eBay SEO: an Interview of Dennis Goedegebuure

Dennis Goedegebuure, aka DennisG, is the head of eBay's in-house SEO team. After seeing him make some great posts in our forums and chatting a bit back and forth I asked if he would be up for doing an interview about SEO. And the result is the following 12 pages full of great actionable tips for anyone looking to learn more about in-house SEO best practices. Thanks to Joost for introducing us.

What is your background and how did you get into SEO?

After I finished a master in Economics at the University of Amsterdam, I started at eBay in April 2002 in the Internet marketing team for eBay Netherlands and Belgium. Just 5 months before eBay had acquired iBazar, the European clone active in a large number of European countries. iBazar relied heavily on traditional ways of marketing like TV, radio and print. eBay invest the majority of its marketing budget in direct acquisition of customers through internet Marketing. So I was hired as the second employee in the IM team.

During my tenure at eBay.nl, I worked at direct portal relationships like Yahoo & MSN, did some early paid search keyword buying with Google when they entered the Dutch market, and worked on the acquisition of the largest classifieds site in The Netherlands, marktplaats.nl.

To become better in communicating with our local developers, I started to learn code languages. HTML was obviously the first one, and definitely a must have skill set to become more effective explaining what I needed from the developers in the projects.

However, your skills in html become rusty very fast if you don’t use them, so I started coding my own websites. As we live and breathe data as internet Marketers, I was definitely intrigued by the potential of SEO as a traffic source. Since I didn’t want to invest money yet in these sites, I only had time to invest to drive more traffic to my sites. SEO seemed a good way to get more traffic.

Within eBay you have the ability to control your own destiny if you take action. If you would like to move to another job, you can work your way into it. After the acquisition of Marktplaats.nl, I took a broader role in SEO for that site, as well as the Natural Search projects for eBay.nl. Marktplaats has it’s own development team. Which is not the case for eBay.nl, which is on the global platform where the majority of the product releases are driven out of the San Jose product teams?

In 2004 I was invited for a trip to eBay Marketing College, where I met my future manager in the US. A year later I got the chance moving to San Jose, in a job to coordinate the global Natural Search projects. At the time we had local teams working on Natural search, and there was a big need for best practice sharing and coordination of the global projects.

Now, 2009, I’m working in a centralized team in San Jose, where we are responsible for the Natural Search traffic for all eBay global sites. We consult on the Classifieds sites and on PayPal where needed. And we have very good relations with the in-house SEO teams of the Classifieds group, Shopping.com and Stubhub.

Over the last three years, I have consulted on SEO with Skype, StumbleUpon, Rent and half.com. It has been fun to see the different challenges and the different solutions the teams bring to the objectives they set for the SEO projects. And I learned a lot about SEO and scalability.

A large number of people have shaped me in my thinking about SEO. Among them well known names in the SEO industry like yourself, Danny Sullivan, Vanessa Fox or Michael Gray. Thank you all for sharing the wealth of knowledge!

One particular colleague that has made a lasting impact how I work has been Alex Schultz. Alex is just an incredible smart guy, who has such amazing diverse background knowledge in Internet marketing. I would work with him in any team, at any time again!

You do SEO for one of the largest online websites and yet you also run a few of your own websites. How would you compare the differences between your enterprise level efforts and what the average SEO experiences working on smaller websites?

I use my own websites to test small tweaks or new techniques in the broadest definition of Internet Marketing. I’m learning everyday from other people online. It’s important to make sure you are not being focused on one traffic source too much, and not to become too specialized.

On large scale, enterprise websites it’s extremely important to think about the long term impact of certain changes. A site like eBay is like an oil tanker at sea. Where you can make fast changes on your smaller website, which can be easily rolled back, on a large site like eBay, the product roll out process is much more complex. As eBay has been a large target for phishing in the past, a great number of extra security checks are required.

For enterprise websites you would need additional skill set to be more effective. Where in the smaller websites you can rely on getting your requirements in using your technical skills talking with developers, in the larger organization you would need to manage projects and resource allocation through other managers. Those managers might have different incentives or maybe even a different political agenda. Getting your work done in that environment requires the in-house SEO to have a lot of persistence and patience.

What are some of the things you have done which you have found to be most beneficial in helping to evangelize SEO and get buy in from other managers?

Sometimes it pays off to get somebody from the outside who can embarrass all the things that go wrong from an SEO perspective. As building connections with the rest of the organization is essential for the success of your future partnerships within the organization, you can hardly flame all the SEO misses in front of a large audience.

I’ve done this a number of times and had some good success getting the attention SEO needs. It may have helped that I got some senior product folks into the session who have become the biggest SEO ambassadors in the company.

Having these senior folks helping you can catapult your career as well. As an in-house SEO you may find yourself in between different departments. Having a sponsor in each and every department will help raise your profile among more senior people, who can help you in your next projects, career moves or just with advice how to deal with complex problems.

You mentioned that people should not be too focused on any 1 traffic source online. What are some of the best things smaller businesses can do to help lessen their reliance on search? What types of businesses & products work best with leveraging eBay as a source of customers?

Link building in the broadest form. Even no-follow links will help any small business to grow in traffic. We as SEO’s are so focused on the link as a means to improve rankings, where we have forgotten the real function of a link. A link is “linking” two documents to each other for easy navigation of the user.

Links are good for generating traffic. Getting more links to your pages/site, will generate more traffic. Early this year I gained a link from Valleywag to my blog. Looking back at 2009, this single link was the second source traffic to my site!

Furthermore, think about StumbleUpon. Stumbleupon can still drive a significant amount of good traffic to your site, as long as your pages are tagged in the right category in SU. I’ve sent the post from Darren Rowse, Why StumbleUpon Sends more Traffic Than Digg, to a number of starting entrepreneurs. Also Brent Csutoras had a more recent post this year how StumbleUpon is one of his major sources of traffic. Read for yourself at: The Stumble Effect: StumbleUpon Hits the Big Leagues.

StumbleUpon is the gift that keeps on giving” I always say. One of my sites gets hit almost once a month’s with a peak of traffic from SU, (see picture below). This can be a great way of lowering the reliance of your site on search as the main source of traffic.

As an SEO consultant and blogger writing about the latest changes in SEO, I (and other folks) sometimes try to figure out how algorithmic shifts might play out. From your experiences with eBay, do some of us bloggers tend to over-emphasize what might happen? Due to the gravity and strength of your network of websites, does eBay end up seeing far less volatility than smaller sites end up seeing?

I don’t think SEO bloggers over-emphasize what could happen. It’s just you might have other conclusions from what you see happening in the rankings or traffic to your sites than others do. Each site reacts differently from algorithmic changes, as each site has a different link profile, content focus or site architecture.

All you can do is report what you see happening when an algorithmic shift is happening. What I would encourage SEO bloggers to do, is ask more questions for their readers to respond on. What you might see, might be different than what others see. Learning from the responses might give you new insight.

When it comes to seismic shifts in the algorithm, we don’t see that much volatility in traffic. Where one page type might lose, another one can gain. The same with keywords, where we might get more traffic on branded searches, there might be a loss in generic product name searches. The larger the site, the less volatile the site can be to algorithmic shifts.

Now, having said that, it’s still difficult to see what the real impact is on a site like eBay from changes like Vince or Caffeine. We will see when we all get caffeinated, but given that eBay has invested in site speed, has relevant content for online shoppers looking for great deals and is growing in number of items for sale, I expect eBay to do well getting more visitors through Natural Search.

What are some of the easiest things to mess up when working on a site of that scale?

Working on a large scale website, will usually mean different teams are working on different parts of the site. These teams will have people leaving, and new people joining. Without having the proper best practice sharing or historical SEO learning’s in place, you will find yourself running behind every project in flight to get your requirements in.

As an in-house SEO team, we are self promoting the team on a continuous basis, build new connections as people come in, scan for projects that might become critical for our success and go after the owners of these. I would say, the easiest thing to mess up traffic working on a large scale site is losing overview of what the organization is working on, key objectives for the organization and how SEO can drive/contribute to the overall objectives. Being plugged in, is key to stay on top of everything. Here it comes down to what we call in Europe: Fingerspitzengefühl.

After that, all technical changes are a matter of prioritization and resourcing. Based on our assumptions we need to show the possible downside or the upside on any of the tradeoffs that are made.

Have you ever had any happy accidents where someone changed stuff without mentioning it, causing an increase in traffic?

Yes, just recently a renewed internal focus on site speed has also shown some good increases of traffic in Natural Search. I was aware of the renewed focus, where I actually kicked off some of the discussions back in 2007. Now that site speed is becoming more important as a ranking factor, the projects to enhance the speed of the eBay pages might pay off more in 2010.

What all success metrics do you look at when evaluating general changes to a site of that scale?

Traffic. Traffic and conversions.

I don’t believe rankings will tell you a whole lot, as this varies too much across data centers, personal search or location based on IP targeting. Rankings can only be directional, not actionable. At eBay, the majority of traffic is on long tail keywords. The amount of keywords that we are getting traffic on, is so large, that we hardly be able to track any of the positions. So I sometimes do some rank checking with your rank checker, but only from home not from the corporate IP address. But with rankings comes traffic. So even if Rankings are not a leading indicator of your success, rankings will produce the traffic which is your objective.

Estimating traffic impact of any changes on a small site is difficult, but you can easily manage the risk rolling back any of the changes. On a large scale site, it’s much more difficult to roll back any changes in infrastructure. Even test results on my own site generally will not be a good proxy of the impact similar changes will have on the larger eBay sites.

This is where search engine guidelines and user experience will come in. Taking the long term strategic approach, we don’t want to lose rankings and we don’t want to lose traffic. What is good for our users, most of the time will be good for search engine rankings.

You mentioned that a lot of your traffic comes from longtail organic search. Across the search marketing field as a whole, there is an amazing budget gap between paid search and organic SEO, where organic SEO offers higher returns but is typically done on a small fraction of the budget. As a marketing investment, why do you feel SEO has lagged paid search? Have you noticed competing businesses shifting more resources into SEO lately, or is it still way behind? What might cause further SEO investments at companies large & small?

I strongly believe the gap between the investments in paid search and SEO are caused by the direct response effect of Paid Search. As a business it’s easier to predict how the sales will react tomorrow on the dollar invested today.

For SEO, it’s always hard to predict the outcome of any investment. I actually struggle a lot with this internally. We have to compete with other teams over product resources for the core site development. If another team has come up with a new seller feature which they predict to increase revenue by a couple of million dollars, it’s hard for me to secure any of the resources based on a competing revenue estimate which might have a lower accuracy level.

With the economic downturn earlier in 2009, paid search budgets have seen a decline. You could see that in the growth numbers from Google, where “only” a 3% Y-Y growth in the second quarter was realized. However, I felt the increase in investments in SEO across the board. I got more job offers and headhunter calls than the years before. Also, it was more difficult to fill open positions in our team, where in-house SEO people were in higher demand.

The more small & large companies become aware of the power of SEO, good rankings, long tail keyword traffic and the search based user behavior, more companies will start to invest in SEO. This sounds like nothing new we have seen in the last couple of years, but in the coming years, the space will become even more crowded. There are only 10 first page results, and sometimes not even 10!

Some small companies will use consultants and pick for some good advice to fall back on DIY implementation, larger companies will probably want to employ a full time in-house SEO person/team. You can see this trend clearly with the rise of specialized streams in the SEO conferences focused on in-house SEO.

When you run a site that large, is there any easy way to phase in tests while minimizing risks?

No. As product life cycles are fairly long compared to other, smaller websites, there is less opportunity to test on the core site. And even if you can run a test, we have to keep in mind that more than 1.5 million people rely on their eBay sales for their primary source of income. We service these people to make sure they are successful. Driving traffic to their items for sale is our most important objective.

Now, that does not mean we don’t do test at all. We have a number of initiatives where we test, and luckily I have a VP who used to run the Natural Search channel. He understands how important testing is. We get a lot of freedom to deploy smaller initiatives off the core platform to do some testing. Actually these test projects are paying for themselves as the revenue derived from the test sites outweigh the costs in the long run.

One example of our test projects, the New-Pulse (currently we are having some smaller issues with the cronjobs, will be fixed soon) was a way to tap into the wisdom of the crowds of successful bloggers. My intention for the project was to have blogs like Gizmodo and Engadget do what they do best; bring the newest gadgets to their readers, and we analyze what products will become winners. I published about the project here, after I got questions how it worked at the Jane&Robot session in San Francisco. This particular project gave me a lot of new ideas what I can do with our internal data, and how to leverage the broader data streams that you can find all over the net.

Small anecdote; based on the insights from the New Pulse, I found out there is an active knitting community who knit socks during the months of October, calling it Socktoberfest. Pictures of the socks are being shared on Flickr. Here you can see how I picked up this trend.

When you guys implement strategic changes does traffic sometimes do a head fake and go the wrong way before moving the direction you expect it to?

It depends what you mean with Strategic changes. If we chance the focus towards a certain category, traffic might increase immediately because of the higher exposure that category gets through our PR efforts. If strategic changes mean product changes, the traffic can be impacted to a large extent.

This is why the Natural Search team at eBay has been growing for the last couple of months. There are so many product changes and projects initiated, that we will need to leverage the product teams as much as possible.

To answer your question, yes, we have seen this happening. Over 2009, we introduced a number of side wide changes. For a long time, eBay has been known using notorious URL structures. The usage of “maverick” URL’s was causing more pain than it did any good. Removing the double encoded parameters from the listing URL’s, and introducing the canonical URL tag, caused a first drop, followed by traffic to stabilize again at prior levels. However, the expectations are to see traffic increase over the coming months because of less duplicate URL’s for the same page.

When a lot of your content ends up being user generated, how do you encourage your users to optimize it to help bring in more search exposure?

Our community of sellers is extremely smart in getting more traffic to their own items. Some of them are getting really creative, and have become good Internet Marketers themselves, without even knowing it.

If you are a seller at eBay, and you would like to become successful, you would do activities that resemble the activities of most SEO’s. Keyword research, title/headline construction, quality content in the item description, good pictures for the window shopper, and maybe even some social media on- and off eBay.

However, their success stands or falls with the tools that eBay provides the sellers. For years we have special tools for the sellers that have an eBay store. Custom categories, larger images, store descriptions at the top of the page, custom page title optimization tool. We have a number of help pages describing these functions. This reminds me I have to start a project to update these!

Furthermore, eBay has a top sellers outreach team. A former colleague of mine from the International Marketing team is now working on that team. She reaches out to me pro-actively to get top ranking factors or tips into their customer outreach scripts.

Next year, we will conduct a dedicated SEO best practice sharing session with the team in Salt Lake City to educate them on SEO. While we are there, we probably will be spending some time with our Customer service representatives to understand how they can help the community of sellers becoming more successful through integrating SEO into their listings.

If a seller is looking to maximize the exposure of their eBay auction listings or stores do you ever recommend them driving traffic with paid search or building links into their pages from other sites? If so, what are some of the techniques you have seen sellers find most effective for increasing the exposure of their eBay listings?

To my knowledge, we have not actively promoted buying paid search ads to our sellers. More so because of the double serving restrictions from the search engines. We have been fairly successful in driving paid search through our PS platform, where we have included stores as a landing pages as well.

I have seen sellers becoming very successful in promoting their items through personal blogs. They even make money on the traffic using the eBay Partner Network.

This year we also re-launched the keyword buying program on eBay. Sellers can get more traffic to their listings using Adcommerce. In Adcommerce the seller can bid on keywords to have an ad appear on the search result page and drive more traffic to their listings or eBay store.

A lot of your content ends up cradle to grave quickly...where there are millions of new listings and millions of expired listings going through the system. What are some of the keys to helping search engines understand the structure and importance of content in such a fast changing environment?

As the most important content is hidden deeply in the site, and like you said ends up quickly, discovery has become one of our primary focus points.

We have invested a good amount of resources in our data-feed technology & analytics. The Sitemaps protocol plays an important role here. As eBay has so many new listings every day, over the course of the day, you can almost update the sitemaps on a continuous basis.

However, the effort to source the items from the database, generate the sitemap files, submission and pick up, takes decent amount of time. We have made good headway tuning our feeds in way to get more efficiency out of the items we send. We started optimizing based on probability of conversion. We can make these assumptions based on predictive modeling and data. Predictive modeling on large datasets will become even more important when it comes to scaling the projects. As a company, we are putting lots of efforts in building out a competitive advantage based on analytics, predictive modeling and scaling the technology to handling even larger datasets.

Next to the Sitemap submission, eBay makes sure certain trends and categories are being communicated through PR efforts. For 2010, you can keep an eye on what’s hot in Pop-culture and fashion on eBay by keeping track of The Inside Source. Here you can find stories behind the data on eBay.

Has the verticalization of search created more opportunity or less? Do you guys devote a lot of resources toward vertical search databases?

Up until now, we have only focused on the shopping verticals, as the shopping comparison sites. Here we have invested in specific feeds where we push items to their sites based on our optimization algorithm.

Our classifieds sites, which are more locally organized, have done more on the local optimization. They also play in the housing and job markets, which makes it more relevant to optimize for the local or vertical search players.

People sell some of the most remarkable items on eBay, and sometimes items can generate quite a bit of buzz before the listing ends. When listings end for buzz-worthy and well linked to items is there any way to capture that built up equity?

Currently, we distinguish between 3 types of View Item Pages. Open, closed, Expired.

Open, means the item is still for sale, which can be between 1-30 days, depending on the sales format. We also have a format for store listings, which has a duration of good till cancelled.

Closed, means the item has just been closed, but will be available longer for review. The content lives in the database, and the page is still available on the same URL as before. We actually see that our community finds these pages very helpful in their purchasing process to look up historical prices.

Expired, means the item is no longer available for review. The URL will give a 404 error, displaying a message the item has ended or has been removed.

There have been some attempts to capture the link equity from the buzz-worthy eBay items in the past. A couple of years ago, a project was launched called: “Best of eBay”. This was essentially a digg-kinda site, where community could vote for the best and weirdest items. Unfortunately, the site was not designed with the eBay community in mind, and poorly marketed. It failed to live up to its expectations, and the project died.

You are right that there might be a good way of capturing more of the incoming link equity on the rare and buzz-worthy items. I recently even bought a book on eBay, which listed all the rare and viral items over the years. Thinking about all the links that went to the Virgin Marry Grilled Cheese Sandwich, makes me excited. Maybe not a lot of people will be searching every day on a sandwich that displays the Virgin Marry, but at least you can sell a lot of toasters around it!

I sometimes browse around the strange items that are for sale in search for link bait ideas. The strange eBay items are a perfect fit for pure white hat link bait. Just check out this Elvis Personally owned/worn Lion Claw Necklace that sold for almost $30K, or the auction of the popular PVRblog.com site, starting at $0.99, going for more than $12K.

For 2010, I might start a new pet project that will tap into the wealth of strange and funny items getting PR attention around the globe. IMHO as long as the project drives value for our customers, it will be successful in the search engines too. And will be a lot of fun to play around with.

You guys have more data than many search engines do. How do you leverage it help define your SEO strategy?

I really love the eBay data! I have made it my mission, and a pet project, to do more with this data in the future for eBay and the seller’s community.

The eBay site is not only a marketplace, where buyers and sellers can find each other for common or rare products; eBay is also very much a search engine which reflects shopping intent. This shopping search volume is accompanied with conversion data. Based on keywords, or product searches, we track what sells and what does not get sold.

Our paid search colleagues are world class in building predictive models for the conversion rate per keyword. For over 5 years, the paid search teams have squeezed more efficiency out of the paid search budgets to get more for the same investment.

On top of this predictive modeling, the technology team has build our own paid search platform, which makes it easy to scale large amounts of keywords, optimizing for the highest ROI, across multiple countries and platforms.

If you have large amounts of data, it will become more important to invest as a company in analytical and technical resources. You need the analytics to understand what the data can tell you, on which you can form actionable projects to drive more efficiency. You need technology investments to build the platforms to execute against the learning’s the data has told you.

One good example of this was the outbreak of the Zhu Zhu Pets as THE toy for the Xmas shopping season this year. A large number of online data providers have reported on the popularity of the little mechanical hamster right after Black Friday/Cyber Monday. I spotted an increase in search volume on the eBay site back in September, while digging through some internal eBay search data.

Thinking about your career path and how many things worked well for you, what were some of the keys to so many things falling into place for you? If a person wants to become an enterprise level SEO, what are the key things they should focus on learning & doing?

In 2005 I read the book: “Who Moved My cheese”. This changed my life in so many ways, as it changed my attitude towards change. Change is all around us. The way you react on changes around you can impact your success in a big way. One particular rule from the book that made me change myself and the path of my life is: “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”

I thought that was a wise lesson, and it got me to the point in my life where I’m currently at. I had the opportunity to move to the US for a job that I wanted. If I would have acted out of my fears, I probably would not have done it. But facing the fears, and what these really were, it became really clear for me that I always could return back to The Netherlands without losing too much.

If you want to become an enterprise level SEO, you should do three things:

  1. Read the book: “Never eat alone” and start learning how to build connections and relationships asap!
  2. Learn from the tech teams how scaling large websites work, and about the problems which can arise from changing the infrastructure
  3. Keep learning more SEO on a daily basis.


Thanks a bunch Dennis!

To keep up with Dennis check out The Next Corner (or its Dutch counterpart). And if you use Twitter his handle is TheNextCorner.

Jeremy Schoemaker (aka Shoemoney) Interview

I have been meaning to interview Shoemoney for a while now, and after the most recent Elite Retreat we decided to do just that.

I read a recent newsletter you put out about hitting rock bottom and remembering that as a key piece of 1.) what helped you grow 2.) what helped you sustain that growth. How many successful internet marketers do you know who have similar stories? How many do you know who became successful without first having hit rock bottom?

There was a couple key things in helping me grow.

I think a big key in growing was investing in myself - instead of wasting money on cars or excessive crap I did not need I purchased a lot of books and learning material. I also went to a lot of conferences to learn more about the industry. The only thing I was certain I could count on in life is that everything changes fast and what i was doing today was not going to work for very long. I still do a lot of this today and it helps me grow. Thats why you see me attend so many events a year.

I also surrounded myself with successful people. If you look around your circle of friends and you are the most successful... its time to change your friends.

Sustaining growth for me was leveraging my current position into bigger and better things. I started with 1 website in 2002ish that grew to be the biggest mobile community on the internet and learned how to monetize it. I shared my journey on a blog and built a pretty authoritative site in the "making money online" arena. I leveraged that into starting my own advertising network and growing it until we sold it. That got a lot of really big companies attention and they wanted to invest in us. I have leveraged lots of things to build a strong brand which we are leveraging into other things. Always be leveraging your position - thats the key to sustaining growth!

I think about every successful internet marketer has the same story. They usually start by hitting it big on a website or affiliate offer then leverage their position. I meet new "over night millionaires" all the time. But rarely do any of them leverage their position and go on to do anything else. Most are one hit wonders.

I think hitting rock bottom is a common thing you find with the people that leverage their position. They know what it feels like to have nothing and be hungry and they always want more.

I see you as one of the few internet marketers who routinely gets coverage in the likes of TechCrunch and other areas outside of our little bubble. And you were able to get Seth Godin to come speak at Elite Retreat. What are some of the keys that helped lead to that broad-based opportunity?

I have a interesting relationship with Mike Arrington (techcrunch owner). I used to mention him from time to time in blog posts and even poked fun at this name once saying it sounded like a-ringtone. I was stunned the first time I was mentioned on his site Techcrunch. I think it was the whole mybloglog fiasco. I have been to Mike Arrington's house a couple times to meet with his staff about some ideas I had for Techcrunch but did not even say hi to Mike. Then shortly after leaving Mike would email me like "what the hell why didnt you say hi". I dunno I am just not that guy. He looked busy and know he gets harassed a lot. I have a ton of respect for him... I mean he doesnt just own the most read blog on the internet... he owns the most read publication period.

In the end its all about connections and networking. Some of the Techcrunch staff writers were readers of shoemoney.com and would comment on my stuff every once in a while. They even syndicated some of my youtube content.

I was introduced originally to Seth Godin by Darin Rowse (problogger). Over the years Seth has been very awesome to me and it was truly a dream to have him speak at the Elite Retreat conference last month.

How much of your work day goes into doing the public stuff vs behind the scenes business development stuff vs working on conversion optimization vs working on new ideas?

I LOVE the public stuff. One of the hardest things in running my own business out of my house when I started was the lack of social interaction. I am a very social person and love to meet people. Biz dev has always somewhat naturally happened for me (as I am sure for you also Aaron). As you do things people notice and they want to be apart of what you are doing. As far as a split goes I would say it varies but I spend 10% of the time maintaining what I have 10% of the time on misc stuff and 80% of the time trying to make it grow.

You are very good at doing linkbait stuff to cause publicity, but doing it in a way that does not harm your credibility much. What are some of the secrets to doing that?

This is a great question. I am always amazed at how people say I am "linkbaiting". Here is the deal.... I have a blog... which contains my thoughts and ideas... and I am a pretty emotional and sometimes volatile person who is not afraid to express myself publicly. Everything I post is from my experiences.

The most linked page on my site is my check from Google for 133k for 1 month in sept 2005. Is that link bait?

The 2nd most linked page on my site is about how I used to be 400lbs and all the strugles that came with that. Is that link bait?

the 3rd most linked page on my site is about my addiction to MMO games like world of warcraft. Is that link bait?

I can tell you on the last 2 I was so super nervous about posting them I almost didn't.

I can only think of 1 time I intentionally did a linkbait post asking if George Bush was a great president or greatest president ever? Then I followed up 1 hour later with the amazing results.

I am not a news site trying to "break a story".

So how do I get a lot of links and maintain credibility.... man I dunno. I can barely complete a sentence yet I get credited for being a literary genius at times...

And, like the above question, you are very good at monetizing the audience of your website, but doing it in a way that does not harm your credibility much. How is that other people get flamed for monetizing every so slightly, but you are able to do it so aggressively without much blowback? Is it your brand positioning? Or?

I make no bones about who I am or what I do. I am not a starving artist. I am a capitalist pig. I am an affiliate marketer. People follow my blog because of my ability not only monetize but to do it in ways never before done. It is VERY challenging to monetize a audience who studies ways to make money on line. Its like selling ice to eskimoes or lap dances to strippers.

You are known in part for that AdSense check. If you were just starting out today would AdSense still be part of your strategy?

Absolutely. AdSense is a great place to start in monetizing a website. Its how I started. Its incredibly stupidly simple to implement and really for all the services Google provides they take a very small cut of the money you make. I still monetize some of our stuff with AdSense but its more of a last ditch effort to monetize.

If you got on the web today with nothing where would you start? Would you first try to create a distribution channel, start with an offer that worked, etc.?

I get that question a lot... The truth of the matter is I have no clue. I almost would like to be put in that position to see. It would be an interesting experiment to take on a new identity with zero money or reputation and try to make... say 5k in the first month without using any previous contacts or connections or properties. I would like to say I could easily do it. But only one way to find out.

I would create a lot of wordpress/blogger accounts as affiliate sites for various products and try to get some sales via free traffic. Then take that money and buy traffic to those sites.

I seriously would love a challenge like this if we could ever make it work.

What books would you suggest someone new to the web read right away? What books have been most important in helping to shape your success?

I highly recommend everything Seth Godin writes. The Dip helped me more then any other book I have ever read. All marketers are liars helped me understand why my blog was so successful (its a great story at the end of the day if you look at where I started to where I am now). Purple Cow taught me the value of being #1 in your industry and separating yourself from the pack.

I also recommend the 4 hour work week by tim ferris. Even though its 99% fluffy crap that book has 10 excellent takeaways for time management that can help anyone.

One of the biggest problem for creative entrepreneurs is spreading too thin working on too many projects. How do you prioritize opportunities?

My wife has a saying - Prioritize the potentially profitable projects. That is exactly what we do. I am running 6 companies here going on 20 employees. I dont have the luxory of working on "fun" projects. I am not working from my basement in my underwear with zero overhead anymore. I have to make thousands of dollars a day just to break even.

You created a Huskers quiz where people who scored high enough "won" a trial of NetFlix. What made you think of that strategy? How often do you come up with such ideas? How do you test out such ideas?

Really that is one of my hobbies. I love to find little stuff that can make a couple hundred dollars a day. Its not something I would devote company resources to but its fun to play around.

In the case of the husker football quiz it seemed pretty simple. In Nebraska all we have is the cornhuskers and people are die hard fans always debating stupid facts about former players. So making a site where people could test their knowledge to "win" something just made sense. Most people never know they can get a free subscription just by going to the site or that I get $30 if they sign up.

Affiliate marketing is a art. Its not a science. Its all about creativity and pushing boundaries.

Many affiliate networks are known for spying on their affiliates and cloning their accounts. How do you prevent that from happening?

There is nothing you can do to prevent it. I have seen it happen with my accounts a lot... the funny thing is they still can't do what I do.... even with all the data right in front of their face. I have had affiliate managers tell me they cloned my exact keyword campaign on Google adwords with same adcopy and everything and got 1/2 the earnings per click.

In the affiliate game lots of people clone each other's work, causing returns to race toward 0. What do you differently that allows you to see success after success with affiliate marketing?

Great follow up and glad you asked it since I almost went into this in the previous question.

First and formost testing. We spend 10-30k a day on ppc networks (and have for a long time). This testing gives you an education that you need to make it work. I can honestly give you my exact landing page and keywords/adcopy for something that is working for me right now and guarentee you can't make it work. You don't know what targeting we are doing... what kind of day parting... etc etc. Its not like it was 7 years ago.

This is why a lot of people are so bitter on forums. They spent a full day copying everybody elses shit and cant make it work so they whine. They dont want to actually do any real work testing stuff on their own or being creative.

Its the same reason why I could not give you my position as CEO/CMO for ShoeMoney Media Group, inc and think you could keep the company nearly as profitable even though you have access to everything I did.

What do you feel the biggest risks to your business are? What keeps you up at night?

I don't feel my business has any risks right now. We are very diversified. Between our web properties, subscription income, affiliate income, and new projects about to launch we have never been so stable. I also have put away enough money that our accountant says my wife and I could never work again and live the exact same life style. Most people would be very satisfied with that.

I say bullshit. I know it can all be gone tomorrow. Ive seen it happen to some good people.

I believe that a lot of blogs have been watered down over the past few years as a.) competition has increased and b.) the benefits of sharing information publicly (with people who will likely compete against us) has decreased. Based on that thought, here are a couple questions...

Do you see the recent rise of membership websites as being a cyclical trend until the next wave of people fighting for popularity start gaining it, or more of a longterm trend as free ad-based business models become less profitable due to a glut of inventory?

In general I see a lot of new fly by night people talking in theories and crap with no experience. They write huge long lengthy posts but don't ever have any numbers to back up what they are saying.

They study patents filled by companies and what that could possibly mean and all that stuff while guys like me and you are still in the trenches actually doing stuff and sharing our experiences a long the way.

The ShoeMoney answer is going to probably come off very egotistical but whatever. I do not believe we have any competition for what we do. In everything I have ever done whether it was build the largest mobile community, start my own conferences, build an advertising company, or writing a blog being very transparent about exactly what I do, I feel I have ZERO competition. I do my damnest to be #1 at whatever we do and we have a pretty good track record for achieving that goal. Shoemoney.com in 2009 will make 400% more then it did in 2007 when we first accepted advertising. We get over 50 inquiries a day for our advertising rates & we are sold out for all spots until Jan 2010. The most interesting part is the shoemoney.com blog is not a very significant portion of our company income. It just happened.

What blogs (and other websites) do you still find yourself reading religiously?

here I will give you exactly what is on my iPhone right now:

buddytv.com (various sections).

As you can see its a decent mix of internet marketing/seo and celebrity gossip ;)

Thanks for the interview!


Thanks for the great answers Jeremy. To learn more about Shoemoney, check out his blog. And if you want some great local SEM info, affiliate marketing info, and SEM tools you might want to give his tools project a try, as he currently has trials available for under $10!

Fantomaster Interviewed!

Ralph Tegtmeier (aka fantomaster) has been known for many years as having one of the most insightful minds and original voices in the search game. Years ago I wanted to interview him, and only recently did we get to do that.

What did you do before you got into search?

In contrast to the maverick background and achievements my old friend Mike Grehan revealed in his recent interview with SEOBook, my life before search was positively boring. I was born in Egypt and grew up in the Middle East and Asia, where my father served terms in the German diplomatic service. Later, I mastered in Comparative Literature, English Literature and Portuguese philology at Bonn University in Germany. Even before that, I had founded and run (together with two fellow students) an occult bookshop there and went into freelance translation and writing after that.

As a translator, I hooked up with IT almost as soon as it became available, though I did study the subject in some depth before I finally purchased my first PC, a Victor Sirius 286 hybrid that was both IBM and Sirius compatible.

Came the Internet in Fall of 1994, came the "taxBomber" - that was my thentime nom de guerre as an online marketer in the offshore finance, alternate citizenship and privacy protection field.

Before the Web proper was made accessible to all, I'd been on CompuServe and tested the waters there in terms of online marketing, but there were some pretty severe limits to that so it didn't really scale that well. The WWW really changed all that.

As you may expect, in the mid-to-end 90s, optimizing a web site for the search engines was a lot more simplistic than today: keyword stuffing, multiple title tags, invisible text on page - all these techniques worked like a song.

In 1998, I teamed up with my old school buddy Dirk Brockhausen, who by that time held a doctorate in physics and was a certified SAP consultant, working for companies such as IBM and others.

How did you end up in the search field?

My first online business caught on immediately. Competition wasn't too fierce though definitely existent. One day, I stumbled across a report on how to game the search engines - quite probably the first of its kind. I purchased it, implemented a lot of the techniques outlined, and bang! - rankings improved even more! There was a lot of deadweight tied to that approach at the time, e.g. signing up for FFA sites which would bring me a ton of spam mails, etc., quite a nuisance, really. So it became essential to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Around the same time I hit upon the late Corey Rudel's stuff which was an eye opener in terms of efficient marketing, especially the American kind. Lots of impulses from that and still profiting from the impact.

When Dirk an I decided to set up shop, it was a given that we would develop software, the only question was: what kind of application? So we researched the market at some length, caught onto SEO, tested our stuff thoroughly and finally went public with it.

You built the #1 brand in the cloaking space. What were some of the key steps to doing that?

We conducted about a year and half's intense research, experimenting with all kinds of SEO in a variety of niches. Cloaking beat them all stone cold, so that's what we went for in the end.

It was quite obvious from the start that efficient, reliable cloaking requires an equally efficient and reliable database of verified search engine spiders to work from, so that's what we focused on first: the fantomas spiderSpy(TM) service which to this date boasts the world's most comprehensive list of verified search engine spiders. We've been building this list since 1999 and it's generally considered to be best of breed - and these aren't my words, mind you, but what out customers say about it.

As for cloaking proper, at first it was single page cloaking only, giving you mixed sites with both cloaked and non-cloaked pages. Later, as the major search engines began to adopt a more adversarial stance, we developed the fantomas shadowMaker(TM) which generates entire stand-alone cloaked sites, what we tagged Shadow Domains(TM) - a term Google initially stole from us in the first versions of their Webmaster guidelines. (They dropped it again later.)

Much of this was due to our being fed up with having to build SDs manually for our SEO clients, so we decided to automate the process. And so, the fantomas shadowMaker(TM) was born. We're currently working on a new version that will include a ton of additional powerful features to reflect the ever changing search environment.

Is cloaking today as relevant as it was 5 years ago? Do web 2.0 sites and other easy link sources & hosts still make it quite profitable? How has cloaking changed over the years?

Like all things search, cloaking has changed in the course of the years. Initially, it was sufficient to simply cloak single pages on your site, giving you a mix of cloaked and open pages. Then, it was more about foregoing risks for your money sites plus enhanced scalability by deploying self-contained, independent cloaked sites - those Shadow Domains(TM) I mentioned -, effectively restricting your cloaking efforts to these SDs which could be discarded and easily replaced by fresh ones should they be caught out by the search engines.

Today, cloaking has evolved to both include and target RSS feeds, promoting them via the aggregators and feed directories, for example. Our forthcoming new version of the shadowMaker will also include new functionality enhancing page structure variance, inclusion of graphics, CSS, etc. to make the SDs appear even more organic to the spiders. Finally, it will also offer a vastly improved text generation module as well.

Of course, up until now cloaking has generally only addressed on site factors, optimizing webpages for the search engine spiders. What it doesn't do per se is attend to off site stuff such as link building. So once you've started to roll out your SDs, you'll still have to throw a decent amount of good links at them to make their rankings sticky. However, this isn't a change in technology so much as in SEO strategy: once links became more all-important, you had to add link building to your arsenal of SEO techniques just like everyone else.

Is it still relevant i.e. effective? Most certainly - provided you know what you're doing by running a tight ship strategy wise. Essentially, this is nothing new: it simply comes with changing search engine algos, new platforms (such as blogs or social bookmarking sites etc.).

Another, entirely new cloaking technology is still in an experimental stage. It's what we've tagged "Mosaic Cloaking". Here, only specific parts of an otherwise "normal" web page are cloaked for spider fodder, displaying different content to human visitors. This will effectively lead us back, at least in part, to the mixed sites of yore, featuring both cloaked and non-cloaked content on the same domain. Once we have sufficient empirical data on hand to make this technology viable for general deployment, we hope to integrate it into our software, of course.

As for Web 2.0 sites, we're mainly leveraging them for both link building and traffic generation. It's actually quite easy to promote cloaked sites or pages via the social networking platforms these days because people have become so well accustomed to being redirected when browsing the Web that it doesn't tend to raise any eyebrows anymore.

Some well funded web 2.0 sites do things like list "relevant keywords" and "keywords sending traffic to this page"... what is the difference between cloaking and such an automated approach to keyword rich content generation? Why is one considered bad with the other being considered fine?

Well, cloaking or IP delivery in the technical sense is, of course, about displaying different content to search engine spiders than to human visitors. What these Web 2.0 sites are actually doing is going for the old worn keyword stuffing technique, not cloaking proper. (Well, not as a rule, anyway.)

It's actually quite funny to see well-trafficked sites like that adopt an amateurish level of purported search engine optimization which we, as professional SEOs, have long demoted as no longer effective enough. There's many plausible explanations for this, though in the main it's probably all about fundamental cluelessness. But because these sites are getting tons of traffic from other sources than organic search, and in view of the fact that the search engines are concerned about losing large chunks of their traffic and search market shares (think Facebook and Twitter for two prime examples), they seem to be giving them an unabashed preferential treatment which no ordinary mom-and-pop web site can ever hope to be blessed with.

To the uninformed, this may actually seem to endorse such dated SEO techniques though this is an entirely false conclusions. Because it's actually not the keyword and link stuffing at all that helps these sites achieve to high rankings, PageRank etc. - rather, it's all those other factors your run-of-the-mill site cannot easily emulate.

On the client front, we're experiencing a lot more openness towards "black hat" SEO such as cloaking etc. than e.g. 3-4 years ago. Generally, people aren't as impressed or as easily conned by the search engines' (especially Google's) FUD tactics regarding anything they don't like. Sure, they're worried about possibly losing their sites in the search engine indices, but the number of people who'll simply swallow everything Google feeds them by way of their peculiar gospel of what a "good boy or girl" should do or refrain from in terms of SEO is positively on the decrease.

As Google pushed nofollow and became more liberal with the "black hat" label it seems there is less discussion about black hat vs white hat. Do you agree with that? And if so, why has that conversation died down?

I think it's because people are getting more pragmatic about things. Maybe it's the novelty of doing business on the Web which has worn off, maybe it's the vast variety of divergent opinions and schools of thought of SEO and the unprecedented exposure the importance of organic search engine optimization is enjoying in the media.

Whatever it may actually be, I agree that the debate has become de-emotionalized, less religious even. When we started off with formal SEO services back in the late nineties, the debate was all about "ethical" versus "unethical" SEO. Lots of gut level reactions then to what was, after all, merely a technological, not a theological or moral issue. Add to that the increasingly competitive environment people have to cope with on the Internet and it all figures rather nicely. You might arguably say that Web commerce as a whole has matured, as, of course, has the SEO industry proper.

These days, when you speak with clients they won't flinch one bit if you ask them whether they want to opt for a "white hat" or a "black hat" approach. Rather, they'll inquire about efficacy, the relative risks and so on. So it's a pretty much unexcited, hands-on discussion which is a very good thing.

Matt Cutts often tries to equate search engine manipulators with criminals. And yet the same search results will sell exposure to virtually anyone willing to pay for it. From a linguistic and framing standpoint, what gives Google such dominance over the SEO conversation?

I've recently dubbed Matt Cutts as Google's "FUD Czar" for this very reason, not that I expect it will stop him from pursuing that course in future. Next thing we may find him equating black hat SEOs with kiddie porn peddlers, Columbian drug cartels and white slavery racketeers...

I find this a fairly worrying though certainly not an unexpected development. It's an established scare tactics we've seen deployed ever and again in human history: lump your detractors with anywhich foes everyone is concerned about to make all that muck rub off. It's how witch hunts and, in the political field, totalitarian propaganda, especially the fascist kind, have always been conducted.

I know I may get quite a bit of flak for this, but the way I view things Google as a corporation has subscribed to an essentially totalitarian mindset. It's quite clear for anyone to see: in their public statements, in the way they tend to react to criticism, and of course, even more importantly, in the vast array of technologies and data conduits they're rolling out to dominate all the time.

This being the Information Age, information is equated with power - this is a pervasive meme that's dominated Western culture for centuries if not millenia. And this is precisely what Google is trying to monopolize - alas, quite successfully.

But not to worry, I won't set out on a rant with a long winded academic analysis of Google's crypto fascist ideology and praxis here. Suffice it to say that I've studied these matters in some depth for more than 40 years now. This isn't about some whacko conspiracy theory, it's about cold, hard nosed and sober analysis and evaluation of verifiable facts. But let's let it rest there for the time being.

Many ad networks promote fraud because they promote whatever generates the most money (and additional profit margins are often created through fraud). Why is it that the media generally talks about SEO as though it is a black practice shady industry, and pay per click ads are rarely given coverage for promoting things like cookie pushing, adultery, reverse billing fraud, etc.?

For one, advertising is the media's mainstay, their commercial backbone. So we can't reasonably expect them to bite the hand that feeds them and hope to survive the exercise. Essentially, this makes them utterly blind on that score by default. At the very least, they're not given to be unduly reflective about these things.

Second, SEO is still very much a "black art" in the sense that about 99% of all media workers don't know it from scratch anyway. Let's face it: while the basic concepts of SEO are fairly straightforward and easy to explain, actually running successful SEO campaigns is quite another ballgame. Also, what with time and attention spans mutating into ever more expensive and rare commodities, most media workers simply won't (and quite possibly: cannot, even if they would) bother reading your own excellent SEO book or Mike Grehan's outlines - they're too long, too technical and effectively too specialized for your average media hack to invest time and dig into.

Third, while there is certainly an entirely real SEO industry out there now, it's still very much a fledgling operation. Yes, every man and his dog in upper management may know about the importance of SEO for their Web marketing efforts - but which SEO are we actually talking about? Ten experts, eleven opinions, right? To the outsider, it's confusing, it's mysterious, it's dark, and yes: more often than not all this discomfort translates into viewing SEO as being "shady", like it or not.

Fourth, most SEO agencies I know about are actually focused on PPC management. They may offer organic search optimization alright, but overall PPC is a pretty easy sell whereas organic SEO generally isn't. PPC is easy to understand, it's fast and it's still fairly complex enough to require expert assistance if you don't want to sink your advertising budget into uneffective campaigns at a breathtaking pace.

All this makes people feel a lot more comfortable with PPC than with organic SEO, I guess.

But what I actually find a lot more worrisome is that click fraud as a media topic seems to have been pushed snugly to the back burner for years. Unfortunately, this applies to the SEO industry as a whole as well: they don't seem to be too keen on discussing this issue which, in my view at least, is actually doing their clients a great disservice...

Google has a video game patent to exploit video game players based on their mental weaknesses (like a need for security, gambling addictions, or making rush decisons). You had a great post on Sphinn mentioning the hazards of trusting data mining companies too much and the concept of systemic mechanisms of "reality production". Whenever I mention that sort of stuff people assume I am a cynic and look at me like I am crazy. How can you spread the message about such topics without being seen as crazy?

Well, who says we aren't? (Laughs) But seriously: if you define "craziness" as implying a generally unacceptable divergence from the ruling norms and prevailing views of mainstream society, I'd actually wonder if I wasn't into some terrible mistake if people DIDN'T think I was crazy when airing such views. Plus, the original "cynics" in Ancient Greece were the "dog philosophers" which is what the term actually implies: an eminently contrarian crowd in bitter opposition to the fattened, smug establishment of conventional philosophy. So in a way it's really a badge of honor, don't you think?

It's about the violation of comfort levels, I suppose. People are having a very hard time coping with the pace at which current technology is changing the world, both emotionally and intellectually. If all you're worried about is somehow making ends meet, feeding your family, coughing up money for your mortgage, for medical care and paying for your kids' schooling, you'll tend to reduce your outlook to a tunnel vision. It's called "focus", I know, but more often than not it's a type of mental self-amputation resulting in narrow mindedness, simplistic views of the world and, what's worse, a general refusal do deal with anything unfamiliar if it threatens to shake that less than stable edifice you may mistake for a life.

Once you start putting matters into a larger perspective, they tend to confuse people even more. This, in turn, evokes emtional, gut level reactions - quite irrational, true, but very easy to explain, too: "So what's Google gotta do with fascism now - is that all you can think of, weirdo?"

Actually, this is nothing new at all. Personally, I and many members of my generation experienced a lot of this in the sixties when more or less all members of the political and economic establishment felt threatened by the hippy movement, the anti Vietnam war protests and a general criticism of capitalist and corporate values. Different contentions, to be sure, but the same mechanisms at work nevertheless.

In a Twitter post you made you mentioned something about the web becoming more narcissistic. What is driving that? How can it be prevented on an individual and group level?

To address your second question first, I don't think it can be "prevented" in any pro-active way unless you want to pull the plug on it all e.g. by canning the platforms allowing for it - hardly a realistic scenario, I would think. I'm fairly certain that it will abate to some extent once people's attention starts shifting to other matters, rather than playing voyeurs to some narcissistic exhibitionists. As it stands, it seems to reflect what's been going on in terms of TV show entertainment for many years now: people exhibiting all kinds of entirely personal quirks and traits, with tons of viewers obviously enjoying it, too.

So what's actually driving it? In a nutshell: atomization. With large families and tightly knit rural communities losing ground in favor of "individualism" and an ever more disrupted social fabric, overall societal stability can only be achieved by marginalizing the individual, feeding it (and dumbing it down) with lots of vicarious pleasures in lieu of actual participation in political, economic and societal power - call it the ideology of consumism, if you will. It's one price we're paying for our physical mobility and mental flexibility: the waning influence of the individual i.e. the very same atomization I've mentioned.

What the Web does offer us is a slew of possibilities to at least create some noise and garner a bit of attention - without more immediate social controls being in place to set us stringent limits like we would have experienced them in meatspace. Further, anonymization helps forego even those controls that have actually been implemented: if your forum moderator chucks your account for whatever reason, it's dead easy to sign up under a different identity to continue creating a stink if that's what you're up to.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not bashing the Web in any way - it offers everyone an incredible amount of wonderful possibilities we've never seen before at such a scale. Think of all the options you have in terms of gathering information on anywhich topic, or of mustering support for a cause you feel strongly about, to name but two examples.

But there's an obvious downside to it as well: as everything is essentially accessible to everyone, you're bound to hit upon lots of people you may find obnoxious or boring or outré - certainly more than you did at college or in your rural community where you grew up in pre-Web times.

Why is it that Google thinks highly of public relations (even if founded on lies) but thinks poorly of most other bulk link building strategies?

Well, as Bob Massa never tires of pointing out, a search engine's primary objective is NOT to "delivery relevance" as so many people are fond of fooling themselves and others, it's to make a profit, period. Verbatim: "A search engine's primary purpose is NOT to deliver relevancy. A search engine's primary purpose is to deliver revenue. That is not the same thing."

While many SEOs still seem to find it hard to come to terms with that, it's pretty obvious that the folks over at Google were pretty slow to learn that lesson themselves. Oh, they certainly did so in the end, and with a vengeance, too. But along with this came all the other trimmings that will make or unmake just about any commercial enterprise, an ingrained preference for low pay being compensated with lots of feelgood high talk for the suckers included. See Michael Arrington's summary "Why Google Employees Quit" for some pretty telling insights.

Of course, hypocrisy plays a major role in this field as well: just like "spam" is always what the other guy is doing, not you yourself, "public relations" is always ok for Google if it helps you ramp up your company to potential client status. At the end of the day you'll have to conduct a lot of public relations to be able to afford some serious AdWords advertising - simple as that. So it makes no sense killing the cows you actually want to milk further down the road.

By contrast, however, undetected paid links will negatively impact Google's fundamental business platform because they can't really deal with them effectively, being so very link biassed as they are (or used to be) - so they're bound to be slated as a big no-no from their point of view.

None of this is illogical in any way - but of course that doesn't mean that we as SEOs have got to like or condone it. I know for sure that I don't...

In many ways (nofollow, nepotism, publishers requiring payment for links) the "organic" link has died a slow and painful death. Do you see Google and other search engines moving away from linking as a core component in their relevancy algorithms?

Personally, I tend to view Google's ongoing campaign of stressing the "evils" of undisclosed paid linking as a sign of utter desperation. Yahoo! and MSN/Live as well as Ask, while still relying heavily on links themselves, aren't half as outspoken or, more precisely, as hysterical about it.

I am also on record umpteen times as having pointed out that PageRank and, in fact, all ranking technologies unduly biassed towards inlinks are suffering from a fundamental fallacy. Because links may be lots of different things to many people, but they're definitely not simple "votes" in the sense of unequivocal acceptance, recommendation or endorsement, i.e. quality. At the very least, that's only a tiny fraction constituting their overall functionality.

To reiterate, PageRank in its original form was nothing but an overblown and hyped citation index, directly derived from academia's predilections: in the past 40 years or so it's become a very popular metrics to grade scholars by the number of citations they can ramp up, very much in line with their overall "publish or perish" career criteria. Allow me to point out, however, that this is essentially a culture thing: on the whole, European academics, to cite a contrarian example, have always staid aloof of this mindset. Plus, competition is just as fierce and cut throat in their world as it is in the "outside world" of regular commerce. I'm not sure there's actually a lot of "citation buying" going on in the academic universe, but frankly I wouldn't be too surprised if there were.

Be that as it may, a citation index makes even less sense in a commercial environment than it may possibly do in academia. Why should you want to link to your competitors? Why should they link to you? And if I happen to link to some article of yours I happen to be in violent disagreement with, trying to refute it in all bitterness, and ridiculing you on the same stride - does that link constitute a "vote" even in terms of "relevancy"? Or a "quality" indicator? That's like arguing that Jewish activist sites rightly pointing out anti-semitic or racist pages they are in disagreement with are actually endorsing them. So what if thousands of Jewish pages are linking out to the same revisionist neo-fascist site until it starts ranking above them all? That's plain ridiculous.

I mean, is any old "reference" a "vote" or even an indicator of "relevancy"? Sure, pointing to your sources to underpin your arguments will lend them (and you) more credibility, just like in academe. But make no mistake: such questions aren't as clear cut and easy to answer as one may wish to think - after all, philosophers have been wrestling with such issues for centuries for a slew of good reasons.

So if linking as a signal of relevancy is flawed at the very best, what alternatives do the search engines actually have? And in a more direct response to your question proper: I am seeing a lot of experimentation being conducted these days, ranging from behavioral metrics to personalization of search. SERP hand jobs seem to be hitting it big now, too, certainly as far as extremely competitive niches are concerned, think PPC in the "black hat" sense of "pills, porn and casino" sites.

While it may still be premature to term this the "return of on page factors" as a critical ranking element, we're actually seeing a lot of this happening again, albeit in a very pussy footed manner.

As more people compete for attention online do you see that increasing or decreasing the quality of the web as a whole?

That's a bit like asking whether the glass is half full or half empty, I'd say. The Web is expanding, that's a fact, of course. Obviously, this applies to what you or I may consider the "bad" as much as it does to what we deem to be "good", whether it's sources of information or common behavioral traits.

In many ways it's like a commotion on the rural market place: the more people join in the fray, the louder it tends to get - and the more aggressive you'll have to be when competing for attention.

But if you shun the crowd to retire to your private club and meet with your peers, things tend to get a lot more quiet and comfy again. This is actually happening at quite a large scale these days: there's lots of "closed shop" forums and communities online who will strictly vet their members to keep out the riffraff.

Google's CEO recently stated that "brands are how you sort out the cesspool" and that humans were hardwired for brands. Did it surprise you when he said that?

Frankly, I hope I'll never live to see the day when the likes of Eric Schmidt actually manage to surprise me. I mean, what to make of a man who is on record for blithely stating that World War I was caused by a "lack of understanding" between nations - something he claims Google will actually help prevent? Sure, this may be the Reader's Digest naive version of how WW I came about, but it certainly doesn't reflect reality in any meaningful let alone accurate or verifiable way. What it does reveal, of course, is a picayune, self-serving and utterly petit-bourgeois mindset. (And no, I won't dig into the question of where the 20th century fascists used to recruit the lion's share of their followers...)

Ok, so he's obviouly no qualified historian - but is he an anthropologist, then, making even more asinine claims like this one? "Hardwired" according to Mr Schmidt the neurologist, eh? And what, pray, makes the Web a "cesspool", anyway?

No, I'm not surprised at all: brands are what Schmidt and his chums are comfortable with, what they flatter themselves to understand well. Well, perhaps they actually do, but really, my only reasonable comment on this one is: "garbage in, garbage out"...

Search penalties are well known to be two tier depending on things like "brand." How does one know how far to push while staying within their desired risk/reward ratio?

For all the ballyhoo ramped up around "scientific SEO" (and, for that matter, "scientific marketing" - of which SEO is arguably but a minor subset), it's always been about trial and error and - and this is really important! - educated guesswork. Because the cards have always been stacked from day 1: the search engines won't allow us to study and review their ranking algorithms (which, from their perspective, is perfectly understandable, of course). Also, they can exploit vast amounts of usage data no single SEO company can ever attain to even remotely - and thus they're always leaving us with the short end of the stick. Which, in statistical terms, means that we as SEOs can never hope to get the full picture anyway.

But even if it's a David vs. Goliath kind of scenario, the search engines' major weakness is their requirement to turn a buck. This makes them just as vulnerable to advertiser pressure tactics as most classic deadwood newspapers are and, in fact, always were.

When all is said and done, you cannot ever really know for sure how much is too much of anything: every niche is different and there's no such thing as a golden key to them all. So it's a question of learning, usually the hard way, of trying out different things, both old and new, of testing, testing, testing.

On the upside, if you're not concerned with branding so much, you can easily skew that risk/reward ratio in your favor by essentially cloning your sites (yes, modify them a bit so their not all-out dupes) and run various SEO strategies for them. That way, you'll probably get more exposure while minimizing your risks. Should one or several of your sites underperform or even get penalized, you'll still have others that should perform well enough. So it's really about scaling done properly.

The reliance on brand and domain authority has lowered result diversity on many fronts. Will the fear of spam cause Google to keep clamping down on diversity, or will mom and pop shops still have a chance online 5 to 10 years from now?

This will probably depend on how the search market will evolve in general. If people should get fed up with getting served more and more brands they've known about anyway, this approach may lead to a dramatic loss of market share. If so, Google's only choice will be to push back brands in favor of lesser sites and more diversity again.

Nor is this entirely unrealistic: brands are one thing, but consumer experience with these brands' products is quite another. Personally, if I want to know more about some product being offered online, I'll inquire on Twitter where I'll typically get a ton of useful responses in a whiffy - no way Google or any other major search engine can match this presently. And I'm certainly not alone: I know lots of people who are doing exactly the same now.

Then, when I'm finally ready to buy, I don't need Google to compare offers and prices, either. Once I've bookmarked my favorite comparison sites, I can merrily fulfill my consumer duties without hitting any major search engine at all in the process.

What I'm not sure about is whether people will actually go to the lengths of explicitly demanding other, better search results from Google etc. It seems more likely that they'll simply vote with their mice and go elsewhere - that's a lot easier and faster to do than having to deal with a sluggish, unresponsive behemoth of a corporation.

Generally speaking, I'm afraid I don't see mom-and-pop shops gaining any leeway within the foreseeable future as there's nothing to indicate currently that they actually will. But then, 5 to 10 years is a time span I'd be loath to predict for anyway: too many unknown variables at work here. Two to three years seems a more tangible time frame, and I doubt we'll see any major improvement of small web sites' clout and standing within that span.

Is search an already won natural monopoly? If not, what do you see hurting Google from a competitive standpoint?

For all its undisputable explosion and evolution in the past 15 years or so, search is still in a very primitive, almost primeval stage in my view. Think "Deep Web" which has hardly been scratched superficially as yet - and yes, think "relevancy", too: we're still very much experiencing the Stone Age of search currently. By inference, search is bound to undergo some very fundamental changes pretty soon, and so will searchers' requirements and expectations.

The way many Web 2.0 sites are starting to impact search as we knew it is a good case in point. I've mentioned my own Twitter usage by way of some anecdotal evidence. Sure, Twitter may still turn out to be a mere ephemereal fad in the end, the way MySpace hasn't managed to live up to its original overblown promise. There's many people predicting just that, and who knows - maybe they're right.

But no matter who will evolve to become the biggest boys on the block in the end, and it seems very likely that there'll be several of them, this is where current crawler based all-purpose search is certainly beginning to hurt. If eyeballs are really everything, I for my part wouldn't want to bet the farm on Google maintaining its current monopoly of the search space for very much longer. And I don't see Google being all smug and ignorant about it, either: it's one of the reasons why they're expanding into so many different fields ranging from mobile communication technology to trans Pacific data cables, book digitalization and online document storage, to mention but a few.

For all we know, we may possibly witness the return of the vertical fairly soon as well. This would actually dovetail nicely with the prevailing trend towards ever more granular specialization and specificity. Highly specialized information archives, focused on specific fields of expertise and an equally selective user demographics only, be it directories or portals or crowd sourced networks or databases may well be the one big thing to watch out for.

What have you been up to lately? Do you have any new products or services launching soon?

While we're best known for our cloaking applications, our activities are actual a lot more varied than that. For example, our 100% "white hat" "10 Links A Day" link building service over at http://10LinksADay.net/ is another major focus of ours.

Beyond that, we're very busy developing proprietary technology in the field of automated content creation: targeted towards clients' specific requirements in terms of topicality, keywords and links in a scalable manner, this is what I'm most involved in myself currently. Moreover, the content we're creating is all 100% readable and entirely unique stuff of an unprecedented quality, if I say so myself.

Having presented this to our 10 Links A Day clients as a special, subscribers only offer up until now, we'll soon roll it out as a stand alone service named "Customized Content Creation" (CCC).


Thanks a bunch Ralph! To read his latest thoughts on search, check out his blog at http://fantomaster.com/fantomNews/

Perry Marshall & Aaron Wall Present the 2009 Business Bailout - Free AdWords + SEO Advice on April 15th, 2009

It seems everyone (but you) is getting a bailout right now, and we didn't think that was fair. So we decided to do something about it - on tax day. :)

On Wednesday, April 15 at 2pm Central, I'll be interviewing Perry Marshall on Google AdWords and Pay Per Click strategies.

Perry is author of the Definitive Guide to Google AdWords and is the most referenced AdWords specialist on the Internet.

Perry will explain how to get AdWords clicks for 20% to 70% less money than your competition is paying for the same traffic, and how to get maximum leverage out of your advertising investment. He'll discuss why "SEO people" often avoid Pay Per Click and how to blend both worlds together for not just 2X results, but 3X.

Time: 2:00pm Central Time (3pm EST / 12pm Pacific / 19:00 GMT)
Date: Wednesday April 15, 2009
MP3's/transcripts will be available for purchase.

Reserve your spot at http://www.perrymarshall.com/aaron/

This call is perfect for beginner and intermediate AdWords advertisers. If you're spending more than $100 per month on Google clicks, this information is essential.

The economic downturn has driven more companies to advertise on Google; Google had a record quarter at the end of '08 and it's more important than ever before to employ the right tactics with AdWords!

Perry will show you how to structure a Pay Per Click campaign and discuss recent changes to Google's system that require a different approach.


Perry will also be interviewing me 2 hours earlier, at 12pm Central time. I'll be giving his audience my tips for Search Engine Optimization techniques and what's working in 2009.

What better way to "celebrate" Tax Day than to get more visitors to your website and more sales after they get there? Talk to you then!

Aaron Wall
- and Perry Marshall

Mike Grehan Interview

Many thanks for talking with us today, Mike. We've spent a few messy evenings drinking girly Merlots, but for those who don't know you, can you be so kind as to introduce yourself?

Ahhhh… those halcyon Merlot fuelled days… I remember them well… (truth be known, with all that Merlot, I don't remember much at all!).

So for those folks who are new to the industry, I can give a little background.

I first invented the Internet back in the 1960s. I had a young whippersnapper working for me as my assistant at the time. Al Gore was his name. I believe he grew up and took some sort of job with the government. Not sure where he is now.

In about 1965 I coined the term “hypertext,” which I was thrilled about. It didn't actually mean anything, but it sounded really cool. I used to drink with a guy called Ted Nelson who thought this was a pretty cool word, too. Ted's an old scientist living here in New York. And we do laugh when we get together about all of those people who have assumed that it was him who coined the term. Boy, must we have been drunk that night.

After messing around in physics (it being the new rock and roll, of course) I moved to Geneva, Switzerland and took a job at the European Organization for Nuclear Research. It was a pretty dull job actually – same thing day-in, day-out. Atomic nuclei can get pretty boring to interact with. Plus I didn't like the special suit.

On one occasion, I was working with a complete dunderhead by the name of Tim Berners Lee. He was one of those guys that you just knew was never going to amount to anything in life. I explained to him that, during my morning shower, I had this brilliant idea to apply hypertext to the internet. He was so excited.. Mike, he said, I think you've just invented the… interweb!

Stupid boy!

Anyway, after being knighted by Her Majesty the Queen for my sterling work inventing what we now know as the “World Wide Web,” I thought I'd better do something practical with it. By now there was a lot of stuff out there and it was getting difficult to find anything. I was a visiting lecturer at Stanford University at the time and hooked up with a couple of kids called Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

This was not a good experience for me. These guys came to my dorm one night and stole a paper I had written called, “The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine.” I even had a pet name for it. I called it “Google.” I thought that was quite cool and trendy, what with Google being a play on the word goggle, which means to ogle women. Some time later, I read some bullshit from these guys who stole my idea that it had something to do with "googol," which is the Californian pronunciation for a word which also means to ogle women… er… I think.

I'm in the process of suing these Google jokers for almost 600 bucks to cover the amount of time it took me to write the paper. I'm not stupid… I'll get every penny of it, I bet!

Eventually, I moved away from search, mainly because it doesn't work properly and never will. So, I invented my latest toy, which I call Twitter. I called it Twitter because it's full of twits talking bits of shit to each other. Shitter.com had already gone by then, unfortunately.

Oh! Fancy me forgetting to mention Wikipedia! I actually invented that as a joke and people started taking it seriously. What fun!! People are failing exams because it's full of false crap. Some people have been seriously injured for the rest of their lives for taking some of the medical advice… ROFL

I'm on the verge of leaving the internet space to work on my new invention, which is very much a green thing. Imagine this: Reusable toilet paper! Heh! How cool is that. Some people have called it a flannel. In fact, some have called it a face cloth. Dood, I wouldn't want that near my face knowing where it had been before. Eeeuuwww!

Anyway… these are just some of the excellent things I've done in my extremely interesting life. What other brilliant things do you need to know about me? Being as modest as I am, I may not be able to answer all of your questions of course…

Every word Mike says is true :)

In your paper "New Signals To Search Engines", you frame search in a historical context - where it has been, where it is now, and where it might be going. What are the major changes coming up that will have the most impact on current SEO practices and goals?

Grehan now puts serious head on…

I've talked about how search engine optimization evolved in the first instance. It was driven by the limitations of the technology used by search engines. Basically, the World Wide Web was developed to do one thing – but everyone wants it to do another. So, crawling the web using the HTTP protocol was the obvious route to go for search engines back then.

But if Google is saying they now have seen a trillion URLs and have no certainty that they'll ever be able to crawl them in a timely fashion, maybe we've reached the zenith of the crawl. Not only that, the end user is expecting a much richer experience. So if the main job of SEO was to optimize static web pages and make them available to crawlers, it's all becoming a little passé now.

Have we seen the end of HTML and the crawler? Absolutely not. But the level of requirement for SEO work is going to diminish, rather like that of the blacksmith when motorized transport was introduced. Do we still have blacksmiths today? For sure, but they're not as required as they used to be.

The main changes will be in existing SEO shops either moving into other technical/development work or retraining in other online marketing disciplines. It's a very exciting time in search. Most marketers can see that. But those people from a purely technical background and used to just doing geeky code for a crawler don't see it that way.

You mention that user trails - as provided by the toolbar, tagging etc - will become some of the strongest signals. That's pretty much the death knell of traditional SEO, isn't it?

If we take what I said in the answer to the last question, you can see that traditional SEO as we know it has had to evolve anyway. I don't really think of link building as SEO, to be honest. For me, link building is the by-product of good marketing. Whereas fixing pages for a crawler is purely a technical process.

What needs to be taken into account most importantly is not where SEO goes to next, or whether it survives at all. It's about where search goes to next and how the end user evolves with those changes. Making pages for crawlers and getting links for the sole purpose of getting links omits one thing from the equation: the end user experience.

So, now that search engines can follow end users they can see where they started and where they dropped off. That kind of data is so important. It's the wisdom of crowds. It's the people's vote. So how does a marketer get involved there? It's going to be a little clichéd, but create an experience - not a web page.

Last year, Eric Schmidt CEO of Google, said an interesting thing in an interview. He mentioned - and I'm paraphrasing here - "that the Internet is a "cesspool" where false information thrives, and that "brands are the way to rise above the cesspool". Do you think brands might be an important signal of quality?

I read that interview too.

He was stating the obvious to be honest. People have long bemoaned the fact that smaller businesses don't get the same shelf space in search as the big brands (the same applies offline, of course). Brand building is all about good marketing. It's all about building trust and reputation. But wait for this… It's not just about the big boys. A local store can build up as much trust and reputation within its community as well as a high street chain.

Social networking sites are all about people building up trust and reputation on a personal level. So, I think the notion of brands as we've known them – such as multi-nationals like Exxon – is going away. I think we're moving more into social search and that's all about tapping into a network of trust.

Addressing your question directly: "Do you think brands might be an important signal of quality?" As long as those brands belong to the end user and not large corporations, and that's certainly what's happening, then yes, a great signal of quality.

Social media, for want of a better term, is a "place" where most content is being generated, and increasingly where many people are spending their time. What are your thoughts on, say, Twitter? What are the implications for Google and other big search engines when people rely on real-time wisdom-of-crowds, and communities, for answers?

So we've already touched on this a little when talking about tapping into a network of trust. Absolutely this is a very important move. The results you get at search engines are hardly verified results and they can be manipulated. That means you have what a mathematical formula (the algorithm) believes are the best ranked documents. And then you have a little re-ranking going on when Ralph Tegtmeir gets to them!

However, if you tap into a network of trust, such as a parenting group, and ask them a about a child's allergy, the information is likely to be much more verified. If 500 parents all agree that a certain method works then that's more trustworthy information than a search engine algorithm can provide.

But there's a whole lot more to it than me Tweeting my followers and asking which is the best Irish pub in New York and wanting an answer now!

Can we talk a little about formats. You make the point that HTML may have served us well up to now, but things are changing. The web is becoming media rich. What does this mean for SEO? Do search marketers become multi-media positioners?

I saw a quote from a senior scientist at Google where he said we’re moving "away from a web of content to a web of applications." So it's more about the end user experience and the method of delivery, as opposed to one protocol over another. I don't think HTTP/HTML is going away anytime soon. But it's not going to be the primary method for internet search going forward.

People are already talking about new platforms. One idea is Flash. I like that. Or maybe pure java. Most certainly social search into networks of trust and live search via apps such as Twitter will further develop in the future.

We spend a lot of time on SEOBook connecting-the-dots between areas such as seo, brand and traditional marketing. You've said "connected marketing" is the future of marketing. Can you talk a little about this? This is the point where big worlds collide, isn't it?

Connected marketing is a kind of generic term for the new audience of always-on, 24-hour-a-day networks. I use the iPhone as a primary example of how to connect with your audience in so many different ways. Sure, it could be the HTTP/HTML route as it comes with a browser. But there are also so many apps you can download. You can get to your audience via email, txt, Twitter. You'll be surprised at this… you can even use it as a telephone!

It is about big worlds colliding. It's not just that technology has changed so we market via different channels to the same people. It's more about how the audience has changed. And so we have to change the way we connect with them.

I don't think that conventional methods such as the 30-second spot are going away anytime soon. But we need to examine all areas of this new marketing mix and get our messaging aligned.

If traditional SEO is at a point of diminishing value, what are the things an SEO can do to adapt to this brave new world?

First of all, stop using just SEO. The job we've been doing to help search engines do a job they should have been doing themselves is not as critical as it was. Crawlers are getting smarter and the communication between search engines and SEOs is much more transparent now. Search engines provide many tools to make the process of letting them know that you have good indexable content available.

But as the end user demands a much richer experience, search engines need to know a lot more about other types of content. Not just the textual HTML pages that SEOs labor over.

It is a brave new world of marketing. It's tremendously exciting. But you do have to start and think more about smart marketing and less about smart HTML coding.

There's a plethora of books and information on social media, optimizing video and perhaps, more importantly, analytics which open up this whole new world of marketing. As the value of providing pure SEO services diminishes, the value of new services increases. This is not a bad time for search marketing: It's the best it has ever been!

Many thanks, Mike.

Mike Grehan is Global KDM Officer with Acronym Media, a leading search marketing company based in New York's landmark Empire State Building. Follow Mike on Twitter here.

Interview of Jonathan Mendez

I have been a follower of Jonathan Mendez's Optimize and Prophesize for a while, and recently interviewed him.

At SES in New York you are speaking on a panel titled "search becomes the display OS" - what does that mean, why is this shift happening?

The shift is part of the Darwinian evolution of the web. Many people have mistakenly viewed search as a channel when in reality it is a behavior. It is the way people use the web. This is clear as YouTube is now the #2 search engine, Facebook, eBay & Craigslist are in the top 10 search engines and Twitter is trying to position itself as a real-time search. Search is integral to the web experience.

From the display standpoint we need to keep in mind that this medium does not need ads to support it nor are ads part of the experience. Display advertising was built as a parallel platform - not weaved into the web like search but placed on top of it. Display has always had its own ecosystem of real estate, content and serving that is separate from the public web.

What we’ve witnessed with display’s lackluster performance and the inevitable crash of CPM rates is the idea of it being a stand-alone platform was wrong. Display needs to be an application that is integrated with web platform and the way people use the web. It should be based on user controls and rules based delivery of content. To truly be relevant and useful for people, publishers and advertisers, it must become a web service like search.

Search is currently at the center of the web. Do you foresee any technologies or services that might shift its position?

On the contrary I think it will become more entrenched and important since everyday millions of new pieces of content data keep getting added to the web and older content gets digitized. As I mentioned search is basic human behavior. We all go online with a goal in mind to either recover information and content or discover information and content. Those behaviors are primal. No technology or services will shift them.

How do you place value on a search impression?

The value is based on what you do with the information. Impressions are the ultimate arbiter of interest and demand. Of course if you go to Google trends often you will become somewhat worried about the collective psyche of this country. In all seriousness however, this is business intelligence. Quick story about impressions - a few years ago I was working with a big client and they were launching a new product. We had purchased the category kw for this product over a year and it hardly had any impressions. We strongly advised them against spending two million dollars to launch this product because there was no demand for it. They didn’t listen to the “search” guys. Within a year the CMO was fired because the product flopped. So in that instance I would say those couple hundred impressions were worth two million dollars.

One of the most powerful pieces of search is that the ad unit looks just like the content. What can publishers do to maximize ad integration without risking their perceived credibility?

In my experience you add credibility as a publisher if you provide helpful, useful and interesting content. There’s no reason that can’t be an ad. Most everyone I know has clicked on a Google ad. Sometimes it is preferable. This creates value to Google as a publisher. Ads that are helpful and interesting will add value to other publishers in the same manner because they are helping their visitors. People rarely forget who helped them in a useful way whether it be a website or “in real life.” In fact there is a large intangible value that is not even being captured when this happens. I think some people even refer to it as branding.

What can publishers and vendors learn from the dominance of search when thinking about how to build and brand their websites? What are some easy ways to make our user experiences more relevant?

Give people control over the delivery of content. The most successful online segmentation strategy is when a person tells you what they want -- self-segmentation. That is the beauty of search. The keyword is the ultimate expression of people’s goals. No website or advertiser knows more about what I want than I do! It explains why the best and most successful experiences on the web (Google, eBay, Craigslist, Yelp) have query fields and lots of text links and it is something I always keep in mind in doing page design. As far as branding I think that goes back to what we were just talking about, the site experience. Great experiences build brands and that is the same online as well as off. Keep in mind all of this should be tested and optimized. It is no accident that Google is the #1 brand in the world without spending a penny on advertising. From day one no one has tested online experience more than Google.

Many people have been promoting Twitter as a Google-killer in real-time search. Why are they wrong?

You mean besides the fact that Google made $21B in ad revenue last year has $8B in cash, owns half a million servers and Twitter search has probably 10 employees and no revenue?

There are some major problems with RTS. First let’s start with the way people search. This has been studied and very clearly defined over the years by brilliant people like Andrei Broder, Daniel Rose and others. I recently took the query classifications they defined and applied it to RTS (http://www.optimizeandprophesize.com/jonathan_mendezs_blog/2009/02/misguided-notions-a-study-of-the-value-creation-in-realtime-search.html). I came to the conclusion that with optimal RTS - which is a huge challenge as I’ll get to - that less than 20% of all queries would benefit in anyway from RTS.

As far as the technical challenges spamming would be very hard to filter in real-time. Also authority as we know from PageRank is a fundamental driver of relevance. How do you define authority in real time? If you do not rank results than is it just a noisy stream? I’ve come to the conclusion that if it RTS becomes anything useful it will be a search vertical, like travel. Helpful for certain things but nowhere near a primary search tool. It is still a great addition to the web but not something Google needs to be concerned with. In fact I think Google is in the position to provide RTS for the entire web which is much more useful than RTS for a single app.

How slow and painful will the transition of ad dollars from offline to online be? What will be the catalyst that allows ad agencies to push search and online aggressively?

Very slow, but this shouldn’t be painful. We know the attention is online so dollars will continue to increase but I think a $25 billion dollar online industry is pretty good right now. It’s grown much faster the past few years than even the most bullish forecasts from five years ago. The catalyst will be innovation and the businesses themselves that must demand performance. Bill Gross the inventor of PPC said it best, “the true value of the Internet is in its accountability…performance guarantees have to be the model for paying for media.” As soon as we embrace performance for all advertising, even so called brand advertising, we will prove our value and grow our industry. Google stands as proof of concept for this. But the battle over performance will be long and bloody. In just the past couple of weeks we’ve had groups like the IAB and the AAAA speaking out against performance and metrics. This type of rhetoric and their fear of accountability are actually helping to slow down the transition.

How many newspaper companies do you see lasting through this economic downturn?

Not too many. Besides the fact that their authority over the past years has waned with bloggers and false reporting the real problem is that newspapers are not an efficient means of information compared to everything else we have today. What percentage of the paper is relevant or interesting to you? 5%? 15%? Yet you are paying for the entire paper when you buy it. Doesn’t make sense. We used to have town criers too, but then newspapers came along. I don’t think most people will miss them. Times have changed. Maybe we’ve just come full circle – people getting their news from other people they trust is the best way to disseminate information. Who trusts the papers?

What will the online vs offline divide look like in 2 years? 5 years? 10 years?

I’m not so sure we’ll have a divide in 5 or 10 years. The kids graduating high school this year were 8 years old when Google was started. I see kids 4 and 5 years old naturally manipulating iPhones. Many of us have persistent web connection and we like it - we feel uncomfortable without it! Of course it’s nice to get off the grid sometimes but what is happening with digital technology is the great story of our age. Everything is becoming digital, addressable and connected via the web. All of us lucky enough to be working here will reap the rewards of that in the coming years because the growth of digital will far outpace the amount of talent in the workforce. We should have bigger paychecks in 5 years!

Many people focus on one particular segment of the market, whereas you seem to have a well-rounded knowledge of SEO, PPC, user experience, and conversion strategies. How did you find the time to tie all these different disciplines together?

Well, I’ve been at it 11 years so that accounts for the time. It is corny but I love the web and I am passionate about trying to make it more relevant to everything we do. Looking back my career path from Site>Email>SEO>UX>SEM>LPO>Display, it seems like a very natural progression to me. Basically, with one stop for UX I have just been a marketer trying to stay ahead of the advances in marketing technology. Also, I love learning how people use the web and all the disciplines I have worked in are fundamentally rooted in the same thing -- understanding people’s goals and optimizing the delivery and presentation of information to meet those goals. As an industry we tend to divide the web into vectors but we often lose sight that the web experience for people is linear. The more holistic understanding we have generally the better our results.

_____________________ Thanks Jonathan! To read more of his thoughts check out Optimize and Prophesize.

Aaron interviews Ben and Karl from Conversion Rate Experts (CRE)

A few months ago, I hired Conversion Rate Experts to work on my business. I have learned loads from them. So far they have grown our conversion rate by 124%, and have given me great insights into the thought process of consumers hitting this site...reminding me why they buy, and how ineffectively we were conveying the value of all the different components of our offering. 124% is a good start, and we still have a lot of things to improve upon.

Earlier this week, I interviewed them for this blog, so you can benefit from their advice too. The interview contains loads of tips you can implement today to grow your business.

Aaron: What made you guys start Conversion Rate Experts?

Karl: Several years ago, I started working with Ben, who had been working in web marketing for years. I have a Ph.D. in rocket science, and we discussed how we could take a scientific approach to increasing the conversion rate of our employer’s website. Within twelve months, we tripled the website’s profits, to $9.1 million.

At that time, we had just bought SEO Book, and claimed our free 20-minute call with you, Aaron. We asked for your advice, and you recommended we “Give away as much valuable information as possible”. We took your advice, and, a few weeks later, launched Conversion-Rate-Experts.com with a free report called Google Website Optimizer 101, which described some of the techniques we had developed.

The report went viral, getting on the homepages of Digg and Delicious. By the end of the week, we’d been featured on the Alexa.com home page as the third-fastest-growing website, in their “Movers & Shakers” list.

The following day we were contacted, out of the blue, by Google’s Tom Leung, who suggested we partner with them to offer consulting services. We said no at first (what were we thinking?!) but, six months later, we decided to go for it. Since then, we have had some fantastic successes for clients in some highly competitive industries—including weight loss, travel, gaming, technology and health and fitness.

Aaron: Lets say I have no idea who my customer is...but my boss wants me to give a report on the topic at the end of next week. What should I do?

Ben: Speak with your sales people—or customer support people. They understand your customers in much more depth than any web analytics report could give. They know what the customers care about, and what their major objections are. If you have no customer support people, consider temporarily adding a phone number to your website, just to give yourself an opportunity to speak with customers.

To show you the extremes we go to to hear the “voice of the customer”, here are a few of the things we have done to get face to face with real prospects:

  • Sold travel products in airports, from a stand that was rented for a few days.
  • Sold phones at a market. (We were in a hurry to gather objections for a new product, and the market allowed us to just turn up on the day.)
  • Joined a local slimming club. (This was by far the most embarrassing.)
  • Attended a local bingo hall.
  • Opened up Japan’s first-ever Nokia store.
  • Ordered antibodies through the post. (They’re still here on the desk—we don’t know how to get rid of them!)

Other great services include Crazy Egg, Kampyle, ClickTale…and of course, web analytics software. We created a summary of some of the services we use regularly.

Aaron: Testing…personas…consistency in messaging. What is more important for improving conversion rates?

Karl: Consistency in messaging should be a given. If your messaging isn’t consistent, you’ve got a “dog’s dinner” of a website.

Testing, too, should be a prerequisite; without testing, you can’t confidently be sure whether you have improved your conversion rate or not.

You definitely need to understand your visitors’ intentions and mindset. This should be done by real research, not just “ivory towers” guesswork. Many web marketers fall short at this point. They ask us how to increase their conversion rates, and the first question we ask is, “Why are most of your visitors leaving without spending a penny”…and they can’t answer the question! These people would struggle to create just one realistic persona, never mind five of them. Personas can be a useful way of considering different types of visitor, but as long as the personas are based on a real understanding of your visitors—otherwise you’re just sitting in an office, creating soap opera characters.

Aaron: What is the single biggest thing most sites screw up in the conversion process?

Karl: Most web marketers work on the wrong part of their conversion funnel. For example, they might over-obsess on their landing page, but forget that they don’t have a refer-a-friend program.

One of the first things we do is to look at the whole conversion process—from visitor to repeat customer—and look for the opportunities in the chain. We have an immediate advantage because we can see the website with fresh eyes.

Aaron: Did you ever make a mistake during the conversion testing process that surprised you and worked really well?

Ben: We regularly carry out usability tests on our clients’ websites. During one test, the participant mentioned that he’d prefer the page to have a different background colour (the color to the left- and right-hand side of the page). We mentioned it to the client in passing, who then tested it. The client saw a 9% improvement in the site’s conversion rate, worth $400,000 per year. We were amazed that such a subtle change could make such a massive difference to a business.

Aaron: Many of the internet marketers that do email-based marketing are willing to lie to make a sale. It makes sense that get rich quick people are easy to monetize since they want to buy a dream. How does one compete with such a sales strategy in a field where competing businesses overtly lie?

Ben: Prospects are hungry for proof—and they’re surprisingly good at detecting lies. If you can show irrefutable evidence that your offering is best, you have an enormous advantage. SEO Book’s success is largely due to your integrity, and the high quality of your information. You might call it “white hat” conversion! And, as with “white hat” SEO, it’s the easiest way of building a long-term sustainable business.

Aaron: Sales optimization vs exploitation: some people push it too far, whereas most businesses are way under-monetized. Where do you draw the line between improving conversion rates and misleading people? Is misleading people ever profitable in the longrun, or do the people who do that need to keep starting over again and again.

Karl: The best approach is to offer people what they want—and then deliver it. Monetization doesn’t mean exploitation. We regularly ask this question to our clients’ customers: “What would persuade you to use us more often?”

You’d be surprised how many customers ask the company to offer more products or services to them.

Aaron: From my experiences, with Adsense and ad click based business models it seems like it would be easier to monetize people of limited topical knowledge and limited knowledge of the web. And some people who have been around forever feel they already know everything. Yet some models work best monetizing at the higher end. How does a business owner know what types of customers they should target?

Ben: There’s no one right answer. Some companies—such as 37 Signals, with their collaboration tools—target the lower end of the market, and some—such as Accenture—target the high end. It depends on which segments of the market are currently being neglected by vendors, and how you feel you can add the most value.

Aaron: If a person targeted the wrong audience for years, is it easy to later shift to the right target? How does one shift without losing market momentum?

Karl: Here’s a great way to identify your company’s opportunities: Quickly write down two lists:

  • List your company’s strengths. These are the things that you company is good at, and that competitors would struggle to compete with you at, because there’s some “barrier to entry”—whether that’s because of a skill you have, or an asset you have. For example, SEO Book has an enormous readership, a reputation for integrity and intelligent commentary, true expertise in SEO, many successful customers, and a large number of respected contacts in the SEO world. Any new competitors would struggle to compete with those things.
  • List your company’s opportunities, in terms of what people are willing to spend money on. The best way to get this is by understanding your customers. If you don’t know what they’d like to spend money on, ask them, in person or by survey.

By studying these two lists, you should be able to find opportunities that you are best-positioned to serve. The question to ask is, “How much money could be made from this opportunity, and could my company be the best in the world at providing this service?”

Often, you’ll find that your biggest opportunities are right under your nose.

Often, the answer is to narrow down the opportunity to a very specific focus. For example, rather than aiming to provide SEO services to everyone, maybe SEO Book could specialize in providing linkbait services to small businesses.

It can be scary to narrow down your focus, but it’s often the most lucrative strategy. To get a good understanding of how to focus and positioning can help a business, read the chapter “Positioning and Focus”, pp. 103–127, in the book Selling The Invisible by Harry Beckwith.

By the way, the above exercise isn’t just useful for businesses—it can be really useful for planning your own career.

Aaron: Do you ever use public relations as part of your conversion enhancing strategies?

Ben: Yes, frequently. We have managed to get our clients into magazines such as TIME magazine and the Wall Street Journal. Press mentions can lend loads of credibility to a product or service—and they can’t be used by competitors.

While working on a weight loss website that generates $5 million/year, we noticed that the company had a fantastic press testimonial that wasn’t prominently displayed on their website. By moving this information “above the fold”—and reformatting it—we managed to create an overnight 67% increase in sales.

Aaron: How important is social proof of value to sales?

Ben: Social proof can be extremely persuasive, particularly when other forms of proof are scarce. For those of your readers who don’t know what social proof is, it’s often known as “herd behavior”; when people are unable to determine how to behave, they will tend to imitate the behavior of others. Marketers often use social proof by demonstrating how other people are using their services. Here are a few examples of social proof:

McDonald’s “Over 99 Billion Served”

The Elvis album entitled “One Million Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong”

Aaron: Many customers who like a product or service do not give feedback about it. How do you encourage them to do so?

Ben: Most companies don’t have this problem: they just don’t ask for feedback, because they’re scared to hear it. When was the last time you went to a restaurant and they genuinely wanted to know what you thought of the meal?

Karl: However, sometimes your best customers are also your busiest customers, so you need to reward them for sparing some time to give feedback. In these cases, you may consider rewarding them for sparing the time.

Aaron: Throughout my blogging history I have seen an amazing correlation between controversy and sales. Do you ever suggest clients make a ruckus to gain exposure and increase their sales?

Karl: We haven’t done so, but mainly because it’s more a traffic technique than a conversion one. The client would need to feel comfortable with “riding the storm of controversy”, which tends to scare a lot of people.

Aaron: What type of traffic converts best?

Karl: Existing customers convert very well, as do visitors from refer-a-friend programs.

Aaron: Is search traffic the best type of traffic to test conversion principles on? What other sources are worth testing aggressively?

Ben: We test on whatever traffic the website is currently getting—but avoiding, where possible, traffic that is transient, such as one-off campaigns.

Aaron: Do you prefer to do straight A/B split testing, or to test changing many variables at once?

Karl: We recommend clients start with A/B split testing, because it’s less complex. Multivariate testing is just carrying out several A/B tests simultaneously.

Aaron: When does it make sense to do incremental changes? When does it make sense to blow things up and start from scratch?

Karl: It’s a case of “baby steps” versus “giant steps”. If you’re confident that your giant step will be a winner, then it’s often worth testing, especially because large improvements can be detected much faster.

Aaron: If someone clones one of your products and makes it free how do you counter that from a marketing standpoint?

Karl: This is a question that many industries, such as the music industry, are currently facing.

It’s important to bear in mind that people pay for SEO Book’s training program because of the following: the community, the mentions in the world’s press, the popular blog, the fact they know and like you. Those things can’t easily be cloned.

Kevin Kelly wrote a great article about this difficult subject. The article is worth reading, but here is a summary of it, as it pertains to SEO Book:

Immediacy: people will pay a premium to have first-access to something. For example, people would pay extra to have early preview copies of new content on SEO Book.

Personalization: people will pay to have something that’s personalized for them (even though the personalization doesn’t need to be extreme). For example, people would pay more just to have someone tell them which parts of SEO Book’s training program they should focus on first.

Interpretation: people will pay to have something explained to them. For example, Google Website Optimizer is free software, but many clients pay to have help in setting it up.

Authenticity: people will pay more just to know that their copy is authentic (up-to-date, legal, free of erroneous information, etc.)

Accessibility: people will pay to have instant access to a hosted service, rather than having to look after and manage it themselves. With SEO Book, people would rather have access to the continually updated membership site rather having to constantly have to keep all the training videos up to date on their own computer.

Embodiment: people will often pay more to have the product in a “real” format. They may prefer to have SEO Book’s courses available in a printable format, so they can read it by their bedside, or they may prefer to attend an Elite Retreat session, so they can see you and your colleagues speak in person.

Patronage: sometimes people want to pay the product creator, because it allows them to connect.

Findability: sometimes, the main service a company makes it to raise the awareness of a product. For example, many people wouldn’t be aware of the SEO Book training program if it weren’t for all the channels (blog referrals, search rankings, affiliates, etc.) that direct visitors towards the seobook.com website.

Aaron: What were your biggest personal business hang-ups, and how did you get over them?

Karl: We tend to be perfectionists, and our blog readers often complain that we don’t publish enough. On the upside, our reports tend to get loads of attention when we publish them. If you would like to learn more about conversion, I’d suggest you view the free reports on our website, and sign up for our free newsletter.


Thanks for the great interview guys!

Interview of Andrew Goodman, the World's #1 Google AdWords Expert

For a number of years I have been meaning to interview Andrew Goodman (and thank him for how his original ebook helped me out back in the stone ages (circa 2003, when I was first getting online).

He recently finished the second edition to his popular Winning Results with Google AdWords book, so I figured now would be a good time to interview him.


Hi Andrew,
I remember when I bought your ebook way back in 2003. You introduced me to Seth Godin, Rob Frankel, and many other clean parts of Internet marketing vs the sleazy stuff someone could waste years and 10s of thousands of dollars on, while getting nowhere ...so I just wanted to say thanks for that. :)

That's great to hear - you certainly took the ball and ran with it. Godin is a boundless phenomenon. Frankel on the other hand I have rarely given a thought to in all these years!

How would you compare your old ebook with your physical books?

The old ebook was a bit reminiscent of this post I just made on my blog, Traffick: Lietzke vs. the Clones.

Back in the day you could just come out with stuff and try out big ideas, and find an audience. You didn't have to get it all perfect. Time was of the essence. I had no "coaches" save for a few small voices in the wilderness... luckily they were intelligent voices talking about how to go about producing and pricing an ebook, and writers like Godin and Emmanuel Rosen talking about how to promote something like that.

The print book is more systematic and more professional with a prettier cover. And I have learned not to discount the human touch of handing a book (even a signed copy) to someone I meet. The memento aspect of a print book is indeed significant.

Fortunately, my publisher (McGraw-Hill) saw things my way enough to let my ragged, "unprofessional" personality come through... especially in the 2nd edition. I think we still got most of the stats right and the headings and stuff make sense. :)

How many copies of your ebook did you sell?

Tens of thousands, at various price points. The exact number is classified.

What caused you to shift from an ebook model to writing a physical book?

The opportunity. There is a hole in the capabilities of an ebook, even though it makes you more money typically (directly anyway). You can't be introduced as the author of "x ebook" that you self-published, if you want to be taken seriously on the global speaking circuit, just to use an example. It depends on the audience but it's basically fair to say that a print book is a better long term lead generator for a company like mine.

I think you have to be wary of piling on into a crowded category, though. Seems everyone is writing a book right now. You want to be the category leader. I don't have to explain this to you. Most people have heard of your ebook for example. You're not the fifth name that comes to mind when people think "SEO book."

Winning Results with Google AdWords, Second Edition was quite a major update from the prior version that was about 3 years old. What are some of the biggest changes you have seen from AdWords in the last couple years? What might be coming soon from Google?

In many respects, the complexities of Quality Score are a huge challenge -- mainly because they are difficult to understand. But the system was clunkier before with too many hiccups in how principles were being put into practice. So it's actually an improvement in many ways.

The algorithm there is just a fascinating piece of work. Google is not content to stop at CTR's as a factor for ad ranking; nor are they content to stop at landing page and website quality. They are looking at relevancy signals in quite a radical way, in my opinion. New accounts and new campaigns are especially vulnerable to the algo's predictive data, and must be managed meticulously.

In terms of incremental improvement, the Content Network, reporting options, and so on, have continued to improve as Google responds to advertiser concerns. The search-based keyword tool, Google Insights for Search, etc. are all better than ever. And now we wonder what Google intends to achieve, if anything, with Google Ad Planner.

There are numerous small and large policy changes behind the scenes that largely don't make it into the book because the book is pitched to Intermediate (not Advanced or agency level) strategy. Those who do this full time know it pays to be inquisitive and to use negotiating skills and diplomacy to make the most out of the Google relationship.

Campaign supports, such as Google Website Optimizer for landing page testing, are great strides for the industry -- requiring equally significant commitment and expertise to take maximum advantage of them.

In the "coming soon" area, we can talk about sexy stuff like expansion into print, mobile, radio, TV, etc. -- but what's remarkable is that Google has actually stalled in some of those areas - especially print.

Most of the big things that come out of Google are completely separate, new products/software, that don't directly relate to search or monetization. It seems like they'll be attempting to cross a few chasms. Hard to say if they'll get there from a business sense in many of their new categories. Certainly Google Search (PageRank and other innovations that made it great), and Google AdWords were remarkable exercises in soft innovation that taken all together, come across as Big Ideas and Great Leaps Forward. From a financial standpoint, some analysts insist that they remain a one-trick pony.

The argument goes: what if Google's many other soft innovations, Big Ideas, and Great Leaps Forward don't turn into business? It's possible. Luckily they have the resources to wait it out as many pieces of their grand vision are developed. Since the costs are so enormous, you really wonder if they can pay for all of it with advertising revenues. If not, what are the new business models going to look like? How will they make money giving away an operating system, etc.?

What made you become attracted to the AdWords model so early in its existence?

I think it was one of those experiences where you sign up and try it and immediately get it. I'd tried GoTo/Overture, of course. With AdWords, you saw yourself rising up to the top as you tested your ads for CTR. You got to play with matching options. You got much nicer reporting. And the beat kept going on from there.

Just the simple game of watching two ads "race" each other for CTR at first, and then ROI (right in the interface) after the Conversion Tracker was released, was addictive in the extreme. Many of us didn't even know we had a little direct marketer inside us waiting to come out. We were hooked immediately.

Keep in mind that along with Overture, this was the first monetization platform for search that didn't end up killing the audience for the search engine or discrediting the company implementing it! It was a huge step for our industry. When companies like Infoseek pondered the monetization issue they were just plain naive.

What did you do before you got into search?

I was close to finishing a doctorate in Political Science. I was doing research and teaching courses in Political Philosophy, Public Policy, etc. There are a lot of great people in those fields, but they produced too many of us by a factor of 5-10X over the available jobs. I like to say I sacrificed my academic career to watch my wife go on to thrive in hers, but it was also the pull of the dot com bubble and everything it represented (both good and bad). I found myself living online and finding new passions and new friends. Life began moving at a different pace. So on my own, I'd been dabbling with Internet businesses, reading Business 2.0, and all of that stuff, prior to making the move.

When does it make sense to create an ad that gets a high CTR? When does it make sense to disqualify most potential visitors?

Savvy question. The literal interpretation of testing ads would have us look only at ROI or CPA numbers, right? But Google so strongly rewards CTR that we need to keep testing and maybe tip our hat to CTR in the overall mix... especially as the account gets established.

A CTR bias is not a terrible thing - you just need to refine carefully from there, to move towards a variant that has a relatively strong ROI among several high-CTR candidates (what I like to call a "double win"). Sounds impossible, but it isn't. That's one way to approach it, anyway.

5 to 10 years down the road, do you still see Google being the center of the web in the US, Canada, and many European countries?


Need a longer answer?

They will face some hurdles globally as regulators won't like some of what they try to do. As long as their cash flow remains as strong as it is now, they're determined to build powerful, fast applications and systems that keep us locked in, that outdo similar offerings from competitors. That's not going to be good for their profitability, but it'll be nice for market share and generalized dominance.

Google has grown more aggressive with adding shortcuts (maps, flight search, real estate search, etc.) directly in the organic search results. Do you see them eventually monetizing these?

They'll turn up the heat on monetizing a proportion of their successful properties. They've definitely started doing this on YouTube - if successful, imagine the revenue growth there. We've only seen just the beginning of what they're likely to attempt in the local and classifieds space.

In the UK Google did a merchant search beta test where they basically put a lead form inside a house AdWords ad. Do you see Google eventually shifting the AdWords product away from a CPC model to more of a CPA model?

I think a lot of that is experimental. Some of their little experiments don't lead much of anywhere. A CPA model would be damaging to Google unless carefully controlled. The CPC or effective CPM methods of payment are juicier.

In September of 2003 Nick Denton wrote "Imagine a web in which Google and Overture text ads are everywhere . Not only beside search results, but next to every article and weblog post. Ubiquity breeds contempt. Text ads, coupled with content targeting, are more effective than graphic ads for many advertisers; but they too, like banners, will suffer reader burnout." Do you see any indication of ad burnout from web users yet?

Jakob Nielsen also wrote about text ad blindness potential, on April 28, 2003, so he beat Nick to the punch. Well, iPods are ubiquitous. Gillette spent billions of dollars on TV ads over the years. Are they held in contempt? On the other hand, eBay still shows up way too much on generic queries, with those lame text ads. I think that does breed contempt and has hurt eBay's brand, much as people auctioning off their toenails has done.

So the answer is definitely that it's highly situational. Users look at this as navigation, not advertising, and as long as there's full disclosure and they aren't annoyed by the ads, I find it hard to believe that clicking on a link to Kayak.com or Hilton Hotels when I'm searching for travel information is going to be associated with "burnout." It's efficient and the ads aren't shouting.

Is the content network a good buy? What sorts of business models and markets do well with it? Which ones perform poorly?

The content network has made huge strides judging by the ROI numbers in our campaigns.

It's tough to generalize about verticals. As long as there are some quality content sites, discussion forums, or even parked domains in the relevant vertical, the links do convert a certain amount of the time, so it's a matter of bidding right.

High ticket, complex services and hard-to-find or high-tech products seem to do better in general, though. If you're selling cashmere sweaters there just aren't enough sites where people are high enough up in the purchase funnel to be swayed by ads for cashmere sweaters. People buy from recommendations in content, but those tend to be direct recommendations or reviews, right?

Some advertisers are using the network for brand reasons, in concert with more of an integrated campaign. In general advertisers need to be trying more banner creative sizes and types - and more publishers should be more open to them. The system began with text ads only and there is a certain inertia in that.

I have been seeing a lot of AdWords ads about "free trials" and "only $1" government stimulus secrets packages with fine print that mentions that the "service" is a subscription that costs $50 a month. Should Google be responsible for cleaning up such ads? Why do they let some such ads run when they spend so much capital policing the organic search results & creating quality scores?

I agree. The website quality side is policed more on the search end of things, so these kinds of come-ons tend to leak over into content, where there is more of a dearth of advertisers for some of the inventory.

On the whole, it's very hard to police unscrupulous come-ons. Many if not most legitimate businesses in some fields are built around lead generation, free trials, free samples, free downloads, etc.

I'm sure it's on Google's to-do list. They're working very hard on policing the search side (mostly algorithmically). The standard will always be more lax on the content side, but it seems like it should be beefed up some.

You wrote an interesting post on Search Engine Land about the potential for business models to be banned. Is there any way of predicting what might lose out next? How can a business stay competitive in PPC in the long run?

Google will tell you it's largely user driven. I would love to know if, beyond panel testing, Google actually maintains a sort of "user advocacy" "ripoff squad" in house these days. The problem is, once you start to go down that path, it's hard to stop. You start making all these value judgments. So anything that is going well past what the law actually says is suspect, especially when it seems to be Google taking issue with direct competitors, such as directories, media companies, etc.

I wish I had an easy answer. But the short answer is, AdWords loves conventional businesses with physical presences, whether they ship physical goods, services, or software, and whether they are B2B or B2C. They are harder on online pure plays, especially those that buy ads to sell ads, and to a significant degree, affiliates.

That's not all that hard to figure out at the end of the day. Google's job in the ad program is to connect customers with businesses, not to connect customers with another couple of clicks through that may or may not result in a satisfactory search experience.

Searchers just respond better to "conventional" businesses - be they brands or reputable small businesses. And people have valid concerns about privacy policies and the identities and legitimacy of the businesses they are dealing with. So of course they are freaked out by appearances, poor disclosure, affiliate codes, and other "weird-looking" stuff. They're being asked to provide their information and credit card numbers, so they have every right to expect some protection against those who operate in the shadows.

Are you seeing small players pushed out of the ad market? Has the downturn shifted the make up of the types of ads Google is showing?

No, small players in niches that fit the above profile (conventional businesses) do very well if they're optimized and know their customers.

Of course the downturn is affecting things in areas you might expect: the ecosystem around finance, real estate, and much more besides. Advertiser behavior is odd, though. Many companies don't seem to have the wherewithal to deal with economic slowdowns through bid adjustments, so the auction may remain hostile to marginal players (bids still prohibitively high to reach the top 4-5 ad positions). Companies seem to overbid their way through an economic cycle, then get cold feet and shut things off completely. That's not how you do it!

So smaller companies actually have nimbler decision-making and don't "budget" in these all-or-nothing ways, as some large bureaucratic companies still have to do.

Yahoo!'s recent change in terms of service were ugly. Do you see them getting bought out by Microsoft? Or what can they do to get back in the search game and stop bleeding market-share?

What are they waiting for? Consolidation here would be healthy. I bled purple for a few years. But as Air Supply once sang (paraphrasing slightly), "I'm All Out of Blood". With both Microsoft and Yahoo we all feel the need for clarity in our industry; a sense of who we are buying from, what the future holds, and so on.

Can you share a surprising PPC secret that you thought you wouldn't share with anyone in a public interview? :)

I'd be happy to. An old AdWords account of mine, mainly aimed at selling my ebook, was slapped with low Quality Scores. It's been dormant for a couple of years. Trying to revive it just to point to the page on the Page Zero site that talks about the nice, happy, white hat print book (that you can buy at Amazon.com for all of $17)... no-go, Landing Page Quality is still deemed Poor. We're working on the problem, but if it's an arbitrary call, what are you going to do?

Some days it does seem that it would pay to turn "black hat" and just work for "Google Cash" instead of clients. After all... if they're willing to slap the "good guys"...

But really, I can't see myself just sitting on a beach half naked year round, snorkeling and windsurfing and making millions of dollars spamming the system. That would be so dull!

Saving the most important topic for last, what makes peanut butter taste SOOO good? When does your line of premium luxury gourmet peanut butters hit the shelves at the local grocery store? :)

I think mainly what makes it taste good is the jam, rye toast, and milk you have it with. Which just goes to show, we always need a little help from our friends. Peanut butter is no exception.

But honestly, organic cashews are where it's at now. You've gotta go where the puck is going, Aaron. :) Thanks & best wishes.


Thanks Andrew. To learn more about Mr. Goodman you may want to read his blog at Traffick.com, buy his book at Amazon.com, and visit his SEM firm at PageZero.com.

Majestic SEO - Interview of Alex Chudnovsky

Majestic SEO.

I have been fond of the depth of Majestic SEO's data and the speed with which you can download millions of backlinks for a website. While not as hyped as similar offerings, Majestic SEO is a cool SEO service worth trying out, and their credit based system allows you to try it out pretty cheaply (unless you are trying to get all the backlinks for a site as big as Wikipedia)...as the credits depend on the number of inbound linking domains.

They give you data on your own domain for free, and share a nice amount of data about third party sites for free. For instance, anyone can look up the most well linked to pages on SEO Book free of charge

What made you decide to create Majestic SEO?

We arrived to it naturally - our main aim with the Majestic-12 Distributed Search Engine project is to create a viable competitor to Google. We use volunteers around the world to help us crawl and index the web data. This project was started in late 2004 and about 2 years later it became clear that we need to be as relevant as Google and in order to do that we have to master power of backlinks and anchor text. As time went on many hundreds of terabytes of data were crawled it also became clear that we need to earn money as well in order to sustain our project. It took well over a year to actually achieve the level that we felt confident with to release it publicly in early 2008.

What were the hardest parts about getting it up and running?

The most difficult part was to avoid the temptation to simplify the problem and focus on a small subset of data that is much smaller than that indexed by Google. It was felt that it would be a mistake as you can't really be sure that you have the same view of the web unless you are close to Google's scale.

Once it was decided to follow the hard path a lot of technical scalability problems had to be solved as well, and then deal with the financial aspect of storing insane amount of data using sane amount of hardware.

You use a distributed crawl, much like Grub did. What were some of the key points to get people to want to contribute to the project? How many servers are you running?

The people that joined our project did so because they felt that Google is quickly becoming a monopoly (this was back in 2004) and a viable alternative was necessary. We have over 100 regulars in our project that run distributed crawler and analyser on well over 150 distributed clients: all this allows us to crawl at sustained rate of around 500 Mbits.

Since we recently moved closer to commercial world with Majestic-SEO it was decided that our project participants will benefit from our success by virtue of share ownership - essentially project members are partners. It needs to be stressed here that our members did not join the project for financial reasons.

How often do you crawl? How often do you crawl pages that have not been updated recently?

We crawl every day around 200 mln urls. At the moment our main focus is to grow our database in order to catch up with Google (see analysis here), however we have dedicated some of our capacity to recrawls, in fact in February we should have new version of automatic recrawls of important pages (high ACRanked) released and this will allow to see competitor backlink building activity pretty quickly. Our beta daily updates feature shows new backlinks found in previous day for registered or purchased domains, this gives a chance to see new backlinks before we do full index update (around every 2 months time).

What is AC Rank? How does it compare to Google's PageRank?

ACRank is a very simple measure of how important a web page is based on number of unique domains linking to it. More information can be found here: http://www.majesticseo.com/glossary.php#ACRank

This measure is not as good as PageRank because it does not yet "flow" between pages. We are going to have much improved version of ACRank released soon.

Do you have any new features planned?

Can't stop thinking about them ;)

You allow people to export an amazing amount of data, but mostly in a spreadsheet basis on a per site basis. Have you thought about creating a web based or desktop interface where people can do advanced analysis?

We offer a web based interface to all this data with ability to quickly export it using CSV format.

For example, what if I wanted to know pages (or sites) that were linking to SearchEngineWatch.com AND SearchEngineLand.com but NOT linking to SeoBook.com AND have a minimum AC rank of 3 AND are not using nofollow. Doing something like that would be quite powerful, and given that you have already done the complex crawl I imagine adding a couple more filters on top should be doable. Another such feature that would be cool would be adding an Optilink-link anchor text analysis feature which allows users to break down the anchor text percentages.

We do have powerful options that enable our customers to slice and dice data in many ways, such as excluding backlinks marked as nofollow or only showing such backlinks, this applies to single domain analysis however, but something like what you describe in your example of interdomain linking will be possible soon.

Have customers shared with you creative ways to use Majestic SEO that you have not yet thought of?

We get good customer feedback and often implement customer requested features to make data analysis easier. As for new creative ways our customers prefer to keep them to themselves, but once you look at the data you might see one or two good strategies on how to use it. ;)

How big of an issue is duplicate content while crawling the web? How do you detect and filter duplicate content?

It is a very big issue for search engines (and thus us) as many pages are duplicate or near duplicate of each other, with very small changes that make it hard to detect them. We do not currently detect such pages (we crawl
pretty much everything) though we have a good idea how to do it and will implement it soon. Our reports tend to show data ordered by importance of the backlink, so often it is not an issue though it depends on backlinking profile of a particular site.

A lot of links are rented/bought, and many of these sources get filtered by Google. Does your link graph take into account any such editorial actions? If not, what advice would you give Majestic SEO users when describing desirable links vs undesirable ones?

At the moment our tools report factual information on where backlinks were found, we do not currently flag links as paid or not. This is something that humans are good with and computer algorithms ain't - that's why Google hates such paid links so much. We do have some ideas however on how to detect topically relevant backlinks (paid would usually come from irrelevant sites) - it's coming soon and might actually turn up to be a ground breaking feature!

Microsoft has done research on BrowseRank, which is a system of using usage data to augment or replace link data. Do you feel such a system is viable? If search engines incorporate usage data will links still be the backbone of relevancy algorithms?

BrowseRank is a very interesting concept, though we are yet to see practical implementation on large scale web engine. I don't think such system obsoletes link data at all, in fact it is based on link data just like PageRank only it allows to detect the most relevant outgoing links on a page, essentially such votes should be given more weight in PageRank-like analysis. For example imagine that this very interview page is analysed using BrowseRank and it finds that the following cleverly crafted link to Majestic-SEO homepage is clicked a lot, then such link could be judged as the real vote that this page gives out!

This approach would help identify more important parts of on page content as well so that keyword matches within this content block could get higher score in ranking algorithms. So I actually think there is a lot of mileage in BrowseRank concept, but it would be a mistake to think that it will completely replace need for link data analysis. I am pretty sure Google uses something like this already - Google Toolbar stats would give them all they need to know.

The great irony in my view is that Microsoft lacks good web graph data to apply their browsing concept, this is probably why they are so desperate to buy Yahoo search operations who are much better than it comes to backlinks analysis, though Google are the real masters. Majestic-SEO is trying to slot itself just behind Google and who knows what happens after it ;)

I look up a competing site and see that a competitor has 150,000 more links than I do and feel that it would take years to catch up. Would you suggest I look into other keywords & markets, or what tricks and ideas do you have for how to compete using fewer links, or what strategies do you find effective for building bulk links?

First of all: don't panic! :)

Secondly use the SEO Toolbar that will query our Majestic-SEO database to show number of referring domains - it may well be very few.

Thirdly consider investing into detailed stats we have on this domain: this will tell you anchor text used, actual backlinks that you can analyse by their importance (we measure it using ACRank). Once you see real data a lot of things can become clear: for example you can see that your competitor has got lots of backlinks pointing just to homepage or spread around the site. Seeing actual anchor text is really an eye opener - it can show which keywords site was optimised for, this will allow you to make a good decision whether you can catch up or not. Chances are you may find that your competitor is weak for some keywords, this is where keywords research tool like Wordtracker is invaluable.

And finally consider that a few good relevant backlinks are likely to be worth more than many irrelevant ones: it is those backlinks that you want to get and knowing where your competitor got them should help you create a well targeted strategy.

You allow people to download a free link report for their site. How does this report compare to other link sources (Yahoo! Site Explorer, Alexa links, Google link:, and links in Google Webmaster Central)?

We give free access to verified websites, this is a great way to try our system and you might see the backlinks that you won't find elsewhere because our index is so large and we show you all backlinks (rather than top 1000) that we've got: this will include backlinks from "bad neighbourhoods" (this is not yet automatically marked by our system, but visual human analysis wins the day here) that you may not be shown in other sources.

We believe that our free access reports are the best in class, since it's free why not find out for yourself?

For analyzing third party sites you have a credit based system. How much does it cost to analyze an average site?

The price depends on how large (in terms of external referring domains) a particular website is. We have some sites that have hundreds of millions of backlinks, average would be very different depending on what you really after, the best option is just to run searches for domains that you interested in on our website, this will give you very interesting free information as well as price for full data access.

For a domain like Wikipedia I might only want the links to a specific page. Are you thinking about offering page level reports?

Yep I am thinking of it - I actually had requests like this, funnily Wikipedia being the main object of interest.

What is the maximum number of links can we download in 1 report?

Our web reporting system tries to focus on most valuable backlinks to avoid information overload, however we allow complete dataset download that will include all backlinks - some of our clients have retrieved data on domains with well over 100 mln backlinks! Using our powerful analysis options you can focus on backlinks for particular urls coming from particular pages and retrieve all qualifying data.


Thanks Alex. For more information on Majestic SEO please visit their site and look up your domain.

Interview of YieldBuild's Jason Menayan

With online ad networks slowing in growth and some collapsing I thought it would be a great time to interview the team from YieldBuild, an ad optimization service, to see where they saw online ads and ad networks heading.

What online ad markets are dominated by companies other than Google?

With its acquisition of Doubleclick, Google definitely does dominate both the largest publishers and the long tail of smaller content sites, but the fact it's the dominant player doesn't necessarily mean that it's exerted a monopolistic presence. At the high end, Doubleclick competes with (Microsoft's) Atlas, Yahoo, and (AOL's) Platform-A, while the long tail is served by a wide range of smaller ad networks, like Chitika, AOL's Quigo, Tribal Fusion, and Blue Lithium, in addition to the likes of Yahoo and Microsoft, which recently released its contextual ad network, Pubcenter. And when you go beyond traditional online media, the market's still open for mobile, games, and video. And, of course, lead generation (CPA) is a fragmented market that's certainly not dominated by Google.

Steve Ballmer mentioned how advertisers + search volume build off each other to create a higher yield. Do you see online advertising becoming a natural monopoly market?

I don't, because although economies of scale have an important part to play in establishing the pecking order among firms, there are other ways in which an ad network can successfully compete.

Google certainly benefited from being an early, aggressive mover in the space, and it is clearly the dominant player, but there is still substantial opportunity that is being capitalized on by other networks. Smaller ad networks fighting Google with a more generalized approach can still offer lower pricing, because heavy bidding with Google and limited high-quality inventory means that Google can't necessarily always provide the best value proposition to advertisers, so they offload to other networks. But there will always be other ad networks that either nail a specific vertical market well enough to be an attractive option for both niche advertisers and publishers, and smaller ad networks will also continue to innovate, creating engagement and pricing (payment) models that work better for some advertisers and publishers.

Google as a network can't do all these things - the market is just too big and too complex. But there is a way for Google to be the dominating player in the market by owning the marketplace, by opening up its platform to other advertisers, as it has done. Google doesn't derive any direct benefit by doing so, but one predominant ad delivery platform creates the liquidity in the market that makes Google's economies of scale matter.

What are some of the more innovative things smaller ad networks have done to gain ground on Google?

As I said before, Google draws tremendous strength on the economies of scale it's developed. But there are a large number of firms that can do some things better - either creative, targeting, deeper integration with advertisers - that can give it a leg up on Big G, enough to carve itself a profitable niche (at least that's been the case until now). Some have taken on the creative capabilities of traditional ad agencies, merged that with innovative, unique technology, and created online advertising formats that deliver better response/engagement. But targeting - being able to deliver a specific audience segment that advertisers want to reach - is something that smaller, vertical ad networks have been able to do better than Google or any of the larger, more general networks.

Do you see any ad networks playing the opposite role of Google? Google started a search engine to have an ad platform...do you think an ad network will ever build a search service around itself?

It's conceivable. I can see ad networks wanting to own properties that contribute valuable inventory. Search is an attractive piece of online ad revenues, but the competitive nature of search and the massive R&D budgets getting put into it make it unlikely that an ad network would be able to organically expand to include a consumer search service. It's much more likely that an ad network would build a search service through a partnership with Google, Yahoo or Microsoft, but it's a tremendous challenge to change people's search habits when Google does the job so well (although Ask, Yahoo, Cuil and others have certainly tried!). The closest I've seen is the one developed by Snap; their in-text links to pop-up windows include a small "Search the Web using Snap.com" below the related content.

As Google builds more verticals (local search/maps, checkout, Google Product Search, book search, searchwiki, etc.) and adds features to their ad program (checkout logos, product links) do you see an eventual advertiser backlash happening against them?

Yes, although this is just a natural progression from partner to competitor as Google expands its feature catalog. I can give you one example from our own experience. HubPages, a site that we started in 2006, began as a partner with Google, offering users of the site AdSense revenue for publishing unique content on our site (we were the first site that used the AdSense API to manage this). HubPages has become hugely successful, and is a terrific revenue maker. Two years later, Google launches Knol, which is similar in many ways to HubPages. Naturally, it remains to be seen if Knol will ever become as successful as HubPages, but it's not surprising to us that Google would see how lucrative the business is and try to enter the market.

How many ad networks are typically in strong rotation on each YieldBuild client site?

It is hard to say, because there is no typical. We have a lot of publishers who just use YieldBuild to optimize their AdSense. Others already have a relationship with a display network like Advertising.com or Tribal Fusion, and they'll add that to the networks we optimize for them. We do typically recommend that publishers optimize one ad network for each two impressions a visitor is served from an ad network every day; this can be the case if a site gets lot of repeat traffic.

How often do you guys rotate through services to test them? Do you use earnings data cross sites to help improve yield?

The entire process is done through an algorithmic approach that uses performance data from the ads tested to determine the networks, formats, and layouts that generate the maximum revenue. YieldBuild is constantly testing, looking at changes, and adapting its algorithm to produce better results for our publishers.

We don't have any practical use across sites that can help any one site in particular, but we do monitor trends and can come up with more generalized trends like those here:

Some ad networks build added services in them to personalize the advertising experience. Do you see such personalization algorithms boosting yield?

I don't know of any data confirming it generally, but I can easily imagine that services which tailor each ad's creative or message to the visitor would boost yield. It's certainly been the case that our testing on HubPages with personalized/targeted campaigns generally do well, although the results are uneven.

What do you guys typically see performing better: text ads or image ads?

It completely depends on the site, page, and, most specifically, zone on the page. Sometimes a display/image ad on a page will do well, sometimes a text ad will, and often both will work well in rotation with each other. There is no way to know for sure unless you test; each site monetizes differently. It's certainly true that high CPM display ads are the holy grail, but there aren't enough of them (especially these days) to go around, so the goal should be to optimize your inventory with the best-performing ads, text and/or image, that are available.

How has the ad slowdown affected the network rotation ratios? Were smaller networks hit more than bigger ad networks?

I think it's too early to tell, but from our purview, rates are down across all networks. This is a pretty rough time regardless, though, since Q1 is weak generally. As the year wears on, I do think the biggest difference will be display vs text, mostly because text's generally CPC pricing model fits tighter marketing budgets better than display's CPM model, but we don't have the data yet to tell.

What baseline optimization ideas should a publisher implement before going to a third party for ad optimization help?

There are a lot of things that a publisher can do; some are simply applying best practices (like blending ads with the background, or embedding them in content), some involve a bit more work (testing). I've written a number of posts on our blog about how to optimize ads for blogs, forums and other sites. Naturally, a one-size-fits-all approach won't work best for everyone--you have to do more involved testing or use a service like YieldBuild--but it is better than blindly putting in ads in a haphazard manner and hoping for the best.

When does it make sense for a publisher to go with a third party ad optimization platform? Is the leading issue revenue, impressions, time, etc.?

I would say that unless optimization is a fun hobby for you and you enjoy it, or unless you're making little/no money and don't care about the revenue, then it's worth it to use a third-party optimization platform like ours. We haven't surveyed our users yet, but I'd guess the leading reason is to maximize revenue, while avoiding the hassle of tweaking ads all the time coming in second-place. Just finding the best ad sizes, positions and optimal number of ads to display for each page is very daunting to do manually, given its on-going nature and complexity of permutations. Beyond maximizing revenue and saving themselves time and trouble, platforms like YieldBuild also offer ad network management and deep analytics (comprehensive, consolidated reporting) which help publishers get insight into what inventory and traffic is earning them money.

Some ad networks (like Federated Media) often get quotes or other input from publishers and use it to help build the ad campaign. Can publishers work with those types of networks and YieldBuild at the same time?

YieldBuild doesn't do any campaign management; we're not a classic ad network. Rather, we support a number of ad networks that our publishers typically already have a relationship with. Federated Media is a bit of a different animal in that it works on an exclusivity basis; i.e. you have to agree to allow them to manage all of your site's ads, so I'm not surprised that they allow the publisher some input in shaping the campaign.

Blend vs contrast: which usually works best? When should a publisher consider using each.

The rule of thumb is to blend, especially above the fold and with white/light backgrounds. Below the fold, and with dark backgrounds, sometimes a color very close to the background works better, and sometimes a highly-contrasting, even bright, color works well. But often there's substantial benefit to nailing the exact right color, as in this example:

Google AdSense offers a heat map for ad placements. Do you think it is fairly accurate? What ad placements have you found that worked surprisingly well?

I would say it's a pretty good rule-of-thumb. It underscores that placement does matter, especially placing ads above the fold and juxtaposed/embedded in content. I hate to keep dropping links to our blog, but there is an example here that's interesting, because even at the handful-of-pixel level, the precise positioning of ads matters:

Do you feel that banner blindness will eventually carry over to other ad "units" to where advertising eventually has to leave the standard format size?

The IAB standard sizes have enormous value to the online ad industry because they help advertisers buy media at scale; too many custom ads just create too much friction for both advertisers and publishers, and relying on them would make the whole industry suffer. That said, although ad size is only one dimension that a viewer can become "blind" to (position, color, style, format all also matter, too), there will probably always be a market for custom ad solutions--there's an opportunity for combo packages that include a non-standard, custom ad product along with a lot of standard ads that publishers can slot in easily.

Excessive advertising on content can cut away at usability and site growth. What is the optimal number of ads/ad units that a publisher should display on a page? What are some ways people can include more ad units in their pages without making the pages look too ad heavy?

There was a study done on this recently that I blogged on, and if you're not using something like YieldBuild that makes that determination for you (YieldBuild will often serve less than the maximum number of ads per page, because this actually does improve page revenue), then I would probably do some sort of testing. Of course, it depends not only the number of ads, but their size, intrusiveness, how long your page is, etc. But you could always start conservatively, then slowly add more ad units and carefully monitor bounce rates. When bounce rates climb to an unacceptable level (minus ad clicks, naturally), then you could pare back the number of ads. This is assuming you don't have a way of A/B testing, which, of course, would probably offer better results.

Have you guys discovered great strategies for monetizing social media?

There is no one standard approach that works beautifully. Social media sites tend to monetize poorly, at least relative to their traffic - worse than original content sites. (This is something that even heavyweights like Facebook and YouTube are struggling with.) That doesn't mean that there aren't ways to improve what you are earning. Finding the right combination of ad networks, formats and layouts for your specific site can boost revenue. We have a large number of social media sites - some small, some very large - that are seeing impressive gains to their earnings by optimizing.

Who is the ideal client for YieldBuild? What types of publishers (site size, vertical, content type, etc.) can expect to see the biggest lift from working with you?

We actually work really well for just about every publisher. Naturally, larger sites will get through the training period faster, so they'll see improvement to their revenue more quickly. We've worked well for a lot of different types of verticals and content types: we optimize content sites, social networks, forums, blogs, and have seen success in all types. Occasionally we don't work well for a site, but we haven't determined any sort of pattern.


Thanks Jason. If you want to learn more about YieldBuild check out the below video or visit their site.