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.
As Google continues to push organic search results further down the page in favour of greater ad exposure and universal search, it is important to maximise the amount of space your website receives from the search giant. The more real estate your listings have, the more likely you are to receive visitors to your website. Below are 6 ways to increase your SERP (Search Engine Result Page) real estate.
1. Dual Rankings
If more than one of your pages is relevant for a search query on any given page, Google will reward you by grouping these listings together:
For example, imagine your homepage was listed in position 2 for the keyword “running”. On the second page of Google in position 11 you have a different URL that also ranks for the same keyword. If you build enough links to push the secondary listing to page 1, Google will automatically promote it to position 3. The marginal effort needed to push a listing from position 11 to position 10 is typically much less than moving it from say position 3 to 2. This technique can have a huge impact on the number of visitors to your website. A listing in position 11 will receive about 0.66% of all clicks compared to 6.03% in position 4. To achieve dual rankings, build both internal and external links to the lower ranking page using the anchor text of the keywords for which you wish to receive dual rankings.
2. Meta Description
The meta description is the summary that describes your website and should provide a compelling call to action to for any potential customers. I often see websites using just a few words for their meta descriptions, resulting in only a single line in the SERPs. By adding a few more words, a website can take advantage of the second line that Google allows them for describing their site. Each line of the SERPs is valuable real estate and you should make an informed decision about whether you are going to forgo any space. One creative technique that Darren Slatten uses is to incorporate ASCII art into his meta description, increasing it’s space by 250% compared to a normal listing:
Not only are forums an excellent tool to leverage the long tail of search but Google also rewards them with up to 4 additional listings in the SERPs. These extra listings not only take up more valuable SERP real estate, they also stand out and catch a user’s eye compared to a regular listing:
Forum listings will often also contain an additional line detailing the number of answers, as shown in the example above.
4. Rich Snippets
Rich snippets are designed for sites that contain reviews, products, business listings, recipes, or events. Depending on the type of information your site contains, rich snippets will not only enhance your rankings, making them stand out from the crowd and improve your CTRs but they will also increase the size of your listings, as shown in the examples below:
You can add Rich snippets to your website by using any of these three formats: microdata, microformats, or RDFa. Google, Microsoft and Yahoo recently announced a joint venture called Schema which provides webmasters with a shared collection of recognized rich snippets that are supported by the major search engines.
5. More Results
Google won’t usually show more than two listings for each domain on each of it’s pages. However, if your site is a good source of relevant information, Google will display an additional line under your listing:
You can increase the probability of Google showing this extra line by having a diverse set of content on your site, interlined with relevant anchor text.
If Google believes your website is highly relevant for a keyword phrase, especially one that is navigational in nature, you may be rewarded with sitelinks:
Google generates sitelinks automatically, you can’t do anything specifically to receive them (though you can block any that you don’t want via your Google Webmasters account). To improve your chances of receiving sitelinks, you should follow the best practice of using informative, compact anchor and ALT text for any links to your site.
The techniques listed above can help increase your SERP real estate by 2 or 3 lines, doubling the amount of space a regular listing receives as well as helping your website stand out in a sea of homogenous listings.
Pretty basic question for an SEO right? It would be nice if the answer were equally as basic or simple. It's an important question, even more so since a sweeping update by Google knocked out unsuspecting webmasters.
Beyond the stuff we know got hit (some RIGHTLY so), we probably will never know the true ramifications with respect to how many "little guys" had their livelihoods or potential livelihoods destroyed by a heartless, unforgiving, and sometimes inaccurate algorithm.
Evaluating the Risks
I know people who worked their rear ends off and had their business fail, in addition to people who were lazy and failed. Sometimes it's timing, sometimes there's some luck involved (though luck is generally brought about by hard work), and sometimes it's just a matter of working harder or spending more then your competition.
The risks are plentiful for the self-employed and they only scale up if you:
have a family to support
have a mortgage
need to buy health insurance
have limited capital to invest
can't afford to lose on a few of your bets
Ways you can combat those issues are to:
live below your means
work a part-time job at night or during the day
have your spouse work part-time
not buy every single device that Apple makes :)
be prepared to work longer hours than you'd like
The problem is that self-employment, especially if you've worked in the corporate world before, has all the allure of the pipe dreams sold in The 4 Hour Work Week (I guess Tim Ferris doesn't count self-promotion as work, even though he does it about 100 hours a week :) ).
You might think self-employment is all about working less, spending more time with your family, going to the beach while everyone else is in a cubicle, and all that jazz. While it certainly can be at some point, it is not how you will start out 99% of the time.
Self-Employment Screw Jobs
Start looking around to find an accountant who will tell you what your tax liabilities will be as a sole-proprietor or a single-member LLC. If you really want to take a kick to the shins, get a quote for health insurance and see how much it doesn't cover.
A friend of mind recently pointed out to me that all the individual health insurance plans do not cover maternity costs. You can get coverage for that under a group policy but unless you have employees you are going to be paying roughly 4x the cost of an individual plan for you and your family.
He lives in the US, is self-employed, and has a family. The American dream right? For he and his wife to have a second child, they would need to get a group health plan at least 60 days prior to the wife becoming pregnant. Say that everything works out to be on-time, they are looking about an increased cost of about 20-25k over the course of a 9 month period to have a child in the United States!
All of that is assuming a perfect pregnancy and a 100% healthy baby. The point is to layout just one large, large risk you might be unaware of ( rubbish health insurance ).
Another thing to keep in mind, beyond the health insurance, is that unless you start one there's no retirement benefit, no paid vacation time, and no paid sick time. It is a really good idea to purchase short-term and long-term disability insurance for yourself as well.
It's Not an Either Or Question
The smartest thing to do would be to starting whittling down your household bills now and start slowly building your business. Keep your day job and work at night, you'd be working 15 hour days if you started from scratch anyway so why not do it now but get paid (with benefits) for your time?
Once you begin to make some cash on the side, see how far you can scale it (reasonably) before you need to make a decision on whether to fully jump in or whether to keep it as a side gig where you can eventually outsource a good chunk of the tedious work.
Some people loathe the idea of a boss and that's fine. Even good people have bad days so it's not always going to be peaches and cream but if you are in a spot where there is mutual respect and fairness then I'd say hang on to it until you can financially manage to go out on your own.
Even when you are "the boss" working for yourself if you have any level of success you will soon be "the boss" with employees of your own. And many successful businesses don't have 1 boss, but rather hundreds or thousands of them - their customers.
Maybe it's Not for You
Self-employment is not for everyone. It takes awhile for it to really pay off professionally and personally. When you first start out you may not have enough capital to outsource things like:
Not being able to outsource all that upfront is probably a good thing. Many attempts at outsourcing fail because the outsourcer is not competent themselves in those particular tasks. Having experience in these areas is helpful because if a freelancer or staff member leaves you hanging, you'll be able to keep things running efficiently while you search for another staff member.
Working for a family business or a steady corporation isn't something to be looked down upon by any means. The key to mitigating the risks on both sides (getting laid off for example) is to be financially prudent, continually invest in yourself (earn a degree, start a side business), and be loyal to whom you work for or with. If you do those three things you will typically be ok in any reasonable situation.
Start Off as an Apprentice
Maybe you know someone in the SEO or PPC industry that might be willing to have you work with them for awhile or perhaps you aren't ready to fully go at it on your own just yet. Most employers realize that the best employees sometimes are the more motivated and ambitious ones and with that comes the risk that those employees will look to move up and on at some point.
Starting off this way has risks too (might not be as stable as a large corporation for example) but you can learn a lot about the overall and day to day processes that make that particular person or group successful. I'm not for the idea of building your personal brand on the back of someone else's brand equity but if your brand develops from the hard, quality work you do for someone else then that's great.
I wouldn't go in with the sole purpose of using your position to quickly build your brand and bolt. I'd go in with the purpose of working your butt off for someone who gave you a great opportunity and see what develops from that. Usually the latter will result in both sides being more than happy.
This part is more relevant if you have a non-working spouse or a spouse who might work part time. Little things that can really add up to time sucks include:
paying the bills
making the monthly budget
dealing with household vendors
scheduling and rescheduling family appointments
doing the household shopping
You should be focused on your business and the associated responsibilities. If you are doing any of the above, try to transition that to your spouse or significant other. It's not just the hour or two it might take for you to do those tasks but it's the stopping of your business activities and the mind-flow disruption associated with starting and stopping tasks frequently.
Evaluating the Decision
In this weak and unstable economy it is really hard to reasonably project out 5 years on a life changing decision. There are so many variables to take into account that it's difficult to give a tailored answer to each situation.
If you are at the point where you need to make a decision or want to make a decision down the road, there are some key points to keep in mind but financial variables are some of the most important variables in this equation.
It's fine to want to do something and have the drive to do it but if it's going to potentially create a financial hardship quickly then it is really the wrong decision. There are a few really good options for someone who is on the fence for financial reasons.
see if you can start by working with an experienced person in the field
take up a part time job and/or see if a part time job is a good option for your spouse or significant other
start living below your means and save some cash for rainy SEO days and for investing in knowledge + small ventures
The other elephant in the room is stress. The stress of being the breadwinner is stressful enough, but if you have no safety net or if your business is brand new (thus more unstable than 9-5 corporate stuff) as well then it is really stressful. This is something to keep in mind and something you might want to try and emotionally reconcile before you start.
You might also find that doing it part-time and maintaining a "day" job is a really good fit emotionally and financially. If Google blindly swings an ax, and you get hit, you can rest assured that the sun will still come up tomorrow and will that direct deposit on Friday :)
The point remains that there are many options available to you to help figure out if working for someone else or yourself is really the best fit. In either case, working and studying harder (and longer) than others is a solid base to start from :)
You will come up against barriers. These barriers are often put up by designers, developers, copywriters and management. Frustrating as it is for the SEO, this is the reality of working on a site alongside other people, all of whom have agendas and requirements that may differ markedly from your own.
So how do you navigate this space? How do you ensure your SEO objectives can be met when other people may be resistant to change, or openly try to block you? In this post, we'll take a high-level, conceptual look at the challenges the SEO faces when working on a client site, and talking-points to help explore and clarify concepts.
1. Why Are We Doing SEO At All?
SEO is a pain.
It's complicated. It gets in the way, particularly when it comes to design. Why do we need headings and a lot of text when a picture tells a story? SEO appears to be an arbitrary, dark art with little in the way of fixed rules, and the client probably doesn't care about it anyway.
The thing is - if SEO is done well, a client may throw a whole lot more money at the site in future. Everyone likes to build on success, and that means more business, and more exposure, for everyone involved. On the internet, traffic = success. Traffic = money. A site that few people see, no matter how well executed, will likely fail, just like a site that fails to engage and convert visitors will fail. The client may not know they want SEO now, but you can be certain they'll be asking questions about it after launch.
If SEO is done poorly, the site may not be seen by as many people as it otherwise would. What use is a beautiful design that is seldom seen? What use is great code that is seldom used?
The value proposition of SEO is that it helps get a site seen. It's a powerful marketing channel, because most people use search engines to navigate the web. Sites that deliver what the search engines want stand to gain a lot more traffic than sites that do not undertake SEO. If your competitors are undertaking SEO, this puts your work at a competitive disadvantage. Their site will be seen more often by search visitors. Their web agencies will likely get more business as clients see greater returns on their investment.
That's why we do SEO. To be seen.
Of course, a site can be seen by other means. Word-of-mouth, social media, links, brand awareness, and offline advertising. A site doesn't need SEO, but given that it is a relatively easy win in terms of cheap traffic acquisition, the extra effort involved is negligible compared to the upside benefits. It's like being given a choice of having a shop located on main street vs a location way out in the desert. Much the same effort involved in building, but significantly different traffic potential.
2. SEO Is A Design Element
Just as copywriters require space to insert paragraphs and headings, SEO's require space to do their thing.
If you're a designer, an SEO will likely provide you with a list of their requirements. These requirements need not be onerous, any more so than leaving space for copy is considered onerous.
There are two key aspects where SEO needs to integrate with design. One aspect is the requirement for machine readable text, provided in a format the search engines are able to read, and derive meaning. Search engines "think" mostly in terms of words, not pictures. Make design allowances for copy that includes lot of headings and sub-headings, a technique which also dovetails nicely with usability.
The other key aspect is crawl-ability. A search engine sends out a spider, a piece of code that grabs the source code of your website, and dumps it back in a database. It skips from page to page, following links. If a page doesn't have a link to it, or no crawlable link to it, it is invisible to the search engines. There are various means of making a site easy to crawl, but one straightforward way is to use a site map, linked to from each page on the site. Similarly, you should ensure your site navigation is crawlable, which means using standard hyperlinks, as opposed to scripted/executable links. If you must use scripted links, try and replicate the navigation elsewhere on the page in non-scripted form, or within the body of the text.
For most sites, that's pretty much it when it comes to design considerations. In summary, the inclusion of machine readable text, and a means for a spider to crawl easily from page to page.
An SEO may also wish to specify a page hierarchy and structural issues, where some pages are given more prominent positions than others. Of course, this needs to be weighed against navigation considerations for visitors who arrive at the site via other means.
3. SEO For Developers
Like design, there are two key areas of integration.
One is tagging. SEO's will want to specify title tags, and some meta tags. These need to be unique for each page on the site, as each page is an entry page as far as a search engine is concerned. A search visitor will not necessarily arrive at the home page first.
The title tag appears in search results as a click able link, so serves a valuable marketing function. When search visitors consider which link to click, they'll use the title tag and snippet to influence their decision.
The second aspect concerns URL's. Ideally, a URL should contain descriptive words, as opposed to numbers and random letters. For example, acme.com/widgets/red-widgets.htm is good, whilst acme.com/w/12345678&tnr.php is less so. The more often the keyword appears, the more likely it will be "bolded" on a search results page, and is therefore more likely to attract a click. It's also easier for the search engine to determine meaning if a URL is descriptive as opposed to cryptic. For an in-depth look at technical considerations, see "SEO For Designers".
One workaround if the database needs unique codes is to translation at the URL level, using URL rewriting.
4. SEO Is A Marketing Strategy
The on-page requirements, as dealt with above, are half the picture.
In order to rank well, a page needs to have links from external sites. The higher quality those sites, the more chances your pages have of ranking well. The SEO will look to identify linking possibilities, and point these links to various internal pages on the site.
It can be difficult, near impossible, to get high quality links to brochure-style advertising pages. Links tend to be directed at pages that have reference value. This is a strategic decision that needs to weighed during site conception. Obviously, few sites strive, or want to be, Wikipedia, however there are various ways to incorporate reference information into commercial sites where the primary purpose of the site is not the publication of reference information.
For example, include a blog, a news feed, publish the e-mail newsletter to the site, and/or incorporate a reference section within the site. It doesn't matter if this section isn't viewed by visitors who navigate directly to the site. It provides a means to get a lot of information-rich content into the site without disrupting design and other commercial imperatives. Think of it as a "mini-site" within a site.
Not every page needs to be for the purposes of SEO. SEO can be sectioned off, although this is often less ideal than more holistic integration throughout the site.
5. Strategic Factors For Managers
Concept, design and development can screw-up SEO.
Poor integration can result in loss of potential traffic. This traffic will go to competitors. The longer a site doesn't use an SEO strategy, the harder it is to ever catch the competition, as a head-start in link building is difficult to counter.
If your aim, or your clients aim, is to attract as much targeted traffic as possible - as most site owners do - then SEO integration must be taken as seriously as design, development, copy and other media. It may influence your choice of CMS. It may influence your strategic approach in terms of how and what type of information you publish.
Whilst SEO can be bolted-on afterwards, this is a costly and less-effective way of doing SEO, much like re-designing a site is costly and less effective than getting it right in the planning stage. If SEO is integrated in the planning stage, it is reasonably straightforward.
The time to incorporate SEO is during site conception. SEO is a text publishing strategy. Design and development will need to make minor changes to the way they approach a site build. Doing this retrospectively, whilst not impossible, is more difficult, and therefore more costly.
Coda: Flash Workarounds For SEO
There are various workarounds to existing search-unfriendly design, but I'd advise to avoid the problem in the first place.
Flash, whilst a useful tool for embedding within sites, should be avoided for the entire site. Flash is a graphics/animation format, whereas search - and the web in general - is primarily a text format. If you build an entire site using Flash, then your competitors will overtake you in terms of search visitors. The formats simply do not gel.
One work around is strategic - split the site in two. Use Flash as a brochure site, and create a hub site that is text based. Consider including a "printable" version of the site, which will give the search engines some text to digest. Whilst there are technical and strategic ways around Flash, they are often clumsy and tedious.
The search engines can make sense of most sites, but if you're expecting to get rewarded by search engines, then it pays to stick as close to their technological strengths and weaknesses as possible.
As a local advertiser, starting an SEO campaign in your local market is typically built on the strength of your keyword research. Say you are an insurance agent, do more people use car or auto when searching for auto insurance? Do people use "city/town keyword", "city/town, state, keyword", "zip code keyword"?
Some of these questions can be answered using a tool like Google Trends. Here you can see the results for "Texas Doctor" versus "TX Doctor":
So here you can see that it's pretty close, and volume is pretty close in Google's keyword tool as well:
However, when you get into phrase match the volumes separate a bit:
Overcoming Keyword Tool Volume Concerns
The other thing you'll want to keep in mind is that sometimes these tools can be off on volume, sometimes a lot and sometimes not so much. How do you solve this? You can do a PPC campaign to test a few things like:
The beauty of starting your campaign with PPC is that you can not only keep it running if it's profitable for you, rather than it just being a proving ground for keywords, but you are able to discover keywords and keyword groups that are profitable and have enough volume to where an investment into SEO is worthwhile.
Local search, by definition (since it is roughly a quarter of the search market), is on the lower end of the volume pole but in comparsion to a local business's resources and reach the volume is typically relative to that of keywords for a national company pursuing non-local keywords country wide.
Thinking About Campaign Structure
In addition to finding juicy keywords and keyword themes to build on, you can eliminate the poorly performing ones or the ones which have close to no volume from your PPC campaign and remove it from your SEO planning.
This not only helps your PPC account grow and mature but also helps you avoid wasting time and resources on chasing irrelevant or unworthy keywords.
As we discussed, sometimes local keywords can use a variety of modifiers like the city or town name, the state name, and the zip code in conjunction with the keyword(s) so making sure you are targeting the right mix from an SEO perspective is really helpful in getting quicker and better results.
There is no point in optimizing your on-page content and targeting your link building plans on your keyword(s) plus a zip code if your market is searching by city/town and state (and vice versa). In the interest of time and better results, it makes sense to nail down the correct keywords upfront.
Starting off with Research
Generally, my initial research process goes something like this (we are assuming you've got a live site already):
look in analytics to find keywords that you are already receiving traffic for
see if there are any trends in that data in terms of language (car vs auto insurance for example)
begin broad keyword research to find terms related to the market (exclude local modifiers for now)
use free mindmap software or free site planning apps to visualize the main content areas of the site with those keywords
use google trends and insights, in addition to the google keyword tool and the free seobook keyword tool to compare data points on core terms (again, like with car/auto insurance or home versus homeowners insurance)
make a list of competitors in my area and check the volume on their brand name
So now I should have a good idea of which keywords I want to look at locally and some notes on any glaring differences in volume between closely related terms.
Now it's time to "localize" the data. I like the local keyword tool over at PPCblog.com because it does a really good job of working in all the different local modifiers that can be associated with your local PPC campaign.
That is a paid tool, as part of the PPC blog community and training membership (along with a lot of other quality PPC tools), and it's quite robust and easy to use.
If you are looking for a free tool along those lines, with less on the functionality front, you can use this free tool from 5minutesite.com.
Then I move into searching on some of the core terms in Google's keyword tool and the SEObook keyword tool (powered by Wordtracker).
Many times you'll find nothing for some of your local searches, in terms of volume, but you should still keep them around for testing in PPC because keyword tools can be off on local searches based on their traditionally lower volume sets. Also, most keyword tools don't or can't allocate resources to capture every single search.
So now I should have a list of locally modified terms where the keyword portions were driven by non-local keyword research and local modifiers were added via a local keyword tool.
In addition, I should have notes and screenshots of data from Google Trends and Insights showing any language differences (of substance) both nationally and locally (locally when available, sometimes no data exists in the tools). I also should have notes as to any language or keyword trends I found in my analytics or tips I received by talking with employees who deal with customers as well as my own knowledge of the industry.
Working with AdWords
There are different ways of attacking your campaign in AdWords. Initially, I am just doing this for testing on an SEO campaign but if you decide to stick with the PPC campaign you can get into removing the local modifiers and bidding on those broader keywords while targeting searchers geographically.
Google has a few different ways of targeting users based on location:
Locations and Languages offer you the ability to target in 4 ways:
Bundles - mostly specific countries (United States, Spain, Canada, etc) and regions (North America, Central America, East Asia, etc)
Browse - essentially goes country - state - metro area - specific city or town
Search - search for and add just about anything (country, state, town, zip code to find towns or cities)
Custom - a nifty point, click, drag interfact where you can isolate a specific area where you want your ads shown
You also have some advanced options like the Targeting Method:
Google has a really helpful chart on this here, and below is a screenshot of the information:
I like to leave both on as it helps with gauging not only the potential of your keywords but also the overall level of activity for your services (via keywords) in your market. Plus, the search term report can help you breakdown keywords that trigger your ads and this kind of PPC can help you show for broad SEO terms that you might not have the resources to compete for.
Another advanced targeting option is the exclusion method:
Google has information on this method here and here's a chart showing the relationship:
I like to use this in some cases where there may be towns that overlap. For example, you could live in Maine and be targeting "Augusta" as a modifier but you'll probably want to exclude Georgia from your targeting as that is another area which can produce searches for that modifier.
You can also get around that by adding a state modifier, Augusta Maine Insurance or some such, but you may find many folks use just the city or town name. That is when exclusion methods can be helpful.
Starting off on the Right Foot
Now I'll start to build the PPC campaign and pay attention to some of the core principles of trying to obtain a good quality score and good overall performance for a new account:
tight ad groups with keywords that are relevant to the ad group and the query
quality landing pages which speak specifically to the intent of the query (don't use a generic insurance template for all the different kinds of insurance you sell)
starting off with a managable amount of keywords to help focus on quality of traffic rather than quantity, and to help promote good keywords and remove or isolate bad ones
As an example, you might be selling life insurance in a few different towns. I would consider using town-specific ad groups -> keywords -> landing pages as my structure.
You can use helpful landing pages for a specific town by talking about things like average family size in the town, average income, and so on to help residents get a more customized experience when shopping for life insurance.
You can also build product-specific ad groups and group your town/city modified keywords in there if that makes more sense for your specific campaign.
Waiting for Results
In about a month or less I should have a pretty good idea of:
search volume for my proposed keywords
new keywords that I didn't find initially
which keywords convert and which don't
will PPC fit into my ongoing marketing efforts?
what type of SEO investment does my search volume call for?
We live in a world and business environment where we want things yesterday and sometimes it can be tough to play the patience game. In my opinion, lack of patience is a leading cause of SEO and PPC failure these days.
If you take the above approach with a new campaign or a new idea, you will thank yourself in the short, mid, and long run. There are few sources of advice better than hard data, whether it tells you what you do or don't want to hear.
I'm going to borrow this quote from Seth Godin, who borrowed it from Kevin, who borrowed it from The Count Of Monte Cristo:
"I have been told," said the count, "that you do not always yourselves understand the signals you repeat."
"That is true, sir, and that is what I like best," said the man, smiling.
"Why do you like that best?"
"Because then I have no responsibility. I am a machine then, and nothing else, and so long as I work, nothing more is required of me."
In SEO, what do people say works vs what actually works?
Filthy Linking Rich
If you haven't already seen it, check out Mike Grehan's Filthy Linking Rich from 2004. It's as relevant today as when it was written. Mike makes the point those who are already rich, tend to get richer. Those sites that have the most links, tend to get more, because those sites have the wealth of exposure already.
This is why it can be tough to get a new site ranked.
Those sites that are link poor, no matter how great they are, will struggle to be found in the search engines. "If you're great, people will link to you" is not necessarily true because a link-poor site is unlikely to show up in the search results in the first place. Initial discovery will likely happen via other means.
Search Engines Don't Care About "Great"
The search engines don't reward information that is great. The search engines reward information that is popular, or appears on a site that is deemed popular.
If your aim is high rankings, then it could be argued it is better to focus on being popular, than it is to focus on creating quality. Look at a lot of the content on mainstream media news sites. Is such content really of higher quality than other sources, or does it just happen to appear on the right domain? If such content wasn't published on a popular domain, and was published on a brand new site instead, would it ever see the light of day?
When it comes to search engines, it really does matter who, not what, you know.
Test, Test, Test
People often repeat what they've heard.
I'd urge you to test, if only to be aware of the level of misinformation you're may be getting from SEO forums and blogs. There is a lot of "thuthiness" bouncing around the SEO echo chamber. But how much of it is based on evidence?
Challenge SEO punditry. By testing.
Search on a keyword phrase. If you search on a high volume phrase, chances are you'll see a page ranked at the top based largely on the link profile of the *site* on which it appears. The site will have many links, and this link value filters down through the pages. A few positions down the SERP, you'll likely see pages based on their inbound links, even if the site on which they appear doesn't have many links.
Take a look at the back-links.
How many of the sites you're seeing have backlinks that are clearly autogen? Blog spam, forum spam, etc?
Chances are, you might find quite a few.
I'm looking at a product-oriented serp right now that has Wikipedia at the top, followed by the brand holder of this product, followed by a site that has tens of thousands of auto-gen inbound links in position three. I kept scanning through the links until I found what I considered to be a great match to my query.
On page five.
Now, what I judge to be good might not be objectively great, of course. I've made a subjective judgement, just as Google has made a subjective judgement. Try it out yourself. Rather than rephrasing a query, scan through the pages until you find a page that does answer your query.
Then evaluate the sites above it. What, exactly, are they doing? How many of them are doing anything more complicated than "getting a lot of links"?
For all the fluff about 100's of ranking signals, it still appears that mass link bombing, from rubbish sites, works a treat.
Am I talking nonsense?
One way to find out.
For those new to SEO, be wary of what you read. A lot of it is conjecture. What the old skool SEO's used to do, and the more serious SEO's still do today, is test for themselves, as opposed to relying on the pundits.
Testing can be done with existing tools, like the SEO Toolbar - and the tool set for members. Little plug there ;) There are a huge number of tools around, but one of the most important is a tool that will allow you to analyze link structures.
Grab one of these tools and go through the sites you're competing with, and pay close attention to the backlink profile of both the root domain and the page that is ranking well. Make a note of what is working, without making a moral judgement about the validity of the techniques being used.
You can also test with throwaway domains. Register a new domain, for an obscure keyword within your niche, and try and isolate the effects. Point one link at the domain, see what happens. Point ten links at it. What happens? Point links from a variety of domains. What happens? Change the link text. What happens?
Simple stuff, right. But simple stuff that will teach you much more about SEO than reading the pundits blogs and tweets today.