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

Optimizing For Bing

Oct 8th
posted in

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.

This advice still stands.

Keeping Up With Bing

Google has Google Guy (Matt Cutts). Likewise, the Bing search team regularly reaches out to the SEO community. SEOs should bookmark the Bing Webmaster Centre announcements.

In particular:

NB: You need a Live Id to see those links.

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: Where Is It Going?

Sep 27th
posted in

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?

In a recent Techcrunch interview, Eric Schmidt said something rather telling:

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.

Check this out:

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.

Is Dis-intermediation Over-Rated?

On the flip-side, John Battelle argued a few years back that search dis-intermediation is overrated.

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"?

When is the Best Time to Hire an SEO Professional?

Sep 23rd

If you have the budget resources the best time to hire an SEO is before you start your website projects. However, most people new to the web lack the cashflow needed to buy quality SEO services. Further if they don't understand the complexities of the market and get bombarded with cheap (and low to no value) SEO package offers from web hosts, registrars, and email spammers they may think SEO should be cheap and easy, causing them to buy garbage - and become distrusting of the concept of SEO.

Your best bet (if you are new to the SEO field) is to do as many of the following as are practical

  • start a test Google AdWords campaign (and use the conversion feedback from this to help inform your SEO strategy)
  • if you are in a competitive AdWords market you might also want to watch the Google AdWords videos, and read books by guys like Andrew Goodman and Perry Marshall
  • buy 2 or 3 SEO books from Amazon.com (and see where some of the general tips and ideas overlap...mark up the books and take notes)
  • join a high caliber SEO membership site
  • read 5 or 10 of the top SEO blogs for a minimum of a month or 2
  • go to an SEO conference or 2

...and then from that collection of knowledge you can start building a bit of a strategy, some momentum, and some cash flow. That way if/when you do hire an SEO, you are the type of client who is worth having (ie: one that will receive a positive ROI, one who knows the basics and will make sure suggestions are implemented, and one who is willing to allocate significant resources in the search game).

If you are a small or local player in a fairly non-competitive non-saturated niche (a clue here might be if your AdWords campaign is instantly profitable then the market probably is not too saturated) you might be able to do well hiring an affordable SEO right out of the gate, but when you get down into the lower price bucket for services there is a market for lemons effect and over 99% of the offers are scams.

In spite of claims to the contrary, you can do SEO and SEM yourself, especially if the market is not saturated. More and more companies SEO is getting baked right into their content process and company culture - many companies that hire third party consultants also have an in house SEO team. Search is the highway new customers drive on for the next hundred years. SEO will be taught as a fundamental piece of marketing strategy in the next decade.

The big limitations to doing SEO yourself are if you don't understand some of the risks vs rewards and use a singularly focused SEO strategy then those types of sites can have wildly fluctuating rankings and higher than needed risk levels. The more supports you have the more solid and stable your search rankings will be, but if you just find 1 loophole that works and exploit it aggressively then when it stops working those types of sites can come crashing down.

This is where having an SEO consultant on retainer makes a lot of sense. It prevents some of the oh crap, I just destroyed my business moments that Google shows business owners every day. Think of an SEO consultant on retainer as an insurance policy on your business.

In the last couple days I have had multiple people contact me about their site after it got whacked in Google. That is sorta the wrong time to contact an SEO...it is far better to do so while you still have growth, momentum, and cashflow. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

If your site is banned or filtered then sometimes you have to take a step back before moving forward. A site that was banned for buying too many links will be looked at and evaluated more closely upon review by Google - such reviews take some gray hat opportunities off the table... a significant lasting cost in a competitive set of search results where business is often won or loss on small differences in strategy.

And in many cases where a site was penalized for being too aggressive there are similar techniques that can be used with a far lower risk profile. Hiring an SEO who can help you manage risk and growth while you have momentum (or during the slightest pull back) makes a lot of sense. It is leveraging expertise to help build a stronger foundation and a deeper competitive moat.

But asking them for help after your site is banned is much harder because for them to help you get unbanned they might have to try to ask for some favors or try to leverage their feedback channels they earned with the search engines. If they just keep making requests to get penalties removed then that makes them look pretty spammy, kills those feedback channels, and in some egregious cases penalties can take years to be lifted.

The goal of an SEO is not just to rank your site, but to keep it ranked as the structure of the web changes, Google's business goals change, and your competitive landscape changes. This often means working the gray areas to get a site built up, and then pulling back on the sketchier stuff as momentum is built and solid supports take over the role of pushing up rankings.

Managing risk is probably the singular most undervalued aspect of SEO consulting. Largely because the cost does not appear until it does - and by then it is already too late.

Link Buying: the Good, the Bad, & the Ugly

Sep 17th

Online Marketing is Complex

One thing I believe about online marketing (and SEO in particular) is that the more rigid the advice the lower its value, particularly when it is cast out to a general audience. Why? Online marketing incorporates psychology, sociology, game theory, etc. The human mind is complex. Understanding how many of them work together (or against each other) is even more complex.

There are hundreds or thousands of ways to win a market. Each idea is a tool that has potential risks and potential rewards on a per market and per project basis.

Link Building in 2003

With link buying people get emotional and just consider it out of the question. Back when I got started as an SEO, many SEOs were considered spammers simply because they even did any link building at all. Why?

  • It was amazingly effective.
  • It was time consuming and expensive work that many established SEOs did not want to do for their clients.

Since then the web graph has got amazingly polluted and paid links are treated similarly to how link building efforts were treated back then.

Few SEO Tips Are Universal

Rand recently stated that he no longer recommends paid links. If you philosophically didn't believe in buying links then why would you spend $1,000,000+ building a web graph of link data? What good is researching all the link data if you take link buying off the table as one of the options? Most of the competing links that you can replicate will require some level of payment.

Sure link buying does not make sense for everyone, but it makes a lot of sense for some businesses. And if you don't buy links then there is little purpose to link research tools, IMHO.

The potential risks & ROI in link buying are not the same for everyone. Saying link buying is off the table is like saying keyword research is off the table. Sure if you are TechCrunch you don't need to do keyword research to succeed, but it still wouldn't hurt to consider it.

Waiting in Obscurity is a Real Cost

Let's say that you are starting a brand new project and have 0 market momentum - a position almost every successful webmaster starts from at some point in time. I don't think there is risk in buying a few links because you have to start from somewhere. Most of the people who launched new websites in the past year will be out of it by the end of next year. The biggest online risk for new webmasters is perpetual obscurity.

While being obscure you are not...

  • building brand and momentum
  • building cashflow
  • building customer loyalty
  • optimizing conversion flows
  • catching up with established competitors who are re-investing into growing their businesses

One way or another you have to start doing some push marketing to build momentum. Eventually pull marketing can drag you along, but you don't benefit from it until AFTER you have built some awareness and market momentum.

At Pubcon 2 years ago Stephan Spencer mentioned you might get penalized 5 years from now for links you bought today. I said that I got started in SEO less than 5 years ago and if I didn't buy any links back then I wouldn't be speaking into the microphone right now. I also said that if you get penalized 5 years later for what you did back then well then you didn't build much of a business.

Brands

But for established brands doing limited link buying can still make a lot of sense. Since "brands are how you sort out the cesspool" there is much less risk in a brand buying a few links.

Some SEO consultants who are trying to appear like the safe option (to pull in corporate consulting clients) think that saying they don't recommend link buying makes them look wholesome, but any SEO who has worked for fortune 500s knows that once you get in the board room all that matters is efficacy.

Having wrote that, I can think of numerous instances where we advised clients to approach their overall strategy in a way that was less spammy and less risky than what they were already doing and what they were proposing.

Deep Links

If you don't buy links it is hard to influence the anchor text, particularly if you are doing SEO at the enterprise level AND want to get deep links into commercially oriented pages. Companies spend billions of dollars a year on organic SEO because ranking a few spots higher in Google can be worth a lot of money. If you know a #5 ranking is worth x, then there is a good chance that a #1 ranking can be worth something like 8x.

A Tool is a Tool

Am I advocating that everyone go out and buy links? Not at all. I am just saying that it does not make sense to categorically take it off the table. Link buying is a tool which has various value levels depending what market you are in and how your company is positioned.

Paid links can be a stepping stone or part of your strategy, but rarely should they be your entire strategy. On some client projects we have done we have suggested shifting away from doing as much link buying or reciprocal linking because we felt that the strategy needed to be more holistic and well rounded. It worked, and there was no reason to stop doing what already worked, but going forward it would make sense to leverage some of the brand assets and audience to build other types of links.

Where Link Buying Can Lead You Astray

If link buying is your only SEO strategy it is hard to stay competitive long-term because

  • if your link profile is nothing but paid links that is risky
  • if your link profile is nothing but paid links that is easy for competitors to clone
  • if you are in a big money market some competitors will have other assets to leverage against you in addition

Doing a bit of link buying way back when helped get me some exposure, but it didn't produce the explosive ROI that we got from doing things like going to conferences, networking with people, and launching a bunch of popular SEO tools. Link buying can be considered a support, but the most successful businesses typically have numerous supports.

Creative Link Buying

Did you see that Mint.com was recently bought by Intuit for $170 million? It seems they used a creative way to buy links:

To build demand, we started asking for email addresses for our alpha 9 months in advance of launch. Then when we had too many people sign up, we asked people to put a little badge that said “I want Mint” on their blogs to get priority access. We got free advertising and 600 link backs which raised our SEO juice.

See how they required links as payment for priority access? Well I would say they got a nice return on those link buys. And so would they. And now that they have so much momentum they can't and won't be penalized for buying links. ;)

Where Link Buying Can Make Sense?

  • if you are new and have nothing to lose
  • if your brand & link profile are so big that buying a few links won't stick out
  • in markets where the competitive barrier set by all the top ranked competitors includes an array of link buying (not saying you should match them link for link, but it might make sense to cherry pick a few of the best opportunities)
  • getting a few deep links with targeted anchor text
  • in markets where links are valuable and there are few organic links

A Word From Bing

One thing SEOs should love about Bing is that Bing's search team gives practical advice and does not try to scare you:

The truth is that getting bad links happens to great sites. We know this happens. In fact, we’ve never seen a decently ranking site that doesn’t have a few (or more) bad inbound links. We take the approach that bad inbound links won’t adversely affect your site ranking unless most or all of your inbound links are from bad sites.

Consider this as well: perhaps the reputation of the site linking to you is bad, but the content on the actual linking page is relevant to the page on your site. This could possibly be a decent inbound link—not as good as one from an authority site, but it might give you a little link goodness.

When it comes to inbound links, just remember this: zero inbound links are better than all bad inbound links. But if you have many good, relevant inbound links from respected sites, a few bad links won’t count against you (but they won’t help you, either).

So in general they look at the overall profile of the business when making editorial decisions and are not likely to penalize you for having a couple bad links. They not only won't penalize you for having a few bad links, but even expect them to be there.

Summary

I don't buy all that many links for SEO purposes. But I don't think it is a good perspective for most webmasters to remove the option from their tool set. Had I not bought links back in 2003 and 2004 I am not sure if I would have as big of an audience as I do today.

If you are just starting out and have limited capital you might want to approach link buying creatively (like Mint did), but if SEO is core to your business strategy you shouldn't be afraid to buy a few links.

What Do SEOs Know?

Sep 3rd
posted in

IIf you could tell the web 2.0/read-write/blogging/crowd-sourcing crowd one thing about search marketing, what would it be?

In a recent talk, given to bloggers, by Google Engineer Matt Cutts, Matt posed the question:

"What Do SEOs know that bloggers might not know?"

Matt goes on to talk about the merits of keyword research in terms of topic selection, and how understanding this concept can bring you a great deal of traffic. In summary, if you find out what keywords people search on, then add these to your page, you stand a good change of having those searchers land on your page. As SEOs know, there's more to it than that, but that's the quick version :)

Let's look a bit deeper into keywords.

Search Is A Reverse Broadcast System

I think Danny Sullivan first described search as a "reverse broadcast system". It's a great way to describe the value of search, and how to approach search in terms of marketing.

I liken search engines to being a 'reverse broadcast network.' People pay tons to be on television because you can get your message out in front of millions of people: broadcasting. With search engines, millions of people are telling you *their* messages: what they want to buy, purchase or get information about. You don't broadcast to them; instead, it's the reverse, they broadcast to you. There's very little if anything as a marketing or information medium that I can think of that compares to this. It's golden and still today amazingly unrecognized

In search marketing, you prosper when you let your visitors determine your content. They broadcast their intent to you, by phrasing a search query, so you should listen to that intent, and respond by providing appropriate content. Google does the match-making.

For example, if you learn that 5,400 people a month search for "antivirus software comparison", you could research and create this information, thus matching that demand with your supply of information.

How do we determine visitor intent?

The Search Phrase As A Means To Measure User Intent

If you're not an SEO and encountering this blog for the first time, you now now the most important thing about search marketing, and that is you need to match the content of your site to the intent of the search visitor. In a blog post recently, Seth Godin talked about the problem with advertising:

"(The internet) has created a surplus of attention. Ads go unsold. People are spending hours on YouTube or Twitter or Facebook or other sites and not spending their attention on ads, because the ads are either absent or not worth watching"

Seth was talking about the differences between old media advertising and new media advertising, but this is a problem related primarily to to a mismatch of user intent. The intent of users on Facebook is primarily social. Search, however, provides a more specific - and ultimately more lucrative - eco-system for the online marketer.

The intent of the visitor may be determined by analyzing the search phrase itself.

Three Types Of Search Queries

The study "Query Type Classifcation For Web Documents" (PDF) identifies three types of search query and how to quantify them:

  • Informational
  • Navigational
  • Transactional

An informational search is when people want to find out about something. i.e. What is the capital of Finland?. A navigational query is when users want to find a certain site i.e. Dell Computers A transactional query is when users want to aquire, although not necessary buy, something. For example, "where can I get guitar schematics"

There is a fair degree of guesswork involved in determining user intent. The keyword itself may provide clues. For example, "buy LCD monitor overnight delivery" tells you a great deal about user intent. "LCD monitor", less so.

When evaluating keyword terms, and deciding what content to provide, it pays to examine the keyword query in terms of query type. For example, the query "Buy LCD monitor overnight delivery" is clearly transactional. A visitor would expect to see an e-commerce page that facilitates a purchase, as opposed to a Wikipedia entry explaining the history of LCD monitors.

Generally speaking, transactional queries are good to target if you monetraize by providing something, either a good or service based upon a transaction or call-to-action. Navigational queries are good to target if you provide "where to" information - like a directory or a list of links - or you provide information closely aligned to a web destination. Informational queries are self-explanatory.

Of course, there are exceptions to these rules, and numerous points of cross-over i.e. a query might be informational, navigational and transactional.

The takeaway point is it is to seek to understand the main visitor intent. It will effect what information you present and how you present it. A page based around achieving a transaction will look very different to a page that provides information. If you're ranking well for a transactional query, but you only provide information, you'll lose an opportunity to engage visitors.

On-Page Keyword Integration

Once you've figured out user intent, and chosen your keyword phrases, you then need to integrate these terms into your content. A page should reflect and confirm the intent of the searcher. If the searcher is expecting to undertake a transaction, then the page should be organised in a way to facilitate the transaction.

Amazon provides a good example:

The "Buy Now" function is never far away from the users mouse click. The title is clear and prominent. Informational aspects are relegated to the bottom of the page.

You should provide confirmation the visitor has arrived in the right place. A good way to do this is to feature the search phrase high up on the page, preferably as a headline. This serves two purposes - it tells the search engine what the page is about, and confirms to your visitor that what they searched for and what they got are the same thing. If the visitor has to wade through too much information in order before getting a signal of confirmation, they're more likely to click back.

PPC marketing strategy also supports this theory. Common PPC practice is to include the keyword in the ad title, which can lead to higher click-thru rates than if you leave the keyword out. It stands to reason that a searcher expects to see the same keyword term they searched on echoed back at them.

The Long Tail

Did you know that 20-25% of search phases at Google are unique? 1/4 of all keyword searches have never been searched before! This is why it is important to include related phrases and synonyms on your page. The addition of related phrases and concepts allows you to pick up additional search visitor traffic from obscure combinations of keyword phrases.

The term "The Long Tail" was coined by Chris Andersen, and applied to online retailers, such as Amazon:

"A frequency distribution with a long tail has been studied by statisticians since at least 1946.[2] The distribution and inventory costs of these businesses allow them to realize significant profit out of selling small volumes of hard-to-find items to many customers, instead of only selling large volumes of a reduced number of popular items. The group comprised of a large number of "non-hit" items is called the Long Tail."

The Long Tail also applies to search. Whilst millions of people search for "used cars", a few hundred search for "used cars east texas". If you sell used cars in east Texas, then it makes sense to target these specific, long tail terms. What these terms may lack in sheer traffic numbers, they make up for in broadcasting specific intent.

Match that intent with your service provision, and you're laughing.

How To Put It All Together

  • Visitor search streams determine your content. Use the SEOBook Keyword Research Tool to find keyword terms relating to your business/topic. You can approximate the highest value terms using SEM Rush
  • Having assembled a keyword list, find related keywords and synonyms of those terms. You can use the SEOBook Keyword Research Tool. Or Google's Keyword Tool
  • Split the obvious terms into transactional, navigational, and informational. This will dictate how you prioritize the content on the page. i.e. a transactional query needs a clear call to action featured prominently
  • Create pages. Place the keyword term in a proment place on the page, preferably in a heading. This will help confirm to the visitor they have arrived at the right palce
  • Watch visitor traffic and interaction. If you're seeing high frequency - or strong conversions - for obscure terms, consider writing a page dedicated to this term.
  • Rinse and repat

So long as your site is being crawled by Google, and you've got a few inbound links, traffic will soon flow to your door. What you do with all that new found traffic is up to you :)

For an indepth look at keyword strategies, check out Aaron's tutorial in the members area.

Cleansing Misinformation, One Blog Post at a Time!

Sep 2nd

Recently a well known SEO blogger mentioned that they didn't understand why real professional SEOs advocate variation between page titles and on-page headings. This blog post is a free SEO consult for that person :)

Hopefully it clears the public SEO space of some misinformation.

Are You Missing Keywords?

People search for literally billions of unique search queries each month. You either target those searchers, or you miss them. Think about how many people query Google every day, and then look at this graphic:

Keyword tools are driven off of a sample of keyword data, and are thus top heavy. In some cases a keyword tool will only show you 5 or 10 related keywords for a core keyword that has driven traffic to a page via hundreds of unique search keywords.

What is Duplication?

Each piece of duplication in your on-page SEO strategy is ***at best*** wasted opportunity. Worse yet, if you are aggressive with aligning your on page heading, your page title, and your internal + external link anchor text the page becomes more likely to get filtered out of the search results (which is quite common in some aggressive spaces).

Even if you build a site (and a particular page) that are authoritative enough to capture a #1 keyword ranking, if your on-page SEO is strong you still get far more traffic from longtail keywords.

How to Include Variation in Your SEO Strategy

So how can you balance your on-page SEO strategy to capture more of the highly valuable search traffic? You can...

  • use singular vs plural
  • use synonyms
  • use various keyword modifiers
  • change word order

The bottom line is using more relevant keyword variations = more traffic.

Apples to Apples

Thinking about this site...we have competitors who have similar site age, way more inbound links, ~10x the number of employees, 5 times as many pages of content indexed by Google, more comments on each page, and yet we still get more search traffic.

Meanwhile I have made over 15,000 forum posts + build out a bunch of other websites (ie: doing a lot of work other than SEO for this site)...so our relative out-performance on much more limited resources comes from using a smarter and more comprehensive SEO strategy.

We don't get as much Twitter traffic, but then we don't target the hype and misinformation game as well as others do. ;) (Everyone has their own niche target market!)

Bonus Tip

Some people understand SEO on a mechanical level. Others understand it on a holistic level. This is one of those tips that separates the men from the boys. ;)

Some content management systems force the page title and the heading to be the same by default. But both Drupal (Page title) and Wordpress (SEO title tag) have plugins that allow you to make the on-page heading different from the page title. This allows you to optimize for different things. You can...

  • create a headline for RSS readers that is designed around piquing curiosity and/or targeting emotional reactions to pull in clicks
  • create a keyword laden page title that is designed to pull in latent search traffic

Not only does variation allow you to target those 2 different audiences (and pull in more search traffic), but readers often link to content using the official title in the anchor text. So if you make the page title and on-page heading different that can help you get more keyword variation in your inbound link anchor text as well.

There Is More To Optimization Than SEO

Aug 25th

What is the purpose of that new page you're adding to your site?

Is it to rank highly for a keyword term? That's half the battle won, of course :)

After the visitor has arrived on your page, what do you want the visitor to do next?

According to Seth Godin, you probably want a visitor to do one of five things:

  • Click to go to another page on your site
  • Buy something
  • Register for something
  • Click on/view advertising
  • Pass your message on to a friend

So, if you build a landing page, and you're going to invest time and money to get people to visit it, it makes sense to optimize that page to accomplish just one of the things above. Perhaps two, but no more.

Keep that desired action firmly in mind when you design and optimize your pages. The first rule of optimization is to optimize for humans. Ranking a page, only to have visitors click away, is a waste of time and effort.

Optimize For Focus

In the SEOBook Forums, we offer site reviews as a service to members.

We often see sites where it isn't clear what they visitor needs to do. This is usually caused by too many options presented on one page. By trying to please all audiences, we often end up pleasing nobody.

Decide the key action you want people to take, and relegate all other options. Either move some options to a different page, or reduce the visual weight of other options relative to the main action you want a visitor to take.

Here's a great example of a site where the one key action is in clear focus: DailyBurn.com

An exception to this rule is when the user is very familiar with the site. A lack of options often means too many clicks to get things done. However, if your page is focused on the first time searcher, then simplicity and clarity is the way to go.

Visual Focus

Do you know where people's eyes focus when they land on your site?

Check out this tool at FenGui. The tool tries to work out how people will visually scan your site. Some web statistics packages, such as Google Analytics and ClickTracks, provide visual click tracking based on user activity.

Before deciding on a template for your site, it is a good idea to test out your ideas using PPC. Knock up a few different designs, run a short campaign and use split/run testing to determine which page layout result in the user taking the desired action most often. Armed with this information, you're less likely to waste time in your SEO campaign.

Design Considerations

There are few hard and fast rules when it comes to web design, because each element you add will affect what is already there. Or not there.

However, a few factors remain constant:

  • The eye will be attracted to color blocks
  • The eye will be attracted to human faces or forms
  • Whitespace promotes readability - keep paragraphs short, use headings and bulletpoints

Make sure all visual elements underscore the desired action.

Where Web Design/ SEO Often Goes Wrong

The success of a page should be measured by one criteria:

Does the visitor do what you want them to do?

Often, other criteria will blur this vision. For example, a designer who is more interested in winning awards than ensuring your pages do what they should, may make a page pretty, but sometimes pretty doesn't result in a desired action. An SEO can sometimes be overzealous in terms of keyword usage, which can result in dense text and odd-phrasing, which has the potential to put visitors off.

There is little point putting a lot of effort into attracting visitors if they don't do what you want them to do.

A Word About Adsense

Positioning of adsense can be the difference between making pocketmoney and making a living. Look at Adsense as a visual element, as opposed to a block of text. Typography and text layout are design elements, every bit as much as graphics.

Are your eyes drawn to Adsense as you scan the page? If not, you may need to tone down other visual display elements, including color, to make Adsense Ads stand out. If Adsense is the way you monetize, the desired user action is the click. Are other elements on your page, be they links or graphics, competing for that click?

How To Buy SEO Services

Aug 21st
posted in

You've launched your website. Everybody you show it to thinks that it is great. You're starting to get some traffic. You search Google for your site.

You can't find it anywhere.

If you've arrived at SEOBook.com, chances are you're trying to solve that problem. Welcome to the world of SEO :)

SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. It is a process whereby websites can gain higher rankings in the search engines. If you find any of the terminology confusing, check out our SEO Glossary.

Can You Do It Yourself?

Of course! Here's how to do it for free.

Ensure that your pages are crawlable, and readable, by search engines. Make a list of around 20 keyword terms that relate to your topic, and write a page on each. Create a site map pointing to each page, and link all your pages to the site map. Finally, build links.

Also read:

Got some training budget? Well, we would recommend this training course - of course ;) Tells you all about SEO and internet marketing - and more - as well as providing personal support in the forums.

Should You Do It Yourself?

Like anything, doing it yourself requires a personal investment in terms of your time. It also requires a desire to dive into technical aspects of search engines and publishing on the web.

If you have neither the time nor the desire, there are many professional SEOs who can take care of the task for you.

How To Select An SEO Professional

Whilst there are training courses run by independent operators, there are no formal industry certifications for SEO providers.

The reason for this is that few SEOs agree on optimal process and practices. Secondly, the search engines have an uneasy relationship with SEO. This is mostly due to the fact SEO competes with the search engines click-driven business model, and overly-aggressive tactics used by some SEOs can degrade the quality of search results.

The way to judge SEO professionals isn't by any claimed qualifications. SEO professionals should be judged by their results. In the SEO world, talk is cheap.

What To Expect

An SEO will adapt content and links in an effort to get you more exposure in search engine results pages.

While it would be nice to be able to pay an SEO to get you a #1 ranking for a high trafficked term, forevermore, SEO doesn't work this way.

The search engines rank sites based on a number of criteria, and that criteria is a closely guarded secret. Secondly, even if SEOs did know the criteria, it may not help. For example, Google places weight on historical factors, such as links built up over a long period of time. These links may be very difficult to obtain.

The criteria is also in a state of flux. What worked a few years ago may not work now.

Typically, what an SEO will do is ensure your site is included in the search engine indexes. Some web design approaches make it impossible for search engines to index a site. The SEO will also tweak existing content, and add new content, with the aim of ranking pages for topic areas related to your business. This can be a hit and miss affair, but generally speaking, the more content you have on your site that the search engine is able to see, the more traffic you're likely to receive.

An SEO will also try and get links pointing to a site, as links are a big part of Google's ranking criteria. If you're feeling adventurous, here is the maths that lies behind Google.

Over time, you should expect search engine referrals from targeted visitors to rise after having implemented an SEO strategy.

What To Watch Out For

Poor Metrics/Illusion Of Action - Some SEOs use poor performance metrics, one of which is ranking.

If no-one searches on a particular phrase, then ranking for the phrase is pointless. It's the equivalent of putting up a sign in a desert, miles form the road - no one will see it. It is very easy to get a page to rank for a keyword term that has little competition. Mention the keyword phrase on your page somewhere, and it will likely rank.

Instead, consider defining performance goals based on your business metrics. Do you want more traffic from search engines? Do you want more conversions? Align these goals with your SEO goals. Ensure the terms you're ranking for translate into measurable business advantage.

Overly-Aggressive Tactics - the search engines take a dim view of aggressive tactics, which can result in a site ban. Whilst this is highly unlikely, it can happen. If you wish to remain cautious, then your SEO should stay within published search engine guidelines. There is an appeals process if your site is penalized, however this can take time.

This is largely a risk vs reward question. The reason some SEOs are aggressive is because it can get results when less aggressive techniques fail. This is not to say aggressive techniques will always work, or that less aggressive techniques won't. A lot depends on the site and the area in which you're competing.

Guarantees - there are no such thing as ranking guarantees, especially if they imply the SEO has control over the search engine results. They do not.

Carefully examine the terms of the guarantee. Worthwhile guarantees, as far as the client is concerned, are where the SEO promises to satisfy criteria based on measurable, business metrics.

Resources

For an indepth look at selecting an SEO provider, members can take a look at Aaron's "Buying SEO Services"

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