Is Social Rank Dying Already?

Dec 17th

There has been a lot of talk in the SEO Community about Social Rank

And some talk that it might die soon.

What Is "Social Rank"

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.

Check out Danny Sullivan's Q&A session on this topic with Google and Bing representatives.

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
  • Buy Social Media Accounts

You might have spotted a few more.

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.

Bing is displaying Facebook like data & Blekko is pushing harder at integrating Facebook likes into their algorithm as well.

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

And social networks decay over time:

  • Friendster lost out due to bad management, and MySpace the same.
  • 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.

Joke.

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.

Who Benefits From Following Google's Guidelines?

Oct 28th
posted in

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 Mu dipped 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: "

...and....

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?
A: None.
Q: Are you selling links?
A: Nope.
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.
Q: Huh?
A: That's not a question.
Q: So you just published content?
A: Right.
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.

Curious.

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.

Low Cost SEO

Oct 27th
posted in

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.

Hybrid Approach

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.

You may also wish to undertake link building yourself. This involves requesting links, submitting your site to directories, and building effective partnerships. It can be a good idea to get consultancy as to where you should focus your link building energies. Some links are worth a lot more than others, and there is a strategy to it.

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.

WordTracker's Free SEO Videos

Oct 26th

Mike Mindel from Wordtracker has put together some nice free SEO overview videos for beginners in the industry. Check them out:

What Is SEO, Really?

Oct 21st
posted in

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?

BTW: For those who want to read deeper on a history of SEO, check out this excellent Danny Sullivan interview. He knows more than most about the history of SEO.

Explaining SEO

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?

Here's mine. ;)

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.

Content Farming - SEOs Get It, Journalists Don't

Jul 13th
posted in

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.

Heh.

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.

Keep the end user firmly in mind.

The Inside Line On SEO

Jun 30th
posted in

There are so many blogs on search marketing.

Then there are so many forums.

And Tweets.

So much SEO noise, and so little time.

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 :)

"SPAM = Site's Positioned Above Mine" - Greg Boser

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.

I’m not even sure myself - Matt Cutts

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.

The urgent can drown out the important. - Marissa Meyer

6. Do SEO. All that stuff you're no longer reading in #1? It all boils down to this: put keywords in your title tag, write on-topic content, make sure your site is crawlable, get links to that content, get people to talk about you. Repeat.

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.

Network :)

Learning SEO: It Can Get Noisy

Mar 5th
posted in

There is obviously no shortage of information on SEO.

But thanks for turning up here :)

The sheer avalanche of SEO information can be overwhelming, for beginners and experts alike. Who do you know who to listen to? What information do you need to know, and what information is filler?

Why should you even listen to SEOBook?

1. Most Information Published On SEO Is Filler

You can learn 80% of what you need to know about SEO pretty quickly. You don't need the additional 20% in order to achieve, unless you're a masochist - otherwise known as an SEO professional :)

Most of the information you'll come across on the topic of SEO is written by, and for, a professional/enthusiast crowd. There is a massive echo chamber of opinion, constantly replenished, produced using publishing tools based on the notion of communicating something, often.

It can result in a lot of noise, and not much in the way of signal, especially when you're learning. If you're starting out, and want to focus on learning SEO, it's a good idea to tune the industry chatter out. It's more likely to confuse than help in the early stages.

2. Understand The Business Of Search

Search engines aren't your friend. At best, they tolerate SEO, but only when it aligns with company goals.

The search engines have a business to run, and their goals aren't the same as yours. Whilst search engine reps often come across as helpful and friendly, because they typically are helpful and friendly people, keep in mind that what they are saying serves their company first and foremost. Any advice they give you is, quite rightly, designed to further company goals.

That's their job.

Chances are, your goals and the search engines goals will be aligned in many areas, but take their advice with a grain of salt. They don't care if your site succeeds or not, as there are plenty of other sites to index.

Google KidSense

3. Define Goals

Before you undertake SEO, define your website goals. Do you want to make more money? Get more attention? Get more leads?

The purpose of SEO is to get your site seen in the search engines. Your aim is to attract the visitors that help you achieve your goals. A high ranking for a certain keyword won't necessarily help you achieve your goals unless your site matches visitor intent.

Think about the web from a visitors point of view. What do they want to find? What content will they engage with? What will they spend their money on?

There's little point ranking well if the content you provide doesn't make you money and/or gain audience. It's getting increasingly difficult to rank pages that aren't closely aligned with the searchers intent. So, the more you understand your audience, and the more content that matches their intent, the more you'll get out of SEO.

4. Get A Credible, Well Organized Course

Like SEOBook's course for example ;)

This isn't a sales pitch. There are a number of great courses out there. Choose one or two that suit your budget and objectives, and dive in. Chances are, you will need to shell out some money, but the cost of a decent, well structured course is nothing compared to the wasted effort spent heading in the wrong direction.

In a nutshell, SEO is about about publishing content people want to engage with, and linking. You need to create content that matches visitor intent, you need to be crawlable, and you need to have inbound links. Good SEO courses will have this message at their core.

Did I mention links enough?

5. Connect With People

It's natural to want the secret sauce - those secret dark techniques that result in number one rankings.

Whilst this was characteristic of SEO years ago, it's less true now. These days, SEO is more a holistic, strategic process aimed at connecting with people, as opposed to a dark, technical art aimed at tricking machines.

Focus on making connections with people. That means understanding what people want. You can do this by undertaking basic market research, using the search engines themselves!

6. Test

Don't listen to me. Well, maybe just a bit. Don't listen to the repeaters in forums.

Test and measure for yourself. It's one of the best SEO courses you can do. It's ongoing, and it's free.

Start with a simple, focused well constructed site. What is a well constructed site in terms of SEO?

With every change you make, every new SEO strategy you adopt, test the results. Did the change help you achieve your website goals? Did you get more traffic? Better quality traffic? If your rankings improved, did this result in more/better traffic? It can be difficult to isolate variables at the best of times, but there is no chance of doing so if you try too many techniques all at once.

Make changes one step at a time. Test and measure repeat. Become at expert at measuring SEO against your goals.

Build up your own private knowledge base of SEO in your niche. Your niche may require different strategies to other niches, which is why well-meaning advice in forums and on blogs can hinder you. You'll also become a better judge of who is offering you good advice, and who is just repeating something they heard.

Mahalo Autogenerating Spam Pages Targeting Google

Jan 24th

Does Google like auto-generated websites wrapped in Google AdSense ads?

The short answer is no.

The long answer is a bit more convoluted. But so long as they are...

  • well branded
  • well funded
  • operating at scale
  • good at public relations

...the answer is yes, autogenerated websites full of scraped content are fine.*

*based on Mahalo.com

Mahalo SEO Spam Case Study

The Sales Pitch & Launch

Originally when launching Mahalo, Jason Calacanis claimed that it would be spam free and that SEOs would have hell to pay.

He had a multi-month sales pitch leading up to the launch of his site where he kept stating that Squidoo is spam and kept calling SEOs scumbags so he could pull in attention and links. This was well received by SEO conference organizers because people would talk about how outrageous Jason's speech was online, so (seeking marketing for their conferences) the SEO conference organizers acted like lap dogs standing in line waiting for their turn to have Jason call their paying attendees scumbags.

The publicity strategy worked great as it helped land Jason some mainstream press coverage and a lot of ditto head bloggers (who lacked either the experience or the mental faculty needed to see the bigger picture) got behind Jason.

The Wikpedia page about Mahalo reflects the public relations driven misinformed pitch

Search results quality

Mahalo's goal is to improve search results by eliminating search spam from low-quality websites, such as those that have excessive advertising, distribute malware, or engage in phishing scams. Webmasters have a vested interest in seeing their sites listed. Calacanis has said that algorithmic search engines, like Google and Yahoo, suffer from manipulation by search engine optimization practitioners. Mahalo's reliance on human editors is intended to avoid this problem, producing search results that are more relevant to the user.

When people steal/borrow/syndicate content without any editorial value add or original content, and then wrap it in ads that is generally considered spam. We will come back to that topic later, I promise! ;)

Early Media Success

Around the above conversation flowed a bunch of links, which helped Mahalo get off to a fast start. At first Jason claimed he wanted to create "the best" content for the most popular search queries. Many members of the media were duped by Jason's misinformation, as well reflected in the cNet article titled Jason Calacanis' Mahalo: Screw the long tail:

Instead of a server farm that crawls through the entire known Web so it can automatically match Web pages to the queries you type, Mahalo's search results are created by humans, in anticipation of the queries its users will type in.

How can this possibly work? Because, Calacanis says, the top 10,000 search terms account for 24 percent of all searches. If you can create great results for the top results, users will learn to appreciate the difference between machine search results--which are often thrown off by spam and poor-quality links--and human-powered search pages, lovingly created by caring search editors. For the obscure "long tail" queries that make up the 76 percent of search terms, Mahalo will serve up Google results.

Their first x articles were typically thin link lists, but hand generated. But since the pages were just link lists they were not remarkable enough to be linkworthy and the service was not sticky enough to keep people coming back. So Mahalo also decided to ramp up link building & awareness using 4 strategies:

A person who claims to have worked for Mahalo named Matthew Wayne Selznick wrote:

Regarding the Mahalo Blog Network: I don't know how recent that screenshot is, but it's amusing to see the blogs of several people who have either left the company or were laid off last October, when half the in-house editorial staff (including myself) was purged.
...
When I was working for Mahalo, staff were strongly encouraged to get blogs if we didn't have them and blog about Mahalo whenever there was a high-traffic opportunity like an awards show, sports or political event.
...
I unsubscribe from the blogs of my former co-workers when the majority of their posts are Mahalo link parades, just as I unsubscribe from any blog when it becomes a mouthpiece.

Their content was not Pulitzer prize level, but the strategy paid off and they started pulling in search traffic.

Strategy Shift

In spite of claiming that he just wanted to dominate the short head of search volume, that is not how Mahalo started gaining search traffic. Even if they poured hundreds of Dollars into a piece of content the generalist content with little to no topical expertise could not compete for the most competitive and highest traffic search keywords.

You need to have something useful or original to add to the conversation if you want to compete for the most competitive keywords, and penny pinching outsourced content doesn't get the job done there.

Instead what happened was that they ranked almost instantly for keywords like "best computer speakers" even with low quality scraped content.

Around the time I highlighted the emergence of that strategy, Google's Matt Cutts was interviewed about it and claimed that it was fine because Jason Calacanis was using MediaWiki to create his site. Jason also did a bit of damage control in a Sphinn comment where he claimed the spam pages were "experimental pages" that "we are no indexing"

In his own words:

That was 671 days ago. What has happened since?

A Prediction

Around the time of the above incident John Andrews (who gets the SEO field as well as anyone does) stated:

Everyone just copy Jason Calcanis and Mahaloo, ok? That sounds like a GREAT idea. Jason dissed SEOs in public, at a keynote, on purpose, and then learned a bit so he wasn’t quite so ignorant of SEO any more, and is now working the SERPs as a black hat SEO. Jason dissed affiliates in public, at a keynore, on purpose, and then learned a bit so he’s not as ignorant of affiliate marketing as he was before, and now Mahaoloo has embedded (inline) affiliate links (take a look.. added since Affiliate Summit). I think every "Learn how to Make Money Fast on the Internets" web site should simply point to Mahaoulo and say "copy them.. they are riding the black edge of gray hat SEO" and be done with it. So simple... just copy them. As they add pages, add splogs on those same topics because those are money terms. Every time they link to some resource, link to it from that blog. Scan technorati for Jason’s comments, and add one of your own right into that thread.. every time. Let Jason pave the way to profits.... each time he justifies his spam, he’s justified YOUR spam as well. Every time he explains how he’s not a spammer, he’s explaining why YOUR not a spammer either. Best of all, he’s being your spokesperson for FREE!

Was John Andrews once again correct? Lets take a look behind the curtains :D

What Happened?

Well the above computer speakers page that was highlighted still ranks in the top 5 search results in Google.

And the site has been growing quickly, with traffic increasing at least 3-fold over the past couple years.

Jason used the economic downturn as a convenient excuse to fire most of their editorial staff. But a big piece of that traffic growth is that they have got more sophisticated in their content scraping strategy.

To appreciate how reliant their model is on scraping content, I want you to see how a new page starts off.

Once you strip the ads and scraped content from that page there is nothing left but branding & navigation.

Two other noteworthy things about that page are that it was generated by a robot (see below) and that it is already indexed in Google. Once you have enough domain authority you can publish automated scraped garbage and rank well in Google. It is the Mahalo strategy.

That page (which was automatically generated in under a minute by a fake user robot named searchclick) is already ranking well in Google! How do you know searchclick is a fake user? Well look through all the different pages they created in under a minute over the course of the last year...likely 10,000's of them.

Understanding the Insidious Nature of Mahalo's Scraping

Search engines like Google scrape content so that they may provide a service of value to end users *and* publishers. When they make your snippets they are used to help promote your website.

What Mahalo does is take snippets, and publish them as content on their site. So they use your page titles and your content snippet to rank their site using your content, without your permission.

If you optimize your page titles on a new blog post you are helping to feed relevant optimized content into the Mahalo machine. They will scrape it, and if you are less authoritative than they are, they will likely outrank you!

To add further insult to injury, they put nofollow on links back to the content source which they are scraping content from, so while they are "borrowing" your content you are not getting any link credit for it.

And It Gets Worse!!!

As abusive and as extreme as the above sounds, it is actually only the first step in the process.

What happens next is that if your content (published on Mahalo without permission) causes the Mahalo page to rank for new valuable keywords then they may feed those keywords into their page generation tool and keep making more auto-generated pages in that area, leveraging their domain authority and YOUR content to compete against you while building an automated spam empire.

Some of the top earning pages might have freelancers thicken them out, but the only reason humans are involved at that stage is to legitimize the mass content scraping farm that is the base of the operation. If a company has 200,000+ automated pages with 0 overhead that make 5 cents/day each that is real cashflow - $10,000+ per day of profit!

Still not convinced of the profit potential? Mahalo.com has ~ 300,000 pages indexed in Google. On auto-generated pages it is far easier to get people to click an AdSense ad than it is to get them to buy something from Amazon.com (and you profit on 100% of the ad clicks vs only 1% of the Amazon.com clicks that convert). While there are 4 AdSense blocks *above* the Amazon.com affiliate links, Jason did $250,000 on Amazon's affiliate program last year "without trying" (again, his own stats in his own words...see Flickr.com/photos/jasoncalacanis/4234615626/ ).

Putting it All Together

If you build link equity and are good at public relations you can get away with murder in Google. Scale it big enough and the guidelines simply do NOT apply to you.

Most people who try to "pull a Mahalo" and spam up Google will likely fail because they lack

  • the public relations & affiliations needed to attempt to legitimize such a strategy
  • the willingness to lie just to get a bit of media ink
  • the public relations & media savvy to pull such a major bait and switch without getting caught
  • the domain authority to make it work algorithmically

Originally when launching Mahalo, Jason Calacanis claimed that it would be spam free and that SEOs would have hell to pay. Now that he is scraping your content (and adding nofollow to the links to your content) I think he is right. You are losing out on your search traffic because an authority site is "borrowing" your content and outranking you with your own content.

Jason got Squidoo penalized by calling it spam, and under the same level of scrutiny, how is Mahalo which scrapes millions of 3rd party content listings *without any editorial filter* not spam? Squidoo at least donates $10,000 a month to charity. Mahalo just steals your content without permission and keeps all the cash.

Are the search results going to start filling up with Twitter recycling start ups? What happens when the media gets in on this "what the bloggers have to say" scraping game? Does it even matter who created the content so long as someone wraps it in ads & ranks it?

I don't think we can stop people from being greedy or stealing, but I am surprised Google has turned a blind eye to this process. Is this what they want the web to become?

How to Up Your SEO Income by a Factor of 10: Testing

Oct 9th

The following is a guest post by Ari Ozick, a member of our SEO Community who frequently shares great insights. :)

The above graph is based on an intensive questionnaire of over 2500 world class SEOs, including freelancers, in-house corporate types and SEO entrepreneurs. In the questionnaire, I asked one simple question – what is the most profitable activity in your business. The results are in, and as the graph clearly shows, Twittering away the day is by far the most profitable activity for most SEOs. Apparently there is more money to be made on twitter then there is in link building and out ranking the competition.

Obviously (I hope), I’m lying. I didn’t conduct any survey. I just made up the graph with Smart Draw. In fact, if I had to guess, I imagine the most profitable activities for companies would be conversion optimization, link building, and public relations.

Here’s the thing, though: I don’t have to guess about any of these answers for my business. I know. If you’re guessing or following other people’s advice on pretty charts (even if it’s backed up by third party expert opinions), then you’re leaving a lot of money on the table. Let me show you how, with a little change in thinking and how you approach business, you can make a lot more money out of what you do, everyday.

Most SEO Blogs have an Agenda

Aaron recently mentioned that there are over 5,000 SEO blogs out there today. A lot of people read the more popular SEO blogs as if they were the Gospel itself. What most of them don’t realize, or don’t want to realize, is that almost all of these blogs have one of a few agendas:

  • To promote the business running the blog so they can get more clients
  • To promote the blogger as an SEO expert so he can get more clients.
  • To get lots of links, so that they can rank for [SEO] and, you got it, get more clients and sell advertising

Granted, there are a few exceptions. The bottom line is, however, that most of these blogs are fundamentally aimed at increasing their readership, their clients, and their reputation. That means that the information they offer is less aimed at being fundamentally useful, and more about furthering their goals. It very rarely is about providing concrete, useful tips that will lead to a direct increase in your ROI.

Don’t Believe Anything Anybody says

Often, someone will come to me and tell me that they’ve stopped writing content, or that they don’t want any reciprocal links, or that they don’t want to be listed on site X. Then I ask them why. Invariably, the answer I get is “I read it on a blog” or “It was on a forum”, or “I saw it on Twitter”. You need to make a business decision based on data, not on what something written somewhere on some forgotten piece of the internet.

Different sites will also have different focuses that provide higher ROI. E-Commerce stores may put more focus on optimizing for conversions from existing traffic, while sites like blogs and forums that sell advertising on a CPM or flat rate model will optimize for higher traffic – link baiting and public relations. Niche Adsense publishers and others operating on the longer tail of search will look to create volume quality content and build links in a more focused manner, sending link juice to the pages that need it most.

Data is King

The only way to make a decision is by looking at data gathered and seeing if the data provides you with enough information to make an informed decision. I think Diorex said it best:

I will share with you the same answer that my employees get.

“Do you have any data?” The answer is usually “No”, or they would not have asked the question.

To which I respond “Well why don’t you run a test and get some data.” Once a test has been run, they no longer ask my opinion because they now have an answer (good or bad, testing will give an answer)

I have said it before and will probably say it again, buying data in the form of testing is the best investment you can make in your business. It is not cheap, which is what scares most would be internet marketers away.

Getting the Data

So Data is what helps make informed decisions. How do you get the data? If you’re doing anything PPC/CPM based, you just need to start running a test campaign and use that data to scale, or alternatively shut down the project before you lose too much money.

SEO is a bit different – no two web sites have the same link profile, and minor differences can lead to very different results in terms of how certain types of links and on page changes will effect changes in search results. That being said, it’s best to have a secondary group of sites so you can measure the effectiveness of different link building methods, without endangering your profitable, money making sites.

Ideally you also need to have a good idea of the link graph in the verticals you work in, and an idea of what competitors are trying to accomplish. To that end, I highly recommend Majestic SEO and SEM Rush (I’m a happy customer, nothing more). There’s nothing like having fairly accurate data without being at the complete mercy of a search engine. It’s a liberating feeling.

What Data Has Taught Me

Data has taught me that what works for one site doesn’t necessarily work for another site. Strong sites with aged links have consistently performed better when they receive low quality links, while newer sites have languished until they received some better links.

In one test, we sent low quality links to an aged authority site in a competitive niche. These are links that are probably not your top priority on your link building list, and certainly not given the time of day on most SEO blogs, yet we saw a definite increase in rankings on competitive terms. In the vertical we had a newer, less linked to site – there was absolutely no movement in either direction for that site. Our testing on authority sites has shown us that you can send almost any type of link and get some benefit, either in rankings boost on a specific keyword or a larger net for long tail keywords. Yet if you tried to rank a new site using the same tactics that clearly work on an old, trusted crusty site, there’s a very good chance the new site would at the very least be filtered, and at the top end of the spectrum be penalized. Of course, defining what is an authority site is another issue – I suggest you go out and test what exactly is an authority site, and reach your own conclusions.

The Bottom Line

You need to be actively running tests and making efforts to build your business and your sites. The only data that you should trust is your own. While it’s good to have an idea of what’s going on in the larger SEO community, what really matters is your rankings. Everything else is, and should remain, secondary.

Ari Ozick is CEO of Wired Rhino and occasionally blogs at AriOzick.com. He would love any constructive feedback or questions you have, either in the comments or direct via email: first name @ wiredrhino.com

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