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.
Lisa Barone wrote an interesting piece entitled "Are SEOs Responsible For Rankings Or Money?". At a recent SMX conference, Matt McGee posed the SEO myth "SEO is about rankings”. Lisa was relieved when the panel concluded that SEO was really all about the money.
I agree, but then all business activity is ultimately about money. We could say car racing is all about money, but it's also about engineering. It's about skill, excitement, and winning the game.
So what is SEO these days, anyway?
A Very Brief History Of SEO
Back when SEO started, SEO wasn't called SEO. It was probably best described by those who did it as a form of hacking.
The first search engines weren't particularly clever, so it was relatively easy to figure out their sorting algorithms. There was a time when Infoseek's algorithm was almost entirely based on keyword density and keyword position.
Whilst this hacking was still ultimately about money, it was as much a game as anything else. I'm sure many old school SEOs remember those days with a sense of nostalgia. It was more of a pure technical pursuit back then.
As search engines got more sophisticated, and more money flowed online, the nature of the game changed. SEO moved beyond technical hacking to an exercise in making connections.
In Googles early days, you could buy a few high PR links - or beg for them - and that was enough to get you ranking top ten in most keyword areas. Buy a few more if you really wanted to go hard. Saturate the long tail with auto-gen, just like your competitors were doing, and it was game on. Some may say we haven't completely left this phase, but the sun is setting on this approach.
These days, a more holistic approach is required. The search engines, Google in particular, have become more and more oblique, which means systematic technical approaches are less effective than they once were. This begs the question - what is a client hiring an SEO to do, exactly?
Ever had trouble explaining to people what you do?
I've worked out a succinct answer that is easy for non-technical people to understand. When people ask me what I do, I tell them "I'm a drug dealer".
It isn't true, of course, but I just figure it's easier for people to grasp. If pushed, I'll launch into a detailed explanation of SEO, internet advertising and web publishing models - an explanation which is universally guaranteed to be met with the response "huh"?.
Often, they'll conclude: "so you rank web sites in Google, then?".
To which my reply is "well, that's part of it". As I explain further, I'm still not sure I'm making any headway, so figure it's time everyone had another drink and talk about something else.
The SMX panel is right. SEO is not about just about ranking websites, it's about so much more. Some SEOs, myself included, use SEO as part of a business strategy, a strategy that is just as much about publishing, domain names, brand building, marketing and traffic acquisition. It involves metrics, tracking, conversions, split/run testing, adwords, adsense, writing, researching, managing and changing the light-bulb in the office when it blows. The commonality is that it is oriented around the search ecosystem. Except for the light-bulb.
Some SEOs focus on very specific areas. It is their job to take a site from nowhere in the search engines to achieving desirable rankings. Their job ends there. I suspect such a role is becoming less common as search companies like Google extend their tentacles into every corner of the web, and search consultants invariably follow.
Ask ten different SEOs what they do, and you'll probably get ten different answers. None of which the lay person will likely understand, unfortunately.
Learning SEO Today
If you're starting out in SEO now, I don't envy your challenge. If you're reading this, and you're an SEO veteran, please feel free to add your comments below. What is your advice to those starting out?
It helps to understand the big picture first. The reason people engage in SEO is ultimately about making money. Even a non-profit may make money from SEO by saving money they would have spent on some other marketing channel.
They want people to find their web site. They want people to connect with them, rather than their competitors. They want people to do this so they can convert these people to buyers, of their goods, their services, or their ideas. If a site were only to rank - say, on keyword terms no-one searched for, or that weren't directly applicable to the objectives of the business, then the SEO work is largely useless. It matters not if a site appears in Google's index. If no one visits via a search in Google, then all that's happened is the bandwidth costs have increased i.e. Google's spider visits and digests pages, and the ROI for the SEO spend looks dire.
So SEO isn't about rankings.
The rankings must translate to something tangible. In most cases, this means gaining qualified visitor traffic. To get this traffic, a site must do more than rank, a site must appeal to visitors. A visitor who clicks back isn't really a visitor. To appeal to visitors, the SEO must first understand them. What do they want? What problem do they have?
Once the SEO understands visitor intent - and they can do this by getting clues from the search query itself, and testing pages against alternatives - they then direct that visitor around the site in order to turn the visitor into something else i.e. a buyer, a subscriber, a reader. Some might say this goes beyond the job description of an SEO, however whether an SEO works on this part or not, they do need to understand it. If the client doesn't see a positive benefit from an SEOs work, they are unlikely to keep paying for the services.
So, yes, SEO is about money. But it is also about the long process by which money is made.
Recently, there have been a series of negative articles about content farms.
Content farms, such as Demand Media's eHow and similar low-cost content publication sites, are now deemed an industry "concern". "Industry" being the traditional publishing idustry, and concern presumably being "competitive threat".
A trade group called the Internet Content Syndication Council (ICSC) has been circulating a document entitled "Council To Counter Web Content Generators Growing Clout". They talk about "job threatened journalists" and "diminishing content standards". Look, see what happens when the proletariat gets their hands on the printing press! :)
The pundits have also weighed in. So many journalists, eh. Looks like an over-supply if you ask me :) Some of them could learn a thing or two from SEOs.
For starters, many seem to be working on the false premise that Google returns "quality" results. Since when has Google ever been about "quality" results? Google's aim is to return links the searcher finds relevant.
"Quality" and relevance may not be the same thing, and thinking in terms of an arbitrary notion such as quality is to misunderstand what Google does.
For example, if a searcher, with a below-average level of reading in English wants a quick answer to a question about the common cold, then who's to say a simple, peer-produced bullet-point explanation is less relevant than a doctoral thesis on the same topic? Everyone benefits when the answer is factually correct, of course, but there's nothing to say the content mill won't offer factually accurate content just because the production process is low cost. If geared towards rankings, the content may also offer the facts in a format the user finds more useful.
Google is mostly about utility. It's about providing value to the end user. "Quality" is very much in the eye of the beholder.
Let's also not forget Google argue that Adwords - advertisements - are content, which are also rewarded by a relevance algorithm. I'm guessing the council won't be arguing that advertisements can be a form of quality content any time soon.
And what does quality mean anyway? And who defines it? I think I can guess what the elitists at the ICSC may argue - they know what it is, and they will define it! Nice work if you can get it, I guess.
Solutions To The Content Crisis
One solution they offer to this perceived "content crisis" is to create a set of public guidelines for internet content, or an accreditation process for syndicated content.
Reminds me of the SEO "best practices" debates of years past. The result will be the same, of course - they'll end up talking to an audience that consists entirely of themselves. Everyone else will be getting on with the job of producing content.
What concerns us is that most of these new content syndicators are producing low-quality articles that are link based,” said Tim Duncan, the ICSC’s recently installed executive director.
“They are designed to score high on search. That drives down high quality content.
Wikipedia, and white hat SEOs, might not agree, of course. Content can both be ranked well and be highly relevant. This is, after all, Google's aim.
Some ICSC members have even advocated reaching out to Google to urge the search giant to tweak its algorithm to give more weight to content quality in its search results
Hilarious. I think they mean "any content they think is quality" Perhaps Google can send them a regular cheque each week, too! I suspect money is the true driving force, as opposed to any real concern for editorial standards. Have you seen some of the trash the MSM serves up?
Quality stuff, certainly.
At the end of the day, quality standards arguments are pointless. Besides the confused frame of journalistic news vs Q&A-style content, the end user decides the level of quality they will accept and pay for on the internet. The real problem traditional publishing and the mainstream media is facing is that their business model is screwed. Their content production costs are simply too high, and they are being undercut. If they think that people want higher quality, then the answer is simple - produce it and let the visitor decide.
And get some good SEO advice, so they don't inadvertently bury it.
Google Joining In?
In a further twist, Google might be looking to join the content mills at their own game. An interesting patent, "Identifying Inadequate Search Content" identifies keyword areas where there is search demand, but low levels of relevant content. That's essentially what Demand Media does. Assuming Google don't/can't get into publishing for every vertical in existence, Google would do well to make this information publicly available.
Especially to their hordes of Adsensers ;)
How You Can Create A Successful Content Mill
Ignore mainstream media journalists and whiners who like to form councils.
Understand that Google is looking for relevant content. "Relevance" is, in the end, deemed by the searcher. If there are a lot of searches for "pay levels for doctors" and you publish a page that shows "pay levels for doctors", then you are producing relevant content and Google will reward you.
Google are, no doubt, measuring how relevant visitors think the information is, and there are various signals that could be used to determine this. These signals will not come from a council of elitist, self-interested old media. The signals will be based on user activity and user voting patterns. These signals must be scalable i.e. links, visits, timeliness, recommendations, frequency of appearance, re-quoting, etc.
Increases in "quality" i.e. content depth and accuracy - will come from end-user voting. If users want deeper answers to search questions, either Google will deliver it, or users will abandon Google and go somewhere that provides it. Perhaps that's what ICSC should do - start their own search engine ;)
Having said all that, a lot of samey, lightweight content won't survive in the long run, because Google likes to provide variety in their result sets. Look for ways to differentiate your content. Quality is only one - arbitrary - point of differentiation. You'd be better concentrating on aspects such as ease of access, readability, findability, relevance and freshness.
So how does anyone make sense of it? The deluge can be overwhelming for the experienced SEO, let alone the poor beginner. If you are just starting SEO, here are the ten areas you should spend most of your time on when you're starting up.
1. Stop reading Blogs/Forums/Tweets/Facebook. Too much noise, takin' all your time :)
2. Before you do any SEO, define your niche. What service does your website provide? Who are your readers/customers? What can you provide that your competitors don't? How are you going to deliver your services and make a profit? There's no point ranking well for a business that doesn't work at a fundamental level.
"Search is a "reverse broadcast system." In a broadcast system, advertisers spend lots of money to reach a mass audience, hoping to build desire for a product or service. But most of the audience is not interested in their pitches. Search is the reverse. Each search is an expressed desire, something that someone at a particular time actually wants. Advertisers can tune in to the "desire-cast" that’s going on." - Danny Sullivan
3. Set business-specific goals and include a time frame. "I want to make x in 12 months". "I want 20,000 RSS subscribers in 6 months". It's important to be specific. It's difficult to measure goals that aren't specific i.e. "be popular".
Never let your ads write checks that your website can’t cash. - Avinash Kaushik
4. Create interesting content. If you know your audience, you already know what content they will find interesting. If you don't, revisit #2.
5. Links. You need links Not just the Google-juice, PR-passing kind. Links are the arteries of the web, Traffic travels across links, so all links, crawlable or not, no-followed or otherwise, are valuable. Asking for links from people you don't know is pretty much a waste of time. It's a better idea to create fantastic content, then link out to the popular people who can spread the word. They'll follow their inbound links back to you. Make sure that what they find is remarkable.
We're trying hard to find user needs that aren't being met at all- Larry Page
7. After a month, look at your keyword referral logs. Take those terms and plug 'em into keyword research tools. Create a list of 30 keyword terms that your audience would find interesting. Those are your article headings. Write 30 articles. Repeat.
8. Look at your competitors. Your competitors are ranking well for a reason. They're being mentioned elsewhere for a reason. What are they doing that you're not? Reverse engineer their sites i.e. who links to them, find out what articles they publish and find out who is talking about them, and why. Emulate them, then go one better. Either that, or stop competing with them directly i.e. define a slightly different niche.
We are currently not planning on conquering the world - Sergey Brin
9. Get social. Social media is often over-hyped, but the principles, and numbers behind it, are sound. Getting mentioned is the new link building. It's about building connections between people. Google has a problem. Using links as a measure of relevant content doesn't work as well as it used to, so you can be sure Google will be using an ever-more complex set of signals. These signals will involve the connections people make with your site. That's really what Google wants to know - who is most relevant. Consider the many different ways people can connect with you, and enable those connections.
10. Start reading the blogs/forums/twitter. The irony, of course, is that I've linked to some truly great resources and thinkers :)
If you've followed the ten steps above, you're 80% of the way there. The final 20% will take a while longer, and that's where the minutae comes in.
Keep in mind that some of the most lucrative SEO information isn't likely to be published in the public domain. Cultivate personal networks to get this information. This is true of any business endeavor.