Learn Local Search Marketing

Apr 21st

Last October Vendran Tomic wrote a guide for local SEO which has since become one of the more popular pages on our site, so we decided to follow up with a QnA on some of the latest changes in local search.

Local Ants.

Q: Google appears to have settled their monopolistic abuse charges in Europe. As part of that settlement they have to list 3 competing offers in their result set from other vertical databases. If Google charges for the particular type of listing then these competitors compete in an ad auction, whereas if the vertical is free those clicks to competitors are free. How long do we have until Google's local product has a paid inclusion element to it?

A: Local advertising market is huge. It's a market that Google still hasn't mastered. It's a market still dominated by IYP platforms.

Since search in general is stagnant, Google will be looking to increase their share of the market.

That was obvious to anyone who was covering Google's attempt to acquire Groupon since social couponing is a local marketing phenomenon mostly.

Their new dashboard is not only more stable with a slicker interface, but also capable of facilitating any paid inclusion module.

I would guess that Google will not wait a long time to launch a paid inclusion product or something similar, since they want to keep their shareholders happy.

Q: In the past there have been fiascos with things like local page cross-integration with Google+. How "solved" are these problems, and how hard is it to isolate these sorts of issues from other potential issues?

A: Traditionally, Google had the most trouble with their "local" products. Over the years, they were losing listings, reviews, merging listings, duplicating them etc. Someone called their attempts "a train wreck at the junction." They were also notoriously bad with providing guidance that would help local businesses navigate the complexity of the environment Google created.

Google has also faced some branding challenges - confusing even the most seasoned local search professionals with their branding.

Having said that, things have been changing for the better. Google has introduced phone support which is, I must say, very useful. In addition, the changes they made in a way they deal with local data made things more stable.

However, I'd still say that Google's local products are their biggest challenge.

Q: Yelp just had strong quaterly results and Yahoo! has recently added a knowledge-graph like pane to their search results. How important is local search on platforms away from Google? How aligned are the various local platforms on ranking criteria?

A: Just like organic search is mostly about two functions - importance and relevance, local search is about location prominence, proximity and relevance (where location prominence is an equivalent to importance in general SEO).

All local search platforms have ranking factors that are based on these principles.

The only thing that's different is what they consider ranking signals and the way they place on each. For example, to rank high in Yahoo! Local, one needs to be very close to the centroid of the town, have something in the title of their business that matches the query of the search and have a few reviews.

Google is more sophisticated, but the principles are the same.

The less sophisticated local search platforms use less signals in their algorithm, and are usually geared more towards proximity as a ranking signal.

It's also important to note that local search functions as a very interconnected ecosystem, and that changes made in order to boost visibility in one platform, might hurt you in another.

Q: There was a Google patent where they mentioned using driving directions to help as a relevancy signal. And Bing recently invested in and licensed data from Foursquare. Are these the sorts of signals you see taking weight from things like proximity over time?

A: I see these signals becoming/increasing in importance over time as they would be a useful ranking signal. However, to Google, local search is also about location sensitivity, and these signals will probably not be used outside of this context.

If you read a patent named "Methods And Systems For Improving A Search Ranking Using Location Awareness" (Amit Singhal is one of the inventors), you will see that Google, in fact, is aware that people have different sensitivities fo different types of services/queries. You don't necessarily care where your plumber will come from, but you do care where the pizza places are where you search for pizza in your location.

I don't see driving directions as a signal ever de-throning proximity, because proximity is closer to the nature of the offline/online interaction.

Q: There are many different local directories which are highly relevant to local, while there are also vertical specific directories which might be tied to travel reviews or listing doctors. Some of these services (say like OpenTable) also manage bookings and so on. How important is it that local businesses "spread around" their marketing efforts? When does it make sense to focus deeply on a specific platform or channel vs to promote on many of them?

A: This is a great question, Aaron! About 5 years ago, I believed that the only true game in town for any local business is Google. This was because, at that time, I wasn't invested in proper measurement of outcomes and metrics such as cost of customer acquisition, lead acqusition etc.

Local businesses, famous for their lack of budgets, should always "give" vertical platforms a try, even IYP type sites. This is why:

  • one needs to decrease dependance on Google because it's an increasingly fickle channel of traffic acquisition (Penguin and Panda didn't spare local websites),
  • sometimes, those vertical websites can produce great returns. I was positively surprised by the number of inquiries/leads one of our law firm clients got from a well known vertical platform.
  • using different marketing channels and measuring the right things can improve your marketing skills.

Keep in mind, basics need to be covered first: data aggregators, Google Places, creating a professional/usable/persuasive website, as well as developing a measurement model.

Q: What is the difference between incentivizing a reasonable number of reviews & being so aggressive that something is likely to be flagged as spam? How do you draw the line with trying to encourage customer reviews?

A: Reviews and review management have always been tricky, as well as important. We know two objective things about reviews:

  • consumers care about reviews when making a purchase and
  • reviews are important for your local search visibility.

Every local search/review platform worth its weight in salt will have a policy in place discouraging incentivizing and "buying" reviews. They will enforce this policy using algorithms or humans. We all know that.

Small and medium sized businesses make a mistake of trying to get as many reviews as humanly possible, and direct them to one or two local search platforms. Here, they make two mistakes:

1. they're driven by a belief that one needs a huge number of reviews on Google and
2. one needs to direct all their review efforts at Google.

This behavior forces them to be flagged algorithmically or manually. Neither Google nor Yelp want you to solicit reviews.

However, if you change your approach from aggressively asking for reviews to a survey-based approach, you should be fine.

What do I mean by that?

A survey-based approach means you solicit your customers' opinions on different services/products to improve your operations - and then ask them to share their opinion on the web while giving them plenty of choices.

This approach will get you much further than mindlessly begging people for reviews and sending them to Google.

The problem with clear distinction between the right and wrong way in handling reviews, as far as Google goes, lies in their constant changing of guidelines regarding reviews.

Things to remember are: try to get reviews on plenty of sites, while surveying your customers and never get too aggressive. Slow and steady wins the race.

Q: On many local searches people are now getting carouseled away from generic searches toward branded searches before clicking through, and then there is keyword(not provided) on top of that. What are some of the more cost efficient ways a small business can track & improve their ranking performance when so much of the performance data is hidden/disconnected?

A: Are you referring to ranking in Maps or organic part of the results? I'm asking because Google doesn't blend anymore.

Q: I meant organic search

A: OK. My advice has always been to not obsess over rankings, but over customer acquisition numbers, leads, lifetime customer value etc.

However, rankings are objectively a very important piece of the puzzle. Here are my suggestions when it comes to more cost efficient ways to track and improve ranking performance:

  • When it comes to tracking, I'd use Advanced Web Ranking (AWR) or Authority Labs, both of which are not very expensive.
  • Improving ranking performance is another story. Local websites should be optimized based on the same principles that would work for any site (copy should be written for conversion, pages should be focused on narrow topics, titles should be written for clickthrough rates etc).
  • On the link building side of things, I'd suggest taking care of data aggregators first as a very impactful, yet cost effective strategy. Then, I would go after vertical platforms that link directly to a website, that have profiles chockfull of structured data. I would also make sure to join relevant industry and business associations, and generally go after links that only a real local business can get - or that come as a result of broader marketing initiatives. For example, one can organize events in the offline world that can result in links and citations, effectively increasing their search visibility without spending too much.

Q: If you are a local locksmith, how do you rise above the spam which people have publicly complained about for at least 5 years straight now?

A: If I were a local locksmith, I would seriously consider moving my operations close to the centroid of my town/city. I would also make sure my business data across the web is highly consistent.

In addition, I would make sure to facilitate getting reviews on many platforms. If this wouldn't be enough (as it often isn't enough in many markets), I would be public about Google's inability to handle locksmiths spam in my town - using their forums, and any other medium.

Q: In many cities do you feel the potential ROI would be high enough to justify paying for downtown real estate then? Or would you suggest having a mailing related address or such?

A: The ROI of getting a legitimate downtown address would greatly depend on customer lifetime value. For example, if I were a personal injury attorney in a major city, I would definitely consider opening a small office near a center of my city/town.

Another thing to consider would be the search radius/location sensitivity. If the location sensitivity for a set of keywords is high, I would be more inclined to invest in a downtown office.

I wouldn't advocate PO boxes or virtual offices, since Google is getting more aggressive about weeding those out.

Q: Google recently started supporting microformats for things like hours of operation, phone numbers, and menus. How important is it for local businesses to use these sorts of features?

A: It is not a crucial ranking factor, and is unlikely to be any time in the near future. However, Google tends to reward businesses that embrace their new features - at least in local search. I would definitely recommend embracing microformats in local search.

Q: As a blogger I've noticed an increase in comment spam with NAP information in it. Do you see Google eventually penalizing people for that? Is this likely to turn into yet another commonplace form of negative SEO?

A: This is a difficult question. Knowing how Google operates, it's possible they start penalizing that practice. However, I don't see that type of spam being particularly effective.

Most blogs cannot do a lot to enhance the location prominence. But if that turned into a negative SEO avenue, I would say that Google wouldn't handle it well (based on their track records).

Q: Last year you wrote a popular guide to local search. What major changes have happened to the ecosystem since then? Would you change any of the advice you gave back then? Or has local search started to become more stable recently?

A: There weren't huge changes in the local ecosystem. Google has made a lot of progress in transferring accounts to the new dashboard, improving the Bulk upload function. They also changed their UX slightly.

Moz entered the local search space with their Moz Local product.

Q: When doing a local SEO campaign, how much of the workload tends to be upfront stuff versus ongoing maintenance work? For many campaigns is a one-off effort enough to last for a significant period of time? How do you determine the best approach for a client in terms of figuring out the mix of upfront versus maintenance and how long it will take results to show and so on?

A: This largely depends on the objective of the campaign, the market and the budget. There are verticals where local Internet marketing is extremely competitive, and tends to be a constant battle.

Some markets, on the other hand, are easy and can largely be a one-off thing. For example, if you're a plumber or an electrician in a small town with a service area limited to that town, you really don't need much maintenance, if any.

However, if you are a roofing company that wants to be a market leader in greater Houston, TX your approach has to be much different.

The upfront work tends to be more intense if the business has NAP inconsistencies, never did any Internet marketing and doesn't excel at offline marketing.

If you're a brand offline and know to tie your offline and online marketing efforts, you will have a much easier time getting the most out of the web.

In most smaller markets, the results can be seen in a span of just a few months. More competitive markets, in my experience, require more time and a larger investment.

Q: When does it make sense for a local business to DIY versus hiring help? What tools do you recommend they use if they do it themselves?

A: If local business owner is in a position where doing local Internet marketing is their highest value activity, it would make sense to do it themselves.

However, more often than not, this is not the case even for the smallest of businesses. Being successful in local Internet marketing in a small market is not that difficult. But it does come with a learning curve and a cost in time.

Having said that, if the market is not that competitive, taking care of data aggregators, a few major local search platforms and acquisition of a handful of industry links would do the trick.

For data aggregators, one might go directly to them or use a tool such as UBM or Moz Local.

To dig for citations, Whitespark's citation tool is pretty good and not that expensive.

Q: The WSJ recently published a fairly unflatering article about some of the larger local search firms which primarily manage AdWords for 10's of thousands of clients & rely on aggressive outbound marketing to offset high levels of churn. Should a small business consider paid search & local as being separate from one another or part of the same thing? If someone hires help on these fronts, where's the best place to find responsive help?

A: "Big box" local search companies were always better about client acquisition than performance. It always seemed as if performance wasn't an integral part of their business model.

However, small businesses cannot take that approach when it comes to performance. Generally speaking, the more web is connected to business, the better of a small business is. This means that a local Internet marketing strategy should start with business objectives.

Everyone should ask themselves 2 questions:
1. What's my lifetime customer value?
2. How much can I afford to spend on acquiring a customer?

Every online marketing endeavor should be judged through this lens. This means greater integration.

Q: What are some of the best resources people can use to get the fundamentals of local search & to keep up with the changing search landscape?

A: Luckily for everyone, blogosphere in local search is rich in useful information. I would definitely recommend Mike Blumenthal's blog, Andrew Shotland's Local SEO Guide, Linda Buquet's forum, Nyagoslav Zhekov, Mary Bowling and of course, the Local U blog.


Vedran Tomic is a member of SEOBook and founder of Local Ants LLC, a local internet marketing agency. Please feel free to use the comments below to ask any local search questions you have, as Vedran will be checking in periodically to answer them over the next couple days.

Google's Effective 'White Hat' Marketing Case Study

Apr 15th

There's the safe way & the high risk approach. The shortcut takers & those who win through hard work & superior offering.

One is white hat and the other is black hat.

With the increasing search ecosystem instability over the past couple years, some see these labels constantly sliding, sometimes on an ex-post-facto basis, turning thousands of white hats into black hats arbitrarily overnight.

Are you a white hat SEO? or a black hat SEO?

Do you even know?

Before you answer, please have a quick read of this Washington Post article highlighting how Google manipulated & undermined the US political system.

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Seriously, go read it now.

It's fantastic journalism & an important read for anyone who considers themselves an SEO.

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Take the offline analog to Google's search "quality" guidelines & in spirit Google repeatedly violated every single one of them.

Advertorials

creating links that weren’t editorially placed or vouched for by the site’s owner on a page, otherwise known as unnatural links can be considered a violation of our guidelines. Advertorials or native advertising where payment is received for articles that include links that pass PageRank

Advertorials are spam, except when they are not: "the staff and professors at GMU’s law center were in regular contact with Google executives, who supplied them with the company’s arguments against antitrust action and helped them get favorable op-ed pieces published"

Deception

Don't deceive your users.

Ads should be clearly labeled, except when they are not: "GMU officials later told Dellarocas they were planning to have him participate from the audience," which is just like an infomercial that must be labeled as an advertisement!

Preventing Money from Manipulating Editorial

Make reasonable efforts to ensure that advertisements do not affect search engine rankings. For example, Google's AdSense ads and DoubleClick links are blocked from being crawled by a robots.txt file.

Money influencing outcomes is wrong, except when it's not: "Google’s lobbying corps — now numbering more than 100 — is split equally, like its campaign donations, among Democrats and Republicans. ... Google became the second-largest corporate spender on lobbying in the United States in 2012."

Content Quality

The best way to get other sites to create high-quality, relevant links to yours is to create unique, relevant content that can naturally gain popularity in the Internet community. Creating good content pays off: Links are usually editorial votes given by choice, and the more useful content you have, the greater the chances someone else will find that content valuable to their readers and link to it.

Payment should be disclosed, except when it shouldn't: "The school and Google staffers worked to organize a second academic conference focused on search. This time, however, Google’s involvement was not publicly disclosed."

Cloaking

Cloaking refers to the practice of presenting different content or URLs to human users and search engines. Cloaking is considered a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines because it provides our users with different results than they expected.

cloaking is evil, except when it's not: Even as Google executives peppered the GMU staff with suggestions of speakers and guests to invite to the event, the company asked the school not to broadcast its involvement. “We will certainly limit who we announce publicly from Google”

...and on and on and on...

It's not safe to assume that just because a specific deceptive technique isn't included on this page, Google approves of it.

And while they may not approve of something, that doesn't mean they avoid the strategy when mapping out their own approach.

There's a lesson & it isn't a particularly subtle one.

Free markets aren't free. Who could have known?

Bing Lists 'Alternatives' In Search Results

Mar 30th
posted in
msn

Bing recently stated testing listing 'alternatives' near their local search results.

I wasn't able to replicate these in other search verticals like flight search, or on an iPhone search, but the format of these alternatives looks similar to the format proposed in Google's ongoing monopolistic abuse case in Europe:

"In effect, competitors will have the 'choice' either to pay Google in order to remain relevant or lose visibility and become irrelevant," a European consumer watchdog, BEUC, said in a letter it sent to all 28 EU commissioners. The letter, seen by The Wall Street Journal, terms the deal "unacceptable."

  • Over 100 training modules, covering topics like: keyword research, link building, site architecture, website monetization, pay per click ads, tracking results, and more.
  • An exclusive interactive community forum
  • Members only videos and tools
  • Additional bonuses - like data spreadsheets, and money saving tips
We love our customers, but more importantly

Our customers love us!

Flip Guest Blogging on its Head, With Steroids

Mar 19th

Guest blogging was once considered a widely recommended white hat technique.

Today our monopoly-led marketplace arbitrarily decided this is no longer so.

Stick a fork in it. Torch it. Etc.

Now that rules have changed ex post facto, we can expect to deal with a near endless stream of "unnatural" link penalties for doing what was seen at the time as being:

  • natural
  • widespread
  • common
  • low risk
  • best practice

Google turns your past client investments into new cost centers & penalties. This ought to be a great thing for the SEO industry. Or maybe not.

As Google scares & expunges smaller players from participating in the SEO market, larger companies keep chugging along.

Today a friend received the following unsolicited email:

Curious about their background, he looked up their past coverage: "Written then offers a number of different content licenses that help the advertiser reach this audience, either by re-branding the existing page, moving the content to the advertiser’s website and re-directing traffic there, or just re-publishing the post on the brand’s blog."

So that's basically guest blogging at scale.

And it's not only guest blogging at scale, but it is guest blogging at scale based on keyword performance:

"You give us your gold keywords. Written finds high-performing, gold content with a built-in, engaged audience. Our various license options can bring the audience to you or your brand to the audience through great content."

What's worse is how they pitch this to the people they license content from:

I'm sorry, but taking your most valuable content & turning it into duplicate content by syndicating it onto a fortune 500 website will not increase your traffic. The fortune 500 site will outrank you (especially if visitors/links are 301 redirected to their site!). And when visitors are not redirected, they will still typically outrank you due to their huge domain authority (and the cross-domain rel=canonical tag), leading your content on your site to get filtered out of the search results as duplicate content & your link equity to pass on to the branded advertiser.

And if Google were to come down on anyone in the above sort of situation it would likely be the smaller independent bloggers who get hit.

This is how SEO works.

Smaller independent players innovate & prove the model.

Google punishes them for being innovative.

As they are punished, a vanilla corporate tweak of the same model rolls out and is white hat.

In SEO it's not what you do that matters - it's who your client is.

If you're not working for a big brand, you're doing it wrong.

Four legs good, two legs better.

Disavow & Link Removal: Understanding Google

Jan 26th

Fear Sells

Few SEOs took notice when Matt Cutts mentioned on TWIG that "breaking their spirits" was essential to stopping spammers. But that single piece of information add layers of insights around things like:

  • duplicity on user privacy on organic versus AdWords
  • benefit of the doubt for big brands versus absolute apathy toward smaller entities
  • the importance of identity versus total wipeouts of those who are clipped
  • mixed messaging on how to use disavow & the general fear around links

From Growth to No Growth

Some people internalize failure when growth slows or stops. One can't raise venture capital and keep selling the dream of the growth story unless the blame is internalized. If one understands that another dominant entity (monopoly) is intentionally subverting the market then a feel good belief in the story of unlimited growth flames out.

Most of the growth in the search channel is being absorbed by Google. In RKG's Q4 report they mentioned that mobile ad clicks were up over 100% for the year & mobile organic clicks were only up 28%.

Investing in Fear

There's a saying in investing that "genius is declining interest rates" but when the rates reverse the cost of that additional leverage surfaces. Risks from years ago that didn't really matter suddenly do.

The same is true with SEO. A buddy of mine mentioned getting a bad link example from Google where the link was in place longer than Google has been in existence. Risk can arbitrarily be added after the fact to any SEO activity. Over time Google can keep shifting the norms of what is acceptable. So long as they are fighting off Wordpress hackers and other major issues they are kept busy, but when they catch up on that stuff they can then focus on efforts to shift white to gray and gray to black - forcing people to abandon techniques which offered a predictable positive ROI.

Defunding SEO is an essential & virtuous goal.

Hiding data (and then giving crumbs of it back to profile webmasters) is one way of doing it, but adding layers of risk is another. What panda did to content was add a latent risk to content where the cost of that risk in many cases vastly exceeded the cost of the content itself. What penguin did to links was the same thing: make the latent risk much larger than the upfront cost.

As Google dials up their weighting on domain authority many smaller sites which competed on legacy relevancy metrics like anchor text slide down the result set. When they fall down the result set, many of those site owners think they were penalized (even if their slide was primarily driven by a reweighting of factors rather than an actual penalty). Since there is such rampant fearmongering on links, they start there. Nearly every widely used form of link building has been promoted by Google engineers as being spam.

  • Paid links? Spam.
  • Reciprocal links? Spam.
  • Blog comments? Spam.
  • Forum profile links? Spam.
  • Integrated newspaper ads? Spam.
  • Article databases? Spam.
  • Designed by credit links? Spam.
  • Press releases? Spam.
  • Web 2.0 profile & social links? Spam.
  • Web directories? Spam.
  • Widgets? Spam.
  • Infographics? Spam.
  • Guest posts? Spam.

It doesn't make things any easier when Google sends out examples of spam links which are sites the webmaster has already disavowed or sites which Google explicitly recommended in their webmaster guidelines, like DMOZ.

It is quite the contradiction where Google suggests we should be aggressive marketers everywhere EXCEPT for SEO & basically any form of link building is far too risky.

It’s a strange world where when it comes to social media, Google is all promote promote promote. Or even in paid search, buy ads, buy ads, buy ads. But when it comes to organic listings, it’s just sit back and hope it works, and really don’t actively go out and build links, even those are so important. - Danny Sullivan

Google is in no way a passive observer of the web. Rather they actively seek to distribute fear and propaganda in order to take advantage of the experiment effect.

They can find and discredit the obvious, but most on their “spam list” done “well” are ones they can’t detect. So, it’s easier to have webmasters provide you a list (disavows), scare the ones that aren’t crap sites providing the links into submission and damn those building the links as “examples” – dragging them into town square for a public hanging to serve as a warning to anyone who dare disobey the dictatorship. - Sugarrae

This propaganda is so effective that email spammers promoting "SEO solutions" are now shifting their pitches from grow your business with SEO to recover your lost traffic

Where Do Profits Come From?

I saw Rand tweet this out a few days ago...

... and thought "wow, that couldn't possibly be any less correct."

When ecosystems are stable you can create processes which are profitable & pay for themselves over the longer term.

I very frequently get the question: 'what’s going to change in the next 10 years?' And that is a very interesting question; it’s a very common one. I almost never get the question: 'what’s not going to change in the next 10 years?' And I submit to you that that second question is actually the more important of the two – because you can build a business strategy around the things that are stable in time….in our retail business, we know that customers want low prices and I know that’s going to be true 10 years from now. They want fast delivery, they want vast selection. It’s impossible to imagine a future 10 years from now where a customer comes up and says, 'Jeff I love Amazon, I just wish the prices were a little higher [or] I love Amazon, I just wish you’d deliver a little more slowly.' Impossible. And so the effort we put into those things, spinning those things up, we know the energy we put into it today will still be paying off dividends for our customers 10 years from now. When you have something that you know is true, even over the long-term, you can afford to put a lot of energy into it. - Jeff Bezos at re: Invent, November, 2012

When ecosystems are unstable, anything approaching boilerplate has an outsized risk added by the dominant market participant. The quicker your strategy can be done at scale or in the third world, the quicker Google shifts it from a positive to a negative ranking signal. It becomes much harder to train entry level employees on the basics when some of the starter work they did in years past now causes penalties. It becomes much harder to manage client relationships when their traffic spikes up and down, especially if Google sends out rounds of warnings they later semi-retract.

What's more, anything that is vastly beyond boilerplate tends to require a deeper integration and a higher level of investment - making it take longer to pay back. But the budgets for such engagement dry up when the ecosystem itself is less stable. Imagine the sales pitch, "I realize we are off 35% this year, but if we increase the budget 500% we should be in a good spot a half-decade from now."

All great consultants aim to do more than the bare minimum in order to give their clients a sustainable competitive advantage, but by removing things which are scalable and low risk Google basically prices out the bottom 90% to 95% of the market. Small businesses which hire an SEO are almost guaranteed to get screwed because Google has made delivering said services unprofitable, particularly on a risk-adjusted basis.

Being an entrepreneur is hard. Today Google & Amazon are giants, but it wasn't always that way. Add enough risk and those streams of investment in innovation disappear. Tomorrow's Amazon or Google of other markets may die a premature death. You can't see what isn't there until you look back from the future - just like the answering machine AT&T held back from public view for decades.

Meanwhile, the Google Venture backed companies keep on keeping on - they are protected.

When ad agencies complain about the talent gap, what they are really complaining about is paying people what they are worth. But as the barrier to entry in search increases, independent players die, leaving more SEOs to chase fewer corporate jobs at lower wages. Even companies servicing fortune 500s are struggling.

On an individual basis, creating value and being fairly compensated for the value you create are not the same thing. Look no further than companies like Google & Apple which engage in flagrantly illegal anti-employee cartel agreements. These companies "partnered" with their direct competitors to screw their own employees. Even if you are on a winning team it does not mean that you will be a winner after you back out higher living costs and such illegal employer agreements.

This is called now the winner-take-all society. In other words the rewards go overwhelmingly to just the thinnest crust of folks. The winner-take-all society creates incredibly perverse incentives to become a cheater-take-all society. Cause my chances of winning an honest competition are very poor. Why would I be the one guy or gal who would be the absolute best in the world? Why not cheat instead?" - William K Black

Meanwhile, complaints about the above sorts of inequality or other forms of asset stripping are pitched as being aligned with Nazi Germany's treatment of Jews. Obviously we need more H-1B visas to further drive down wages even as graduates are underemployed with a mountain of debt.

A Disavow For Any (& Every) Problem

Removing links is perhaps the single biggest growth area in SEO.

Just this week I got an unsolicited email from an SEO listing directory

We feel you may qualify for a Top position among our soon to be launched Link Cleaning Services Category and we would like to learn more about Search Marketing Info. Due to the demand for link cleaning services we're poised to launch the link cleaning category. I took a few minutes to review your profile and felt you may qualify. Do you have time to talk this Monday or Tuesday?

Most of the people I interact with tend to skew toward the more experienced end of the market. Some of the folks who join our site do so after their traffic falls off. In some cases the issues look intimately tied to Panda & the sites with hundreds of thousands of pages maybe only have a couple dozen inbound links. In spite of having few inbound links & us telling people the problem looks to be clearly aligned with Panda, some people presume that the issue is links & they still need to do a disavow file.

Why do they make that presumption? It's the fear message Google has been selling nonstop for years.

Punishing people is much different, and dramatic, from not rewarding. And it feeds into the increasing fear that people might get punished for anything. - Danny Sullivan

What happens when Google hands out free all-you-can-eat gummy bear laxatives to children at the public swimming pool? A tragedy of the commons.

Rather than questioning or countering the fear stuff, the role of the SEO industry has largely been to act as lap dogs, syndicating & amplifying the fear.

  • link tool vendors want to sell proprietary clean up data
  • SEO consultants want to tell you that they are the best and if you work with someone else there is a high risk hidden in the low price
  • marketers who crap on SEO to promote other relabeled terms want to sell you on the new term and paint the picture that SEO is a self-limiting label & a backward looking view of marketing
  • paid search consultants want to enhance the perception that SEO is unreliable and not worthy of your attention or investment

Even entities with a 9 figure valuation (and thus plenty of resources to invest in a competent consultant) may be incorrectly attributing SEO performance problems to links.

A friend recently sent me a link removal request from Buy Domains referring to a post which linked to them.

On the face of this, it's pretty absurd, no? A company which does nothing but trade in names themselves asks that their name reference be removed from a fairly credible webpage recommending them.

The big problem for Buy Domains is not backlinks. They may have had an issue with some of the backlinks from PPC park pages in the past, but now those run through a redirect and are nofollowed.

Their big issue is that they have less than great engagement metrics (as do most marketplace sites other than eBay & Amazon which are not tied to physical stores). That typically won't work if the entity has limited brand awareness coupled with having nearly 5 million pages in Google's index.

They not only have pages for each individual domain name, but they link to their internal search results from their blog posts & those search pages are indexed. Here's part of a recent blog post

And here are examples of the thin listing sorts of pages which Panda was designed in part to whack. These pages were among the millions indexed in Google.

A marketplace with millions of pages that doesn't have broad consumer awareness is likely to get nailed by Panda. And the websites linking to it are likely to end up in disavow files, not because they did anything wrong but because Google is excellent at nurturing fear.

What a Manual Penalty Looks Like

Expedia saw a 25% decline in search visibility due to an unnatural links penalty , causing their stock to fall 6.4%. Both Google & Expedia declined to comment. It appears that the eventual Expedia undoing stemmed from Hacker News feedback & coverage about an outing story on an SEO blog that certainly sounded like it stemmed from an extortion attempt. USA Today asked if the Expedia campaign was a negative SEO attack.

While Expedia's stock drop was anything but trivial, they will likely recover within a week to a month.

Smaller players can wait and wait and wait and wait ... and wait.

Manual penalties are no joke, especially if you are a small entity with no political influence. The impact of them can be absolutely devastating. Such penalties are widespread too.

In Google's busting bad advertising practices post they highlighted having zero tolerance, banning more than 270,000 advertisers, removing more than 250,000 publishers accounts, and disapproving more than 3,000,000 applications to join their ad network. All that was in 2013 & Susan Wojcicki mentioned Google having 2,000,000 sites in their display ad network. That would mean that something like 12% of their business partners were churned last year alone.

If Google's churn is that aggressive on their own partners (where Google has an economic incentive for the relationship) imagine how much broader the churn is among the broader web. In this video Matt Cutts mentioned that Google takes over 400,000 manual actions each month & they get about 5,000 reconsideration request messages each week, so over 95% of the sites which receive notification never reply. Many of those who do reply are wasting their time.

The Disavow Threat

Originally when disavow was launched it was pitched as something to be used with extreme caution:

This is an advanced feature and should only be used with caution. If used incorrectly, this feature can potentially harm your site’s performance in Google’s search results. We recommend that you disavow backlinks only if you believe you have a considerable number of spammy, artificial, or low-quality links pointing to your site, and if you are confident that the links are causing issues for you. In most cases, Google can assess which links to trust without additional guidance, so most normal or typical sites will not need to use this tool.

Recently Matt Cutts has encouraged broader usage. He has one video which discusses proatively disavowing bad links as they come in & another where he mentioned how a large company disavowed 100% of their backlinks that came in for a year.

The idea of proactively monitoring your backlink profile is quickly becoming mainstream - yet another recurring fixed cost center in SEO with no upside to the client (unless you can convince the client SEO is unstable and they should be afraid - which would ultimately retard their longterm investment in SEO).

Given the harshness of manual actions & algorithms like Penguin, they drive companies to desperation, acting irrationally based on fear.

People are investing to undo past investments. It's sort of like riding a stock down 60%, locking in the losses by selling it, and then using the remaining 40% of the money to buy put options or short sell the very same stock. :D

Some companies are so desperate to get links removed that they "subscribe" sites that linked to them organically with spam email messages asking the links be removed.

Some go so far that they not only email you on and on, but they created dedicated pages on their site claiming that the email was real.

What's so risky about the above is that many webmasters will remove links sight unseen, even from an anonymous Gmail account. Mix in the above sort of "this message is real" stuff and how easy would it be for a competitor to target all your quality backlinks with a "please remove my links" message? Further, how easy would it be for a competitor aware of such a campaign to drop a few hundred Dollars on Fiverr or Xrummer or other similar link sources, building up your spam links while removing your quality links?

A lot of the "remove my link" messages are based around lying to the people who are linking & telling them that the outbound link is harming them as well: "As these links are harmful to both yours and our business after penguin2.0 update, we would greatly appreciate it if you would delete these backlinks from your website."

Here's the problem though. Even if you spend your resources and remove the links, people will still likely add your site to their disavow file. I saw a YouTube video recording of an SEO conference where 4 well known SEO consultants mentioned that even if they remove the links "go ahead and disavow anyhow," so there is absolutely no upside for publishers in removing links.

How Aggregate Disavow Data Could Be Used

Recovery is by no means guaranteed. In fact of the people who go to the trouble to remove many links & create a disavow file, only 15% of people claim to have seen any benefit.

The other 85% who weren't sure of any benefit may not have only wasted their time, but they may have moved some of their other projects closer toward being penalized.

Let's look at the process:

  • For the disavow to work you also have to have some links removed.
    • Some of the links that are removed may not have been the ones that hurt you in Google, thus removing them could further lower your rank.
    • Some of the links you have removed may be the ones that hurt you in Google, while also being ones that helped you in Bing.
    • The Bing & Yahoo! Search traffic hit comes immediately, whereas the Google recovery only comes later (if at all).
  • Many forms of profits (from client services or running a network of sites) come systematization. If you view everything that is systematized or scalable as spam, then you are not only disavowing to try to recover your penalized site, but you are send co-citation disavow data to Google which could have them torch other sites connected to those same sources.
    • If you run a network of sites & use the same sources across your network and/or cross link around your network, you may be torching your own network.
    • If you primarily do client services & disavow the same links you previously built for past clients, what happens to the reputation of your firm when dozens or hundreds of past clients get penalized? What happens if a discussion forum thread on Google Groups or elsewhere starts up where your company gets named & then a tsunami of pile on stuff fills out in the thread? Might that be brand destroying?

The disavow and review process is not about recovery, but is about collecting data and distributing pain in a game of one-way transparency. Matt has warned that people shouldn't lie to Google...

...however Google routinely offers useless non-information in their responses.

Some Google webmaster messages leave a bit to be desired.

Recovery is uncommon. Your first response from Google might take a month or more. If you work for a week or two on clean up and then the response takes a month, the penalty has already lasted at least 6 weeks. And that first response might be something like this

Reconsideration request for site.com: Site violates Google's quality guidelines

We received a reconsideration request from a site owner for site.com/.

We've reviewed your site and we believe that site.com/ still violates our quality guidelines. In order to preserve the quality of our search engine, pages from site.com/ may not appear or may not rank as highly in Google's search results, or may otherwise be considered to be less trustworthy than sites which follow the quality guidelines.

For more specific information about the status of your site, visit the Manual Actions page in Webmaster Tools. From there, you may request reconsideration of your site again when you believe your site no longer violates the quality guidelines.
If you have additional questions about how to resolve this issue, please see our Webmaster Help Forum.

Absolutely useless.

Zero useful information whatsoever.

As people are unsuccessful in the recovery process they cut deeper and deeper. Some people have removed over 90% of their profile without recovering & been nearly a half-year into the (12-step) "recovery" process before even getting a single example of a bad link from Google. In some cases these bad links Google identified were links were obviously created by third party scraper sites & were not in Google's original sample of links to look at (so even if you looked at every single link they showed you & cleaned up 100% of issues you would still be screwed.)

Another issue with aggregate disavow data is there is a lot of ignorance in the SEO industry in general, and people who try to do things cheap (essentially free) at scale have an outsized footprint in the aggregate data. For instance, our site's profile links are nofollowed & our profiles are not indexed by Google. In spite of this, examples like the one below are associated with not 1 but 3 separate profiles for a single site.

Our site only has about 20,000 to 25,000 unique linking domains. However over the years we have had well over a million registered user profiles. If only 2% of the registered user profiles were ignorant spammers who spammed our profile pages and then later added our site to a disavow file, we would have more people voting *against* our site than we have voting for it. And that wouldn't be because we did anything wrong, but rather because Google is fostering an environment of mixed messaging, fear & widespread ignorance.

And if we are ever penalized, the hundreds of scraper sites built off scraping our RSS feed would make the recovery process absolutely brutal.

Another factor with Google saying "you haven't cut out enough bone marrow yet" along with suggesting that virtually any/every type of link is spam is that there is going to be a lot of other forms of false positives in the aggregate data.

I know some companies specializing in link recovery which in part base some aspects of their disavows on the site's ranking footprint. Well if you get a manual penalty, a Panda penalty, or your site gets hacked, then those sorts of sites which you are linking to may re-confirm that your site deserves to be penalized (on a nearly automated basis with little to no thought) based on the fact that it is already penalized. Good luck on recovering from that as Google folds in aggregate disavow data to justify further penalties.

Responsibility

All large ecosystems are gamed. We see it with app ratings & reviews, stealth video marketing, advertising, malware installs, and of course paid links.

Historically in search there has been the view that you are responsible for what you have done, but not the actions of others. The alternate roadmap would lead to this sort of insanity:

Our system has noticed that in the last week you received 240 spam emails. In result, your email account was temporarily suspended. Please contact the spammers and once you have a proof they unsuscribed you from their spam databases, we will reconsider reopening your email account.

As Google has closed down their own ecosystem, they allow their own $0 editorial to rank front & center even if it is pure spam, but third parties are now held to a higher standard - you could be held liable for the actions of others.

At the extreme, one of Google's self-promotional automated email spam messages sent a guy to jail. In spite of such issues, Google remains unfazed, adding a setting which allows anyone on Google+ to email other members.

Ask Google if they should be held liable for the actions of third parties and they will tell you to go to hell. Their approach to copyright remains fuzzy, they keep hosting more third party content on their own sites, and even when that content has been deemed illegal they scream that it undermines their first amendment rights if they are made to proactively filter:

Finally, they claimed they were defending free speech. But it's the courts which said the pictures were illegal and should not be shown, so the issue is the rule of law, not freedom of speech.
...
the non-technical management, particularly in the legal department, seems to be irrational to the point of becoming adolescent. It's almost as if they refuse to do something entirely sensible, and which would save them and others time and trouble, for no better reason than that someone asked them to.

Monopolies with nearly unlimited resources shall be held liable for nothing.

Individuals with limited resources shall be liable for the behavior of third parties.

Google Duplicity (beta).

Torching a Competitor

As people have become more acclimated toward link penalties, a variety of tools have been created to help make sorting through the bad ones easier.

"There have been a few tools coming out on the market since the first Penguin - but I have to say that LinkRisk wins right now for me on ease of use and intuitive accuracy. They can cut the time it takes to analyse and root out your bad links from days to minutes..." - Dixon Jones

But as there have been more tools created for sorting out bad links & more tools created to automate sending link emails, two things have happened

  • Google is demanding more links be removed to allow for recovery
  • people are becoming less responsive to link removal requests as they get bombarded with them
    • Some of these tools keep bombarding people over and over again weekly until the link is removed or the emails go to the spam bin
    • to many people the link removal emails are the new link request emails ;)
    • one highly trusted publisher who participates in our forums stated they filtered the word "disavow" to automatically go to their trash bin
    • on WebmasterWorld a member decided it was easier to delete their site than deal with the deluge of link removal spam emails

The problem with Google rewarding negative signals is there are false positives and it is far cheaper to kill a business than it is to build one. The technically savvy teenager who created the original version of the software used in the Target PoS attack sold the code for only $2,000.

There have been some idiotic articles like this one on The Awl suggesting that comment spamming is now dead as spammers run for the hills, but that couldn't be further from the truth. Some (not particularly popular) blogs are getting hundreds to thousands of spam comments daily & Wordpress can have trouble even backing up the database (unless the comment spam is regularly deleted) as the database can quickly get a million records.

The spam continues but the targets change. A lot of these comments are now pointed at YouTube videos rather than ordinary websites.

As Google keeps leaning into negative signals, one can expect a greater share of spam links to be created for negative SEO purposes.

Maybe this maternity jeans comment spam is tied to the site owner, but if they didn't do it, how do they prove it?

Once again, I'll reiterate Bill Black

This is called now the winner-take-all society. In other words the rewards go overwhelmingly to just the thinnest crust of folks. The winner-take-all society creates incredibly perverse incentives to become a cheater-take-all society. Cause my chances of winning an honest competition are very poor. Why would I be the one guy or gal who would be the absolute best in the world? Why not cheat instead?" - William K Black

The cost of "an academic test" can be as low as $5. You know you might be in trouble when you see fiverr.com/conversations/theirusername in your referrers:

Our site was hit with negative SEO. We have manually collected about 24,000 bad links for our disavow file (so far). It probably cost the perp $5 on Fiverr to point these links at our site. Do you want to know how bad that sucks? I'll tell you. A LOT!! Google should be sued enmass by web masters for wasting our time with this "bad link" nonsense. For a company with so many Ph.D's on staff, I can't believe how utterly stupid they are

Or, worse yet, you might see SAPE in your referrers

And if the attempt to get you torched fails, they can try & try again. The cost of failure is essentially zero. They can keep pouring on the fuel until the fire erupts.

Even Matt Cutts complains about website hacking, but that doesn't mean you are free of risk if someone else links to your site from hacked blogs. I've been forwarded unnatural link messages from Google which came about after person's site was added in on a SAPE hack by a third party in an attempt to conceal who the beneficial target was. When in doubt, Google may choose to blame all parties in a scorched Earth strategy.

If you get one of those manual penalties, you're screwed.

Even if you are not responsible for such links, and even if you respond on the same day, and even if Google believes you, you are still likely penalized AT LEAST for a month. Most likely Google will presume you are a liar and you have at least a second month in the penalty box. To recover you might have to waste days (weeks?) of your life & remove some of your organic links to show that you have went through sufficient pain to appease the abusive market monopoly.

As bad as the above is, it is just the tip of the iceberg.

  • People can redirect torched websites.
  • People can link to you from spam link networks which rotate links across sites, so you can't possibly remove or even disavow all the link sources.
  • People can order you a subscription of those rotating spam links from hacked sites, where new spam links appear daily. Google mentioned discovering 9,500 malicious sites daily & surely the number has only increased from there.
  • People can tie any/all of the above with cloaking links or rel=canonical messages to GoogleBot & then potentially chain that through further redirects cloaked to GoogleBot.
  • And on and on ... the possibilities are endless.

Extortion

Another thing this link removal fiasco subsidizes is various layers of extortion.

Not only are there the harassing emails threatening to add sites to disavow lists if they don't remove the links, but some companies quickly escalate things from there. I've seen hosting abuse, lawyer threat letters, and one friend was actually sued in court (and the people who sued him actually had the link placed!)

Google created a URL removal tool which allows webmasters to remove pages from third party websites. How long until that is coupled with DDoS attacks? Once effective with removing one page, a competitor might decide to remove another.

Another approach to get links removed is to offer payment. But payment itself might encourage the creation of further spammy links as link networks look to replace their old cashflow with new sources.

The recent Expedia fiasco started as an extortion attempt: "If I wanted him to not publish it, he would "sell the post to the highest bidder."

Another nasty issue here is articles like this one on Link Research Tools, where they not only highlight client lists of particular firms, but then state which URLs have not yet been penalized followed by "most likely not yet visible." So long as that sort of "publishing" is acceptable in the SEO industry, you can bet that some people will hire the SEOs nearly guaranteeing a penalty to work on their competitor's sites, while having an employee write a "case study" for Link Research Tools. Is this the sort of bullshit we really want to promote?

Some folks are now engaging in overt extortion:

I had a client phone me today and say he had a call from a guy with an Indian accent who told him that he will destroy his website rankings if he doesn't pay him £10 per month to NOT do this.

Branding / Rebranding / Starting Over

Sites that are overly literal in branding likely have no chance at redemption. That triple hyphenated domain name in a market that is seen as spammy has zero chance of recovery.

Even being a generic unbranded site in a YMYL category can make you be seen as spam. The remote rater documents stated that the following site was spam...

... even though the spammiest thing on it was the stuff advertised in the AdSense ads:

For many (most?) people who receive a manual link penalty or are hit by Penguin it is going to be cheaper to start over than to clean up.

At the very minimum it can make sense to lay groundwork for a new project immediately just in case the old site can't recover or takes nearly a year to recover. However, even if you figure out the technical bits, as soon as you have any level of success (or as soon as you connect your projects together in any way) you once again become a target.

And you can't really invest in higher level branding functions unless you think the site is going to be around for many years to earn off the sunk cost.

Succeeding at SEO is not only about building rank while managing cashflow and staying unpenalized, but it is also about participating in markets where you are not marginalized due to Google inserting their own vertical search properties.

Even companies which are large and well funded may not succeed with a rebrand if Google comes after their vertical from the top down.

Hope & Despair

If you are a large partner affiliated with Google, hope is on your side & you can monetize the link graph: "By ensuring that our clients are pointing their links to maximize their revenue, we’re not only helping them earn more money, but we’re also stimulating the link economy."

You have every reason to be Excited, as old projects like Excite or Merchant Circle can be relaunched again and again.

Even smaller players with the right employer or investor connections are exempt from these arbitrary risks.

You can even be an SEO and start a vertical directory knowing you will do well if you can get that Google Ventures investment, even as other similar vertical directories were torched by Panda.

For most other players in that same ecosystem, the above tailwind is a headwind. Don't expect much 1 on 1 help in webmaster tools.

In this video Matt Cutts mentioned that Google takes over 400,000 manual actions each month & they get about 5,000 reconsideration request messages each week, so over 95% of the sites which receive notification never reply. Many of those who reply are wasting their time. How many confirmed Penguin 1.0 recoveries are you aware of?

Even if a recovery is deserved, it does not mean one will happen, as errors do happen. And on the off chance recovery happens, recovery does not mean a full restoration of rankings.

There are many things we can learn from Google's messages, but probably the most important is this:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only. - Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Yahoo! Secured Search Rolls Out

Jan 22nd
posted in

Yahoo! is currently rolling out secured search, which prevents sending referrers to unsecured sites. The roll out is ongoing, but currently they do pass data to secured sites. Unlike Google's secured search roll out:

  • rather than showing a referrer without keyword data the traffic will show up as direct site visitors
  • there is no default automated workaround for advertisers

Even though the data is being blocked for both ads & organics right now, advertisers can quickly use Bing Ads Editor to add tracking strings to their URLs passing the relevant keyword data likeso

http://www.site.com/folder/page.html?utm_source=bing&utm_medium=cpc&utm_campaign=mycampaign{IfContent:content}&utm_term={Keyword}&utm_content={QueryString}&match={MatchType}

A couple quick questions:

  • Will Yahoo! add a Google-like data flow exemption for advertisers beyond URL tracking parameters?
  • Will Yahoo! make guarantees to secured sites that organic data will flow to justify the cost & significant risks associated with site migrations?
  • How accessible will Yahoo! data remain within Bing?
  • If/when Bing makes secured search a default, how will their solution differ from those of Google & Yahoo!?

Update: It looks like Yahoo! is now passing about 36% of their search traffic through an internal redirect which strips keyword referral data. The r.search.yahoo.com redirect is still used & does not pass keyword information to the publisher website, even if the site which is being linked to is secured.

Google's Chris DiBona On Search Ecosystem Diversity

Jan 16th

It's hard to deny that some folks working at Google are geniuses. It's also hard to deny the disconnect in their messaging.

As Google locked down their "open" ecosystem (compatibility as a club, abandonware, deleting privacy settings, extensions required to be installed from store, extensions required to be single-purpose, forced Google+ integration, knowledge graph scrape-n-displace, “We could either sue him or hire him," etc.), I thought an interview of one of their open source evangelists would be entertaining.

Chris DiBona delivered:

Can you imagine if you didn't have the malware protection and the process isolation of Chrome, that Chrome brought to other browsers? Can you imagine surfing the web the way it is right now? It's pretty grim. There's a lot of malware. You end up basically funnelling people into fewer and fewer sites, and therefore fewer and fewer viewpoints and all the rest.

There are many hacked websites, but sometimes large sites serve malware through their ads. Ad networks are one of the best ways to distribute malware. The super networks core to the web ecosystem are home to much of the malware - even GoogleBot was tricked into doing MySQL injection attacks. But even if we ignored that bit, it doesn't take much insight to realize that Google is achieving that same kill diversity "goal" through other means...

...as they roll out many algorithmic filters, manual penalties, selectively enforce these issues on smaller players (while giving more exploitative entities a free pass), insert their own vertical search services, dial up their weighting on domain authority, and require smaller players to proactively police the rest of the web while Google thinks the n-word 85 times is totally reasonable on their own tier-1 properties.

We have another post coming on the craziness of disavows and link removals, but it has no doubt gone beyond absurd at this point.

Why is diversity so important?

Dissent evolves markets. The status quo doesn't get changed by agreeing & aligning with existing power structures. Anyone who cares to debate this need only look at Google's ongoing endless string of lawsuits. Most of those lawsuits are associated with Google (rightly or wrongly) taking power from what they view as legacy entities.

Even on a more personal level, one's investment returns are likely to be better when things are out of favor:

"Investors should remember that excitement and expenses are their enemies. And if they insist on trying to time their participation in equities, they should try to be fearful when others are greedy and greedy only when others are fearful." - Warren Buffett

In many markets returns and popularity are inversely proportional

Investing in Internet stocks in 1999 was popular, but for those who stayed too long at the party it was a train wreck. Domain name speculators who bought into the carnage a couple years later did well.

Society is so complex & inter-connected that its very easy to think things run far more smoothly than they do & thus buy into to many fibs that are obviously self-evident until the moment they are not.

Popularity is backward looking, enabling the sheep to be sheared.

Unfortunately depth & diversity are being sacrificed to promote pablum from well known entities in formats that are easy to disintermediate & monetize.

Think about it: an actual scientist who produces actual knowledge should be more like a journalist who recycles fake insights! This is beyond popularisation. This is taking something with value and substance and coring it out so that it can be swallowed without chewing. This is not the solution to our most frightening problems – rather this is one of our most frightening problems.
- Benjamin Bratton

Innovative knowledge creation and thought reading tattoosthe singularity is near.

Did Matt Cutts Endorse Rap Genius Link Spam?

Jan 4th

On TWIG Matt Cutts spoke about the importance of defunding spammers & breaking their spirits.

If you want to stop spam, the most straight forward way to do it is to deny people money because they care about the money and that should be their end goal. But if you really want to stop spam, it is a little bit mean, but what you want to do, is break their spirits. You want to make them frustrated and angry. There are parts of Google's algorithms specifically designed to frustrate spammers and mystify them and make them frustrated. And some of the stuff we do gives people a hint their site is going to drop and then a week or two later their site actually does drop so they get a little bit more frustrated. And so hopefully, and we've seen this happen, people step away from the dark side and say "you know, that was so much pain and anguish and frustration, let's just stay on the high road from now on" some of the stuff I like best is when people say "you know this SEO stuff is too unpredictable, I'm just going to write some apps. I'm going to go off and do something productive for society." And that's great because all that energy is channeled at something good.

What was less covered was that in the same video Matt Cutts made it sound like anything beyond information architecture, duplicate content cleanup & clean URLs was quickly approaching scamming - especially anything to do with links. So over time more and more behaviors get reclassified as black hat spam as Google gains greater control over the ecosystem.

there's the kind of SEO that is better architecture, cleaner URLs, not duplicate content ... that's just like making sure your resume doesn't have any typos on it. that's just clever stuff. and then there's the type of SEO that is sort of cheating. trying to get a lot of bad backlinks or scamming, and that's more like lying on your resume. when you get caught sometime's there's repercussions. and it definitely helps to personalize because now anywhere you search for plumbers there's local results and they are not the same across the world. we've done a diligent job of trying to crack down on black hat spam. so we had an algorithm named Penguin that launched that kind of had a really big impact. we had a more recent launch just a few months ago. and if you go and patrole the black hat SEO forums where the guys talk about the techniques that work, now its more people trying to sell other people scams rather than just trading tips. a lot of the life has gone out of those forums. and even the smaller networks that they're trying to promote "oh buy my anglo rank or whatever" we're in the process of tackling a lot of those link networks as well. the good part is if you want to create a real site you don't have to worry as much about these bad guys jumping ahead of you. the playing ground is a lot more level now. panda was for low quality. penguin was for spam - actual cheating.

The Matt Cutts BDSM School of SEO

As part of the ongoing campaign to "break their spirits" we get increasing obfuscation, greater time delays between certain algorithmic updates, algorithmic features built explicitly with the goal of frustrating people, greater brand bias, and more outrageous selective enforcement of the guidelines.

Those who were hit by either Panda or Penguin in some cases took a year or more to recover. Far more common is no recovery — ever. How long do you invest in & how much do you invest in a dying project when the recovery timeline is unknown?

You Don't Get to Fascism Without 2-Tier Enforcement

While success in and of itself may make one a "spammer" to the biased eyes of a search engineer (especially if you are not VC funded nor part of a large corporation), many who are considered "spammers" self-regulate in a way that make them far more conservative than the alleged "clean" sites do.

Pretend you are Ask.com and watch yourself get slaughtered without warning.

Build a big brand & you will have advanced notification & free customer support inside the GooglePlex:

In my experience with large brand penalties, (ie, LARGE global brands) Google have reached out in advance of the ban every single time. - Martin Macdonald

Launching a Viral Linkspam Sitemap Campaign

When RapGenius was penalized, the reason they were penalized is they were broadly and openly and publicly soliciting to promote bloggers who would dump a list of keyword rich deeplinks into their blog posts. They were basically turning boatloads of blogs into mini-sitemaps for popular new music albums.

Remember reading dozens (hundreds?) of blog posts last year about how guest posts are spam & Google should kill them? Well these posts from RapGenius were like a guest post on steroids. The post "buyer" didn't have to pay a single cent for the content, didn't care at all about relevancy, AND a sitemap full of keyword rich deep linking spam was included in EACH AND EVERY post.

Most "spammers" would never attempt such a campaign because they would view it as being far too spammy. They would have a zero percent chance of recovery as Google effectively deletes their site from the web.

And while RG is quick to distance itself from scraper sites, for almost the entirety of their history virtually none of the lyrics posted on their site were even licensed.

In the past I've mentioned Google is known to time the news cycle. It comes without surprise that on a Saturday barely a week after being penalized Google restored RapGenius's rankings.

How to Gain Over 400% More Links, While Allegedly Losing

While the following graph may look scary in isolation, if you know the penalty is only a week or two then there's virtually no downside.

Since being penalized, RapGenius has gained links from over 1,000* domains

  • December 25th: 129
  • December 26th: 85
  • December 27th: 87
  • December 28th: 54
  • December 29th: 61
  • December 30th: 105
  • December 31st: 182
  • January 1st: 142
  • January 2nd: 112
  • January 3rd: 122

The above add up to 1,079 & RapGenius only has built a total of 11,930 unique linking domains in their lifetime. They grew about 10% in 10 days!

On every single day the number of new referring domains VASTLY exceeded the number of referring domains that disappeared. And many of these new referring domains are the mainstream media and tech press sites, which are both vastly over-represented in importance/authority on the link graph. They not only gained far more links than they lost, but they also gained far higher quality links that will be nearly impossible for their (less spammy) competitors to duplicate.

They not only got links, but the press coverage acted as a branded advertising campaign for RapGenius.

Here's some quotes from RapGenius on their quick recovery:

  • "we owe a big thanks to Google for being fair and transparent and allowing us back onto their results pages" <-- Not the least bit true. RapGenius was not treated fairly, but rather they were given a free ride compared to the death hundreds of thousands of small businesses have been been handed over the past couple years.
  • "On guest posts, we appended lists of song links (often tracklists of popular new albums) that were sometimes completely unrelated to the music that was the subject of the post." <-- and yet others are afraid of writing relevant on topic posts due to Google's ramped fearmongering campaigns
  • "we compiled a list of 100 “potentially problematic domains”" <-- so their initial list of domains to inspect was less than 10% the number of links they gained while being penalized
  • "Generally Google doesn’t hold you responsible for unnatural inbound links outside of your control" <-- another lie
  • "of the 286 potentially problematic URLs that we manually identified, 217 (more than 75 percent!) have already had all unnatural links purged." <-- even the "all in" removal of pages was less than 25% of the number of unique linking domains generated during the penalty period

And Google allowed the above bullshit during a period when they were sending out messages telling other people WHO DID THINGS FAR LESS EGREGIOUS that they are required to remove more links & Google won't even look at their review requests for at least a couple weeks - A TIME PERIOD GREATER THAN THE ENTIRE TIME RAPGENIUS WAS PENALIZED FOR.

In Conclusion...

If you tell people what works and why you are a spammer with no morals. But if you are VC funded, Matt Cutts has made it clear that you should spam the crap out of Google. Just make sure you hire a PR firm to trump up press coverage of the "unexpected" event & have a faux apology saved in advance. So long as you lie to others and spread Google's propaganda you are behaving in an ethical white hat manner.

Notes

* These stats are from Ahrefs. A few of these links may have been in place before the penality and only recently crawled. However it is also worth mentioning that all third party databases of links are limited in size & refresh rate by optimizing their capital spend, so there are likely hundreds more links which have not yet been crawled by Ahrefs. One should also note that the story is still ongoing and they keep generating more links every day. By the time the story is done spreading they are likely to see roughly a 30% growth in unique linking domains in about 6 weeks.

Gray Hat Search Engineering

Jan 3rd

Almost anyone in internet marketing who has spent a couple months in the game has seen some "shocking" case study where changing the color of a button increased sales 183% or such. In many cases such changes only happen when the original site had not had any focus on conversion at all.

Google, on the other hand, has billions of daily searches and is constantly testing ways to increase yield:

The company was considering adding another sponsored link to its search results, and they were going to do a 30-day A/B test to see what the resulting change would be. As it turns out, the change brought massive returns. Advertising revenues from those users who saw more ads doubled in the first 30 days.
...
By the end of the second month, 80 percent of the people in the cohort that was being served an extra ad had started using search engines other than Google as their primary search engine.

One of the reasons traditional media outlets struggle with the web is the perception that ads and content must be separated. When they had regional monopolies they could make large demands to advertisers - sort of like how Google may increase branded CPCs on AdWords by 500% if you add sitelinks. You not only pay more for clicks that you were getting for free, but you also pay more for the other paid clicks you were getting cheaper in the past.

That's how monopolies work - according to Eric Schmidt they are immune from market forces.

Search itself is the original "native ad." The blend confuses many searchers as the background colors fade into white.

Google tests colors & can control the flow of traffic based not only on result displacement, but also the link colors.

It was reported last month that Google tested adding ads to the knowledge graph. The advertisement link is blue, while the ad disclosure is to the far right out of view & gray.

I was searching for a video game yesterday & noticed that now the entire Knowledge Graph unit itself is becoming an ad unit. Once again, gray disclosure & blue ad links.

Where Google gets paid for the link, the link is blue.

Where Google scrapes third party content & shows excerpts, the link is gray.

The primary goal of such a knowledge block is result displacement - shifting more clicks to the ads and away from the organic results.

When those blocks appear in the search results, even when Google manages to rank the Mayo Clinic highly, it's below the fold.

What's so bad about this practice in health

  • Context Matters: Many issues have overlapping symptoms where a quick glance at a few out-of-context symptoms causes a person to misdiagnose themselves. Flu-like symptoms from a few months ago turned out to be indication of a kidney stone. That level of nuance will *never* be in the knowledge graph. Google's remote rater documents discuss your money your life (YMYL) topics & talk up the importance of knowing who exactly is behind content, but when they use gray font on the source link for their scrape job they are doing just the opposite.
  • Hidden Costs: Many of the heavily advertised solutions appearing above the knowledge graph have hidden costs yet to be discovered. You can't find a pharmaceutical company worth $10s of billions that hasn't plead guilty to numerous felonies associated with deceptive marketing and/or massaging research.
  • Artificially Driving Up Prices: in-patent drugs often cost 100x as much as the associated generic drugs & thus the affordable solutions are priced out of the ad auctions where the price for a click can vastly exceed than the profit from selling a generic prescription drug.

Where's the business model for publishers when they have real editorial cost & must fact check and regularly update their content, their content is good enough to be featured front & center on Google, but attribution is nearly invisible (and thus traffic flow is cut off)? As the knowledge graph expands, what does that publishing business model look like in the future?

Does the knowledge graph eventually contain sponsored self-assessment medical quizzes? How far does this cancer spread?

Where do you place your chips?

Google believes it can ultimately fulfil people’s data needs by sending results directly to microchips implanted into its user’s brains.

Should Venture Backed Startups Engage in Spammy SEO?

Dec 24th

Here's a recent video of the founders of RapGenius talking at TechCrunch disrupt.

Oops, wrong video. Here's the right one. Same difference.

Recently a thread on Hacker News highlighted a blog post which pointed how RapGenius was engaging in reciprocal promotional arrangements where they would promote blogs on their Facebook or Twitter accounts if those bloggers would post a laundry list of keyword rich deeplinks at RapGenius.

Matt Cutts quickly chimed in on Hacker News "we're investigating this now."

A friend of mine and I were chatting yesterday about what would happen. My prediction was that absolutely nothing would happen to RapGenius, they would issue a faux apology, they would put no effort into cleaning up the existing links, and the apology alone would be sufficient evidence of good faith that the issue dies there.

Today RapGenius published a mea culpa where ultimately they defended their own spam by complaining about how spammy other lyrics websites are. The self-serving jackasses went so far as including this in their post: "With limited tools (Open Site Explorer), we found some suspicious backlinks to some of our competitors"

It's one thing to in private complain about dealing in a frustrating area, but it's another thing to publicly throw your direct competitors under the bus with a table of link types and paint them as being black hat spammers.

Google can't afford to penalize Rap Genius, because if they do Google Ventures will lose deal flow on the start ups Google co-invests in.

In the past some of Google's other investments were into companies that were pretty overtly spamming. RetailMeNot held multiple giveaways where if you embedded a spammy sidebar set of deeplinks to their various pages they gave you a free t-shirt:

Google's behavior on such arrangements has usually been to hit the smaller players while looking the other way on the bigger site on the other end of the transaction.

That free t-shirt for links post was from 2010 - the same year that Google invested in RetailMeNot. They did those promotions multiple times & long enough that they ran out of t-shirts!. Now that RTM is a publicly traded billion Dollar company which Google already endorsed by investing in, there's a zero percent chance of them getting penalized.

To recap, if you are VC-backed you can: spam away, wait until you are outed, when outed reply with a combined "we didn't know" and a "our competitors are spammers" deflective response.

For the sake of clarity, let's compare that string of events (spam, warning but no penalty, no effort needed to clean up, insincere mea culpa) to how a websites are treated when not VC backed. For smaller sites it is "shoot on sight" first and then ask questions later, perhaps coupled with a friendly recommendation to start over.

Here's a post from today highlighting a quote from Google's John Mueller:

My personal & direct recommendation here would be to treat this site as a learning experience from a technical point of view, and then to find something that you're absolutely passionate & knowledgeable about and create a website for that instead.

Growth hack inbound content marketing, but just don't call it SEO.

What's worse, is with the new fearmongering disavow promotional stuff, not only are some folks being penalized for the efforts of others, but some are being penalized for links that were in place BEFORE Google even launched as a company.

Given that money allegedly shouldn't impact rankings, its sad to note that as everything that is effective gets labeled as spam, capital and connections are the key SEO innovations in the current Google ecosystem.

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