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.
Continuing on with our community questions, here are a few requests for specific ranking information:
"What are the 100+ variables Google considers in their ranking algorithm?"
Easy to say, hard to do. Take a job at Google, work your way up the ranks and join the inner circle.
Another question we received is along the same lines:
How do you outrank a super established website in your niche, one where Google is giving site links and their domain is older
Again, easy to say, hard to do. Either forget outranking the domain and buy it, or spend time doing exactly what they have done, and hope they also stop their SEO efforts in order to let you catch up.
These types of questions arise often. "If I could just learn a few quick-fix insider secrets, I can outrank everyone!"
If there was a quick n easy secret formula that would guarantee high rank, why would those who know it, reveal it?
The reality is that quick-fix secret formulas don't exist.
Sure, there are quirks in the algorithms that can be exploited, but they are often trumped by historical factors, like authority metrics, that are difficult to fake. One common blackhat technique is to hack an established domain, and place "money" pages on that domain. That's an admission, if ever there was, that technical trickery on your own domain is either too time consuming, or doesn't work so well.
I know some of the worlds top SEOs, and I can't recall them spending much time talking about secret sauce. What they do talk about is making money and growing empires. They're more focused on the business strategy of SEO.
The effectiveness of many SEO techniques will be dead soon, anyway.
What you need to think about for the future is user interaction.
The Future Of SEO
Have a read of this document, by my good friend and Merlot drinker, Mike Grehan. Mike outlines his view on the future of search, and he makes a number of important points:
The web crawler model is nearing the end of its useful life
Signals from users, not content creators, will become more important
Universal Search changed the ranking game forever
Forget rank, think engagement
If you want to future proof your SEO strategy, take heed of Mike's words.
The crawler model is failing because the crawler was designed for structured text, not multimedia. The crawler can't see behind pay-walls. It has trouble navigating databases in which the data isn't interlinked or marked-up. The search engines will need to look for other ways of finding and making sense of data.
Social networks, blogs, Twitter etc indicate a move away from the webmaster as signaler of importance i.e. who you choose to link out to. The search engines will need to mine the social signals form those networks. The user will signal where their attention is focused by their interaction and paths.
Universal search, in may cases, has pushed results listings down below the fold. For example, to get a client seen high up on the results page may involve making sure making sure they are featured on Google Maps. Similarly, if they have video content, it should be placed on YouTube. Google have shown they are increasingly looking to the aggregators for results and featuring their content in prominent positions.
That list of search results is becoming more and more personalized, and this will continue. Who knows, we may not have a list before too long. More and more "search" data - meaning "answers to questions" - might be pushed to us, rather than us having to go hunt for it.
The future of SEO, therefore, will be increasingly about engaging people. The search engines will be measuring the signals users send. In the past, it's all been about the signals webmasters send i.e. links and marked up content.
For now, you still need to cover the obvious bases - create crawlable, on-topic content, backed by quality linking. But you'll also need to think about the users - and the signals they send - in order to future proof your site. Google has long placed the user at the center of the web. Their algorithms are surely heading towards measuring them, too.
What are these signals? Ah, now there's a question.....
"SEO as we know it will be dead within the next 2 years – true or false? With the wealth of info at their fingertips combined with localized, customized search to name but a few Google will no longer need to do what it does now to determine rankings?"
I'd say "false".
People have been predicting the death of SEO since, well, the beginning of SEO. Here's a debate from 2004, and another from 2006. These arguments probably started around 1995.
So long as search engines display a list of sites, for which payment is not required, SEO will exist.
How SEO is done will change. It has always changed. In the bad old days, SEO was all about getting listed in the Yahoo Directory. If you didn't, you were pretty much invisible. There was a time that listing with Looksmart got you decent rankings in MSN. These days, few of those new to SEO have even heard of Looksmart.
Google will certainly adapt and change, and use a variety of metrics in order to determine relevance. SEOs will adapt and change, trying to work out what these metrics are.
Recently, Eric Schmidt made the following comment:
The internet is fast becoming a "cesspool" where false information thrives, Google CEO Eric Schmidt said yesterday. Speaking with an audience of magazine executives visiting the Google campus here as part of their annual industry conference, he said their brands were increasingly important signals that content can be trusted"
So, having a brand might be a signal of quality, which may, in turn, lead to a higher rank. Or perhaps Schmidt was just playing to the audience of newspaper owners. Difficult to tell ;)
Google collects a wealth of usage data from toolbars, analytics, and their ad systems, so it is conceivable they might fold these metrics into their ranking systems. Marissa Mayer recently suggested that SearchWiki data might be used ranking calculations.
Will the bar get raised? Will SEO become more difficult? Of course. But a raised bar works two ways. If you can reach it, there's a new barrier between you and those who follow you. That gives you some level of defensibility.
So how do you do SEO going forward?
I've written a lot about the importance of holistic strategy. Your aim should be to sell something to people - be it an opinion, a product, a service. All your endeavors should support this goal, and most of the time, that means doing the basics well - make your site crawlable, well linked, and solve a genuine problem for people. If your SEO efforts are not resulting in an improvement in the bottom line , then there is little point doing SEO.
"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".
There are so many SEO tasks demanding your attention. How do you prioritize them?
Seems to be a common issue, as when we asked for questions a while back, we received this one:
"What aspect of SEO should you be spending most of your time on? Optimizing the title tag, getting links, creating quality content? "
So which area of SEO will give you the most bang for your buck? Link building? On-page? Social media? Ask ten different SEOs, and you'll likely get ten different answers.
Let's take a step back and start with strategy.
1. Define Your Goals
Without clear goals, it's difficult to know how to spend your time. Start by listing your goals.
Do you want to sell services or product? Do you want to increase traffic levels? Do you want to increase brand awareness? Knowing which SEO dial to twist depends very much on what goal you're trying to achieve.
Once you have your list, create a set of KPIs. KPI stands for Key Performance Indicator. KPIs will give you a set of metrics to help you decide if you're meeting, or missing, your goals.
Here are a few examples:
Rank top ten for keyword term x in Google
Increase traffic from search engines by *x* percent by *date*
Get 1,000 new sign ups from search visitors in March
Sell ten widgets per day to search visitors by next week
The most useful KPIs are specific. You either hit the target or you miss.
Your strategy will be defined by your goals. For example, if your goal is to sell ten widgets by next week using a new site, then your strategy might be to forget SEO for the meantime, and focus on PPC instead. If your goal is to get 1000 new subscribers by the end of the year, then you might spend a lot of time analyzing your demographic, determining where they hang out, and getting your name and content in front of them at every available opportunity. If your goal is to get #1 for term X, then you'll be focusing a lot on link building, using keyword term X in the link.
And so on. Your goals define your tactics.
Once you have a list of clear objectives, and a clear list of KPIs, the next step is to consider the age of your site.
2. What Type Of Site Do You Have?
One of the most important task for new sites is link building. The sites with the highest quality linkage tend to trump sites with lower quality linkage when it comes to rank.
Until you build links, then tweaking on-page aspects of SEO on a new site won't make a lot of difference in terms of rank. Get the basics right - keywords in the title tags, keyword focused content, strong internal linking, a shallow structure and good crawlability - but focus your efforts on attaining links. If that means establishing a large body of quality content first, then so be it. Others may choose to buy their way up the chain, or aggressively pursue social media opportunities.
The opposite is true for an established site. Whilst links are always important, an established site can leverage on-page factors to a greater degree.
Once your site has built up sufficient link authority, then you may only need add a new page of content, and link it internally, in order to rank well. People running established sites may wish to focus more on producing quality, focused content, and let the linking look after itself.
3. The Five Most Important Areas Of SEO On Which To Spend Your Time
These are highly debatable, but here's my ranking:
1. Produce Remarkable, Attention Grabbing Content
Everything starts with remarkable content i.e. content worth remarking on and linking to. Do you have unique, timely content? Does you content solve a problem? Does you content provide a new insight? Does you content spark controversy? Does you content start - or contribute to - a conversation?
If your content can't be crawled, you won't rank. Ensure your site is easily accessible to both humans and search engine spiders.
3. Build Links
Google's algorithm is heavily weighted towards links. Beg, buy, or earn links, and rankings follow. Get your keywords into the link text. Building links also means building relationships with people. Spend a lot of time doing this, especially in the early stages.
4. Title Tag
It is debatable how much ranking value the title tag has, both it definitely has click-thru value. Your listing fights for attention with all the other links on page. What will make people click your link?
Learn the lessons of Adwords. Match your title tag to the keyword query. Solve a users problem. Arouse curiosity.
5. On-Page Content
Forget endless on-page tweaking. Largely a waste of time. Instead, keep a few keyword phrases in mind when writing. Use semantic variations of your terms in order to help catch long tail terms. Link your page to related pages, using keyword terms in the link.
Bonus: Watch Your Competition. Do What They Do
Download the toolbar. And keep a very close eye on your competition. Whatever they do, you need to do more of it :)
SEO used to be a technical exercise involving the isolation of specific factors that, when tweaked, lead to higher rank. It still is, to a certain extent, but much less so than it used to be. Therefore, there is little point looking at each factor in isolation.
SEO has become a lot more holistic and strategic, so by far the most important aspect is clearly outlining your goals, and defining a strategy to achieve those goals.
They have big advertising budgets. They have brand awareness. Every time they twitch, some business journalist will be writing up a story.
But what if you operate a small business? You have a limited budget, you've got a pile of other things that need doing, and very little time to devote to any one aspect of your marketing strategy. How do you build links without breaking the bank?
Let's take a look at how the small business can generate quality links, and do so without a great deal of time and money.
1. Use Your Agility
The small business has one huge advantage over the big business when it comes to SEO: agility.
The small business, on the other hand, can move very quickly.
Chances are, there are only one or two people making decisions, so use this to your advantage. Are there aspects of your industry where speed is essential? Can you react to fast breaking news before the big guys can? Can you spot fast emerging consumer trends, and publish information on them before anyone else does? To help you monitor breaking news and trends in your area of interest, sign up to trend sites, such as Google Trends, and monitor news feeds using Google Alerts.
Big business finds it very difficult to be controversial, yet controversy can be a great marketing tool. The Sex Pistols built a career, not by copying the establishment, but by butting heads with it. Everyone knows about "Will it blend?". That viral campaign was edgy, risky and out-there. If Blendtech hadn't taken that risk, they wouldn't have been worth remarking on. A blender is not a new invention, and there are a lot of big competitors making blenders, but Blentech made their name by being a bit wild and crazy.
Are there opportunities for you to go against the grain and stand out? If you do, you'll be link worthy. Can you borrow controversial ideas form other market sectors and apply them to your own?
2. Publishing Strategy
It is becoming increasingly difficult to get people to voluntarily link to purely commercial sites.
Consider adopting a publishing strategy that has a non-commercial angle. If need be, create a second site. It is much easier to get links for sites that have utility beyond selling a product or service. Create glossaries, unbiased buyer information, review sites, blogs, wikis, or industry news sites. Once the site has built up some link equity, and is ranking well, you can add your own advertising, or link it to your commercial site.
Try to create niche information sites that cover areas no one else is covering. Think small. If you're one of the few sources for a particular type of information, you stand to get more links than sites that compete in saturated areas. Try not to compete directly with the bigger operators. Redefine your niche until you can make your offering unique.
Take a step back from your site. Is it remarkable? Would you link to it? Be honest. Think about what it takes for you to link out. Why would someone link to you? Can you make the people linking to you look good? Consider writing favorable reviews about indirect competitors. Does your site provide genuine utility when compared to your competitors? Think about what problems you can solve for people that no-one else is solving. PlentyOfFish.com made millions by providing a free dating service when every other dating site was using a paid subscriber model. Provide information that solves a problem.
Get listed in relevant directories, local business organizations, and industry verticals. To find these sites, search on industry name + add url
Issue press releases whenever you have relevant information to share. Make a list of the top sites in your industry sector, and try to get a link from them. Can you offer to do something for them, like writing an article, in return for a link? Look at who links to your competitors. Use tools, such as Yahoo Site Explorer, to find these links
Make a list of those sites and see what your competitors did to get these links. Copy what they did. Put most of your efforts into getting quality links, rather than getting low quantity junk. It's surprising how few links you need in order to rank well, especially in niche areas.
4. Give Something Valuable Away
Web designers often give away templates. They create a template, and place their link in the footer.
Think about what you can create and give away. Compare the cost of developing these widgets and freebies with the cost of buying or chasing links. If you're providing something genuinely valuable for nothing, people are certain to remark on it, especially if your competitors charge for the same thing. You can also submit your offering to sites that feature freebies, such as TheFreeSite.com. While every other guy is "giving" the opportunity for a link trade - which isn't of much value - you're going one step further.
Offer coupons. Simply by offering coupons, you can get included in coupon and bargain hunting sites.
5. Local News Interest
Local newspapers and news sites are always on the lookout for local content. Unlike major newspapers, the barrier to entry is often low, but the link equity can be just as valuable.
Is there a local aspect to your business? Are there ways you can get involved in the community that would lead to reporters writing a story about you? Issue press releases with a local angle, and try and build up a relationship with local reporters. Offer to be a spokesperson for your topic of interest if they have future stories for which they need an expert opinion.
6. Sponsor Charities
Charity sites are often amenable to linking out to those who support them. The cost of the donation might be nothing compared to the value of a lifetime link from a well-placed charities.
Offer to do work of genuine value for the charity. Could you help them market their website? Design a new website for them? Can you write an article for them, or find a way of featuring in their news stories? These links are pure gold,and because it takes some effort, it is difficult for your lazy competitors to follow.
Search on terms such as donor, sponsors, and donations to find these sites.
7. Request A Link In All Communications
Whenever you mail someone, include a link request in the footer. The communication could be an order confirmation, an email newsletter, or an invoice. Here's an example on SEOmoz.
Highlight featured content in your email footer. Update the links in your email footer regularly, so people are more likely to look at them. Think of your communications as a call to action. How can you get people to engage further with you?
Start a Twitter account and post your articles. Do the same with Facebook and any other social media channels you use.
Go where your audience are.
It's not just about getting links that pass PR. It's about creating meaningful relationships. If your potential audience hangs out on forums, then post to those forums. Become a trusted member and advisor. People link to SEOBook.com not just because of the great information ;) but because of the quality of the relationship has been established in the past.
This approach will serve you well for the future. Google will be placing more and more emphasis on engagement metrics in order to determine rank. Why?
The problem Google was created to solve - finding relevant information - is morphing into a problem of locating quality information. There might be a lot of crawlable information on a given topic, so finding it isn't an issue any more. Finding the information people find most useful is the new challenge.
How people engage with your site is going to become increasingly important.Look to establish meaningful relationships, wherever possible.
There is no universal right or wrong to the overall SEO process and strategy. There are many ways to get to the end destination of ranking. This flowchart aims to show some of the stages new sites go through, and to help visualize the process of ranking.
In a previous article, Baking SEO Into The Workflow, we took a look at the problems faced by in-house SEOs. Most of those problems occur because SEO forces a change in work process. Change - any change - is often met with resistance.
We received a lot of great feedback on that post, so we thought we'd delve a little deeper into this topic.
"Any significant transformation creates “people issues.” New leaders will be asked to step up, jobs will be changed, new skills and capabilities must be developed, and employees will be uncertain and resistant. Dealing with these issues on a reactive, case-by-case basis puts speed, morale, and results at risk. A formal approach for managing change — beginning with the leadership team and then engaging key stakeholders and leaders — should be developed early, and adapted often as change moves through the organization. This demands as much data collection and analysis, planning, and implementation discipline as does a redesign of strategy, systems, or processes.".
Let's take these ideas and apply them to the world of professional SEO.
Start at the top.
Management buy in is also the most crucial element. Without their support, it's unlikely you'll get anything else done at the lower levels. That's why change processes start at the top. So, how specifically does one approach getting management on-side?
First, do a complete audit of the existing website and web strategy, and make a list of the problem areas that need changing. Order this list in terms of importance. i.e. crucial changes, nice to have, phase one, phase two, etc. Also make a note of how easy, or how difficult, each item is to implement. Think of it as a proposal, which is really what it is. This type of analysis will show that you're serious, organized and thorough.
Management are going to be looking for you to deliver more benefit than it costs to provide that benefit. If you can show you'll achieve this, you're half way there.
Use factors such as competitive advantage and disadvantage. Show them where their competitors - specifically their SEO savvy competitors - rank. Estimate the level of search engine traffic their competitors receive.
Create value propositions. Try to get management to place a value on each visitor. What is the opportunity to get in-front of a customer worth to them? How much does it cost to get that same attention via existing channels, such as direct marketing, print, radio or television advertising? Compare this with the cost of implementing your strategy. Show them how they can both save money, and get more return.
Managers also want to get some idea of the following factors:
What is the cost?
What is the time to delivery?
What should your performance metrics/kpi be?
Be prepared to answer such questions.
Use case studies. Show before and after situations where seo has made a remarkable difference. Something that has been tried and proven carries less risk than the new and different. Remember, SEO is probably going to sound new and different to all but the most web savvy organizations.
Get management to commit to your strategy on a point by point basis. Insist that you'll only be able to deliver outcomes if this strategy is followed. Outline the risks of removing any element.
This achieves two things: it gets them to commit to your course of action. They'll back you if you receive push back from designers, developers and writers. Secondly, it provides a get out of jail free card. If you miss KPIs because you couldn't achieve all of the strategy i.e. the other areas pushed back, you can show them why you couldn't deliver.
The Human Side
You go into a meeting.
There is one of you, there is a small team of designers, and there's a manager who thinks he needs SEO, but doesn't have an understanding of what is actually involved. So how do you tell them that their strategy is all wrong, to stop building everything in Flash, and start designing to your exact specifications?
You could use the direct approach: "Listen up! Your strategy is all wrong, stop building everything in Flash, and start designing to my exact specifications!" A tough road, but if your daddy owns the company - certainly worth a shot :)
More likely, however, the design team has more authority than the SEO, especially if you're new to the job.
Softly Softly, Catchee Monkey
There's an apt British phrase: "Softly Softly, Catchee Monkey".
It means play it gently and carefully in order to achieve the outcome you seek.
If you lack sufficient authority to get your way on all decisions, as is the case with most SEOs who work within large organizations, then the softly, softly approach might be more likely to produce results than the my-way-or-the-highway approach.
Consider how people react to change. How did you feel when you were forced to adapt to change? Empathy goes a long way.
For example, try putting yourself in the designers shoes.
She may have graduated from a graphic design course. During her years of study, SEO wasn't mentioned once. She has been working as a web designer for a few years, and she's acutely aware that web design is a very poor second cousin to print design. In print, the designer has free reign, and can specify everything to their exact requirements. The colors, the size, the fonts, the look and feel.
On the web, however, she has to think about how her design is going to display on different screen sizes, how the colors are going to look on various monitors, and how different browsers are going to render the layout. She has to incorporate widgets and forms from the developers. She's got to present to management in a few weeks time. The top manager, who controls her bonus, likes to be wowed by cool, cutting edge designs. She jumping through all these crazy hoops that get in the way of her graphic vision.
Then in walks this new SEO guy and demands she retool the site so a search engine spider can see it.
If there's a fan in the office, it will soon be covered in something unpleasant.
How To Make SEO Fit In
One way is to not do anything.
Not every battle is worth winning. For example, lets say you're working in house at an agency, and the work is for an external client. The client wants a spectacular site, because he wants to impress his colleges and boss. The designer is happy to design it, because she might win an award. The client hasn't specified seo as a delivery requirement, as the clients customers usually find them by word of mouth, not via search engines. Is SEO really important here?
No, it's not.
The best approach, when SEO comes late in the piece, might be to inform the manager in charge of delivery that this site is unlikely to receive much in the way of traffic from search engines in it's existing form. You could specify changes, but is that really in the best interests of everyone? Does the cost/benefit stack up at this late stage?
Insist the person with the authority makes that call. If the client comes back latter and wants to know why their site isn't showing up in search engines, you can refer back to the meeting. Most intelligent people will come to their own conclusions that their process needs to change.
But lets say SEO is something the client wants, but is not knowledgeable enough to know that their web strategy won't deliver it.
If you're experiencing a lot of resistance, try splitting the work into phases. Make phase one low impact. If it's a Flash site, or some other major SEO headache, how about suggesting they add a print -friendly version of the site, with a link from the home page?
The designer will probably go for it, because in her head, the only people likely to see a print version are those who have already seen her flash version. They are simply choosing to print it out. You know better, of course. This is the version search visitors will see. Once these pages start drawing traffic, you then have some leverage for Phase Two. You've demonstrated the power of SEO, and if only they did more of what you request, then they'll get more search visitors.
Once you can demonstrate proof of concept, you're on track to winning the war.
In my earlier article, I recommended that you keep a look out for natural synergies. Thankfully, not all designers are flash loving design heads. Web design trends have, thankfully, moved away from graphic-heavy approaches, and have moved towards providing ease of use and utility.
Suggest incorporating SEO-friendly elements that are also design elements. Examples include breadcrumb navigation, site organization and hierarchy, most important pages closest to the front, duplicate navigation schemes if the main navigation scheme is uncrawlable, and using Google site maps. None of these elements interfere with look and feel too much.
Attend the meetings where they map out site structure. If the structure is designed with SEO in mind, a lot of other elements fall naturally into place. Emphasize the fact you need to be brought in early, not late, on site design decisions.
In the web industry, content writers are most likely to slot into one of two schools of thought.
One is journalism. Journalism often consists of a top down approach, or inverted pyramid.
"The "pyramid" can also be drawn as a triangle. The triangle's broad base at the top of the figure represents the most substantial, interesting, and important information the writer means to convey. The triangle's orientation is meant to illustrate that this kind of material should head the article, while the tapered lower portion illustrates that other material should follow in order of diminishing importance"
The second is copy writing. Copy writing differs from journalistic styles in that the writing is crafted to elicit a specific response from the reader, rather than to simply inform. There is often a specific objective the copywriter needs to fulfill, and every word is likely to be carefully deliberated over.
A side complication is legal. Lawyers, as a profession, tend to be risk adverse. Their job, in this context, is to prevent libelous, defamatory, or untruthful copy from being published, which could expose the the company to financial risk.
There's no simple advice I can give on how to get around legal. They carry a lot of weight. Just be aware of the legal requirement, and keep in mind that the "aggressive link baiting technique" you had planned might not be an appropriate strategy for this particular company ;)
Will It Blend?
The easiest road is with the journalists. They are trying to answer the questions Who,' 'when', 'where', 'what' and 'how' . Try to frame your SEO requests in this language.
For example., say if your keyword term is "buy house in San Francisco". A reporter could work this into his copy by asking the "what" question, s in "what is happening?" e.g. "Recently, people looking to buy a house in San Francisco have had to contend with...." etc etc.
This is very much an on-going education process, but it helps if you're already talking their language. Provide them a list of keywords, and specific examples of how they can be incorporated into the article formats they already use. Writers might actually like you feeding them article and story topics. It makes their task a little easier. Try to think of ways you can frame your keyword research as article topic suggestions, or article research.
In terms of structure, try and devise templates that encourage SEO friendly formats i.e. short paragraphs with big headings to break up the copy. You could also argue this increases readability and usability.
Have designers and developers code the templates so related articles are suggested automatically. Include a related articles section. Build the SEO right into the article structure, so that a lot of the SEO happens without the writer having to think about it.
Guidelines For Developers
Developers are used to working to guidelines and specifications, so try and work SEO requirements into these documents.
Here's a sample guideline. There is some overlap here with design, so split them up accordingly:
Use descriptive file names. i.e. dog.jpg, as opposed to image568765.jpg.
Include title and meta description tag in all templates. Auto - populate fields from teh templates i.e. document title - where no over-ride exists.
Use CSS to control font sizes, particularly header tags.
Links should, wherever possible, include keywords
Titles should use text, as opposed to graphics.
Specify an alt tag for images
Create a Google Site Map
Use the following URL format: domain/page-title-name
Avoid frames. If using frames, use the the noframes tag
Create a custom 404 page that links to the site's main pages, or sitemap.
I'm sure there are plenty of other rules you can think of, and depending on how co-operative the developer is, there is a lot more detail you could go into. I find that the shorter the checklist, the more likely developers are to incorporate the changes required. Long lists just create headaches, so often go ignored.
Make sure they do the important things, and don't sweat the small stuff. At least, not in your first week!
In real life, things are never this simple.
Humans are messy and complicated creatures, so there are few hard and fast rules, nor is there a prescription you can follow. Be flexible. Be aware. Communicate. A lot. Hopefully, the ideas above will help you formulate your own approach.
You're not alone. Most professional SEOs know exactly what you're going through :)