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.
I have never been a huge fan of correlation analysis. The reason being is that how things behave in aggregate may not have anything to do with how they would behave in your market for your keywords on your website.
Harmful High Quality Links?
A fairly new website was ranked amazingly quickly on Google.com for a highly competitive keyword. It wasn't on the first page, but ranked about #20 for a keyword that is probably one of the 100 most profitable keywords online (presuming you could get to a #1 ranking above a billion Dollar corporation). The site did a promotion that was particularly well received by bloggers and a few bigger websites in the UK press and at first rankings improved everywhere. Then one day while looking at its rankings using rank checker I saw the site simply fell off the map. It was nowhere. I then jumped into web analytics and saw search traffic was up. What happened was Google took the site as being from the UK, so its rankings went to page 1 in the UK while the site disappeared from the global results. In aggregate we know that more links are better & links from high trusted domains are always worth getting. And yet in the above situation the site was set back by great links. Of course we can set the geographic market inside Google Webmaster Tools to the United States, but how long will it take Google to respond? How many other local signals will be fixed to pull the site out of the UK?
Over time those links will be a net positive for the site, but it still needs to develop more US signals. And beyond those sort of weird things (like links actually hurting your site) the algorithms can look for other signals to push into geotargeting. Things like Twitter mentions, where things are searched for, how language is used on your website, and perhaps even your site's audience composition may influence localization. What is worse about some of these other signals is that they may mirror media coverage. If you get coverage in The Guardian a lot of people from the UK will see it, and so you might get a lot of Tweets mentioning your website that are from the UK as well. In such a way, many of the signals can be self-reinforcing even when incorrect.
Correlation analysis also has an issue of sampling bias. People tend to stick with defaults until they learn enough to change. Unfortunately most CMS tools are set up in sub-optimal ways. If you look at the top ranked results some of the sub-optimal set ups will be over-represented in the "what works" category simply because most websites are somewhat broken. The web is a fuzz test.
Of course the opposite of the above is also true: some of the best strategies remain hidden in plain sight simply due to sheer numbers of people doing x poorly.
Analyzing Data Pairs Rather Than Individual Signals
Another way signals have blurred is how Google uses page titles in the search results. That generally used to be just the page title. But more recently they started mixing in
using an on-page heading rather than the page title (when they feel the on-page heading is more relevant)
adding link anchor text into the title (in some cases)
adding the homepage page's title at the end of sub-pages (when sub-page page titles are short)
As Google adds more signals & changes how they account signals it makes analyzing what they are doing much harder. You not only need to understand how the signals are used, but how they interact in pairs or groups. When Google uses the H1 heading on a page to display in the search results are they still putting a lot of weight on the page title? Does the weighting on the H1 change depending on if Google is displaying it or not?
Along the same lines, any given snapshot of search is nowhere near as interesting as understanding historical trends and big shifts. If you are one of the first people to notice something there is far more profit potential than being late to the party. Every easily discernible signal Google creates eventually gets priced close to (or sometimes above) true market value. Whereas if you are one of the first people to highlight a change you will often be called ignorant for doing so. :D
Consensus is the opposite of opportunity.
When you do correlation analysis you are finding out when the market has conformed to what Google trusts & desires. Exact match domains were not well ranked across a wide array of keywords until after Google started putting more weight on them & people realized it. But if there is significant weight on them today & their prices are sky high then knowing that they carry some weight might not be a real profit potential in your market. It might even be a distraction or a dead end. Imagine being the person who bets (literally) a million Dollars that Google will place weight on poker.org only to find out that Google changes their algorithmic approach & weighting, or makes a special exception just for your site (as they can & have done). That day would require some tequila.
As a marketing approach becomes more mainstream then not only do the cost rise, but so does the risk of change. As people complain about domain names (or any other signal or technique) it makes Google more likely to act to curb the trend and/or lower it's weighting & value. To see an extreme version of such, consider that the past year has seen lots of complaints about content farms. A beautiful quote:
Searching Google is now like asking a question in a crowded flea market of hungry, desperate, sleazy salesmen who all claim to have the answer to every question you ask.
Some readers might be considering taking that giant leap from their boring day job into the wonderfest that is full-time SEO. Huge money! Party central! Hangin' at conferences with Matt Cutts! What could possibly go wrong?
Let's take a serious look at what your new life will look like.
It's Going To Hurt
SEO is a world of hurt.
When you start, you'll have little money. Your bills don't stop coming in. Google, rather uncooperatively, may not rank your sites for six months.
Perhaps you've already got a few sites ranking. You've got some steady adsense/affiliate money coming in, which is right about the time Update Oh-My-God happens.
A Google update, like a demented hurricane, trashes your site for no good reason. OK, maybe, maybe you had *some* links that were not, in the cold light of day, strictly-speaking, based 100% on merit. But hey, everyone else was doing it, right?
It will be no consolation that everyone else's sites will have been trashed, too. You will meet these people in SEO forums, gnashing their teeth as if the world has just come to end.
It has, of course.
There are few more heart-breaking moments than when Google sends an H-bomb crashing down on your dreams. Google say they do this to improve their "service", but mostly they do it "because it's fun".
Your SEO forum buddies will explain, sometimes using elaborate math, why everyone's rankings dropped. These explanations are bullshit and can be safely ignored. Well-intended they may be, but your buddies don't have a clue. Chances are they just read something in another forum, thought it sounded profound, so they repeated it.
The sad reality is few people are doing any real testing these days.
Even more annoying will be the person who claims his site hasn't been affected. He will lecture everyone else on how, in the latest update, Google is finally rewarding higher quality sites.
Don't worry. This sanctimonious fool will likely get his site trashed in the next update. It will then be his chance to gnash his teeth.
In SEO, everyone gets their turn eventually.
Right about this time, that autographed picture of Matt Cutts hanging on your wall will start to look sinister. You could swear the picture is pulsing red with the faint glow of hells-fire.
Feeling scared and alone, you take it down and hide it in the drawer.
Are You Serious?
Events, like those described above, are just life's way of testing to see if you're serious.
If you are serious, you climb back up on the horse, get back in that saddle, and go rope some steers. Or, if you're an SEO, not a cowboy, you start fixing your sites.
Alternatively, you could decide that the performance-based SEO lifestyle is way too difficult, and vow to become an SEO consultant instead. Being an SEO consultant really takes the pressure off. Mostly, you just talk about stuff. Repeat things you've heard in forums.
Firstly, gather together some cryptic sounding jargon - "latent semantic indexing" is always a crowd pleaser - and apply to talk at the SMXWebmasterWorldSearchEngineStrategies conference. Next, get your smiling, drunken self into a photo, with your arm around Matt Cutts. This implies you have an inside line at Google. Finally, knock together an SEO consultant web site to display it all to the world. Claim to be an "SEO Expert". Often.
Being an SEO Expert is not a rare commodity. There are 22,345,947 SEO experts in India alone. And many work for less than your weekly beer bill. So unless you've got the sales skills of Tony Robbins, the solitary SEO consultant gig is a tough one.
You may decide to join an SEO agency. This is an easier gig, as you can focus 100% on SEO, surrounded by people who claim to know a lot more about SEO than they actually do. Many of your co-workers post regularly on forums.
You will soon enjoy the delights of heading off to a client site to tell a room full of hostile designers why their award winning flash site will have to be redesigned, from scratch, preferably using bare HTML.
Best of luck.
Following that lively exchange of views, you may wish to kiss the dark arts of SEO farewell, and move into the world of PPC.
PPC is a lot easier than SEO. Well, it is if you have a bank balance the size of Texas. If you don't have a lot of money, you'll spend all your time tweaking budgets, which, if you get them wrong, can end up costing you your credit limit. PPC is dangerous, but at least you can take that autographed photo of Matt Cutts back out of the drawer.
He cannot touch you now.
If you fail miserably at being an SEO and PPC consultant, don't despair. You can always take the easy way out.
Become a social media consultant.
Becoming A Social Media Consultant
The beauty of this gig is you don't need any technical chops at all.
Simply grab a book on public relations, rewrite it by dropping the word "Facebook", or "Twitter" in every second paragraph, and hit the speaking circuit. Rehash the same old stuff about "reach", "audience share", and "convergence" and mix it up with new terms like "re-tweet". If you're feeling confident, throw some Cluetrain Manifesto quotes in, like "Markets are conversations", and "Hyperlinks subvert hierarchy".
They love that stuff. No one knows what it means, but that simply validates your high fees.
The problem is the barrier to entry for becoming a social media consultant is set even lower than becoming an SEO consultant. That, and the fact everyone started calling "bs" on the whole thing last year.
As far as the SEO is concerned, social rank is the idea that Google, and other search engines, use social networking indicators in their ranking algorithms. If you get mentioned and linked to often, from social media profiles, this helps your site rank in the search engines.
Do you calculate whether a link should carry more weight depending on the person who tweets it?
Yes we do use this as a signal, especially in the “Top links” section [of Google Realtime Search]. Author authority is independent of PageRank, but it is currently only used in limited situations in ordinary web search
Google intimate it's tied in with PageRank, which Danny also discusses.
To some degree, “humans” on the web have pages that already represent their authority.
For example, my Twitter page has a Google PageRank score of 7 out of 10, which is an above average degree of authority in Google’s link counting world. Things I link to from that page — via my tweets — potentially get more credit than things someone whose Twitter page has a lower PageRank score. (NOTE: PageRank scores for Twitter pages are much different if you’re logged in and may show higher scores. This seems to be a result of the new Twitter interface that has been introduced. I’ll be checking with Google and Twitter more about this, but I’d trust the “logged out” scores more).
Google is a vote counting engine, so it isn't surprising they count votes from social network sites. It should also come as no surprise Google uses Twitter to help determine interest in news events, as the Twitter platform lends itself to news. This will then flow through into their news ranking. There are also the indirect benefits i.e. the attention generates articles and commentary, which then link back to your site.
All links are valuable, because attention - human, spider, or both - travels along them. Google will always be interested in who is paying the most attention to what. If people are using social networks to do that, then that is where Google needs to be.
Of course, like search, Social Media it is open to abuse.
How To Do Blackhat Social Rank
Black or grey, here are a few of the more aggressive tactics in use:
Fake Profiles - auto gen an entire network of friends
Duplicate/Fake Content - plenty of auto-gen tools about that will make posts and requests on your behalf
Pay Important People To Tweet Your Link As Editorial - or put your link on their profile page
The social services will, of course, combat any threat they deem detrimental to their business. Just like in search, the game will be never-ending, as the blackhats find holes in the system, and the engineers plug them. And just like times past in SEO, the ethical debate rears its head.
Is it morally "right" or "wrong" to use technique X, Y and Z?
All a bit silly, really. People will use a technique regardless of other people's ethical dilemmas, so long as it works. It's up to the social networks, and Google, to stop what they might consider abusive practices from working, or paying off.
And they will, although they've probably got their work cut out for them. It's one thing to look at a page about, say, fitness and determine the links running along the bottom for "ring tones", "bad credit loans" and "viagra" are likely dodgy, but another thing to look at profile activity and determine whether there is a human behind it.
Social media is evolving quickly, and it will take time to patch issues, both technically and culturally. So I'm sure the blackhats will be having fun for some time yet.
Personalized Social Recommendations
Google sometimes may list results from your "social circle" at the bottom of the organic search results. The good thing about these results is that most of the recommendations are fairly transparent & benign.
A "like" might have multiple meanings depending on who is doing it. Do the votes for this page "like" Google, PPCBlog, PPCBlog's explanation of Google, search in general, algorithms, SEO, infographics, technology, marketing, or ...?
In search there is a concept of stop-words, which are words that would not be counted much because they are so common they don't really tell you much about a piece of content. Some keywords (say mesothelioma) have a higher discrimination value than others (say the). A "like" it doesn't have a great discrimination value, largely because you don't know why someone liked something. The nuanced subtleties are lost without context. Something might be liked because it is clever, in-depth, correct, humorous, offensive, and incorrect - all at the same time! It all comes down to interpretation & perspective.
Some people will offer tips on "scaling your social footprint" and such, but the trade off is that on networks where relationships are reciprocal (like on Facebook) you can't add a friend without having that friend added to your account. Brands, on the other hand, can offer an endless array of discounts and promotions. If a search engine puts too much weight on likes then companies will simply run giveaways, contests, and pricing specials to collect votes.
"Likes" are so low effort they will be easily manipulated, even amongst real account holders. Over time these votes will be every bit as polluted as the link graph (or maybe moreso) because there are so many ways to influence people individually (click the below like button for $2 off your order, etc). Such offers might fall outside of the terms of service of some networks, but it is worth noting that when Google was promoting their reviews service they violated their own TOS.
In addition to likes being easy to manipulate, some flavors of social are heavily spammed because many people use the tools simply for reciprocal promotion. I likely have over 1,000 friends on Facebook & yet I have no idea who 90%+ of the people are. Am I recommending the stuff that some of those people recommend? An algorithm that assumes I am is likely leading people astray. And you might be friends with someone while knowing that their business life is quite shady when compared against their personal life (or the other way around). Are you endorsing everything a person does?
Further, anyone can invest in creating one piece of great content that scores tons of "likes" while operating in an exploitative manner elsewhere (and/or later). It is just like the wave of bulk unsolicited emails I get promoting 'non-profit' directories which one month later require 3 or 4 page scrolls to get past all the lead generation forms, while yet claiming to be non-profit. :D
GeoCities closed last year. Delicious has had an upswing in spam, and Yahoo! has it scheduled for sunset soon.
And even outside of those sorts of broad platform shifts, people change over time. Years ago I might have recommended working with someone like Patrick Gavin or Andy Hagans, but I wouldn't dare do so today. Likewise a particular tip or product might be exceptionally profitable for a period of time & then eventually decay to a near sure bet money loser. Opportunities do not last forever. Marketers must change with the markets. Other products might have undesirable side effects that later come to surface. Add in media based on more precise measurements & pageview chasing, and the conflicts between recommendations + media coverage will scare some folks into not participating. Associating recommendations with individuals will cause blowback as some of the seeds turn sour & people blame the person who recommended them to the person/product/service that screwed them over. The link graph allows those with undesirable reputations to slowly fade into obscurity, whereas old likes remain in place & can cause a social conflict years down the road.
Using Social Media For SEO Purposes
A link is a marker of attention.
Google will always want to count markers of attention. Blackhat trickery aside, in order to make social media work for you, and create side effects in terms of ranking, you should build both a presence in social media, and a craft messages that are likely to be spread by social media.
It's much like PR. Public Relations, as opposed to PageRank.
Start by defining your audience. Who do you know that talks to that audience? Try to get to know as many people as possible in your audience, especially the movers and shakers who already talk with them.
Get movers and shakers to spread your message. That may involve payment of some kind. Reciprocation, favor, cash, drugs, booze, hookers. Whatever works.
Or - and this is probably the most effective path - craft a message so interesting, they'll find it hard not to spread.
Think about how you spin your message. Think in terms of benefit. How will the audience benefit from knowing this information? What is in it for them? What are they curious about? Feed their curiosity. Sometimes, it's not the message, but the way it is stated.
Plan ahead. Can you spin your message around a public event, like a holiday? Or a current event? Or a popular personality?
Get out and meet people face-to-face. People are much more likely to be receptive to your ideas if they really do know you.
But there is a danger in overthingking this stuff. A few well placed links to a site can still get you top ten in Google, even if you have no social media presence at all. Social media is just another string to the bow.
Some of you may have been hit by Google's 20 October algorithm change.
And some of you wouldn't have noticed any difference.
On 20 October, a number of sites got trashed. Rankings, and traffic, plummeted through the floor. The webmaster forums lit up. Aaron noticed it. I noticed it. Yet, other webmasters wondered what all the fuss was about.
As many of you know, there is not just one ranking algothimn. There are many algorithms. What affects one site may not affect another. Rather interestingly, Google's John Mudipped into this thread on Google's support forum, offering these words of wisdom (HatTip: Barry)
It looks like the changes you're seeing here may be from an algorithmic change. As part of our recent algorithmic changes (which the outside world sometimes refers to as the "May Day update" because it happened primarily in May), our algorithms are assessing the site differently. This is a ranking change, not any sort of manual spam penalty, and not due to any technical issues with regards to crawling or indexing your content. You can hear more about this change in Matt's video: "
Various parts of our algorithms can apply to sites at different times, depending on what our algorithms find. While we initially rolled out this change earlier this year, the web changes, sites change, and with that, our algorithms will continually adapt to the current state on the web, on those sites. While it might be confusing to see these changes at the same time as this issue, they really aren't related, nor is this a general algorithm change (so if other sites have seen changes recently, it probably doesn't apply to them as well).
Matt's video, made four months ago, was talking about the algorithmic MayDay change. John Mu adds: "Various parts of our algorithms can apply to sites at different times" In other words, whatever happened in May may not affect your site in May, or June, or July, but might hit you many months later. This implies that your site may trip a threshold, and be judged quite differently than it was the day before.
This still doesn't completely explain why so many sites were hit on the same day, but then Google don't typically explain things in detail.
To complicate matters, there was an acknowledged indexing problem, affecting new content, particularly on blogs. Again, John appears to suggest this was a separate issue.
Forget About Search Engines, Just Publish
Now, all SEOs are used to algorithm changes. Nothing new. But this one has me genuinely perplexed, mainly because of the type of sites that got hit.
Time for some self-searching Q&A about one of my own sites:
Q: So, how many links did you buy?
Q: Are you selling links?
Q: Linking to "bad neighborhoods"?
A: Not that' I'm aware of.....
Q: Did you link-build in an aggressive manner?
A: No. I did no link building, whatsoever.
A: That's not a question.
Q: So you just published content?
Q: And people linked to your site, of their own accord?
A: Yep. I guess they liked it.
Q: Was your content heavily SEO'd?
A: No. In fact, I gave writers specific instructions not to do anything resembling "SEO copywriting". It ruins the flow for readers.
Q: All original content?
A: All original. Hand written. No machines involved anywhere.
Q: So this site conforms to Google's Webmaster Guidelines?
A: I'd say it lies well within them. "Be useful to end users", was the guiding principle.
Yet it got hit hard.
What's also interesting is the nature of the sites that replaced it. I checked keyword after keyword, and found script driven, aggressive black-hat, content-free sites in top positions. Not in all cases - there are certainly useful sites that deserve to be there, and deserve to appear above mine. Fair play. However, there were plenty of sites of - shall we say - dubious merit- occupying high positions.
Be Useful. Perhaps
Now, I believe in publishing useful, unique content, and not paying too much attention to SEO, other than covering the basics. SEO is one strategy amongst many, and sites should, first and foremost, prove useful to people.
Clearly, no site is immune. You can stay within Google's Webmaster guidelines, and get taken out. I knew that anyway, but when the sites that don't follow the guidelines replace you...
....I'll admit - it grates.
Presumably, Google rewards the sites it likes with high rankings, and if we see a lot of aggressive sites filling the top page, should we therefore assume that aggressive sites are what Google actually wants?
I'd like to think not.
Perhaps they are just trying to mess with our heads?
Or they messed up?
Or the changes are still bedding in?
Or they really do want it this way?
I'm still watching, and considering. Perhaps the site will just pop back up in due course. Or perhaps I need to go back to the drawing board. I'll let you know how I get on.
If you've noticed something similar on your sites, chime in on the comments.
If you're considering getting some SEO work done, but working to a tight budget, here's a look at the key issues, and trouble-spots to look out for.
Buying Professional SEO Services
If you're short on time, or SEO skills, or inclination, then you may be looking at getting an eternal supplier to undertake SEO work. Like anything in life, you get what you pay for, and SEO is no exception. There is also a danger you could get a whole lot less, of course.
Like any profession, there are many great operators, and many poor ones.
Set Clear Business Goals
Start by writing down the goals you want to achieve. What business problem are you trying to solve? Do you need more conversions? More traffic? Higher rankings? Only one of those requirements is likely to make you any money.
Traffic and higher rankings can make you money, but can just as likely make no difference to your business, whatsoever, unless they are tied into your website strategy. For example, you may receive more traffic after engaging an SEO, but if this traffic isn't interested in what you offer, they will click back. Likewise, you could gain high rankings for keywords that no one searches on. This will result in no traffic increase, and no new business.
Devise your own metrics for success. Some SEOs will devise metrics for success that are easy for them to achieve, but make no real difference to your business.
Watch Out For Hidden Costs
If you have an existing site, you may need to make changes to your design and layout. Depending on how your site has been built, these changes may be minor or significant in terms of cost to rectify.
The Problem With Cheap
Whilst high cost alone will not guarantee you good results, there's a high probability that low cost will almost guarantee poor results.
SEO is labour intensive and requires skill and knowledge. As a rough ballpark, a small site, that doesn't have design issues, that has had no previous SEO work, could take, at very least, five days of full-time SEO work. This work involves link building, adding keywords and content to the site, and other external promotional activities. Get the SEO to breakdown the work into hours and tasks, and see if the amount charged equates to the work required.
If the SEO is pricing significantly under their competitors, there may be a legitimate reason. They may use cheaper labour, often located in emerging economies. This is fine, however make sure any firm you do use has a good knowledge of the country and culture in which you operate. Marketing, SEO or otherwise, requires an intimate knowledge of language use, culture and location, so ask to see previous work, and check references.
On the other hand, there are agencies that will charge like a wounded bull for essentially the same tasks as everyone else. Obtain a few quotes and compare, as pricing can be all over the place. The industry is not standardized.
Do It Yourself
Anyone can do SEO. However, that doesn't mean that everyone should.
What does SEO involve? It can involve restructuring a site, coding, content creation, marking up content, market research, strategy, link building, and public relations. Do you have the time, or the inclination to do this? The learning curve, for the beginner, is steep. It's also time consuming. How much is your time worth?
However, there are many aspects you can do yourself. Start with a good, solid SEO course ;) Join forums where other SEOs hang out. Look for content management software that is reasonably SEO friendly, out of the box, such as Wordpress (free). Using SEO friendly software means you'll avoid a lot of technical problems that can be expensive to rectify if you use software the search engines find difficult to crawl.
Search engines like content. Generally speaking, the more pages you publish, the more chances you'll have to be seen. If appropriate, adopt a strategy similar to that of magazine publishing. Publish often.
Once your business case and site content are established, you need to build links. A site without links is pretty much invisible. Here are a few link building strategies. In summary, submit your site to directories, get your partners to link to you, issue press releases featuring links back to your site, put links in your online signature. You can never have too many links, so long as they accurately represent the content is on your site, and they appear in places your audience hangs out.
You can go a long way by buying in some help, and doing the rest yourself.
Pay for a few hours of consulting where an SEO evaluates your site and your market niche. It's well worth paying top dollar, for someone good, for this part - as it most likely only takes a few hours. Setting off on the right course can pay high dividends, whilst heading down the wrong path can be difficult, and costly, to recover from. Engage them in an advisory-only role, and ask them to provide you with a strategy. Some SEOs will do this, some won't.
The most important thing is to ensure they establish your site has no technical issues that will prevent it being crawled, and that your content is structured correctly. Once these problems are ironed out, SEO becomes a lot less troublesome.
Only you know your skills, but the following areas are reasonably straightforward for those with a little web knowledge. Keyword research is easy enough to do yourself, using readily available keyword tools, as is content generation.
Simply write on topic and sprinkle keywords through your content and headings, or have your copywriter do so.
Like any complex professional service, you'll still need to monitor and measure, even if you do opt for expensive, comprehensive outsourced options. There's no sitting back with marketing, and that includes SEO.
Whatever path you choose, make sure the SEO work is aligned with your business goals.