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).
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)
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:
Google shopping 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.
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
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
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
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.
I got an email the other day titled "small business SEO scam"
My name is Ryan, and I head small business outreach for ConsumerAffairs.com.
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 ConsumerAffairs.com.
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 consumeraffairs.com/news04/2011/04/bogus-complaint-removal-sites-prey-on-small-businesses.html
Also, in response to these complaints, we have launched the ConsumerAffairs.com 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.
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. ConsumerAffairs.com 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.
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?)
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
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
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.
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 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.
When your boss/client asks you why your web site can't be found in Google, what are you going to say? You should prepare, because, eventually, that question will be asked.
Should you cross that bridge when you come to it? Employ an SEO specialist to "do some stuff", after launch, in order to get the site ranked? Isn't SEO just another marketing function, like buying advertising?
In this article, I'll outline why it's a bad idea to treat SEO as an add-on. I'll look at how to roll SEO, seamlessly, into your web strategy.
These days, SEO is not a series of easily-repeated, technical steps.
You may have heard that SEO is about adding meta tags. Changing the underlying code. Making a few minor changes to content and submitting a site to a search engine. If you follow this process, your site will be found on the first page of search results.
This was true years ago ago. It isn't true now.
If that is all you do, chances are your site won't appear on the first page of results. It might not appear until page 72. If at all. The search engines have grown more sophisticated. They look at many different factors, and they don't place weight on meta-tags when determining rank.
One factor is the vote. In search, a link is a vote. In order to get people to vote for your site, you need a site that is link-worthy. And the voting box is rigged. A vote from a huge brand, like Microsoft, for example, is worth way more than many votes from sites few people have heard of. The search engines tend to reward popularity, as determined by other sites. If the information you're providing isn't popular enough, you won't be ranked.
In order to get these links, you need to publish pages people will link to. And not just the home page. You need links into internal pages, too. Ask yourself: what sites would you link to? What pages would you link to? Chances are, you're unlikely to link to a competitor. You're unlikely to link to someone else's e-commerce product catalogue. You'll most likely link to pages of note. Pages of reference material, pages of news, and other remarkable content that is noteworthy.
That's what everyone else does, not just in search, but in social media, too.
Another factor is the quality of your information, which we'll look at shortly.
Sound difficult to achieve?
Do You Even Need SEO?
You may not.
If you have a known brand that your existing customers will navigate directly to, you won't need to do much in the way of SEO. So long as you can be found under your brand name, you'll be rewarded. However, if you want to attract new customers, and attract customers away from competing brands, then you need to give SEO serious thought. At very least, you'll need to ensure your site is crawlable.
You can participate in the search channel without using SEO. You can buy clicks, using PPC. The downside is this can get expensive, as the incentive for Google is to force click prices ever higher via bid competition. You need to weigh the ongoing cost vs the cost of implementing an SEO strategy. Many people undertake both SEO & PPC, of course, in order to maximize a sites' visibility.
You need SEO if a long-term, cheap, visitor traffic stream is important to you. You need SEO if you seek to attract search visitors who may not have heard of your company before. You need SEO if your competitors are doing it, as they'll take your market share, given they have a presence in the channel, and you may not.
OK, I Need SEO
What is the optimal way to approach SEO?
If you've yet to launch a site, or you're planning on launching a new site, you're at a distinct advantage to those who must retrofit an SEO strategy. This is because SEO flows from strategy. It is very difficult to retrofit if the web strategy works against SEO, which can easily happen.
For example, Google tends to favor a regularly updated, well linked, reference information publishing model. One example is Wikipedia. Obviously, commercial sites aren't going to look anything like Wikipedia, however there are a few lessons to be learned. The key point is to integrate some form of detailed, text information publishing into your site, which preferably has a reference angle i.e. it's not just a page of sales copy.
Take a look at Amazon. Amazon is a product catalog, with a twist. Amazon lets users write reviews. The review text can be crawled by search engines. The existence of review text helps distinguish Amazon from other product catalogs, which to a search engines, would all look pretty much identical i.e. book name, publisher name, price, product description, etc. Search engines tend to relegate duplicate content.
So, you should include a section on your site that allows for the regular publication of unique, reference material. For example, industry news, a trade dictionary, discussion forums, blogs, feedback loops encouraging user content and comment, tutorials, user education, and so on. You might decide to split your web strategy across multiple sites. One site is the corporate umbrella site, another site is information based. Your SEO will likely have many ideas on this front, so the key is to involve them early.
SEO can be added after a site is launched, but it can be problematic.
Possibly the worst case scenario is a brochure site, consisting of thin product information and mission statements. Links don't tend to flow to such sites, and they don't tend to be information rich. Links will most likely need to be purchased, adding to the cost, and the search engines take a dim view of this practice, so it can increase risk if pushed too hard. If your competitors are attracting links without having to buy them, then they'll always be at a competitive advantage, and be very difficult to catch as each day passes.
There are a couple of ways around this problem. Create a new section of the site devoted to publication of reference material i.e. industry news, a trade dictionary, glossary, discussion forums, blogs, tutorials, and so on.
If the site isn't suited to this approach, consider splitting your web strategy across a number of sites.
Neither are particularly elegant, but the important takeaway point is that SEO isn't something that can just be tweaked under the hood. It needs to be an integral part of your site, and these days, that means adopting some form of information publishing strategy beyond simple sales copy.
The web is about putting the user first, and search is no exception.
Web content is commodity. If your site doesn't have the information the user wants, then there is nothing keeping them on your site, and no reason for them to visit in the first place. There are plenty of other sites. The site that gives the users exactly what they want, wins.
Luckily, in search, the user is already telling you what they want.
SEO's have a great way of mining this information. They can access keyword data, collected by the search engines. This data shows what terms users are looking for. You could create an entire web strategy based on this information.
For example, let's imagine a site owner sells heating systems. It would pay to know that a lot more people search for "solar heating systems" than "boiler heating systems". Obviously, interest in solar energy is increasing, so the owner may want to feature these products more prominently, and provide news on the latest developments by way of a blog. Keyword research shows a lot of people also want to know about installing heating systems, so the owner may want to provide guidance and/or a nationwide list of installers who install his product. That list of installers could be broken down into regions, which will likely attract regional search traffic. The site owner could encourage his national network of installers to link to his site, especially since he has demonstrated he is happy to send traffic their way. The site owner could also include a glossary of heating terminology, in order to cover every conceivable heating related keyword term.
Do the same with your site. Ask "what are the users really looking for?". Ask your SEO to research keyword lists to see what is really on your potential visitors minds. Provide a means to publish this information. Encourage people to link to your site by giving them a good reason to do so. Create genuinely useful content, then have your SEO and marketing teams get out there and hustle that information.
The Message Is Integrated
This is an integrated SEO strategy, based on the idea of putting the user first, giving them what they want, and encouraging them to share it.
Seth Godin wrote a book called "All Marketers Are Liars". In this book, Seth notes that, these days, marketing needs to be integrated into the product from conception. The days of bolting a pretty marketing face on to a generic box, after it comes off the factory line, are long gone.
It's the same thing with search. It should flow through your web strategy, just like usability, your message, your brand, and your language.
Many broken belief systems that exist do so because of a misinformed understanding of how the world works through naive idealism, with various special interests paying to syndicate misinformation that coincides with their current business model to foster culturally constructed ignorance - agnotology.
It is not a bubble. This time is different. The internet changes everything
And then of course we had "Real estate always goes up!"
Who was behind that lie? The bankers, the mortgage brokers, the Realtors, bond raters, hedge funds, construction companies, media running real estate ads, local government tax revenues, current home owners who kept seeing their "savings" go up while doing nothing. Some of those people did not intentionally aim to be deceitful, they just believed a convenient lie that fit with their worldview.
"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it" - Upton Sinclair.
Fraud vs the Stuff Bankers do
And so the bubble grew until one day the fraud was so integrated into society that there was simply nobody left to sell to.
“In mid-2006, I discovered that over 60 percent of these mortgages purchased and sold were defective,” [Citibank's] Bowen testified on April 7 before the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission created by Congress. “Defective mortgages increased during 2007 to over 80 percent of production.”
Wachovia was a strong brand. A true pioneer and market leader in the drug money game, which funneled over 1/3 TRILLION Dollars onto the hands of drug dealers. For the crime they got a slap on the wrist. there was no bonus clawbacks. There was no jailtime. There was no honest attempt at the rule of law.
"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." - Matt Cutts
Create an Itch
For a marketer to say what is old and steady and boring is effective is not a way to be perceived as relevant (that old coot is still stuck in '97!)
Being grounded is not a way to get positive headlines. Saying that the web is becoming just like the fraud laced offline world would be considered in poor taste. You have to sell something new...to try to push to inspire, achieve, gain hope, etc.
If you manufacture evidence that your LinkedIn votes are directly tied to better Google rankings then outsiders who are unaware of the workings of your industry may syndicate that misinformation. Even if you run a public experiment that fails it still shows you are trying new things (are cutting edge), and is a low cost branding exercise. Just like how MLM folks say you can get rich by using the same system they used to get rich. Everyone wants to sell a life worth living, even if they are not living that life, but rather sentenced to life in prison.
Pushing the Boundaries
Most profitable belief systems sell into an existing worldview but with a new hook on it. Most new marketing approaches are all about pushing the boundaries of what exists, probing to find the edges. Some people do it on the legal front, others probe on the ethical front, and yet others are just more creative & try to win by using technologies in unique ways. If you never fall off a cliff and never have any hate spewed your way then you are likely a bland marketer who hasn't done very much.
Google is in the press almost every week, aiming to stretch the boundaries on trademark, copyright, privacy, and so on.
I was lucky enough to chat with Larry one-to- one about his expectations for Google back in 2002. He laid out far-reaching views that had nothing to do with short-term revenue goals, but raised questions about how Google would anticipate the day sensors and memory became so cheap that individuals would record every moment of their lives. He wondered how Google could become like a better version of the RIAA - not just a mediator of digital music licensing - but a marketplace for fair distribution of all forms of digitized content.
Google is seen as an amazing company that does a limitless amount of good for the world. Yet the are up for anti-trust review and carry ad categories for "get rich quick." Google massages how they are viewed. Anytime something bad happens to their brand you can count on a new invention or an in-depth story of a rouge spammer getting torched by "justice."
For a company that is so good at manipulating outside rules & guidelines, they really lean hard on the arbitrary guidelines they create.
The web is constantly shifting. Mailing lists, email newsletters, blogs, wikis, Facebook, Twitter, Color, etc. Most of the core infrastructural stuff is boring. But it is essential. If you don't understand email marketing or newsletters you can't create Groupon.
It is the new stuff with some sort of twist that earns the ink, which drives the perceived value, which earns the ink, which builds the actual value. But most people can't tell the difference between real innovation and public relations fluff. And so after a series of failures and burning millions of Dollars of capital it is time to pivot again. Anything to be seen as new and/or relevant.
If you manufacture evidence that your new strategy is better than Google then outsiders who are unaware of the workings of your industry may syndicate that misinformation. Even if you run a public experiment that fails it still shows you are trying new things (are cutting edge), and is a low cost branding exercise.
Sounds familiar, right?
History keeps repeating itself.
Algorithmic Fallout vs Spam
The perfect algorithm is something that does not exist.
Every choice has winners and losers. No matter what happens to the network & how the algorithms evolve people will find ways to exploit them. Many of Google's biggest holes were caused by Google patching old holes.
Which is precisely why Google leans so hard on public relations & shaping market behavior.
It is not the fault of the search engineer when something goes astray, but rather an evil exploitative spammer (even when Google's AdSense is the revenue engine driving the project).
Clean Your ____ Up!
Thinking back to the content farm update (which was never called the content farm update, because it impacted a wide array of websites) the main message that came out of it is that "Google can determine content quality" and "you better increase your content quality." Webmasters who heard that message were stuck in a tough situation if they had hundreds of thousands or millions of pages indexed in Google. How exactly do you *profitably* increase the quality of millions of pages, even while your site is torched to the ground, revenues are off over 50%, and the timetable + certainty for the solution are both unknowns? In many cases it would be cheaper to start from scratch than to repair the broken mess & deal with all the known unknowns.
Based on Google's advice many webmasters decided that as part of their strategy they would improve the quality of some of their best pages & then have a look at some of their worst content sections and try to block and/or remove them from Google. That sounds pretty logical! In response to that overly-logical approach to problem solving, Matt Cutts wrote the following:
What I would not recommend is sending tons (as in, thousands or even tens of thousands) of individual url removal requests to the url removal tool. And I would definitely not recommend making lots (as in, dozens or even more) of Webmaster Central accounts just to remove your own urls. If we see that happening to a point that we consider excessive or abusive, we reserve the right to look at those requests and responding by e.g. broadening, cancelling, or narrowing the requests.
So here you are trying to comply with Google's latest algorithmic approach (after they already torched your website once) and they have to give you another "or else."
Why The SEO Consultant Will NEVER Go Away
It would be nice to know what pages Google thinks are of low quality, but they don't say. It would be nice to know what pages are indexed in Google, but even official data given in Google Webmaster Tools varies widely over time, let alone the data which is shared publicly.
Further, some sites, like forums, are hard to edit to please Google without potentially destroying the flow of the community and enraging the community. Should sites have to delete or de-index their water cooler area because of Google?
What about the pages that GoogleBot arbitrarily creates by putting keywords into search boxes and generating pages that the site owner may not even know are indexed?
The reason so many webmasters are forced to rely on external search advice is that Google's desire to not be manipulated is so strong that they frequently appear dishonest & not worthy of trust. They speak vaguely, distort, and change the numbers as needed to fit the vision. Saying "in an ideal world" doesn't make that ideal world appear. And people don't trust folks like Donald Rumsfeld - at least smart people don't.
Google will gladly figure out, for you, whether or not your search has local intent. :)
Google's Investment into Local
Late last year Google moved one of their prized executives over to local services, Marissa Mayer. Moving Mayer, fresh off Google Instant and a variety of other high profile areas of Google's search development, to head up local is a real strong reinforcement of how much attention Google is putting on local and local result quality (or perceived quality).
If you are a business owner who operates locally, say a real estate agent or insurance agent or really any other consumer-based service, then this presents a huge opportunity for you if you can harness the targeting and tracking ability available online.
Merging Offline Marketing with Online Marketing
A lot of small businesses or larger businesses that operate locally still rely quite a bit on offline advertising. It use to be that business owners had to rely on staff nailing down exactly how a lead came to them (newspaper ad? radio ad? special discount ad? and so on).
While it is still good practice to do that, relying solely on that to help gauge the ROI of your advertising campaign introduces a good amount of slippage and is not all that accurate (especially if you sell something online).
As local businesses start to see the light with SEO and PPC campaigns versus dropping 5 figures on phonebook advertising, a big selling point as a service provider or an in-house marketing staff member will be to sell the targeting of online campaigns as well as the tracking of those results.
If your a business owner, it's equally important that you understand what's available to you as an online marketer.
Types of Offline Advertising to Track
Locally, you are essentially looking at a few different types of advertising options to work into your new found zest for tracking results:
Print is probably the most wide-ranging in terms of branches of advertising collateral because you can get into newspapers, magazines, flyers, brochures, banners, yellow pages, and so on.
While your approach may be different to each marketing type, the core tracking options are basically the same. You can track in your analytics program via:
Custom Phone Numbers
The beauty of web analytics, specifically a free service like Google Analytics, is that it puts the power of tracking into the hands of a business owner at no cost outside of perhaps a custom set up and implementation by a competent webmaster. All of these tracking methods can be tracked in Google Analytics as well as other robust analytic packages (Clicky.Com as an example, is a reasonably priced product which can do this as well, save for maybe the phone tracking).
Structuring Your Campaigns
With the amount of offline advertising many businesses do, it is easy to get carried away with separate domains, custom URL's, custom phone numbers, and the like.
What I usually like to do is use a good old fashioned spreadsheet to track the specific advertisements that are running, the dates they are running, and the advertising medium they are using. I also include a column or three for the tracking method(s) used (custom URL, separate domain, special phone number).
In addition to this, Google Analytics offers annotations which you can use to note those advertising dates in your traffic graph area to help get an even better idea of the net traffic effect of a particular ad campaign.
How to Track It
Armed with your spreadsheet of ads to track and notes on how you are going to track them, you're ready to set up the technical side of things.
The tracking is designed to track the hits on your site via the methods mentioned, once they get there you'll want to get that traffic assigned to a campaign or a conversion funnel to determine how many of the people actually convert (if you are able to sell or convert the visitor online).
A custom URL is going to be something like:
yoursite.com/save20 for an advert you might be offering 20% savings on
yoursite.com/summer for an advert you could offer a summer special on
You may or may not want to use redirection. You can use a redirect method if you are using something like a static site versus a CMS like Wordpress. With Wordpress, you could create those url's as specific pages and just no-index them and ensure they are not linked to internally so you keep them out of the search engine and the normal flow of navigation. This way you know any visit to that page is clearly related to that offline campaign.
A redirect would be helpful where the above is not possible and you need to use Google's URL builder to help track the campaign and not lose referral parameters on the 301.
So you could use the URL builder to get the following parameters if you were promoting a custom URL like yoursite.com/save20:
Some companies use separate domains to track different campaigns. The idea is the same as is the basic code implementation with exception that you apply any redirect to the domain rather than a sub-page or directory off the domain as we did in the prior example.
So you sell snapping turtles (snappingturtles.com) and maybe you sell turtle insurance so you buy turtleinsurance.com and you want to use that as a part of a large campaign to promote this new and innovative product. You could get this from the url builder:
This would redirect you to the home page of your main site and you can update your .htaccess with a sub-page if you had such a page catering to that specific market.
Custom Phone Numbers
There are quite a few ways to get cheap virtual numbers these days and Phone.com is reliable service where you can get a number for roughly $4.88 per month.
I know companies that implemented custom numbers for a bunch of print ads and it was pretty eye-opening in terms of which as performed better than others and how much money is wasted on untargeted print campaigns.
There certainly is a somewhat intangible brand equity building component to offline ads but it is still interesting to see ads which carry their weight with traffic and response rates, as well as being really helpful when it comes time to reshape the budget.
Here are a couple handfuls of providers which offer phone tracking inside of Google Analytics. Most of these providers will require the purchase of a number from them to tie into a specific URL on your site or just right into the domain + help track those calls alongside the pageviews generated.
Some campaigns are wide-ranging enough to where you may want to target them with a custom number or two and a custom URL or domain. Using a spreadsheet to track these measures along with using Google Analytics annotations to gauge traffic spikes and drops offers business owners deep view into the use of their marketing dollars.
If you are a business owner who thinks "wow this is awesome, how the heck do I do it?", well here is some advice. If the field of web analytics is mostly foreign to you I would suggest finding a certified Google Analytics provider or ask if your current web company can do this for you. Certainly there are plenty of competent people and companies that are not part of the Google Analytics partner program.
If you are interested in a Google Analytics partner you can search for them here. There is also quite a bit of information in the self-education section of Google Analytics.
I would recommend learning how to do this over a period of time so you can make minor or major changes yourself at some point. Also, it helps to establish a business relationship with someone competent and trustworthy for future tasks that may come up, which you cannot do on your own.
If you are a service provider, start implementing this for some of your local clients and you'll likely be well on your way to establishing yourself as a sought-after marketer in your area.
There is a saying in the bond trading market that if you don't know who the clown in a deal is then look in the mirror because it is probably you. Business is the same way. Almost everyone gets taken for a ride at least once.
What is Ignorance?
Ignorance is often viewed as a condescending word, but it is how we are all born. It is only through learning and experience we are able to do much more than survive. Any time you enter a new market or use a new strategy you start out from behind. You are the sucker who is losing money. Rarely does the new guy win just by showing up, or just by copying someone else's existing strategy. There has to be some point of differentiation.
A Brutal Uphill Climb
The leader has more data, more connections, more links, more capital, higher visitor value, and the algorithms have another layer of karma built over the top of them as well. Matt Cutts described part of the Panda update as "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."
Roadblocks & Pot Holes Are Everywhere
Based on those sorts of disadvantages, why would anyone want to try SEO? Well in almost any other business model similar roadblocks and pain points exist, and SEO allows one to build momentum over time without it being an all or nothing risk. The slow buildup can lead you toward success in ways you may not have anticipated. And the cost of failure is often little more than time. Plus you gain knowledge even when something fails.
I talk to lots of startups and almost none that I know of post-2008 have gained significant traction through SEO (the rare exceptions tend to be focused on content areas that were previously un-monetizable). Google keeps its ranking algorithms secret, but it is widely believed that inbound links are the preeminent ranking factor. This ends up rewarding sites that are 1) older and have built up years of inbound links 2) willing to engage in aggressive link building, or what is known as black-hat SEO.
A similar blog headline flipped around might read like "Most VC funded companies fail & founders get hosed on equity dilution, so getting funded is no longer a viable company formation strategy for startups." Of course something like that would be laughable, but it is no less absurd than saying SEO is no longer viable.
Sure coming from behind is hard, but the above misses that
many of the most profitable SEO plays are reinvesting into growth
most people who are successful with SEO do not like to attribute their success to it because doing so creates additional risks & more competition
Unique Market Approaches
Even treading water in a market where competitors are reinvesting profits & the market maker is tilting the table is quite respectable. If you want to come from behind and exactly clone someone else's business model, it won't likely be profitable. But that is why people attack markets from different perspectives. This is no different than why there are many different graphs. Chris isn't trying to beat Google in creating another link graph, but is looking at different signals.
Tectonic Shifts in Relevancy
Likewise marketing strategies can be vastly different between different companies and different projects within a company. Certain types of pages & certain types of websites rise and fall as the algorithms are adjusted to close down opportunistic loopholes. But as they make certain things harder they make other things easier. The whole content farm model was only enabled by an excessive weighting on domain authority & the introduction of rel=nofollow.
That opportunity may have fallen by the wayside. Many content mills just got hit pretty hard.
Was The Pain Really That Bad?
But for all the bluster about how it was one of the biggest changes in years, most of the content farms are only down maybe 20% to 50% in terms of traffic & revenues.
Sure that is a lot of revenue to disappear, but when you are operating at 80% net margins you can do that without it destroying your company. And this doesn't even take into account that many of these sites had a clean double over the past year. So if you grow 100% then lose 50% you are still even year on year, in spite of being penalized. Not bad in an environment where tons of businesses are going bankrupt offline.
And of course those sites getting whacked create opportunity for other folks, who build sites using different strategies.
A Cautionary Tale
About a half-decade ago a CEO of a start up contacted me & had us build a few links for them. Then they had to get their VCs approval for doing a full in-depth strategic review because it was going to cost well into 5 figures. Their VC investors didn't believe in SEO!
So that killed the project.
This company had a multi-lingual site where their leading market's content was only accessible through a drop down form where the URLs did not change. Fixing that issue to make the site crawlable would have produced more revenues in the first few months than the cost of our contract. But the VC didn't think SEO was valuable. They never got that tip. And for businesses which have network effects built in, losing $x today can easily be $10x or $20x a few years out.
Current Market Leaders Were Yesterday's Gray Area Marketers
Mr. Dixon also highlights how established TripAdvisor is, but when they were founded they were once the small dog just starting out. His article also fails to mention that TripAdvisor was Text-Link-Ads largest customer. In other words, they came from behind, took a calculated risk, and won. They backed off from the risks when the risks started to exceed the opportunity.
The entire 250+ page document is devoid of any discussion of incoming links which is the cornerstone of search engine optimization. By reading through the lines, it appears that they have two primary sources for link development for their owned and operated sites: (1) from their “undeveloped websites” and (2) from their content partner sites. Although these two initiatives alone are generally not financially profitable, they are successful approaches to maximizing the incoming link equity in their owned and operated properties.
The point is that start ups shouldn't avoid all risk, but they should pick and choose their spots. The above sites are billion Dollar enterprises because they worked in the gray area to catch up & build a lead, and then pulled away from risk after they had a strong market position.
As time passes the opportunities change, but they don't really disappear.
I’m going to tell you why an SEO Book subscription, for many small businesses, is a much better investment than just hiring a firm or a freelancer.
We, as business owners, all realize that we need an online presence and the backbone of that presence is a top-notch SEO campaign.
Whether it be straight out SEO services, or help with Google Places, or help with reputation management, most small business owners realize they need to be “there” but aren’t quite sure how to do that properly.
You’re a small business owner, so am I and so are many members of our community & industry. Our work lives as small business owners are typically filled with parts of various roles like:
customer service representative
The problem is that SEO can be an abstract thing or idea for small business owners outside of the web marketing industry to grasp, learn, and implement correctly.
This problem leads to small businesses getting taken to the cleaners by either woefully inadequate (and expensive!) SEO firms, competing business models (like YellowPages & YellowBook) selling their version of SEO services due to the significant decrease in revenue from the phonebook model, or just plain snake oil salespeople.
There are many qualified SEO providers out there, tons actually. There's a lot of noise as well and when you don't have a clear understanding of the business it can be hard to discern one from the other.
Finding a Worthy SEO Provider
So if a small business owner is able to carefully avoid those situations and find a reputable SEO firm, chances are that the price for those services will be out of reach or just not economical from an ROI standpoint for some small businesses (unless the firm is hurting for business or it's a new firm starting out).
There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just simple economics. If a service provider can sell their services for 6 or 5 figure contracts consistently, then it doesn’t behoove their business interest to sell services for 4 or 3 figure contracts.
A Better Option
Even if we stipulate that a business can afford to hire a firm to handle their SEO campaign, where it makes sense for both the provider and the buyer, we’d like to present another option.
That option would be an SEO Book subscription :) Compared to hiring an SEO company, your SEO Book subscription:
is less expensive, resulting an in much higher ROI for your business
is more direct and hands on, you get unbiased feedback from hundreds of SEO professionals
gives the owner the ability to learn the ins and outs so they can manage things themselves
trains the business owner about the industry and best practices so they can intelligently outsource services themselves if they so choose
SeoBook Subscription Options
There are 2 types of SeoBook subscriptions, with different levels of access. The first option is for access to our (over 100) training modules and our premium SEO tool set. The cost of that option is just $69 per month.
The second option is for access to those same training modules and tools, in addition to our community forums. Our community is the cornerstone of our subscription-based membership service.
Inside the forums you have instant access to the most up-to-date, cutting edge information where you will learn from some of the best minds in SEO.
For the purposes of this post I’m going to focus on the option which includes everything.
How Much Would You Invest in You?
When you started your small business you probably thought (correctly) that it was a good idea to at least have a solid understanding of the key concepts related to your business prior to hiring staff to handle day to day tasks.
You probably learned how to operate and troubleshoot equipment, customer service software, the phone system, the coffee pot :) and so on. You likely know who your target market is and you know what type of message you want to convey via print and web design as well as sales copy.
Those are all things that you had to learn in order to grow your business and for your business to function properly.
You Are Your Business
By investing the time in yourself, and by extension to your business, you were able to confidently hire and train staff as well as put together a traditional marketing campaign with the help of local print vendors and maybe your local web design person.
When it comes to something like SEO, where there is no formal education or “certification” (thank goodness), you might have a tough time hiring something to do something you know very little about.
If you don’t know what works and what doesn’t how will you know if the provider is selling you a bag of smoke versus providing an actual quality service? You won’t know, and with what a good SEO campaign from a reputable provider can cost that can cause significant damage to your business.
You Are No Stranger to Hard Work
Investing time, practicing patience, and being willing to learn will reward you and your business many, many, many times over when it comes to the SEO industry. The fact is many people fail because they are lazy and unwilling to learn in addition to having a poor attitude.
You have probably perservered through that and are running a solid business so why not get even more ahead of your competition, lazy or otherwise.
Breaking Down the Costs
Most SEO campaigns can expect to see results in or around 6 months, so we’ll look at the 12 month costs because you should consider SEO (just like traditional marketing) as an ongoing effort to produce results for your business.
From experience I can tell you that a full-on SEO campaign from an experienced SEO or SEO firm for small businesses will likely start at $5,000 per month here in the states. Probably higher for a firm and that amount can flucuate depending on your needs but anything less than thousands per month is unlikely.
When I say full-on I mean the whole deal:
analytics reviews and implementation for testing, tracking, tweaking
on-page SEO (title tags, page copy, and so on)
off-page SEO, like link building
adjusting tactics based on rankings growth or decline (and competitor watching)
If you are new to the SEO space you may not know what some of that means, but you know its important (or else you wouldn't be reading this). You know that your visibility on the web is probably a crucial component of your small business’s long-term success.
Would you really want to outsource that for what it might cost you for an employee or two, without knowing exactly what it is the provider is/should be doing?
Don’t Pay 17x More Than You Need To!
So even being conservative in my estimate, you are talking about around $60k per year and that probably doesn’t include additional money you may need for getting links to your site via branding and such.
Meanwhile, you could be investing just $3,600 per *year* in yourself and your business while learning from quite a few of the thought leaders in the SEO space. Perhaps not the biggest self-promoters in the space but certainly some of the best minds.
My dad always told me to be very wary of someone constantly telling you they are the best at XYZ, usually they aren’t. The ones who are the best are doing the job everyday and doing it well, not telling YOU how great THEY are.
It’s important to keep in mind that an SEO book subscription is going to give you the tools you need, the training you need, and more importantly the knowledge you need to be successful. Have a question?
Just ask it in the community forums and we’ll answer it. In fact, many people will answer it and you’ll get wide range of tips from folks with loads of experience and success.
Now, the membership doesn’t mean that we’ll execute the plan for you but you’ll have a step by step guide on what to do, how to do it, why you’re doing it, and the tools you need to do it.
Plus, you have 24/7 access to the community forum which has hundreds of members and is quite active at all hours as we have members from all over the world.
But I Can Do it For Le$$....
There’s probably someone out there that will say “hey I can do that and do it well for like $2k a month”...ok, but even at that price point it’s $24k versus $3,600 per year!!
If you know what to do with your campaign you can easily outsource the “grunt” work for much cheaper dollars + become educated in a field that is very important now, and will be for the foreseeable future. I not only write this as an employee of SEO Book, but also as a person who was a customer for about a year before joining the site. During that time I helped get our company website squared away and learned how to automate or outsource many aspects of our business: from content, to promotion, to additional link development. And if you need help with any of that stuff, there is a requests forum where you can work with some of our members.
Heck, let's even say someone would run a full-service SEO campaign for you at the absurdly low price point of $500/mo! (not likely, given that some quality links cost $299 per year each). Even before link development that's still approaching *double* the cost of an SEO Book subscription while giving you insight from only one person versus hundreds, no premium tools or training modules, and no access to the latest information in the field as well as you not learning SEO from independent, unbiased sources.
In our community you can not only find out what is working right now, but you can also findsomeone who can help you get the job done without paying for the markup associated with high pressure salesmen or large bureaucratic firms where 50 folks are taking home weekly paychecks for the work done by 5 people.
Discounts on SEO-Related Products
Your SEO Book subscription also comes with tons of discounts on everything from link management software, rank checking applications, SEO conferences, Pay Per Click communities like PpcBlog.Com, web directories which can help with getting exposure/links to your site, social media monitoring services, and many more solid services.
There’s literally *thousands* of dollars in discounts available to our members.
Time is Money, Money is Time
The benefit in outsourcing anything is the time saved and/or the low cost. However, there are typically significant costs (and sometimes irreparable harm) associated with outsourcing any important part of your business to unqualified providers.
Without having the knowledge of what it is you are actually hiring for, you cannot be certain what exactly you are paying for.
Save yourself a lot of money and headaches, learn from the best, and beat your competition in the search engines.
When and if the time comes to hire an SEO firm, you will be fully prepared to make the right decision for your small business. What else could you ask for?
Cash (lots of it). Work in PJ's from Home. Fame. Fake Twitter Friends. For many folks who decide to give SEO the good ol' college try those are likely some of the major reasons why they decide to dive into the industry.
Those same tenets are typically reinforced by slimy internet marketers most new entrants run across in their travels around the SEO world. They are strong selling points, no question about it, and they hit on the times we are currently living in.
Who wouldn't want to work from home, or work for themselves, or work whenever they want?
Unfortunately, by the time someone willing to do the work and learn about the business reaches a solid source of SEO information they might already have been taken for thousands of bucks by Joe Blow Internet Marketing Guru or Joe Schmo the Social Media Guru. In this economy most folks cannot afford to lose that amount upfront and either:
have enough resources to continue
have enough resources to continue + enough trust to continue
Or maybe someone really wants to get started in the industry but needs some tips on how to keep initial costs down while getting their feet wet and learning without losing their shirt.
For more on the exploits of some of the more well-known internet marketing folks, I'd suggest visiting the Salty Droid.
Run a Lean SEO Project
So to start an SEO project you need a couple of basic things (assuming you don't already have these and/or a business you are doing SEO for):
an idea of what your site is going to be about
product(s) to sell either yourself of via an affiliate program
You could also build a site about a topic or specific topics and utilize Google AdSense as a means of revenue.
You can even create your own product based on your knowledge and sell it via monthly e-newsletters, a video training series, consulting, and by sharing your knowledge via a community forum.
This model would likely be a bit more costly based on software needed, programming help you might need, etc. However, it is something you can eventually build towards as you earn revenue from other activities.
Places to Find Products
You can try applying to a variety of affiliate networks like:
Those are some of the bigger ones so you may not get accepted without a site or a referral. No worries though, you can try smaller networks like:
sidebar: Be aware many of the smaller affiliate networks are known for using their publisher data to compete directly against their publishers. Some also go so far as finding out where the publishers are buying ads to try to cut the affiliate out of the loop that way. Here is a short tip for how trustworthy an affiliate network is: if their leading offers are the types of offers that you will likely see covered by the FTC in 6 to 12 months (like the reverse billing fraud stuff for vaporware "products") then it might be worth skipping them, as any company which is built on pushing scams likely scams business partners as well.
Wordtracker is a well-known paid tool and it powers our free Keyword Tool. This can be helpful as an alternative to Google-provided data.
Many keyword tools sold by internet marketers are powered by Google, so all you are really paying for is a different UI and some (usually) useless metrics layered on by the marketer as a way to differentiate their tool from Google.
So now you've got an idea for a site, products to sell, and keywords to target. Your total cost = $0.00.
Domain Registration & Web Hosting
There are lots and lots of choices here. For the sake of simplicity let's look at some common options for both. For domain registration:
Sometimes you can find coupon codes for domain registrars simply by searching for them online. Inside our community forums members routinely share coupons they receive from domain registrars :)
Let's say you went with Moniker for your site, which at first glance offered the lowest initial price of a com as of this writing, and you opted for domain privacy for an additional cost.
Now you are up to roughly $14/year in costs.
Typically it is a good idea to keep registration and hosting separate for the sake of portability and reliability. For web hosting when first starting out you could certainly get by with hosting from reliable shared hosts like:
All these hosts are suitable for a new site that you are going to develop and grow judiciously. As traffic grows and grows you may want to upgrade to a dedicated server or a larger shared plan but for now a basic plan on these hosts is just fine.
Hostgator is a shared host you can scale up with, with respect to dedicated or virtual servers and such. So as of this writing you can snag one year's worth of hosting on their basic plan for approximately $66.72 ($5.56 per month if you prepay for a year).
So now you've got hosting, a domain, keywords to target, and products to sell for your site all for the annual cost of around $80.
Link Research Tools
There are link research tools that sell for upwards of $500 per month! Now, they might be just fine for enterprise level stuff but you can get a fair amount of data from some free tools and free accounts on paid services:
SoloSEO will give you a list of search operators you can use to find link opportunities in your niche (based on keyword entered) for free
OpenSiteExplorer.Org a intuitive link research tool with lots of features and data points. As of this writing a free trial is available and then it's $99/mo for access to SeoMoz's complete toolset.
Yahoo! Site Explorer a free tool which returns backlinks to a url, typically sorted by strongest top to bottom.
Blekko gives backlink data as well as anchor text information for free
Majestic SEO has perhaps the largest database of links and link data on the publicly available market. Plans vary from starter packages to enterprise solutions.
Naturally, our SEO Toolbar and Seo4Firefox both link through to free data sources within Open Site Explorer, Majestic SEO, and Yahoo!. :D
You can also access Majestic's paid data as part of a subscription to Raven SEO tools (which does a lot more than link research as you'll see).
Since you are starting/running one site you can take advantage of Raven's $19/mo pricing and access a ton of helpful tools and up to 10 Majestic reports (which is plenty on a monthly basis).
As you build links and acquire links, you'll want to track the status of those links and make sure the ones you've acquired are holding up their end of the bargain (not disappearing on you). You can track link building efforts manually with Word/Excel or through a CRM or through some other method. That gets old fast. Tracking links is something you don't want to do manually (making sure the links are still pointing to your site).
Raven's toolset has both of those bases covered. With their $19/mo plan you can monitor up to 500 links and manage up to 1,000 link records (managing new opportunities, pending links, etc). Raven's toolset is 100% in the cloud so all of the heavy lifting gets done on their servers.
Advanced Link Manager is a tool that is spoken highly of by many members of our community. You can get the basic account for just $99/year and get the ability to track a ton of links from within the program (software).
Alright so let's say you decided that while Advanced Link Manager is a great piece of software, you don't need the full power just yet and you decide to hit up Raven for link tracking, monitoring, and research at $19/mo.
So your annual recurring tab is $308 and you've got the following items covered:
keywords to target
links to target
stuff to sell
You can use Google Analytics which is free, save for the cost of your data :)
Some other analytics providers you can use for free or for a low cost are:
Piwik is free and you need to install it on your server, much like Mint. Mint is $30 per site, as a one time fee. Clicky has free plan but it has ads and lacks some of their better features.
Mint doesn't have some of goal tracking and custom functionality of Clicky and Clicky can be had for $29.99/yr if you prepay. You can scale up with Clicky and place more sites in your account as you start to develop more sites and such.
I like the additional features of Clicky and I'd rock either Clicky or Mint when first starting out. You can certainly choose Google Analytics, which is feature rich and free.
As a new site, with likely no branding while trying to monetize, I'd probably wait a bit until I started handing over data to Google. This post on why Google Analytics isn't really "free" is a must read.
As a side note, Raven integrates with Google Analytics in case you decide to go with GA. So now your running an annual bill of around $338 (if you choose Clicky or Mint).
Rank Checking Tools
We offer a free rank checker tool, which is also accessible via our SEO Toolbar, via our free firefox extensions. If you are looking for ways to make graphical charts via the data you get from our rank checker you can follow the tips listed here.
Advanced Web Ranking can be purchased as a standalone program or in conjunction with Advanced Link Manager as a bundle. Both programs are solid but they do have a slight learning curve, however the functionality of the software makes the learning part worth it. The basic packages do not include customized reports but you can easily export the data. The package deal is $149.
Even though AWR/ALM are fantastic options, since we are assuming you are already paying for Raven's suite of tools (and we are being cost-conscious) we can move ahead with rank checking from either Raven and/or our free Rank Checker.
Raven's rank checking runs once per week so it's handy to have another tool to spot check once and awhile (our Rank Checker can be run at anytime). So you are still at roughly $338. :D
Building the Site
Now that you've got most of the back-office stuff set up you can get your site on the web. Wordpress.Org is free, powerful, easy to use, and used by most web marketers that I know. Sometimes free themes can be dangerous so you have to be careful when installing those types of themes.
There are also premium Wordpress themes like Thesis and StudioPress where you can get a single license and theme for around $80. These themes have solid support and strong, built in design and SEO options (which reduces your reliance on plugins to some degree, at least the basic SEO-type ones).
If you are unfamiliar with Wordpress or HTML (if you decide to build your site outside of Wordpress) then you better become familiar with them. All the tools in the world, free or paid, won't help you if you aren't willing to learn how to use them or the underlying engine that drives them.
Lynda.Com has some solid training that covers just about everything and there are free online resources you can use like:
If you go with a free theme, or one that doesn't have SEO controls built in, then you'll want to consider the All In One SEO Pack for your SEO needs.
You can also find competent, affordable Wordpress developers or designers on sites like Elance or Odesk to help design or tweak the design of your theme.
Ok so you found a nicely designed, free theme over at Smashing Magazine and you've got the All in One SEO Pack ready to go. How about logos and content?
Logos and Content
If you want an icon for your business you can look around on a site like istockphoto.com for ideas and icon sets or you can get a ready made logo from the 99 Designs Logo Store for $99, which you can customize or have customized.
It's important to note that you don't have the rights to trademark either of these (or claim them as your own) and as time goes on and you start to brand your site, it would be wise to invest in a customized logo which you own the full rights to, can trademark as a symbol of your business, etc.
You can write the content yourself or use a service like TextBroker or the aforementioned Elance or Odesk.
For site graphics (buttons, icons, etc) you can use GraphicRiver (owned by the same folks at ThemeForest.Net) for nicely designed, affordable graphics.
You could easily budget a couple hundred bucks here for a logo, some graphical pieces, and some content (and even some stock photos from istockphoto.com) and probably have what you need to get started. Assuming that, your current cost for a 12 month period would be $538.
Promoting the Site
In just about any industry you enter, there are many ways for you to promote your site for free (minus the cost of your time of course). Twitter, Facebook, online forums, blogs, and so on are all ways to reach people in your market or niche. Using the SoloSEO link tool we mentioned before, you can find all sorts of blogs and communities related to your niche (by keyword).
You may want to hold off on monetizing the site if you are using AdSense and/or affiliate products until you've earned some semblance of trust within your market. Otherwise, you risk being shunned as someone who is just looking to make money and is not adding value or whatever.
Funny thing is, most people who'd shun you are online to make money too (weird how that works) but I digress. Point is to earn some trust (and links) before you start selling stuff or clicks.
For Twitter, you can use a site like Twellow to find people and businesses by categories and markets.
Time Cost vs $ Cost
Some of these "free" options are free in terms of $ but not in time. That's the trade off and there's no real way around it. You can likely outsource quite a bit of this stuff but then you risk losing the personal touch associated with your site or business that you are trying to brand.
Think of how often you are marketed to in a given day online.....whether its in your email, on Facebook and Twitter, those creepy ads that follow you around the web, etc. If you come out of the gate ready to add value and can hold off on monetizing for a bit (and integrate it smartly when you do) then your ahead of many other people that just want to come online and SELL SELL SELL!
Hopefully you can avoid a lot of unnecessary costs upfront which should help you with holding off on going commercial. We covered most aspects of getting started and ongoing tracking here, with a total 12/mo cost of less than $600!
Clearly if you are going into SEO on a shoestring budget, you don't want to compete for mega-competitive keywords but you can certainly take this approach with less competitive markets and scale up as needed.
Interesting post from Matt Cutts, talking about how Google is so much better now than it was in 2000.
But it’s a misconception that there was no spam on Google back then. Google in 2000 looked great in comparison with other engines at the time, but Google 2011 is much better than Google 2000. I know because back in October 2000 I sent 40,000+ queries to google.com and saved the results as a sort of search time capsule
40,000+ queries! I'm guessing he wasn't using the WebPositionGold Reporter! Little joke for the old-timers, there ;)
SEO's will notice Matt's yeark 2K SERP consists of some old skool domain spamming, with hyphen-loaded domains, which were de rigueur at the time.
How times change.
Whilst tempting to think the golden days of opportunity are behind us, the internet, and search, is still a baby.
Adwords, launched in 2000, and has created a multi-billion dollar industry. Adsense was launched in 2003. The affiliate market has grown in breadth and depth. Domain name acquisition, solely for the purposes of search positioning, is a more recent development. There has been a lot of opportunity for search marketers since 2000.
The Revolution Won't Be Televised
By the time most of us hear about the next big thing in internet marketing, the low hanging fruit will be gone.
The next money making opportunities in search, and internet marketing, will remain underground, because shouting new opportunities from the rooftops invites unwanted competition. A sure sign the horse has bolted is when someone launches an "all-new" get-rich-quick scheme on Clickbank. Consider that the mainstream media thinks SEO is new and exciting!
If we're going to continue to profit from internet marketing, then it helps to keep one eye on the future, rather than passively waiting for it to arrive.
How To See Around The Corner
Predicting the future is, of course, impossible.
However, by reading, watching and speculating we'll be less surprised when things do change. The only thing certain is change, and in internet marketing, the only thing certain is rapid change.
Here's a few ideas. If you've got some more, please share them in the comments.
Patent Filings - Bill looks at patents filed by Google and other search services. These often provide interesting insights into Google's future direction, although the filing of a patent is not an indicator that Google is making use of these ideas. Yet.
Product Announcements - watch out for new product announcements from companies related to your area of interest. Make use of Google News Alerts, and other automated news monitoring services.
Acquisitions & Mergers - Who is buying what and why? Figure out why Google wanted Groupon, and how Google's own search service could change as a result of launching a similar service.
There are a few red herrings, of course. Google acquired Blogger, and haven't done much with it. Recently, they've bought up companies who have developed speech synthesis, voice recognition, DRM, ebooks, and social gaming. At the time of writing, they're (still) interested in acquiring Twitter, as are Facebook.
History Repeats - history tends to work in cycles. The same things happen again, with a twist. Is Facebook that different from AOL, really? What previous tech trends may return, now that their time is right?
Not Typing Queries
Matt wrote what seemed like a throw-away line, or maybe he's just winding us up:
Wow, most queries were only a few words back then. And we had to type queries. How primitive!
There are pushes to minimize the need for passwords, but after the Gawker leak fiasco who wants to have a common shared single point of failure for passwords? Sure managing passwords sucks. But friction is a tool that helps cleanse demand & make it more pure. It is why paid communities have a higher signal to noise ratio than free for all sites. Any barriers will annoy people, but those same barriers will also prevent some people from wasting your time. If they are not willing to jump through any hoops they were never going to pull out the credit card.
We have some exciting news to share about eHow.com. Beginning in February 2011, Facebook Login will be the exclusive means for login to the site. You’ll be able to use your new or existing Facebook username and password to connect with the eHow community. We’ll also be removing eHow member profiles to help you streamline friend lists and eliminate the work of managing multiple online accounts. Additionally, we’ll be closing forums on the site. We want to hear from you directly, so moving forward, we encourage you to communicate us through the “Contact Us” section of eHow.com.
We’re excited to introduce these updates! Get started and click on the Facebook Connect button in the upper right corner of the home page to login. We want to keep in touch, so also remember to Fan Us.
My guess is they might be trying to diversify their traffic stream away from search & gain broader general awareness to further legitimize their site. But the big risk to them is that Facebook is an ad network. So now competing sites will be able to market at their base of freelance employees. What's worse, is that there was a rumor that Facebook might plan to launch a content mill strategy. There are plenty of ways for that third party login to backfire.
My believe is that you shouldn't force logins until you have something to offer, but that when you do you should manage the relationship directly. Does that mean you have to reply to every message? No. But it does mean that if there are ways to enhance value through how you interact with your established relationships you are not stuck under the TOS of a 3rd party website which may compete against you at some point. Sure that means some upgrades will be painful, but it means that you get to chose when you do upgrades rather than letting someone else chose when your website breaks for you.
I view third party comment systems the same way. If the person providing the service changes business model it does not mean you are stuck paying whatever rate they want or starting over. This is one of the big advantages of owning your own domain name and using open source content management systems. You don't have to worry about a Ning pivot or a Geocities shut down. Sure this approach means you have to deal with security, but then leaving that sort of stuff to Facebook might not be great anyhow.