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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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...
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.
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?
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
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!
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.
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?
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
How are your referral stats looking? Noticed more traffic from Bing lately?
According to a Nielsen report last month, Bing is growing faster than any other search engine. It was reported Bing had 10.7% of the total search market, up 2% from the month before. Yesterdays report from Hitwise suggests Bing has since dropped to around 8.96 percent.
So, somewhere around 8-10% perhaps.
The new statistics, from internet research firm Hitwise, will make disappointing reading for Mr Ballmer, who has said he is willing to spend as much as $11bn on search. Earlier this week he told The Daily Telegraph: “We’re trying to give Google a little competition in the search business
Microsoft have struggled for along time to make a dent in Google's share of the search market, so it looks like they are beginning to make inroads, albeit slowly. Microsoft have done a ton of marketing to promote Bing. They've introduced cutting edge features like visual search and voice support.
This is not a battle Microsoft can afford to lose, and for search marketers, competition between engines can only be a good thing.
Is Your Site Optimized For Bing?
The thought of adopting different optimization strategies for different engines feels so antiquated now.
Years ago, there used to be a lot of talk about how to optimize for the different engines. Some webmasters would go so far as to serve differently optimized pages to each major engine.
In the past few years, SEO has been about all-Google, all the time, so the rule of thumb is to optimize for Google, and the rest pretty much takes care of itself.
Microsoft released a comprehensive document for Webmasters. Check out page 23 where they address SEO specifically.
Like Google Guy advice, it tends towards the general and is ultimately self serving, but interesting to be aware of, nontheless.
The Bing Difference: Why Bother?
In terms of search engine results pages, the two engines do produce different results. Here's a nifty tool for side-by-side comparisons.
Why should you be interested in Bing at all?
Even though usage is lower, the user demographic for Bing is different to that of Google. Ask search marketers and you'll get anecdotal evidence that Bing/Yahoo users don't tend to be as web savvy as Google users, use the web less often, are more likely to click on ads, and are more likely to be involved in online shopping, whilst Google appeals more to researchers, webheads and geeks. If you're engaged in web commerce, you need to be thinking about Bing.
Bing Ranking Tips
From the Bing Features For Webmasters document:
Because of this new way of thinking about search, some webmasters might initially be concerned that the shortened primary organic listing in the new Bing SERP might render their SEO efforts as less effective. Instead, Bing makes it easier to compete for broad terms because it surfaces more categories automatically, increasing the number of results on the page and generating more relevant content.
In reality, the same SEO strategies you use for Google apply to Bing.
1. Get Your On-Page SEO Right
Nail the basics.
Make sure your content is unique, use H tags for titles, use alt tags for images, use unique page titles and description meta tags, one topic per page and ensure your copy is free from spelling and gramatical errors. Like Google, you can sign up for MS Webmaster Center which will help you spot and troubleshoot problems.
2. Quality Inbound Linking
Bing appears to favour linking from pages that share a similar topic area.
Is Bing a theme-based engine? Think of a theme as a topic pyramind. A themed site would have the topic "cars at the top. The level beneath that would be makes of cars i.e. Ford, Ferrari, Lotus, then below then models, then components, etc. The theory goes that a site should be all on the same topic to rank well, and links should come from sites on the same topic. Themes used to get discussed a lot, but fell out of fashion when people realised Google didn't use themes.
Is Bing using themes? I don't think so. Like Google, the algorithms appear to be largely page based, as opposed to site based. Bing looks at the topic of the page linking to you. If the linking page is on a similar topic, the target page receives a boost. Have a play around with the title tag on the linking page. Try to ensure the title tag keyword on the linking page is the same as the keyword you're targetting on your optimized page.
3. Domain Age
Domain age seems to be an important factor in Bing - the older, the better. Like Google, Bing tries to establish authority, and domain age is one way it does this.
Got any tips for optimizing for Bing? Any patterns you've noticed, particularly in respect to how Bing differs from Google?
SEO came about soon after the advent of the web crawler. The commercial imperative was obvious - where there was web traffic, there was money to be made. Positioning a page first in the engines was pretty much a licence to print money.
Still is, of course.
Throughout the history of search and SEO, the predominant metaphor of the web has been one borrowed partly from publishing - the page - and partly from computer science - the domain. A domain contains pages. A domain is a silo. A domain has clear borders.
The Search Metaphor
Search forces quite a different metaphor on the web.
Search is a connector between a person and a page. Search subverts the domain structure because the visitor can dive in at the page level. In this respect, all pages become a part of the much bigger silo. In 2009, that silo is Google.
Search also strives to be the ultimate answer engine - the mind of God. Got a question? Google it. Google will provide the answers.
But search is not quite there yet. Search still returns pages - the user still digs through the page to find the answer.
But for how long?
The Slow Unraveling Of The Page Unit
Consider social media. Is a page the basic unit of Twitter? No, it's the sentence. How about Youtube? The video. Social networks? The person. All can be extracted, re-purposed and dis-intermediated without losing meaning.
Consider the semantic web:
Humans are capable of using the Web to carry out tasks such as finding the Finnish word for "monkey", reserving a library book, and searching for a low price for a DVD. However, acomputer cannot accomplish the same tasks without human direction because web pages are designed to be read by people, not machines. The semantic web is a vision of information that is understandable by computers, so that they can perform more of the tedious work involved in finding, sharing, and combining information on the web
What happens when the machine "understands" the query enough to provide a direct answer to a question, as opposed to returning a list of pages?
Black Clouds On The Content Producer Horizon, Or Opportunity?
So I don't know how to characterize the next 10 years except to say that we'll get to the point - the long-term goal is to be able to give you one answer, which is exactly the right answer over time.
Perhaps he was quoted out of context, but that strikes me as an absurd thing to say. As if there is ever one "right" answer. Well, I guess there is if you live in some Orwellian nightmare.
More importantly, if this is where Google intend to be in ten years time, then where does this leave content producers? If Google provides "the answer", why would anyone click-thru and visit a page? Conversely, why would anyone let Google crawl their content if Google's aim is to disintermediate the producer from their content? Johnon had an excellent post on this topic.
Recently, Google released rich snippets, a feature whereby you markup you data to suit Google's display criteria.
Rich Snippets give users convenient summary information about their search results at a glance.
If the answer is "rich" enough, I guess the user doesn't even need to visit your page. Perhaps the user will get distracted by the Adwords listings, instead ;)
If Google aims to extract information and keep the visitor on Google, rather than just acting as a conduit between visitor and page, then this does not bode well for content producers.
This brings up the burning "Newspaper vs Google" argument. "How", the newspapers argue, "can we make money if Google undermines our revenue model? Ultimately, this is a question all content producers must face. Just ask those in the music industry.
Seemingly in response, Google is planning to roll out micropayments in the next year:
Google is planning to roll out a system of micropayments within the next year and hopes that newspapers will use it as they look for new ways to charge users for their content.
The question is, will micropayments and web advertising be enough to pay the bills, especially when it comes to expensive, high-risk media production, such as television and movies:
Grade’s criticisms were echoed in October by C4 chief executive Andy Duncan, who said Google had failed to invest in UK content creation. “Google takes more ad revenue out of the UK than ITV makes and it isn’t regulated. It isn’t fair [that] it’s not reinvesting that back into content and independent film production companies in the UK,” said Duncan.
Content producers are posting losses, whilst Google continues to post massive profits. What happens if content isn't worth producing anymore? What happens when revenue falls below the cost of production? Or perhaps content will still be economic, but only if production quality is sacrificed? Is it really just a case of fat media producers cutting bloated production costs?
What is Google's long term strategy as far as content producers are concerned? Besides PR fluffery, they never really say.
It's Not All Bleak
Of course, if content producers really did get disintermediated to the point where content production wasn't worth doing, Google may well collapse soon after. What would there be left to search? Wikipedia?
Where would the "answers" come from? Who would fund "answer provision"? Sufficient income must flow to the content producers, but the question still remains "how"?
And I don't really think the page is going away. The page has served humans well for thousands of years as a container of information. But if the information on pages can be aggregated in such a way that users don't need to visit the source page, where does this leave content producers? Where does this leave SEOs?
In 2009, SEO plays fall into three distinct categories.
Agency model: people offer services to others for a fee.
Affiliate model: people gather traffic and funnel it somewhere else for a performance fee.
Content model: people generate content and make money off advertising.
The last model is, I'm guessing, is one a lot of SEOs will pursue. Many do so now.
Demand Media operates based on a simple formula for success on the Web: create a ton of niche, mostly uninspired content targeted to search engines, then make it viral through social software. Demand Media has been heavily funded to carry out that mission, to the tune of $355 million. So yes, brute force - quantity of content + money/power - works more often than we'd like to think on the Web.
The aggregator wields most of the power in this relationship, unless the publisher can lock in an audience who will by-pass the aggregator.
Those who fear disintermediation should in fact be afraid of irrelevance -- disintermediation is just another way of saying that you've become irrelevant to your customers. It doesn't mean there isn't a customer, or middlemen of some sort who service that customer, or that the core proposition of your business has disappeared. It just means you're in a bit of a rut, and as much as you might pine for the past, it's probably time to rethink things before it's too late.
He reasons that writers can go outside the traditional silos:
And what of the role of publisher or content creator? Increasingly, those who have the ability to create great media can get pretty far without attaching themselves to the traditional indentured servitude of a publisher, label or network. Writers, for example, are finding their own voices outside the strictures of magazines and newspaper publishers. Blogs like Boing Boing, Daily Kos and Cool Tools are drawing millions of readers each month, and their overhead is the cost of a high-speed Internet line.
However, what they're actually doing is jumping out of one silo and into another. Google is the master silo in this scenario.
So, what do you think? what is the role of SEO in the future? Will it be more about making connections, and a less about making pages? Will the page itself be subverted? Have Google gone moved beyond the idea of "organizing the world's information"?