Niche Hunting

Jun 30th
posted in

If you're the type of SEO who builds and markets a variety of sites, there's something very satisfying about spotting an area that few people occupy, and making it your own!

There are various software programs available that help you find niches, often based on finding keyword terms with high traffic and low, or no, PPC bids. These tools can be very useful for keyword list building, however finding great niches requires a little more analysis to establish viability.

Let's take a look at a few ideas on how to weed out the most lucrative possibilities.

1. Choose An Area Of Interest

It's not necessary to pick an area you're interested in, but there are strong reasons to do so.

If you're passionate about something, you're more likely to go the extra mile, especially when the going gets tough. Any endevour involves a period of struggle where it's difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and often the only thing that keeps us going is sheer force of will. If you're interested in what you're doing, it's easier to ride out this period.

This doesn't mean you must pick an area you already know. You could pick an entirely new area that you'd like to learn more about. Make a list of areas that appeal to you. Think about business transactions and purchases you have been involved with, and see if any hold appeal in terms of interest, as if your aim is take make money, it's important that any niche you choose has a commercial imperative.

2. Solve A Problem

Make a list of areas you're interested in, or would be interested in learning about. Next to each topic or keyword term, outline a burning problem that needs to be solved associated with that topic. For example, the term "fishing" may be associated with the problem "how can I compare fishing vacations easily?".

It is more likely you will find a lucrative niche if you attempt to solve a real problem for people. Be careful to avoid imagined problems. For example, we might find that there are no rasberry-flavored beer available, which may well be an untapped niche, but a lack of raspberry-flavored beer isn't a real problem for people.

Then again...

3. How Much Do you Know?

Once you have a list of topics you're interested in, along with associated problems that need solving, ask yourself how much you know about each area.

Obviously, you'll save time if you already know a lot about an area, and it's unlikely you'll be able to exploit a niche if you don't know much about it. It's never a great position to be in where the customers know a lot more about a product or service than you do!

4. What Type Of Operation Suits You?

You'll likely make your money in one of five ways: advertising (i.e. adsense), affiliate, selling services, selling information, or selling product.

You may combine them, too, of course. Each has pros and cons, in terms of what suits your circumstances. Do you have room to hold stock? Do you enjoy direct contact with customers? Do you want full control, or are you happy to hand over fulfillment to a third-party?

Does the niche have appropriate suppliers that match the type of operation your wish to run?

5. Does The Niche Have Online Potential?

It may sound obvious, but not everything is suited for selling over the internet. Gas, for example.

There may be a good reason the niche you've spotted hasn't been tapped. Perhaps it just doesn't work on the internet. This is why it's important to test market before you dive in deep. Try setting up PPC campaigns that lead to a site designed to collect, say, e-mail sign-ups. This will help you gauge the level of interest, to a degree, without the cost of gearing up the back end.

Cut the losers early, run with the winners.

6. Who Are Your Customers?

Demographic reports, market reports and data can make for interesting reading. Check out free reports from research companies, such as Nielsen.

When it comes to online commerce, one important aspect to consider is the access your demographic has to credit or debit cards. The children's/youth market, for example. Or people with poor/no credit.

In some international markets, credit card use isn't as widespread as in the US.

7. Do Visitors Have Commercial Intent?

As you probably know, there are three types of searches: navigational, informational, and transational.

Unless you're looking for a hobby niche, and whilst there is some cross-over between the search types, you'll likely focus on areas where the intent is to transact - to perform a web-mediated activity, and that that activity has commercial intent.

Clues regarding search type are hinted at in the keyword phrase, such as "buy x", "where can I order y", are transactional, whereas "Microsoft" is likely navigational. There are many less overt permeations, too of course, however the point is to hone in on keywords that hint at commercial endevour.

8. Estimate How Much The Niche Is Worth

Get a rough guide of how much a niche might be worth. This will give you a feel for how much you can spend carving it out, or whether your time may be better spent on a more lucrative niche instead.

It's a good idea to look up the Adwords bids and traffic volumes. The higher the bids, the more lucrative an area tends to be, however if your niche is genuinely undiscovered, then it's likely to have traffic volume, but little bidder competition, as few other advertisers have spotted it.

Again, you can test market a niche using PPC and a basic website, where the aim is to see how many people click through from an advertisement, and perhaps show a level of buying interest. Once you have some idea of traffic, you can guess at a likely conversion rate - common industry guesstimates are around 3-8% - and then run your numbers. Conversion rates can be a lot higher if what you offer is in high demand, and in short supply, of course.

Sometimes, the figure you end up with might be too low for you to make any money, but it's good to know that now, rather than commit a lot of time and resources to an unworkable niche.

9. Market Trends

Is the market you plan to enter rising or falling? You can make money in either market, of course, but people tend to want to enter either fast rising new markets, or markets where demand is fairly steady, as opposed to diminishing.

Check out trend tools, such as Google Trends, Trendistic, and Microsoft Ad Intelligence.

Also,resources such as Trendspotting and TrendHuter.

10. What Are Your Competitors Doing?

If you're lucky enough to have found a niche with no competitors, well done. However, it is likely you'll have at least some competitors. It pays to know what they're doing, so you can emulate them, and go one better, or blow them out of the water by offering something they are not.

Look to see who is advertising via PPC, and who is doing SEO in your niche. How agressive are they? What approach are they taking? Can you make better offers that they make? Can you modify the niche slightly so you've not competing directly with them? Your customers will compare offers, so make sure your offer is competitive.

Check out competitive intelligence tools, such as Spy Fu, KeywordSpy and SEMRush

Turning Traffic Into Customers

Jun 24th
posted in

Why do we try to rank sites high in the search results?

Obviously, SEO is a traffic acquisition strategy. We seek to direct audiences who are interested in our products, services or ideas to our sites, rather than those of our competitors.

We expend time and energy getting a site to rank a few places higher, or for a wider range of keywords, but it also pays to focus our attention on what happens after visitors arrive. If visitors arrive, but click-back because a site isn't what they expected to see, then the effort we've put into ranking is wasted.

PPC marketers tend to focus a lot of their energy on what happens after the click. Because they are paying per click, there is significant jeopardy involved if visitors do click back, but it's also a discipline that can prove lucrative for SEOs. Many SEOs do this already, of course, however if you're new to the field, then it is easy to get bogged down in ranking methodology without giving much thought to what happens next.

Let's look at ways of making better use of the traffic we already have.

The State Of The Internet

In times past, producers could dictate to markets. You may recall Henry Ford's maxim when he talked about the Model T Ford: "You can have any color, so long as it is black!"

Producers were able to dictate to consumers when there wasn't much in the way of consumer choice. Markets weren't deep with competition. This was also sometimes a result of market sectors enjoying regulatory protection against new competitors.

The internet is the opposite.

The internet is a deep amalgamation of markets. Anyone, anywhere, can set up a "store front" - web presence - in a few days, or even a few minutes. There are few barriers to entry, and there are many new sites launching each second. This environment shifts the power from producer to consumer, as the consumer can exercise choice. On the internet, exercising that choice is often little more than a click of a mouse.

In such an environment, user-centric marketing is primary. If we don't satisfy visitors, it's very easy for them to go elsewhere. There is little point positioning #1 if the visitor is dissatisfied with what she sees, clicks back, and clicks on your competitors result further down the search result page instead. It could also be argued Google are using user behavior as a metric, so if enough users don't find what they were looking for on your site, this could, in turn, affect your ranking.

So what makes a visitor decide to leave or stay?

Typically, visitors will judge quickly. User testing has shown that visitors will first scan your page to see if it answers their query. If not, they go elsewhere. If you look at your stats, you might find this is the behavior of high proportion of your visitors. Visitors are also unlikely to wrestle with a site they don't intuitively understand, unless they really want what you've got, and you don't have any competitors.

Keep these points in mind:

  • users have choice
  • users will be quick to judge
  • users don't want to think

Three aspects need to work in tandem in order to get visitors to engage - design, usability and utility

Visual Design

First impressions count, hence the reason for appropriate graphic design.

What is "appropriate"? Naturally, it will differ for every site and audience, and largely comes down to how well you understand your visitors. A high-end fashion designer, who focuses on desirability and image is going to use a different visual design approach to a webmaster running a site for the academic community. The latter site design is more likely to focus on function as opposed to glossy form as commercial gloss can be perceived by an academic audience as being frivolous.

What both approaches have in common is that the visitor will be shown something they expect to see. This underscores the need to understand visitors. We'll look at ways you can approach this in the steps section below.

The next concept is.....


Once the visitor decides they are in the right place, the next step they need to take should be patently obvious. Usability is a practice that involves making sites easy to use. In terms of operation, sites should be made as simple as possible, and not indulge in complex navigation schemes.

Because users can easily go to another site, there is little incentive for them to wrestle with your site, so if you make it difficult for people to engage with you, many will not bother.


So, if we've got the visitor this far, they like the look of our site, and the visitor can find their way around easily.

But that isn't enough.

The visitor also needs a good reason to engage with us. What are you offering them? What do you offer them that is better than what the other guy offers? This is where your business strategy is important, especially your unique selling proposition. Do you offer something they really want? If not, rethink your offer.

Not only does the visitor need to be provided with a good reason to engage with you, this reason must be stated clearly. It must be self-evident. If the user has to go hunting for it, because it is buried in dense text on page three, then the visitor is likely to click back. Make sure your offer is writ large.

So, those are the three areas that need to tie together if we are to keep users: visual design, usability and utility.

Let's look at the practicalities.

Practical Tips

1. Create An Appropriate Design

Evaluate your competitors, especially your most successful competitors. Are there similarities in approach in terms of visual design? "Steal" ideas from the best, and twist them into something fresh, yet familiar.

Know your visitors. Who are they? What do they expect to see? You can often get demographic research reports from marketing companies that will help you profile your visitors. Surveys, polls and enabling comments are some other ways to get feedback.

Test. Use a/b testing to see how visitors react to different designs. There are free tools you can use, such as Google's Optimizer

Intuition and experience. Design often comes down to intuition, and what has worked in the past. If you're not a designer, employ someone who understands user-centric design and usability. Many web projects are blown by designers who focus on bells and whistles, as opposed to what is most appropriate.

2. Ensure Your Site Is Easy To Use

Read up on usability. Recommended resources include UseIt, Don't Make Me Think, and A List Apart (Usability Section)

Test. Track your logs to monitor user behavior. If you can, stand behind test users as they navigate your site. Look for any common impediments to their progress, and redesign as necessary.

3. Have you Articulated A Convincing Reason For People To Engage

Go back to your business case. Do you have a competitive offer? What is special about your pitch that will appeal to visitors?

Once you have identified the key points that differentiate you, ensure that these points are obvious to visitor. One good way to test this is with a spoken elevator pitch. Make an elevator pitch to your friends, and see if they are clear about what your offer is. What parts of the offer are they most responsive to, and why? Once you have honed a compelling pitch, translate this into the written word - or video - or sound file - on your website.

Address their objections. Not only do you need to appeal to what visitors want, you must also anticipate any objections they may have. Spell these out, then answer them.

Want to see an example of how this stuff comes together? Check out the front page of SEO Book.

Test :) As any PPC-er will tell you - always test.

The True Value Of Links

Jun 16th
posted in

Do you know anyone who got their rankings back after Update Panda trashed their site?

There may be some, and there may be some people who get their rankings back eventually, but the problem is a fundamental one:

If the Google dragon flicks her tail in your direction, and all you rely on is rankings, you're screwed

That's life in SEO. Google flicks her tail, and some webmasters may never be heard from again. The solution to this problem isn't to hope and pray the dragon won't target you. The solution is to acknowledge that the dragon has the power to make your life miserable, and figure out ways to avoid that pain in future.

Develop Real Networks, Not Just Link Networks

Links are the arteries of the web. Traffic flows via links, be they PPC, hyperlinks, or Facebook friend requests.

Of course, SEO's worked out some time ago that hyperlinks have another value. Google uses links to "keep score". To paraphrase, if you have a lot of "good quality" links pointing to your page, Google gives you a high score, and rewards you with a high ranking.

This way of thinking can cause problems.

If our link building strategies only relate to ranking, and not link traffic, then we're vulnerable to changes in the way Google keeps score. If, however, we look at link building in terms of traffic, arriving via those links, then we're less vulnerable to Google's whims. If, for whatever reason, we are no longer ranked well, we'd still have traffic flows via the links.

This is not to say link building for the purposes of ranking is redundant. Google's not that clever. Yet. However, if we're overly focused on ranking, which is one form of traffic acquisition, and not spreading our traffic acquisition methods, then it leaves us vulnerable to Gogole's ranking methodology, over which we have no control.

What Is A Link?

A link is a connection between people.

Remember the six degrees of separation? The idea that everyone is approximately six steps away from any other person on Earth, so that a chain of, "a friend of a friend" statements can be made, on average, to connect any two people in six steps or fewer.

The connection on the web is more like one-to-one, especially when you can "friend" the President Of The United States on Facebook. Well, one of his staffers, but you get my drift :)

We're not that far away from other people.

The ability to connect with anyone on the web, in one step, is profound and powerful. Once connections are made between people, stuff happens. The stronger the connection, the more great stuff can happen. But this doesn't happen if we just view a link as a means to get a high ranking. We miss the opportunity to build something with greater staying power:

Real relationships.

And if you believe the pundits, Google will be looking more carefully at real relationships, as opposed to the...cough..."manufactured" kind, in future.

Techniques & Strategy

Here a few ideas on how to add another layer to your link building activities.

1. Identify The Top People In Your Niche

Who writes about what you do? Think reporters, bloggers, forums, industry leaders, pundits and conference organizers.

These people are also highly likely to link to you, if you give them a good enough reason. A good enough reason is unlikely to be "I've linked to you, so please link back". Remember, our aim is not just to get links, it is to get links that produce traffic, too.

A good enough reason is that you interest them. In order to do that, you need to learn a bit about them, such as what they've linked to in the past, and why. What are the current hot topics? Industry talking points? Where is the industry heading? Make a list of the top ten ranking sites, trace their back-links back, and see who is talking about those sites, and why.

2. Give Forward

Link out to them.

Linking to someone is a great way to get on their radar. Do you follow your inbound links to see who is linking to your site, and why? Chances are, they do, too.

Don't use any old link. Link to them from a well-considered, thoughtful, in-depth piece about a current industry talking point. Because when they follow the link back, they're more likely to engage with you if you've given them something to interesting to engage with. They also may feel they owe you something, as you have done something for them.

Consider what might make this person engage. Perhaps you stroke their ego a little. If you make them look good, chances are they'll want to highlight this fact to others. You could challenge their point of view, so they engage in a debate with you by responding back to you on their own site.

3. Start A Conversation

You could view #2 as one-off tactic, but it's more lucrative if you see it as part of an on-going process.

The world of SEO could be likened to a conversation that's been going on since 1995. The conversation now has many participants, many of whom cover exactly the same ground, however it's the unique, authoritative voices that stand out.

Chances are, their "voice" didn't just happen overnight. They participate constantly, and have done so for years. They get in-front of the industry, regularly, wherever the industry happens to be looking.

They also tend to lead it. If you want a lot of links that you never have to ask for, then it's a good idea to first give people something really worth linking to, and talking about, on a regular basis.

4. Get A Story

But what happens to the people who run a sales catalog? A brochure website? No one links to such sites anymore!

The strategy I'm outlining is about networks of people, as opposed to link networks that have little value, besides ranking factors. Consider Zappos. Consider the founder, Nick Swinmurn. People talk about the company - and link to it. People talk about the founder and CEO - and link up.

Few people link to the shoes, and even if they did, that's not a make or break for Zappos. The story is the interesting thing, and that resonates through different media, and results in links. Real links - the kind of links people travel down and end up customers.

Ok, so Zappos were very successful. Silicon Valley loves talking about successful tech companies. But this can happen in small, local niches, too. So long as you have a memorable, compelling story, that you hussle, links - real links - will follow. Do you give to local charities? Have you created interesting processes that small business sites may like to profile? It might not relate directly to what you're trying to sell, but it does result in building up real networks of people.

5. Carry On The Conversation

Link building is a tactic. We can buy links. We can automate links. We can spam it up!

But when Google changes the game, as they often do, you're not left with much if your entire strategy is based on technical hacks. Perhaps the richer, more secure long-term approach is to seek another level of value from your links. Go back to the original idea of a link, which was a connection between two people. Someone saying "hey this is interesting!". Once someone does that, we can engage in a conversation, and it can build from there.

Google can't kill that.

If you're interesting, and other people find you interesting, then ranking is no longer a make or break position.

Is SEO Irreducibly Complex?

Jun 10th

In his book, Origin of Species, Charles Darwin says that:

"If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down."

This is typically used by proponents of Intelligent Design to state their case against evolution by invoking the principle of Irreducible Complexity, which is to say that:

This applies to any system of interacting parts in which the removal of any one part destroys the function of the entire system. An irreducibly complex system, then, requires each and every component to be in place before it will function

Essentially the idea is that something that is irreducibly complex does not evolve to its state in a gradual manner (like evolution) and so the scientific research process of how X came into being is mostly irrelevant versus something that has evolved over time (like an algorithm). A man made algorithm fits into both categories.

What creature could be more complex than a creature which not only was part of natural evolution but also has elements of intelligent design within its core?

How does this apply to SEO? Google's algorithm evolves and it certainly fits precisely with how Darwin laid out the basis of his theory of evolution (numerous, successive, slight modifications in general) but by human hand and captured data.

Of course, sometimes Google makes a big update but generally speaking they make lots of minor updates per year.

Consider that a couple years back in 2009 they claim to have made just south of 500 updates in that year alone.

So the point I'm making is that SEO is both irreducibly complex (remove the hand of man and it would no longer evolve or even work as intended) and a product of a natural evolutionary process (the constantly adjusted algorithm) with layers and layers of thousands of changes over time, full of small and large complexities. These two characteristics make the process of trying to break it down to a stagnant formula with assigned percentages you can attribute to a majority of examples (with confidence) cumbersome and inaccurate.

Forcing Simplicity Creates Complexity

If you read a bunch of SEO blogs you might feel a bit overwhelmed with where to start and what to do. Some blogs tend to be information-heavy, some heavy in theory and (attempted) science, some straight news oriented, and some that are of the good old fashioned boot in your rear end "get something done now" genre.

I think it's important to pick blogs to read from those aforementioned areas of the industry to help get a well-rounded view of the SEO space. However, sometimes I think the more simple you try to make something, say like trying to whittle SEO down to a push button solution, the more complex you make things because then you need to have sound, reliable data to back up those kinds of claims and solutions.

If data starts reading out 50/50 or 60/40 probabilities then that's not really sound science at all. In fact, if anything, it just shows that some things cannot be broken down into a push button forumla or a statistic with any reliability whatsoever. It probably makes for good salesmanship when you want to wow a client with your superior knowledge but it also makes for laughable science, kind of like this kind of science:

The real problem is that Google claims to have more than 200 parts to its algorithm (which we obviously don't have available for studying :) ). Even if you call it an even 200 what about the different weight each factor has? Surely each does not represent 0.5% of the algorithm.

When you dive into trying to mathematically and scientifically break down a formula, of which you know an average (at best) amount of the variables + their direct effects, you actually create more confusion because you have to go out and find examples proving a specific theory while ignoring ones that point in the other direction.

Figuring Out the Variables

I think the annual SeoMoz Search Engine Ranking Factors is a worthy read as they pull data from lots and lots of respected folks in the industry and the presentation is top notch. I think overall it's a good representation of the factors you will need to face when conducting an SEO campaign.

Another good page to bookmark is this page from Search Engine Journal which has guesstimates of what they feel these elusive variables might be.

It can be hard to isolate really specific types of variables because of the constant Google updates, the other factors that are involved with your site and its ranking, and anything being done by the competition. You can test elements for sure, things like:

  • Does X link pass any pop?
  • Seeing if a couple pages pass juice on a 301 before 301-ing an entire site
  • On-page elements like title tag changes, internal linking, and external linking
  • An so on and so on..

The issues are still there though, even with "testing". It is still really, really hard to sell off a scientific breakdown of a consistent path to success beyond high-level ideas like:

  • Become a brand (brand signals, social media signals, offline branding, nice site design, etc)
  • Lots of links from unique domains (preferably good ones of course)
  • A good natural mix of anchor text
  • Great user experience and deep user engagement
  • Targeted content which gives the user exactly what they are looking for

I think that for someone looking to move forward in their SEO career it is important to try and remove the idea that you can break down the factors into exact numbers, as far as value of each individual variable goes. Anyone who practices SEO will likely tell you that you simply want to win more than you lose and even if you are on top of your game you still will have site failures here and there.

The issue of failing might not even be because of some current practice. You could be sailing right along and all of a sudden a Google update cleans your clock (another good reason to be involved with multiple projects).

You might spend more time agonizing over some magic formula or avoiding a project because some tool told you it was too competitive (rather than your knowledge) than building out multiple web properties to weather the expected storms and the ebbs and flows of the web.

Dealing with Complex & Unknown Variables

When faced with the prospect of working within a system where the variables that hold the key to your success are unknown, it can seem daunting. It can also make you want to run out and buy a shiny new tool to solve all your problems and get you that elusive Google ranking you've been waiting for.

The sad truth is if there was such a tool the person(s) who created it wouldn't be selling it to you for less than $100 or slightly higher (or even way higher!). They would be building sites in many verticals and making an absolute killing in the SERPS. By selling it to you they would just be creating more work for themselves and competition.

Not all tools are bad of course. I use the tools here at SeoBook as well as tools from Majestic, Raven, SeoMoz, and Caphyon (Advanced Web Ranking). The tools give you data and data points to work with as well as to cross reference. They do not provide answers for you at the push of a button.

The best thing to do is to start launching some sites and play around with different strategies. Over time you'll find that even strategies that worked in A, B, and C markets didn't work in D or E.

Things like algorithm's changing and competitor's stepping up their game can be factors as to why test results aren't always that accurate (at the real granular level) and why certain strategies worked here but not there.

Keeping Track of Wins & Losses

It makes sense to keep some kind of running journal on a site (why I did this, when I did that, etc) so you can go back and evaluate real (not theorized) data.

Running weekly rank checks isn't a bad idea and tools like Advanced Web Ranking and Raven have built in ways of you keeping notes (events for Raven) on a specific campaign or date-based events (added X links this day).

I happen to like Evernote for these kinds of things but most project management applications and information organizer tools have this kind of capability built in (as does having separate Word and Excel docs for your campaigns).

So if you are involved with a handful or four of projects, in addition to keeping track of strategies used, you can really get a solid handle on what is likely to work in the short to mid term and what really is working now.

A good example of this would be folks poo-pooing the idea of exact match domains being a golden egg of sorts over the years. If you were or are running any SEO campaigns you'll notice that the exact match benefit was quite real. So while pontificators were decrying their effectiveness, practitioners were laughing all the way to the bank.

There is no substitute for real experience and real data. Which group do you want to be in?

Mental Models

As we discussed above, the algorithm has a lot of components to it. There is generally no 1 correct universal right answer to each and every SERP. The gold usually lies in trying to understand where algorithms are heading and how they have changed.

As an example, in his recent post about exact match domains losing weight, Aaron used highlights to visually segment the search results in regards to "why is XYZ ranking". I'll include the image here:

This is a good example of the fact that when you build your own sites and you collect your data it helps you form and solidify your mental models.

The tricky part is how do you know who's advice is garbage vs who you should trust? You should take your independently arrived upon conclusions that you have repeatedly tested and see who is offering similar advice. Those are the folks who you can trust to tell you "what actually works" rather than "how to buy the number they are selling as a solution".

For another example of a mental model in action, you should check out Charlie Munger's piece on mental models and investing.

One more piece of advice here. Recently we wrote about the the importance of rank checking with a tie-in to analytics. It's vital to have both installed as you can get concrete before and after data. Without hard data relative to ongoing algorithm changes, you are kind of flying blind to the actual changes being made.

Being in the Know

The reason this community and many paid communities are successful is because there isn't a lot of noise or high pressure sales (like there are on free chat forums or message boards) and because experienced people are able to freely share ideas, thoughts, and data with like-minded people.

The more information and thoughts you get from people who are in the trenches on a daily basis can only help your efforts, knowledge, and experience because theories will only get you so far.

I think there is a scientific element to some factors like links, domain age, social signals, brand signals, anchor text (but at a high level, nothing overly exact) but overall I think it's too complex to break down into a reliable scientific formula.

It's important to pay attention to trends but your own experience and data is invaluable to your ongoing success. I believe that search is going to continue to get more complex but that's necessarily a bad thing if you have access to good information.

A friend gave me a great quote from Michael Lewis's book, Liar's Poker:

You spend a lot of time asking yourself questions: Are munis (municipal bonds) right for me? Are govys (government bonds) right for me? Are corporates (corporate bonds) right for me?

You spend a lot of time thinking about that. And you should.

But think about this: might be more important to choose a jungle guide than to choose your product.

When it comes to SEO, it's pretty important to choose your jungle guides correctly.

How To Thrive In Crowded SERPs

May 17th
posted in

Google is favoring big brands.

If Google's comments and actions of late, are anything to go by, the chances of the little guy, armed only with SEO chops, being able to compete with deep-pocketed corporates are becoming less and less likely. Google algorithms tend to reward the big players - the people everyone talks about, and links to.

How can we combat this situation?

Back To Business

Ever notice how a page on FaceBook, or some other behemoth site, which consists entirely of a Wikipedia cut-n-paste, can often rank well on Google? At the same time, many unique, interesting pages are buried deep on SERP #20?

It's happening a lot.

It's hard to fight against a domain that can distribute high link authority down through hundreds of thousands, or millions of sub-pages. SEO chops alone are unlikely to cut it if your niche is full of such sites. The game is rigged, and it doesn't favor you.

One approach is to not fight such competitors at their own game.

Instead, take a new look at your business. How unique is your offering? Are you competing with many other sites that offer pretty much the same thing?

If you offer a similar product and service to all the rest, then it is inevitable that you'll eventually lose to the company with the deepest pockets. Google, and the world in general, tends to reward those who already have the most.


I'm sure you've heard about the Unique Selling Proposition.

For those who haven't, the Unique Selling Proposition, or USP, is the term is used to refer to an aspect of a service or good that differentiates it from similar services or goods.

For example, a USP of Amazon is that it sells the widest range of books online. Your local rare bookstore, on the other hand, has a USP of stocking and selling rare books. Both Amazon and your local bookseller sell books, but their services are clearly differentiated from one another.

The concept of a USP came about as a result of a marketing problem that exists when markets are crowded. If many companies offer similar things, then how can any one company stand out?

A USP isn't critical if there are few players in a market. This was the case in the early days of the internet, when finding a site that met your needs wasn't assured . As the internet became more populated, webmasters used techniques such as SEO in order to rise above the masses, safe in the knowledge that searchers will typically click on the top few results. They still do, of course, but if Google increasingly favors the most popular sites, then the return on SEO for the smaller player decreases.

These days, with plentiful options, the searcher either finds what they want on their first search, or they rephrase, and make their search more specific. It is in the second option where the most opportunity lies for the little guy. The visitor is rephrasing in order to be more specific. "Dell Monitor Cheap" may become "Used Dell Monitor Free Overnight Delivery". Vagaries of Update Panda aside, the guy who has a USP of dealing in used monitors, and offers fast delivery times, can still compete in Google.

The USP isn't just an add-on marketing tactic. It's a fundamental aspect of your business.

The Benefit

USP's are about specific benefits for the customer. Put yourself in the customers shoes and ask "how does this benefit me?". In the example I used above, the benefit is "a low cost, recycled monitor that will be delivered quickly".

The twist is that you need to make your offer unique. Look at your competition and ask yourself "what aren't they doing that they should be doing, and that the customers wants"? If you find it difficult to answer such a question after having evaluating your competitors, it may be a sign the market is too crowded, and you may be better off trying something else.

But What If You Can't Move Niches?

There are various ways to introduce a USP if you're selling a similar product or service to others.

One idea is to make your process unique by making your site more usable.

For example, I buy cases of discount wines online. Whilst there are many other sites offering this service, I use one particular site mainly because the ordering process is so streamlined. The benefit is saved time. The site retains my login and billing details, and it prompts me for re-orders with emails sent out at intervals based on my previous order history, and the previous selections I have made. The site pretty much "knows" what I want before I've even thought about it, and I can order with a couple of clicks. The wine always arrives promptly.

So their USP is in their process. They sell the same wine as the other sites, but the process is "unique", from what I can tell. It's also troublesome for me to switch. It invites a set-up cost (time), risk (they may not deliver), and I lose my history.

What's this got to do with SEO?

Once your visitor finds you, give them a very good reason to bookmark you, join, and keep coming back. Once that happens, you don't need to rely on new leads form Google so much.

A USP Must Be Supported By The Fundamentals Of Your Market

It's not enough to just come up with unique angle.

The unique angle has to be workable. There has to be a niche of people who want the unique aspect you deliver, and are prepared to pay you enough for it to make the effort worthwhile. For example, offering fresh pizza in the middle of a desert may be unique, but it is unlikely to succeed as a business model, because of low demand.

Finding a workable USP is a matter of research, and trial and error. Look thought the search keywords related to your term and look for an angle. What are people asking for? Type that keyword term into Google and see if anyone is servicing that demand. Ask your existing customers what they want, or what you could do better. Buy third-party research to help discover where the market is heading, and how demands are changing.

Imagine the future, as opposed to mimicking the past.

How To Define Your USP

1. List Your Key Benefits

What aspect do you do really well, and that other people really like? If you're at a loss, what could you change to make it so?

2. What Pains Your Customers?

They kinda want something. They might vaguely feel they need it. But if you find something they absolutely must have, so much so that it pains them not to have it, then you're onto something big. What is that thing?

3. Be Specific & Provide Proof

It's one thing to say it. It's another thing to do it. How many sites say "we're the best". Or "Experts in SEO". It's meaningless.

"We get your site thousands of qualified visitors at half the cost of your Adwords spend" is a specific, meaningful benefit.

Then you need to show how you do that. Case studies are great. You can seldom have enough case studies. Say what you were going to do it, do it, then tell them you've done it.

4. Be Concise

You only have a few seconds. You need to state your USP quickly. Short phrases. People read the first line, then the next, but only if the first line was worth reading. They'll scan through to pick something that interests them.

This is where graphic design is important. Pictures really are worth a thousand words if the person is scanning for information. Does you graphic design underscore, or detract from, your USP?

5.Your USP Flows Through Everything You Do

If your USP is, say, to provide individual attentive service, then you need to answer the phone right away. You need to respond to emails quickly. You need to make it easy for people to talk to you.

If you USP is a massive inventory, then the user has to be able to get to that inventory easily.

You can never repeat your USP too often. Do so on many levels. People aren't really paying attention, so take every opportunity to remind them what is special about you :)

What's Your Story?

May 6th
posted in

With Google making the life of the SEO harder and harder, it pays to add as many marketing strings to our bows as we can. In this article, we'll look at a way to brand and position using stories. Hopefully, if we have a good story, and tell it well, people are more likely to remember us, and more likely to pass the story on.

Are We Special?

Most people think their site is special. But, by definition, few sites in a given niche can be special.

If we target a keyword term, that many other sites are targeting, we'll probably write a similar keyword-loaded page, including the same synonyms, derived from the same keyword tools, using the same headings in bold, in the hope of appearing in the top ten list of pages - which are just like the others.

We may distinguish ourselves by managing to rank in the top three, but, as we know, there are no guarantees we'll maintain this advantage.

We Need Something Else

If SEO is our only strategy, then this will only work if few other people are using SEO. How many niches worth fighting for are like that these days?

Not many.

Generally speaking, the more mature the niche, the more you need something besides SEO. You need to make as much effort to stand out as possible, otherwise people will likely overlook and forget you. There are too many other sites and options.

Let's look at a differentiation strategy based on stories.

Why Use Stories?

Stories are universal.

The human race has been using stories for thousands of years. We use stories because they are informative, memorable, and easily spread to others. Isn't that what we want our sites to be, too?

Every news story is a tragedy. Every religion is a story of redemption. Politicians tell stories, some of which are true! The alternative would be to give people a string of disconnected data and facts. Such data and facts may be 100% true, but they are seldom memorable or easily repeatable. Telling a compelling story is one good way to contextualize information, and make it more meaningful.

A story isn't just words on a page, saying how great a company is, and what products they have, and if you want them, you should "click here". That's surface. Think of "story" as a sub-text, the underlying, perhaps unspecified tale of who you are, what you're doing, and how you can help people solve their problems. This is a form of positioning, and branding, but I find it's helpful to reduce those high concepts down into a simple narrative. It helps bring a lot of different, and sometimes complicated, marketing aspects together.

Everyone can tell a story, especially about themselves.

The Mechanics

Every business has a story.

Take Amazon.

The Amazon is the largest river in the world, which is an appropriate name for a site which aimed to be the largest retailer on the planet. Amazon is huge. Amazon is huge because they took the shopping experience, made it easier, and people loved it. With one click, a customer could order a book, or a DVD, and many other products and have it sent to them. Amazon faced some huge challenges. Just how do you store and ship a vast array of products and still make money? Amazon do massive volume, and use unique, sophisticated tracking and packing systems to overcome these challenges. Amazon's cloud computing service alone has revenues in excess of $500m.

Amazon's story is mostly about "being big". All very well for Amazon, of course, but what about the little guy showing people how to build stuff? There's a story in that, too.

Tim Carter founded "Ask The". Tim provides tips for DIY, answers building questions, and provides product and tool reviews. Rather than the home DIY enthusiast going out and buying manuals, or hiring an expensive builder, Tim provides his information for free, and his video's provide depth that printed books do not. Tim clearly cares about building, and the home DIY enthusiast. Tim's gone a step further, and told his life story.

Try boiling your site down into such a story. Once you have a story, you can then flesh out narratives that flow through everything you do, from your graphic design, to your copy, to your approach to customer services.

For example, Tim's story is a "small, personal" story. It is fitting that he doesn't have a glossy, corporate theme, as this would grate against the narrative. Rather, the site is a bit raggedy and amateurish, in a good way. He is providing one-to-one personal help, so it fits that he talks directly to camera. It fits that, unlike Amazon, you know who is behind the site. It fit's the the About Page is a personal history. It's approachable. It's all part of the "small, personal" story. It helps make the site more convincing, and hopefully more memorable, if common themes are repeated.

A story helps achieve focus, clarity and distinction.

How To Construct A Story

If you're having problems getting started, here's a work-plan.

1. Describe Your Brand

What do you do? Make it short and sweet i.e. "Provide advice to home DIY enthusiasts". "Sell books online".

2. Where Did You Come From, And Where Are You Now

How did you start? Why did you start? What did you do before you started? What position are you in now?

3. What Challenges Do You Face?

What problem do you solve? What are challenges have you overcome? It helps if these are the same challenges and problems your customers face.

4. Personify/Quantify These Challenges

Did you overcome people? Organizations? Time? Money? Lack of knowledge?

5. Who Is Your Target Market?

Who, exactly, are you trying to help? Where do they live? What is their time of life? What challenges do they face?

6. What Does Your Target Market Care About?

Security? Being first? Individual care? Low prices? Value?

7. Why Should They Buy From You?

What do you offer that other sites do not?

8. What is your end goal?

How do you know you're completed what you set out to do? What is the measure of victory?

Answer these questions, and it becomes easy to make decisions about design, positioning, branding, and marketing.

Hopefully it helps make your site more memorable, too.

Insurance For SEO's

May 2nd

Insurance is a popular, profitable area for some SEO's. Trying to find reputable insurance for an SEO business is not so popular because many insurance agents do not have the experience to make the distinction between what a web design shop does versus what an SEO or PPC business does.

Prior to entering this business I was an insurance agent and before that I was an underwriter and I still have my agent license (hey, you never know!!). There are policies out there which SEO's should consider purchasing as well as any web design or development shop.

There are a few different policies you might want to consider in this industry:

  • General Liability
  • Professional Liability (Errors and Omissions)
  • Workers Compensation (if you have employees)
  • Short-Term and Long-Term Disability

As a business owner, you will have or not have the following conditions:

  • employees
  • office space
  • equipment
  • office space where you conduct business with clients and vendors

Workers Comp and STD/LTD

Workers Compensations and STD/LTD are fairly general insurance policies with respect to the policies not really being specific to the SEO business. Here in the US, Workers Comp is administered on the state level. Workers Comp is required in certain situations, depending on your state, so it is wise to check with your attorney and insurance agency regarding what is appropriate for you.

While you only have to worry about Workers Comp if you have employees (actual employees hired and placed on payroll not contracted labor or freelance arrangements) you should consider Short Term and/or Long Term Disability insurance even if you're a solo SEO.

Short Term and Long Term Disability

If you are coming from corporate America you likely had these policies under a group plan (which is why it's so cheap). Essentially, it breaks down as follows:

  • Coverage responds if you are injured and unable to work (this doesn't cover sick time and generally excludes maternity coverage)
  • Short Term Disability will cover you for a certain period of time (usually under 90 days) at 100% of your pre-tax (sometimes you can choose post-tax) income.
  • Long Term Disability kicks in either after Short Term has expired or if you decided not to purchase Short Term at all.
  • Long Term will typically cover you at 60% or so of pre-tax (or post-tax if you are given the choice) for an extended period of time.

Wages are usually determined based on your prior year's tax return in conjunction with a current Profit/Loss statement (another reason why you should report all your income!).

Sometimes it makes more sense to get a quote on LTD (as it's cheaper) and just build up a reserve of your own to cover what Short Term Disability would have covered (rather than spending money on premiums and losing it if you never file a claim).

If you advance a claim for either, there usually is a waiting period of a few weeks to a few months while a case manager is assigned to investigate the claim.

Be prepared to get put under the microscope much more than you would if you were part of a large group plan (if you work for a large company as an example) as you are no longer part of a protected herd, but this is where using an independent agent can be help in fending off the overzealous claims adjuster who might see you as an easy case :)

Different policies have different exclusions so it's wise to discuss all your extracurricular activities with your agent as things like sky-diving are usually not covered causes of injury.

General Liability

This is one of the most common forms of business insurance. The meat of what this type of policy provides is:

  • Bodily Injury and Property Damage
  • Defense Costs while defending a suit
  • Personal Injury
  • Medical Expenses
  • Operations Liability

Most of this coverage is applicable when/if some of the following conditions occur:

  • Client is injured on your premises
  • Damages to property you are renting to other businesses
  • Advertising mishaps (slander, libel, copyright infringement, etc)
  • Injuries sustained by others on your defined premises due to the activities and operations of your business

Combining GL with Property Insurance (BOP Policies)

Many times, a GL policy is combined with Property Insurance to make what is called a BOP or business owners policy (BOP package).

Property Insurance is fairly standard and covers things like:

  • Inventory
  • Equipment (probably computers for most of us)
  • Records and Documents
  • Buildings
  • Other Real and Personal Property
  • Lost income due to a covered loss

A BOP is really geared towards business which have an office building, equipment in that office, meet clients on the premises, or rent out space to others.

Neither of these, or the BOP package, cover Workers Comp. A BOP is a good solution for a shop which has a physical location, clients on site, and has inventory/equipment on premises.

Professional Liability & Specialized Insurance

These types of policies is where a chunk of the specialized coverage for an SEO would come from. A BOP policy is meant to cover "products" with respect to liability so as an SEO, web designer, or web developer you'll need more specialized coverage which covers things like:

  • Data Storage
  • Malicious Code (say your Wordpress site gets hacked and distributes malware or keyloggers)
  • Hosting
  • Loss of business income (say your host goes down and your client's e-commerce site goes offline, or it goes offline due to an error on your end)
  • Data security

Depending on your level of involvement with servers, software, and application development you may want to scale up and get a more specialized policy. Lots of larger insurers sell specialized, broad polices under the name of Technology Insurance or Information Technology Insurance.

Over the years these policies have developed to cover more and more specialized areas of tech insurance. In the beginning they were mostly geared towards straight IT companies but now cover all sorts of tech groups like:

  • Web Designers
  • Web Developers
  • Consultants
  • Outsourced Applications
  • Hosting Services

Be Up-front

Our industry is no different than any other, lots of snakes. If you are engaging in some kind of off the wall activity you really need to tell the agent. Tell them exactly what you do, if you are doing things that your state or other states consider illegal (fake reviews for instance) then don't expect your policy to respond to such things.

It's no different than getting a homeowners policy while saying you don't have a Pit Bull, even though you have a Pit Bull (which are excluded by all standard insurers), then expecting coverage when your Pit Bull bites the neighbor.

While the agent may not understand the nuances of the business, you are typically good to go if you take the time to fill out the application completely and accurately.

Why Use a Local, Independent Agent?

Most folks you get in the call centers of GEICO or Progressive are salaried or hourly employees, they don't live in your community, and they really don't care to get you the best deal (they can only give your theirs).

Having a local agent gives you access to more markets, someone close by to help you fight any injustices the carrier may try to perpetrate on you, someone who is making a living selling policies in a local market (less likely to burn you as they care about their reputation), and someone who can help insure all your personal and business needs.

A call center rep, if they are on commission, generally wants to churn and burn through the calls and probably won't meet with you face to face to go over anything and answer all your questions (or get answers). Plus, most local agencies need help with web marketing so it could be an easy in for you!

What Do You Need?

Scenario 1 (Work from home, no employees)

Get a business endorsement on your personal homeowners policies and schedule your equipment if you need to (might not need to if you have warranties in place already). This will also make your home office deduction look more official to the IRS.

Get a Professional Liability (E&O) policy and look into a specialized Technology policy depending on your business model. Consider STD/LTD insurance for lost wages if you can't work.

Scenario 2 (Home office, external office, no employees)

Same as above but add in a BOP (General Liability and Property Package) which is probably required if you are renting office space anyway.

Scenario 3 (Home office, external office, employees)

You should check with your attorney about how you are defining employees and if that means they are actual employees versus free-lancers or contractors.

You would want to look at a BOP, Professional Liability and/or specialized Tech Insurance, and Workers Comp if required as well as employee benefit/insurance packages for things like STD/LTD.

Insurance is Boring

Yes it's boring but it's worthwhile for most of us from a cost/benefit standpoint (or legal liability standpoint). Solid, legal contracts reviewed by attorney's are also HIGHLY recommended.

Make time to sit with some local agents to really go over your business and your business activities. It's a really soft market right now for business insurance, especially small business, so agents are going to be more than happy to sit with you and go over what they have to offer.

Why Contracts are Important

There are many contracts available online, for free and for a fee. These contracts, even ones from places like LegalZoom have not been reviewed for your specific business by attorneys in your state.

A contract is no good if it's not enforceable. You can probably expect a fee for a good attorney to review your contracts, and make any necessary changes, to be in the high hundreds of dollars or low four figures.

There is a cost certainty to the cost for an attorney to give you the green light on a set of contracts (though, for really big deals you might still be wise to get a contract specific to that deal) but there is no cost certainty to the legal liability you could face if your contracts are essentially worthless in a court of law.

Another thing you'll want to watch out for is a client who tries to give you unlimited downside from a liability standpoint (in the contract) but severely limits the upside to your fees. You might be willing to take on the risk of downside so long as you are getting a decent %, or a few % points, of the upside on the deal. This is another case where an attorney reviewing the contracts can be well worth the cost.

Choosing the Right Business Entity

Your insurance policy is mutually exclusive from your business entity. If you are a sole-proprietor your personal assets are at risk even though your insurance policy covers defense costs. Choosing the right entity is another way to insulate yourself from liability.

In most states a single member LLC up to a full-blown corporation (and everything in between like a multi-member LLC, S-corp, and so on) will insulate your personal assets (home, savings, future personal earnings) from legal liability, whereas a sole proprietorship will leave your personal assets exposed.

The combination of a good insurance policy and the right business entity will cover defense costs (on a covered event) and protect your personal assets. Choosing the wrong set up can be financially disastrous.

The policy will cover defense costs if a claim is covered but if it is a frivolous lawsuit, or something personal, you might have to defend yourself. This is where having the right entity is key because your personal assets are not at risk even though you are probably going to incur your own legal costs.

The best way to protect yourself is to insure and to pick either an LLC or a corporation of some kind. Choosing neither, or one but not the other, can leave you and your business significantly exposed to liability.

Doug Pierce & Byrne Hobart do Digital Due Diligence

Apr 30th

A Spammy Start Up

Recently TechCrunch posted an article outing [link nofollowed] the Sequoia-backed start up Milanoo for ranking using paid links:

Here’s what Digital Due Diligence found: For a number of very valuable keywords in Google search,, Here’s how Milanoo ranks for “cheap dresses” (position 2), “evening gown” (1), “cheap wedding dresses” (1), and “summer dresses” (2). Digital Due Diligence partner Doug Pierce (who also served as an expert in the New York Times J.C. Penney expose), writes that those four keywords alone have an equivalent cost of nearly $200,000 per month in Google AdWords.

It’s a red flag, explains Pierce’s fellow partner Byrne Hobart

The article left a fairly foul stench in the air which is hard to get over.

Risk Analysis vs Risk Creation

These folks claim to do due diligence for investors, which essentially means "risk analysis" and "risk management." But then to market themselves, they throw active investments under the bus for self promotion. And now they have done so repeatedly. It is not an isolated incident, but rather a pattern of conduct.

To be frank, that form of marketing from an outfit claiming to do SEO risk analysis can be described using no other word than this: sleazy.

Just Another Form of Competitive Sabotage

An outing like the above is typically driven (at some level) by a competitor looking to take down a competitor. And such a high profile outing literally can destroy lives. It is a high stakes game of public relations. The media outlet gets a story, the expert gets quoted, and the competitor gets torched.

If I was an investment firm I would never spend a single Dollar with Digital Due Diligence. Why? Well they may do a valuable service on some project you are funding them for, BUT if you fund them at all you are encouraging more outing in the future and more risk for your own future investments.

Outing is Anti-Innovation

Eric Schmidt has stated that lobbyists write the laws. Markets are rigged to favor established interests. If you are an investor you are betting that you can take smart calculable risks & disrupt markets. But SEO outing is yet another layer of unknown risk which harms all start ups while rewarding existing market leaders: the exact opposite of innovation.

Even if you encourage your own investments to be ultra-conservative you still have no protection from this sort of activity.

A competitor could easily buy a bunch of links for one of your sites (they could even pay cash for a gift card while traveling & use that to buy links from a clean browser with cookies cleared on a public wifi connection, making themselves untraceable). After throwing a few hundred or few thousand Dollars at setting up the site, they can then leak a tip to Digital Due Diligence, who will then leak it to TechCrunch or the NYT.

Why This Sort of Outing is Horrible for SEO Professionals

The core issue here is professionalism. Should we let people who screw other people over get ahead while trying to paint themselves as the good guy? I don't see how there is any hope left for the industry if that becomes the new normal. Every time there is a high profile outing SEO investments become perceived as being more risky and the whole of the industry looks less professional.

Double fail+++

An Example of Two Interpretations of Google's Guidelines

The last time I had any significant experience on this front the SEO police asked who Google should "come down on" for our affiliate program passing link juice. That made our affiliate links no longer pass link juice. Shortly after a Google search engineer publicly stated that affiliate links should count and the same SEO firm that threw us under the bus mentioned they were thinking about bringing their affiliate program in-house so they could do the same thing they outed us for. A few years later it was highlighted that Google has an active investment in a start up that builds a scaled paid link network.

In other words, Google claims their guidelines to be black and white, but a particular technique can be fine for some, spam for others, and worth funding on an industrial scale if Google gets a piece of the action. Is it any surprise that the FTC is looking into Google's business practices?

Just Say No!

The above sort of activity is just like Google and Microsoft leaking each other's security flaws publicly to try to screw each other over. Out of such exchanges nobody wins, but everyone looks a bit more like a used car salesman, as we further create a market for lemons.

With the rise of such SEO diligence projects, how long until the primary business model & main form of diligence being done is funded "research" to take down competitors? Is this market even worth participating in if we let it devolve to that point?

These sort of folks who throw the whole of the SEO industry under a bus for self-promotion should be shunned by the industry. If our industry is to have any sense of fair, just, and reasonable meritocracy to it then this behavior can not be condoned.

Free Keyword Competition Research

Apr 29th


The term "competitive research" conjures up all sorts of imagery like expensive tools, shiny buttons, cute charts, and fancy (sometimes foolish) language about precise insight into a particular site or marketplace.

In reality we know that such claims are usually best taken with a large grain of salt. Most competitive research data is scraped from search engines and then has custom filters applied to it. Such filters can actually be a detriment to the data because, in desperate attempts at differentiation, tool-sets routinely use metrics which get overly convoluted with custom values and such that the final product because overhyped and underwhelming.

Some tools make up for their sampling errors by allowing you to upload your keywords & data directly into their database. The problem with this is that you are putting keywords which were "below the radar" into a database that your competitors may be using. Why just give away your data to the competition like that? Talk about working against yourself!

Let's remember that these custom metrics and estimates are typically extrapolated off of scraped data, or data purchased from IP's, or data from custom toolbars, all of which are data samples. So it is kind of like; scraped data +/- data extrapolations + in-house data + custom metrics = final product.

It is reasonable to assume that the more custom or guesstimated layers you build off of occasionally unreliable data (waves at Google's keyword tool and SERPS) the less and less targeted that data is. Moral of the story is, "choose wisely young jedi".

Getting Useful Data for Free

Now that we've set the expectation stage (don't expect tools to be a push button, slot machine win) you might feel like paying hundreds or thousands a month for these kinds of tools is a bit much. Sometimes yes, but multiple data points certainly have their advantages and it's not that the data is junk by any means, it's just that the data shouldn't be relied upon as if it were scientific. The data can most certainly be helpful but it comes down to ROI for you and your specific project(s).

free tools

There are many tools you can use to get lots and lots of decent keyword competition data for free. We aren't going to be covering free trials, just tools that give you what the have for free or tools that give enough useful data inside of a free version of their product.

If you are in the competitive research stage, you've probably already got a topic in mind. So we'll assume that you are doing competitive research on the keyword "camping equipment".

Accessing Free Tools

You could do a specific bookmark folder which encompasses links to your free tools for easy access. The first things you will probably look at are:

  • the SERP for your keyword
  • age of ranking sites
  • links (total links, links to domain, links to page, edu/gov links)
  • domain age
  • domain name (brand, exact match, both, none?)
  • signals of trust (key directories, dmoz, twitter)

Those data points can easily be accessed with SEO For Firefox.

SEO For Firefox


SEO for Firefox is a free firefox extension which will give you important SEO metrics quickly, from a variety of reputable data sources. Typically, you might want to aim for in at least the top 3 given all the stuff that could be included in a SERP like:

  • a map
  • Google products
  • Google images
  • Google shopping results
  • YouTube videos
  • News results
  • Real-time results
  • and so on...

You can get a pretty good initial glimpse of the competition metrics within a few seconds. This is clearly a brand-heavy SERP and it is reflected in the SEO metrics. Here's a screen shot of what you'd see for a particular domain:


All things considered this is a pretty strong domain. It's a brand, has lots of links, .edu links, also ranks highly in Bing-powered Yahoo!, and has a PR 6 to boot.

Another cool thing about SEO For Firefox is that you can export the results into a .csv file for further research, processing and comparison. If you don't have a copy of Office for Mac or Windows already then, in keeping with the "free nature" of this post, you can use Open Office.

SEO Toolbar

Maybe you know the sites you want to research already or maybe you want a graphical, side by side comparison of up to 5 sites in your market. You can use our SEO Toolbar to accomplish this quickly and efficiently. If you click on the green arrows on the right side of the tool bar, you are presented with a GUI for the processing of up to 5 sites at ones (screenshot below)


The comparison feature gives you access to key, relevant SEO metrics side by side for up to 5 sites.

So by now you should have a spreadsheet or three containing relevant data for the top sites on a particular keyword

Link Tools

Now that you've gotten some of the higher-level metrics out of the way, you can dive into examining the link profile of a competing site.

You can use free tools (or free versions of paid tools) to look at the links from a competing site, tools like:

  • Yahoo's Site Explorer
  • Blekko's SEO Tools
  • Open Site Explorer
  • Majestic SEO

While it's a good idea to get data from a variety of sources, and run them through a tool like Advanced Link Manager to get a full(er) picture of things, you can get some juicy data for free.

When doing competitive research for a keyword I want to know what the anchor text profile looks like. When I am doing competitive research on a domain there are other relevant data points like top pages, most linked to pages, and total number of unique domains linking at the domain or page (whichever is ranking).

Blekko and Open Site Explorer are the ones I use for targeted and quick anchor text distribution views. Yahoo! generally ranks the best links first and allows for a CSV export, Majestic's free account gives limited data on referring domains, top back-links, and top pages. So for the purposes of looking at anchor text, I prefer Blekko and Open Site Explorer.


Blekko has a link to SEO data and Links data, as shown below:


The Links selection will bring up a Yahoo! Explorer-like list of links, the SEO link option brings up a bunch of SEO data like:

  • links to the domain
  • links to the page
  • anchor text information
  • links broken down by geography
  • external links
  • pie-chart, graphical representation of link data points
  • and other non-link related, but helpful, data (crawl data, site pages, etc)

The data is free, you get the data they offer without registration requirements.

Open Site Explorer

Open Site Explorer is a quick and easy way to get the type of data we are looking for in this example (anchor text profile).

They currently have a 30 day trial and offer 3 plans:

  • Free, No Registration - limited to 3 reports per day, shows up to 200 links and top 5 link metrics for a given criteria
  • Free, Registration Required - no limit on reports, 1,000 links returned, top 20 link metrics for a given criteria (anchor text, top pages, etc)
  • PRO - part of subscription to SeoMoz, up to 10k links, no limit on metrics
  • CSV export available for all plans

If you know the sites you want to look at, and the keyword(s), you can likely get away with just using it as a guest. However, the free but registered plan does give you a bunch more data. What I like in this example is that you basically type the domain name in, hit enter, then click on the anchor text distribution tab and the anchor text data is right there:


You'll see the actual anchor text, the number of domains linking with that anchor text, and the total links with that anchor text in them (good way to spot site-wides from one domain). In this example, our target keyword is not in the top 5 (or 20) with respect to anchor text occurrences. This domain is a large brand though, so you'd likely want to make sure you could build an authoritative and useful site about the topic in order to overcome Google's love affair with brands.

Checking the On-Page Optimization

Though I believe the link data and domain data to be mostly paramount, the on-page criteria follows closely in the importance department.

This is pretty self-explanatory and you don't really need a full blown tool for this. Basically you'll want to look at things like the title tag, meta description tag, and the on-page copy itself.

You can do that pretty easily with just your eyeballs, but the SEO Toolbar also has a feature where you type the keyword into the box in the upper-right, and click the highlighter:


In this case I used 2 words, and they are highlighted in different colors:


This can give you an idea of how the site is using the copy to say, scream, or shout what the page is about. Sometimes you'll find that sites might just be ranking for a keyword or phrase based on the authority of their domain. If they are ignoring the on-page and off-page (links) for a keyword, it could signal to you that this might be a keyword worth pursuing and a keyword you can reasonably expect to rank for.

Making it a Process

Competitive research is just one piece of the puzzle, as you know. I find that breaking the entire process down into manageable chunks can help each process be more productive and efficient. This would be my process when researching the competitiveness of a keyword. While there are other pieces to your SEO research you should note that you do not need to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on fancy competitive research tools off the start.

Save the money you might spend on tools on link development, content development, and content promotion.

Scammers, Spammers & Industry Standards

Apr 27th

A Friendly Warning

I got an email the other day titled "small business SEO scam"

My name is Ryan, and I head small business outreach for

Recently, we started receiving a rash of complaints from small business owners concerning illegitimate SEO consulting companies they have used.

These small business owners are paying hundreds (in some cases thousands) of dollars to have these SEO consulting companies remove negative comments from

However, these small businesses are being taken advantage of - ConsumerAffairs has no relationship with these SEO firms and there is no way for them to remove comments/reviews about their firms from our site.

ConsumerAffairs is very concerned that small businesses are being mislead by these SEO firms, and we are trying to get the word out through small business resource blogs, such as yours.

I do not know if you have heard about this scam, but we hope you can help us get the word out and possibly even blog about this. We recently published an article about this if you would like to read more about this topic

Also, in response to these complaints, we have launched the Accredited Business Program. Under this program we alert the small business owner when a consumer submits a review/complaint, and the company is given the ability to respond to the consumer.

ConsumerAffairs realizes the majority of SEO firms do incredible work for small businesses and in no way are we grouping these illegitimate firms with all SEO firms.

If you have any question please feel free to contact me,


The Problem With Complaints Websites

Here is the problem with complaints sites though: so many of them cover all the "evils" of the marketplace without ever covering the positive sides of said industries. The email solicitation to me states that they are aware that the majority of SEO firms do incredible work, but searching their site comes up empty for any such recognition, just complaint after complaint.

However you are welcome to pay the complaints site $100 upfront then $10 per month fee if you want to rent their credibility & get a trust badge so you can be accredited to let them disitermediate your customer service. Sorta like "get satisfaction or else." Making things worse for those who run legitimate businesses, the media trains consumers to smear brands for upgrades & on the internet even non-customers feel entitled to crap on your brand if you don't set your wage at $0. And, since many complaints sites are at least semi-anonymous, they also invite competitors to smear each other.

Trust Us

The issue with "solve it with a trust label" approach is that people lose faith in a lot of those labels, because lots of trust label sites are less trustworthy than those without them. A scammer always optimizes with an aggressive sales pitch that removes *perceived* risk. It is precisely why the FTC had to crack down on scams wrapped in fake news sites.

And who was promoting the fake news sites? None other than the mainstream media (which even promotes the scams on articles about avoiding scams like SEO)!

In response to one such hate bait SEO article from a sleazy polarizing news organization I posted about it and flamed them, writing "If people talk trash, lie, and misinform consumers about a topic often enough then they destroy some of the perceived value of that field. Maybe you don't work as hard as I do and maybe you don't help out as many people as I do. But I work way too hard to just not care when a bunch of sleazeballs trash my trade by pumping biased misinformation through a megaphone."

In spite of the above outrageous behavior from the "news" organization, some current & former employers from that news organization requested that I update my post to make nuanced clarifications. In other words, they wanted to hold me to a FAR HIGHER journalistic standard than their own employer IN THE FIELD OF JOURNALISM!

This is how our current model of capitalism works, if you are not large and parasitic then you need to be labeled as the scammer so the media can paint themselves as the great protector. This behavior is by no means new. Reading up on the history of Western Union & the Associated Press around the time of the Hayes election would make one queasy.

Who is the Scammer?

Back to the reputation management "SEO scam" mentioned at the top of this article, if a small business thinks they can pay someone a couple hundred Dollars to fix their bad reputation & it doesn't work then were they really scammed? Weren't they really trying to manipulate the market for pennies on the Dollar? Isn't getting scammed the expected outcome when you under-pay for services?

Also oddly enough, the above complaints site which was out to inform consumers about scams embeds inline AdSense so aggressively that many folks likely can't tell where the content ends and the ads begin

Since those are Google ads, they are contextually relevant & the articles about "scam x" often contain ads with pumped up ad copy for the very services that the article allegedly warns against. Not surprising considering that Google AdSense has a "get rich quick" category.

Why is it that such consumer "protection" services can run ads in the content & simply fall back on this "Advertisements on this site are placed and controlled by outside advertising networks. does not evaluate or endorse the products and services advertised. See the FAQ for more information." in the footer? If they wanted to protect consumers, wouldn't they also give you links to report bad ads and/or solicit feedback on them and/or claim some responsibility for them and/or not blend them so aggressively in the content area of the page?

That FAQ page states

I see ads for companies that are criticized on your site. What's that all about?

We don't control which ads appear on our site. They are placed by outside agencies. The fact that an ad appears on our site by no means indicates we approve of the product. Same thing's true for an ad in the newspaper, or on television or radio.

This seems wrong. How can you take money to advertise products you don't approve of?

It's a free country. Companies, even the ones we don't much like, have as much right to advertise as we do to publish our site, just as we have the right to publish critical comments about them.

That "use the small print" game is exactly what the aggressive info-marketers do.

The Scam of Mainstream Media

How is it that if you don't disclose an affiliate relationship for a 3rd party some people will view you poorly, while the media can run on a "hear no evil, see no evil" approach to monetization? Eric Janszen recently highlighted how this isn't an accident:

Assume the laws of human nature are in force and you are not getting the truth when a powerful and politically connected industry is in crisis. It took decades for the health risks of tobacco to come to light. The media was no help until the tobacco industry was already on the ropes. Once cigarette advertising was widely banned and the advertising revenue dried up, it was safe for the media to cover the obvious dangers of a product that killed millions. Only then did the media join in on the side of consumers.

Are Standards a Good Idea?

In spite of the bizarro way that the media world operates (screw whoever you can while claiming you are ignorant that you are selling them down the river) some folks who are concerned about the state of the SEO industry think they can fall back on industry standards. Industry standards are no real solution though:

  • most people who operate such organizations push self-promotion aggressively (anyone remember the SEMPO tiers with the inner circle at $5,000 level, but free to certain folks?)
  • such self-promotion also aligns with business biases (remember how early "research" out of such organizations aggressively promoted paid search while making SEO seem like an also-ran?)
  • scammers won't abide by standards of any sort, but they will get the logo (the guy who ripped my wife off many years back / before she met me had logos on his site from TopSEOs and Sempo)
  • those who are desperate need to do "whatever it takes" and that would make standards irrelevant to them. Consider this following "dear team" email I got from a non-customer

    As sad as that email is (telling me they are ignorant of SEO, yet are taking on SEO clients, yet need me to do it for them) it is actually worse than it appears at first blush. Why? The anchor text they wanted me to get was for keywords about SEO, so some SEO who is claiming to sell "professional" SEO services is paying dirt to some poor third world worker & is having that person optimize the SEO's site! If their services for their own sites are that bad imagine what they must be doing for clients!
  • we already have a set of standards (in Google's guidelines) but they are already selectively enforced, an additional layer would do nothing but inhibit potential
  • some projects have different risk and reward potentials
  • standards are backwards looking & would provide no protection from something like Panda, which is requiring small businesses to fire tons of employees as they grasp for straws & careen toward bankruptcy
  • The table is already tilted toward certain types of sites. If you agree to an across-the-board arbitrary standard you cede marketshare to those chosen few. Matt Cutts said: "we actually came up with a classifier to say, okay, IRS or Wikipedia or New York Times is over on this side, and the low-quality sites are over on this side." Some search results already look like the following, where the top brand has 3 AdWords ads and the top 3 organic results
  • If SEO standardization happened then it would see more job outsourcing & additional wage compression
  • Any such standardization would require additional constraints on smaller players while allowing "too big to fail" to ignore them. Remember how Google stated that bloggers need to disclose? Well they missed the fact that Google invested in creating automated paid links, and I have even seen ads on Google Finance without any label on them.

Scammers Operate Anywhere There is Money to be Made

Read the news any day and you will see stories like this:

Nearly 300 people fell ill in central China after eating meat suspected of containing illegal additives, the latest in a spate of contamination problems to emerge even as the government vows to crack down on food-safety violators.
The state-run China Daily newspaper blamed clenbuterol, a substance that speeds muscle growth in pigs but can cause headache, nausea and an irregular heartbeat when consumed by humans.

People may be a bit more careful with eating some types of meat in China in the near-term, but based on that news story you don't get an immediate "OMG never eat pork" reaction. Yet so many of the scams in the online space (even those funded by Google & those not directly related to SEO) are conveniently labeled as SEO scams.

When pharmaceutical corporations hide studies which shows their drugs as being less effective than originally claimed are they labeled as drug scams?

I was recently emailed by a PR firm working on behalf of Pfizer, which wanted to make a "documentary" about the escalating issue of counterfeit drugs. They are concerned about legality and consumer safety when someone else is making money, but you know what Pfizer has repeatedly had no problem with? Pushing drugs for off-label purposes:

New York-based Pfizer agreed to pay $430 million in criminal fines and civil penalties, and the company’s lawyers assured Loucks and three other prosecutors that Pfizer and its units would stop promoting drugs for unauthorized purposes. What Loucks, who’s now acting U.S. attorney in Boston, didn’t know until years later was that Pfizer managers were breaking that pledge not to practice so-called off-label marketing even before the ink was dry on their plea.

On the morning of Sept. 2, 2009, another Pfizer unit, Pharmacia & Upjohn, agreed to plead guilty to the same crime. This time, Pfizer executives had been instructing more than 100 salespeople to promote Bextra, a drug approved only for the relief of arthritis and menstrual discomfort, for treatment of acute pains of all kinds.

The drug companies now consider criminal fines as a calculable cost of doing business, so much so that the government is now looking to hold executives responsible for the crimes of their companies.

The pharmaceutical industry has paid billions of dollars in civil and criminal penalties over the past decade, but the government believes they no longer have much deterrent effect.

The new use of exclusion is meant to "alter the cost-benefit calculus of the corporate executives," said Lew Morris, chief counsel for the Department of Health and Human Services's inspector general, in congressional testimony last month.

Scammers operate anywhere there is money to be made. They will even claim to follow standards, while doing every dirty thing in the book. But it doesn't mean that everyone in those markets are scammers simply because their business model doesn't have the margins and scale needed to pay off the mainstream media.


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