in Google. Every day I see sites that trump the rankings with links, and no social signals...but I've never seen a site that had "poor" backlinks compared to others, but a strong social signal, be ranked great.
There are other signal that I feel are more important than social, like content and user behavior, but then after those, I'd put social signals. Even though I don't think they're more important thank links by any stretch, I do feel that social has a place, in areas like branding, community building, and in assisting in organic search results. I always recommend that people have a strong social presence, even if for only sending additional signals to Google to assist in higher rankings.
Google recently nailed a bunch of lower quality bulk link networks. Were you surprised these lasted as long as they did? Was the fact that they worked at all an indication of the sustained importance of links?
Well...surprised...no... filtering out networks is something that's always going to happen....once something gets too big, or too popular, or too talked about...then it's in danger of being burned... the popular "short cuts" of today are the popular penalized networks of tomorrow... there will always be someone who will create a network (of others sites they control, or their new friends control, or of near expired domains, or blogger groups, etc etc) and that someone will start selling links, and advertising, and it will catch on, and they will sell to everyone and it will become so interconnected that it will cause it's own algorthymitic penalty, or it will get popular, and get the eyes of Google on it, and then it will get filtered, or there will be exact match penalties, or entire site penalties.
If that's the game you play, just understand the risks...or, don't play that game and give other reasons for people to link to you, and get permanent non-paid links, but that takes a lot of time and effort and marketing. That's the price you have to pay...because, yes, rankings in Google still comes down to #1, Links.
After such networks get hit, how hard is it for such sites to recover? Does it create a "flight to quality" impact on link building? Are many of them better off starting from scratch rather than trying to recover the sites?
We've worked with several people who have come to us with after being penalized by Google to some degree (either phrase based penalty, or entire site penalties). Probably the low budget people who got hit just started other sites and tossed their penalized site, but most of the people who come to us can't afford to toss their branded site away.
In almost all of those cases it takes someone removing all the paid and un-natural links that they can. They must understand then that their days of buying links are Over, and they Must create great things on their site that gets natural links....and they must forever give up the chase of being #1 for the big short tail phrases..unless you own the exact .com, or your brand name includes that phrase...In order to recover, they must purge the backlinks of the paid links and the networks, do a reinclusion request, and then start doing "natural things", and then wait and wait and wait...90 days is typical...it's the one Google gave to themselves after you pointed out that Google themselves were buying blog links.
Over time it has become easier to hit various trip wires when link building. You mentioned some things being phrse based or entire site & so on...how does a person determine the difference between these? Some of Google's automated penalties and manual penalties have quite similar footprints, are there easy ways to tell which is which?
A phrase based penalty work like this...let's say you've been targeting "green widgets" and "red widgets" for years...you have lots of backlinks with those exact anchor text....and you were in the top 10 for both phrases....then one day, you rank somewhere on page 3 or higher for those phrases.. you may still rank #3 for "cheap red widgets" or #7 for "widgets green" (reversed phrases)...but for the few exact phrases...it's page 3+ of the SERPS for you....nothing else changes, just those exact phrases.. on the other hand, a sitewide penalty is where pretty much nothing rankings on page 1 or page 2 in the SERPS, when the prior day you had lots of keywords rankings in there. I have no way of knowing which were automatic and which were hand done....sometimes I have a feeling in my gut...but it doesn't really matter...the solution is always the same...clean up the backlinks, and change your methods.
Earlier you mentioned foregoing the head phrase, in spite of things like Google Instant guiding searchers down a path, is there still plenty of tail to be had? Are tail keywords significantly under-rated by the market? How does one square going after tail keywords with algorithms like Panda?
I'm a big believer in the long tail. When we analyze content on a site we tend to grab ranking data from ahrefs for the client, as well as for several of their competitors, and we end up merging all the phrases and showing the search volume and the average cost per click for each phrase...we can always find a huge long tail, even if the clients site currently doesn't have that content (they have to add new original content), there is always a huge long tail to be had.
In 98% of the cases, there are no one or two or three main phrases that account for more than 2% of the total potential search traffic. Even with a sites existing content and existing traffic, the short tail tends not to be more than 5% of traffic for any sites I've been seeing.We often find that a site that may have 5,000 pages, but only 500 pages that site are of value via ranking for anything that has a decent search volume, and a decent worth in a CPC value in Google. If you look at those 500 urls, and you optimize each url for say 5 phrases on average, then you're looking at 2,500 phrases...of those, 50 phrases might be the short tail, and 2450 I would consider the middle tail. If you also add words like "shop" "store" "online" "sale" "cheap" "discount" etc to all those pages, you'll pick up tons more phrases. And from there, the more original content you can add, the more long tail you can get.... but..be careful...no one wants a site to be hit from a Google panda update...make sure the content is original, of value, and that it's of use to the viewers of the page.
When going after head or tail keywords...with one or the other do you feel that link quality is more important than link quantity?
Link quality always trumps. Otherwise, I'd buy those 10,000 backlinks for $100 packages that I see in Google AdWords... and my job would be a lot easier :)
With Google it is getting easier to hit tripwires with anchor text or building links too fast, does this also play into the bias toward quality & away from quantity?
I think it is easier to hit tripwires...but it's nice that Google sent out 700,000 "be careful" emails a few weeks ago... those were automatic....I think the "over optimization update" that Google has been speaking of will trip a lot of wires and people will have to mimic the natural web more and not focus on exact short tail phrases.
Those scammy AdWords ads proming link riches for nothing in part shape the perception of the cost & value of links. How do you get prospective clients to see & appreciate the value of higher quality links (while in some cases some of them will be competing with some of the bulk stuff that ranks today & is gone tomorrow)?
Well, luckily I'm not in sales calls anymore so I don't have to do the convincing :) but I'd say that if you can get links that you just can't buy (ie, a link from NASA.gov or harvard.edu/library/) then they're priceless. Each update Google will filter out some of the links from sites that it feels are artificial. If you can build things that stick and stand the test of time, and if you don't need to be #1 tomorrow, and are willing to invest in the sites content and the sites future, then think long tail and long term. If you're all about today, then do what you have to do today, but those cheap links won't move you much anyways & you'll just have a spammy backlink profile.
Building quality links that last isn't particularly cheap or easy. Even harder to do it in volume. What has allowed/enabled you to succeed where so many others have failed on this front? Is it that you care more about the client's well being, or is it that you have to tie together a bunch of clever bits to make it all back out?
Well, I have an army here....nearly 100 ninjas..the biggest group is the link builders, so I have a lot of link ninjas, we also have a lot of tools...tools that suggest the things we should write that has the highest probability of getting trusted backlinks, we have a content teams that knows how to write to get links from professors and orgs and government agencies, etc.
We have tools that help us to know who to write to after we've written the content..and we have tools that help us send out a lot of personal emails...between the tools and the people and the content, we manage to make it work. If we had to do all the work by hand, and by human guesses, it would never work, but with the tools (and human intervention along the way), we're able to get the links and scale it, while keeping the high quality.
When you talk about getting quality links that are priceless, those have that sort of value precisely because they are so hard to get. How big of a role does content play in the process? Is this something anyone can do?
Content is Key to getting links. There's different types of links....there's the low hanging fruit..then there's the fruit that's way on the top of the tree....the things that tend to be harder to get, also tend to be the most valued and the most trusted. If I wrote to a college professor at Harvard and said, "Hey, Professor Bob, I just wrote a great paper on "The History Of Widgets", you should add it to your article in the Harvard library" then if the article isn't Great, they'll never link to it. It starts with a great idea that morphs into great content, and then we promote it to those we're targeting. Anyone can write this content, guess at what a gov page would link to, or a college professor..see what they currently link out to...write them an email that's been personalized...and with enough emails, you can get the links if your content is good enough. It's a long slow process, but anyone can do it. Thank goodness I have tool that make that process much easier and more accurate to getting links.
You mentioned thinking long term, how long does it usually take to start seeing results from quality link building? Do you ever work on new sites, or do you mostly try to work on older websites that tend to respond quicker? Also have you noticed newer sites being able to rank much quicker if they do a quality-first approach to link building?
With getting the trusted links we tend to see an increase in traffic during the first 3 months. I do the 3 month review phone calls here, and my goal is to show them the ROI via overall rankings increase of the long tail, and an increase in google's organic traffic. Sites tend to see much better increases in these if they also follow our internal linking strategies, and our on page optimization strategies. If someone does link building, on page optimization, and internal linking, after 3 months there's almost no way someone can not increase the traffic to their site.
I was recently chatting with Jonah Stein about Panda & we decided it probably made sense to do a full on interview.
You mentioned that you had a couple customers that were hit by Panda. What sort of impact did that have on those websites?
Both of these sites saw an immediate hit of about 35% of google traffic. Ranking dropped 3-7 spots. The traffic hit was across the board, especially in the case of GreatSchools, who saw all content types hit (school profile pages, editorial content, UGC)
GreatSchools was hit on the 4-9 (panda 2.0) update and called out in the Sistrix analysis.
How hard has GreatSchools been hit? Sistrix data suggested that GreatSchools was loosing about 56% of Google traffic. The real answer is that organic Google-referred traffic to the site fell 30% on April 11 (week over week) and overall site entries are down 16%. Total page views are down 13%. The penalty, of course, is a “site wide” penalty but not all entry page types are being affected equally
Google suggested that there was perhaps some false positives but that they were generally pretty satisfied with the algorithms. For sites that were hit, how do clients respond to the SEOs? I mean did the SEO get a lot of the blame or did the clients get that the change was sort of a massive black swan?
I think I actually took it harder then they did. Sure, it hit their bottom line pretty hard, but it hit my ego. Getting paid is important but the real rush for me is ranking #1.
Fortunately none of my clients think they are inherently entitled to Google traffic, so I didn't get blamed. They were happy that I was on top of it (telling them before they noticed) and primarily wanted to know what Panda was about.
Once you get over the initial shock and the grieving, responding to Panda was a rorschach test, everyone saw something different. But is also an interesting self - reflection, especially when the initial advice coming from Greg Boser and a few others was to start to de-index content.
For clients who are not ad driven, the other interesting aspect is that generally speaking conversions were not hurt as much as traffic, so once you start focusing on the bottom line you discover the pain is a little less severe than it seemed initially.
So you mentioned that not all pages were impacted equally. I think pages where there was more competition were generally hit harder than pages that had less competition. Is that sort of inline with what you saw?
Originally I thought that was maybe the case, but as I looked at the data during the recovery process I became convinced that Panda is really the public face of a much deeper switch towards user engagement. While the Panda score is sitewide the engagement "penalty" or weighting effect on also occurs at the individual page. The pages or content areas that were hurt less by Panda seem to be the ones that were not also being hurt by the engagement issue.
On one of my clients we moved a couple sections to sub-domains, following the HubPages example and the experience of some members of your community. The interesting thing is that we moved the blog from /blog to blog.domain.com and we moved one vertical niche from /vertical-kw to vertical-kw.example.com. The vertical almost immediately recovered to pre-panda levels while the traffic to the blog stayed flat.
So the vertical was suddenly getting 2x the traffic. On the next panda push the vertical dropped 20% but that was still a huge improvement over before we moved to the subdomain. The blog didn't budge.
The primary domain also seemed to improve some, but it was hard to isolate that from the impact of all of the other changes, improvements and content consolidation we were doing.
After the next panda data push did not kill the vertical sub domain, we elected to move a second one. On the next data push, everything recovered - a clean bill of health - no pandalization at all.
GreatSchools completely recovered the same day and that was November 11th, so Panda 3.0. I cannot isolate the impact of any particular change versus Google tweaking the algorithm and I think both sites were potentially edge cases for Panda anyway.
Now that we are in 3.3 or whatever the numbering calls it, I can say with confidence that moving "bad" content to a sub-domain carries the Panda score with it and you won't get any significant recovery.
You mentioned Greg Boser suggesting deindexing & doing some consolidation. Outside of canonicalization, did you test doing massive deindexing (or were subdomains your main means of testing isolation)?
We definitely collapse a lot of content, mostly 301s but maybe 25% of it was just de-indexing. That was the first response. We took 1150 categories/keyword focused landing pages and reduced to maybe 300. We did see some gains but nothing that resembled the huge boost when Panda was lifted.
Back to the rorschach test: We did a lot of improvements that yielded incremental gains but were still weighed down. I reminds me of when I used to work on cars. I had this old Audi 100 that was running poorly so I did a complete tune up, new wires, plugs, etc., but it was still running badly. Then I noticed the jet in the carburetor was mis-aligned. As soon as I fixed that, boom, the car was running great. Everything else we fixed may have been the right thing to do for SEO and/or users but it didn't solve the problem we were experiencing.
The other interesting thing is that I had a 3rd client who appeared to get hit by Panda or at least suffer from Panda like symptoms after their host went down for about 9 hours. Rankings tanked across the board, traffic down 50% for 10 days. They fully recovered on the next panda push. My theory is that this outage pushed their engagement metrics over the edge somehow. Of course, it may not have really been Panda at all but the ranking reports and traffic drops felt like Panda. The timing was after November 11th, so it was a more recent version of the Panda infrastructure.
Panda 1.0 was clearly a rush job and 2.0 seemed to be a response to the issues it created and the fact that demand media got a free pass. I think it took 6-8 months for them to really get the infrastructure robust.
My takeaways from Panda are that this is not an individual change or something with a magic bullet solution. Panda is clearly based on data about the user interacting with the SERP (Bounce, Pogo Sticking), time on site, page views, etc., but it is not something you can easily reduce to 1 number or a short set of recommendations. To address a site that has been Pandalized requires you to isolate the "best content" based on your user engagement and try to improve that.
I don't know if it was intentional or not but engagement as a relevancy factor winds up punishing sites who have built links and traffic through link bait and infographics because by definition these users have a very high bounce rate and a relatively low time on site. Look at the behavioral metrics in GA; if your content has 50% of people spending less than 10 seconds, that may be a problem or that may be normal. The key is to look below that top graph and see if you have a bell curve or if the next largest segment is the 11-30 second crowd.
I also think Panda is rewarding sites that have a diversified traffic stream. The higher percentage of your users who are coming direct or searching for you by name (brand) or visiting you from social the more likely Google is to see your content as high quality. Think of this from the engine's point of view instead of the site owner. Algorithmic relevancy was enough until we all learned to game that, then came links as a vote of trust. While everyone was looking at social and talking about likes as the new links they jumped ahead to the big data solution and baked an algorithm that tries to measure interaction of users as a whole with your site. The more time people spend on your site, the more ways they find it aside from organic search, the more they search for you by name, the more Google is confident you are a good site.
Based on that, are there some sites that you think have absolutely no chance of recovery? In some cases did getting hit by Panda cause sites to show even worse user metrics? (there was a guy named walkman on WebmasterWorld who suggested that some sites that had "size 13 shoe out of stock" might no longer rank for the head keywords but would rank for the "size 13" related queries.
I certainly think that if you have a IYP and you have been hit with Panda your toast unless you find a way to get huge amounts of fresh content (yelp). I don't think the size 13 shoe site has a chance but it is not about Panda. Google is about to roll out lots of semantic search changes and the only way ecommerce sites (outside of the 10 or so brands that dominate Google Products) will have a chance is with schema.org markup and Google's next generation search. The truth is the results for a search for shoes by size is a miserable experience at the moment. I wear size 16 EEEE, so I have a certain amount of expertise on this topic. :)
Do you see Schema as a real chance for small players? Or something that is a short term carrot before they get beat with the stick? I look at hotel search results like & and I fear that spreading as more people format their content in a format that is easy to scrape & displace. (For illustration purposes, in the below image, the areas in red are clicks that Google is paid for or clicks to fraternal Google pages.)
I doubt small players will be able to use Schema as a lifeline but it may keep you in the game long enough to transition into being a brand. The reason I have taken your advice about brands to heart and preach it to my clients is that it is short sighted to believe that any of the SEO niche strategies are going to survive if they are not supported with PR, social, PPC and display.
More importantly, however, is that they are going to focus on meeting the needs of the user as opposed to simply converting them during that visit. To use a baseball analogy, we have spent 15 years keeping score of home runs while the companies that are winning the game have been tracking walks, singles, doubles and outs. Schema may deliver some short term opportunities for traffic but I don't think size13shoes.com will be saved by the magic of semantic markup.
On the other hand, if I were running an ecommerce store, particularly if I was competing with Amazon, Bestbuy, Walmart and the hand full of giant brands that dominate the product listings in the SERP, I wouldn't bury my head in the sand and pretend that everyone else wasn't moving in that direction anyway. Maybe if you can do it right you can emerge as a winner, at least over the short and medium term.
In that sense SEO is a moving target, where "best practices" depend on the timing in the marketplace, the site you are applying the strategy to, and the cost of implementation.
Absolutely...but that is only half the story. If you are an entrepreneur who likes to build site based on a monetization strategy, then it is a moving target where you always have to keep your eyes on the horizon. For most of my clients the name of the game is actually to focus on trying to own your keyword space and take advantage of inertia. That is to say that if you understand the keywords you want to target, develop a strategy for them and then go out and be a solid brand, you will eventually win. Most of my clients rank in the top couple of spots for the key terms for their industry with a fairly conservative slow and steady strategy, but I wouldn't accept a new client who comes to me and says they want to rank a new site #1 for credit cards or debt consolidation and they have $200,000 to spend..or even $2,000,000. We may able to get there for the short term but not with strategies that will stand the test of time.
Of course, as I illustrated with the Nuts.com example on SearchEngineLand last month, the same strategy that works on a 14 year old domain may not be as effective for a newer site, even if you 301 that old domain. SEO is an art, not a science. As practitioners we need to constantly be following the latest developments but the real skill is in knowing when to apply them and how much; even then occasionally the results are surprising, disappointing or both.
I think there is a bit of a chicken vs egg problem there then if a company can't access a strong SEO without already having both significant capital & a bit of traction in the marketplace. As Google keeps making SEO more complex & more expensive do you think that will drive a lot of small players out of the market?
I think it has already happened. It isn't about the inability to access a strong SEO it is that anyone with integrity is going to lay out the obstacles they face. Time and time again we see opportunity for creativity to triumph but the odds are really stacked against you if you are an underfunded retailer.
Just last year I helped a client with 450 domains who had been hit with Panda and then with a landing page penalty. It took a few months to sort out and get the reconsideration granted (by instituting cross domain rel=canonical and eliminating all the duplicate content across their network). They are gradually recovering to maybe 80% of where they were before Panda 2.0 but I can't provide them an organic link building strategy that will lift 450 niche ecommerce sites. I can't tell them how they are going to get any placement in a shrinking organic SERP dominated by Google's dogfood, shopping results from big box retailers and enormous Adwords Product Listings with images
From that perspective, if your funding is limited, do you think you are better off attacking a market from an editorial perspective & bolting on commerce after you build momentum (rather than starting with ecommerce and then trying to bolt on editorial?
Absolutely. Clearly the path is to have built Pinterest, but seriously...
if you are passionate about something or have a disruptive idea you will succeed (or maybe fail), but if you think you can copy what others are doing and carve out a niche based on exploits I disagree. Of course, autoinsurancequoteeasy.com seems to be saying you can still make a ton of money in the quick flip world, even with a big bank roll, you need to be disruptive or innovative.
On the other hand, if you have some success in your niche you can use creativity to grow, but it has to be something new. Widget bait launched @oatmeal's online dating site but it is more likely to bury you now than help you rank #1, or at least prevent you from ranking on the matching anchor text.
When a company starts off small & editorially focused how do you know that it is time to scale up on monetization? Like if I had a successful 200 page site & wanted to add a 20,000 page database to it...would you advise against that, or how would you suggest doing that in a post-Panda world?
This is a tough call. I actually have a client in exactly this position. I guess it depends on the nature of the 20,000 pages. If you are running a niche directory (like my client) my advice to them was to add the pages to the site but no index the individual listing until they can get some unique content. This is still likely to run fowl of the engagement issue presented by Panda, so we kept the expanded pages on geo oriented sub-domains.
Earlier you mentioned that Panda challenged some of your assumptions. Could you describe how it changed your views on search?
I always tell prospects that 10-15 years ago my job was to trick search engines into delivering traffic but over the last 5-6 years it has evolved and now my job is to trick clients into developing content that users want. Panda just changed the definition of "good content" from relevant, well linked content to relevant, well linked, sticky content.
It has also made me more of a believer in diversifying traffic.
Last year Google made a huge stink about MSN "stealing" results because they were sniffing traffic streams and crawling queries on Google. The truth is that Google has so many data sources and so many signals to analyze that they don't need to crawl facebook or index links on twitter. They know where traffic is coming from and where it is going and if you are getting traffic from social, they know it.
As Google folds more data into their mix do you worry that SEO will one day become too complex to analyze (or move the needle)? Would that push SEOs to mostly work in house at bigger companies, or would being an SEO become more akin to being a public relations & media relations expert?
I think it may already be too complex to analyze in the sense that it is almost impossible to get repeatable results for every client or tell them how much traffic they are going to achieve. On the other hand, moving the needles is still reasonably easy—as long as you are in agreement about what direction everyone is going. SEO for me is about Website Optimization, about asking everyone about the search intent of the query that brings the visitors to the site and making sure we have actions that match this intent. Most of my engagements wind up being a combination of technical seo/problem solving, analytics, strategy and company wide or at least team wide education. All of these elements are driven by keyword research and are geared towards delivering traffic so it is an SEO based methodology, but the requirements for the job have morphed.
As for moving in house, I have been there and I doubt I will ever go back. Likewise, I am not really a PR or media relations expert but if the client doesn't have those skills in house I strongly suggest they invest in getting them.
Ironically, many companies still fail to get the basics right. They don't empower their team, they don't leverage their real world relationships and most importantly they don't invest enough in developing high quality content. Writing sales copy is not something you should outsource to college students!
It still amazes me how hard it is to get content from clients and how often this task is delegated to whoever is at the bottom of the org chart. Changing a few words on a page can pay huge dividends but the highest paid people in the room are rarely involved enough.
In the enterprise, SEO success is largely driven by getting everyone on board. Being a successful SEO consultant (as opposed to running your own sites) is actually one quarter about being a subject matter expert on everything related to Google, one quarter about social, PR, Link building, conversion, etc and half about being a project manager. You need to get buying from all the stake holders, strive to educate the whole team and hit deliverables.
Given the increased complexity of SEO (in needing to understand user intent, fixing a variety of symptoms to dig to the core of a problem, understanding web analytics data, faster algorithm changes, etc.) is there still a sweet spot for independent consultants who do not want to get bogged down by those who won't fully take on their advice? And what are some of your best strategies for building buy in from various stakeholders at larger companies?
The key is to charge enough and to work on a monthly retainer instead of hourly. This sounds flippant but the bottom line is to balance how many engagements you can manage at one time versus how much you want to earn every month. You can't do justice to the needs of a client and bill hourly. That creates an artificial barrier between you and their team. All of my clients know I am always available to answer any SEO related question from anyone on the team at almost any time.
The increased complexity is really job security. Most of my clients are long term relationships and the ones I enjoy the most are more or less permanent partnerships. We have been very successful together and they value having me around for strategic advice, to keep them abreast of changes and to be available when changes happen. Both of the clients who got hit by Panda have been with me for more than four years.
No one can be an expert in everything. I definitely enjoy analytics and data but I have very strong partnerships with a few other agencies that I bring in when I need them. I am very happy with the work that AnalyticsPros has done for my clients. Likewise David Rodnitzky (PPC Associates) and I have partnered on a number of clients. Both allow me to be involved in the strategy and know that the execution will be very high quality. I only wish I had some link builders I felt as passionate about (given that Deborah Mastaler is always too busy to take my clients.)
You mentioned that you thought user engagement metrics were a big part of Panda based on analytics data & such...how would a person look through analytics data to uncover such trends?
I would focus on the behavioral metrics tab in GA. It is pretty normal to have a large percentage of visitors leave before 10 seconds, but after that you should see a bell curve. Low quality content will actually have 60-70% abandonment in less than 10 seconds, but the trick is for some searches 10 seconds is a good result: weather, what is your address, hours of operations. Lots of users get what they need from searches, sometimes even from the SERP, so look for outliers. Compare different sections of your site, say the blog or those infographics & bad page types.
Its hard to say until you get your hands in the data but if you assume that individual pages can be weighed down by poor engagement and that this trend is maybe 1 year old and evolving, you can find some clues. Learn to use those advance segments and build out meaningful segmentation on your dashboard and you will be surprised how much of this will jump out at you. It is like over optimization: until you believed in it you never noticed & now you can spot it within a few seconds of looking at a page. I won't pretend engagement issues jump out that fast but it is possible to find them, especially if you are an in house SEO who really knows your site.
The other important consideration is that improving engagement for an given page is a win regardless of whether it impacts your rankings or your Panda situation. The mantra about doing what is right for the users, not the search engine may sound cliche but they reality is that most of your decisions and priorities should be driven by giving the user what they want. I won't pretend that this is the short road to SERP dominance but my philosophy is to target the user with 80% of your efforts and feed the engines with the other 20.
Thanks Jonah :)
Jonah Stein has 15 years of online marketing experience and is the founder of ItsTheROI, a San Francisco Search Engine Marketing Company that specializes in ROI driven SEO and PPC initiatives. Jonah has spoken at numerous industry conferences including Search Engine Strategies, Search Marketing Expo (SMX), SMX Advanced, SIIA On Demand, the Kelsey Groups Ultimate Search Workshop and LT Pact. He also developed panels Virtual Blight for the Web 2.0 Summit and the Web 2.0 Expo. He has written for Context Web, Search Engine Land and SEO Book
Jonah is also the cofounder of two SaaS companies, including CodeGuard.com, a cloud based backup service that provides a time machine for websites and Hubkick.com, an online collaboration and task management tool that provides a simple way for groups to work together-instantly.
Like reading more than listening? Transcription below.
An Interview of the Salty Droid
Today we're going to interview not a person, so much as a robot, or maybe a person behind a robot. Who is the Salty Droid?
Is that the first question, "Who is the Salty Droid?"
All right. Well, the answer is, Jason Jones.
Jason Jones. OK. Why did you decide to create a robot for your website or what was the idea behind that?
Well, I like robots first of all, because everyone likes robots. I was just using that as my online persona, and then the whole Salty Droid project developed underneath it. The robot just came out of nowhere, out of the blue.
When you are writing or talking or compiling, everything you do is the Salty Droid? Do you view that as an extension of yourself? Or do you view that as something that separates yourself from what you're doing? Or how do you think of it that way?
I think of it definitely as separate. I try to keep it completely depersonalized or keep a layer in between it and me, because the robot is really angry and aggressive, but those aren't healthy emotions to take on personally. The robot is the character and the blog is the project. And it's more than just me. It's more than one person. There's a whole community there. I'm just one piece of it. I definitely don't think of myself as that, as the robot.
That leads to two questions. One, you built a community around this, but then, two, you said that it's not good to have the anger and negative emotions. Do you view the community as being full of negative emotions?
How can you create a community that revolves around a character that has stuff you wouldn't describe as good? Can you build a community that is separate from the traits of the founder of it?
Well, the hyper-aggression and the bad attitude are mostly communiqué. And I think most of the people in the community. All the legit people in the community are really caring, good people, who get that the aggression is a joke.
The targets of the aggression the things that are going on that we're pointing to are really serious things that people need to stand up and say something about. It takes an aggressive tone that I don't think anyone really tries to personify the robot's charms.
One of the things that's an issue online is it's really easy to point to what's bad or what's wrong. It's really easy to be cynical. But do you think there is enough good resources for people to find what will help them and what's good with the site mainly being focused on staying away from what's bad? Or can you focus on one too much or if you did both would it cause problems?
Yeah. I think mixing them up would be a terrible idea because of the specific thing I'm talking about. I'm totally sure that I don't know what is the good side of making quick money online.
How can you find the right help to do that, because that is not a real thing. You can't make quick money online. It's really hard to make money online. That is the reality of the situation. As far as how people get help in accentuating the positives. I really don't see, what are the positives?
From that perspective I think you hit on one of the things, is that a lot of the people have the mindset. Like, I got an email today, where the person said that they want to make something. They've been buying all these network-marketing things and they want to be able to make money really quick and easy without needing a PhD.
I've had other people say that they'd be willing to pay me a portion of the profits for whatever I taught them but nothing upfront. There's even been a person, he's offered me to pay me. They wanted me to rank someone else's page lower, a competitor. And offered to pay me after the fact.
The big thing there is there's a lot of mindset where people try to take whatever they can get and take. And the thing is a lot of them end up running into a roadblock by the view of the need fast, easy, cheap, free or placebo cost, but need it to be automated and make a lot.
Do you think the big problem is the vultures or the mindset of people?
Jason Jones: The vultures. No, it is the vultures. It's not people's mindset and people's weakness and people's vulnerability, and people's desire to have a life that's different from the life that they have. That is just how humans are.
And there's certain ways you can capitalize that that are seedy and not very respectable, but then you can prey on it. You can become a predator. And that's a fallback excuse that people use is trying to characterize the victims like that, so that it feels less painful to think about.
That they are also exploiting this idea of like, "Hey, let's make the world a better place." That is exploited just as much as this greed tactic. It exploits good people, greedy people. Anyone who has human weaknesses is exploitable.
What are the emotions you would say are most commonly preyed upon the "get rich" people?
In the "get rich" thing, greed is a part of it. For instance, I listened to a huge batch of boiler room calls. OK. I won't mention anything specific about, but 100 hours. And it's overwhelming. I heard a few calls where it was greed and it is this stereotype person of this chaser who wants to believe the impossible.
I don't think that's the majority. I'm not sure how big of the portion that represents, but it's not that significant. It's people who are afraid, people who want a brighter tomorrow, people who things are falling apart for and who are at a moment in their life where they are particularly vulnerable.
And it's not the same people over and over. People get ground out and pushed out and in comes a new batch. They're always looking for this new batch of vulnerable people.
This is maybe a bit abstract or wide-reaching, but in the same way the monetary system is setup as being debt-based. To where if you have an income inequality and some people have savings, there's got to be some other people that are in debt or living right close to the edge.
Do you think how we structure our political and economic system, feeds into the people being vulnerable and desperate? Or do you think no matter how it was structured people would always be that way no matter what?
No. I think part of what's making people vulnerable is they're thinking that they don't have enough. And this constant buy-buy culture and the credit, lending. And it's not just personal. Everything is based off on debt. Debt is our currency.
People's weaknesses and personalities develop inside of that. It's a microcosm, the scammy end of the spectrum what I'm writing about. It's done very basely down at the bottom, but it's a reflection of exactly how things go all the way to the top. It's in the political structure. It's in the financial system. We're structured like this.
Some of the patterns of the stuff you particularly don't like, is preying on people's emotions. Some of the stuff you do on your blog comes down to sleuthing and what Dereby called "investigative journalism", in a world where there is almost none.
How do you get so much of the data? Is this building the community help pull on to that stuff in for you? Or are you really technically savvy? How are able to dig so much stuff up?
Yeah. That's a human groundwork. It's a beat work. It just takes time. I started writing it and people started coming. And the more people come, the more people come. And then I keep quiet about who I'm talking to and I keep my sources confidential.
You'll see in the writing style I never say, "So and so says", or "This anonymous source." I never mention ever where anything is coming from. I just do it and if you read long enough you just have to come to rely on the fact that there is stuff going on behind the scenes that I'm not going to talk about. People don't want to talk about it, because it's a really cagey, dark situation. And people have their own interests and they don't want to.
But it started happening almost immediately. People started to come talk to me and I just talked to them. Keep it going. At this point I have this never-ending stream of information that just comes at me and only a tiny, tiny percentage of it ends up on the blog.
You did a lot of interesting graphics stuff. Did you find that hard to do? How were you able to tie in the image and audio? Let's say you put up a five-minute video or a three-minute video and you make all you custom graphics, how much work goes into that?
It looks like it. Because I do the basic videos of like, "Here's the screenshot of this, and here's how it works." I make a three or a five-minute thing and I always screw-up in the middle. Then I get ticked off with myself, and start cursing on myself. I can imagine how hard it is to sequence all that together.
Have you gotten more efficient with that over time? Or what did you use? Was it just a lot of hard practice till you get used to doing it?
Yeah. It was just practice, because the first time I had no idea. I had a reason, a motivation to do it. I just would do it. But that big epic video they were talking about Jeff Foster and Andy Jenkins. They were talking about the Syndicate and telling me to go fuck myself. That video took 36 hours, probably.
It was just a long time.
What takes more time? Is it cutting up the audio, or creating the graphics? Or figuring out what pieces you're going to use?
Yeah. Everything goes wrong, and the audio formats don't match. You just have to get a few parts in. You restart, because you feel like your idea was idiotic.
Have you thought about making videos about some of the stuff you do? There's one site I subscribe to. Financial advice where the guy is totally low-key, he's always questioning himself. His website's called iTulip." And he makes these amazing graphs comparing different asset classes over time.
Sometimes he's like, "Yeah, I did this pretty quick," but he's taking a long time for most of it. Have you thought about some of the stuff you do, like creating tutorials on how to do some of this?
No, definitely not. Because one, that reach was the thing I'm talking about. And I don't want to do anything even close to that. Just to keep the line totally clear. Two, I have a hard time explaining the things that I'm doing to people who aren't me. It's hard. I know a lot of different little tricks. I don't know. You've got to figure out your own. Figure out your own little tricks.
With the stuff you're doing, if the site gets more popular, if you ever decide to do so many years down the road, so many months, so many years. At some point do you think you're eventually going to lose passion for the project? or do you see yourself doing for years to come?
I don't know. I like it right now. No. I see myself doing it for a while, because no one's doing it. If I stop doing it, then what? It's something different is gone. I don't want that to happen.
I'm a fan of the site. I like it. I love the site.
What's the hardest part with running it? Is it doing the stuff yourself? Dealing with how other people interact with it? Or dealing with what people do away from it? Or what's the hardest parts with it? You were struggling with like stuff like people taking down social media accounts.
Yeah. That's the hardest part, because that's disappointing. When I first started, I expected that this project would have the support of the Internet community. Because it's the Internet community, that's creating the distribution system for this vicious scam. And people don't like it. It's not popular. Things that these people do aren't popular with the normal people you want using your websites.
I thought people would be behind me. Plus, that's how it's supposed to be. In America, there's this like illusion that you can say whatever you want. And it's all just like Wild West speech around here. But it's not like that at all. The Internet companies don't support you. It's way more work than it should've been just to keep the site existing.
That's not fun work to try to keep it up. That doesn't do anything for the cause. It doesn't help anyone. It's not helping me. It's a waste of time, and it's totally unnecessary. I'm obviously not going to lose. They're not going to be able to get rid of me, so it's a waste of their time.
I think that's the most disappointing part, getting banned from all these different social networks, getting banned from hosting sites, having to resort to...
Part of the trap is that you go onto YouTube, and you think it's an open forum where there's multiple voices. If people are getting scammed, they're going to be making YouTube videos, just like these scammers are making YouTube videos. And those two will weigh each other out, but that's not it. If someone wants to take your content down more than you want to keep it up, it's pretty hard to keep it up.
You mentioned something about that being an illusion. Well, you mentioned part of it being technical stuff related to that, but you also mentioned it being an illusion. Do you see that as a pattern that's always been that way in society across all cultures? Do you see the Internet making that better or worse? How do you feel about that?
Well, this particular thing that's dangerous about the Internet is that there's a perception, more so than ever before, that dissent is available. When you could only distribute through the paper, you knew it wasn't open. It was incredibly limited by whatever the publication medium was. You could think about that as you were looking.
But now you get the idea from everything in the media and from most of the stuff on the Internet, that the Internet is the voice of the little guy. But then when you go and look, you find out, "No, the little guy gets silenced still, and his voice is not there"
But now there's holding out that his voice is there, and he's just not saying anything. So, he must be happy about it. He must not have just got his credit card maxed out and had his wife leave him. And suddenly drinking a fifth of Scotch a day.
It's not that those comments never pop up. It's that whenever someone gets that boldness, they get slapped right back down. And they're not in a position to fight back. I'm speaking about it in my own personal experience from this scam area , but it's obviously like that across the Web, too.
You want to talk about gas frack explosions in your back yard, like you can bet there's dozens of people who put up things. Then some company's hack lawyer came along and demanded they take them down. They didn't know their rights, and they can't afford to be availed to seek any counsel on those rights. It's just easier to take it down. Should not be like that.
There's also the extreme of false complaints and sites like Ripoff Report that have been called a variety of things. I don't even know what words I could use without availing myself to a lawsuit. [laughter]
I'll say it, extortion racket. That's what people accuse them of, of running an extortion racket, because it looks a lot like that.
How does the consumer separate out? You think people are falsely confident that they have a full spectrum; how can they become more aware of stuff they should trust versus stuff they shouldn't?
That is a good question. I don't know. Knowing who to trust is a hard thing to do, especially on the Internet, because of how many different channels and how many different voices there are. Because right now, at the moment, as we speak, things are running wildly out of control.
Things are running wildly out of control, what does that mean?
If you don't know, if you're not sophisticated on the Internet, it's dangerous. It's dangerous to spend money on the Internet. It's dangerous to put your credit card on the Internet. Yeah, it's hard to tell.
You can't go to Ripoff Report and trust what's there, when you know that sometimes the complaints are false. And that no one's editing them, and the person in charge isn't at the wheel. Or is running a corporate advocacy program where he's taking the side of people who are known scammers. The Internet is turning things seedy.
Yeah. Part of that is that the Internet naturally has network effects built into a lot of different things, like the first person in the search result's going to get the bulk of the clicks. The leading search engine's going to get the bulk of the search traffic. And you see that with systems like....
I'm talking to you on Skype now, and it's got tons of users. Isn't it, though just how businesses run? A lot of businesses start off pure, and then grow. They get larger. Get dysfunctional through their size. Then they just have to keep making the numbers?
Yes. That's clearly what's happening.
It's not really just a web-only phenomenon.
It's just that on the web you feel you're getting more diversity when maybe you're not. So one thing on the web...
That's the big difference I'm pointing to on the web, is that there needs to be a disclaimer, so that people have the idea. But that won't work either, so there's just no way.
Yeah. I think the key is building good internal filters for who to trust, but anyone who's new has a hard time with that. It's almost like you have to get struck down once or twice somewhere to...
Exactly. It's hard when you come right on. The sites that I trust, and the things I trust on the Internet are the ones where I can smell the person behind it. Once it gets out the point where it's so big you're not sure what you're looking at reported, like Huffington Post. It's like at first, it was a thing. Then at the end, it's just this big goulash. Then it's like, "I'm not going to look at this anymore. I can't relate to it."
Right. You think that it's having the character and a voice of an individual or a small group of individuals that you've learned over time is valuable. The more depersonalized it becomes, the more mushed, the less you can trust it.
I had an interesting thing along that lines, when Google recently did an update called the Panda update, and a lot of larger sites from big brands got a big boost. But then, a lot of the independent sites actually end up getting crushed out that didn't have the brand. It sounds like the relevancy algos are going in the exact opposite direction of what you're saying is best for the web?
Towards the bigger? No. That is bad, right? That's the old-school way. That's the thing that is so not working. Let's not put that on the Internet and do it again, where it's even easier to scale up to an irrational size, become unreasonably big and useless in all of your ways.
Have you seen my weight scale that posts to Twitter, is that what you're saying? No.
Although I used to like Google more, before I started reading your blog. Because then I saw them more as a heroic force, and then the way you talk about it. Yeah, I can see how so many of their tactics are little guy squeezing, which is really not what I want to see happen on the Internet.
It seems that offline, there's growing income inequality. And maybe technology only speeds that up as well.
No. That's reflective of the offline world, too. Everything is way too big. Big groups are the worst, most unreliable. It's one of our worst human inventions, forming giant groups. And the bigger the group is, the stupider it is. Yet our whole economy is about building out the biggest possible things.
I'm not an expert on this, so I don't know why I'm running my mouth about it.
There's a book I read called "A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History." I will admit that the reading was deep and beyond my level when I first started. But it was interesting, so I stuck with it. And one of the things he said is that it seems that we've always sacrificed variety in favor of homogenation to increase yield, as a general piece of capitalism.
Online, some people will come, to your blog and say, "F*ck you, you stupid robot!" or stuff like you would never see people do in person. Where they're really enraged. Do you deal with a lot of that? Or do you think people view you in that way? Or how do you get the humor angle across without turning people off?
Well, the blog is supposed to be complicated, so it's not easy to understand. When you first get there, it's not supposed to be totally clear what's happening. Because I like it like that. Part of the message, like this looks like it's coming, this looks bad. When you just first glance at it, you're like, "Oh, this! I'm not sure this guy should be doing this, Geez! Does he have to go that far?"
But then you stay for a while, and then it's really easy to figure out. I don't think it's just like a mystery to anyone. But the trolls, that is rage. The site doesn't really get that many trolls in a traditional Internet sense, where it's like someone who's just popping in and they're just trying to get a rise out of a group. And then they thrive off of that. There is some of that, obviously.
But much more what happens on the blog is people who come to try to defend their own financial interests without disclosing that. And because this transparency and jokes, especially affect their day-to-day numbers, they have some massive overreactions. I get that in public and in private every day.
Also, people who have an idea about something that they think is possible, and it's not possible. Then they start to figure out that it's not possible. Then they want to lash out at someone about that. A lot of times, that ends up being my robot, which is a good thing to lash out at, actually.
What do you mean by that, that they find out something? What are you saying, are you saying like making money quickly, or having some system?
Well, the specific stories I'm writing about, it follows a much more cult-like pattern, where they're trying to disrupt your normal way of thinking. They're explicitly doing that. And they're filling you with this other thing, which is convenient for them. Which ends in giving them your money and most of your time and part of your life for a while. Then they just dump you out at the end. When you're in that process, it's like a very deep, dangerous process to mess with people's personalities like that.
When you wake up out of that and you see, "Oh, I've been kind of semi-delusional here. I've been lying to my family. I've been being aggressive to my friends." "This is affecting my life," and just, "This is not as advertised," it's hard to face up to that. Lashing out at the Salty Droid is often...
And I also get, along with the death threats, I also do get a lot of apologies.
Do you have any way of gauging how much you help people at all? Do you get thank-you emails every day? Or do people tell you that they were in a like crappy spot, and then they came across your stuff, and it changed their way of thinking?
Yes. I get those always, all the time. And it's much more in private than on the thing in public.
Yeah, because I would imagine people might feel a bit embarrassed to admit that they were getting ripped off or something.
Yeah. A lot of the stories I hear are so personally tragic, and they contain so much just like horror that people don't...
Talking about them more is painful, and people definitely are uncomfortable talking about it in public. I'm sorry, what was your question?
Well, continuing from where you were, is that largely what drives you to keep going with the site?
Yeah. Definitely. Without that, it would be too hard, because there's not a lot.
Sometimes I wonder why I'm doing it, but families especially like in the James Ray situation. Well, all of the situations. For every outrageously stupid comment, threat, or whatever that I see or get, I get 10 from the other side.
You mentioned a group called The Syndicate.
What is that? Do you think there's five or 10 or 20 or 50 different groups that are aligned similarly to what you mention? And you just honed in on one group? Or do you think that one has more reach than the others? Or why so much focus on this one group? You also mentioned that it seemed like some of this stuff weaves together. Can you describe how that is? Am I making any sense or not?
Yeah. You're right. It's that I focus on The Syndicate. But the idea is that this white-collar fraud that's going down in all different formats, not just the Internet, in all different transmission methods, they're using these cartels. The cartel system is one of the key features in lots of different scams that you can look up.
You get close enough and you look close at it, a key feature is cartels, false testimonial, keeping people out of the market. Having an in-group and an out-group, and a secondary tier, lieutenants. If you look close, the organizational structure is there to see across all different forms of people.
But I just focus in on The Syndicate because that's where I started. I like to say things that I have public, that I have proof of that I can put out there. That's just hard to come by.
I want to finish that story. The Syndicate is a big. They did big-time damage. They're on these audios that I have all over the website. Like just talking openly about violating the laws, and there's 1000s and 1000s of individual stories of how these people have wrecked lives and taken millions of dollars. And I'm going to keep on it until something changes.
Why would they record those calls? Or how would those calls end up recorded then? Like we're recording this one.
Yeah, they record. They like to. They're narcissists. They like to hear the sound of their own voice, and they record their calls. They record all kinds of things they should not be recording. Even after I get some of those recordings, they keep on doing it, because they don't learn any lessons.
Like the last one I released, which was that boiler room call. The boiler rooms, they record their calls, because that's what boiler rooms do.
Do you sometimes feel like a man trying to hold back the Sahara Desert in a way, because this stuff's everywhere? Or do you think if you make a big enough difference in one area, people will carry on and help in other areas? Like it spreads out in circles?
I don't know. That's what I want to think about when I'm in a drum circle. I don't know how realistic that is. I hope that's how it is. I hope there's all these magical, beautiful butterflies being born, because of what I'm doing.
Part of media has always been if you go to other forms of media, stuff spreads out, and then it reconsolidates. Like there's a bunch of people experimenting. And then ultimately, a lot of that comes down to social signals. Like people trust what they think other people trust.
You did a good job marketing your site, especially on a very small budget. What were keys to getting well-known exposure, spreading your ideas?
I don't know. I try not to think very much about that. Because if you're going to start a blog, and if you want to start a real blog. Not the way people I talk about, talk about starting a blog. But if you have something to talk about and you want to start a blog, then you start it. People aren't going to comment first. And you want people to read your writing. They're not, so then how do you stay motivated to keep writing? It seems like a trap.
The key is to focus on the thing that you are writing about, and have that be the thing that you care about. Because the thing that was clear immediately is that it didn't matter how big of an audience I had. If it was zero or 1000, 10,000, it didn't matter.
From the very first word, sound I made on the Internet, the people who I was talking about, they heard. That's it. You have to focus on the audience or the thing that you're talking about, and the Internet can allow you to interact with them.
If you stay focused on building a quality thing and caring about the thing that you're actually writing about. And being a responsible advocate for that thing in whatever form it is, obviously not my crazy format, but that's the important thing.
How you end up like getting popular. Now I'm popular, but I really don't know. You tell me how that happened. I don't know.
Did you make the number one most popular robot? Or, number two most popular robot online behind GoogleBot? Get you a little plaque made up?
Three years down the road, you decide you have a great idea, or you think you could really help people. It's not big, bureaucratic, dysfunctional, large company, but you eventually want to start doing something where you think you help people. But it's going to be more of a money-making enterprise, rather than something that you're just doing for free.
Do you think the marketing lessons you learned from building the Salty Droid help you, more than any of the bad karma from people hating Salty Droid? Some of the people who you've exposed hate that obviously. And whatever you do going forward, there's going to be some connection, right, between them? In terms of people will try to connect them up?
Between this project and my next project, you mean?
Yeah, I'm not saying that you're going to go from Salty Droid to SaltyMillionaire.com. What I'm saying is like whatever you do next, the web has a way of tying people or things together. Are you worried about that at all? Or do you never really plan on trying to make much money online, just do what you're interested in mostly?
Well, I don't believe that you can make money online, number one. And no one's ever been able to convince me by showing anyone who's doing it.
Well, we'll do a sidebar after this.
First of all, it's like an art project in my opinion. Once I'm done with it, hopefully it'll still be up. It'll be there forever, and that's one of the cool things about the Web. I'm really proud of it. I don't plan to be haunted by it in my future endeavors, although I really don't want to stop doing it.
I don't have some aversion to making money from it. I don't think it's evil to make money off of the Internet. And I'm kind of getting close now. Now I have a big audience, and if I wanted to try to do something non-exploitative, I have some ideas that I think could work. And I'm definitely not against turning it into something.
It'll be weird now if I make money online, because my primary message is that you can't make money online. But it is like that. It's like, "Yeah!" If I end up making some money doing this it's because I built up a mass audience.
But that's almost impossible, so much that you should not be thinking about that. If that's one of the specs in your business plan, "Build up mass audience," then forget it. That's not a realistic goal.
Unless you can keep the cost structure low while you're doing it, and you're having fun doing it. If you're having fun doing it and you don't have too high of a cost structure, then you can stumble into a business that way, because you've already built up all this leverage already.
I think what harms a lot of people is they say, "Hey, I got online yesterday. I need to make a bunch of money tomorrow." It's just like a new person to the stock market that's probably going to get served and lose all their money.
But if you keep a cost structure low and do what you're interested in, it helps. You mentioned how it attracts people that are similar. And you build a community around it. That's how I started. When my blog came out, or when I first made my blog, it was a default web template. Three months in, I could afford to buy a $99 logo.
Yeah. Well, that's the way to do it. And I'm not saying that. Obviously, some people have success, too. But it's not going to be instant, and it's not going to be easy. It's not going to be any of those things. And then, you don't know exactly why you're successful. Maybe you think you know, but I don't believe that you can know.
Stuff is too complicated to be extrapolating out such specific details, and there's so much chaos that surrounds you and the things that you do. Trying to predict things like that or plan for them, you've got to have some core value that you're about and focus on that. Then you can hope that it gets really successful and big. But maybe you're being useful in the interim period if that doesn't happen, or if that takes a long time.
A friend of mine, a close one,, I always tell him, "Hey, do something you're passionate about." They're like, "I don't want to do something I'm passionate about. I just want to make money." And then it's like, "Hey, have you been working at all on that?" and they're like, "Nah." I'm like, "That's because you're not passionate about it."
Sure. Although that advice about being passionate about it, I guess that's good when you're trying to pick something to try for yourself, but most people are kind of like slaves and they're forced to, and there's not that much you can do about it. I want to do something I'm passionate about.
Why did you choose a .info extension? Outside of Germany, there's like three legitimate .info sites in the world. Salty Droid being one of them. What made you choose this?
Yes! Because Perry Belcher and Ryan Deiss registered all our domain names.
They registered all your domain names?
Yes. There's a post about it, it's called Deiss and Belcher's Big Mistake. I was flashing my teeth at them about it, but I really didn't care. Because it was just stupid, I just got .info. And it's worked out just fine.
Yeah. Have you ever made any posts that you'd later regret? For example, you saw someone doing something that was kind of shitty, crappy? And later you saw like them do something decent. And then like, "Maybe I went overboard on that." Or do you think that by the time you collect enough, that you're pretty certain that someone is what you think they are by the time you write it?
Exactly. Like at the first, there at the very beginning, I was just winging it a little bit. But then I was just poking small holes at people anyway, so I don't regret any of that. Once I got going, I don't talk about someone until I know their position inside of the system. And I have to have heard someone telling me a story that's just like, "Ugh!"
Otherwise, I would never speak to someone like the robot speaks. I'm doing that on purpose, and I'm careful. Hopefully I never make that mistake.
Like someone will tell me about someone, and I'll watch them for six months before. Because you can't go off, that is a responsibility I have. You cannot do what I'm doing to just an average citizen. I wouldn't accept this kind of behavior in a different situation.
You think in some way ignorance is bliss? Do you think you would feel better if you didn't know all this stuff? Or do you think you feel better knowing that maybe you helped some people?
Ignorance is bliss if you're ignorant and you remain ignorant of all things, so that you can't tell. If it wasn't this, it would be something else. There's bull crap going on all around, so there's plenty of reason to be depressed. I don't find this particularly depressing, because everything's depressing. Tsunamis are depressing, too. If you're reading about the world, there's lots of stuff that needs to be better. That's just the perpetual state of everything.
You're not going to know how you're going to become successful? When were the points when you thought that what you were doing was some little side thing, to where you really believed in it? Were there steps where you said, "OK, this was?" Do you look back where you say, "These are the five things that really made 80 percent of the difference?" Or do you think it's just going to bat every day? Or how would you describe it?
I could tell from the very beginning, which I didn't know before I started doing this, but was was really clear right from the start. That what I was doing, was agitating the bad guys. It doesn't matter if I'm popular or not, this is agitating the bad guys, and that's helping. Like the way I'm doing it, I'm doing it in a particular way. And it's helping.
I also could tell right from early on that this is helping victims. This gives victims a zone to think about what's happened and like gives a chance for reasonableness to leak back in.
The people who are involved, the parties to the thing that you're talking about on the Internet, this is true. From my experience so far, no matter how small you are compared to the thing that you're talking about. If you're going to complain about YouTube's policies, then the people at YouTube are probably not going to hear that. But there's not very many settings where if you say something about someone on the Internet, they're not going to hear it.
That's powerful by itself. It doesn't matter if no one else reads it, you can talk. If you see something you don't like, some problems, you can talk about that thing. People who are involved in that thing, you can talk to them, so that isn't dependent on getting a big audience.
Do you think that's because people realize how things can snowball? And they want to see what's going on and try to minimize it early?
Yeah, because people are like narcissists. Like you send someone something and say, "I wrote this about you," they're going to go read it. Only people who have massive information overload where they're getting so much in that they can't process it, which is how all the gurus pretend like they are. But once I started to get popular, I could tell, "What lies!"
It's hard to know when you first get to the Internet, but it's not that. I'm popular. I'm not overwhelmed. I can keep up. I read all my emails. If you sent me an email, then I have read it. And I think almost everyone is like that. And if you've said something about me on the Internet, I saw it, because that's just how it works. There's not that many people talking. Like I mentioned that James Ray's PR guy, who's also the PR guy for Goldman Sachs. I forget his name now, Mark Fabiani.
All-around good guy, obviously.
Yes. And he came. I know he saw it, because people can't not come see their own thing. That's really powerful, right there. That was the "Aha!" moment. Right as it started going, I could just tell right away. Like, "Oh, my gosh! They hate this so much!" That makes it worth doing it.
Did you actually send the people emails, like, "Hey, I wrote this about you?" When you first launched, were you doing that?
Yeah, right. At first, yes.
OK, That was key to getting it to spread right there, because you were going to write...
Not really. Because I only did that right at first, after that, I could tell. Well, because I thought I needed to do that. The way the web works now, you don't need to do that. I never do it now, like I say something about it.
I don't think that the web changed so much as your website's authority and reach changed.
No, because this way predates that. It goes way before you ever came to my website. If you look, the video's taken down now. But there's this video of Perry Belcher complaining about me. He calls me an "asteroid asshole" from the stage at this Austin Internet marketers event. And that was like 10 days into it.
It's not because I was important at that time. No one knew me. And the tone I was taking made it seem like no one will ever listen to him either, because you can't talk like that. Everyone knows you can't talk like that.
Do you think that there's...?
He was complaining in front of the marks in the room, just like he was that disturbed that he would say something about it from the stage just a few days into it. The web is powerful for talking directly to people. If you have something to say to someone other than Barack Obama, put it up on the web, and they will see it.
Why is Barack Obama so much harder to reach than W.?
I don't know if you realized it, but a lot of what you're mentioning is actually just a lot of marketing concepts. You're talking about do something you're interested in. Find people that are relevant. Find people that are kind of egotistical, not saying that you have to feed in and kiss people's asses. But feed into knowing who will respond and how they'll take it.
Then you also mentioned something else. Like, "You're not supposed to do this. You're not supposed to do that. Most people wouldn't do that." A lot of times a lot of rules and concepts of rules are set up to keep existing market leaders in their place and prevent others from disrupting them. That's a lot of the point of how Eric Schmidt famously, "The lobbyists write the legislation,"
When you talk about all that stuff you're doing, when I hear you I'm like, "OK, this is a marketing step. Be relevant. Be interested. Know your market. Connect with them, have a point of differentiation." Do you see how a lot of this stuff you mentioned? You didn't mention it using particularly marketing words, but it almost sounds like a marketing plan?
No. Blogging is like a marketing thing. I'm not denying that. I don't put out art on every post, because I'm just so passionate about art. It's because that's an effective way to communicate. I am trying to do a good job of being an effective communicator. I am trying to build my audience. I'm not saying that's not one of my goals, or that that's not important or fun.
I hope I'm a good marketer. Although they say that to me in the comments all the time as like an insult.
You're just a marketer.
I'm a marketer. Oh, that's great. This is great marketing, bud.
Well, I think that it's hilarious, because a lot of bloggers do that with SEO, too. Like if I write something, they, "Oh, more SEO bullsh*t!" And then like a couple years later, after the same guy said all SEOs are a scam, he'll say, "Oh, yeah, that was one of my link-bait efforts."
It's like, "You transparent jackass! Why would anyone trust you now?" Like that, "Hey, I was full of sh*t a couple years ago, but you can trust me now."
"Remember when I was a liar? Those days are in the past."
"Well, I think they're in the past, but I wouldn't bet on it." Or, "I'd like to bet against my own." Pete Rose style.
Goldman Sachs, "We're sort of long this..." Define "sort of" and "long". In English or French?
If you had to start over from scratch today, what are things that you would avoid doing that you did?
I would not use Twitter.
Not use Twitter?
Jason Jones: Because it started on Twitter. It started as like a Twitter character, and then I put a lot of effort into this Twitter character. And I thought Twitter was a really cool way. That dynamic I'm describing, it's particularly real in social media. If social media platforms were actually there for open debate, like I could go onto Twitter and talk to Perry Belcher. Not only could he hear it but he had the sense that everyone else heard me.
That made the things I was saying, even if at first I had five followers, but it doesn't matter. It's still in search, and people could still hear me talking to him. That seemed really powerful.
And I spent a lot of time building that thing, and then they take it away. They can take it right out from underneath you. They don't have to tell you why. You don't have any rights to the things you're creating. I hadn't backed it up or anything, so it's like that whole period is just gone. They just took it. And they never said a word to me about it.
I'm careful about that now, and not just Twitter, either. If you're building something controversial, do not build it on the cloud, or else you can lose it.
OK. It seems like there's almost two marketing things in there. One, it's important to have autonomy and control of what you're doing, right?
And then the other would be you can maybe get a bit of attention with those, but it's not worth putting too much effort in the social networks. Because it's better to be a big fish in a small pond, or to build your own pond, rather than swim in an ocean where the current...
Jason Jones: If I was going to build something new now that wasn't like...
The Salty Droid is a special exception.
I don't think people are getting booted off of Twitter left and right. But if you're trying, if it's some form of dissent, then you're just wasting your time building it out on someone else's platform where they're probably going to take it away.
And what about that other thing, about like the big fish in a small pond? Do you think that it matters? It's better to be really relevant and focused and niche than to be on something bigger and just be one of many? Or how important is it to have some level of differentiation? Like a focus on building your own thing? Do you think that you ran your own blog was really important relative to being a participant in some forum?
Yeah. Ultimately, I regret spending all this time where I was building something for someone else. Like I was building Twitter's site out. I was adding something to Twitter, but they don't care about me. I'm not looking back, why?
And I worried that once my Twitter account got banned, because I was using that primarily as the main part of my voice. The blog posts were actually much shorter back then, because I spent so much time working on Twitter. Once I was gone, I thought, "Well, now, you know, that's going to really hurt my popularity. Most of my clicks came from Twitter, and like I wonder if this is the end of it."
But I could tell, within a few days it's like, "No, now I'm over here, and this is the place to hear me now. Over here on my place, and now this is where people are coming. Maybe this is what I should've been doing the whole time.
And then if Twitter wouldn't have banned me, I would actually be less popular, because I'd have spent more time. I would've stayed there, because I was having fun, because real-time baiting is fun. And that ultimately is like is a waste. It's not anywhere near as powerful as holding the keys to the thing yourself.
When you can see the back-end, I can watch, too. What happened to the clicks, and where they come from, and where they go. I just control. I get so much more information if I'm holding the keys, so...
How do you use Twitter?
It is an afterthought. If you're spending more than half of your time on Twitter, that seems to me like a waste, any of them.
Have you ever thought about creating the ultimate guide to online baiting? Not "debating", but "baiting?"
No, I could. That is something I have expertise on. No. Because what I'm doing, not to be immodest but it's for professionals. You have to be careful talking like that. If you're good enough at baiting, you can destroy someone. That's not very nice. You should keep that mostly to yourself.
Do you ever find yourself reading comments on YouTube or anything, like to perfect your craft?
Jason Jones: To pick up like gibberishy bits? [laughter]
Jason Jones: No. YouTube comments suck. Most people are really bad at baiting. You've got to be...
We recently interviewed Branko Rihtman. He started working in the industry in 2001, doing SEO for clients and properties in a variety of competitive niches. Over that time, he realized the importance of properly done research and experimentation and started publishing findings and experiments at http://www.seo-scientist.com.
How did you get into the SEO space?
Completely by accident. When I was done with my compulsory army service, I knew I would rather work in an internet based company than, say, dig ditches. So I went into a local internet portal and searched for “internet companies in Jerusalem”. One of the replies was from an SEO company. They offered me a job with flexible hours and a possibility of working from home. Since I was about to start university, working from home looked particularly interesting. I ended up spending 8 years in that company.
When did you know you were going to "make it" in SEO?
Ummm never? I don’t think any of us ever “makes it” in SEO. Yes some people are more popular than the others and some get invited to speak at more conferences than the others but that is most certainly not a measurement of “making it”. SEOBook forum is full of people that are more succesfull and savy than the majority of SEOs out there, yet very few of them are well known in the general marketing circles. One of the things I like about SEO is that it is constantly “making” you and “breaking” you. If it wasn’t like that, we wouldn’t be constantly learning and adapting.
What is the most exciting thing that has happened to you while in the SEO field? Do you still get a rush of excitement when a new project takes off?
Getting a site into a top 5 for [mesothelioma] on Google. Kidding. One of the more appealing qualities of the SEO field is the puzzle cracking. You are constantly presented with puzzles – why did Google penalize this site, why is this site ranking above me, what are the parameters considered in the new update… For me, cracking those puzzles is the most exciting part of my work. I really have to remind myself sometimes that I should be thinking about potential profitability of these conundrums because to me a puzzle is there to be solved and that is all that matters. Once I crack it, I kinda lose interest in it so I have to make sure that 1) solving the current SEO puzzle is worth my time in terms of profitability and 2) I can get action items from possible solutions. I think the best example of these puzzles is Google overoptimization filter. I kinda developed a knack of getting sites out of it (which landed me my current job as well). Another exciting thing would be implementing extensive structural changes to large sites and seeing the positive effect in SERPs. As for new projects, I have seen so many of them die off miserably that I find it hard to get excited at the beginning. First jolts of traffic and first rankings get me excited and then I turn the engines on.
How would you compare biology to SEO?
Oh dear, this could be a whole blog post. There are several aspects that are very similar. Mainly, and this is especially true in molecular biology, we are making changes on a system that is a black box. We have a whole bunch of (presumed) parameters to tinker with and very limited list of observable outputs. So we make deductions which can, but don’t have to, be true. So if I am changing a certain ingredient in my bacterial culture and observe a change in growth rate, I cannot be sure what exactly the base cause of the increase was. Maybe the element I have added is actually poison and my bacteria are trying to multiply on reserves of food, hoping that one mutant will be able to overcome the adverse effects of the element I have added. Similarly, when we add a link pointing to a website, we don’t know whether it was that link that caused an increase in ranking or someone in Bangladesh created a valuable link that is pointing to one of the pages that is linking to our new linking page and we enjoyed some of that juice.
Another important similarity (and then I will shut up about it) is the arms race between the search engines and SEOs and SEOs among themselves. Evolutionary theory and ecological sciences are full of very important lessons that can be applied to the world of SEO. I have written on my blog in the past how some evolutionary theories can be applied to understand and foresee the relationship between Google and link buying. Another metaphor from the evolutionary theory I like to use is the Red Queen Principle – in evolution, competing organisms have to invest all their efforts in improving and adapting so they can remain at the same competitive point relatively to their enemies. Like with the Red Queen from Alice in Wonderland, they have to run their fastest to remain in the same place. The same can be said about websites competing in lucrative niches – it is not enough to get to the first spot. Your competitors are constantly aiming for that place too and you have to put in maximal efforts (linking, site speed, trimming indexing fat, QDF hunting etc.) to remain in the same place.
You are a big proponent of applying the scientific method to SEO. What parts of tests are easy to do? What parts are hard?
SEO tests can be easy from the beginning till the end if done right. The hard part is asking the question in a “testable” way. You have to keep in mind the limits of your testing system and constantly be aware about what you can measure and what you can’t. You have to make sure you have taken into the account all the possible outcomes of your test and what each of those outcomes is telling you. Otherwise you can find yourself spending valuable time, just to end up with a highly ambivalent result that is not teaching you anything about the issue you are researching. Deciding what controlling factors you are going to implement and doing it in a way that doesn’t interfere with your test can also be challenging.
What do public SEO "studies" often get wrong?
Mostly, people get the order of steps that make up the test wrong. They usually start with a pre-made conclusion and then build the test (and, I suspect, not rarely the results themselves) around it. They want to show that, for example, text surrounding the link will pass the relevancy to the target page, so they go out to prove that. That is the exact opposite of the scientific process. Now many people say that trying to approach SEO questions with a scientific process is an overkill, but science is more a state of mind then a set of tools. It exists so that minimal bias enters your decision and conclusion process, therefore people should not approach it as something that involves a lab coat and chemicals, but rather change their mindset from “what do I want the results to be” to “what the reality is”.
What percent of well-known fundamental "truths" in SEO would you describe as being wrong?
I would say that 100% of absolute, definitive statements about SEO are false. Recently, Joe Hall has written about becoming a “postmodern SEO” when realizing that every conventional truth in SEO can be 100% right and 100% wrong, depending on the context. I very much identify with this sentiment. It very much rubs me the wrong way when people in the industry come out against a certain SEO technique (and it rubs me even more when I know they were the biggest abusers of it until yesterday) or when they make a strategy X an “absolute prerogative and whoever doesn’t do X should be fired by their clients and sued for dishonest practices”. Keyword tags can be useful in some cases, rank reporting can be useful in some cases, forum signature spamming can be useful in some cases and increasing keyword density can be useful in some cases. It all depends on the context.
In the forums sometimes when I read your contributions & think "classic whitehat consultant view" and then on other entries I think "aggressive affiliate in gaming." What allowed you to develop such a diverse range?
I am very flattered that people think this when they read my ramblings or talk to me about SEO. What allowed me to develop a diverse range of experiences in SEO is not being judgemental towards SEO techniques. Continuing from the previous question, understanding that they are all tools that should be put in the right context and used responsibly, enabled me to try and see all the advantages and disadvantages of all SEO techniques and apply them accordingly. Had I taken “holier than thou” approach towards any end of the SEO spectrum, I would have been a worse SEO. I also consider myself lucky to have had an opportunity to work in a wide range of niches - from legal, ecommerce, travel and financial, all the way to porn, pharmaceutical and gaming with a lot of niches and business sizes in between those extremes. Once you look at link profiles of sites that have been ranking for years in some of those extreme industries, you understand how preposterous divisions to hats of different colours really are.
As a second part to that question, how do you decide what techniques are good for some of your own websites & which are good for client websites?
Again, it is all in the context. I make a big differentiation between our sites and clients’ sites in a way that whenever I want to use a riskier SEO technique on a client site, I make sure to educate the client to all the risks and benefits of going down that road. I make sure the client understands the possible repercussions and I try to offer a cleaner alternative. There are clients that are not interested at all in organic promotion and there are clients that enter the project knowing that the site we work on can be burnt in a matter of minutes. When it comes to our sites, it depends on the profitability of the site, obviously. Then there are sites I test stuff on that I wouldn’t click on without wearing my lab gloves.
Do you believe Google is intentionally tilting the search game toward brands, or do you think there are many other signals they are looking for that brands just happen to frequently score high on?
I don’t think we need to speculate about that much – they have openly said in the past that the brands are the solution to the cesspool of the internet. They are rewarding brands with SERP enhancements. They are creating algorithmic changes in which brands are apparently being treated less harshly than run-of-the-mill sites. On the other hand they are making sure to stress in their PR announcements that brands are not treated differently than anyone else. As I don’t believe they openly lie about these things, it seems to me they are just doing doublespeak and being intentionally obscure about it. I can say that I don’t discriminate against tall people on busses and I will be factually correct since no one goes over the bus line and takes out people over 180 cm tall and sends them back home. However, by making the legspace very uncomfortable for these people, I may as well kick them out of line and save everyone the trouble. So while there is probably no checkbox next to certain websites marking them as brands, the ranking algorithms can theoretically be tweaked so that the brands surface to the top of a lot of the money queries and I think that is what we are seeing here. Possible signals for this can be percentage of links with URL for anchor, certain number of searches for the brand name and others. By the way, reliance on these signals can be used to explain the relative advantage that exact match domains have for their keyword.
Both the relevancy algorithms & webmasters are in some ways reactive. I believe that frequently causes the relevancy algorithms to ebb and flow toward & away from different types of sites. Do you generally have 1 sorta go-to-market plan at any given time, or do you suggest creating multiple SEO driven strategies in parallel?
It all depends on the client responsiveness levels. If I see that the client is willing and allows us to become part of their marketing team, then we both aim for harnessing every marketing activity for SEO benefits, while also trying to diversify and reduce the dependency on any single traffic source. In cases when, for a whole lot of different reasons, we cannot establish a network of sites that will use different strategies, we try to work with a whole lot of subdomains, trusting how Google treated subdomains historically. I have to admit that in the majority of cases, the responsiveness of the deciding ranks (or the lack of thereof), together with a constantly growing list of more basic, day-to-day tasks, prevents us from making these strategic marketing decisions for the client – it is hard to talk about holistic approach to marketing when their homepage doesn’t appear on first 3 pages of the site: query or when their IT department decides to 302 every product page to homepage while they are moving servers for 3 months.
When major algorithm changes happen they destroy certain business models & eventually create other ones. How many steps ahead / how far ahead do you feel you generally are from where the algorithm is at any given time?
We are all over the board with this. Luckily (or unluckily) none of our clients were affected by Panda. I say “unluckily” because the scientist in me would want nothing more than to test different theories about Panda on an affected site. The marketer in me is stabbing the scientist in the back with a long sword for having such blasphemous thoughts. I would say that we usually “hang around” where the algorithm is at any given moment and if we stay behind, we manage to close the gap in a reasonable period of time. At least that has been the case so far. In some other cases, we have benefited from sites getting hit by algorithmic changes. This only means we are lucky, because I don’t think there is any single strategy that is 100% working all of the time in every level of niche competitiveness. Had such strategy existed, someone would have cracked it (Dave Naylor most probably), used it to their own benefit and Google would have changed the rules again, rendering the “perfect strategy” less than perfect.
How far behind that point would you put a.) the general broader SEO industry b.) SEO advice in the mainstream media?
One of the major revelations I discovered in SEOBook forum is that the public SEO community is really just a small tip of the iceberg that is this industry. There are so many skilled people working on their own sites, being affiliates or working in-house professionals that do not participate in the SEO Agora that any attempt to characterize “the general broader SEO industry” would be wrong. There is no way of judging where the industry is, other than by what they write about and talk about in social media and I don’t think that is a fair judgement. This is the industry of marketers and people do not write to dispense knowledge most of the time. Vast majority of the content put out there is created with the purpose of self-promotion and/or following some invented rule that “you must write X posts per week to keep your audience engaged”. It is very similar to the whole “Top X” lists format in which it is obvious that a significant percentage of items on the numbered list were forced in there so that the number X would be round or fit some theory of “most read top X articles”. While I do believe that someone will find value in anything, when looking across the board, there is very little you can tell about the actual knowledge of the people in this industry from what they write. I hope. I will tell you that I do see a general difference between the European and the US SEO crowd – I have seen (percentagewise) a seemingly larger amount of UK, Dutch and German SEOs that are more daring and questioning in their writing than the US SEOs. Don’t ask me why this is so, that is beyond my scope of expertise (or interest).
As for the mainstream media, living in the Middle East, I have learned to automatically distrust the mainstream media on issues much more important than SEO, therefore I usually treat mainstream SEO articles as a comic relief. Or a tragic one.
Many times when the media covers SEO they do it from the "lone ranger black hat lawbreaker" angle to drum up pageviews. Do you ever see that ending?
Nope. Nor do I ever see people in our industry not taking the bait and responding to that kind of coverage, thus contributing significantly to the mentioned drumming up of traffic. Even if the advertising industry moves away from impression-based pricing, more attention will always mean more links and that is just a different kind of opiate.
From a scientific standpoint, do you ever feel that pushing average to below-average quality sites is bad because it is information pollution (not saying that you particularly do it or do it often...but just in general), or do you view Google as being somewhat adversarial in their approach to search & thus deserving of anything they get from publishers?
I consider as below average anything Google would not allow Adsense on. Maybe someone really doesn’t know how to drink water from a glass and for that person eHow article is the best fit. On a serious note, just like with hats, I try not to be judgmental when it comes to content. If lower quality content that does not rank anywhere is used to push high quality content in very popular SERPs, I think it all levels out at the end. The bigger problem for me is rehashed, bland content, which you can see that was written according to a mold: Start with a question, present some existing views on the issue and end with asking your readers the initial question so you encourage comments. Or numbered list articles. Or using totally unrelated current events AND numbered lists in combination with a tech topic. I have just seen an article titled “5 things Amy Winehouse’s death teaches us about small business”. Spamming forums is Pulitzer worthy material compared to this garbage. Yet Google constantly ranks this crap and rewards it with a cut from their advertising revenue. And what is even worse, the crap ranks for head terms (ok maybe a bit less after Panda) while forum or comment spam does not appear in my SERPs. So who is polluting the web again?
I don’t think a scientific approach is relevant here. One thing that exists in the world of science and doesn’t in SEO is peer review. So if something gets published in a scientific journal, it was reviewed critically by the experts in that field and was deemed worthy in every possible aspect by some rigorous standards. Had this kind of system existed in the world of SEO, we wouldn’t have a below-average-quality content problem.
Can Bing or anyone else (outside of say Naver, Yandex & Baidu) challenge Google & win a significant slice of the search marketshare?
Only if Google does it for them and drops the ball completely. I don’t believe in homicide in the world of hi-tech companies (Facebook killer, Google killer, iPad killer) but I definitely believe in suicide (Myspace). The ball is constantly in Google’s court since they are the biggest kid on the playground and they have managed it fine so far. It is ironic how they have to deal with bad press on so many issues, almost making MS the underdog and a company people turn to when they want to boycott Google. Right now Google is the innovator and a trend setter in many fields beside the search (Documents, Analytics, G+, Adwords) so having all those eyeballs and improving integration of all those products into search and vice versa will make them an impossible act to follow in any foreseeable future. Which is something that was said about ancient Rome too.
A lot of SEOs are driven by gut feeling. With your focus on the scientific method, how much do you have to test something before you are confident in it? How often does your strategy revolve around gut feeling?
There are things that I know that work without everyday testing. Keywords in anchor will pass relevancy in the majority of cases and I don’t need to test that every time that I place a link somewhere. I am also aware of the exceptions to that rule (second link doesn’t count, for example) so when I see unusual or unexpected response from search engine, it gets my attention and I start testing. I also like to test extraordinary claims by people in the SEO industry, because they usually go against common knowledge and that is always informative. I will usually not let the testing process stand in the way of work. If there are several possible outcomes to the test that takes a long time to perform, I try to run with the project for as long as I can without making the decision, leaving all future direction possibilities open.
Gut feeling is something I usually use to assess trustworthiness of the people I listen to. I rely a lot (maybe more than I should) on other people’s knowledge. As I mentioned, I haven’t had the chance to test how pandalized site responds to different changes so I had to trust other people’s reports. Gut feeling is very helpful here to save time reading mile-long posts of people that I suspect do not even practice SEO on daily basis.
If a friend of yours said they wanted to get into SEO, what would you tell them to do in order to get up to speed?
To read the free guides from Google and SEOMoz. To pick a niche and create a site from scratch. To learn how to code, how to delegate, how to measure and how to hire and fire people. To read at least one SEO article every day. To read no more than one SEO article every day. To invest their first profits into SEOBook Training Section and to submit their site for review in the forum. The value they get from the advice there is going to be the best investment they made at the early stage. After their site is making money, to repeat that process in a different niche with a different strategy. Diversification is the best insurance policy in the ever changing algorithm world
If you had to start from scratch today with no money but your knowledge would you still be able to compete in 2011?
Yeah. Competing is about picking the battles you can win with what you have at the moment. There are still niches that can be monetized with relatively low effort (especially in non-english markets) and I think I would be able to monetize the knowledge I have and leverage it to create revenue in a reasonable amount of time. Luckily, I don’t have to test that claim.
If you had $50,000 to start, but lacked your current knowledge, what do you think your chances of success in SEO are?
Very low. Part of the knowledge is knowing what to spend the money on. Without prior knowledge, I would probably think that I can take on this SEO thing all by myself and $50K would be gone before I realized my mistakes. I would probably fall into the trap of buying links from some link network or torching my new site with 200,000 forum signature links all created in 2 hours
And, saving a tough one for last, in what areas of SEO (if any) do you feel science falls flat on its face?
First, I would like to reiterate: science is not a tool, it is a way of thinking and approaching problems. So under those definitions, I don’t think that science can fall flat on the face at all. I do see a problem with the abuse of the word “science” for marketing goals and a lot of those “approaches” fail because they lack the scientific way of thinking. Mostly they lack self-criticism and are so blinded by tagging their work as “science” that they will not adopt some of the humility and self doubt that is present in the majority of scientific work. The lust for hitting that Publish button, especially if there is potential financial benefit in publishing a certain kind of results, is the most unscientific drive in our industry.
There are some areas of SEO that scientific thinking should take a back seat to other approaches. One that instantly springs to mind is link building. To me, link building is the true art of marketing – recognizing what drives the potential linkers, leading them to linking to you while all along they are thinking that they came up with that decision themselves. There are some measurements involved and any testing should be planned and executed with a scientific rigour, but the creative part of it is something where science is of little use.
Currently, he is responsible for SEO R&D at Whiteweb, agency that provides SEO services to a small number of large clients in highly profitable niches. His responsibilities at Whiteweb are to gather, organize and expand the company's knowhow through research, experimentation and cooperation with other SEO professionals. In addition to being an SEO, he is currently writing his MSc thesis in environmental microbiology at HebrewU in Jerusalem.
Rich Skrenta has been at the core of search longer than I have been in the SEO market. He is famous for launching sites like DMOZ and Topix. His most recent project is a search engine called blekko, and I recently had a chance to chat with him about blekko, the web, and marketing.
Most start ups fail. And yet you have multiple successes under your belt and are going at it again. If you could boil success down to a few points, what really separates what you have done from the statistics?
Paul Graham said that the most important thing for a startup is to not die each day. If you can keep existing, that's survival for a company. Generally I like to keep costs low and hire carefully. Also, the first idea doesn't always work. We had to pivot Topix several times to find the right model. For blekko, we just want to make a site that a segment of people will find useful. If we can do that we'll be happy.
It seems openness is a great marketing angle to use online. Why do you feel that it is so under-utilized by most companies?
It feels counter-intuitive to take all our your company IP and secrets and just put them all out there. Little companies also tend to be insecure and want to be appear to be larger and more successful. They want to put on a big company face to the world, but being honest and transparent about who they are and letting the public see "behind the curtain" can often win people over better than a facade of success.
From my perspective, it seems your approach to marketing is heavily reliant on organic, viral & word of mouth strategies. What is broken with the old model of marketing? Is its death happening slower or quicker than you expect?
The internet and social media have made word-of-mouth stronger and stronger, and in many ways they eclipse traditional marketing channels now. This started with blogging and has accelerated with Twitter and Facebook. Everybody is media now. You used to fly around and do a 2 week media tour to launch a product. The aperture to get in the trade press was small, there was a handful of reporters you had to go pitch. Now there are thousands of people who have audience for every trade niche, so it's easier to get the word out about something new. But it has to be genuinely interesting, or your message won't get pickup.
A lot of people who are good at programming make ugly designs. Likewise many people are either programmers or marketers. What formal training or experiences have you had that have allowed an engineer to become such a sophisticated marketer? What strengths do you have that allow you to bridge the disciplines so well?
We joke that we have always made ugly web sites. Fortunately I was able to hire a good designer for blekko and he's been doing a great job taking our early ugly versions and making them a lot more attractive and workable.
I read a lot of stuff about marketing and positioning that we're trying to apply at blekko. I'm a big fan of Trout & Ries. I loved Kathy Sierra's stuff when she was writing. There is some fantastic material also in Kellog on Branding. We also worked with some great positioning consultants that tested various ideas on focus groups to see what would resonate with users best as a message. Every product has a bunch of features, but you want to find the one to talk about that's going to stick in people's heads the best.
I noticed you baked many social elements into your marketing strategy (friend us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter) as well as baking many social elements into your product (personal slashtags, allowing people to share their slashtags, etc.). There is some talk on the web of apps or social stuff replacing search as the center of the web, however from a marketing perspective I see much higher traffic value in search traffic. Do you think that one day social and apps will largely replace global search? Or do you feel it will generally continue to play a secondary role to search?
Social media can drive tons of attention, awareness and traffic. But the search box is the best way to navigate to stuff you want. Now what will drive those results - if I type in "pizza", what should I get? The answer can be very different depending on whether the results are coming from the web, Yelp, or Facebook. So I guess my answer is that I still see search being the core way to navigate, but I think what gets searched is going to get a lot more structured and move away from simple keyword matches against unstructured web pages.
A good number of the social sites are doing redirects for security purposes & to some degree are cannibalizing the link graph. Do you feel that links from the social graph represent an important signal, or that most of that signal still gets represented well on the remaining link graph?
There is very definitely signal in social graph links - potentially more than in the web graph. In 2000, a hyperlink was a social vote. Most links were created by humans and represented an editorial vote. That's no longer true - the web today is inundated with bulk-generated links. To the extent that humans can be separated from bots, there's more true signal in social graphs. The challenge is to get enough coverage to rank everything you need to rank. Delicious had great search results for the corpus of links they knew about, but it wasn't nearly big enough to be comprehensive. Facebook and Twitter are certainly a lot bigger, it will be interesting to see if they start to apply their data to ranking and recommending material from outside of their own sites.
When Google was young Sergey Brin at an SEO conference stated that there was no such thing is spam, only bad relevancy algorithms. When I saw some of your talks announcing Blekko you mentioned that you never want to see eHow in your personal search results. Do you feel that spam is largely down to a personal opinion? If you had to draw a line in the sand between spam & not spam, how would you characterize the differences?
Search must serve an editorial function. You can call this editorial position "relevancy", but that's hiding behind the algorithm. Of course someone wrote the algorithm, and tinkered with it to make some sites come up and others not to come up.
The web has grown 100-fold since 2000. There is most definitely spam out there. Let's take a clear-cut example, like phama links being injected via exploits into unpatched WordPress blogs. Then there is gray-area stuff, like eHow.com. Some people like eHow. Some don't. That's why we let users develop their own /spam filters.
Eric Schmidt mentioned that sharing their ranking variables would be disclosing trade secrets that could harm Google. Yet you guys are sharing your web graph publicly. Are you worried about doing this impacting your relevancy in a negative way? Or do you feel the additional usage caused by that level of awareness will give you more inputs into your search relevancy algorithms?
When I first moved to Silicon Valley I worked in computer security. In security there's an idea that "security through obscurity" isn't very good. What this means is that if you have some new encryption algorithm, but don't let anyone see the details of how it works, it probably is full of holes. The only way to get a strong encryption algorithm is to publish all of the details about how it works and have public review. Once the researchers can't punch any more holes in your algorithm, only then is it good enough to trust.
We see search the same way. If this magic 200-variable equation is so sensitive that if it leaked out the results would be completely overrun with spam, well then the algorithm doesn't actually sound that strong to me. We'd rather work towards a place where there can be public review of the mechanisms driving ranking, and where many eyes can make the spam problem shallow.
Certainly the big search engines have hundreds of human raters that help identify spam and train their algorithms. These are contractors that are the knowledge workers behind the scenes. As a little startup, we asked ourselves how we could get many more people helping us to make our results better, and also be a lot more open about the process. Formerly we had experience running a big crowdsourced search site with the Open Directory, where we had 80,000 editors classifying urls. What if we could get 80,000 people to help us curate search verticals, identify spam, and train classifiers? That would be cool.
You had a blog post comparing pornographers to SEOs. Do you feel the SEO game is mostly adversarial? Or do you feel that paying attention to the SEO industry is a great way to quickly improve the quality of a search product? Or both? :)
I think my comparison noted that pornographers have often been early adopters of new technology. :-)
There is aggressive seo, and then there is what I call appropriate discoverability. Aggressive seo can go over the line - if someone hacks your server to add links, that's borderline criminal activity. But if you have great content and it's not showing up, that's a shame. After we sold topix to the newspapers, we spent some time evangelizing seo within their organizations. Think of all of the movie reviews and restaurant reviews the US newspaper sites collectively have. Wonderfully written material by well-paid professional journalists. But you don't see their content anywhere for a restaurant or movie search. That's a shame.
Recently Ask sorta rebranded away from search & towards more of a QnA format, and Yahoo! bowed out of search through a Bing partnership. Are the cost scales that drive such changes just a legitimate piece of the business model, or were those organizations highly inefficient? How were you able to bring a competitive product to market for so much less?
I was a fan of Ask's Teoma technology, and what Jim Lanzone had been doing with the site. And Yahoo was delivering very high quality results, and had interesting initiatives like the BOSS apis and SearchMonkey. This was all great stuff. I'm disappointed that they lost heart. Running a big company that has been around for a long time is not an easy job.
From an SEO perspective I think that Google tends to have a large index, but crawling so deeply likely allows a lot of junk into their index. Bing seems to be a bit more selective with their crawling strategy. How would you compare Blekko against the other major search engines in terms of depth? Do you feel that relevancy boosts offered through vertical search (via your Slashtags) allows you guys to provide a similar or better experience without needing as large of an index?
Our crawler tends to go into highly ranked sites more deeply than poorly ranked sites. We have a 3 billion page crawl, and so we need to choose the best content to include. This starts at crawl time - should we crawl this url or that url? There are a whole set of heuristics which drive what crawl budget an individual site gets.
The web keeps getting deeper and deeper - the challenge is how to return the good stuff and not sink. This is why we believe human curation needs to be brought back to search. Only by curating the best content in every vertical can the most relevant results be returned.
Amongst SEOs the issue of "brand" as a relevancy signal has been a topic of heated debates. How important do you feel brand is as a signal of relevancy & authority?
One of the things we look at is how natural the pattern of mentions of a site looks. Real brands tend to have a natural pattern of mentions on the web.
You had a blog post a few years back titled "PageRank wrecked the web." How do you feel about paid links? What editorial actions do you guys take when you find paid links?
If links have an economic value, they're going to be bought and sold. It's that simple. What happens in our ranker is that we classify different sources of signals, and then let the machine learning figure out what the signal is telling us. Is this a good source of anchortext? Or maybe a certain class of links even has a negative contribution to rank, if what the links are telling us doesn't correlate with the direction we want the ranker to be going.
How hard is it to detect paid links? What has been the most challenging part of launching a world class search engine?
The whole thing has been hard. Search has so many sub-components, and even things that sound trivial like DNS turn into big projects when you need to scale them up to billions of web pages.
An online definition of Shit My Dad Says states, "In 2009, Justin Halpern, an aspiring comedy writer, was dumped by his girlfriend and moved back in with his parents. He began using Twitter as a way of keeping track of the brutally funny, off-color things his father said around the house."
The popularity of Halpern's Twitter feed spread quickly. Soon, he had hundreds of thousands of followers. Today, almost two million people follow this feed to hear the shit Sam Halpern says. But this hardly tells the whole story.
The popularity of Halpern's Twitter feed brought in bigger offers, and helped him to land a book deal in September of 2009. Released in October to universally warm reviews, it quickly became a bestseller. But it still doesn’t stop there.
In November, Halpern signed a deal with Warner Brothers. Halpern and his writing partner, Patrick Schumacker, were paired with the creators of "Will & Grace" to write a pilot episode (“Bleep My Dad Says,” when spoken in polite company). Picked up by CBS, it stars none other than William Shatner. (Shatner!) It's part of the current Fall Line-up, and you can see it now airing on Thursday nights, prime time on CBS.
To say Justin Halpern has made the most of moving back in with his folks is a bit of an understatement.
No longer living at home these days, we were able to recently reach Justin for a few quick questions about his success.
When you chose Twitter, did you trim your dad's statements to fit the medium? Do you ever paraphrase him, or are his quotes always literal?
Sometimes I'll tweak a word here or there to get it to fit in to the 140. Other times I'll take the first sentence and the last sentence of a paragraph's worth of stuff and put them together to make the thought more concise, but honestly, it's basically just exactly what he says. I wish I could say I had more to do with it.
How long after you started posting did you start getting any feedback?
I would say about three weeks, after Rob Corddry tweeted it. Then it sort of went viral.
What made your Twitter stream so different?
Well, I wasn't giving updates about what I was doing, because I know I'm not interesting. And I wasn't linking to anything, or trying to sell anyone anything. It was just simply a voyeuristic look into my life with my dad.
When I found your twitter feed, I referred to it as the best use of Twitter I had seen. Do you think that it would have been as effective in any other medium? How responsible is the vehicle for the spread of your work here?
Oh, I think the vehicle was unbelievably vital to the success of this. Could it have existed somewhere else on the web? Maybe. Would it have achieved the same success? Probably not. Can I ask myself more questions and then answer them in a paragraph? Yes, but I won't.
It's been widely reported that Rob Couddry's interest is what catapulted the Twitter popularity. Can you talk a little bit about what happened?
Well, I actually ran in to Rob months after he had sent my site viral, and I asked him how he found it and he couldn’t remember. He was the nicest guy you'd ever want to meet, especially since I was just this spaz coming up to him in a best buy being like "Hey, I'm the shit my dad says kid!" I would have punched myself in the face if I were him, but he sat there and had a fifteen minute conversation with me. Basically he said he saw it, thought it was hilarious, and just tweeted it and then everyone started retweeting and that’s what did it. Essentially, I owe Rob Corddry shitpiles of money.
Reports of your work status (at the time you began in 2009) vary pretty widely on the web. Were you still writing for Maxim.com at the time? How much time did the feed take?
I was still working at Maxim.com at the time, yes. The feed took up eleven seconds of my day. The time it takes to hear my dad say something, then type 140 characters on a computer.
How did you view the extra attention being paid to the feed? Did you feel any obligation in what you posted, or how regularly? Do you now?
I don't really feel an obligation. I post less now because I see my dad less. It's funny, the feed is the same now as it always was, but when stuff gets popular, people are like ""e sold out,” but the funny thing to me is that I'm just writing down what my father says and he doesn't care, just like he didn't care a year ago.
What was the first request received that made you realize there might be something really special here?
An agent Direct messaged me and said "there might be a book here." That blew my mind.
How does your dad seem to like William Shatner playing a character based on him?
He seems to enjoy it. He and Mr. Shatner don't really care to have anything to do with one another, but he really seems to enjoy Mr. Shatner's performance.
You've found success in writing for a mainstream website, a microblog, on a regular blog, in a book, and on a television show. Is time to revisit screenwriting now, or what future plans are you developing?
I plan to write another book in the next two years, and although I'm focused entirely on the show right now, I had been developing a show with Comedy Central before all this happens and I liked the idea and someday I’d like to go back and revisit it. But not as long as this show is on the air.
When success in one medium happens, it is rare to have an ability to leverage it across a variety of mediums and not diminish the quality while crossing them. To what do you attribute the ability of your work to move across media channels and find a welcomed place in all of them?
Well, before the project went in to a different medium, I tried to think of a)why should it even be in this medium, and b)If it should, how will it need to change. With the book, I had stories I wanted to tell, and thought I could give people a more thorough detailing of who my dad is, but at the same time, do it in a way that was concise so that it wasn’t this monumental leap from 140 character sayings to this dense book. As my dad says, "You’re not Hemingway. Just write something fun." I felt as though with the book, I had given the raw, uncensored version of my relationship with my dad, and that if this transferred to television, any attempt at trying to accurately depict that would seem really strange to me. So instead, we looked at TV as a chance to use the tone of my father, but in a way that would speak to more people. The book sold well, but if a show got the books numbers, an executive would put a gun to his head and end his life. Therefore we tried to appeal to a greater number of people by easing them in to a character and a relationship that had a similar tone, but was relatable.
It has been a fast ride, and it certainly is creating great opportunities for you. How have you balanced taking full advantage of the possibilities being offered, and yet not jumping into too much, too soon?
To be honest, I have no idea. I haven’t really had time to sit back and think about that.
You've done phenomenally well with something that didn't start as anything pre-calculated. Yet, at the same time, you had projects where you were definitely investing more time and care into developing something that weren't finding the same levels of success. How does this experience now affect your approach as an artist, or does it?
Well, the one thing I think I've learned is that you have to keep doing stuff you think is funny, or interesting, and hopefully it sticks.
Do you have a favorite quote from your dad?
Yes. One time he came home from the dog park with our dog and he steps inside the house, and takes a deep breath and goes "Well, we're banned from the dog park. I guess it’s okay to bark, and it's okay to hump, but doing both at the same time freaks people out." I think I'm the only one who likes that one, but the image of my dog humping and barking other dogs and my dad being told he was banned made me laugh harder than anything.
Thanks for your time, Justin – and here’s to your continued success!