Matt Cutts quickly chimed in on Hacker News "we're investigating this now."
A friend of mine and I were chatting yesterday about what would happen. My prediction was that absolutely nothing would happen to RapGenius, they would issue a faux apology, they would put no effort into cleaning up the existing links, and the apology alone would be sufficient evidence of good faith that the issue dies there.
Today RapGenius published a mea culpa where ultimately they defended their own spam by complaining about how spammy other lyrics websites are. The self-serving jackasses went so far as including this in their post: "With limited tools (Open Site Explorer), we found some suspicious backlinks to some of our competitors"
It's one thing to in private complain about dealing in a frustrating area, but it's another thing to publicly throw your direct competitors under the bus with a table of link types and paint them as being black hat spammers.
Google can't afford to penalize Rap Genius, because if they do Google Ventures will lose deal flow on the start ups Google co-invests in.
In the past some of Google's other investments were into companies that were pretty overtly spamming. RetailMeNot held multiple giveaways where if you embedded a spammy sidebar set of deeplinks to their various pages they gave you a free t-shirt:
Google's behavior on such arrangements has usually been to hit the smaller players while looking the other way on the bigger site on the other end of the transaction.
That free t-shirt for links post was from 2010 - the same year that Google invested in RetailMeNot. They did those promotions multiple times & long enough that they ran out of t-shirts!. Now that RTM is a publicly traded billion Dollar company which Google already endorsed by investing in, there's a zero percent chance of them getting penalized.
To recap, if you are VC-backed you can: spam away, wait until you are outed, when outed reply with a combined "we didn't know" and a "our competitors are spammers" deflective response.
For the sake of clarity, let's compare that string of events (spam, warning but no penalty, no effort needed to clean up, insincere mea culpa) to how a websites are treated when not VC backed. For smaller sites it is "shoot on sight" first and then ask questions later, perhaps coupled with a friendly recommendation to start over.
My personal & direct recommendation here would be to treat this site as a learning experience from a technical point of view, and then to find something that you're absolutely passionate & knowledgeable about and create a website for that instead.
Growth hack inbound content marketing, but just don't call it SEO.
What's worse, is with the new fearmongering disavow promotional stuff, not only are some folks being penalized for the efforts of others, but some are being penalized for links that were in place BEFORE Google even launched as a company.
Google wants me to disavow links that existed back when backrub was foreplay and not an algo. Hubris much?
Given that money allegedly shouldn't impact rankings, its sad to note that as everything that is effective gets labeled as spam, capital and connections are the key SEO innovations in the current Google ecosystem.
When SEO started, many people routinely used black-box testing to try any figure out what pages the search engines rewarded.
Black box testing is terminology used in IT. It’s a style of testing that doesn’t assume knowledge of the internal workings of a machine or computer program. Rather, you can only test how the system responds to inputs.
So, for many years, SEO was about trying things out and watching how the search engine responded. If rankings went up, SEOs assumed correlation meant causation, so they did a lot more of whatever it was they thought was responsible for the boost. If the trick was repeatable, they could draw some firmer conclusions about causation, at least until the search engine introduced some new algorithmic code and sent everyone back to their black-box testing again.
Well, it sent some people back to testing. Some SEO’s don’t do much, if any, testing of their own, and so rely on the strategies articulated by other people. As a result, the SEO echo chamber can be a pretty misleading place as “truthiness” - and a lot of false information - gets repeated far and wide, until it’s considered gospel. One example of truthiness is that paid placement will hurt you. Well, it may do, but not having it may hurt you more, because it all really…..depends.
Another problem is that SEO testing can seldom be conclusive, because you can’t be sure of the state of the thing you’re testing. The thing you're testing may not be constant. For example, you throw up some more links, and your rankings rise, but the rise could be due to other factors, such as a new engagement algorithm that Google implemented in the middle of your testing, you just didn’t know about it.
It used to be a lot easier to conduct this testing. Updates were periodic. Up until that point, you could reasonably assume the algorithms were static, so cause and effect were more obvious than they are today. Danny Sullivan gave a good overview of search history at Moz earlier in the year:
That history shows why SEO testing is getting harder. There are a lot more variables to isolate that there used to be. The search engines have also been clever. A good way to thwart SEO black box testing is to keep moving the target. Continuously roll out code changes and don’t tell people you’re doing it. Or send people on a wild goose chase by arm-waving about a subtle code change made over here, when the real change has been made over there.
That’s the state of play in 2013.
However….(Ranting Time :)
Some SEO punditry is bordering on the ridiculous!
I’m not going to link to one particular article I’ve seen recently, as, ironically, that would mean rewarding them for spreading FUD. Also, calling out people isn't really the point. Suffice to say, the advice was about specifics, such as how many links you can “safely” get from one type of site, that sort of thing....
The problem comes when we can easily find evidence to the contrary. In this case, a quick look through the SERPs and you'll find evidence of top ranking sites that have more than X links from Site Type Y, so this suggests….what? Perhaps these sites are being “unsafe”, whatever that means. A lot of SEO punditry is well meaning, and often a rewording of Google's official recommendations, but can lead people up the garden path if evidence in the wild suggests otherwise.
If one term defined SEO in 2013, it is surely “link paranoia”.
What's Happening In The Wild
When it comes to what actually works, there are few hard and fast rules regarding links. Look at the backlink profiles for top ranked sites across various categories and you’ll see one thing that is constant....
Nothing is constant.
Some sites have links coming from obviously automated campaigns, and it seemingly doesn’t affect their rankings. Other sites have credible link patterns, and rank nowhere. What counts? What doesn’t? What other factors are in play? We can only really get a better picture by asking questions.
So, why are Google making a point of taking out link networks if link networks don’t work? Well, it’s because link networks work. How do we know? Look at the back link profiles in any SERP area where there is a lot of money to be made, and the area isn’t overly corporate i.e. not dominated by major brands, and it won’t be long before you spot aggressive link networks, and few "legitimate" links, in the backlink profiles.
Sure, you wouldn't want aggressive link networks pointing at brand sites, as there are better approaches brand sites can take when it comes to digital marketing, but such evidence makes a mockery of the tips some people are freely handing out. Are such tips the result of conjecture, repeating Google's recommendations, or actual testing in the wild? Either the link networks work, or they don’t work but don’t affect rankings, or these sites shouldn't be ranking.
There’s a good reason some of those tips are free, I guess.
Really, it’s a question of risk.
Could these sites get hit eventually? Maybe. However, those using a “disposable domain” approach will do anything that works as far as linking goes, as their main risk is not being ranked. Being penalised is an occupational hazard, not game-over. These sites will continue so long as Google's algorithmic treatment rewards them with higher ranking.
If your domain is crucial to your brand, then you might choose to stay away from SEO entirely, depending on how you define “SEO”. A lot of digital marketing isn’t really SEO in the traditional sense i.e. optimizing hard against an algorithm in order to gain higher rankings, a lot of digital marketing is based on optimization for people, treating SEO as a side benefit. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, and it’s a great approach for many sites, and something we advocate. Most sites end up somewhere along that continuum, but no matter where you are on that scale, there’s always a marketing risk to be managed, with perhaps "non-performance" being a risk that is often glossed over.
So, if there's a take-away, it's this: check out what actually happens in the wild, and then evaluate your risk before emulating it. When pundits suggest a rule, check to see if you can spot times it appears to work, and perhaps more interestingly, when it doesn't. It's in those areas of personal inquiry and testing where gems of SEO insight are found.
SEO has always been a mix of art and science. You can test, but only so far. The art part is dealing with the unknown past the testing point. Performing that art well is to know how to pick truthiness from reality.
Sometimes the SEO industry feels like one huge Groundhog Day. No matter how many times you have discussions with people on the same old topics, these issues seem to pop back into blogs/social media streams with almost regular periodicity. And every time it does, just the authors are new, the arguments and the contra arguments are all the same.
Due to this sad situation, I have decided to make a short list of such issues/discussions and hopefully if one of you is feeling particularly inspired by it and it prevents you from starting/engaging in such a debate, then it was worth writing.
So here are SEO's most annoying discussion topics, in no particular order:
Blackhat vs. Whitehat
This topic has been chewed over and over again so many times, yet people still jump into it with both their feet, having righteous feeling that their, and no one else's argument is going to change someone's mind. This discussion is becomes particularly tiresome when people start claiming moral high ground because they are using one over the other. Let's face it once and for all times: there are no generally moral (white) and generally immoral (black) SEO tactics.
This is where people usually pull out the argument about harming clients' sites, argument which is usually moot. Firstly, there is a heated debate about what is even considered whitehat and what blackhat. Definition of these two concepts is highly fluid and changes over time. One of the main reasons for this fluidity is Google moving the goal posts all the time. What was once considered purely whitehat technique, highly recommended by all the SEOs (PR submissions, directories, guest posts, etc.) may as of tomorrow become “blackhat”, “immoral” and what not. Also some people consider “blackhat” anything that dares to not adhere to Google Webmaster Guidelines as if it was carved in on stone tablets by some angry deity.
Just to illustrate how absurd this concept is, imagine some other company, Ebay say, creates a list of rules, one of which is that anyone who wants to sell an item on their site, is prohibited from trying to sell it also on Gumtree or Craigslist. How many of you would practically reduce the number of people your product is effectively reaching because some other commercial entity is trying to prevent competition? If you are not making money off search, Google is and vice versa.
It is not about the morals, it is not about criminal negligence of your clients. It is about taking risks and as long as you are being truthful with your clients and yourself and aware of all the risks involved in undertaking this or some other activity, no one has the right to pontificate about “morality” of a competing marketing strategy. If it is not for you, don't do it, but you can't both decide that the risk is too high for you while pseudo-criminalizing those who are willing to take that risk.
The same goes for “blackhatters” pointing and laughing at “whitehatters”. Some people do not enjoy rebuilding their business every 2 million comment spam links. That is OK. Maybe they will not climb the ranks as fast as your sites do, but maybe when they get there, they will stay there longer? These are two different and completely legitimate strategies. Actually, every ecosystem has representatives of those two strategies, one is called “r strategy” which prefers quantity over quality, while the K strategy puts more investment in a smaller number of offsprings.
You don't see elephants calling mice immoral, do you?
Rank Checking is Useless/Wrong/Misleading
This one has been going around for years and keeps raising its ugly head every once in a while, particularly after Google forces another SaaS provider to give up part of its services because of either checking rankings themselves or buying ranking data from a third party provider. Then we get all the holier-than-thou folks, mounting their soap boxes and preaching fire and brimstone on SEOs who report rankings as the main or even only KPI. So firstly, again, just like with black vs. white hat, horses for courses. If you think your way of reporting to clients is the best, stick with it, preach it positively, as in “this is what I do and the clients like it” but stop telling other people what to do!
More importantly, vast majority of these arguments are based on a totally imaginary situation in which SEOs use rankings as their only or main KPI. In all of my 12 years in SEO, I have never seen any marketer worth their salt report “increase in rankings for 1000s of keywords”. As far back as 2002, I remember people were writing reports to clients which had a separate chapter for keywords which were defined as optimization targets, client's site reached top rankings but no significant increase in traffic/conversions was achieved. Those keywords were then dropped from the marketing plan altogether.
It really isn't a big leap to understand that ranking isn't important if it doesn't result in increased conversions in the end. I am not going to argue here why I do think reporting and monitoring rankings is important. The point is that if you need to make your argument against a straw man, you should probably rethink whether you have a good argument at all.
PageRank is Dead/it Doesn't Matter
Another strawman argument. Show me a linkbuilder who today thinks that getting links based solely on toolbar PageRank is going to get them to rank and I will show you a guy who has probably not engaged in active SEO since 2002. And not a small amount of irony can be found in the fact that the same people who decry use of Pagerank, a closest thing to an actual Google ranking factor they can see, are freely using proprietary metrics created by other marketing companies and treating them as a perfectly reliable proxy for esoteric concepts which even Google finds hard to define, such as relevance and authority. Furthermore, all other things equal, show me the SEO who will take a pass on a PR6 link for the sake of a PR3 one.
Blogging on “How Does XXX Google Update Change Your SEO” - 5 Seconds After it is Announced
Matt hasn't turned off his video camera to switch his t-shirt for the next Webmaster Central video and there are already dozens of blog posts discussing to the most intricate of details on how the new algorithm update/penalty/infrastructure change/random- monochromatic-animal will impact everyone's daily routine and how we should all run for the hills.
Best-case scenario, these prolific writers only know the name of the update and they are already suggesting strategies on how to avoid being slapped or, even better, get out of the doghouse. This was painfully obvious in the early days of Panda, when people were writing their “experiences” on how to recover from the algorithm update even before the second update was rolled out, making any testimony of recovery, in the worst case, a lie or (given a massive benefit of the doubt) a misinterpretation of ranking changes (rank checking anyone).
Put down your feather and your ink bottle skippy, wait for the dust to settle and unless you have a human source who was involved in development or implementation of the algorithm, just sit tight and observe for the first week or two. After that you can write those observations and it will be considered a legitimate, even interesting reporting on the new algorithm but anything earlier than that will paint you as a clueless, pageview chaser, looking to ride the wave of interest with blog post that are often closed with “we will probably not even know what the XXX update is all about until we give it some time to get implemented”. Captain Obvious to the rescue.
Adwords Can Help Your Organic Rankings
This one is like a mythological Hydra – you cut one head off, two new one spring out. This question was answered so many times by so many people, both from within search engines and from the SEO community, that if you are addressing this question today, I am suspecting that you are actually trying to refrain from talking about something else and are using this topic as a smoke screen. Yes, I am looking at you Google Webmaster Central videos. Is that *really* the most interesting question you found on your pile? What, no one asked about <not provided> or about social signals or about role authorship plays on non-personalized rankings or on whether it flows through links or million other questions that are much more relevant, interesting and, more importantly, still unanswered?
Infographics/Directories/Commenting/Forum Profile Links Don't Work
This is very similar to the blackhat/whitehat argument and it is usually supported by a statement that looks something like “what do you think that Google with hundreds of PhDs haven't already discounted that in their algorithm?”. This is a typical “argument from incredulity” by a person who glorifies post graduate degrees as a litmus of intelligence and ingenuity. My claim is that these people have neither looked at backlink profiles of many sites in many competitive niches nor do they know a lot of people doing or having a PhD. They highly underrate former and overrate the latter.
A link is a link is a link and the only difference is between link profiles and percentages that each type of link occupies in a specific link profile. Funnily enough, the same people who claim that X type of links don't work are the same people who will ask for link removal from totally legitimate, authoritative sources who gave them a totally organic, earned link. Go figure.
“But Matt/John/Moultano/anyone-with a brother in law who has once visited Mountain View” said…
People keep thinking that people at Google sit around all day long, thinking how they can help SEOs do their job. How can you build your business based on advice given out by an entity who is actively trying to keep visitors from coming to your site? Can you imagine that happening in any other business environment? Can you imagine Nike marketing department going for a one day training session in Adidas HQ, to help them sell their sneakers better?
Repeat after me THEY ARE NOT YOUR FRIENDS. Use your own head. Even better, use your own experience. Test. Believe your own eyes.
We Didn't Need Keyword Data Anyway
This is my absolute favourite. People who were as of yesterday basing their reporting, link building, landing page optimization, ranking reports, conversion rate optimization and about every other aspect of their online campaign on referring keywords, all of a sudden fell the need to tell the world how they never thought keywords were an important metric. That's right buster, we are so much better off flying blind, doing iteration upon iteration of a derivation of data based on past trends, future trends, landing pages, third party data, etc.
It is ok every once in a while to say “crap, Google has really shafted us with this one, this is seriously going to affect the way I track progress”. Nothing bad will happen if you do. You will not lose face over it. Yes there were other metrics that were ALSO useful for different aspects of SEO but it is not as if when driving a car and your brakes die on you, you say “pfffftt stopping is for losers anyway, who wants to stop the car when you can enjoy the ride, I never really used those brakes in the past anyway. What really matters in the car is that your headlights are working”.
Does this mean we can't do SEO anymore? Of course not. Adaptability is one of the top required traits of an SEO and we will adapt to this situation as we did to all the others in the past. But don't bullshit yourself and everyone else that 100% <not provided> didn't hurt you.
Responses to SEO is Dead Stories
It is crystal clear why the “SEO is dead” stories themselves deserve to die a slow and painful death. I am talking here about hordes of SEOs who rise to the occasion every freeking time some 5th rate journalist decides to poke the SEO industry through the cage bars and convince them, nay, prove to them how SEO is not only not dying but is alive and kicking and bigger than ever. And I am not innocent of this myself, I have also dignified this idiotic topic with a response (albeit a short one) but how many times can we rise to the same occasion and repeat the same points? What original angle can you give to this story after 16 years of responding to the same old claims? And if you can't give an original angle, how in the world are you increasing our collective knowledge by re-warming and serving the same old dish that wasn't very good first time it was served? Don't you have rankings to check instead?
There is No #10.
But that's what everyone does, writes a “Top 10 ways…” article, where they will force the examples until they get to a linkbaity number. No one wants to read a “Top 13…” or a “Top 23…” article. This needs to die too. Write what you have to say. Not what you think will get most traction. Marketing is makeup, but the face needs to be pretty before you apply it. Unless you like putting lipstick on pigs.
Branko Rihtman has been optimizing sites for search engines since 2001 for clients and own web properties in a variety of competitive niches. Over that time, Branko realized the importance of properly done research and experimentation and started publishing findings and experiments at SEO Scientist, with some additional updates at @neyne. He currently consults a number of international clients, helping them improve their organic traffic and conversions while questioning old approaches to SEO and trying some new ones.
Since the disavow tool has come out SEOs are sending thousands of "remove my link" requests daily. Some of them come off as polite, some lie & claim that the person linking is at huge risk of their own rankings tank, some lie with faux legal risks, some come with "extortionisty" threats that if they don't do it the sender will report the site to Google or try to get the web host to take down the site, and some come with payment/bribery offers.
If you want results from Google's jackassery game you either pay heavily with your time, pay with cash, or risk your reputation by threatening or lying broadly to others.
At the same time, Google has suggested that anyone who would want payment to remove links is operating below board. But if you receive these inbound emails (often from anonymous Gmail accounts) you not only have to account for the time it would take to find the links & edit your HTML, but you also have to determine if the person sending the link removal request represents the actual site, or if it is someone trying to screw over one of their competitors. Then, if you confirm that the request is legitimate, you either need to further expand your page's content to make up for the loss of that resource or find a suitable replacement for the link that was removed. All this takes time. And if that time is from an employee that means money.
There have been hints that if a website is disavowed some number of times that data can be used to further go out & manually penalize more websites, or create link classifications for spam.
The last rub is this: if you do value your own life at nothing in a misguided effort to help third parties (who may have spammed up your site for links & then often follow it up with lying to you to achieve their own selfish goals), how does that reflect on your priorities and the (lack of) quality in your website?
As a thought experiment, look through your backlinks for a few spam links that you know are hosted by Google (eg: Google Groups, YouTube, Blogspot, etc.) and try to get Google's webmaster to help remove those links for you & let us know how well that works out for you.
Some of the larger monopoly & oligopolies don't offer particularly useful customer service to their paying customers. For example, track how long it takes you to get a person on the other end of the phone with a telecom giant, a cable company, or a mega bank. Better yet, look at how long it took AdWords to openly offer phone support & the non-support they offer AdSense publishers (remember the bit about Larry Page believing that "the whole idea of customer support was ridiculous?")
When Google aggregates Webmaster Tools link data from penalized websites they can easily make 2 lists:
sites frequently disavowed
sites with links frequently removed
If both lists are equally bad, then you are best off ignoring the removal requests & spending your time & resources improving your site.
If I had to guess, I would imagine that being on the list of "these are the spam links I was able to remove" is worse than being on the list of "these are the links I am unsure about & want to disavow just in case."
If there's one thing both business owners and SEO consultants can benefit enormously from, it's a strategy planning template. Everyone knows that a strategy-based approach to marketing will trounce a competing approach that is purely tactical. The difficulty lies in coming up with a winning strategy, especially when your organization hasn't formally devised one before.
Enter the SEO Strategy Template
It's a simple set of 'rules' (more like guidelines) that you can follow like a roadmap, adapt and tweak, modify and customize, until you have a unique strategy planning document for marketing your business.
This is such an easily repeatable and reproducible process that it is surprising that everyone within the SEO industry is not already exploring, using or implementing such an approach to evolving an SEO strategy.
So if you're interested in formulating your company's strategy using an easy-to-follow and powerful process, then read about this method to create a planning template based on the SOSTAC model.
Introducing The SOSTAC Planning Model
In the 1990s, PR Smith introduced the SOSTAC strategy framework to help plan a marketing system that is comprehensive, yet flexible enough to be adapted to fit the varying needs of a wide range of clients.
SOSTAC stands for:
Situation - where you are now
Objectives - where you are heading
Strategy - how to get there
Tactics - how to execute the plan
Actions - who is in charge, and when should it get done
Control - measure and monitor to see if you get there
This systematic approach to outlining a superior marketing strategy is both simple and elegant, while being powerful and effective. You can use it as the framework of a planning template for your SEO strategy.
Let's explore it in more detail.
1. Situation Analysis - Where Are You Now?
Before you begin any marketing effort, you must know where you stand at the moment. From an SEO standpoint, you'll look at
your site performance
the search engine traffic you're getting
your best keywords with highest conversion rates, and
comparison against your competition
Taking stock will make your future endeavors more productive. Asking the right questions, and coming up with the answers, is a good starting point.
a. Is business good? Management guru Peter Drucker would begin consultations with the question, "How's business?" Study your Web traffic, sales volume and profit, your assets and liabilities, your cash flow and expenses. Is business booming? If not, why not?
b. What are your strengths? What sets you apart from everyone else in your industry or market niche? Why do your customers seek you out? How are you insulated against competition?
c. Do you have a marketing strategy? Look at your current marketing campaigns and SEO efforts. Do they work well? Which activities are the most effective? What impact does each one have on your business?
d. Are your goals clear? Is your target audience clearly defined? Do you know your best keywords? Your most profitable clients (and top keywords) make up only a tiny fraction of the total. Are you aware of them? Are you focusing on serving them well?
e. What are you weak at? Are you employing the most cost-effective and high impact marketing channels and SEO efforts? How can they be made more efficient?
f. Is your business protected against adversity? Will technological innovations or disruption in the status quo harm or destroy your business? Or are you positioned to take advantage of seismic shifts in your industry? Are your competitors more powerful, versatile, creative than you are?
2. Setting Objectives - Where Are You Headed?
Once you know where you stand, you must define your goals and objectives for the future.
a. What are your biggest goals? Why does your business or website exist? Is your mission statement clearly defined, and can you state it in a concise "positioning declaration"? It will explain why you are in business, and whom you aim to serve.
b. What does your business set out to achieve? Is bottom-line profit your primary motive? Or do you want to achieve something else? How do you plan to serve your market?
c. What marketing methods will you focus on? Which elements of your SEO plan will bring you more clients, improve conversion to sales, and result in repeat business and/or referrals?
d. What does your marketing say? Are you trying to generate more leads, pre-qualify serious prospects, close more direct sales, encourage referrals or seek out business partners? Your message must be tailored specifically for each objective if you are to succeed massively.
When you have a set of well-defined objectives, run them through the SMART test to see if they are really your highest and best targets.
S - Specific. Are your goals clear and specific? M - Measured. Can your goals be measured? A - Actions. What actions will make them happen? R - Realistic. Are they achievable goals? T - Time. Will they meet your deadlines?
Knowing where you stand, and armed with your major objectives, it's time to proceed to the next stage - and iron out your strategy.
3. Formulating Strategy - How To Get There?
Strategy is the high level blueprint for your SEO efforts. It may involve a focus on local SEO, or brand building, or something else. This is the 'big picture' phase, and you don't have to get into too many details. But you do need to capture the soul of your SEO strategy in a clear and solid way.
The first step is to narrow down your focus to appeal to a specific section of your audience that you can serve better than anyone else. Depending upon the size and scope of your business, this segment may be large or small. But by defining your target market clearly, you'll avoid the major pitfall that defeats all non-strategic marketers - the mistaken belief that your ideal prospect is... everyone!
Once you know, in general terms, who your prospects are, you can proceed to learn more about them. Getting into the mind of your buyers, and correctly figuring out what they want, and when, can be your biggest competitive edge and the driver of mind-blowing profits. Targeting your marketing to appeal to this audience can skyrocket conversions effortlessly.
Based on this knowledge, you can refine your positioning and control how you will be perceived by your market.
4. Tactics - How To Execute Your Plan?
A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. And your strategy is only as powerful as the actions that you will take to execute it.
This phase is about outlining the steps to take, and their desired end-result. It's hard to predict SEO outcomes accurately, but you'll be able to make reasonable estimations, which will then serve as a roadmap for your SEO campaign.
a. Which tools will you use? Every kind of marketing (including SEO) has an array of tools to deploy at will. It's tempting to try them all. But it's better to use just a few, using them effectively and well.
b. Plan your assault. The same tools can be put to use with widely varying results. Picking the right one for the right reasons can have a synergistic effect on your results.
c. Telegraph your message. Target it at your ideal prospect. Refine it to cut through the clutter and speak directly to your audience's biggest wants or needs. Remember, confused prospects don't buy!
d. Be consistent. Branding and direct selling both work better with repetition.
e. Get a budget. Marketing strategically can be expensive, at first. Assign the resources and funds necessary to your marketing plan before you begin implementing it. Otherwise you'll run out of steam, losing momentum and money.
5. Actions - Who Is In Charge?
With your strategy and tactics planned out, your template then points you towards the next step... assigning roles and setting deadlines.
Without clearly defined responsibilities, and a time frame within which to complete tasks, your marketing will stagnate and lose speed. This phase is about the nitty-gritty daily actions - what to do, who will do it, and when it should get done. Whether you chart it out on a week-by-week basis, or choose a different time frame, what matters is having an outline that everyone can access and follow.
a. Pick a leader. Put individuals in charge of specific components of your SEO activities.
b. Set a time frame. Draw up a marketing calendar and set deadlines for completion of each action step.
c. Can they do it? Assigning tasks to someone based on a job description rather than their ability, skill or capacity to get it done can be a critical mistake.
d. Measure progress. Decide upon the metrics to monitor. Will they show if a job is getting done? Can they be easily measured? How often will you keep track?
e. Document results. Sharing visual feedback and results of your campaign's progress can help get a team energized, and working better together. In today's complex SEO universe, having a synergistic team effort can compound your chances of success.
6. Control - Monitor & Measure
The Web analytics portion of any SEO project is where you'll look at progress, and review it in the context of the initial situation analysis. The feedback serves to redefine and tweak your strategy, closing the loop, and making the system more powerful as it grows and evolves over time.
a. Keep measurements relevant. Higher search rankings matter. But it's more important to measure bottom-line impact on business profitability.
b. Who will measure metrics? Scripts and software record data, but someone must compile and present it to team members. If trends can be spotted early, you can modify actions to get higher results.
c. How often to measure data? Collecting and analyzing information shouldn't
become an end in itself. Choose an optimal schedule, and stick to it.
d. What tools and resources do you need? How complex and costly your monitoring systems must be depend on the scope and scale of your business and the diversity of your SEO efforts.
e. How will the data be interpreted? What will be the impact of this analysis on your SEO strategy? Your planning template must explain this clearly upfront.
f. What's your back up plan? If things don't go right, how will you bail out? Who decides when to switch plans? When will it happen? While you can't factor in all eventualities, having a set of options is helpful. Remember, when everything else is equal, the one with the most options wins!
So, there you are! A planning template for your SEO strategy that can be reliably constructed through following a step by step plan modeled on the powerful SOSTAC framework.
Keep in mind that increased revenues and profit, achieving major business goals, getting to them faster, and lowering costs are the biggest advantages of having a planning template. It beats blindly using SEO tools or following standardized SEO checklists, and hoping for stellar results.
A strategic effort is slightly more effort-intensive. It will initially cost more to implement. It may even take longer to fructify. But when it does, the results will blow your competition out of the water - and skyrocket your results!
That's what makes an SEO strategy desirable, and a planning template worth developing.
All roads lead to Rome. There are many ways to arrive at a winning SEO strategy based on a planning template. In more than a decade spent working in the SEO and digital marketing industry, this approach detailed above has been what worked effectively for me. That's the reason I want to share this to help and motivate other business owners and SEO consultants who understand the importance of having an SEO strategy, but are not sure how to go about crafting one.
If you know of a better (or different) way to apply the SOSTAC model to evolve an SEO strategy and create a planning template, do let us know. I'll do my best to answer questions and help in any way I can. Please share your comments, questions or suggestions in a comment below, or write to me using the contact form. I'd love to get a vibrant discussion going on this all-important topic of SEO strategy.
We all read the advice online: don’t build crappy links. Don’t use short term benefit tactics in SEO. But do we always heed that advice? Can we always afford to?
The latest reality check came in the shape of a small online business in the UK, Children’s Furniture Store (CFS). Jane Copland tweeted about an online letter in which they announce that, due to Penguin update, they are forced to close their business down.
This really got me. Firstly, I hate to see a small business go under. These people put their hearts and souls into the business and it breaks my heart to see them being closed especially due to changes in Google algo. Furthermore, it seems from their closing letter that they were a victim of bad SEO advice and that reflects poorly on all of us. We have enough attention seekers out there calling us out for asshattery as it is so I would rather be pictured as someone who helps small businesses rather than the one that puts them under.
A lot of people started reaching out to Children Furniture Store’s twitter account, offering help and advice. Unfortunately, it was too late for them; they have already started folding up their business and have ceased trading.
I am sure this is not the only case that has or will have happened. As a matter of fact as a result of my activity on twitter around this, I was contacted by another small business asking for help on similar issues. Other people I know encounter these situations on weekly basis.
So why is this happening? Who is to blame for this? A business is closing down, people are losing their jobs, we can’t just dismiss it as “that’s life” and “business is hard”. We cannot learn anything from this case and other similar cases if we do not take a hard look at all the possible culprits responsible for these situations and try to understand what could have been done to prevent this from happening:
This is the list of guilty parties, according to my opinion, ranked by a decreasing amount of responsibility:
The business owner
The business owner is the most responsible party here. They probably didn’t mind when the money was rolling in and never thought about the “what if” scenario. These are the things that they did wrong:
Never ever put all the eggs in one basket – I think this is the most common and widespread piece of advice given to website and general business owners, yet people manage to ignore it again and again. Had CFS had various sources of traffic (which they could have developed with the profits from the organic traffic) or even had they started developing offline business, Google Penalty would have hurt much less. This is true even if you are not using blatantly spammy SEO techniques, you never know where Google’s business goals may be tomorrow and when the line between what is kosher and what isn’t is constantly moving, you never know when you will find yourself on the other side of the line. Having additional sources of traffic/business immunizes (relatively) you against this scenario. Sometimes you have to bite the bullet and PAY for the traffic – for example Paid Search. Building a social presence would help too. Luckily they HAD kept their mailing list and were able to sell any leftover inventory using it – but mail is a good channel to optimize sales too.
Get educated – there is a lot of SEO information out there. No one can follow all of it. But it is your prerogative as an online business to keep abreast of the most important best practices and pitfalls within the marketing channel that is providing you with the majority of your income. Had this business done their due diligence, they would know not to rely on only one stream of traffic, they would know that the practices used by their SEO provider are shady at best, they would know that they are paying too little for the SEO services for them to safely provide them with edge over their competition in their niche. They would also know what to do when shit hits the fan and not wait for a full year for the second hit which will ultimately decimate their business.
In this case, the business owner did say that they spent a lot of time trying to read on the internet about similar issues – apparently they didn’t find any “real” advice. Should Business Owners learn to navigate online information a bit better? Or should we, as an industry, make sure that the information found on these issues is top notch? But more about that further down. In this particular case, the owner of the business did several things – tried reading about the possible problem, turned to an independent SEO (who told her to let the site die and start anew) and fired the agency that was probably the cause of all this. Still there was much more to be done and I hope other businesses will act differently in similar situations.
Reach out – as their “we are closing the business” letter started circulating, more and more people started saying that they are willing to help. In a matter of minutes, both in public and private channels, a picture of what needs to be done to help this website started emerging. Getting this kind of analysis from industry experts can cost a lot of money, but if a business owner harnesses the benefits of the SEO community, either through Twitter, SEOBook Forum, Google Webmaster Central forums, SEOMoz Q&A forum, G+, Facebook groups, etc., they can get a pretty clear picture about what hit them and what needs to be done. They would be more aware of the risk levels involved with the SEO strategies they were using and would be able to move away from them much earlier, making the cleanup a more viable option. With all the misgivings of this industry, it has some of the most generous and helping people in it and this can be a tremendous asset for small businesses that are struggling to come with terms with the challenges involved in promoting your website in organic results.
Spammy strategies – one look at the CFS’ backlink profile shows patterns of a backlink network.
Further conversations with people that are connected to the company showed that this is indeed the case. Bunch of footer links, clearly paid-for blog posts, sidebar sitewide links from non-related sites in non-English languages… You took a small business that doesn’t know what they are doing, promised them wonders at three-digit monthly recurring price and it worked for a while. Did you warn them about the risks? Did you tell them that if Google decides to target these link-building practices, their whole business can go down the drain? Or did you encourage them to enjoy the party while it lasts? Did you instruct them to take the profits of these short-sighted tactics and invest them in diversifying their traffic sources? No you didn’t. You are no better than a drug dealer, reaping profits from the lack of knowledge of unsuspecting client, allowing them to risk their whole business and you should be ashamed of yourself for that. You sir, are an ass hat.
No responsibility – as the graph attached above shows, the CFS site was hit at two occasions, one in May 2011 and the other in May 2012. According to them, they have stopped working with you by the time WMT warning notices have arrived. Do you think that releases you from the responsibility for your work? What did you do in between those two dates? Did you take responsibility for CFS situation? Did you instruct them on how to fix their situation? How did you allow a business that found itself in a shitty situation, partially due to your actions, to get to the point where they have to close their doors? Do you honestly not care that people are going to be jobless because of the bad advice you have provided?
By allowing crappy linking strategies to work for so long, they have created a situation where the only viable option to stay competitive in certain niches was to join the bandwagon and use spammy links. You can stand on your soapbox only for only that long and preach “whitehat” techniques while your competitors are laughing all the way to the bank and cashing in. So yes, at some point they will probably be penalized, but until then they will have developed enough capital to be able to safely switch to some other domain/SEO strategy and have developed their brand to the point where they are practically immune from algorithmic changes. You have created a situation in which following your Best Practices was a financially unviable option for a lot of small businesses and for this you carry a part of the blame
Furthermore, you should realize that the information you give out about these penalties is not read only by sinister SEOs spending their days and nights trying to reverse engineer your precious algorithm. Why is it so hard to tell the business owner what is it they are getting penalized for? Tell them “your site has a large amount of paid links/unnatural anchors. You can find these links marked with a huge red exclamation mark in your WMT link report. Get rid of them”. Doesn’t Google have a responsibility of providing decent, informed content around these sort of penalties so that a business owner can refer back to the source? When they penalize a business – shouldn’t it be their responsibility to say EXACTLY why? Is a bland, notification in GWMT sufficient?
When you Google “Penguin” or “Panda” etc – shouldn’t Google’s own written guidelines on recovery be ranked at top positions, so no one else gets scammed? Yes, it is not all Google’s fault that these businesses were told that it is OK to do whatever it takes to rank. Yes, Google does not owe anyone anything but it would be a sign of goodwill towards those that provide the content of the web for Google to crawl and serve ads on.
The SEO Community
How is the SEO community responsible? By greatly diluting the information space in our industry. The number of inane posts, all written in the same “10 ways unrelated-X affects your SEO-Related-Y” format, all based on conjectures and rehashed hearsay, make it almost impossible for a non-industry person to get to the meaningful information. I have seen articles with link building strategies that were covered in 2006 being peddled as “current” and “cutting edge” in 2012.
Without knowing the authors, companies they work for, their level of experience and history of their posting, there is no way that a person who doesn’t spend significant amounts of time wading through the noise created in the SEO space can know what is reliable and what not. Furthermore, the lack of propensity to call out crap information when we see one, complete avoidance of confrontation within the industry, limiting critical discussion on quality of content behind gated walls of private Skype chats and limited Facebook groups, makes the pruning of this jungle of nonsense an impossible task and for that all of us bear some part of responsibility.
I am really sad for CFS. It depresses me that a business can go under so easily from causes that could have been prevented. There are real people behind these websites, making their living, in spite of Google doing a lot to make their success harder (by promoting big brands and at a switch of an algorithm button making previously acceptable and successful practices - damaging). I hope that this post will help other businesses make sure that they are doing everything possible not to find themselves in a similar situation.
Many thanks to Rishi for helping with editing and some background info.
Branko Rihtman has been optimizing sites for search engines since 2001 for clients and own web properties in a variety of competitive niches. Over that time, Branko realized the importance of properly done research and experimentation and started publishing findings and experiments at SEO Scientist. Branko is currently responsible for SEO R&D at RankAbove, provider of a leading SEO SaaS platform – Drive.
Google Analytics - one of the most powerful tools for any SEO, assuming you know how to get the data you need from it. One of my favorite things about Google Analytics is how many tools that put at your disposal for quickly analyzing the data you care most about. But again, that all assumes you know how to get it.
A custom report in Google Analytics is similar to their custom dashboard features in a lot of ways. Remember, the dashboards are meant as snapshots of what's going on with your campaign, these custom reports are what you should be using to fully analyze the results.
To start, you should consider setting up Custom Report categories to organize your reports by subject. You will find this to be the most aggravating/irritating/infuriating part of the process as you attempt to drag your first custom report into your new category folder. The secret is to drag your report slightly to the right while hovering over the category you want to place it in. Then let go and hope for the best. Once you have one report in there it gets much easier.
Creating a Custom Report
There are two key components to a custom report:
Metric: a numeric measurement (like number of visits).
Dimension: a description of visits, visitors, pages, products and events.
There are also two types of Custom Reports you can create:
Explorer: Allows you to drill down into sub-dimensions and includes a timeline where you can compare metrics in the same graph.
Table: Allows you to compare dimensions side by side, with metrics also populated within the table. There is no timeline in this report.
Creating the custom report is easy. You choose from a drop-down menu of metrics and dimensions that you're interested in segmenting your report by.
You can also create tabs in your report to keep it organized. Any filters you setup on one tab will automatically apply to any other tab that you setup (there isn't a way to turn them off for the other tabs).
Another great feature of custom reports is your ability to use them cross-profile and to share them. To share a report, all you need to do is click the Actions drop-down menu from the Custom Reports overview page, and click share. You will then be able to share the configuration (not the data) of the custom report you just created.
SEO Custom Report Examples
If you'd like to save time in your SEO analysis, consider creating custom reports similar to the ones outlined below. I've included the share link for each custom report so you don't have to rebuild it yourself. I tried to mix up when I'd tailor the report to look at e-commerce data, and when it would only look at goal data. You'll need to customize those aspects of the report to best meet your needs.
Also, don't forget to modify the keyword filters I've added. You want to make sure to replace our branded keyword (book) with your own.
Audience Custom Report
Understanding your audience's demographics is an often overlooked SEO practice, but it can go a long way in making certain aspects of SEO (like link building) that much easier.
There are two components to this custom report:
City and Language Overview - this part of the report looks at what cities and languages you receive the most visits from and make the most money off of. You may be surprised to see languages your site isn't even translated in yet that are very profitable.
Keyword Targeting - this part of the report lets you drill down all the way to the keywords that are used by each country and language visitor demographic, and calls out how profitable they are for you. This is a great way to refine your keyword targeting.
How this can help you from a link building front is seeing what foreign languages your blog/linkbait content is most popular in, and then translating it. You could then distribute the translated content for links to popular industry blogs in that language.
The purpose of the Content Custom Report is to identify which content is performing the best with organic traffic. I've set this report up as a Explorer Custom Report so you can drill down and see which keywords are sending traffic to a specific Landing Page. This is a great way to make sure you're targeting the right keywords on the right pages in your SEO campaign.
There are a number of engagement metrics I have this report looking at. One in particular I think is important to have with this report is the Social Actions metric. This is a great way to see if the number of social actions correlates with increases in traffic and conversions.
You might consider adding an additional filter (or creating a new custom report) that only looks at your blog content. I'd keep similar metrics in the report so you can quickly identify which blog posts perform the best so you can try and duplicate the results in future content. You may also want to add any event goals you've created to the report, especially if you've set up a event to track comments on your posts.
I think this is one of the most valuable custom reports you can run, and it's one of the bigger custom reports that I like to create in my accounts. There are three components to the report: targeting, engagement and revenue.
This part of the report is pretty straight forward. It's a Flat Table report that places the Page Title and the Keyword that is sending it traffic side-by-side. From there I've added a handful of metrics to determine if I am targeting the right keyword on the right page. Perhaps I'm getting a lot of traffic for this particular keyword, but the majority of people are going elsewhere and/or not converting. This may lead me to do some testing around changing which page I'm optimizing for this particular keyword.
Similar to the Content Custom Report, this component focuses on how engaging visitors are when they visit the site via a specific keyword. I love traffic just as much as the next guy, but if that traffic isn't doing anything on my site - what good is it? This report will help you identify problems and opportunities for keywords that have low/high engagement rates.
Just how much money is a keyword making you? This component of the report looks at the number of transactions, the revenue generated and the per visit value of organic traffic for each keyword.
Which of the inbound links that you've built are sending you the most quality traffic? Don't forget, there's much more to links than rankings, they are also opportunities for sending high quality traffic to your site that may even convert.
This custom report looks at which of your referrals are sending you the most engaging traffic. Knowing which links are sending you the most quality traffic will help you determine if you should be going back for more or if you can find other sites just like it to get links set up on.
I'm a big fan of using paid search as a way to test which landing pages you want to target your keywords on for relevance. The goal of the test is to determine if you were to target a specific keyword on that page, would the visitor find what they are looking for and convert? This is a great way to minimize the risk of focusing on the wrong keyword on the wrong page and investing months of SEO work to get it traffic.
You can use this custom report to look at just that: which keyword/landing page combinations are the most effective from a revenue perspective. Even if you don't run a test like the one I just described, you can still get a pretty good grasp on this just by pulling the report and looking for these opportunities.
Continuing with our holistic custom reports, the goal of the PPC keywords custom report is simple: identify high performing keywords from your paid search campaigns that you could consider targeting in your SEO campaign.
The report calls out a couple qualifier metrics, including how much money bidding on the keyword is costing you, and what your cost per conversion is. This is a great way to decide if you can't afford to target the keyword via PPC, can you make up the loss of traffic via SEO?
We've seen the influence social media has on SEO, and now it's time to make sure we're well-informed of any social media data that can be leveraged to improve our campaigns.
This report uses a filter created by Site Visibility to look at all referring traffic from a variety of top social sources. With this filter applied you can look at which social traffic is most engaged with your content.
If you're tracking social actions you can quickly see which content you've created is being shared the most, so you can figure out what they like about the content and duplicate the results.
I also like to see which social media is converting the best so I can determine if we should be increasing our participation efforts on that social network, or even start experimenting with advertising on that social network.
Conversions. The one metric we all know we should be focusing on, and yet it's the one thing that gets overlooked the most. So many of us focus on just one main conversion point, and forget how many other types of visitor engagement exist on our sites. These other engagement points, or less-important conversions are what experts call "micro conversions."
3. It will force you to understand the multiple persona's on your website, trust me that in of itself is worth a million bucks. It will encourage you to segment (my favorite activity) visitors and visits and behavior and outcomes. Success will be yours.
When you understand your various visitor personas, you can create better targeted content, value-adds and better messaging overall. This will only strengthen your SEO campaign and will help guide you to improving your conversion rate and the ROI of your SEO efforts.
Event Tracking in Google Analytics
One of my favorite ways to track micro conversions is with event tracking in Google Analytics. Before I walk you through how to setup events, let's first make sure we understand the difference between events and your traditional goals in Google Analytics.
In the past, a goal in Google Analytics was when any action a visitor would take on your site that took them to a confirmation page. When the visitor reached that confirmation page, Google Analytics would count it as a goal completion.
An event, on the other hand, is when a visitor takes action on your site and there is no confirmation page. A good example of this would be when someone clicks a "Follow Me on Twitter" link on your site. It takes the visitor off of your website and makes you unable to add conversion tracking code to their destination page (because it lives on Twitter.com).
In addition to bringing us cool features like custom dashboards, the new Google Analytics also made it much easier to track events as goals. Which is what we'll be focusing on today.
Setting Up an Event
Events are much easier to setup then you might imagine. All you need to do is add a little piece of customized code to the URL a visitor will be clicking on to trigger the event, and you're halfway there. Let's start with understanding what our event tracking options are.
There are five fields in total that you can use to categorize your event, two of which are optional:
Category: The general name of the type of event you wish to track. If you'll be setting up events of a similar topic (like form submissions), you'll want to keep this consistent across all of the events you setup.
Action: A description of the action the visitor is taking to trigger the event. So if your category is set to "Forms", your action might be set to "Sales Inquiry".
Label: This is an optional field used to further describe the type of event. If you're tracking multiple forms of the same type (like contact forms), you may consider using this field to avoid any confusion with the other events.
Value: Suppose each micro conversion does have a monetary value of sorts for you, this is the field you'd use to track that numeric number.
Non-Interaction: A true/false field that you can use to prevent a visitor who completes the event and leaves your domain from being recorded as a bounce in Google Analytics
Still with me? Now here comes the fun part: building the event tracking script.
The framework of your event tracking script looks like this:
There are a couple of things you need to remember when you customize the various fields in the script (e.g. "Category"):
You must fill in the Category, Action and Non-Interaction fields
The Value and Non-Interaction fields do not have a single quote around around them like the others
If you choose to omit the Label or Value fields, also omit the single quote but not the comma that separates them from the other fields. In this example I've ommitted both fields, but not their commas:
The Non-Interaction field can only be set to true or false (remember: no quotes!)
Now that you've set up the script, you should place it within the href component of any link you are setting up. Here's an example of what it would look like:
<a href="http://twitter.com/seobook" onClick="_gaq.push(['_trackEvent', 'Category', 'Action', 'Label', Value, false]);">Follow us on Twitter!</a>
The final piece of the puzzle is adding the event as a goal in Google Analytics.
Click the gear icon in the upper right corner of the Google Analytics profile you're setting up the goal in
Using the sub-navigation where your Profile information is listed, select the Goals tab
Choose the goal set you wish to add the event to (I like to categorize my goal sets)
After you name your goal, select the Event radio button
You now need to populate the event details exactly how you set them up in your script. If you omitted a field, just leave it blank
You've now setup your event as a goal!
Types of SEO Micro Conversions
Now that the hard part is out of the way, let's brainstorm some micro conversions we could be tracking.
You can use event tracking to track Share This links and blog comments. That way you can quickly see which content has the highest engagement so you can build more of it.
Affiliate Links and Ads
You may also wish to track when someone clicks one of your affiliate links or a banner you have on your site. This is a great opportunity to take advantage of the Value field so you can keep track of how much each of those clicks are worth (and perhaps double-check that you're getting paid the right amount).
If your site has white papers, presentations, video, audio or any other type of file that users can download, you can easily keep track of those downloads with event tracking.
Follow Me/Like Us Links
If one of your macro conversion goals is brand awareness, you should consider adding an event whenever someone clicks a "follow me on Twitter" or "Like us on Facebook" link on your site. That way you can track back the source of those follows/likes to SEO.
Live Chats & Customer Support
Many service companies still utilize live chat to quickly address customer inquiries and problems. When someone clicks the live chat link, you can trigger an event to count it as a goal completion.
Additionally, if you use a third party customer support center, you can trigger an event whenever a user clicks the outbound links for those services.
These are just a few of the micro conversions you could be tracking on your site. While every site is different and is interested in tracking different things, hopefully this will give you a few ideas of additional conversion points you could be looking at to better understand your audience. The better we understand our visitors, the better job we can do as SEOs to attract more of them.