Interview with Tamar Weinberg

Only on very rare occasions can you say that someone "wrote the book" on a topic of relevance and it jumps from metaphor to accuracy. Tamar Weinberg, a social media strategist and author of 2009's O'Reilly published text: The New Community Rules: Marketing on the Social Web, makes a wonderful exception to the rule. An expert trusted worldwide for her experience, opinions and guidance in all things social, Tamar's book on the subject remains a vital, comprehensive and important work on understanding how to consider social media in marketing efforts.

We recently caught up with Tamar. The following interview shares her thoughts on social media, privacy protection and other topics of interest for webmasters, SEOs, and business owners trying to make more of their social media and holistic marketing efforts.

What types of limits make the most sense when attempting to be active socially, yet still protect your privacy? What kinds of personal information are most commonly offered, in your opinion, erroneously?

Most people would say the following: don't post anything to a social network that you wouldn't want your mother or grandmother to see. I think this rule is especially applicable in the social space. Even if you have no friends or followers, someone might be watching.
Think twice before you post something. Would you want to remove it in the future? Some sites won't let you, and worse, your message may have already been shared with the rest of the world.

How do you, as a media-recognized individual, view privacy with respect to adequately protecting and distancing your family members? Is it sometimes better to be anonymous? Are you currently surfing invisibly very often, or do you trend to identifying yourself most often?

This is a good question. My parents are definitely a lot more traditional than I, but I suspect that my 16 month old son is going to be living a pretty public life. I think that being more open is simply a way of the future, whether many of us like it or not. We're seeing the gradual push in that direction.
I present myself as Tamar Weinberg almost 100% of the time. There are very rare instances where I will come across as someone else, and those are mostly under accounts I created more than 5 years ago when anonymity was the norm in the social media space. Slowly, the online world evolved and so did my behaviors and habits. I know I'm not alone.

What are the simplest things a business owner can do to protect their privacy when increasing their social media presence and activity?

It comes down to really using your best judgment and thinking twice before you do anything you might regret. It also comes down to common sense. Use a different password for your email account that isn't the same as your Twitter or Facebook account, especially if those are very frequently used. You'd think this isn't an issue but it becomes increasingly more important as social media interactions come trusted, so accounts are really in heavy demand. I can't tell you how many tech savvy friends in the SEM space have told me that they were stranded in England and needed a wire transfer or just scored a free iPad and that I could get one too.
I don't think any of this is specific to business owners versus the average Joe. If you really are a public face of your company, though, or if you're looking to get a job in the near future, you should either avoid associating yourself with images of your drunken nights out and/or you should learn and master privacy controls of the various social news sites. You should keep your tweets and blog posts purely professional or at least not convey anything that would raise red flags either among your customers or your prospective employers.

How strictly should you maintain the lines between personal and professional when investing in your social media presence? How is this distance likely to impact your effectiveness?

Thankfully, there's no "one-size-fits-all" answer for this. My @tamar Twitter account actually is a mix of personal and professional tweets. I share social media and small business information, and I also talk about my son. Heck, I even announced the birth of my son on Twitter less than an hour after he popped out. :)
The answer is determined by who you want to be and what your followers expect of you. If you're blogging about technology and your entire blog is focused on tech - we're talking 50 posts a day here - and all of a sudden you blogged about how you were going through a divorce, it probably won't resonate with your readers. Then again, if that's all you blog about and built a community on that, taking on an unrelated theme may not really work for you either.
On Twitter, I actually think that having a healthy mix of personal and professional tweets is encouraged. If you're strictly professional, you're seen as a corporate drone. If you humanize your business approach, people will be enamored by what you have to say or do. A "blog" that is purely corporate speak isn't going to warm any of your prospects to you. Adding humor, avatars of the real people behind the posts, and giving more of a genuine human touch gives your customers a reason for doing business with you: because they want to do business with a person. They like dealing with people like them.
Social media has really fostered this shift of bringing people back in the picture. The last era that preceded this was devoid of emotion and it's about time that has come back.

Since it is such a young and emergent field of marketing, what are some of the criteria you use to decide to try a new socially-focused service or software? How does it earn trust and staying power?

There are now a zillion tools on the market. I'd love to try everything out but it's hard to really know them all and/or assess whether it would address my personal needs. I often represent the small business or startup and find that budget is a huge issue. Many people love social media because while it has a huge time commitment, most of the tools are free. For the smaller companies I work with, free does still take precedence. Of course, costly applications might be considered too if they boast great functionality, offer features that are not seen in the free solutions, and have an easy to use interface.
In this day and age, though, there are just so many people offering paid services for products that are already free. There better be a real unique selling proposition because trying to usurp the market leader isn't always going to be easy.
Sure, I pay for apps too, and usually I do so because the tool rocks. I love what it does, I love what functionality, and more importantly, I love the people behind the product.

How has early adoption paid-off or hurt you?

There's definitely a benefit to exploring the space before it gains momentum. You can get deep insights into the community before it gets saturated by spammers and those looking to make a quick buck. Plus, there's simply the competitive edge you get out of it. Having knowledge of a new community and knowing how to benefit from it gives you the opportunity to boost your own visibility. There will need to be some effort made on your part, though, to study the landscape and make some assessments on how to proceed. As an early adopter, you're probably going to be learning as you go along. You won't be able to wait for someone to spell it out to you in a blog post.
In the meantime, though, being first helps you build your own presence and become a leader in the space. That's what made Twitter beat-out Pownce. That's what helped some of the Twitter rockstars you'd have never heard of outside Twitter.com become so visible. That's what helped the folks in the Apple iTunes store build applications that actually earn the developers money, especially in a sea of hundreds of thousands of applications all vying for some attention. Being first really does have its benefits, but being first usually entails extra effort and attention to detail. If you're willing to go for it, I strongly encourage it.

What do you see as the long-term impact of mobile on social media? Is it happening already? How can you be more proactive in mobile social media?

It's funny you ask this on the day I finally bought a mobile phone that is finally catching up with the times. :) (I had a 3 year old Palm Treo with PalmOS. Yes, PalmOS was decommissioned last year. It's a long story.) While I held onto the phone, it wasn't because I love old gadgets; it's quite the contrary, actually! Today, with such widespread adoption of social networks, it proves that there's a much more compelling reason to go mobile. We love interacting online, but it's hugely powerful to put two and two together and meet an online friend face to face.
Mobile social media is all about doing more outside the convenience of your home computer or office PC. It's about networking face to face, which ultimately translates to greater successes as people who love you share all the great reasons why they do.
Mobile social media is also really in its infancy, but taking advantage of meeting persons of interest on sites like Gowalla, Foursqaure, and even Facebook Places can help build those strong relationships that are critical of social media. Plus, it's the early adopter mentality. You have an edge if you start now.

What are some of the warning signs that it is time to rethink or restructure a social media effort? What makes a clear point-of-no-return?

A lot of different factors could be the cause of a social media effort that isn't yielding favorable results. It depends on the goals you've set. If you're looking for followers and aren't getting any, you might need to reassess how you're going about it. If you're looking for traffic but none is coming, you may be using the wrong approach or targeting the wrong communities. If you're trying to get sales and are working at a social media strategy but see no movement after several months of effort (this isn't an overnight process), there's something to be said about the approach you're taking and it's time to try again.
Make sure you have some strong goals in place. Take a look at the landscape and see if there are untapped communities or influencers you have not been able to reach. See if your messaging is solid. Speak to other people in your community to see how receptive they are to your content. Just try again and keep working hard. Every business is social - but you might not be doing the right things to get what you're looking to achieve.
Sometimes it helps to fish where the big fish already are. Yes, it's great to be an early adopter, but it's even better to go where you know your customers are and where you're already hearing of success. You'll still need to work at it and revise your tactics if there's not much coming out of it.
But don't give up if you're at least getting some traction. Nobody said it will be easy. It is a process, and it will take lots of time.

You have a bit of a background in programming - so how much do you attribute this basis for your obvious agility through multiple social media platforms? Do you need to be a semi-programmer today to be able to stay in-tune with gadgetry, software and effectively balance all of the leading programs of social media?

LOL, my computer science programming background was...well, it ended after my very first class in college. I actually did graduate with a major in computer science, but I can't say I understand a thing about programming!
Therefore, while I programmed in a few classes in school, my background isn't reflective of where I am today. I've been living in the social media space since I got my first Internet-connected computer in 1992. I was using AOL when it was called Promenade and cost $9.95 for 5 hours (plus $5.95 for each additional hour). I thrived on local message boards. I actually went into computer science because I fell in love with the social media space before it was called social media, and I figured that computer science was going to get me closer to whatever it was that I wanted to do with myself! The schooling didn't, but I found myself where I knew I belonged after connecting with some great folks who introduced me to SEM right around the time that social media marketing started building momentum. The rest is history.
Agility might be a characteristic of programmers, but I think that once you really get involved in this space, it's a byproduct of your activities. Five years ago, I definitely wasn't multitasking as much as I do today. Now, I can't envision my life any differently. I can't see myself working at an office again because I do my best work at crazy hours with "breaks" that let me focus on other projects. I'm writing this at midnight. It's what I do and I flourish in this kind of environment. It can be learned and has nothing to do with a computer science degree. :)
I think a big reason for success in this space for me is that every action I take online is out of a passion for social media and being as effective and productive as I can possibly be. I wake-up every day with the goal to accomplish big things, and I try to explore the space as deeply as I can.
If you come into it with a passion for what you do, everything will come easy to you. If not, fortunately, there are so many people who are comfortable enough who can walk you through the tools and teach you how to get the most out of it all.

You've said that at a minimum, businesses need to be proactive and listening to social media. Do you believe that brands not yet established are able to sustain momentum simply by listening and reacting in an "appropriate" manner - or will they get lost in the shuffle without the aid of something more colorful and (occasionally) dramatic? Has social media become necessary for smaller business success?

Social media is absolutely necessary. I work with extremely small businesses in addition to companies in the Fortune 500. Sure, small businesses may not necessarily have much drama to act upon, but there are a ton of insights you can glean from the social media space. You can see what your larger competitors are doing and figure out how to run with your own campaign or see how to do it better. You can monitor your industry and find out what is happening that you should act upon in the social space.
The big concern comes to businesses who are so small who realize that they're not seeing much traction or conversion in a week's time. That's not abnormal. Social media takes time. Build the relationships first and then they will come when they need you.
With social media, ongoing communication is critical. Furthermore, small businesses especially have more flexibility to do it because they aren't restricted by their legal departments. The key, though, is to work at it. Social media isn't called social media for no reason.

In your book, you offer the study of how a Comcast rep used Twitter to find and recruit a Verizon customer. Is this type of scenario happening or even likely on other platforms, or is it the real-time response that has made Twitter such an effective customer outreach tool?

I actually once blogged about an online service I was disappointed with. The founder of a competing service wrote a comment on my blog post and I actually checked out the site. If they didn't reach out, I probably wouldn't have bothered.
Real-time response, though, is golden. If you reply immediately when someone is angry with your competitor, they may be more compelled to check you out while they're angry and thinking about how much they hate the competitor. Plus, what if this prospective customer doesn't know who you are? That's a good opportunity to build brand awareness.

What is the main thing people misunderstand or overlook about Twitter?

I think people still don't get it. Twitter's mission is to get people to answer the question of "what's happening?" or "what are you doing?," but at the end of the day, most people don't understand that Twitter is a social network. They hear that it's all about people sharing what they ate for dinner and don't realize that they can connect with people they know or admire and even engage with them.

What are 5 social media tools that you simply won't live without anymore? How does this list differ from the one you had one year ago?

As much as I love new tools, I also am pretty steadfast in my ways especially when something really works. My top 5 tools are:

  • Google Reader, which I have been using for about 2 years (I was a Bloglines addict before that, though)
  • HootSuite, but before that, it was all about the Twitter web interface and Twhirl. I also use Seesmic Desktop occasionally.
  • Skype and Digsby, because basic communication is still at the core of social media interactions. I used to hate Skype, but now I tolerate it mostly for video chat. J Digsby is a great all-in-one IM client. It just doesn't have Skype support. Before Skype and Digsby, I was using AOL Instant Messenger with the DeadAIM logging program (the last DeadAIM-supported version of AIM stopped working last month, so I'm bummed) and Pidgin. Yeah, I am a PC. :)
  • WordPress. Yes, I did use MovableType once upon a time, but years ago, I moved to WordPress because it was easier to install (the cgi-bin requirement of MT always threw me off!). WordPress has tens of thousands of plugins that help enhance the blog and make it feel like a real site.
  • Rapportive: This is an amazingly useful social CRM that integrates with Gmail (I run my dozen email addresses through Gmail's interface, so this really works for me) and gives me information about the people I am corresponding with. I can get their LinkedIn bios, locations, avatars, social networks, and more without having to manually look them up. As for what I used a year ago, well, there's nothing else quite like it!

Being active socially on the web is, or can be a full-time occupation. How does a lone, small business owner's participation differ from that of the lone, successful multi-site webmaster? How does one effectively scale social media efforts?

Don't spread yourself too thin. Try to build your presence where you know you can really make a difference, and branch out slowly if you want to experiment. Hopefully your marketing tactics will pay off to the tune of more business, more money, and the ability to hire more people who can help further your marketing message in the world wide open. ;)

Tamar Weinberg is a social media enthusiast and strategist who helps businesses boost their visibility on the social web. As the author of The New Community Rules: Marketing on the Social Web, Tamar cuts through the nuances of social networks and tells you exactly how to succeed online. She is also Mashable's Community Support & Advertising Manager.

Marty Lamers owns a Freelance SEO Copywriting company you can visit at Articulayers.Com. Since 2001, Articulayers has been fixing the world, one word at a time.

Anita Campbell Interview

Since 2003, Anita Campbell is perhaps best known as the Founder and Executive Editor of Small Business Trends, a website bringing over 1 Million readers annually a clear focus on small business news, trends, advice and everything small business. A multi-award-winning site (including a 2010 SEMMY Award), Small Business Trends has remained a dependable and provocative resource of relevant, small business-related content where expert opinions fuse into passionate, intelligent user discussions.

Anita's journey includes a variety of senior executive positions in the corporate world, as well as being an executive and associate counsel for a regional bank working on lending, credit cards, bankruptcy, real estate, large contracts and financial transactions. Her move into several successful years online could easily be seen in many ways as a model of entrepreneurial success. An outspoken, passionate advocate of all things small business, Anita Campbell has an opinion that has been widely recognized and celebrated by her peers, colleagues and the various pillars supporting the small business community.

We were recently lucky enough recently to get Anita's thoughts on a few things surrounding her success, the current state of small business, and what it takes to make a website meaningful and effective...a powerful force that commands attention.

Daily, you are having one-to-one communications with business owners around the world. This allows you a uniquely intimate perspective. Kindly share your general thoughts regarding:

  1. How do you see prime-time media's perspective differ from the way conversations trend on your web sites? On which topics do they tend to be more in-synch? The media tends to portray the economy and the condition of small businesses as more negative than they are. If you only watched TV news, you might get the sorry impression that the typical small business owner is some sort of loser who couldn't possibly succeed in business without government "help. " We portray business owners as being in control of their own destinies. The people who participate at Small Business Trends are for the most part optimistic (entrepreneurs are the world's biggest optimists!). They're much more self-sufficient and "can do" in attitude. We give them advice and tips they can use to solve their own problems.
  2. How do you see the general confidence level of business owners today, compared to five years ago? What are the short-term factors that offer sway? It's hard to tell, because the media colors our perceptions so much. And the media tends to focus so much on the negative - they emphasize 7 out of 6 problems. How much is truth? How much perception? I would say that throughout this recession the small biz experience has been mixed. I've heard everything from "this is the worst we've seen it in 30 years" to "business is booming. " Why such vastly different confidence levels in this recession? In part it depends on how strong the business was before entering the recession - the strong were better equipped to ride it out and even grow...no surprise there. It also varies by industry. For instance, online businesses and service providers to online business are doing well, or have experienced only a small drop in results from 2008-2009 and are bouncing back already in 2010. That's largely due to the growth of the Web as a business channel. Example: online advertising and publishing are growing in 2010, even as their print counterparts are declining rapidly. So ask a print publisher how business is doing and you hear a tale of woe. Ask an online publisher and you hear a different story.
  3. What, if any, is the common cry among business owners regarding:
    • Finance: There's a lot of lawmaker blather about the "credit crunch" being a huge problem for small businesses. Some give the impression that there's nothing ailing small businesses that a loan wouldn't cure (whether we need a loan or not!). Here's the reality: only a minority of small businesses need or want loans. Sure, for those who do need loans, conditions are tight and some businesses will fail if they don't get desperately-needed credit. But loans are hardly a silver bullet. Take, for instance, SBA loans. I'll be the first to say SBA loan programs have been good for the small business community. But remember that they touch a small percentage of businesses - last year there were fewer than 100,000 new SBA loans made (and 27 Million small businesses). What would help the majority of small businesses far more is for consumers and B2B customers to have the confidence in the economy to buy from small businesses and pay them promptly. But it's much harder for lawmakers to convey leadership and inspire confidence than to simply spend the people's money on another banking bill.
    • Opportunity: Capitalizing on opportunities has a lot to do with your attitude. Even in difficult economies enterprising entrepreneurs spot and seize opportunities. Some quick examples: recently we saw TechCrunch, a 5-year old blog-based business, being acquired by AOL for anywhere from $25 to $40 Million, depending on which report you believe. In other words, an entrepreneur created 8-figure value in 5 years, part of which was during a recession. It was during the recession that Zappos, a 10-year old company, cracked $1 Billion in sales. So far in 2010, Google has made 24 acquisitions of small companies - meaning 24 startups have created enough value to get a big payday at the tail-end of a recession. Success stories are all around us - especially in the online space.
    • Government relief programs: Being of a free-market capitalist bent, I am not a fan of most government programs, for 2 reasons: (1) Someone has to pay for them in the form of taxes, and the tax burden usually hits successful business owners hardest. (2) Government programs are contrary to the entrepreneurial mindset. Successful small business owners aren't looking for government help. They just want the government out of their way.

Small businesses generally tend to be the most limited in terms of resources. What made you decide to focus on helping that market?

I have always kept my ear to the ground, and could tell that large companies were increasingly interested in the small business market, so I took a risk that would be great advertiser support - and it has paid off. Plus, I myself am proud of being a self-sufficient, responsible business owner. We Americans dream of being entrepreneurs. It's a high calling - who better for me to serve?

You have had years of success with your business-related podcasts and audio downloads, but the market is continually changing as computers can handle larger bits of information, faster. There is now a veritable cornucopia of loosely related, potentially strategic media buys. What would be your general advice for someone looking to invest in broadcasting business information in 2010, and perhaps having it go beyond? What type of format has been the most cost-efficient, and/or scaled the best for you so far, when measured over time? Any new ones you are trying?

Text-based information forms the bulk of our published content, and in the future will constitute 80% of our content. I think that's true for most B2B sites. Text is easy to consume quickly. It's easy to quote and cull statistics or other biz info from, and is capable of getting readily indexed and ranked in the search engines.
We do podcasts but find that only about 10% of our audience who read information will listen. Not everybody has the time to listen - it's faster to read. And some people simply don't absorb information in an auditory fashion - they have to SEE it. However, people who listen to podcasts download them to their iPods and take them with them while working-out, on trains and planes, while driving in the car - in short, away from their computers. So you are reaching people well beyond their computers, and you get more of their mindshare during those times. For that reason, some of our most rabidly loyal audience are our podcast listeners. With podcasts you exchange breadth of audience for depth of attention.

We haven't done as much with video up to now. We plan to do more. It takes more technical know-how to create quality videos, than write an article. And there's a bit of a learning curve we haven't made time for, to figure out how to optimize online video for YouTube and search engines. But video certainly deserves attention by entrepreneurs in their content strategies.

You have a variety of guest authors, and it keeps the content on SmallBizTrends and your other sites fresh, unique, and diverse - and perhaps most importantly, relevant. How would a smaller player attract any level of talent or look to fill a website without resorting to a "content-mill" approach of adding semi-legible filler to try to compete? To avoid staffing, how have you found it effective to generate unique, user-generated content? Is it volume, depth of expertise, or unique style that seems to be the biggest and most consistent draw?

To attract contributors you have to first create a credible site people want to be seen on. If you fill it with "content-mill" type content, what person would risk their good reputation by guest posting on your site? Webmasters and site owners may not want to hear this, but it takes time and a bit of money to create a credible site. To jump start the guest posting, try recruiting paid authors who already are known in their fields - find some good ones, especially those who also amplify their own articles on social media - and make them an offer they can't refuse. Emphasize quality over quantity.

Also, make sure you have the infrastructure and staff to support guest authors - they need a lot of care asnd feeding. You won't notice this with just a couple of guest authors, but as your site scales up, it will eat up more and more time.

It's a misperception that guest posts are a free source of content for your site - nothing is truly free in business, and you pay one way or another. I am not blowing my own horn when I say we could have 50 times the number of guest authors as we do - after 7 years on the Web with a laser focus on the small business space, it's the truth. But we don't have the internal capacity to answer their questions, get them set up in the CMS system, review and copy-edit their submissions, find and add images to their posts, etc. All of that takes time, and you have to have staff to handle that. Some sites let almost anyone post - as in "if you have something to say, say it on HuffPo." But few sites have the wherewithal of a Huffington Post to pull that strategy off. For most sites, quality will inevitably slip and it becomes a race to the bottom. Your most loyal audience fades away, your best guest authors get disgruntled because quality is going down, and advertisers don't want to pay premium rates to be seen on a low quality site.

We deal with this issue via a multi-tier strategy to include as much of the community as possible to share their content, yet still maintaining quality control. We have different levels/types of sites. On Small Business Trends, we accept a (relatively) small number of guest authors - right now around 100. There, we focus on original articles of roughly 500 words. Then we have a smaller blog that takes guest posts from those who we don't know as well. If they get a good response, we invite them to post on the larger site. We also run a social bookmarking site, BizSugar.com, that anyone can share their small-business related blog posts on - that site is tightly moderated by a global team of moderators 24/7, but as long as your content is relevant and informational in nature, anyone can post there. Finally, we do a hand-curated (by our editors) recap of 10 small biz news articles and high-quality blog posts, daily M-F, from around the Web. This way, we keep control over quality, but highlight as many voices of the small business community as we can. Our motto is: be INclusive, rather than EXclusive - but still maintain quality.

How much is visibility worth? At some point, the traffic and credibility of your site increased, and likewise I assume, did your negotiating power with both content producers and advertisers. Was there a specific point when you recognized your traffic stream and potential as a meaningful bargaining chip and realigned your thinking and negotiations?

Visibility is priceless for marketing - you just have to remember that it's not a business model. Visibility (brand recognition, followers, traffic) is much more critical to actively go out and seek when you're first starting out. A lot of entrepreneurs barter services in exchange for visibility. But at some point you should start scaling back on the bartering as your visibility grows, and make sure you're not spending all your time trying to get visibility, but rather are making money. So think of your efforts in two stages:(1)early on, do guest posts, appear at events, etc. in exchange for visibility, without expecting to be paid. (2) Later, as your brand gets its legs, scale back on the barter activities, and start reaping the benefits. This is when you can command money for speaking engagements and require payment for your writing.

How much of the success you've measured fits into any original plan you had for it? What is the best thing that happened to you (in this regard only) that you never saw coming?

I knew the small business market was hot. What pleasantly surprised me was the level of advertiser interest, which has only grown during the recession. The single best thing that happened was getting recruited by Federated Media, which brings blue-chip advertisers and sponsors. It's been a strong partnership that I value. That partnership has funded the hiring of staff and numerous independent small businesses as service providers. Looking back it seems like a no-brainer to have signed with FM, but at the time FM was an untested startup and I agonized for two months before signing a contract.

According to Alexa.com regarding SmallBizTrends.com, "Search engines refer approximately 17% of visits to the site." Given your knowledge of SEO and the contextual depth of the site, this number seems rather small. Care to comment on its relevancy? How do most people find the site?

The Alexa number is off - the search traffic is higher than that. But I can tell you that search accounts for less than 50% of our traffic. Much of our traffic comes from:

  • RSS feed
  • direct referral (people typing in the URL or coming from bookmarks);
  • social media (Twitter is our single largest social media referrer, with Facebook, LinkedIn, OPENForum, Business.com Answers, BizSugar and BusinessExchange following);
  • third-party newsletters and syndication (we're in a traditional B2B space where a lot of information is distributed via email newsletters and private intranets);
  • and other sites including other business blogs.

While search traffic is important, having multiple sources of traffic de-risks your business - you won't be driven out of business if some Google change cuts your search traffic.

You are an outspoken advocate and user of social media, and were recently recognized for your Twitter influence. Which 4 tools do you now find essential for managing an active social media presence? Has this changed much over time?

I must be different from most, because I prefer the experience of actually visiting the Twitter site. Tools like TweetDeck to access Twitter have a lot going for them, but I find they immerse you too deeply into the stream of your tweets, and isolate you with tunnel vision. I tend to graze sporadically during the day, on Twitter - jump in, jump out. Plus, I like to click through links that people share on Twitter, so it brings me back to the Web anyway. That said, I do recommend some tools:

  1. SocialOomph.com to schedule tweets in advance - sometimes if I come across something I'd like to share on Twitter, but it's 10 pm, I will just compose a quick tweet and schedule it for the next morning so I don't forget. Or when I know I'll be tied up in meetings or traveling, I will schedule some tweets in advance. SocialOomph does a lot more, but I use it mainly for scheduling. Hootsuite is a similar tool.
  2. Postling.com is a tool I am playing around with right now. It sends a daily email roundup of social mentions.
  3. Twitter search - use the Twitter search function to find like-minded people and information relevant to your business. This is the tool I use most often.
  4. Bit.ly - I have the Bit.y URL shortener button on my browser so I can quickly shorten a URL in one click, to share on Twitter or another social site.

How much SEO infuses into your strategies today when compared to two or three years ago?

For one thing, I appreciate the power of SEO much more today - and it's all because I know more. I still use an outside SEO consultant and an SEO copywriter (both are members of the SEOBook Forums). But together we get more done as a team, because we speak the same language, without too wide a knowledge gap. And I just feel more confident with more knowledge. Confidence is such a huge part of success. Lack of confidence makes you slower to jump on opportunities and hesitant to take calculated risks. As far as our publishing business, we do some things differently today as a result of understanding SEO better:

  1. create better titles for articles, with better use of keywords
  2. target niche content so we can leverage long-tail searches
  3. use more text along with individual podcast recordings to help them get found better by people searching in Google or Bing

Even writers and editors now need to know a little about keywords and how they affect traffic. Bloggers tend to be savvier about the how social media and search can bring a bigger audience for their writings. Professional journalists, on the other hand, tend to think their job is done when they submit their article for publishing, and tend not to think about how a publisher gets traffic (although they should).

In your experience, is content truly king, or can algorithm knowledge routinely trump quality?

There's a glut of content on the Web today. It's much much harder today to attract attention to good content than it was just 2 or 3 years ago. I've heard other small publishers say they are publishing more content than ever before, yet their traffic has barely increased. I just think the competition is greater - so you have to work harder just not to lose ground. What that means, I think, is that if you want to grow a website and keep competing strongly and attract more clients/customers, you can't just "create it and they will come. "

Bloggers especially got a little spoiled thinking SEO was easy. Many got used to thinking that if they just put up a routine blog post they'd attract traffic. That strategy worked better when there weren't as many blogs - but as the number of blogs and content sites exploded, more than content is necessary.

When competition is tough as it is today, you have to have more arrows in your quiver. What's the answer? Today it's 2 things. Search is one. I'd add social media as the other. If you don't at least know the basics of SEO and social media, you'll have a harder time growing your website and your business, especially if you have the itty-bitty marketing budget most startups have.

I see a lot of ads around the web where fortune 500 brands are paying to market you. How did you build into those types of relationships?

These are relationships built on mutual respect and benefit. The advertiser, quite honestly, is leveraging off of my name and site's recognition and our following in the small biz space, as much as we are leveraging off of their sponsor support (which is what pays our many talented service providers who do a great job keeping the sites going).

We (and in particular, I) had to first build-up visibility and a reputation in the small business space before we could even think of those kinds of relationships. That was not an overnight thing. First, I'm a bit older than some Web entrepreneurs and bring a lot of business experience to the table, having been a senior executive in a publicly-traded company. Second, I've also owned businesses with my husband, so I experienced business ownership before I started the site and could speak with authority. And third, Small Business Trends has been around for 7 years, with me working 12 hours a day on it most of that time (I admit to being a workaholic). The first few years I toiled in blissful obscurity. It wasn't until 2005 that things started to pick up, and then they ratcheted-up another notch in roughly 2008, and they are now ratcheting-up yet another notch, here in 2010. I am glad I stuck with it - persistence is vastly underestimated as a success driver!

Anita Campbell is the Founder of Small Business Trends which has been following trends in small businesses since 2003. She is host of the weekly Small Business Trends Radio Show, with over 300 interviews logged; and owner of BizSugar, a social media site for small businesses. Reach her over at Twitter: @smallbiztrends.

Marty Lamers is an SEO Copywriter with a Freelance SEO Copywriting company you can visit at Articulayers.Com. Since 2001, Articulayers has been fixing the world, one word at a time.

Geordie Carswell Interview

About a year ago my wife and I started to notice Google's increasingly aggressive push into demoting the organic results and extending AdWords ads. Based in large part on that we decided to partner with Geordie Carswell to create a sister site to SEO Book focused on paid search & contextual advertising - PPC Blog. I have been meaning to interview him for a while & just finally got around to it.

How did you get into pay per click marketing?

I started with Adwords around five years ago, independently marketing software apps and other consumer technology products. From there I continued running my own campaigns while blogging and doing one-on-one Adwords coaching in addition to other marketing ventures.

How has PPC changed since you got into the field?

When I started there were very few big brands doing PPC in a significant way and, at least in the niches I was working in, affiliates were dominating. That of course has flipped upside down in the last 12 months with brands dominating and affiliates being flushed out the bottom of the system.

I feel Google's implementation of various forms of Quality Score into the Adwords platform has been the highest impact spate of changes in terms of direct effect on advertiser performance.

On the platform options side, the growth of Facebook Ads as a PPC channel has also been hugely significant, notwithstanding the merger of Yahoo and Microsoft on paid search.

On organic search I feel that if you work on a big brand, SEO is mostly about information architecture & getting buy off from key players in your company. Whereas if you run thin affiliate sites you have to be quite clever with your link building strategies to build up enough authority to compete. In the same way I think PPC is likely much harder as an affiliate than as a merchant. Would you agree with that?

Well, to be perfectly candid, a pure-play affiliate effort on Adwords in particular is becoming nearly impossible over the long term as Google shows affiliates the door. There's still some room on Microsoft adCenter/Yahoo and Facebook, but the editorial squeeze is on there as well.

The affiliate play of the future would need to involve a recognizable, highly-branded site that "people have heard of" vs. one-off mini or article sites etc...

A lot of affiliate stuff seems to race toward 0 margins. I had one killer offer I was buying traffic for a couple years ago & I was paying about 25 cents a click for traffic that was worth about $6 a click. Within about 3 days someone stole my ad copy word for word and then when I raise my bid to $6 my ad still wouldn't show. How can an affiliate fight the trend toward lower margins?

That's tough. Highly successful affiliates by nature tend to be very good at finding a small sliver of inefficiency in a system and filling that gap. That tends to inevitably be a 'point-in-time' win that ends up competitively saturated.

Often, a lateral move running the same type of campaign on alternate PPC platform can work, but let's face it: competition eventually finds its way there as well, and there are only so many PPC platforms to run on. I strongly believe the best defense against the endless push towards lower margins is to test more than the other guy. Competition will always be there, but he who tests more and thereby extracts more margin wins in the long run.

In terms of leading people astray, how often would you say major search engines give self-serving advice that harms advertisers?

One of the biggest things we still see Google doing is opting advertisers into the Google Display Network (previously known as the content network) by default when creating new campaigns. I'm sure Google needs ways to generate interest in the Display Network, but they know full well that blending search and content campaigns together is a recipe for disaster and I'd like to see them step up and stop that.

Additionally, offers from reps to 'optimize' your campaigns (while well intentioned) have lead to a lot of unnecessarily broad campaign expansions that can truly destroy the profitability of an already-successful campaign.

Part of the problem comes from advertisers trusting Google a bit too much: Google is there to extract as much revenue as they can from their keyword inventory without permanently scaring away advertisers with unmanageable costs. An advertisers' job is to generate as much net profit from Adwords as possible. Those two goals are at odds by nature, so discernment is vital when evaluating why Google is offering something or making an 'improvement' to the system.

Google offers a number of automated optimization tools for advertisers. When does it make sense to use them? Who should avoid using them?

Most of the automation solutions offered by Google like Conversion Optimizer or Automatic Bidding really won't have much benefit to smaller advertisers who don't typically have enough paid click traffic to measure the results of using these offerings. That said, if you have a decent amount of traffic you can save considerable time using their optimization tools, particularly when fishing for new traffic and/or placements.

One area I would suggest some caution on however is the "New Keyword Opportunities" feature that shows up at the top of your campaigns interface. This is an awesome tool for Google to snag new bidders on additional keyword inventory in their system, but it can cost you a pretty penny if you just accept and add whatever keywords they happen to "recommend" for you. You really need to be careful with these and look at the expected avg. CPC amounts to see if you can afford to add what's being suggested. Burning through your budget unnecessarily on overpriced or untargeted keywords isn't fun.

You buy traffic on most the major platforms. What business models do you feel work best with each of the major platforms - say Google AdWords, Microsoft adCenter, and Facebook ads?

I think local, education, online dating, and mobile represent some of the best fit for Facebook. Other niches can be genuinely daunting uphill push on Facebook. With Yahoo and Microsoft now consolidated into the Adcenter ad platform, managing alternate campaigns on another network is now much easier and can't be ignored given the combined search marketshare Microsoft and Yahoo have put together. There's really no excuses for not running your campaigns on both Adwords and Adcenter in tandem.

Some people have been hyping Facebook as the next Google. Is it? Why or why not?

Well, I think it's more accurate to compare Facebook Ads to Google's Display Network. They're both considered contextual advertising as Facebook search hasn't really turned out to be a particularly lucrative opportunity yet.

When comparing Facebook Ads to the Google Display Network, I think the key advantage that Google has with Adsense is the topical blend. The blending of content ads via Adsense has gotten so good that in some cases even ad professionals have to look closely to determine if a link or placement is an ad or original content. Facebook doesn't really have this advantage, pretty much every Facebook user knows that those are ads in the right siderail, and unless the image in the ad is incredibly compelling, it's just going to be ignored. As Facebook builds out their contextual ad empire, it'll be interesting to see what options come up.

I don't think however that disgruntled Adwords advertisers looking over the fence at Facebook Ads will find instant success. It's a different beast from an ad server behavior perspective and it's also extremely competitive.

When you are working with smaller clients, what are some of the most common roadblocks they run into when they begin paid search advertising?

The learning curve is number one, closely followed by issues with account architecture and Google Quality Score. From what I've heard and read, the churn rate on new small business Adwords accounts is immense as people try it, fail, and then leave. Google has tried to fix this I think with the learning center resources and videos, but most new advertisers won't even get around to looking at those.

Part of the challenge is prepping clients for the fact that PPC is going to take real time and effort to be successful, and that time has to be budgeted and weighed against other demands. Obviously it's worth it in the long run for well-organized businesses who have optimized their websites for shoppers. Those who don't have a clear path to purchase or request additional info will find their PPC spend tends to go into a black hole.

When you are working with larger clients, what is the hardest part of paid search?

Many large companies have some sort of PPC campaigns running, but it's not a core marketing focus for them to the extent that it should be. There's almost a tendency to say "what we've got going is good enough" or "we're breaking even" and leave it at that. Some of the easiest ways for the marketing team to move the needle sales or leads-wise in a large organization is to exploit paid search to the fullest extent possible. Overpaying Google and accepting less-than-ideal sales performance from PPC is something too many large clients put up with.

This is a big reason we had such a great time building out the Adwords Tax Calculator on PPCblog. When you actually quantify what you're paying in overhead to straight to Google due to a number of completely fixable campaign tactics, it's really motivating.

You have been running PPC Blog's training program and community for close to 3 months now, and it has been getting strong reviews. What are some of the most important and interesting things you have learned from that experience?

It's been very interesting. I really felt prior to running PPCblog that there wasn't anywhere "safe" to discuss advanced tactics and observations about Adwords without Google either closely watching the discussion or directly hosting it. It's been great to share and compare real campaign data in a trusted environment like the one we have going there.

Another thing I've noticed is that the level of discussion and discourse is much higher when people are paying to participate. It weeds out a lot of noise and repetition. Additionally, I've also found that I'm using the custom tools we've developed for members far more often than I had originally thought I would, and that's been helping me save time while keeping up with the community and running campaigns.

How do you feel paid search and SEO tie into each other?

Personally I feel they're both essential 'legs on the stool' (email marketing I think follows closely thereafter). It always amazes me that SEOs will spend huge bucks buying links or doing biz dev deals to get traffic that's not 100% guaranteed to flow, but they won't spend a dime buying traffic directly with Adwords or Adcenter. When you see the amount of brand bidding that goes on with PPC, its a good reminder that if you're not buying even in the least of your brand's keywords, your competitors likely are. With organic results getting pushed farther and farther down the page each year, a two-pronged approach only makes sense.

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Thanks Geordie. You can catch his latest paid search thoughts on PPC Blog & follow him on Twitter @geordiecarswell. There is a free 7-day PPC starter course here, and on the PPC training program he is currently offering a coupon for 25% off for new members.

Rand Fishkin Interview

It is no secret that in the past Rand and I have had some minor difference of opinions (mainly on outing). ;)

But in spite of those, there is no denying that he is an astute marketer. So I thought it would be fun to ask him about his background in SEO and to articulate his take on where some of our differences in opinions are. Interestingly, it turns out we shared far more views than I thought! Hope you enjoy the interview. :)

Throughout your history in the SEO field, what are some of your biggest personal achievements?

The first one would have to be digging myself (and my Mom) out of bankruptcy when we were still a small, sole proprietorship. Since then, there have been a lot of amazing times:

  • The first time I spoke at a conference (SES Toronto in 2004)
  • Transitioning from a consulting to a software business
  • Taking venture capital
  • Building a team (not just making hires)
  • Having dinner with the UN Secretary General (Ban Ki Moon) and presenting to their CTO on SEO - it was amazing to hear stories about how people in conflict-ridden parts of the world used search to find safe havens, escape and transmit information and the UN's missed opportunities around SEO. I'd never really thought of our profession as having life-or-death consequences until then.
  • Making the Inc 500 list for Fastest Growing Companies in the US (during a nasty recession)
  • Probably my biggest personal achievement, though, is my relationship with my wife. I know that no matter what happens to me in any other part of my life, I have her support and love forever. That gets a guy like me through a lot of tough times.

Geraldine & Rand in San Francisco
My wife and I in San Franicsco (via her blog)

What are the biggest counter-intuitive things you have learned in SEO (eg: that theoretically shouldn't work, but wow it does (or the opposite - should work but doesn't)?

The most obvious one I think about regularly is that the "best content rarely wins." The content that best leverages (intentionally or not) the system's pulleys and levers will rise up much faster than the material the search engines "intended" to rank first.

Another big one includes the success of very aggressive sales tactics and very negative, hateful content and personalities. Perhaps because of the way I grew up or my perspective on the world, I always thought of those things as being impediments to financial success, but that's not really the case. They do, however, seem to have a low correlation with self-satisfaction and happiness, and I suppose, for the people/organizations with those issues, that's even worse.

A very specific, technical tactic that I'm always surprised to see work is the placement of very obvious paid text links. We realized a few months back that with Linkscape's index, we could ID 90%+ of paid link spam with a fairly simple process:

  1. Grab the top 10K or 100K query monetizable terms/phrases (via something like a "top AdSense payout" list)
  2. Find any page on the web that contains 2+ external anchor text links pointing to separate websites (e.g. Page A has a link that says "office supplies" linking to 123.com and another link that says "student credit card" linking to 456.com)
  3. Remove the value passed by those links in any link metric calculation (which won't hurt the relevancy/ranking of any pages, but will remove the effects of nearly all paid links)

We've not done the work to implement this, so perhaps there's some peculiar reason why applying it is harder than we think. But, it strikes me that even if you could only do it for pages with 3 or 4+ links in this fashion, you'd still eliminate a ton of the web's "paid" link graph. The fact that Google clearly hasn't done this makes me think it must not work, but I'm still struggling to understand why.

BTW - I asked some SEOs about making this a metric available through Linkscape/Open Site Explorer (like a "liklihood this page contains paid links" metric) and they all said "don't build it!" so we probably won't in the near term.

One of the big marketing angles you guys tried to push hard on was the concept of transparency. Because of that you got some pretty bad blowback when Linkscape launched (& perhaps on a few other occasions). Do you feel pushing on the transparency angle has helped or hurt you overall?

I think those inside the SEO community often perceive a conflict or tiff internally as having a much broader reach than it really does. I'd agree that folks like you and I, and maybe even a few hundred or even a thousand industry insiders are aware of and take something away from those types of events, but SEOmoz as a software company with thousands of paying subscribers and hundreds of thousands of members seems to be far less impacted than I am personally.

Re: Linkscape controversy - there have been a few - but honestly, the worst reputation/brand problems we ever had have always been with regards to personal issues or disputes (a comment on someone's blog or something we wrote or allowed to be published on YOUmoz). I don't have a good explanation for why they crop up, but I can say that they seem to have a nearly predictable pattern at this point (I'm sure you recognize this as well - think I've seen you write fairly eloquently on the subject). That does make it easier to handle - it's the unpredictable that's scary.

We certainly maintain transparency as a core value and we're always trying to do more to promote it. To me, core value means "things we value more than revenue or profits" and so even if it's had some hard-to-measure, adverse impact, we'd maintain it. We've actually got a poster hanging up in the office that our design team made:
The "T" in TAGFEE
An excerpt from our TAGFEE poster

There's a quote I love on this topic that explains it more eloquently than I can:

"(Our) core values might become a competive advantage, but that is not why we have them. We have them because they define for us what we stand for, and we would hold them even if they became a competitive disadvantage." - Ralph Larson, CEO of Johnson and Johnson

What type of businesses do you think do well with transparency? What type of businesses do you feel do poorly with it?

Hmm... Not something I've tried to apply to every type of business, but my feeling is that nearly every company can benefit from it, though it also exposes you to new risk. Even being the transparency-loving type, I'd probably say that military contractors, patent trolls and sausage manufacturers wouldn't do so well.

How have you been able to manage the transparency angle while having investors?

I thought it would be tougher after taking investment, but they've actually been very supportive in nearly every case (some parts of Linkscape, particularly those re: our patent filings being exceptions). I don't know if that would be true had we taken on different backers, but that's why the startup advice to choose your investors like you choose your husband/wife is so wise.

When you took investment money did you mainly just get capital? What other intangibles came with it? How have your investors helped shape your business model?

It certainly made us much more focused on the software model. As you noted, we dropped consulting in 2010 entirely, and we've generally limited any form of non-scalable revenue to help fit with the goals of a VC-backed business. We did gain some great advisors and a lot more respect in many technology and startup circles that would have been tough without the presence of venture funds (although I think that's shifting somewhat given the changes of the past 2-3 years in the startup world).

Have you guys ever considered buying out your investors? Are you worried what might happen to your company if/when it gets sold?

While we'd love to, I doubt that would ever be possible (barring some sort of massive personal windfall outside of SEOmoz). Every dollar we make gets our investors more excited about the future of the company and less likely to want to sell their shares before we reach our full potential. Remember that with VC, the idea is high risk, high reward, so technically, they'd rather we go for broke and fall to pieces than do a mid-size, but profitable deal. Adding $5 or $10 million dollars back to a $300+ million fund is largely useless to a VC, so a bankruptcy while trying to return $50 or $100 million is a very tolerated, sometimes preferable result.

VC Chart of Returns
I wrote about this more in my Venture Capital Process post (where I talked about failing to raise money in summer 2009)

Now that you are already well known & well funded you are taking a fairly low risk strategy to SEO, but if you were brand new to the space & had limited capital would you spam to generate some starting capital? At what point would you consider spamming being a smaller risk than obscurity?

You ask great questions. :-)

While I don't think spam has any moral or ethical problems, I don't know that I'd ever be able to convince myself that spam would be a more worthwhile endeavor than brand building for a white hat property. Overnight successes take years of hard work, and I'd much rather get started as a scrappy, bootstrapping company than build up a reserve with spam dollars and waste that time. However, I certainly don't think that applies to everyone. As you know, I've got lots of friends who've done plenty of shady stuff (probably a lot I don't even want to know about!), but that doesn't mean I respect them any less.

Speaking of low risk SEO, why do you think neither of our sites has hit the #1 slot yet in Google for "seo"? And do you think that ranking would have much business impact?

We've looked at the query in our ranking models and I think it's unlikely we could ever beat out the Wikipedia result, Google or SEO.com (unless GG pulls back on their exact-match domain biasing preference). That said, we should both be overtaking SEOchat.com fairly soon (and some of the spammier results that temporarily pop in and out). Some of our engineers think that more LDA work might help us to better understand these super-high competitive queries.

Analysis of "SEO" SERPs in Google
SERPs analysis of "SEO" in Google.com w/ Linkscape Metrics + LDA (click for larger)

In terms of business impact - yeah, I think for either of us it would be quite a boon actually (and I rarely feel that way about any particular single term/phrase). It would really be less the traffic than the associated perception.

As an SEO selling something unique (eg: not selling a commodity that can be found elsewhere & not as an affiliate) I have found word of mouth marketing is a much more effective sales channel than SEO. Do you think the search results are overblown as a concern within the SEO industry? Do you find most of your sales come from word of mouth?

I see where you're coming from, but in our analyses, it's always been a combination of things that leads to a sale. People search and find us, then browse around. Or they hear of us and search for information about us. Then they'll find us through social media or referring site and maybe they'll sign up for a free account. They'll get a few emails from us, have a look at PRO and go away. Then a couple months later they'll be more serious about SEO and search for a tool or answer and come across us again and finally decide, "OK, these guys are clearly a good choice."

This is what makes last touch attribution so dangerous, but it also speaks to the importance of having a marketing/brand presence across multiple channels. I think you could certainly make the case that many of us in the SEO field see every problem as a nail and our profession as the hammer.

What business models do you feel search fits well with, and what business models do you feel search is a poor fit for?

I think it's terrific for a business that has content or products they can monetize over the web that also relate to things people are already searching for. It's much less ideal for a product/service/business that's "inventing" something new that's yet to be in demand by a searching population. If you're solving a problem that people already have an identified pain point around, whether that's informational, transactional or entertainment-driven, search is fantastic. If that pain point isn't sharp enough or old enough to have generated an existing search audience, branding, outreach, PR and classic advertising may actually do better to move the needle.

Have you ever told a business that you felt SEO would offer too low of a yield to be worth doing?

Actually yes! I was advising a local startup in Seattle a couple years ago called Gist and told them that SEO couldn't really do much for them until people started realizing the need for social-plugins to email and searching for them. This is the case with a lot of startups I think.

In an interview on Mixergy you mentioned up racking up a good bit of debt when you got started in search. If a person is new to the web, when would you recommend them using debt leverage to grow?

Never, if you're smart. Or, at least, never in the quantities I did. The web is so much less costly to build on nowadays and the lean startup movement has produced so many great companies (many of them only small successes, but still profitable) from $10K or less that it just doesn't make sense, especially with the horror that is today's debt market, to go too far down that route. If you can get a low-cost loan from a family member or a startup grant through a government-backed, low interest program, sure, but credit card debt (which is where I started) is really not an option anymore.

How were you able to maintain presence and generally seem so happy publicly when you first got started, even with the stress of that debt?

To be honest, I really just didn't think about it much. If you have $30K in debt, you're constantly thinking about how to pay it off month by month and day by day. When you're $450K in debt with collectors coming after you and your wife paying the rent, you think about how to make a success big enough to pay it all off or declare bankruptcy - might as well go with the former until life runs you into the latter. There's just not much else to do.

As Bob Dylan says - "when you got nothing, you got nothing to lose."

Many people new to the field are afraid to speak publicly, but you were fairly well received right off the start. What prepared you for speaking & what are keys to making a good presentation?

Oh man - I sucked pretty hard my first few presentations. I think everyone does. The only reason I was well received, at least in my opinion, is because I'd already built a following on the web and had a positive reputation that carried over from that. The only thing that really prepared me for big presentations (things like the talk to Google's webspam/search quality team or keynotes at conferences) was lots and lots of experience and for that I'll always be grateful to Danny Sullivan for giving me a shot.

I'd say to others - start small, get as many gigs as you can, use video to help (if you're great on camera, you'll be good in front of a live audience) and try to emulate speakers and presentations you've loved.

When large companies violate Google's guidelines repeatedly usually nothing happens. To cite a random example...I don't know...hmm Mahalo. And yet smaller companies when outed often get crushed due to Google's huge marketshare. Because of the delta between those 2 responses, I believe that outing smaller businesses is generally bogus because it strips freedoms away from individuals while promoting large corporations that foist ugly externalities onto society. Do you disagree with any of that? :D

I think I agree with nearly all of that statement, though I'd still say it's no more "bogus" to out small spammers than it is to spam. I would agree it's not cool that Google applies its standards unfairly, but it's hard to imagine a world where they didn't. If mikeyspaydayloans.info isn't in Google's index, no ones thinks worse of Google. If Disney.com isn't in Google (even if they bought every link in the blogosphere), searchers are going to lose faith and switch engines. The sensible response from any player in such an environment is to only violate guidelines if you're big enough to get away with it or diversified enough to not care.

I'm unhappy with how Google treats these issues, but I'm equally unhappy with how spam distorts the perception of the SEO field. Barely a day goes by without a thought leader in the technology field maligning our industry - and 9 times out of 10 that's because of the "small" spammers. If we protect them by saying SEOs shouldn't "out" on another, we bolster that terrible impression. I don't think most web spam should even have the distinction of being classified as "SEO" and I don't think any SEO professionals who want our field to be taken seriously by marketing and engineering departments should protect those who foist their ugly externalities onto us.

I know we disagree on this, but it's always an interesting discussion :-)

One of the most remarkable things about the SEO industry is the gap in earnings potential between practicing it (as a publisher) and teaching it / consulting. Why do you think such a large gap exists today?

Teaching has always been an altruist's pursuit. Look at teachers in nearly every other field - they earn dramatically less than their production/publishing oriented peers. Those who teach computer science never earn what computer scientists who work at Google or Microsoft make. Those who teach math are far less well compensated than their compatriots working as "qaunts" on Wall Street. It's a sad reality, but it's why I have so much respect for people like Market Motive, Third Door Media and Online Marketing Connect, who are trying to both teach and build profitable businesses. I love the alignment of noble pursuits with profitable ones.

You guys exited the consulting area in spite of being able to charge top rates due to brand recognition. Do you think lots of consultants will follow suit and move into other areas? How do you see SEO business models evolving over the next 3 to 5 years?

I don't think so - our consulting business was going very well and I've heard and seen a lot of growth from my friends who run SEO consulting firms. The margins and exit price valuations wouldn't have made sense for VCs, but I don't think it was a bad business at all and others are clearly doing remarkable things. Just look at iCrossing's recent sale to Hearst for $325million. You can build an amazing company with consulting - it's just not the route we took.

In regards to the evolution of the SEO business model, I'd say we're likely to see more sophistication, more automation, more scalability (and hopefully, more software to help with those) over the next few years from both in-house SEOs and external agencies/consultants. It's sometimes surprising to me how little SEO consulting has progressed from 2002 vs. things like email marketing or analytics, where software has become standard and tons of great companies compete (well, Google's actually made competition a bit more challenging in the analytics space, but creative companies like KissMetrics and Unbounce are still doing cool, interesting things).

Small businesses in many ways seem like the most under-served market, but also the hardest to serve (since they have limited time AND small budgets). Do you think the rise of maps & other verticals gives them a big opportunity, or is it just more layers of complexity they need to learn?

Probably more the former than the latter. The small business owners I know and interact with in my area (and wherever I seem to visit) are only barely getting savvy to the web as a major driver of revenue. I think it might take another 10 years or more before we see true maturity and savvy from local businesses. Of course, that gives a huge competitive advantage to those who are willing to invest the time and resources into doing it right, but it means a less "complete" map of the local world in the online one, which as a consumer (or a search engine) is less than ideal.

When does the delta between paid search & SEO investment begin to shrink (if ever)?

I think it's probably shrinking right now. Paid search is so heavily invested in that I think it's fair to call it a mature market (at least in global web search, though, re: your previous question, probably not in local). SEO is ramping up with a higher CAGR (Compound Annual Growth Rate) according to Forrester, so that delta should be shrinking.

Forrester Growth of SEO vs. Paid Search
via Forrester Research's Interactive Marketing Forecast 2009-2014

Often times a Google policy sounds like something coming out of a conflicted government economist's mouth. But even Google has invested in an affiliate network which suggests controlling your HTML links based on payment. How much further do you think Google can grow before they collapse under complexity or draw enough regulatory attention to be forced to change?

I think if they tread carefully and invest heavily in political donations and public relations, they can likely maintain another very positive 5-10 years. What the web looks like at that time is anyone's guess, and the unpredictable nature and wild shifts probably help them avoid most regulation. Certainly the rise of Facebook has been a boon to their risk exposure from government intervention, even if they may not be entirely happy with their inability to compete in the social web.

I remember you once posted about getting lots of traffic from Facebook & Twitter, but almost 0 sales from it. Does there become a point where search is not the center of the web (in terms of monetization), or are most of these networks sorta only worthwhile from a branding perspective?

As direct traffic portals, it's hard to imagine a Facebook/Twitter user being as engaged in the buying/researching process as a Google searcher. Those companies may launch products that compete with Google's model or intent, but as they exist today, I don't foresee them being a direct sales channel. They're great for traffic, branding, recognition and ad-revenue model sites, but they're of little threat to marketers concerned with the relevance or value of search disappearing.

What are the major differences between LDA & LSI?

They're both methodologies for building a vector space model of terms/phrases and measuring the distance between them as a way to find more "relevant" content. My understanding is that LSI, which was first developed in 1988, has lots of scaling issues. It's cousin, PLSI (probabilistic LSI) attempted to address some of those when it came out in 1999, but still has scaling problems (the Internet is really big!) and often will bias to more complex solutions when a basic one is the right choice.

LDA (Latent Dirichlet Allocation), which started in 2002, is a more scalable (though still imperfect) system with the same intuition and goals - it attempts to mathematically show distances between concepts and words. All of the major search engines have lots of employees who've studied this in university and many folks at Google have written papers and publications on LDA. Our understanding is that it's almost universally preferred to LSI/PLSI as a methodology for vector space models, but it's also very likely that Google's gone above and beyond this work, perhaps substantially.

The "brand" update was subsequently described as being due to looking at search query chains. In a Wired article Amit Singhal also highlighted how Google looks for entities in their bi-gram breakage process & how search query sequences often help them figure out such relationships. How were you guys able to build a similar database without access to the search sessions, or were you able to purchase search data?

In a vector space model for a search function, the distances and datasets leverage the corpus rather than query logs. Essentially, with LDA (or LSI or even TF*IDF), you want to be able to calculate relevance before you ever serve up your first search query. Our LDA work and the LDA tool in labs today use a corpus of about 8 million documents (from Wikipedia). Google's would almost certainly use their web index (or portions of it).

It's certainly possible that query data is also leveraged for a similar purpose (though due to how people search - with short terms and phrases rather than long, connected groups of words - it's probably in a different way). This might even be something that helps extend their competitive advantage (given their domination of market share).

Sometimes one can see Google's ontology change over time (based on sharp ranking increases and drops for outlier pages which target related keywords but not the core keyword, or when search results for 2 similar keywords keep bouncing between showing the exact same results to showing vastly different results). How do you guys account for these sorts of changes?

Thus far, we haven't been changing the model - it just launched last week. However, one nice thing we get to do consistently is to run our models against Google's search results. Thus, if Google does change, our scores (and eventually, the recommendations we hope to make) should change as well. This is the nice part about not having to "beat" Google in relevance (as a competing search engine might want to do) but simply to determine where Google's at today.

For a long time one of the thing I have loathed most in the SEO space was clunky all-in-one desktop tools that often misguide you into trying to change your keyword density on the word "the" and other such idiocy. Part of the reason we have spent thousands of Dollars offering free Firefox extensions was my disgust toward a lot of those all-in-one tools. A lot of the best SEOs tend to prefer a roll-your-own mix and match approach to SEO. Recently you launched a web application which aims to sorta do all-in-one. What were the key things you felt you had to get right with it to make it better than the desktop software so many loathe?

I think our impetus for building the web app was taken from the way software has evolved in nearly every other web marketing vertical. In online surveys, you had one-time, self built systems and folks like Wufoo and SurveyMonkey have done a great job making that a consolidated, simple, powerful software experience. That goes for lots of others like:

  • PPC - Google has really taken the cake here with Adwords integration and the launch of Optimizer and even GA
  • CRM - Salesforce, of course, was the original "all-in-one" web marketing software, and they've shown what a remarkable company you can build with that model. InfusionSoft and other players are now quickly building great businesses, too.
  • Email Marketing - Exact Target, Constant Contact, Mailchimp, MyEmma, iContact and many more have built tens-hundreds of millions of dollar/year businesses with "all-in-one" software for handling email marketing.
  • Banner Ads - platforms like Aquantive, DoubleClick, AdReady, etc. have and are building scalable solutions that drive billions in online advertising
  • Analytics - remember when we had one-off, log file analysis tools and analytics consultants who built their own tools to dig into your data? Those consultants are still here, but they're now armed with much more powerful tools - Google Analytics, Omniture, Webtrends, etc. (and new players like KISS Metrics, too)

You're likely spot-on in thinking that power players will continue to mash up and hack their own solutions, build their own tools and protect their secret processes to make them more exclusive in the market and (hopefully) competitive. But, these folks are on the far edge of the bell curve. In every one of the industries above (and many others), it looks like the way to build a scalable software product that many, many people adopt, use and love is to optimize of the middle to upper-end of the bell curve (what we'd probably call "intermediate" to "advanced" SEOs, rather than the outlier experts).

When you gather ranking data do you use APIs to do so? If not, how hard was it been on the technical front scaling up to that level of data extraction?

Some data we can get through APIs, but most isn't available in that fashion, so relatively robust networks are required to effectively get the information. Luckily, we've got a pretty terrific team of engineers and a VP of Engineering who's done data extraction work previously for Amazon, Microsoft and others. I'd certainly say that it ranks in the top 10 technical challenges we've faced, but probably not the top 3.

What do you gain by doing the all-in-one approach that a roll your own type misses out on?

Convenience, consistency, UI/UX, user-friendliness and scalability are all big gains. However, the compromise is that you may lose some of that "secret-sauce" feeling and the power that comes from handling any weird situation or result in a hands-on, one-to-one fashion. Plenty of folks using our web app have already pointed out edge-case scenarios where we're probably not taking the ideal approach, and those kinks will take time to be ironed out.

Some firms use predictive analytics to automatically change page titles & other attributes on the fly. Do you see much risk to that approach? Do you eventually see SEO companies offering CMS tools as part of their packages to lock in customers, while integrating the SEO process at a much deeper level?

When we were out pitching to take venture capital last summer, a lot of VCs felt that this was the way to go and that we should have products on this front.

Personally, I don't like it, and I'd be surprised if it worked. Here's why:

  • Editors/writers should be responsible for content, not machine-generated systems built to optimize for search engines. Yes, those machine systems can and should make recommendations, but I fear for the future of your content and usability should "perfect SEO" be the driving force behind every word and phrase on your site.
  • With links being such a powerful signal, it's far better to have a slightly less well-targeted page that people actually want to link to than a "perfect" page that reads like machine-generated content.
  • I think content creators who take pride in their work are the ones who'll be better rewarded by the engines (at least in the long term - hopefully your crusade against Demand Media, et al. will help with that), and those are the same type of creators who won't permit a system like this to automatically change their content based on algorithmic evaluation.

There are cases I could see where something like this would be pretty awesome, though - e.g. a 404 detector that automatically 301s pages it sees earning real links back to the page it thinks was the most likely intended target.

On your blog recently there was a big fuss after you changed your domain authority modeling scores. Were you surprised by that backlask? What caused such a drastic change to your scores?

We were surprised only until we realized that somehow, our internal testing missed some pretty obvious boneheaded scores.

Basically, we calculate DA and PA using machine learning models. When those models find better "correlated" results, we put them in the system and build new scores. Unfortunately, in the late August release, the models had much better average correlation but some really terrifically bad outliers (lots of junky single-page keyword-match domains got DAs of 100 for example).

We just rolled out updated scores (far ahead of our expected schedule - we thought it would take weeks), and they look much better. We're always open to feedback, though!

When I got into SEO (and for the first couple years) it seemed like you could analyze a person's top backlinks and then literally just go out and duplicate most of them fairly easily. Since then people have become more aware of SEO, Google has cracked down on paid links, etc. etc. etc. Based on that, a lot of my approach to SEO has moved away from analysis and more toward just trying to do creative marketing & hope some % of it sticks. Do you view data as being a bit of a sacred cow, or more of just a rough starting point to build from? How has your perception as to the value of data & approach to SEO changed over time?

I think your approach is almost exactly the same as mine. The data about links, on-page, social stats, topic models, etc. is great for the analysis process, but it's much harder to simply say "OK, I'll just do what they did and then get one more link," than it was when we started out.

That analysis and ongoing metrics tracking is still super-valuable, IMO, because it helps define the distance between you and the leaders and gives critical insight into making the right strategic/tactical decisions. It's also great to determine whether you're making progress or not. But, yes, I'd agree that it's nowhere near as cut-and-dried as it once was.

The frustrating part for us at SEOmoz is we feel like we're only now producing/providing enough data to be good at these. I wish that 6-7 years ago, we'd been able to do it (of course, it would have cost a lot more back then, and the market probably wasn't mature enough to support our current business model).

How much time do you suggest people should spend analyzing data vs implementing strategies? What are some of the biggest & easiest wins often found in the data?

I think that's actually the big win with the web app (or with competitive software products like Raven, Conductor, Brightedge, etc). You can spend a lot less time on the collection/analysis of data and a lot more on taking the problems/opportunities identified and doing the real work of solving those issues.

Big wins in our new web app for me have been ID'ing pages through the weekly crawl that need obvious fixing (404s and 500s are included, like Google Webmaster Tools, but so are 20+ other data points they don't show like 302s, incorrect rel canonicals, etc.)

Blekko has got a lot of good press by sharing their ranking models & link data. Their biggest downside so far in their beta is the limited size of their index, which is perhaps due to a cost benefit analysis & they will expand their index size before they publicly launch. In some areas of the web Google crawls & indexes more than I would expect, while not going to deeply into others. Do you try to track Google's crawls in any way? How do you manage your crawl to try to get the deep stuff Google has while not getting the deep stuff that Google doesn't have?

Yeah - we definitely map our crawls against Google, Bing and Majestic on a semi-regular basis. I can give you a general sense of we see ourselves performing against these:

  • Google - the freshest and most "complete" (without including much spam/junk) of the indices. A given Linkscape index is likely around 40-60% of the Google index in a similar timeframe, but we tend to do pretty well on coverage of domains and well-linked-to pages, though worse on deep crawling in big sites.
  • Bing - they've got a large index like Google, but we actually seem to beat them in freshness for many of the less popular corners of the web (though they're still much faster about catching popular news/blogs/etc from trusted sources since they update multiple times daily vs. our once-per-month updates).
  • Majestic - dramatically larger in number of URLs than Google, Bing or Linkscape, but not as good as any of those about freshness or canonicalization (we'll often see hundreds of URLs in the index that are essentially the same page with weird URL parameters). We like a lot of their features and certainly their size is enviable, but we're probably not going to move to a model of continuous additions rather than set updates (unless we get a lot more bandwidth/processing power at dramatically lower rates).


the problem with maintaining old URLs became more clear when we analyzed decay on the WWW

In terms of reaching the deep corners of the web, we've generally found that limiting spam and "thin" content is the big problem at those ends of the spectrum. Just as email traffic is estimated to be 90%+ spam, it's quite possible that the web, if every page were truly crawled and included, would have similar proportions. Our big steps to help this are using metrics like mozTrust, mozRank and some of our PA/DA work to help guide the crawl. As we scale up index size (probably December/January of this year), that will likely become a bigger challenge.

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Thanks Rand. You can read his latest thoughts on the SEOmoz blog and follow him on Twitter at @randfish.

Jon Glick Interview

Jon Glick.
Jon Glick is one of the leading experts on search, having literally both wrote the code at leading search engines and later becoming an SEO professional. I remember speaking with him in 2004 at the Ghost Bar in Las Vegas and it was perhaps the most fascinating conversation about search I have ever been part of. I have wanted to interview him for years & just recently was able to. :)

In some past interviews (like this one) you have highlighted how Google's key strength is perhaps brand rather than relevancy. After seeing Yahoo! bow out of the search game do you still hold that same opinion? What do you think of the Bing brand?

Brand is still Google’s strongest competitive asset in search. It means that to get someone to switch you have to be significantly better than they are, which is a tall order. Bing is the first search offering from MSFT that is in the same league with Google, so it’s more about branding and positioning than objective quality at this point. If Bing was a standalone brand they wouldn’t have a chance, but it has the advantage of default positioning in IE, so for now it just has to be close enough that people won’t swap it out. Over time Bing may evolve some interesting differentiation from Google, but that’s not really the case right now (at least it seems to be pressuring Google to experiment/innovate a bit more). It’s been quite a while since using a MSFT product was “cool” and Bing has that drag on its brand.

Some of the new upstarts entering the search game believe that perhaps the thinning of the herd is creating an entry opportunity? Have you checked out Blekko yet? Any other new general search projects interest you?

Google rose to prominence during the dot-com bust when the existing players were quite disinterested in search, since at the time (pre-PPC) it was money loser. Search is so ridiculously lucrative right now that any promising technology that starts to get traction or buzz is likely to be quickly acquired by one of the major players as a blocking measure. Google’s rumored attempt to acquire Cuil for $80MM pre-launch is an example. There is an opportunity, but it’s more about getting bought out for a sweet price than taking down the SEs.

There is also so much manual tuning in search these days that even a great system will take a lot of effort to return great results. “Plumber OR Pipefitter” is a Boolean query, “Portland OR Plumber” is not, and someone’s got to build code to recognize that. This is where the existing players have a huge legacy advantage.

Looking at new search technologies I’m very cautious about those that ask users to do more work in return for better results. Search is a low-intensity activity that people don’t really want to learn or spend time on. This is where an approach like WA (that Bing is also aiming towards) looks interesting. We’d all like search to be like the computer from Star Trek that gives you back exactly the answer/data you ask for. The complication with this, beyond the technical issues, is what benefit it has for the webmasters (i.e. why should I let you crawl/index my site). Current SEs take your data for their use, but provide traffic in return, which an answering system would not.

You are one of the few guys who literally wrote the relevancy algorithms & then later worked in the SEO space. Do you consider the roles to be primarily complimentary or adversarial?

So is SEO good or bad for SEs? On the whole I think it’s a benefit for them. From an algo perspective it’s a lot easier to determine the intent of a well SEO’d page. The SEs give webmasters a lot of tools and encourage them to use them because it makes search better. 301 your pages so we know where the content went, let us know what parameters don’t impact page content so we don’t get caught in robot traps, tell us what language your page is in using the metatags so we don’t have to guess, etc. If one of these tools ends up being a net negative, SEs can always change how they treat it (NoFollow), or just start ignoring it all together (Keywords MetaTag). This is not to say that a lot of work doesn’t have to be put into removing spam and factoring out overly aggressive optimization, but it’s a lot less than what they’d need to do if no one SEO’d.

Given your experience on both sides of the table, do you feel that ranking great in other search engines is like stealing candy from a baby, or is it still hard? What aspects of the SEO process do you find most challenging?

For SEO-ing established businesses it’s not a slam dunk, but it is still possible to generate very strong returns. At Become.com we have dozens of people working on SEO in a very organized manner and paybacks on investing effort are better than almost any other aspect of our business. The challenging part is the innate volatility of SEO and the fact that ultimately the SEs control our destiny. You can put together a great growth plan, and then watch an algo update like MayDay shred it.

For the spammers, it’s like stealing candy from a sleeping Doberman. It’s easy until the Doberman wakes up.

Does your experience allow you to just look at a search result and almost instantly know why something is ranked? If so, what are the key things SEOs should study / work on to help gain that level of understanding?

I wish. There is always some pattern recognition that comes from experience (i.e. this is a collage site), but there are so many nuances in the code and off-page stuff that it’s not always instant, you just get better at knowing what to look for. The real learning comes from looking at pages that are ranking well for no obvious reason and seeing what they are doing. It’s no secret why apple is #1 for “ipod nano,” but what is that site I haven’t heard of doing right to get the #5 position? Also if we see a competitor suddenly see a step-function traffic lift we look to see what they changed/added that the SEs seem to be liking.

Back in 2006 you highlighted the rise of some of the MFA collage websites. In 2010 content mills are featured in the press almost every week. Are you surprised how far it has went & how long it has lasted?

I think Google actually likes folks like Demand Media. What they are doing is seeing where GG’s users are looking for something and not finding it, then plugging that hole. It may not be the Pulitzer Prize-winning content, but it allows users to find something and thus makes Google more useful and universal. When better content comes along those pages will slip down, but they serve a purpose in Google’s ecosystem.

Collage websites (stitch sites in Yahoo! parlance) are another story entirely. They add virtually no value and are pretty much spam IMO. The difficulty is in detecting and eradicating them as fast as they can be robo-created.

You mentioned looking at the aboutness of a site for Become.com when judging links. Do you think broad general search engines care about link relevancy?

Personally, I have not seen it have much of an impact, which is a shame. I think the main reason is that it is quite difficult for general SEs to judge which site relationships are meaningful, and which are not. For example, a golf course might get links from a real estate site; golf and real estate might be classified as very different verticals, but the links are quite relevant because the real estate agent is pointing out one of the benefits of the community. As a result link relevancy has become more about avoiding bad neighborhoods (3Ps, link farms, etc.) than finding good ones.

How important do you think temporal analysis is in judging the quality and authenticity of a link profile?

It’s certainly a red flag if a site gains too many links too quickly. The same is true if the profile of the links looks unnatural. If all your new links are coming from PR3-PR4 blog sites, something’s off. If bloggers are suddenly that interested in you wouldn’t a lot of PR0 comments exist, FB mentions, tweets, and a few higher PR press mentions? At Yahoo! sites that got a sudden upsurge in inlinks were classed as “spike” sites. Legit spike sites (ex. the website of some unknown who wins an Olympic medal) have typical hallmarks like temporally-linked mentions in media sites that you can’t buy access to (AP, NYT, Time, etc.). The spikes that are blackhatted look totally different.

In an interview a couple years ago Priyank Garg mentioned Yahoo! looked at the link's location on a page. Do you feel other search engines take this into account?

All of the major SEs have been doing boilerplate stripping for a while. They recognize footers, rail nav., etc. and look at those links differently. Also, SEs will only follow a limited number of links per page. They typically collect all the links, remove the checksum dups (note: if your links vary by even one parameter they will not be deduped at this phase), and follow the first N links from the code. None of the SEs will say exactly what N is, but it’s probably somewhere between 75 and 300 links (Google recommends you have <100). Put your important links high up in the code and save the header/footer stuff for further down.

What are some of the biggest advantages vertical search engines have over general search engines? As Google adds verticals, will they be able to build meaningful services that people prefer to use over leading vertical plays?

The big advantage of being a vertical search engine is the ability to limit the scope of the problem we’re trying to tackle. You can use a more focused taxonomy to provide a better experience, and present data in a way that is much more relevant than the 10 blue links. Sidestep is going to help me find the plane flight I want a lot easier than a Google search. The challenge is that the experience that you offer has to be dramatically better than Google. Google is easy, people know how to use it and it works for almost everything. Being 5% better at one thing won’t get anyone to switch behavior.

As Google adds verticals, it’s ironic that they are in a position in the browser similar to how I think of Microsoft historically on the desktop (link and leverage): they don’t need to win by being the best, they win by being the default. Google Product Search doesn’t have to provide a better user experience than say Shopping.com; it will get used because it gets placed prominently on the Google SERP.

At the upcoming SES you are speaking about meaningful SEO metrics. What are some of the least valuable metrics people still track heavily?

The one that jumps to mind is pages indexed. Depending on which GG servers you are hitting, that number is going to fluctuate, and I see people stress over those fluctuations when there is often no actual change. Also, getting indexed is virtually worthless; it’s getting ranked that’s valuable. It’s easy to get your “iPod” page indexed, getting a top10 ranking is another story. What’s the point of having 300,000 pages indexed if all your traffic is coming from 30 that have decent rankings? If you have pages that are indexed, but not ranking; either do some SEO for those pages (internal links, extra content, etc.) or NoIndex them and take them out of your sitemaps so other pages on your site get a chance.

Another is pageload time. Google has mentioned this as a ranking factor, but we really have not seen an impact. We focus on reducing latency, and loading search relevant content first (vs. headers or banner media), but that’s because it reduces abandonment rate not that it helps SEO.

What are some of the most valuable metrics which are not generally appreciated enough in the market?

The big one is revenue. Everything else is a means to this end; never lose sight of that.

The other is crawl rate (esp. from Google). This is a great leading indicator.

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Thanks Jon! To hear more of Jon's insights on search check out his panel at San Francisco's SES conference next week.

An Interview with Johns Wu

Internet success stories rarely get any sexier than the story of Johns Wu. 

In 2006, while still an undergraduate research student in neuroscience, Johns started a Wordpress blog he named Bankaholic.com. A one-man-show, Johns used an SEO/SEM-focused approach to build traffic and revenue. Just over 3 years later, he sold Bankaholic to BankRate for a reported $14.9 Million.

He was 22 years old.

Recently, we caught-up with Johns. This proved to be a bit of a challenge, as he is currently enjoying the ability to travel all over the world. He graciously stopped just long enough to answer some questions about his success and what it takes to create a multi-million dollar website these days.

So what leads a guy like you from studying neuroscience into SEO?

My original inspiration was the story of Anand Lal Shimpi and Anandtech.com. When I was in middle school, I saw a news report about how he became a media-tycoon when he was only in high school. Since then, I have always been fascinated by online media. In college, I was originally on track go to medical school, but the deeper I got into science, the more I realized that I hated it! I explored some computer and business classes on the side, and in 2005, I started a stock blog called thebulltrader.com. I had a good time blogging and running the site, and a year later, in 2006, I started Bankaholic. After getting my first AdSense check of $50+, I became interested in getting more traffic, and the rest is history! ;)

Online affiliates tend to do really well in areas that are either directly or closely tied to finance. Do you evaluate the proximity to finance when considering an area or niche where you'd like to build?

Not at all. The Internet is huge and there are tons great niches out there.

Is topical expertise required to compete in a valuable market?

It definitely helps, but it isn't 100% required.

What are specific things you feel might substitute for topical expertise?

Being Internet savvy definitely helps. More specifically, understanding how SEO and SEM works will grow your business and give you a shot even if competitors have more topical expertise.

Do you like to operate in markets where there is passionate competition, or markets where people tend to approach it with less passion?

I always steer clear of competitive niches. Always. There is so much money out there that you shouldn't be wasting your time chasing over-saturated/impossible niches like ringtones and online poker.

Let's talk a bit about how you grew Bankaholic. What was your original vision for the site?

In 2006, it was the peak of the financial bubble. Banks were very aggressive with marketing so they were paying easy sign-up bonuses to new customers. Any average Joe with a social security number could make a couple hundred bucks a month by taking advantage of these deals.

My goal was to aggregate the best deals and create a SlickDeals/Fatwallet kind of site that was exclusively about banking. My vision was to create an online cult of "bankaholics" that would come to my site every day for the latest deals.

Great domain name, BTW. What led you to create a uniquely brand-focused name opposed to using a direct-match or keyword-rich domain within the finance sector?

Picking a domain name was incredibly frustrating because (as you can imagine) all the good names were taken. I remember the day I thought of the word "Bankaholic" very clearly. I was in the neuroscience lab waiting for one of my lab experiments to finish, so I went on the computer and used NameBoy.com to brainstorm some names. I saw the word "Bankaholic" and I thought hey, this sounds alright...so then I quickly registered it on GoDaddy.

Given the size of the sale {$14.9 Million}, it would seem you were quite ambitious and narrowly focused to build that much market leverage so quickly. Were you always focused on reaching that level of success?

Yes, after I graduated college, Bankaholic became my life. I knew that I was sitting on a goldmine and that it was my one shot in life to make it big, so I took it very seriously and spent every free moment obsessing over how to grow and improve my business.

Did you employ any offline strategies to help drive your success?

The only offline strategy I ever attempted was printing Bankaholic t-shirts and giving them out. Since the ROI was so dismal, I never did this again!!

Did you have any specific priorities that you feel contributed in a meaningful way to your success?

Measure and optimize. You can't optimize what you don't measure.

Are you still writing regularly on the site? (One of the current authors in particular seems to share your love affair with culinary treats).

LOL! I continued writing for a few months after the sale, but after the transition, Bankrate has totally taken over.

The social media scene was emerging as Bankaholic grew, but is a much stronger presence today. Has this changed the way you are approaching new ideas or projects?

I'll be honest. I HATE social media. I admit, it can be powerful, but it is so unpredictable and uncontrollable that it is more of an afterthought for my online strategy. I personally would much rather spend my time on SEO since it is predictable, measurable, and (most importantly) 100% profitable.

However, Twitter and Facebook are valuable tools because they allow you to reach a fresh demographic that hasn't yet descended into the 'conversion funnel'... So in that respect, yes it is important to have a level of fluency in SMM depending on your niche and business model.

If new to a niche with limited resources, how does someone tackle bigger, more challenging markets?

Experience is everything. Learn from your mistakes, and don't be afraid to fail your way to the top.

Do you feel a success story like yours is something that anyone can do, or what makes the difference?

Not just anyone can do it, but there are many who can. To be a successful affiliate marketer, you need to be a jack of all trades. You gotta be able juggle and excel at many disciplines: creativity, design, business, project management.

You can only pick one: which is the most valuable asset for a young webmaster starting a competitive website (with all things being magically equal):

  • capital to invest,
  • passion for the subject matter,
  • expertise on the subject matter,
  • SEO savvy,
  • technical/graphic/content development skills

Definitely expertise. If you are a true authority in your niche and you create remarkable content, your website will naturally attract links, advertisers, and business development opportunities.

How has the money affected the way you're approaching new business interests?

I'm very active in domaining because it is a great place to put my money. I think premium domain names are great for my situation. Since I understand the Internet better than anything else, I know what valuations are attractive. Buying domains also leaves me the option to get into more web development in the future.

You've created an amazing "Rags to Riches" story with this entire effort. How does this affect the way you're viewing future challenges?

Unfortunately, I have a lot less motivation these days. I am a lot less 'hungry' for success but it's okay... eventually I will get back into my Internet marketing groove.

So what's next for Johns Wu?

These days, I've just been traveling and relaxing. Once I get the travel bug out of my system, there is no doubt that I will continue chugging away at domain acquisitions and development.

Thanks for taking a moment to talk, Johns - safe travels, and here's to your continued success!

Marty Lamers owns a Freelance SEO Copywriting company you can visit at Articulayers.Com. Since 2001, Articulayers has been fixing the world, one word at a time.

Recent Interviews

I was recently talking to Chris from Warlock Media, and he mentioned a blog post where he wrote "There are more sharks and less fish these days and the trend looks to continue for many years to come." I think as winners accumulate capital and markets consolidate being involved as a person well known in online marketing will become less enjoyable. I explained some of my thoughts on that front in the most recent Ruud questions interview.

This is part of the reason I love the publisher model so much more than the consultant model. Our SEO Book customers are great, but we have to sort through a lot of hate from the bottom 90% to attract a lot of the top 10%ers. My wife is a top 0.00000000000000000000000000000000000000000000001%er, and we recently did an interview with Boardroom Couple.

And here is yet another interview. :)

Interview With Anita Campbell in ~ 1 Hour :)

Hi Everyone
Anita Campbell will be interviewing me on her Small Business Radio program in ~ 1 hour & 15 minutes, at 1:30 PM Eastern.

I was on Small Business Trends Radio

Interview of Tedster from WebmasterWorld

If you have been in the SEO field for any serious length of time you have probably come across (and benefited from) some of Tedster's work - either directly, or indirectly from others who have repackaged his contributions as their own. He is perhaps a bit modest, but there are few people in the industry as universally well respected as he is. I have been meaning to interview him for a while now, and he is going to be speaking at Pubcon South on April 14th in Dallas, so I figured now was as good a time as any :)

How long have you been an SEO, and how did you get into the field?

I started building websites in 1995 and the word SEO hadn't been invented. I came from a background in retail marketing, rather than technology or graphic design. So my orientation wasn't just "have I have built a good site?", but also "are enough people finding my site?"

The best method for bringing in traffic seemed to be the search engines, so I began discussing this kind of marketing with other people I found who had the same focus. Ah, the good old days, right? We were so basic and innocently focused, you know?

If you could list a few key documents that helped you develop your understanding of search, which would be the most important ones?

Here are a few documents that acted as major watersheds for me:

Is PageRank still crucial? Or have other things replaced it in terms of importance?

What PageRank is measuring (or attempting to measure) is still very critical — both the quality and number of other web pages that link to the given page. We don't need to worship those public PR numbers, but we definitely do need quality back-links (and quality internal linking) to rank well on competitive queries.

There appears to be something parallel to PR that is emerging from social media — some metric that uses the model of influencers or thought leaders. But even with that in the mix, ranking would still depend on links, but they would be modified a bit by "followers", "friends", since many social sites are cautious with do-follow links.

Lets play: I have got a penalty - SEO edition. Position 6, -30, 999, etc. Are these just bogus excuses from poor SEOs who have no job calling themselves SEOs, or are they legitimate filters & penalties?

If the page never ranked well, then yes - it could well be a bogus excuse by someone whose only claim to being an SEO is that they read an e-book and bought some rank tracking software. However, Google definitely has used very obvious numeric demotions for pages that used to rank at the top.

The original -30 penalty is an example that nailed even domain name "navigational" searches. It affected some sites that did very aggressive link and 301 redirect manipulation.

What was originally called the -950 (end of results) penalty, while never an exact number, most definitely sent some very well ranked pages down into the very deep pages. Those websites were often optimized by very solid SEO people, but then Google came along and decided that the methods were no longer OK.

In recent months, those exact number penalties seem to have slipped away, replaced something a bit more "floating" and less transparent. My guess is that a negative percentage is applied to the final run re-ranking, rather than subtracting a fixed number. Google's patent for Phrase-based Indexing does mention both possible approaches.

But even using percentages rather than a fixed number, when a top-ranked page runs afoul of some spam prevention filter, it can still tank pretty far. We just can't read the exact problem from the exact number of positions lost anymore.

Do you see Google as having many false positives when they whack websites?

Yes, unfortunately I do. From what I see, Google tends to build an algorithm or heuristic that gathers up all the URLs that seem to follow their "spam pattern du jour" — and then they all get whacked in one big sweep. Then the reconsideration requests and the forum or blog complaints start flying and soon Google changes some factor in that filter. Viola! Some of the dolphins get released from the tuna net.

One very public case was discussed on Google Groups, where an innocent page lost its ranking because a "too much white space" filter that misread the effect of an iframe!

Google's John Mueller fixed the issue manually by placing a flag on that one site to trigger a human inspection if it ever got whacked in the future. I'd assume that the particular filter was tweaked soon after, although there was no official word.

How many false positives does it take to add up to "many"? I'd guess that collateral damage is a single digit percentage at most — probably well under 5% of all filtered pages, and possibly less than 1%. It still hurts in a big way when it hits YOUR meticulously clean website. And even a penalty that incorrectly nails one site out of 300 can still affect quite a lot over the entire web.

How often when rankings tank do you think it is do to an algorithmic issue versus how often it is via an editorial issue with search employees?

When there are lots of similar complaints at the same time, then it's often a change in some algorithm factor. But if it's just one site, and that site hasn't done something radically new and different in recent times, then it's more likely the ranking change came from a human editorial review.

Human editors are continually doing quality review on the high volume, big money search results. It can easily happen that something gets noticed that wasn't seen before and that slipped through the machine part of the algorithm for a long time.

That said, it is scary how often sites DO make drastic errors and don't realize it. You see things like:

  • nofollow robots meta tags getting imported from the development server
  • robots.txt and .htaccess configurations gone way wrong
  • hacked servers that are hosting cloaked parasite content

Google did a big favor for honest webmasters with their "Fetch as googlebot" tool. Sometimes it's the easiest way to catch what those hacker criminals are doing.

When does it make sense for an SEO to decide to grovel to Google for forgiveness, and when should they try to fix it themselves and wait out an algorithmic response?

If you know what you've been doing that tripped the penalty, fix it and submit the Reconsideration Request. If you don't know, then work on it — and if you can't find a danged thing wrong, try the Google Webmaster Forums first, then a Request. When income depends on it, I say "grovel".

I don't really consider it groveling, in fact. The Reconsideration Request is one way Google acknowledges that their ranking system can do bad things to good websites.

I've never seen a case where a request created a problem for the website involved. It may not do any good, but I've never seen it do harm. I even know of a case where the first response was essentially "your site will never rank again" — but later on, it still did. There's always hope, unless your sites are really worthless spam.

Many SEOs theorize that sometimes Google has a bit of a 2-tier justice system where bigger sites get away with murder and smaller sites get the oppressive thumb. Do you agree with that? If no, please explain why you think it is an inaccurate view. If yes, do you see it as something Google will eventually address?

I'd say there is something like that going on — it comes mostly because Google's primary focus is on the end user experience. Even-handed fairness to all websites is on the table, but it's a secondary concern.

The end user often expects to see such and such an authority in the results, especially when it's been there in the past. So Google itself looks broken to a lot of people if that site gets penalized. They are between a rock and a hard place now.

What may happen goes something like this: an A-list website gets penalized, but they can repair their spam tactics and get released from their penalty a lot faster than some less prominent website would. It does seem that some penalties get released only on a certain time frame, but you don't see those time frames applied to an A-list.

This may even be an effect of some algorithm factor. If you watch the flow of data between the various Google IP addresses, you may see this: There are times when the domain roots from certain high value websites go missing and then come back. Several data center watchers I know feel that this is evidence for some kind of white-list.

If there is a white-list, then it requires a history of trust plus a strong business presence to get included. So it might make also sense that forgiveness can come quickly.

As a practical matter, for major sites there can easily be no one person who knows everything that is going on in all the business units who touch the website.

Someone down the org chart may hire an "SEO company" that pulls some funny business and Google may seem to turn a blind eye to it, because the site is so strong and so important to Google's end user. They may also just ignore those spam signals rather than penalize them.

Large authority site content mills are all the rage in early 2010. Will they still be an effective business model in 2013?

It's tough to see how this could be quickly and effectively reined in, at least not by algorithm. I assume that this kind of empty filler content is not very useful for visitors — it certainly isn't for me. So I also assume it must be on Google's radar.

I'd say there's a certain parallel to the paid links war, and Google's first skirmishes in that arena gave then a few black eyes. So I expect any address to the cheap content mills to be taken slowly, and mostly by human editorial review.

The problem here is that every provider of freelance content is NOT providing junk - though some are. As far as I know, there is no current semantic processing that can sort out the two.

Given that free forums have a fairly low barrier to entry there are perhaps false alarms every day on ringing in the next major update or some such. How do you know when change is the real deal? Do you passively track a lot of data? And what makes you so good at taking a sea of tidbits and sort of mesh them into a working theme?

I do watch a lot of data, although not nearly to the degree that I used to. Trying to reverse engineer the rankings is not as fruitful as it used to be —especially now that certain positions below the top three seem to be "audition spots" rather than actually earned rankings.

It helps to have a lot of private communications — both with other trusted SEOs and also with people who post on the forums. When I combine that kind of input with my study of the patents and other Google communications, usually patterns start to stand out.

When you say "audition spots" how does that differ from "actually earned rankings"? Should webmasters worry if their rankings bounce around a bit? How long does it typically take to stabilize? Are there any early signs of an audition going good or bad? Should webmasters try to adjust mid-stream, and if so, what precautions should they take?

At least in some verticals, Google seems to be using the bottom of page 1 to give promising pages a "trial" to see how they perform. The criteria for passing these trials or "auditions" are not very clear, but something about the page looks good to Google, and so they give it a shot.

So if a page suddenly pops to a first page ranking from somewhere deep, that's certainly a good sign. But it doesn't mean that the new ranking is stable. If a page has recently jumped way up, it may also go back down. I wouldn't suggest doing anything drastic in such situations, and I wouldn't overestimate that new ranking, either. It may only be shown to certain users and not others. As always, solid new backlinks can help - especially if they are coming from an area of the web that was previously not heard from in the backlink profile. But I wouldn't play around with on-page or on-site factors at a time like that.

There's also a situation where a page seems to have earned a lot of recent backlinks but there's something about those links that smells a bit unnatural. In cases like that, I've seen the page get a page one position for just certain hours out of the day. But again, it's the total backlink profile and its diversity that I think is in play. If you've done some recent "link building" but it's all one type, or the anchor text is too obviously manipulated, then look around for some other kinds of places to attract some diversity in future backlinks.

On large & open forums lots of people tend to have vastly different experience sets, knowledge sets, and even perhaps motives. How important is your background knowledge of individuals in determining how to add their input into your working theme? Who are some of the people you trust the most in the search space?

I try never to be prejudiced by someone's recent entry into the field. Sometimes a very new person makes a key observation, even if they can't interpret it correctly.

There is a kind of "soft SEO" knowledge that is rampant today and it isn't going to go away. It's a mythology mill and it's important not to base a business decision on SEO mythology. So, I trust hands on people more than manager types and front people for businesses. If you don't walk the walk, then for me your talk is highly suspect.

I pay attention to how people use technical vocabulary — do they say URL when they mean domain name? Do they say tag when they mean element or attribute? Not that we don't all use verbal shortcuts, but when a pattern of technical precision becomes clear, then I listen more closely.

I have long trusted people who do not have prominent "names" as well as some who do. But I also trust people more within their area of focus, and not necessarily when they offer opinions in some other area.

I hate to make a list, because I know someone is going to get left out accidentally. Let's just say "the usual suspects." But as an example, if Bruce Clay says he's tested something and discovered "X", you can be pretty sure that he's not blowing sunshine.

Someone who doesn't have huge name recognition, but who I appreciate very much is Dave Harry (thegypsy). That's partly because he pays attention to Phrase-based Indexing and other information retrieval topics that I also watch. I used to feel like a lone explorer in those areas before I discovered Dave's contributions.

What is the biggest thing about Google where you later found out you were a bit off, but were pretty certain you were right?

That's easy! Using the rel="nofollow" attribute for PR sculpting. Google made that method ineffective long before I stopped advocating it. I think I actually blushed when I read the comment from Matt Cutts that the change had been in place for over a year.

What is the biggest thing about Google where you were right on it, but people didn't believe until months or years later?

The reality of the poorly named "minus 950" penalty. I didn't name it, by the way. It just sort of evolved from the greater community, even though I kept trying for "EOR" or "End Of Results.

At PubCon South I believe you are speaking on information architecture. How important is site structure to an effective SEO strategy? Do you see it gaining or losing importance going forward?

It is hugely important - both for search engines and for human visitors.

Information Architecture (IA) has also been one the least well understood areas in website development. IA actually begins BEFORE the technical site structure is set up. Once you know the marketing purpose of the site, precisely and in granular detail, then IA is next.

IA involves taking all the planned content and putting it into buckets. There are many different ways to bucket any pile of content. Some approaches are built on rather personal idiosyncrasies, and other types can be more universally approachable. Even if you are planning a very elaborate, user tagged "faceted navigation" system, you still need to decide on a default set of content buckets.

That initial bucketing process then flows into deciding the main menu structure. Nest you choose the menu labels, and this is the stage where you fix the actual menu labels and fold in keyword research. But if a site is built on inflexible keyword targets from the start, then it can often be a confusing mess for a visitor to navigate.

As traffic data grows in importance for search ranking, I do see Information Architecture finally coming into its own. However, the value for the human visitor has always clearly visible on the bottom line.

What are some of the biggest issues & errors you see people make when setting up their IA?

There are two big pitfalls I run into all the time:

  • Throwing too many choices at the visitor. Macy's doesn’t put everything they sell in their display windows, and neither should a website.
  • Using the internal organization of the business as the way to organize the website. That includes merely exporting a catalog to a web interface.

How would you compare PubCon South against other conferences you have attended in the past?

PubCon South is a more intimate venue than, say Vegas. That means less distraction and more in-depth networking. Even though people do attend from all over the world, there is a strong regional attendance that also gives the conference a different flavor — one that I find a very healthy change of pace.

In addition, PubCon has introduced a new format — the Spotlight Session. One entire track is made completely of Spotlight Sessions with just one or two presenters, rather than an entire panel. These are much more interactive and allow us to really stretch out on key topics.

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Thanks Tedster! If you want to see Tedster speak he will be at Pubcon Dallas on the 14th, and if you want to learn about working with him please check out Converseon. You can also read his latest musings on search and SEO by looking into the Google forums on WebmasterWorld. A few months back Tedster also did an interview with Stuntdubl.

Comparing SEO Business Models

One of the great things about SEO is that it allows you to see many lenses on business that you can't normally see with most other professions (outside of perhaps something in high finance or management consulting anyhow). One day you are building a bootstrapped business from scratch wondering when it will make its first Dollar, and the next day your on the phone with McKinsey consultants or an executive from a fortune 500 company talking strategy.

Zeta Interactive's Hugo Guzman is one of the the folks in the SEO industry who has a broad experience set which perhaps eclipses my own, as he has done virtually everything. And so I recently interviewed him...

You run some of your own sites, have done some private SEO consulting, I believe you may have done some in house SEO for a while, and are now deep into the bowels of the SEO agency world. What are the best and worst parts of each role?

Great question! Here’s my take based on personal experience in each role.

Running your own site(s)

Best Thing: That feeling of unbridled entrepreneurism. I’ve always felt that website building is sort of like the new real estate development, only anybody can do it and it costs less than $100 to get started (if you know what you’re doing). The other great thing about running your own site(s) is the ability to cut out on time wasting and bureaucracy. There’s no need for filling out corporate approval paperwork or sitting through useless meetings or conference calls, so you can focus in on building content, building links, building databases, and building relationships.

Worst Thing: The cold hard reality of monetization. There used to be a day when paid links could easily bankroll early development until you got other revenue streams to a point of sustainability, but that well has dried up to a certain extent. Affiliate revenue and Adsense are both viable but take time to develop, especially if SEO is the main source of traffic, so like you, I believe that the best option is to cut out the middle man and develop a product/service of your own that fills a specific niche need at a fair price. I think that the emergence of FourSquare and Twitter localization suggests a strong opportunity for hyper-niche, location-based website development. You don’t have to be the best in the world at a specific thing in order to be successful. Just be the best in your locale or region.

SEO consulting

Best Thing: Being able to do SEO “The Right Way” (or at least “your own way”). It feels good to execute an SEO program that way you see fit, especially when it works! It makes for a very rewarding experience. It’s fun to build out the list of deliverables, the timeline for implementation, and the success metrics and KPIs that will be the foundation of your client programs.

Worst Thing: Dealing with the sales grind, chasing after clients that don’t pay on time (or at all) not getting the hourly bill rate you know you deserve, etc…basically all the business stuff that has little or nothing to do with pure SEO. Unfortunately, many of the SEOs that go this route get caught up in the grind by failing or refusing to fire bad clients, so that they can focus on building revenue by offering more granular or expanded services for their good clients.

In-house SEO

Best Thing: Being embedded in so many different aspects of a business and learning about marketing and biz dev elements outside the pure SEO realm. I spent several years working with CBS Interactive and I learned a ton about so many things and worked with some really intelligent people.

For example, I learned how C-level executives frame marketing channels like SEO. The main success metric that I was measured on was percentage of overall referring traffic (well under 10% when I first started). Even though I was able to exponentially grow natural search referrals, especially for key niches like fantasy football and March Madness – both of which are huge moneymakers for CBS – the cumulative effect on overall traffic was minimal (never reached 20%). The reason was simple; CBS owns their major television network as well as a myriad of local television affiliates, radio stations, billboards, email addresses, etc, which literally drove millions and millions of unique referrals.

This introduction to mass media metrics helped me gain perspective on the role SEO plays within the larger scheme of things (brand building and management, push/interruption marketing, email marketing, etc). And it was this perspective that would help me connect with marketing executives when I made the move to agency SEO, because I finally understood that while SEO is arguably the most cost-effective marketing channel, it was only one piece of a much larger puzzle.

Worst Thing: It’s hard to move up the corporate ladder and earn big dollars. Because SEO is typically straddled between marketing and IT, it’s tough to move up into upper-management positions. Some companies (like the Tribune Company) are starting to wake up, but for the most part, it’s still tough to move on up.

SEO Agency

Best Thing: It’s sort of like the Peace Corps in that it’s the hardest job you’ll ever love. Granted, you’re not really helping the world be a better place (just helping companies become more profitable) but getting to work with so many different verticals, marketing philosophies, business executives, and web environments is incredibly rewarding. Agency SEO (if you work at a good agency) will undoubtedly make you a better SEO, and a better business person in general.

Interestingly enough, it’s the seemingly unconquerable workload that proves to be the catalyst for professional growth. Dealing with multiple clients, each of which has impossible deadlines and unrealistic ROI expectations, forces you to prioritize your efforts and focus on the strategies and tactics that will deliver the most bang for their marketing buck. SEO’s that fail to grasp this are quickly burned out and leave the agency life (and usually return after a year or two after realizing that they can’t make much money in-house). SEO’s that “get it” quickly make an impact for clients – and the agency’s bottom line – catapulting them into management and executive roles.

Worst Thing: It’s sort of like the Post Office. The work just keeps coming and coming. It’s extremely stressful, demanding, and demoralizing at times. But hey, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger right?

From which of the 4 roles do you see the greatest profit potential?

That’s a tough one. In-house probably has the least profit potential, followed by agency work. Although it’s worth pointing out that some of the better agencies out there take extraordinary steps to keep talented individuals happy and give them a true stake in the company’s success. My agency definitely falls in that category.

Consulting has very solid profit potential but building your own site(s) is definitely king in my book because if you pick the right niche and truly devote yourself on all levels the potential is limitless.

You (Aaron Wall) write about this topic quite a bit, but it’s important to re-emphasize. If an enterprising SEO is looking to start their own site(s) the first thing to take into consideration is the level of passion they have for the topic/theme that the site(s) will encompass, because if the passion isn’t there, it’s unlikely that said SEO will have the motivation to work through the inevitable plateaus that await his/her new business. Also, as most of us know, building the right kind of content is what often leads to the inbound links that will serve as the foundation of a solid search presence, and that’s much easier to do when you truly love the topic/theme you’re dealing with.

When you guys take on new clients are you knee deep in the SEO projects? Or do you focus more on training your team?

Truthfully, I’m no longer involved in day-to-day management of SEO projects. I do touch almost every single account, but usually it’s as an advisor to the SEO specialist that’s assigned to the account or because the client needs to tap into my historical knowledge of the account (I’ve been working with some of our clients for several years now and know more about their history than some of their employees). Basically, I keep tabs on each account and come in to deal with really tough and/or complex scenarios that junior team members have never encountered. That said, I do spend a considerable amount of time testing specific hypotheses, either on client sites or on test sites that are owned and managed by my agency.

One of the most memorable tests we performed was for a major insurance and financial services brand (one of the biggest in the world) that was having a ton of trouble getting their agent profile pages indexed (they had thousands of them). They were convinced that simply adding these pages to their XML sitemap would do the trick, despite the fact that Google explicitly states that submitting an XML sitemap does not replace override their normal indexing and ranking methodology. In order to convince them to take an alternate route (focusing on internal linkage that helped eliminate orphaned agent pages) we simply tested their hypothesis by taking a baseline measurement on the number of indexed agent pages, then adding all of the agent pages to their XML sitemap en masse and then measuring the impact on indexing for those pages (the impact was nil). We then convinced them to implement our recommendations and subsequently measured their impact on indexing of agent pages (over 80% of those pages were subsequently indexed). The result? An interesting conclusion that helps guide our recommendations for other clients as well as an incredibly happy Insurance brand that has now been with us for going on three years!

As for the rest of my time, it is spent training our team of specialists (and the sales folks and the account management folks) supporting sales across the US, leading sales efforts in the Southeastern United States, and working with our product development team to build tools that help facilitate SEO. Oh and I try to help promote the agency when I find some spare time ; )

It wasn’t always like that by the way. I started my agency life as a specialist and have gradually moved up the ladder.

Many of the bigger agency-styled companies sell watered down services of limited value. For example keyword ranking / websourced / marketsmart interactive went from the largest SEO company to closed almost overnight. How do you scale SEO within an agency while preventing the watering down effect that is common at most?

This is an extremely tough problem to overcome, but one of the things that we’ve focused on is product development that helps automate certain facets of the SEO process, so that our specialists can spend their time being truly strategic.

For example, back in 2008, I figured out that our specialists (including myself) were spending an inordinate amount of time formatting and filling out the Excel templates that are used to deliver page-level code recommendations to clients (more or less a staple of agency life). This included copying and pasting the existing code side-by-side with our recommended code, so that the client’s IT/dev folks could use it as a point of reference when implementing. This was essentially data entry work that was extremely tedious and took up a tremendous amount of time.

Working with our tremendous product development and digital services team based in Hyderabad, India, we were able to develop a web application that automatically scraped the designated code for a particular client web page and populated in the correct fields within our Excel template. Now, all our specialists have to do is fill in the recommendations in the appropriate fields, cutting delivery time in half. It’s tremendous productivity booster and also a tremendous morale booster for our specialists.

If you’re on the client side and are interviewing perspective SEO providers, make sure that they have some sort of technology platform in place that will help automate or at least facilitate some of the non-strategic facets. Otherwise, you’re going to spend a ton of money on what essentially amounts to data entry.

From a consumer perspective, a lot of the agencies are long on sales but short on results. What are some of the key signals consumers should pick up on when determining if an agency is the real deal or one that is selling watered down water?

That’s easy.

Ask them if they can help with direct implementation via CMS and/or hard coding. Ask them to go into excruciating detail in terms of how they handle link building (most agencies claim they do link-building, but it usually just boils down to directory submissions and paid links). Ask them to explain how content influences link-building and social media efforts. Ask them to go into excruciating detail in terms of how social media and SEO dovetail. Ask them to go into excruciating detail in terms of how they leverage analytics as it pertains to SEO. Ask them if they’re accustomed to working with senior (even C-level) executives to facilitate approval and implementation of recommendations.

If they’re worth their weight, they’ll jump at the chance to give deep answers to each and every one of these questions.

As an ad agency you guys are also involved in other marketing elements from companies. Does search ever become a key consideration when it comes to product naming, product positioning, and other advertising formats? If yes, could you share some examples?

My agency was arguably the first to truly embrace the cross-channel interactive agency model, so we definitely work with clients across a variety of marketing channels, and as a matter of fact, we offer a variety of services beyond search (we just made the Forrester Wave for email service providers).

I can’t get into specific clients and URLs due to confidentiality agreements, but I would say that well over 50% of the clients we work with take search into consideration when naming products, positioning products, and even picking vanity domains. I would say that about 25% of our clients make search their top priority when considering these types of things. Those are our favorites, because they really “get it” and work SEO into everything they do.

One example that I can give you (without revealing specific client names) is the purchasing of vanity domains to drive SEO for specific product/service offerings. I’ve seen companies drop anywhere from a few thousand to hundreds of thousands in order to secure domains that have large, authoritative link profiles and already rank for high volume keywords. In fact, I recently did some consulting on behalf of one of the largest VC firms in the world, helping one of their clients (we’ll call them “Company A”) essentially put a price tag on a the value of a domain that was owned by a smaller firm that “Company A” was looking to acquire. I actually think that this type of work could become a nice hyper niche for me in the future (until Google and others finally accomplish their goal of eliminating domains from the search equation…but that’s a story for another day).

What strategies do you use to help clients provide adequate resources for a large or complex SEO assignment when the results might take many months to materialize?

We’ve gone as far as to help clients screen potential hires or contractors in order to help them staff up for large initiatives. In addition, we’ve embedded our employees at a client’s office for large stretches of time in what you could call a “dedicated resource” type of arrangement. Lastly, we’ve helped coordinate cross-division committees and/or multi-agency collaboration in order to help get large initiatives off the ground.

Basically, I’ve always preached to the team that they have to do anything and everything to make things happen. Often times, it’s this extra effort that ends up become the primary measure of success in the client’s eyes, especially if there are some solid metrics to go along with it.

What success metrics are used along the way to help clients appreciate the returns on the SEO efforts?

I find that year-over-year trending is extremely valuable because it takes seasonality into account, and we’ll deliver that type of trending both at the aggregate level and focused on specific “big money” keywords. Incidentally, our agency doesn’t shy away from extremely competitive keywords. We go after everything that fits the client’s vertical but just make sure to set expectations early on. Clients deserve to rank for the biggest money terms, but they also need to understand that in certain cases it could take years to achieve above-the-fold placement.

Also, I believe that it’s critical to drill down and measure non-branded keywords as opposed to just looking at raw aggregate referral data, especially when you’re working with big brands that drive mammoth amounts of brand queries. If you don’t strip out the branded search referrals, then you’re not really measuring SEO (99% of the time, branded keywords have and always will rank No. 1 so the traffic they drive are a function of brand awareness, not search engine optimization).

Google is known for letting bigger brands get away with being a bit spammy. Do you ever suggest to clients that they have the opportunity to push the window?

The short answer is “Yes”.

We conform to “White Hat” SEO (whatever that means) but we also believe that it’s our job to educate clients on techniques that may or may be deemed as “spammy” by search engines like Google. They deserve to understand the entire SEO landscape, not just the vision created by Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.

Also, for clients that are already relatively SEO savvy and were already dabbling in techniques deemed unsavory by Google, we will gladly provide a third-party opinion and consulting on those activities. We believe that they deserve that level of service for the premium they’re paying.

Within a company internal politics often end up kicking SEO into the back seat. When doing agency work, who are the key individuals from within the companies you service that you consider it a must to loop in on the project?

Start with the CEO (seriously). And by the way, this also applies to social media initiatives.

The goal is to find a way to move the needle for a client, even if we are faced with a tough situation in terms of marketing approval, legal approval, or IT implementation (this is more or less par for the course in verticals like Pharma and Financial Services). If we can move that needle, then we’ll immediately push to get in front of upper-level executives, so that we can help them understand what we’re trying to accomplish in the long term (and that we won’t accomplish it at the expense of their brand affinity or legal standing).

If you’re not getting face time with a senior director, VP, or C-level executive, then you’re probably not doing a very good job.

Hugo Guzman is the Vice President of SEO & Social Media at Zeta Interactive. He can be reached via email at hguzman@zetainteractive.com or via Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/hugoguzman.

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