Bing Offers Up a Free Link Graph

Bing refreshed their webmaster tools offering & now allows you to look up link data for 3rd party sites.

We recently interviewed Bing's Duane Forrester about the new SEO tools & their product roadmap.

Here is a screenshot of their new link explorer, but I highly recommend setting up an account and checking it out firsthand.

For a long time Yahoo! provided great link data, but most other search engines were more reserved with sharing link data for competing sites. What were some of the driving forces behind Bing opening up on this front?

Bing values the power of strong partnerships as one way to spur innovation and deliver compelling experiences for our users. For any partnership to be effective, remaining as transparent as possible is critical, including those we forge with agency and publisher partners. Sharing link information was something very clearly asked for by tool users, so after doing the internal work to see if we could provide the information, it was an easy decision to build this tool when the answer came back positive. You wanted it, we had it and could share it. Done.

As a search engine your web index is much much larger than most SEO tools. On Twitter Rand mentioned that the index size of Bing's new Link Explorer was fairly comparable to Open Site Explorer. Is the link data offered in the tool a select slice of the index? Were you trying to highlight the highest quality link sources for each site?

We see the entire index, or at least "can" see the entire index and link ecosystem. We’re limited to the actual number we can show at any given time, however.

Currently it appears as though the tool lists link source URLs & page titles. Will the tool also add anchor text listings at some point?

On the list – sometimes we run into data sourcing issues, so when we hit those walls, it takes us longer to add features. Bing WMT pulls data from all the sources available within Bing Search, and sometimes those have limits imposed for other reasons. In those cases, we must abide by those rules or seek to influence changes to increase our own access/capacities. A search engine is a complex thing it turns out… J

There are filters for "anchor text" and "additional query." What are the differences between these filters?

Anchor Text is pretty clear to most SEOs. "Additional Query" allows you to look for, as an example, a page with "N" text appearing on it. So text not just as "anchor text", but simply appearing on the page.

Currently if I search for "car" I believe it will match pages that have something like "carson" on it. In the future will there be a way to search for an exact word without extra characters?

I’m going to split this answer. Users can enable “Strict” filtering to only see “cars” data by selecting the “Strict” box. To your point, however, this is what some of our tools are Beta. We will continually refine them as time goes on, adding features folks find useful.

Will you guys also offer TLD-based filters at some point?

First time anyone's mentioned it, so I’ll add this to our list for consideration.

A few years ago my wife was at a PPC seminar where a Bing representative stated that the keyword search data provided in the tools matched your internal data. Is this still the case?

Bing Advertising is completely separate from Webmaster Tools. I’m not sure if that rep was meaning data within the adCenter tools matches data or what. Bing WMT does import CPC data to showcase alongside keywords which sent traffic to your site. That data matches as we pull direct from adCenter. The data we show through our tools comes direct from Bing Search, so that’s a match if this is what you’re referring to.

Bing's Webmaster tools offers an API with keyword research & link data. Bing's Ad Intelligence is easily one of my 3 favorite SEO tools. Will Bing eventually offer a similar SEO-oriented plugin for Excel?

No plans on the roadmap for an Excel plugin.

At SMX Derrick Connell suggested that there was a relevancy perception gap perhaps due to branding. What are some of the features people should try or things they should search for that really highlight where Bing is much stronger than competing services?

Without doubt people should be logging in and using the Facebook integration when searching. This feature is tremendously helpful when you’re researching something, for example, as you can reach out directly to friends for input during your research process. While searching, keep your eyes open for the caret that indicates there is more data about a specific result. Hovering over that activates the “snapshot” showing the richer experience we have for that result. Businesses need to make sure they focus on social and managing it properly. It’s not going away and those who lag will find themselves facing stiff, new competition from those getting social right. Businesses also need to get moving adopting rich snippets on their sites. This data helps us provide the deeper experiences the new consumer interface is capable of in some cases.

You have wrote a couple books & done a significant amount of offline marketing. One big trend that has been highlighted for years and years is everything moving online, but as search advances do you see offline marketing as becoming an important point of differentiation for many online plays?

In a way yes. In fact, with the simplification of SEO via tools like our own and many others, more and more businesses can get things done to a level on their own. SEO will eventually become a common marketing tactic, and when that hits, we’re right back to a more traditional view of marketing: where all tactics are brought to bear to sell a product or service. Think of this…email marketing is still one of the single best converting forms of marketing in existence. Yet so many businesses focus on SEO (drive new traffic!) instead of email (work with current, proven shoppers!).

In fact, neither alone is the "best" strategy for most online businesses. It’s a blend of everything. Social happens either with you or without you. You can influence it, and by participating, the signals the engines see change. We can see those changes and it helps us understand if a searcher might or might not have a good experience with you. That can influence (when combined with a ton of other factors, obviously) how we rank you. Everything is connected today. Complex? Sure, but back in the day marketers faced similar complexity with their own programs. Just a new "complex" for us today. More in the mix to manage.

What is the best part about being an SEO who also works for a search engine?

On Wednesday, June 6th at 10AM PST, I was part of the team that brought a new level of tools forward, resetting expectations around what Webmaster Tools should deliver to users. Easily one of the proudest moments of my life was that release. While I’m an SEO and I work for the engine, the PM and Lead Engineer on the WMT product are also SEOs. ;) To say Bing is investing in building the partnership with SEOs is no mere boast. Great tools like this happen because the people building them live the life of the user.

What is the hardest part about being an SEO who also works for a search engine?

Still so few people around me that speak this language. The main difficulty is in trying to understand the sheer scope of search. Because everything you thought you knew as an SEO take son an entirely different dimension when you’re inside the engine. Imagine taking every SEO conversation and viewing it through a prism. So many more things to consider.

And, finally, nothing against Matt here, but why are dogs so much better than cats?

1 – they listen to you and execute commands like a soldier
2 – generally, they don’t crap in your house
3 – you can have a genuine conversation with a dog
4 – one of my dogs drives
5 – when was the last time your cat fetched anything for you?
6 – your dog might look at you funny, but won’t hiss at you
7 – guard cat? Hardly… you’d be better off with peacocks in the yard.
8 – dogs make great alarm clocks
9 – even YOU know you look strange walking your cat on a leash…
10 – dogs inspire you to be a better person

-----

Thanks for the interview Duane & the great new tools. :)

Duane also did a video review of their new tools on SEOmoz, which highlights how they show rank & traffic data on a per keyword & per page basis. To learn more about Bing, subscribe to their search blog & their webmaster central blog. Duane also shares SEO information on Twitter @DuaneForrester & via his personal blog.

Brett Tabke Interview

Jun 5th

Brett Tabke is one of the most well known names in the SEO vertical, playing a crucial roll in building up Webmaster World & the Pubcon conference. We recently interviewed him about some of the latest changes in search & where online publishing is heading.

One of the more famous pieces of content on WMW (or really the whole of the SEO industry) over the years has been Successful Site in 12 Months with Google Alone: 26 steps to 15k a day. That predates my entry into the SEO niche & yet seems surprisingly relevant over a decade later. Are you surprised how well that has held up given how much search has changed? If you were to write it today, what would you add or change?

The surprise was how well received it was at the time. I wrote that piece in about an hour start-to-finish. It has held up well because it is a article about content production first and SEO second. If I had to rewrite it, I would drop the references to specific timings and numbers. Those numbers have been washed away with progress over the years. 

At a recent SEO conference a few months back someone asked who was a big brand or worked for big brands & something like 80%+ of hands in the audience went up. When I got into search it was sort of the other way around, where most attendees were small publishers & affiliates. Originally when I got into search I felt that some conferences were a bit more corporate & Pubcon had far more "in the know" independent affiliate types who test lots of things out & such. How has Pubcon done such a good job of staying relevant throughout the shift in landscape of the industry?

Part of it is our 10 year game plan. I didn't realize I had a 10 year game plan in 2001, but I did. That plan was to add just "one thing more" to each conference. One thing more awesome that the last. We have done that for 10 years running, and each time we do, the conference grows a little bit in that direction. We make sure that as the audience grows in their knowledge, then we do too.

The other part of it, is our roots. We have been committed to sticking with the successful 'independent' website owners. By making sure we support them, we know that we have tapped into people who are experts in their particular field. We are not a 'vertical niche' conference. We are 8 to 10 'vertical niche' conferences combined. I always felt the niche conferences were great (blogging, affiliates, webhosting, domaining), but people have needs that cross over from discipline to discipline. By stretching across those genres, we attract the corporates that need to reach them, and keep the experts that are "in the know".

A lot of people who speak on authority about search & the SEO niche claim that the shift to big business is natural, legitimate & the way it should be. Do you agree with that, or feel that is mostly self-serving advice?

I don't believe SEO has become "big business". I do believe that SEO is no longer a question of SEO, but rather general marketing. It is a tricky and potentially inflammatory topic. I've come to realize, that you can't go on gut instinct alone in this business. We have been in-the-trenches with SEO since 95. Our whole world outlook has been through SEO. To stick our heads in the sand and not see the winds of change would be both foolish and detrimental to our bottom lines.

Yes, SEO has changed remarkably over the years. We started by just trying to get listed in the directory or search engine at all. Then we went on to on-the-page optimization. Google came along and turned it into "all links all the time" era. Finally today, we are into an obtuse era, where the the genres of optimization are so diverse from maps, to local, to authorship, to what friends you have on social networks. It has left alot of SEO's wondering where they should focus their energies at.

I've talked with many website owners that are starting to wonder if Google has become a losing value proposition for them. They are getting more traffic now from other engines and social sites. They wonder if Google actually wants to send them traffic. That the value of their website to Google, is nothing more than the data it can provide to train the machine for other SERP's and not theirs.

Facebook has so far failed to disrupt search and BingHoo has failed to disrupt Google.  Do  you see anything on the horizon that will change the search landscape?

I disagree. I think $100 billion IPO disproves that theory. Facebook just did an IPO for 100 x Gross income. Wow. Lets think about that for awhile. If you or I go to sell our businesses, we are going to be lucky to get 3x to 4x in this climate and Facebook just took on investors that were tagged to 100x their yearly gross!? Fantasy land. That is the same fantasy that a handful  of guys at Instagram built into $1bilion dollar sale.

Facebook has totally disrupted Google and BingHoo. We just need to adjust our thinking. People know how to find what they want on the web. The great days of random web exploration are over. The grand days of social interaction are here. 

Look at all those changes that Google has done the last 4 years: Google local push, Google Instant, Google Plus Network, and even partially Android. Those changes are a result of social media - of Facebook and Twitter.  Those changes were not part of the 'grand plan' - they were short term and reactionary. 

In SEO, in many cases those who lie are often heralded as being "white hat" while being granted greater access, whereas those who have knowledge and openly share it are often branded as being "black hat." Does this trend at some point reverse course? How many people can be labeled as black hat before the label lacks meaning?

As long as people focus on their own sites, and work to promoting them, there are no hats - only marketing. What you do on the privacy of your own site, is your business. As long as no laws are broken, there are no hats.

What is the most trite & least correct SEO tip that is shared publicly relentlessly?

Great question. About 2 years ago I heard a well known SEO suggest that you should remove all outbound links from your site in order to 'sculpt' page rank on your site. This spring, I heard that same SEO tell people they need to link out to make their links and site "look natural". The 'sculpt pagerank SILO'ing articles were based out of my work on Theme Pyramid from 2001. While the outbound linking was directly from previously mentioned 26 Steps article. I took alot of heat in "26 Steps to 15k a Day" for recommending that people link out to other sites. The theory then was that clearly SE's were going to look at outbound links to determine a sites theme. There are alot of metrics that outbound linking can be used as a quality (or lack their of) signal for search algos.

I think I saw you mention something about getting links that drive traffic. Why are links that drive traffic more valuable than those which do not?

Google is using every signal it can. They have:

  • Google Analytics
  • Google Adsense
  • Google Toolbar
  • Google Chrome browser.

They can track traffic over most of the web. They know what sites people spend time on and what links get clicked most. Links that drive traffic tend to drive higher SERP rankings.

If enough independent SEOs get driven out of the ecosystem, won't that at some point have a knock on effect on the wages of in-house SEOs at larger companies?

I don't think so. It is rare to run into "single task" SEO's at all but the largest corporations. Even the big media sites with well known SEO's require those people to work in other marketing areas as well. The knowledge of the general SEO today is vastly further along that we were just a few years ago.

The financial fall out from 2008 was that advertising and marketing agency budgets were cut to the bone in late '08. As those agencies were jettisoned, in house marketing people were given the task of SEO. In 08, we saw our InHouse panel attendance go from a few dozen to a few hundred as corporations sent their people to be trained. It was a breath taking switch. Those corporations learned the value of a good SEO fairly quickly in 2009. That trend has continued today with InHouse divisions paying more than ever before for quality SEO's. 

As the table keeps getting tilted, at some point do smaller independent players decide to opt out of search en mass, sort of like you did with the robots.txt blog? Does more and more featured content eventually end up behind paywalls as ad-based models are seen as less reliable among algorithmic uncertainties?

Well, paywalls are also finding where their wall is at. There has to be some huge value add to having a pay wall. I think we have seen the failures of many pay wall sites as well as some huge successes. The big problem with pay walls, is that it is hard to keep it behind the wall.

I do think we are seeing people playing with more revenue opportunities than ever before. Ads, affiliates, and links are all being explored as viable alternatives.  There is also a second (or is this the third?) wave of ecom sites being built. The big change this time is the reliance on conversion. People are getting pretty savvy about building sites that convert.

A lot of the biggest algorithmic holes & flaws that have been created over the years were created by attempts to over-compensate for other issues. Do you see brand (or brand-type) signals & usage signals dominating search for years to come? 

Yes, yes I do. There is no other way around it. People want the authority of brand. Google can only give them so much before they wander back to big brands as the authority in various spaces. 

Is authority bias / brand bias / etc. a crutch until enough vertical search technology has been deployed to where the regular organic results are largely irrelevant and below the fold for any query with a sniff of commercial intent? Are we moving from open ecosystems to closed ones? If so, is it a trend that reverses at some point?

I do think we are transitioning from a 100% search based traffic economy to a greater percentage being driven by other traffic sources. Social media will continue to grab more and more of the traffic pie. 

The new tablet and phone traffic economies are more suited for social than search. Search is a proactive, brain-fully-engaged activity. Social is much more of a click and 'let it come to me' experience. Search is about products, and research, and finding the right bits of information. Social is about chilling with the tablet in the easy chair while watching reruns on your Netflix TV and surfing your buddies Facebook pictures.  There is also the coming wave of new intelligent TV's that will lean them selves to more of a passive social experience than an active search experience. Those new technologies are disruptive to the old search economy.

If companies like Amazon.com create large distributed ad networks won't that eventually push Google to back off their authority bias? 

I don't think anyone but Facebook could dislodge Google's ad dominance.

One can find free consumer reviews by the boatload on authority sites & vertical marketplaces, but are in-depth expert reviews being driven out of the marketplace due to shifts in algorithmic preferences? 

I agree to a degree. The one push back on that, is Quora. Other than that, the Bizarre Voice driven review model continues to grow without any major competitors.

What is something people will see at Pubcon that they can't find elsewhere?

Expertise. 55% of Pubcon attendees consider themselves to be experts in their field, while another 30% consider themselves to be advanced. That leads us to ask speakers to bring their Grade A1+ game to their presentations and they do. I feel our level of content is the highest in the entire educational conference space. That, and we keep the conference reasonably priced  for the average techhead.

----

Thanks Brett. This year's Pubcon is once again in Las Vegas, Nevada & takes place the week of October 15 through 18.

"Educating" the Market

May 24th

Is outing & writing polarizing drivel hate baiting or a service to the community?

It is all a matter of perspective, isn't it?

Some people would like to claim that it is one thing when they do it & something else when somebody else does it.

Unfortunately for those who want to have their cake & eat it too, consistency matters.

Even these guys know that.

If you brand those who fall outside the guidelines or get hit by updates as scammers to be avoided, then when your company gets caught working an angle & "scamming" (based on your own past sermons) your own judgement gets cast against yourself.

Is that fair?

In a word: yes.

Any belief system that is imposed onto others, but unacceptable when imposed upon the person who states it, isn't a belief system at all. It's duplicitous hackery at best - possibly much worse.

If your own company doesn't follow your own advice, then what does that say about your value systems? How many people have had their potential held back by listening to your misinformation & making the unfortunate mistake of trusting you? What does that sort of behavior do to the reputation of the industry? Now everyone else is suspect because you pitched bogus pablum at newbies.

To speak publicly about the pitfalls of doing "blackhat" techniques and then turn around and be caught red-handed for the same just gives credibility to the naysayers claiming our industry is filled with slime balls.

If you want to be a polarizing asshat, then don't be surprised when you eat your own cooking. To expect anything less is an open expression of ignorance of the field of inbound marketing marketing.

  • 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!

If Matt Cutts Was Made of LEGO, What Would He Look Like?

May 21st

Maybe something like this...

Matt Cutts Drawing.

...or this...

Matt Cutts Drawing.

A bunch more here, with cut & paste code near your favorites.

GWT notice of detected unnatural links to http://www.seobook.com/

May 9th

I am already getting fake webmaster tool notification messages using the above subject line & the following message:

Hello dear managers of http://www.seobook.com/! My name is Olivia, and the issue I’m gonna to discuss is for sure not new, but really actual and complicated, otherwise your website and therefore business wouldn’t have lost their favourable positions. Yes, I want to talk about Google Panda and Penguin. These virtual beasts become more and more freakish. Don't you think it's time to pacify them? Google intends to clean its search results from poor content websites, low quality links and hype. Are you sure your website has nothing common with this stuff?
Our team has been constantly studying Google search algorithms. We have already faced the latest freaks of Google Panda 3.4 and will be happy to win back your top positions.
We will heal your website from:

  • poor on page optimization;
  • same content submission;
  • low quality links to your website;
  • absence of website moderation;
  • black hat SEO applied earlier.

We will make Google be proud of you with:

  • high quality SEO strategy;
  • backlinks from relevant resources;
  • quality SMO;
  • links diversity;
  • unique content for every submission directory;
  • constatnt situation analysis and reporting.

Contact us and you will get a reliable website healer, strategy planner and safe guard of your top positions.

Looking forward to your answer!

And Gmail is letting this stuff slide through the spam filters. Along with garbage like this:

Our Web Site [the url] is definitely related to yours and by placing a link from your site to a Web page of ours, you may not only bring further value to your visitors but you may improve your search engine rankings potential as well. By NOT being what Google and other search engines refer to as a "dead-end" site or a site that does not link to other industry related and content sites, your rankings have a good chance of increasing for important keyword searches. We can explain this in further detail following a response from you.

Create FUD & some huckster will sell into your messaging with inbound spamming.

If you ever wonder where the "reputation problem" of the SEO industry comes from, wonder no more.

One company in particular does a great job of riding these trends on through to their logical conclusion, then riding them a bit longer. And that company is Google.

On a positive note, it great to see Demand Media had solid growth & a stellar quarter. They will plow that capital into registering about 100 new domain extensions. Nothing to worry about there. It's not like they were known to redirect expired customer domain names for their link juice.

Good job Googlers!

Ha! Bullets Can't Hurt ME

May 8th

Negative SEO vs Sabotage

Just about any independent SEO worth their weight who publishes a number of websites has at least once hit a snag & been filtered or penalized. A person can say "not me" but how do they operate optimally in both the short term and long term if they never operate near limits or thresholds? But now that Google has begun actively penalizing sites for unnatural link profiles & tightening these thresholds, competitors have been giving one another shoves. Some of the most widely highlighted examples of crappy SEO were not attempts at SEO, but intentional competitive sabotage.

Why Many SEO Thought Leaders Remain Ignorant About SEO

Recently there have been numerous claims that negative SEO doesn't work made by people who should know better.

Many of them don't know any better though, due to a combination of being naive, trusting public relations messaging as being the truth, and a general lack of recent experience on smaller sites.

If someone only...

  • does consulting for large corporate clients
  • works in house at a big company
  • publishes a site about SEO and doesn't build & market sites in competitive areas

... it is easy to bleat on about how negative SEO isn't generally possible except for weak sites. Sites that (allegedly) deserve to be hit & must (obviously) lack quality to be so weak.

The Risk of Labeling "Spam"

As highlighted above, some of the most frequently & widely cited spam examples were not examples of spam, but examples of competitive sabotage. Thus anyone who recommends highlighting "spam" can potentially hose businesses that did nothing wrong.

Why Many SEO Consultants Pretend Success & Cheer Brand

Most sites focused on search typically write a syndication of Google fluff public relations and/or are doing cloaked sales pieces claiming that the death of spammers is great because they and their clients keep becoming more successful. Its all fake it until you make it / fake it until you too are driven out of the ecosystem & pretend things are always getting better even when signs point the other direction. This is done for a variety of reasons:

  • not wanting to lose access to Google
  • signaling you have experience working with big brands
  • wanting to signal that you are a safe play in the marketplace

Nobody ever got fired for choosing IBM.

Marketers Sell Whatever Google Promotes

It is far easier to get paid to do nothing than it is to get paid to fight against the waves of the ocean.

So long as Google keeps feeding macro-parasites trying to kill off smaller & independent players you can expect a lot of consultants to push themselves as being a good fit for the big brands that Google is explicitly designing their algorithms around promoting. However this trend won't last forever. Many of those bigger sites are becoming ad networks & at some point Google will see that competitive threat for what it is. They will then decide "the user" would like a bit more diversity in the results & to see more smaller sites rank.

Most Businesses Must be Small

Much like wealth, business distributions follow power laws & most businesses are small in scale. Sure "build brand" is a nice cure all, but building a strong brand requires scale. Not all businesses have the margins required to build brands. And businesses take time to grow.

Quality vs Scale

Scale & quality are not the same thing. Some businesses are intentionally kept small because their owners feel scale requires compromising on quality. Remember the Olive Garden review that went viral, or what the biggest banks did to the global economy a few years ago?

Most Big Companies Start Off Small

Since going public in 1987, Fastenal has been the fastest growing public company. The company was started by a guy who was sorting bolts and nuts in his basement. Now that they are worth $13 billion they are virtually untouchable, but if 30 years ago online was a big sales channel & someone negative SEOed him his business could have been toast.

Big businesses come from small businesses, as does most innovation. However, if the underlying market is absurdly unstable that retards investment in growth and innovation in companies like Fastenal:

The Fastenal story began in November 1967 when company founder Bob Kierlin opened the very first Fastenal store in his hometown of Winona, MN. The front counter was a salvaged door, about a dozen people attended the "grand opening" weekend, and the first month's sales totaled $157.

One of the biggest failures of modern societies is the self-serving myth of too big to fail.

If SEOs believe that size of a business is the primary legitimate proxy for quality, they should either hire thousands of employees or go get a job at Wal-Mart.

Google AdWords Ads Add Album Cover & Song Preview

Before I get any drops of jupiter hate on the following...I was typing in training.seobook.com & somehow accidentally hit enter after typing train & when the URL completion didn't work I got the following SERP.

If you click the feature video link it does a YouTube video overlay. The other links lead into the relevant iTunes webpage.

Such media extensions have been in place for movies for quite a while now, but this is the first time I have seen them on music-related search results. In time one could expect similar ad expansions to hit other media areas like books, games, and maybe even other vertical search features. Google could possibly roll it out globally on brand searches as well at some point, allowing companies to offer intro videos (or even reviews of new product lines) directly in the search results.

The Google Penguin Update: Over-Optimization, Webspam, & High Quality Empty Content Pages

Apr 27th

Huge Update

Google recently launched their webspam Penguin update. While they claim it only impacted about 3.1% of search queries, the 3.1% it impacted were largely in the "commercial transactional keywords worth a lot of money" category.

Based on the number of complaints online about it (there is even a petition!) this is likely every bit as large as Panda or the Florida update. A friend also mentioned that shortly after the update WickedFire & TrafficPlanet both had sluggish servers, yet another indication of the impact of the update.

Spam vs OOP

Originally leading up to the update, the update was sold as being about over-optimization. However when it was launched it was given no pet name, but rather given the name of the webspam update. Thus anyone who complained about the update was by definition a spammer.

A day after declaring that the name didn't have any name Google changed positions and called the update the Penguin update.

Why the quick turn around on the naming?

If you smoke a bunch of webmasters & then label them all as spammers, of course they are going to express outrage and look for the edge cases that make you look bad & promote those. One of the first ones out of the gate on that front was a literally blank blogspot blog that was ranking #1 for make money online.

As I joked with Eli, if it is blank then they couldn't have done anything wrong, right? :D

Another site that got nailed by the update was Viagra.com. It has since been fixed, but it is pretty hard for Google to state that the sites that got hit are spam, blend the search ads into the results so much that users can't tell them apart & force Pfizer to buy their own brand to rank. If that condition didn't get fixed quickly I am pretty certain it would lead to lawsuits.

Google also put out a form to collect feedback about the update. They only ever do that if they know they went too far and need to refine it. Or, put another way, if this was the Penguin update then this is GoogleBot:

So Worried About Manipulation That They Manipulate Themselves

When I was a kid I used to collect baseball cards. As the price of pictures from sites like iStockphoto have gone up I recently bought a few cards on eBay (in part for nostalgia & in part to have pictures for some of our blog posts). Yesterday I searched for baseball card holders for mini-cards & in the first page of search results was:

  • a big ecommerce site where the review on that product stated that the retail described the quantity as being 10x what you actually get (the same site had other better pages)
  • a user-driven aggregator site with a thin affiliate post made years ago & attributed to a site that no longer exists
  • a Facebook note that was auto-generated from a feed
  • an old blogspot splog
  • a broader tag page for a social site
  • a Yahoo! Shopping page that was completely empty


That blank Yahoo! Shopping page is also what showed up in Google's cache too. So I am not claiming that they were spamming Google in any way, rather that Google just has bad algorithms when they rank literally blank pages simply because they are on an authoritative domain name.

The SERPs lacked expert blogs, forum discussions, & niche retailers. In short, too much emphasis on domain authority yet again.

Part of the idea of the web was that it could connect supply and demand directly, but an excessive focus on domain authority leads users to have to go through another set of arbitragers. Efforts to squeeze out micro-parasites has led to the creation of macro-parasites (and micro-parasites that ride on the macro-parasite platforms).

SEO-based Business Models

Now more than ever SEO requires threading the needle: being sufficiently aggressive to see results, but not so aggressive that you get clipped for it (and hopefully building enough protection that makes it harder for others to clip you). That requires a tighter integration of the end to end process (tying efforts into analytics & analytics back into efforts) & a willing to view SEO through a broader marketing lens & throwing up a number of hail marry passes that likely won't on their own back out but will give you a lower risk profile when combined with your other stuff.

And your business model is probably far more important than your SEO skill level is. Imagine running a consulting company for a lot of small business customers for a few hundred Dollars a month each, based on stable rankings & then dealing with a tumultuous update that hits a number of them at the same time. And then they see an older (abandoned even) competing site of lower quality with fewer links ranking and they think you are selling them a bag of smoke. These sorts of updates harm the ability to do SEO consulting for anyone who isn't consulting the big brands. Yes many people made it through this update unscathed, but how many of these sorts of updates can one manage to slide through before eventually getting clipped?

The Unknowable Future

As search evolves, invariably anyone who is doing well in the ecosystem will at some point face setbacks. Those may happen due to an algorithm update or an interface change where Google inserts itself in your market. If you never get hit, it means you were only operating at a fraction of your potential. If you consistently get hit, you might be aiming too low. Many trends can be predicted, but the future is unknowable, so set up a safety cushion when things are going well.

This year Google has moved faster than any year in their history (massive link warnings, massive link penalties, tighter integration of Panda & now Penguin) & the rate of change is only accelerating. Go back about 125 years and a candle wick adjuster was cutting edge technology marketed as brand spanking new:

Blekko has a decently competitive search service which they manage to run for only a few million a year. As computers get cheaper & Google collects more data think of all the different data points they will be able to layer into their relevancy algorithms. In some markets Chrome has more marketshare than Internet Explorer does & Android is another deep data source. And they can know what user data to trust most by tracking things like if they have a credit card or phone verified on file & how often they use various services like Gmail or YouTube. Google+ is just icing on the cake.

At the same time, they need to improve. As the search algorithms get better, so do the business models that exploit them:

I asked Kristian Hammond what percentage of news would be written by computers in 15 years. “More than 90 percent.”

There will be many more casualties in that war.

GoogleBowling, Negative SEO & Outing

Apr 19th

Excessive Complexity & Unintended Consequences

Sergey Brin recently said:

You have to play by their rules, which are really restrictive. The kind of environment that we developed Google in, the reason that we were able to develop a search engine, is the web was so open. Once you get too many rules, that will stifle innovation.

He was talking about Facebook, but those words are far more applicable to Google.

A Social Experiment

In the movie Dark Knight the Joker ran a social experiment where he offered 2 boats full of people the opportunity to save their own lives by blowing up the other boat. The boat full of "criminals" threw the button overboard & the other boat also decided not to push the button.

Of course taking someone's life is more extreme than taking their livelihood, but if you do the latter it might create stress and/or other issues which in effect lead to the former. Some people who see their income disappear might have a heart attack, others might have marriages that soon falls apart, leading into a spiral of depression and substance abuse & eventually suicide. Others still might have employees that get laid off & end up heading down some of the same scary paths - through no fault of their own.

Negative SEO Goes Mainstream

Anyone who outs or link bombs smaller businesses (small enough that Google punishing them destroys their livelihood rather than just giving them a bad quarter) is a _______. Anyone who advocates outing or link bombing such businesses is an even larger _______.

Why?

With all of Google's warning messages about abnormal links they have built the negative SEO industry in a big way. In some instances those who are not good enough to compete try to harm competitors. I received emails & support tickets like the following one for years and years...

...but the rate of demand increase for such "services" has been sharp this year. Every additional warning message from Google creates additional incremental demand.

And this is where outing a competitor makes one a total and complete _______ of a human being.

A Recent (& Very Public) Example of Negative SEO

Dan Thies mentioned that it was "about time" that Google started hitting some of the splog link networks.

Anyone who knows the tiniest bit about the social sciences could predict what came next.

In response to his Tweet, someone signed his site up for some splog links & Scrapebox action. Now he is getting warnings about his unnatural link profile. Dan didn't intentionally violate Google's guidelines, but he became a convenient target:

15th March - Dan Thies posts smug tweets to Matt Cutts and pisses off the entire internet.
18th March - seofaststart.com - blog posts started - anchor text "seo" "seo service" and "seo book"
22th March - seofaststart.com - 1 million scrapebox blast started - 100% anchor text "Dan Thies"
26th March - Dan Thies posts in Twitter that he has received an unnatural links message.

Since then Dan has installed a new template & his rankings tanked. Is it the template or the spam links? Probably the spam links, given how many other sites have got hit for using too much focused anchor text.

  • Will the site stay tanked? If so, now Google's approach to anchor text & link spikes allows independent websites to get torched in a few weeks for a few Dollars.
  • Or will the site come back stronger than ever with the help of the spam links? If it does, then how long is it before people start accidentally spam blasting their own websites & posting a public case study about burning a competitor on a forum, then citing that forum thread in their reconsideration request?
  • If the site quickly comes back, will that be due to a manual intervention by a search engineer, or from an algorithm more advanced than some people are giving it credit for being?

When asking such questions one quickly arrives at another set of questions. Is it the web that is broken? Or is it Google's editorial approach that is broken? If the observer breaks the system they observe, then the observer is the problem.

The Bigger Issue

The bigger issue isn't the short term trends for SEO related keywords or Dan's site (he will be fine & rankings are not that important for sites about SEO), but the big issue is that if this can happen to a decade old website then this can happen to literally anybody.

Piss off a ...

  • competitor
  • SEO
  • web designer
  • web developer
  • business partner
  • blogger
  • blog reader
  • former customer
  • freetard
  • ex-friend
  • bitter family member
  • insert any classification or category you like
  • etc.

... and risk getting torched.

When you out someone for shady links, you can't be certain they were responsible for it. They could have had a falling out with a consultant or business partner or another competitor who wanted to hose them. Or their SEO or webmaster could have been non-transparent with them.

Then you out them & they might be toast.

White Hat, Black Hat & ________ Hat SEO

Any of the ________ who promote competitor smoking or competitor outing as somehow being "ethical" or "white hat" never bother to explain what happens to YOU when someone else does that to you.

Sketchy marketers can make just about anything look good at first glance. No matter how shiny the package in concept, it is hard to appreciate the pain until you are the one undergoing it.

Building things up is typically far more profitable than tearing things down & if SEOs go after each other then the only winner is Google. Literally every other participant in the ecosystem has higher risk, higher costs & is taxed by the additional uncertainty. Sure some of the conscripts might get a bit of revenues and some of the "white hat" hacks might gain incremental short term exposure, but as the marrow is scraped out of the bone, they too will fall hard.

Google is betting that the SEO industry is full of ________. If our trade is to worth being in, I hope Google is wrong! If not, you will soon see most of the quality professionals in our trade go underground, while only the hacks who misinform people & are an unofficial extension of Google's public relations team remain publicly visible.

That might be Google's goal.

Will they be successful at it?

That depends entirely on how intelligent members of the SEO industry are.

Consumer Ad Awareness in Search Results

Apr 15th

Consumer Search Insights.

For the following study, we asked "Does this search result have ads on it? " to 1,000 searchers, per search results. Due to these surveys requiring a smaller image (to fit the ad unit size) we chose search results that generally had more ads on them (typically 3 or 4) so that the background had a significant portion of real estate devoted to ads, in spite of its small size. The one exception here was DuckDuckGo, as it only displays one ad at most even on highly commercial keywords like credit cards.

Other than resizing the search result to fit, the only modifications we generally made were removing the graphic picture from the Wikipedia page near the top of the DuckDuckGo SERP (since a prior study showed that users presumed there was a correlation between graphics and the perception of ads) and that in most cases we removed the right sidebar. We did include the sidebar ads on 3 different Bing, Google, & Yahoo! search results so that we could compare the impact of sidebar ads vs not having a sidebar.

Executive Summary

The 3 big takeaways are:

  • For most search engines, people are generally unaware of ads vs organic results if there are no ads in the right column ... most of these yes/no questions came down to about a 50/50 vote, even though all of them had ads on them. It is every bit as true today as it was in 2003.
  • If there is a right column, the percent of people who voted that there are ads on the page jumps significantly. Thus it is pretty safe to say that people think ads are in the right column & that the right column is ads.
  • Interestingly, among major search engines, Yahoo! (without sidebar) got more "yes, it has ads" votes than other search engines. In fact, Yahoo! without sidebar ads scored within 1% of Bing with sidebar ads.

Combined Survey Results

For the question Does this search results have ads on it?

search engine yes no
AOL 53.1% (+3.9 / -3.9) 46.9% (+3.9 / -3.9)
Ask 52.0% (+4.0 / -4.1) 48.0% (+4.1 / -4.0)
Ask Arbitrage 51.6% (+3.9 / -3.9) 48.4% (+3.9 / -3.9)
Bing 50.2% (+3.8 / -3.8) 49.8% (+3.8 / -3.8)
Bing w Sidebar 57.7% (+3.7 / -3.8) 42.3% (+3.8 / -3.7)
Dogpile 44.7% (+4.1 / -4.0) 55.3% (+4.0 / -4.1)
Duck Duck Go 52.3% (+3.9 / -3.9) 47.7% (+3.9 / -3.9)
Google 54.5% (+4.0 / -4.0) 45.5% (+4.0 / -4.0)
Google w Sidebar 62.9% (+3.6 / -3.8) 37.1% (+3.8 / -3.6)
Yahoo! 56.8% (+3.9 / -4.0) 43.2% (+4.0 / -3.9)
Yahoo! w Sidebar 59.8% (+3.9 / -4.1) 40.2% (+4.1 / -3.9)

User Voting Images

Here are the images users saw when they voted:

AOL SERP

Ask SERP

Ask Arbitrage SERP

Bing SERP

Bing With Sidebar SERP

Dogpile SERP

DuckDuckGo SERP

Google SERP

Google With Sidebar SERP

Yahoo! SERP

Yahoo! With Sidebar SERP

Which SERP Has an Ad? (Maps vs AdWords Ads)

Prior to doing the above study, we asked users to please click on the search result which has an ad in it, listing search results side by side. Any bias presented in this (outside of both having smaller than actual sizes) impacts both images. At first we did a regular Google SERP where we included the branding & then we followed up with one that is more zoomed in on the actual search results but does not include branding. On the one that was less zoomed in people thought the map was an ad more often, but upon further zooming they thought it was roughly 50/50.

SERP All (1172) 
 Left 53.7% (+3.3 / -3.4)
 Right 46.3% (+3.4 / -3.3)

SERP All (1198) 
 Left 49.6% (+3.4 / -3.4)
 Right 50.4% (+3.4 / -3.4)

Comparing Google+ to Ads

Does this search result have ads on it?

layout yes no
Google+ without ads 56.3% (+3.1 / -3.1) 43.7% (+3.1 / -3.1)
Google+ with ads 56.9% (+3.2 / -3.2) 43.1% (+3.2 / -3.2)
large top ads w/o Google+ 53.6% (+3.2 / -3.2) 46.4% (+3.2 / -3.2)

Searchers tend to think that Google+ integration in the right rail is an ad unit. More people voted that Google+ without ads had ads in the search results than a SERP with 4 AdWords ad units and no Google+ integration.

Search Engine Ad Background Color

After seeing that users generally guessed no better than a coin toss at best in most cases, we decided to ask What background color do Google search results use to denote top left search advertisements? The same question was asked of Yahoo! & Bing search results.

Google
Google All (1147) 
none, they are white 49.7% (+3.2 / -3.2)
blue 25.5% (+3.0 / -2.8)
yellow 10.6% (+2.3 / -2.0)
pink 7.0% (+2.1 / -1.6)
purple 7.2% (+2.2 / -1.7)
Yahoo!
Yahoo! All (1080) 
none, they are white 44.6% (+3.4 / -3.4)
blue 20.9% (+3.0 / -2.7)
yellow 15.6% (+2.7 / -2.4)
magenta 11.2% (+2.5 / -2.1)
orange 7.7% (+2.3 / -1.8)
Bing
Bing All (1063) 
none, they are white 49.0% (+3.6 / -3.6)
blue 23.5% (+3.2 / -3.0)
yellow 13.0% (+2.8 / -2.4)
purple 7.5% (+2.4 / -1.9)
pink 7.1% (+2.4 / -1.8)
Summary

Bing scored highest, however blue also scored as the 2nd highest color for all 3 search engines. Nearly half of searchers believe that top ads have a white background, which highlights a general widespread lack of awareness of search ads.

Search Engine % Who Answered Correctly
Bing (blue) 23.5%
Yahoo! (magenta) 11.2%
Google (yellow) 10.6%

Ad Location on the SERP

Given how little awareness users have of ad background color, I decided to ask: Where might ads appear on search results at top search engines like Bing & Google?

Vote All (1144) 
right column 34.2% (+3.4 / -3.3)
all 3 locations 29.6% (+3.2 / -3.0)
search results do not carry ads 19.4% (+3.0 / -2.7)
top of the left column 9.2% (+2.5 / -2.0)
bottom of the left column 7.6% (+2.4 / -1.9)

Less than 3 in 10 answered the question correctly & nearly 20% of people do not think search results carry any ads, which explains how an algorithmic penalty can create a bad quarter, why Google was sued in Australia for misleading ads & why the Rosetta Stone vs Google case was overturned. Next time you hear a search engineer talk about clearly labeling paid links, ask them why they do such a poor job of it themselves!

User Trust in Ad Versus Organic Results

Ever since search engines have weeded out some of the more exploitative reverse billing fraud ads, trust in online ads has been growing. Based on the above, we wanted to see how users perceive ads vs organic search results, so I asked: Search engines include both algorithmic search results and ads in them. Which do you trust more?

Answer All (1168) 
I trust both equally 45.8% (+3.3 / -3.2)
Algorithmic search results 40.9% (+3.2 / -3.1)
Ads that appear in search results 13.3% (+2.5 / -2.2)

The above result surprised me given how people disliked money influencing search results. It is a strong compliment to the ads that only 40% of people trust the editorial more than the ads. However this number might be thrown off by the fact that many people are unaware of where the ads actually appear in the search results & what results are ads. (As noted above, most people voted that they thought that either search ads were only in the right column or that there weren't ads in the SERPs.)

Making Up for the Small Image Problem

One of the bigger issues with Google's current survey solution is that you are limited to rather small sized images. Such limitations do not harm asking a question like "what color does Google use for x" but they do make the search result a bit harder to see. To compensate for that problem we ran a separate survey on AYTM, where users were able to view a search result in full screen mode for 10 seconds & then they were asked 3 questions.

The purpose of the first question was to put a few seconds in between them seeing the image and them answering the second question. One other improvement that was made here (in addition to allowing users to see a larger sized search result image) was that we added an "I am not sure" answer to the questions. Below are the responses in table + graphic form, followed by the AYTM widget.

Where May Ads Appear on Google's Search Results Page?

Location Vote
in the right column 28.70%
top of the left column 6.20%
bottom of the left column 1.90%
middle of the left column 2.30%
search results do not have ads in them 6.80%
I am not sure 18.90%
right column & the top + bottom of the left column 35.20%

Did the Viewed Search Result Have Any Ads On It?

Answer Vote
I'm not sure 41.00%
no 12.40%
yes 46.60%

What Background Color Does Google Use to Denote Ads At the Top Left of Their Search Results?

Answer Vote
none, they are white 28.10%
blue 20.80%
purple 1%
I'm not sure 22.60%
pink 6.80%
yellow 20.70%

Even directly after viewing a search result with 3 ads in it, most users are uncertain of where ads may appear, what color the ads are, and if the search result even had any ads in it!

Users confusing the yellow background as white shortly after seeing it is anything but an accident:

In a RGB color space, hex #fef7e6 is composed of 99.6% red, 96.9% green and 90.2% blue. Whereas in a CMYK color space, it is composed of 0% cyan, 2.8% magenta, 9.4% yellow and 0.4% black. It has a hue angle of 42.5 degrees, a saturation of 92.3% and a lightness of 94.9%. #fef7e6 color hex could be obtained by blending #ffffff with #fdefcd. .

If you have an older monitor or a laptop which you are viewing at an angle these colors are nearly impossible to see.

Embed The AYTM Graph in Your Website

Here is the AYTM widget of the above 1,000 person survey, which you can embed in your website.

Embed Code:

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