One of the common questions we get is how to build links for a new site. In our training site we offer our 12 week link building roadmap and a list of directories to submit to, but I also thought I should discuss link building in general. A good basic rule of thumb (though a bit conservative of one) is to build links in a manner where every month you build as many or more links than you built the prior month.
Graph of 3 Different Link Profiles
3 Common Link Building Strategies
spiky. if the spikes are associated with news and viral marketing then that is not a big problem, but if they are sorta bought links, low quality links, etc. then this is sorta the worst way to do it.
linear. not as bad as spiky...but not as good as geometric. this is where a webmaster tries to build the same number of links each month.
geometric. this is where link building starts off slow, but then keeps getting better each month.
If a website is a real website that is generally a useful utility and did not do any viral marketing this would be the most natural profile of how to build links
The reason links keep building faster is that exposure breeds more exposure and if the site is genuinely useful and original some people will link to it even without you asking. This phenomenon can be described through understanding cumulative advantage and self-reinforcing authority.
Plus as you build a useful site and do some social networking it builds social capital that can be leveraged when doing future promotions of featured content.
While I try to do geometric when I can, sometimes we build links a bit spike because sometimes we do things in a rushed series or sometimes we do viral marketing.
The viral stuff is not harmful...if you do quality viral stuff you want big spikes of links from it because those will be very hard links for competitors to try to clone. But odds are that some of our links might only count partially when we build them in spikes and there is no viral story associated with it.
If we know we are going to be somewhat spiky then we try to spread it out and pace it a bit with a month to a month and a half in between each build effort (rather than do it all in the first week).
When launching linkbaits you can't guarantee which ones will work and which ones will not. But the key is to launch them regularly. You wouldn't want to do a couple of them that go viral in the first month, and then follow up by doing none for the next 6 months.
Brand new sites only get partial credit for links until their own site ages a bit and gets trusted more.
Older sites that are pretty well trusted with a strong foundation of links can be quite spiky with no problem at all.
BUT older sites that only have a few links and suddenly build a ton of links real fast can end up with ranking issues.
After sites are established enough they may not need to work on doing too much link building (especially if they are pulling in many organic links due to the exposure from their current rankings and/or other distribution channels like email and blogging). BUT if they do nothing and the competition keeps investing in link building then eventually they will catch up.
Link Anchor Text
It is also worth noting that you don't want to use the exact same anchor text on every link. Using a variety of related phrases (seo blog, seo blogs, search engine optimization blog, etc.) would be far better than just using the exact same anchor text over and over again.
Many Types of Links
You can be successful by primarily building 1 type of link from a class of websites, but if you can get links from a variety of types of link sources that will make your site strong and rankings stable even if one class of links gets deweighted. Todd Malicoat's Balancing the Link Equation is the canonical resource on that topic. And the more diverse your link profile is the harder it will be for a competitor to clone your work.
There are a lot of parallels between Google AdWords and SEO, and a lot of the beginner mistakes are the same for both traffic acquisition strategies. I figured it would be worth outlining some of the most common ones to help save you money on your search engine marketing campaigns.
Since Google factors click-through rate (CTR) into their quality scores, anything that influences CTR influences your click prices. And while competitors can and will steal your AdWords ad copy, they CAN'T steal your domain name.
There are many potential errors that can be made with domain names. Two of the more common errors are creating a domain name that is impossible to remember and creating a name that restricts expansion.
Some people feel the need to limit their domain name budget to $10, but it is a foolish strategy. Almost every piece of marketing you do will be influenced by your domain name. Your domain name has limited recurring costs associated with it, but can represent a huge recurring market advantage or disadvantage. Yeah for CreditCards.com, and boo for cheapest-online-apply-credit-cards-and-loans.info.
If you are using Google AdWords for a new product or a non-branded product then test clickthrough rates across multiple domain names.
Make sure your domain name allows you to expand as needed. This is sorta an error I made early on with this site...I had no idea how successful the site would become when I started it and did not anticipate us creating the #1 SEO training program back when I thought of selling an ebook.
Avoid names that are impossible to remember. If you intend to create something that is easy to market online and offline then your domain name must pass the phone test, which typically means avoiding hyphens & numbers. This is especially true if you are trying to build a big brand.
If you feel your company may expand internationally it is best to buy any matching domain extensions where you might intend to eventually do business.
1 page can only be relevant for a certain sector of search queries. In an efficient market anyone who directs all traffic to the homepage will lose a lot of money.
Every additional click you force users to make has some amount of slippage. When using Google AdWords / pay per click marketing a small change in conversion rates can be the difference between sustained profits and sustained losses.
It is sorta impossible to make a page "optimized" for hundreds or thousands of popular keywords because eventually after you add enough different keywords in the page copy it ends up reading bad and it harms conversion rates.
With SEO efforts mis-directing traffic is not as obvious as it is with AdWords because you don't have to pay for every click. But giving users an irrelevant experience still means you are throwing money away and only operating at a fraction of your potential.
With the prevalence of Google (and web search in general) every page of your site is the front door. We navigate via search. So map out keywords against URLs and try to offer the most relevant user experience whenever possible.
Observe how we map out core keywords, variations, and modifiers.
Some Google AdWords advertisers take perceived relevancy one step further and use the search query to help define the page content through the use of keyword insertion into their page copy and/or altering the page based on geographic information based on your computer's IP address.
3. No Link Building
The equivalent of links to AdWords is keywords in your AdWords account. If you only advertise on 1 or 2 keywords you miss out on a large stream of relevant traffic.
If you build it they will come is simply not true in the search game. If it was easy to rank for competitive keywords without links then few companies would buy AdWords ads. You can't typically rank a new site until you have some level of awareness. Search engines follow people. Links are seen as votes of trust.
With AdWords, don't just bid on 1 keyword. Look for additional relevant variations that make sense. If you don't mind splashing out $50 you can also look at what competing sites are advertising on using SEM Rush, Keyword Spy, SpyFu, and/or KeyCompete. There are so many new tools popping up in this market segment that I have not had the time to review them all.
For SEO, download SEO for Firefox and the SEO Toolbar and look at how many links competing sites have and how many domain names those links come from. You will likely need to build some number of links in the range of what competing sites have (from a similar set of sites) to rank. Today is the perfect day to start building links. And yesterday was even better. ;)
4. All Links to the Homepage
Since you are buying the links from the search engines based on keyword, this problem would be corrected by solving issue #2.
A variation of the above thinking. Most quality sites have useful content somewhere that people link to editorially. If all your links point at the homepage then that means you are not using anchor text from external links to boost your internal page ranks. In most markets that creates a big loss considering that some of those pages would get a lot of traffic with just a few more deep links which would yield higher rankings.
Create linkworthy content that people would want to link at and push market it. The objective (vs self-interested) viewpoint here is "if you did not own your site what is unique about it that would make you want to visit it every week and/or recommend it to a friend?"
5. No Link Anchor Text Variation (or AdWords Ad Copy Variation)
You shouldn't use the exact same ad copy on all of your keywords. You should segment it out by trying to understand user demand and create compelling advertising text that is relevant to the search query, relevant to the user demand, and relevant to your landing page. If you use a single generic boilerplate ad copy you are loosing a lot of money because your ad will not look as relevant as some of the top competing ads.
When people link to things naturally there tends to be some variation involved. If all your inbound links say "my keywords" then that can look suspicious...particularly if you are buying lots of links.
With AdWords, at a minimum you would want to use dynamic keyword insertion. But if you sell a lot of different products then you should try to find a way to match up small groups of relevant keywords against a set of ad copy. Make your core keywords stand out on their own, and be willing to be somewhat less descriptive with low search volume backfill keywords.
With SEO you should try to mix up your link anchor text when you are manually building links. If you create original compelling content that people want to link at (and push market it to the right audience) then that will also pull in natural anchor text.
6. No Focus on Quality
Some advertisers are compelled to go after "cheap" clicks. But some of the more expensive keywords are expensive because they are associated with significant and valuable consumer demand.
Google algorithms estimate the probability of a new site being quality or low quality. If you start off with 2,000+ "free" directory links you align your site with sites that are often of lower quality. Similarly, if you try to promote watered down or average content then few people will be receptive to those efforts.
There is nothing wrong with buying cheap traffic, but make sure you track the business value you get from that traffic. If you buy "cheap" traffic from 3rd tier ad networks and/or keywords without any commercial intent those will not build your business anywhere near as well as developing a solid traffic stream from valuable industry keywords on leading search engines.
Start your link building efforts with quality links first. As your site gets more trusted you can fill in some lower quality links as well, but you don't want to do it first, and you don't want to do it in bulk.
When you decide to do push marketing for link building make sure the content you are promoting is unique, original, useful, compelling, & citation-worthy.
7. Lacking On Page Optimization
Quality user experience and usability are crucial to converting well. When users come from search to your site they are switching channels. The more cues you can give them that they are in the right place (like relevant page headings + navigation) the higher your conversion rates and visitor value should be.
For every person searching for "seo" or "sem" there are probably 10 people searching for more obscure queries like "how do I promote my business on Google?" You can see how our page about link building ranks for hundreds of related keywords.
This is probably the single most powerful graphic explaination of why having lots of useful on-page content:
With SEO you can reach a lot of the searchers by using alternate word forms, alternate word orders, related phrases, and keyword modifiers in your content.
8. No Site Structure
If your AdWords ad campaigns are not well organized then you are likely losing money. A strong site structure also helps ensure that your AdWords account has a strong structure, which can aid profitability.
If your site is not structured well then...
navigation will likely be hard or confusing
some of your key pages may not get much of your link authority
some of your unimportant pages may accumulate a lot of your link authority
Create separate AdWords campaigns based on goals. Perhaps you can have campaigns for brand related searches, seasonal offers, public relations, campaigns that are based on ROI metrics, and even backfill campaigns like misspellings.
Some content management systems (CMS) have major errors with duplicate content and site structure issues. A review of that topic is beyond the scope of this article, but search for the name of the CMS and SEO prior to implementing it to verify there are no serious issues and/or that there are easy fixes on the market.
Set up site categories and sub-categories that are aligned against the keywords people use to search for your products and services.
If you blog (or publish content regularly) reference older related materials when relevant.
If your content is in a database you can use automated contextual links to help fix some site structural issues and redistribute PageRank down toward lower pages in your site structure.
My very first profitable website was a no value add website that I got some spammy links for. The site did make thousands of dollars in affiliate commissions (a gift from God at the time), but that income was only made ***because*** I was a bad speller and misspelled some casino brand names back before search engines integrated spell correcting aggressivley. Such a site would simply go nowhere today.
Google often considers sites without value add to be unneeded duplication and/or spam. If you ever get a chance to read some of the Google Remote Quality Rater Documents you can see what Google believes is associated with "value add."
In competitive AdWords markets competing businesses are forced to keep improving their business processes and efficiencies to be able to afford increasing bids from competing businesses.
If you have a lower lifetime customer value than competing businesses you may eventually be driven out of the market.
With some seedy affiliate offers in many cases the only people with sustained profit margins are basically those who are surprisingly sleazier than the rest of the market or those who are barely breaking even themselves, but are using their blog to build a downstream of followers that they get commissions from.
Some (perhaps most?) affiliate networks ***will*** shave your commissions AND steal your keyword list if you send them the data.
If you don't have a value add and want to play catch up in a competitive SEO market you need to have some sort of competitive advantage (be it nepotism, domain name, market experience, etc.).
Making paid things freely available, creating useful software or tools, and having deeper & better editorial are 3 great ways to add value and win marketshare.
10. Competitive Saturated Market With Inadequate Budget
In some markets it is hard to compete buying traffic without having a strong brand. If Geico pays Google $30 a click, but only pays affiliates $10 per lead then there is no way an affiliate can compete against Geico on the core industry keywords like auto insurance.
If there is no demand for an idea then it is quite hard to create demand through search engine marketing. Search engine marketing works best when it captures existing demand.
Keyword research tools can give you estimates of search volume.
Since AdWords is so much quicker and easier to test than building a full site and implementing an SEO campaign, you can use AdWords to test market demand and interest for an offer before spending money building and marketing a full website.
It can be good to be out front of trends (as one of the easiest ways to win a market is to be the first person in it), but just as easily you can go after an established high money market with your own original spin or angle.
12. Pick a Market Which Does Not Monetize
If similar competing business models have much higher visitor value you may have to change your business model to compete. Some low earning business models might simply be precluded from participating in the AdWords market in a meaningful way.
There is nothing wrong with building a site about a topic you are passionate about and interested in without knowing how well it will monetize, but if you are trying to build a business you should pick something with a high enough visitor value to create enough profit potential to make it worth the time and money investment.
If you are planning on participating in the AdWords market, but have a low margin business then you should look for ways to increase profit margins, customer order size, and lifetime customer value.
If you run an editorial site it can be a good idea to under-monetize off the start to build market momentum without people viewing you as a competitor, but it can be hard to bolt on a business model if you have spent a lot of time servicing the wrong market segments.
13. Over-Aggressive Monetization From Day 1
If you are buying traffic there is no problem with trying to monetize it. But most website visitors will not convert.
Sell in line text links & have pop ups? Is ever other post an affiliate link? If so, why would anyone want to subscribe to an ad stream when there are many useful alternatives to look at?
Since most website visitors will not convert to paying customers on the first visit, you should look to establish a relationship with them by giving them a free offer and/or some reason to come back to your website. You can see the offer we make at the bottom of our pages and on our join now page.
Existing leading trusted sites that have built up a following benefit from cumulative advantage. If your site is brand new and driven by editorial content it is a good idea to give away more value than you capture. Under-monetize until you build enough market momentum to make your rankings stick even when you do monetize.
Consider monetizing some areas of your site more aggressively while not monetizing other sectors of your site, but instead using them for public relations and link building.
When we launch SEO projects, we've often got one eye on the future.
We start with a site that ranks nowhere, then we build links and optimize with the expectation that a few months from now, we'll start getting rankings, and traffic. Are the keyword terms we rank for going to be worthwhile over time? Will search volumes in our niche increase? Will they decrease? Are there more lucrative niches we could target instead? What will our market be interested in this time next year? Where is our market moving?
Given that search engine ranking has a long lead time, it pays to think about keyword trends well ahead of time.
The problem with the future is that it is difficult to predict. However, spotting trends is somewhat easier, and gives us an insight into how our niche is likely to develop. Trends typically follow a gradual, predictable pattern.
Let's take a look at a few tools you can use to help spot long term keyword trends.
Trend Spotting Tools
Google Trends is a useful tool for predicting rising interest in keyword areas. Search on your keyword terms, and see if interest in your niche is rising or falling. Ideally, you want to find keyword areas that show an increasing level of interest, or areas where there is significant, steady interest over time.
Likewise, Google Insights For Search allows you to drill down into the data in a variety of ways, including by date, by region, by category and by source. The related terms section is particularly useful for getting new keyword ideas, and analyzing trends. Click the RSS icon at the bottom, and you can keep up to date with this information in your RSS Reader. I use Google's Reader.
Twitter Search is a good tool for trend spotting. Possibly the most useful aspect of Twitter, as far as the SEO is concerned, is the ease of which you can spot keyword trends in terms of everyday usage. Search for your keyword term and make a note of the words people use in conjunction with your keyword terms. In what context does your keyword appear? Integrate these words into your copy.
Also check out Twist which shows keyword trends in Twitter over time, although it is limited to the last 30 days.
Both Microsoft Ad Intelligence and Google Adwords provide seasonal trends, which is especially useful for looking at interest patterns linked to the time of year, an obvious example being gift buying at Christmas.
Paid research tools, such as Keyword Discovery, provide historical data. Also check out Compete.com and WikiRank. WikiRank shows you what people are reading on Wikipedia. It’s based on the actual usage data from the Wikipedia servers, and provides trending data.
Microsoft Bing (I can't type that name without thinking of "Friends") provides XRank, a service that gathers related trend information and presents it on the same page, although the keyword terms it shows any results for seem to be rather limited.
So the takeaway point is to look at both keyword usage volumes and keyword trends over time.
Determine your bread-and-butter terms i.e. the terms that show constant levels of traffic and construct your link building strategy around these terms. Also look at the the emerging terms in your niche i.e. the terms with a rapidly climbing trend graph. Use this trend information as a suggestion list for new article topics. Watch your stats and look for rising areas of interest. Also try looking at keyword research from the opposite direction. Spot a rising trend, then make a list of keywords suggested by that trend.
In summary, a taxonomy is the practice and science of classification.
In terms of search, we focus on classifying keywords into three distinct classes - navigational, informational and transactional.
If you can determine user intent behind keyword queries, you can better target your keyword strategies. For example, if your aim is to sell goods online, you may choose to focus on transactional queries e.g. "where can I buy an LCD monitor....", as opposed to informational queries e.g. "power requirements of an LCD monitor......".
There is, of course, a lot of cross-over between these three types of queries, which I'll address shortly.
The Three Types Of Searches
In the study, keyword queries are divided into three groups.
A navigational query indicates the searcher wants to find a specific site.
For example, a search for "BMW" most likely indicates the the user wants to find BMW.com. Navigational queries usually only have one "right" answer. The user either finds the site they are after, or they do not.
An informational query indicates the searcher is looking for specific information.
For example, "symptoms of cancer", "San Francisco" or "Scoville heat units". Informational queries tend to be broad. The informational query doesn't tend to be site specific.
A transactional query indicates the searcher wants to perform a web-mediated activity. For example, "buy LCD TV online".
If your aim is to sell goods and services online, you might focus more on transactional queries than informational queries. The problem with such classification, of course, is that it is narrow. We can't really determine user intent from just looking at the keyword, however this classification gives us a useful way of thinking about which keyword terms might be the most useful in achieving our goals.
Results Of The Survey
There are some really interesting results in this report.
24.53% of people want to get to a specific website they already have in mind. This is a navigational query
This is why brand, and making your brand memorable, is so important. Searchers often type a site name into a search engine, rather than type http://www....etc into the address bar. Optimizing for the name of your site is imperative if you want to catch navigational queries.
68.41% of people want to find a good site on a particular topic. They don't have a specific site in mind. This is an informational query
A lot of SEO is focused on this type of query.
Why did people conduct their searches?
8.16% were shopping for something to buy on the internet
5.46% of people were shopping to buy an item, but not on the internet
22.55% of people wanted to download a file (i.e. image, music, software, etc)
57.19% None of these reasons
What were people looking for?
14.83% were looking for a collection of links to other sites regarding a particular topic
76.62% The best site regarding this topic
Interesting, huh. Site's like About.com and Mahalo capture both these types of queries.
Although the test data is limited, it is interesting to note that sites targeting a transactional query can be further down the search result set than the informational query and still receive attention, if not a click.
When conducting an informational query, if searchers don't see the information they want in the first search result, they will refine their search. The same goes for navigational queries.
If you're targeting the transactional query, however, the wording of your title tag could give you an advantage over those who rank higher than you. When conducting a transactional query, searchers often hunt further down the result page, or across to the Adwords, to see which listing sounds most interesting to them.
How To Integrate This Knowledge Into Your Strategy
So how do you apply this information?
If you choose to focus on one type of query.....
Know Your Users
There are many cues of relevancy left by the market. All you have to do is look for them.
Look at the ads
Google typically only shows AdWords ads above the organic search results *if* they generate a high clickthrough rate (CTR). And since advertisers using AdWords are paying for every click, you can presume that for expensive keywords many of those ads are matched up with strong user intent.
Tools like SpyFu ad history and KeywordSpy can help show you who has been advertising on those keywords for the longest period of time. Those who have been doing it a long time are typically either optimizing their ad copy OR losing a lot of money.
Microsoft offers a search funnels tool which allows you to research keywords they recently searched for prior to searching for a keyword, OR keywords they searched for after they searched for a keyword.
Microsoft also has an entity association tool which can be used to find keywords that were co-occuring in the search or searched for in the same session.
Beyond data from the above tools, you can also infer a lot of data just by putting yourself in the mind of the consumer
Determine which type of search you're targeting - informational, transactional, navigational - and segment the audience accordingly
Align your site to the intent of the user. For example, a searcher who is after information is going to want to see an authoritative looking site. What is an authoritative looking site? It will differ depending on the market you are in, but it is highly unlikely the searcher will react well to a site plastered with advertising. The site will have markers of authority, such as recommendations, perhaps a display of qualifications, and information laid out in an "academic" way (Wikipedia), as opposed to a blatant sales pitch (Multi-Level Marketing). The transaction searcher will want confirmation (e.g. a big logo) s/he has arrived in the right place.
Look for emotional angles and user intent targeting strategies that competing businesses are missing. Is free shipping a big deal? Is everyone trying to sell to a person that is looking to research and compare? Find a compelling way to stand out and differentiate yourself from the competition. Even if you are only targeting 30% of searchers you can still get more traffic being the only person doing that rather than the 8th consecutive similar offer.
Track user behavior to confirm intent. Get people to sign up for more detailed information, note which pages people spend the most time on, which keyword terms lead to conversion, etc. Feed this information back into your strategy
The transactional user is more likely to forgive ads. In fact, they may even welcome them, so long as the advertising is relevant.
Integrate All Three Search Types
One of the problems with the study, as noted in the study, is that it is very difficult to determine intent just by looking at the keyword.
For example, an informational search could end up being a transactional search once the user is satisfied that with the answer to the information they were seeking. For example, "symptoms of flu" might turn into a purchase for a flu remedy.
That's why it can be a good idea to target all types of query, in an integrated way.
Carefully consider how you word your title tags. Integrate brand aspects for the navigational query i.e. "SEOBook.com - SEO Training Made Easy". Convey the information you provide "i.e. SEO Training" and transactional information i.e. the implication is that people can buy "SEO training". This information is also repeated in the snippet, although webmasters often have less control over this aspect.
Keep in mind that transactional doesn't just mean e-commerce. It can relate to any desired action, such as a sign-up to a newsletter, or a request for more information.
One aspect of web marketing that is getting more important is building communities and tribes. People who will return, in other words. You're unlikely to engage a community of people if all you ever offer is transactions. This is why Amazon integrates reviews and other social aspects in order to hook people in on a number of levels, even though the primary aim is to sell goods. Also check out Bill's excellent "Bills Blues" example.
What approach do you take? Do you narrow in on one type of query? Go wide and try to catch all three? Please share your thoughts in the comments.
As we all know, the last thing Google wants to do is make life easy for SEOs, so we'll just have to live with the constant change. One of the biggest changes SEOs have had to adapt to in recent times has been algorithm shifts that reward big players.
For example, Google results heavily feature YouTube (owned by Google, of course) and Wikipedia pages in against almost every search we make.
Let's look at some of the advantages of big business, and ways the small guy can counter them.
Advantages Of The Big Players
Unlike the small business, large businesses have access to significant amounts of capital. They can use this capital, indirectly, to buy position.
They can run large ongoing media campaigns that ensure visitors, links and attention, and all the resulting ranking advantages that provides. Big business can cross promote their properties, which makes it easier to launch new sites. They can buy out competitors (Google - YouTube) and trounce the competition, even though they enter late. They have many employees they can throw at problems, and waves of lawyers to throw problems at others.
What does the little guy have?
An internet connection.
Google Has Devalued Easy Tricks
The low hanging fruit is gone.
Google will always be a moving target. As the structure of the web changes, Google changes with it.
In the last few years, Google have devalued on page factors, they've made link building a lot more difficult, and the playing field is far from level. When the big guys get caught out using aggressive SEO, they're often given a free pass back into the index, because to not have them showing would devalue Google. The little guy is likely to be excluded for some time.
Because they are big, they can often only operate in tried and tested ways. For example, there's a Telecoms company that have just wasted tens of millions of dollars on a website that most bedroom SEOs could have beaten in their sleep. The site has recently been shut down.
The site was uneconomic because the only way this big Telecoms company knew how to operate was by using the biggest and "best" suppliers. So that meant hiring in consultants from the big consultancy firms. That meant employing large vendors to do their programming. It meant above-the-line advertising at prime time, and saturation advertising across newspapers and radio. It meant hiring teams of people and organizing them in the tried and tested organization structure.
Because that's how they've always released products and services.
Also consider that a lot of Web 2.0 operations, lauded in the media for the past few years as "the bright young things to watch", are now crashing to earth as their big-money funding dries up. Turns out that was the only thing keeping them going. Meanwhile, a lot of SEO-aware webmasters are enjoying a growing income because they're always had the revenue equation right.
In both cases, the access to big capital was a disadvantage. It meant these companies didn't need to be smart.
So what, specifically, can the smart, little, SEO-aware guy do?
You can take big bets.
The big guys tend to be conservative, but we don't need to be. We can have a crazy idea one morning, and make it a reality by that afternoon. We can ask ourselves "Is this idea crazy enough!".
The big company finds it very hard to do that.
Big company people often fret about their jobs and reputation, they have to convince a lot of stakeholders, and there's always someone waiting to stab them in the back.
The big company might not be able to make money out a small niche.
In the Telecoms company example I used above, their bloated structure and operating methodology drove costs way above the potential return. However, a smaller company with lower overheads could have made a success of it.
There are thousands and thousands of small niches the big companies can never compete in.
But you can.
Personal Trust Networks
Big companies have problems personalizing their services and relationships.
The web is about to change again. And when the web changes Google changes, too. The big change is a social one.
Twitter, social media, bookmarking sites are all about "the personal". They're hard for a big company to centrally control. That suits the small guy.
Look to build up a high degree of trust with small, tightly linked networks of people. Use a blog to keep in contact. Not just any old blog - really work it. Make it unique and own your ideas. Have an opinion and shout it loud.
Try to talk to those one hundred people in your little niche who make a difference. Talk to those 100 people who think the same way you do. If they know you and trust you, they'll do a lot of your marketing for you. There remains no more effective marketing than word of mouth.
Ask your friends to help out. Cross promote their stuff. Go into joint ventures. Really work the personal, trusted relationship side, because that's the way the web is going. Trust is being decentralized.
This is one area in which the big guys are going to have a lot of problems competing.
Friendgine - Friend Search Engine
Aaron has a great idea called "Friendgine".
Set up your own, personal Google or Yahoo search engine that includes the sites of all your friends and personal network colleagues. If you ever need to link to an external article, search your friendgine first, and link to your friends if they have relevant content.
This is a subtle way to keep in contact. They'll also likely reciprocate the favor. By creating these mini trust webs you'll make it difficult for other people who haven't established such relationships, to follow. You'll have your own nepotistic closed circle :)
This is the first of a two-part article to help those looking to buy SEO and other search marketing services.
Unlike traditional media buying, where placement is guaranteed, SEO can appear to be hit and miss.
This is because SEO is a strategic process, whereby the SEO will align your site with the often cryptic requirements of the search engines, with the intent of gaining higher visibility for your site in search listings.
The SEO doesn't purchase placement, rather, s/he will try to earn you that placement. The closer your site is aligned with the search engines unwritten criteria, usually the more successful the SEO campaign will be.
All search marketing services should increase the level of exposure you receive on search engines. The trick lies in measuring the level of that exposure, and measuring the value it provides.
What exactly are people buying when they buy an SEO service? Why are SEO offerings so different? What is the difference between a service that costs a few hundred and a service costing tens of thousands?
Before you consider buying SEO services, step back and assess your goals for your site.
What problem are you trying to solve? Do you want to drive traffic from search engines? Do you want to reduce your PPC spend? Do you want to increase conversion rates? Depending on how you answer such questions, the level of SEO service you require will vary considerably.
Search marketing is most effective when it increases the level of visitor traffic to your site, that visitor traffic arrives at an acceptable cost, and the visitor traffic engages in desired action. If you keep these metrics in mind, you'll should avoid falling victim to some of the scams prevalent in the darker corners of the industry.
Done well, however, SEO is a very powerful, cost effective channel. A steady flow of new visitors will arrive for years after your initial investment is made.
You Get What you Pay For
Some SEO services deliver a greater level of exposure in the search listings. Other services take a more holistic, marketing-driven approach, which can include conversion metrics and visitor behavior evaluation. Most services lie somewhere in between.
Your selection of vendor will depend very much on your requirements and budget. SEO vendors who include conversion metrics tend to be more expensive, as this type of service requires diverse skill sets, and is more time intensive.
One Time Fee
Generally speaking, the more competitive your keyword area, the more work involved.
One good way to measure how competitive your keyword area is, is to look at the PPC bid prices. PPC bid prices can range from a few cents per click, to hundreds of dollars. The higher the figure, the more competitive the keyword area. The exception is if you have an established, reputable brand. Established sites can often dominate competitive areas with little additional work.
If you're operating in a area that isn't competitive, a one off SEO service might be all you need.
The SEO should ensure your site is able to be crawled and indexed by the search engines, contains appropriate content that aligns with keyword terms, and should build a few links pointing to your site from outside sources. If an SEO does their job correctly, you should see an uptick of visitor traffic from the search engines in your log files. If you are happy with this level of traffic, that is where the service ends.
If you operate in a competitive space, the SEO will need to spend a lot of time building - and in some cases buying - links. If you're measuring visitor behavior, and adjusting the site in response, the SEO will need to make regular changes.
Such services are typically ongoing, whereby the SEO charges a monthly fee. The monthly fee also covers reporting and evaluation, with the aim of maintaining your position, or increasing your reach.
Whether you choose a one -off service or ongoing very much depends on your goals.
Metrics Not Aligned With Business Goals
One common metric used in search marketing is ranking. The problem with this metric is that ranking for keyword x may not result in any increase in visitor traffic, because few people search for keyword term x.
If you examine your current log files, you might find you already rank for some keyword terms. So long as the search engine has indexed your site, you'll invariably rank for obscure terms by virtue of having words on your pages.
Less-reputable SEO firms will include obscure terms on your pages, show you a subsequent ranking for these terms, and thus justify their fee. Unfortunately, this is the offline equivalent of putting billboard in the middle of a desert, miles from the road. Few people will ever see it.
Instead, look for an up-tick in search visitor numbers. You may want to go one step further, and measure what those visitors do once they arrive at your site. Do they buy? Do they fill out your inquiry form?
Some firms offer guaranteed placement, but the reality is that no one, outside the search engine, controls their results. The SEO will attempt to meet pre-agreed performance criteria, and if they do, then the contract is fulfilled.
Sounds low risk?
Guarantees are only worth the backing they receive. Will the firm still be around in a few months? Will they honor your request? Are they located in a legal jurisdiction where you can chase them? Will the cost of doing so exceed the return?
If buying into such a guarantee, be wary of letting the SEO firm establish the metric of achievement. Instead, define the metric yourself, in line with your business goals. The less reputable operators will likely shy away from such an arrangement. They rely on setting easily achievable ranking goals, which, like the billboard in the middle of a desert, seldom offers any real benefit.
The relationship between SEOs and the search engines is gray. There are a number of techniques the search engines frown upon, which may result in your site being penalized, or delisted.
If you are risk adverse, ask the SEO company if they work within the search engines guidelines. You can find the Google's guidelines here.
A more aggressive approach, especially in highly competitive keyword areas, might be required, however a good SEO firm should be upfront about the level of risk their techniques involved. Having said that, the risks of getting banned, even with techniques outside the guidelines are relatively low.
The Magic Wand
Another risk might be your own preconceptions.
One of the expectations clients often have is that the SEO will be able to wave a wand and work miracles. Keep in mind that SEO generally requires changes to your site, which might be significant. Designers, developers and copywriters often need to buy into the process. SEO results can also take time to show, as search engines don't reflect changes over-night.
Ask the SEO company to provide time frames, and outline the specific work that will be involved.
The problem: big publishers "borrowing" stories from smaller publishers, redrafting them, and republishing them. Because the bigger publisher has greater domain authority, "their" story achieves higher rank.
Can you pick "who made who" in the following examples?
Of course, the publishers of these specific examples may not of been aware of each others existence. Great minds can think alike. But there are so many examples of coincidence out there, one suspects it isn't all purely a matter of chance.
Whilst borrowing of ideas is nothing new, if you're a publisher, content borrowing can wreak havoc with your seo strategies. The big and powerful sites dominate, and the little guy often gets relegated. Google's linking algorithms reward the already rich, and make them richer.
The sad reality is that whilst the web started out with the intention of being a democracy of information, it now closely resembles the power structures of the offline world. By the time you read this article, it has very likely been reproduced without attribution.
Here are a few ideas on how the little guy can fight back.
1. The Power Of Relationships/Distribution
It is said that business can be boiled down to two essential elements: to sell something for more than it costs to produce, and the ability to nurture relationships.
If you're a publisher, you can leverage the relationship you have with your readers in order to protect you from "the borrowers". Once you readers, and indirect competitors, are aware of your work, it becomes harder for your competitors to talk to that same market, using your ideas.
Think about what you can do for your readers to instill a sense of loyalty. Give them something of value. Make them feel indebted to you. Give people a stake in your success.
Consider allowing people to republish your content under certain conditions. i.e. when you have sufficient page rank, allow others to copy parts of your work, so long as they link back to the original. Such a policy might turn those who would ordinarily steal from you into allies who supply free link juice.
Try to make your content an identifiable part of your brand.
For example, part of your brand might be your a stylistic approach to writing. It would be very difficult to directly rip off Dave Barry, because he writes himself into his articles.
Typically, the more generic a piece is, the easier it is to borrow, so try to weave something unique to you, or your site, into the article. Perhaps use arguments and points that rely on a link to one of your previous articles, in order that they make sense.
3. Launch Hard
When you create a new site, or a new piece of content, shout loud about it.
Use all the channels. Twitter about it. Email your subscribers. Submit your article to aggregation networks. Pitch your article to other publishers with whom you've built a strong relationship, and who you know will link back and credit you.
In tight communities, like the SEO world, it will be harder to rip you off if you've made yourself visible in all the channels the community uses.
4. Create A Publicity Storm
If you're very sure of your ground i.e. someone has blatantly copied and republished your content without permission, you could create a lot of media mileage by outing them. If they won't acknowledge you, then their direct competitors might be very open to highlighting the borrowers contemptible practices. Use the same approach you do when you launch hard.
Say it often, and spread the (negative) message wide. Done correctly, a publicity storm might generate more back-links links than the original article. In any case, they'll certainly think twice about taking your stuff in future.
5. Fire Fight
Another approach is the cavalry charge.
Contact the publisher, contact the people linking to them, have your friends write about the culprit. Do it each and every time someone steals your work. Do it on Twitter. Do it on their site. You could even hire an army of cheap Mechanical Turks to do the job for you.
The problem with the above approaches is that they can take a lot of your time.
Where you really want to be is so big that your direct competitors wouldn't dare take your stuff. The smaller upstarts who take your stuff won't be able to rank against you anyway.
This last point is where I'd put most of my efforts. As frustrating as it is, the web is a very difficult environment in which to enforce copyright. Spending a lot of time fighting that fact won't make the interweb leopard change it's spots.
It's like the spam reporting approach. Do you spend all your time dobbing in spammers above you in the vain hope they'll all disappear, or do you beat them by building an authoritative, trusted domain?
Nurture those relationships to help you get there :)
Let's take look at a web strategy that has a number of SEO and benefits: the hub and spoke strategy. A hub and spoke strategy is when you create one authoritative domain (the hub), and then hang various related websites off that domain (the spokes).
If you don't yet have an authority site, it's probably best to focus on that one site. However, once you've built an authority hub, it can be a good idea to specialize in a number of niches using multiple, smaller sites.
Let's look at a few reasons why, in the context of dominating a niche.
Economic theory holds that division of labor increases profitability.
During the early days of the web, it was easy to make money by being a generalist. However, as the web got deeper and richer, it became difficult to maintain a generalist position unless you had significant resources.
Specialization, by way of niches, allows for greater targeting, and this targeting can increase value. Leads and advertising become more valuable, because the target audience can be reached more efficiently.
The hub and spoke approach is this theory in microcosm. The hub is the generalist authority, whilst the spokes allow for niche specialization.
We'll see how this dove-tails with SEO shortly.
If you were to create a series of sites on different topics, it might take a significant period of time to know each area well. However, if you create niche topics within your own area of expertise, you should be able to create new sites very quickly.
Why would you create new sites? Why not just stick with one?
Let's say your main site is fairly broad in it's appeal. However, you've discovered some lucrative niche keyword areas within that broad topic area. By creating spoke sites, you can focus on these keyword areas, and dig deeper, without compromising the general appeal of your main site.
An example might be a hub site that is aimed at community education, whilst spoke sites might cover private tuition, corporate learning materials, and education facility hire.
This segmentation can be done in a number of ways. You could aggressively target one search engines algorithm and/or audience (MSN) with one spoke, whilst targeting another search engine on another spoke. One site might be aimed at do-it-yourself people, whilst another site is aimed at a person looking to hire a professional. Both sites cover the same topic, but require a different approach in terms of language, structure, offer and tone.
Likewise, you may use spoke sites for brand reasons. When Google bought YouTube they wisely kept the YouTube name, as the brand appealed to users. Google Video - not so much. There is a general perception that YouTube does video, and Google is a search company, and never the twain shall meet.
Google knew better than to force the issue.
A hub site on education that links out to pharmaceutical affiliates could easily get hit by Google. The relationship between the two areas is questionable. However, if you link out to your spoke sites, that cover related niches, your link pattern will be much more acceptable.
From an SEO standpoint, it can be difficult to get links to purely commercial sites. If you have a hub site that already has link authority - or is created specifically to attract links - then you can pass this authority to your more specialized spokes. Once the spokes become more popular, you can either pass that authority along to yet more specialized sites (one way), or even promote your hub site (reciprocal). Either way, the link graph makes sense.
Each site doesn't need to be directly profitable. You can use one site to attract links, and pass this authority on to your monetarized domains. One can subsidize the production of the other.
If you've already built up name recognition in your niche, you'll find it easier to get links and press attention for your new projects.
Status is important because if no one knows who you are, they probably don't care about the content so much. Let's say Danny Sullivan or Matt Cutts writes something, it will instantly get attention because of who they are and the trust relationship they have with their audience. If you're new to the SEO space, no matter how profound your content is, it could easily get over-looked.
This is why it can be more difficult building multiple areas across unrelated niches. You may need to establish yourself in each new area, which can be a lot more difficult than leveraging your name recognition in your existing niche, then going granular.
Enhanced Monetarization Opportunities
We've looked at how you can target the most profitable areas aggressively using a hub and spoke strategy, without affecting the main brand.
Other advantages include economies of scale. As your network grows, you have more ad inventory to sell people. The inventory can be segmented, as opposed to the advertiser having to accept a one-size-fits-all approach of a generalist site. Similarly, you may be able to demand higher affiliate payouts, because you can precisely target offers.
Another question we received recently from the SEOBook.com community was:
What qualities are common in Aaron Wall, DaveN, Bob Massa, Jason Duke, SugarRae, et al, that new SEOs can adopt, to come closer to people like these in expertise. Where do most new SEOs go wrong when they set learning priorities?
I've asked these people to provide their views, which I'll get to shortly.
It's a great question, because the avalanche of SEO information that confronts the beginner can be overwhelming. How do you know what information is important? What aspects do you really need to spend you time on, and what information do you need to reject? What are the qualities that make for a good SEO?
Let's take a look...
Most people stumble into being an SEO.
An awareness of SEO usually comes about when a person launches a site, only to find that the site doesn't magically appear #1.
Soon after, the webmaster will likely find themselves knee deep in SEO forums and blogs, where everyone has a viewpoint, and often those viewpoints contradict each other. Contradiction is rife in SEO. To understand why, we need to understand the history of search engines.
The first step in setting learning priorities for SEO is to.....
Infoseek was one of the early search engines. Infoseek introduced a feature around 1996 , whereby they would crawl a site and update their index immediately. This feature made it easy for webmasters to game the algorithm.
I had just launched a small, commercial site. I thought all I had to do was publish a site, and the search engine would do it's job, and put me at number one! Unsurprisingly, that didn't happen.
So, I tried to figure out why Infoseek didn't think my site was great. I could see that there were sites ranking above mine, so there was clearly something about those sites that Infoseek did like. I looked at the code of the high ranking sites. Did that have something to do with it? To test that idea, I cut and pasted it their code into my own code and republished my site. Viola, I was at number 2!
So far, so good.
But why wasn't I number one? The sites that were ranking highly tended to have long pages on the same topic, so I added more text to my pages. Soon enough, with a little trial and error, I was number one. Predictably, Infoseek soon pulled this feature when they saw what was happening.
I was clearly not alone in my underhanded trickery.
At the time, I thought my cut n paste trick was an amusing hack, but I wasn't earning my bread and butter from the internet. I was working in the computer industry, and unaware of "SEO". I soon forgot about it.
A few years later, a whole cottage industry had sprung up around SEO. The search technology had become a lot more sophisticated. My dubious copy n' paste hack no longer worked, and the search engines were locked in a war against webmasters who were trying to game their ranking criteria.
There is an inherent conflict between the business model of the search engine, and that of the SEO. The SEO wants their site to rank, the search engine wants to rank a page a searcher will find useful.
That isn't necessarily the same thing.
Therefore, the search engines are notoriously secret about their ranking formulas. SEOs try and reverse engineer the formulas, or just guess the factors involved, which is why you'll see so many contradictory viewpoints.
So who do you listen to? What information is relevant?
2. Technical Know-How
Dave Naylor had this to say about doing too much at once:
Common qualities that's simple we notice the little things and understand the larger impact that they will have in long term,
And where do you most new SEOs go wrong when they set learning priorities?
From the new SEO's on the block that I chat too, they seem to run at a million miles an hour trying 100 different things at once, they need to slow get a decent data set of information and slowly pick though it and test small things at a time, and work out thing like why is it when I search for The FT in Google it returns Grand Theft Auto ?
Most people new to SEO place a lot of emphasis on the technical aspects. It's natural to seek out the secret recipe of high rankings. Whilst most forums obsess over these issues, much of what you'll read is irrelevant fluff. These days, SEO is more about a holistic process, rather than an end unto itself.
Start with a solid, credible source - like SEOBook's course for example ;) The cost of a well researched course is nothing compared to the time you may spend heading in the wrong direction.
Most people will benefit by applying the 80/20 rule. To rank in Google, you need to be on-topic, you need to be crawlable, and you need to have inbound links.
You could spend a lifetime trying to figure out the other 20%. Unfortunately, the formula is in Google's hands, and even then, only known to a few. It is reasonable to assume Google tweaks the dials often, especially once a common exploit makes the rounds. Take Dave's advice and take it one step at a time. Focus on the key aspects first - relevance, crawlability and linking - then methodically test and evaluate in order to expand your knowledge.
I honestly think the only way anyone can go wrong, new to online promotion or a seasoned veteran, is to not look too hard for tricks and magic beans from those who make their names posting those so-called tricks, in forums.
I believe anyone can be successful at online marketing or even traffic generation and search engine placement specifically, if they just stop looking for ways to trick machines and instead look for ways to connect with humans.
search engines are just computer programs and algorithms written by humans. The engine is only a tool intended to aide humans do things faster and easier that are important to their lives. I think machines can help with connecting humans BUT the humans are the target, the goal, the end that machines can provide the means to.
I think one thing that is common among the list of people you mentioned is that they all realize, understand and accept that concept.
3. Strategy & Goals
The opportunity in SEO lies in the fact that Google must have content, around which it places advertising. If you rank high, you get "free" clicks.
Of course, nothing in this world is free, and SEO is no exception. There is significant time cost involved in getting lucrative rankings. And that cost comes with a reasonable degree of risk. Google has no obligation to show you at position x, and your competitors will always try and eat your lunch.
Strategy is the most important aspect, and one you should spend a lot of your time on. Why are you trying to rank? Are there better things you could be doing i.e. building up a community? Do you have an on-going publishing model? How is your brochure-web site ever going to attract links? Are you building enough link juice to ensure your entire 500K page affiliate site gets indexed?
I think some of the general principals that apply to most of them are that they are: smart, curious, hard working, blunt, honest, and sharing. They also view SEO as a tool to help them achieve other goals, rather than having SEO be the end goal.
Where a lot of people go wrong with SEO is that they try to think in concrete numbers based on a limited perspective built off a limited set of data. Some things may happen sometimes, but there are very few universal truths to the shifting field of SEO beyond preparing for change. And the certain lasting truths do not provide much competitive advantage...that is built through curiosity, testing, hard work, and creativity - Aaron Wall.
It's surprising how little time is spent talking about measurement, because without it, SEOs are flying blind.
One common metric is rank. It's not a very good metric, because it doesn't tell you very much, other than you've won the ranking game.
But so what?
What if that rank doesn't help you achieve your goals? What if every person who clicks on your link ends up buying from the guy who is advertising on Adwords instead?
This is why measurement, aligned with your goals, is important. If you track SEO efforts through to a goal, and most of those goals tend to involve making money, then you'll be head and shoulders above most of the forum hacks and pretenders. It doesn't matter what tracking software you use. Become an expert and tracking and metrics.
There have been SEOs who have argued - with a straight face - that whilst it's ok for them to game search engine algorithms, it's not ok for others to do so. This is usually because the other guy isn't following "the rules".
What are the rules?
The rules are decided - and vaguely defined - by the search engines, and then interpreted to mean whatever an SEO decides they mean. Far be it for a search engine to create rules that serve their own business interests, which may not align with the interests of the webmaster.
SEO is built on shifting sands. What do you do when what you were doing was "within the guidelines" and no longer is because the rules change? Do you willfully decide to rank lower?
Conclusion: Spam is what the other guy does. Also an acronym for "Sites Positioned Above Mine".
2. How To Create Meta Tags
Hard to believe now, but forum wars were fought over how many times a webmaster could repeat a keyword in a meta keyword tag. Twice was often deemed ok, but any more than that and you were almost certainly an "evil spammer" (see #1).
Meta tag manipulation doesn't count for anything these days. The tags are mainly used to describe the content of pages, that the search engines may display as snippet text.
Conclusion: Deader than AltaVista
3. Is SEO Ethical?
A curious framing of SEO in terms of ethics and morality.
Is it good and proper to try to get a higher rank than the search engine would bestow otherwise? The point of SEO is, of course, to get a higher rank than the search engines would bestow otherwise.
These people were usually in the wrong game. Many went on to join Seminaries.
Conclusion: Welcome to the jungle
4. Should I Buy Links?
Paranoia runs rampant in SEO, especially when search engines make a example of someone. Like SearchKing.
The argument quickly descended into a semantic war i.e. define "paid". Money changing hands? Favors? Nepotism? Erm...Yahoo Directory? One of the more interesting conclusions often got buried: "Hey, perhaps if Google dislike them so much, paid links really do work!"
Conclusion: Yeah, they work
5. Should There Be SEO Standards?
A natural progression of the ethical debate. It was proposed that SEOs should all conform to a common code of practice, as other professions often do.
The problem was that the relationship between search engines and SEOs has always been grey. Only the search engine can really define what the search engine wants, and what the search engine wants might not align with what the SEO, or their client, wants. In any case, the search engine isn't going to publicly define exactly what they want, as they are worried that people, like SEOs, will game their systems.
So, you got a few self-appointed search police officers, who would suggest that everyone followed their particular code of practice, based on their interpretation of the search engines guidelines. The self-appointed cops usually out-numbered those who followed them, and invariably disagreed amongst themselves anyway.