How to Obfuscate And Misdirect an Algo Update

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Google Algo Changes.

Counterspin on Shopping Search: Shady Paid Inclusion

Bing caused a big stink today when they unveiled Scroogled, a site that highlights how Google Shopping has went paid-inclusion only. A couple weeks ago Google announced that they would be taking their controvercial business model global, in spite of it being "a mess."

Nextag has long been critical of Google's shifts on the shopping search front. Are their complaints legitimate, or are they just whiners?

Data, More Reliable Than Spin

Nothing beats data, so lets start with that.

This is what Nextag's search exposure has done over the past few years, according to SearchMetrics.

If Google did that to any large & politically connected company, you can bet regulators would have already took action against Google, rather than currently negotiating with them.

What's more telling is how some other sites in the shopping search vertical have performed.

PriceGrabber, another player in the shopping search market, has also slowly drifted downward (though at a much slower rate).

One of the few shopping search engines that has seen a big lift over this time period was Yahoo! Shopping.

What is interesting about that rise is that Yahoo! outsourced substantially all of their shopping search product to PriceGrabber.

A Self-Destructing Market Dynamic

The above creates an interesting market dynamic...

  • the long established market leader can wither on the vine for being too focused on their niche market & not broadening out in ways that increase brand awareness
  • a larger site with loads of usage data can outsource the vertical and win based on the bleed of usage data across services & the ability to cross promote the site
  • the company investing in creating the architecture & baseline system that powers other sites continues to slide due to limited brand & a larger entity gets to displace the data source
  • Google then directly enters the market, further displacing some of the vertical players

The above puts Nextag's slide in perspective, but the problem is that they still have fixed costs to manage if they are going to maintain their editorial quality. Google can hand out badges for people willing to improve their product for free or give searchers a "Click any fact to locate it on the web. Click Wrong? to report a problem" but others who operated with such loose editorial standards would likely be labeled as a spammer of one stripe or another.

Scrape-N-Displace

Most businesses have to earn the right to have exposure. They have to compete in the ecosystem, built awareness & so on. But Google can come in from the top of the market with an inferior product, displace the competition, economically starve them & eventually create a competitive product over time through a combination of incremental editorial improvements and gutting the traffic & cash flow to competing sites.

"The difference between life and death is remarkably small. And it’s not until you face it directly that you realize your own mortality." - Dustin Curtis

The above quote is every bit as much true for businesses as it is for people. Nothing more than a threat of a potential entry into a market can cut off the flow of investment & paralyze businesses in fear.

  • If you have stuff behind a paywall or pre-roll ads you might have "poor user experience metrics" that get you hit by Panda.
  • If you make your information semi-accessible to Googlebot you might get hit by Panda for having too much similar content.
  • If you are not YouTube & you have a bunch of stolen content on your site you might get hit by a copyright penalty.
  • If you leave your information fully accessible publicly you get to die by scrape-n-displace.
  • If you are more clever about information presentation perhaps you get a hand penlty for cloaking.

None of those is a particularly desirable way to have your business die.

Editorial Integrity

In addition to having a non-comprehensive database, Google Shopping also suffers from the problem of line extension (who buys video games from Staples?).

The bigger issue is that issue of general editorial integrity.

Are products in stock? Sometimes no.

It is also worth mentioning that some sites with "no product available" like Target or Toys R Us might also carry further Google AdSense ads.

Then there are also issues with things like ads that optimize for CTR which end up promoting things like software piracy or the academic versions of software (while lowering the perceived value of the software).

Over the past couple years Google has whacked loads of small ecommerce sites & the general justification is that they don't add enough that is unique, and that they don't deserve to rank as their inventory is unneeded duplication of Amazon & eBay. Many of these small businesses carry inventory and will be driven into insolvency by the sharp shifts in traffic. And while a small store is unneeded duplication, Google still allows syndicated press releases to rank great (and once again SEOs get blamed for Google being Google - see the quote-as-headline here).

Let's presume Google's anti-small business bias is legitimate & look at Google Shopping to see how well they performed in terms of providing a value add editorial function.

A couple days ago I was looking for a product that is somewhat hard to find due to seasonal shopping. It is often available at double or triple retail on sites like eBay, but Google Shopping helped me locate a smaller site that had it available at retail price. Good deal for me & maybe I was wong about Google.

... then again ...

The site they sent me to had the following characteristics:

  • URL - not EMD & not a brand, broken English combination
  • logo - looks like I designed it AND like I was in a rush when I did it
  • about us page - no real information, no contact information (on an ecommerce site!!!), just some obscure stuff about "direct connection with China" & mention of business being 15 years old and having great success
  • age - domain is barely a year old & privacy registered
  • inbound links - none
  • product price - lower than everywhere else
  • product level page content - no reviews, thin scraped editorial, editorial repeats itself to fill up more space, 3 adsense blocks in the content area of the page
    • no reviews, thin scraped editorial, editorial repeats itself to fill up more space, 3 adsense blocks in the content area of the page
    • no reviews, thin scraped editorial, editorial repeats itself to fill up more space, 3 adsense blocks in the content area of the page
    • no reviews, thin scraped editorial, editorial repeats itself to fill up more space, 3 adsense blocks in the content area of the page
    • the above repetition is to point out the absurdity of the formatting of the "content" of said page
  • site search - yet again the adsense feed, searching for the product landing page that was in Google Shopping I get no results (so outside of paid inclusion & front/center placement, Google doesn't even feel this site is worth wasting the resources to index)
  • checkout - requires account registration, includes captcha that never matches, hoping you will get frustrated & go back to earlier pages and click an ad

It actually took me a few minutes to figure it out, but the site was designed to look like a phishing site, with intent that perhaps you will click on an ad rather than trying to complete a purchase. The forced registration will eat your email & who knows what they will do with it, but you can never complete your purchase, making the site a complete waste of time.

Looking at the above spam site with some help of tools like NetComber it was apparent that this "merchant" also ran all sorts of scraper sites driven on scraping content from Yahoo! Answers & similar, with sites about Spanish + finance + health + shoes + hedge funds.

It is easy to make complaints about Nextag being a less than perfect user experience. But it is hard to argue that Google is any better. And when other companies have editorial costs that Google lacks (and the other companies would be labeled as spammers if they behaved like Google) over time many competing sites will die off due to the embedded cost structure advantages. Amazon has enoug scale that people are willing to bypass Google's click circus & go directly to Amazon, but most other ecommerce players don't. The rest are largely forced to pay Google's rising rents until they can no longer afford to, then they just disappear.

Bonus Prize: Are You Up to The Google Shopping Test?

The first person who successfully solves this captcha wins a free month membership to our site.

Soft Launching SEOTools.net

Last month we soft launched SEOTools.net. Here are a few entries as a sample of things to come...

... do subscribe to the RSS feed if you like what you see thusfar.

Why create yet another site about SEO?

Good question, glad you asked. ;)

Our customer base on this site consists primarily of the top of this pyramid. I can say without doubt that I know that some of our customers know more about SEO than I do & that generally makes them bleeding edge. ;)

And then some people specialize in local or video or ecommerce or other such verticals where there are bits of knowledge one can only gain via first hand experience (eg: importing from China or doing loads of testing of YouTube variables or testing various upsells). There is becoming so much to know that nobody can really know everything, so the goal of our site here is to sorta bring together a lot of the best folks.

Some people newer to the field & a bit lower down on the pyramid are lucky/smart enough to join our community too & those who do so and participate likely save anywhere from 1 to 3 years on their learning curve...leveling up quickly in the game/sport of SEO. But by and large our customers are mostly the expert end of the market.

We could try to water down the community & site to try to make it more mass market, but I think that would take the site's leading strength and flush it down the toilet. In the short run it would mean growth, but it would also make the community less enjoyable ... and this site is as much a labor of love as it is a business. I think I would burn myself out & no longer love it if the site became noisy & every third post was about the keyword density of meta tags.

What Drives You?

When SEOBook.com was originally created SEO was much less complex & back in 2003 I was still new to the field, so I was writing at a level that was largely aligned with the bulk of the market. However, over the past decade SEO has become much more complex & many of our posts tend to be at a pretty high level, pondering long-term implications of various changes.

When there are big changes in the industry we are usually early in discussing them. We were writing about exact match domains back in 2006 and when Google's algorithm hinted at a future of strong brand preference we mentioned that back in 2009. With that being said, many people are not nimble enough to take advantage of some of the shifts & many people still need solid foundational SEO 101 in place before the exceptions & more advanced topics make sense.

The following images either make sense almost instantly, or they look like they are in Greek...depending on one's experience in the field of SEO.

My mom and I chat frequently, but she tells me some of the posts here tend to be pretty deep / complex / hard to understand. Some of them take 20 hours to write & likely read like college dissertations. They are valuable for those who live & breathe SEO, but are maybe not a great fit for those who casually operate in the market.

My guess is my mom is a pretty good reflection of most of the market in understanding page titles, keywords, and so on...but maybe not knowing a lot about anchor text filters, link velocity, extrapolating where algorithm updates might create future problems & how Google might then respond to those, etc. And most people who only incidentally touch the SEO market don't need to get a PhD in the topic in order to reach the point of diminishing returns.

Making Unknowable SEO More Knowable

SEO has many pieces that are knowable (rank, traffic, rate of change, etc.), but over time Google has pulled back more and more data. As Google gets greedier with their data, that makes SEO harder & increases the value of some 3rd party tools that provide competitive intelligence information.

  • Being able to look up the performance of a section of a site is valuable.
  • Tracking how a site has done over time (to identify major ranking shifts & how they align with algorithm updates) is also quite valuable.
  • Seeing link spikes & comparing those with penalties is also valuable.

These data sets help offer clues to drive strategy to try to recover from penalties, & how to mimic top performing sites to make a site less likely to get penalized.

The Difference Between These 2 Sites

Our goal with SEO Book is to...

  • try to cover important trends & topics deeper than anyone else (while not just parroting Google's view)
  • offer a contrary view to lifestyle image / slogan-based SEO lacking in substance or real-world experience
  • maintain the strongest community of SEO experts, such that we create a community I enjoy participating in & learning from

Our goal with SEO tools is to...

  • create a site that is a solid fit for the beginner to intermediate portions of the market
  • review & compare various industry tools & highlight where they have unique features
  • offer how to guides on specific tasks that help people across a diverse range of backgrounds & skill levels save time and become more efficient SEOs
  • provide introduction overviews of various SEO-related topics

Gain a Competitive Advantage Today

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See where they rank & beat them!

  • Comprehensive competitive data: research performance across organic search, AdWords, Bing ads, video, display ads, and more.
  • Compare Across Channels: use someone's AdWords strategy to drive your SEO growth, or use their SEO strategy to invest in paid search.
  • Global footprint: Tracks Google results for 120+ million keywords in many languages across 28 markets
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Google Disavow Tool

Google launched a disavow links tool. Webmasters who want to tell Google which links they don’t want counted can now do so by uploading a list of links in Google Webmaster Tools.

If you haven’t received an “unnatural link” alert from Google, you don’t really need to use this tool. And even if you have received notification, Google are quick to point out that you may wish to pursue other avenues, such as approaching the site owner, first.

Webmasters have met with mixed success following this approach, of course. It's difficult to imagine many webmasters going to that trouble and expense when they can now upload a txt file to Google.

Careful, Now

The disavow tool is a loaded gun.

If you get the format wrong by mistake, you may end up taking out valuable links for long periods of time. Google advise that if this happens, you can still get your links back, but not immediately.

Could the use of the tool be seen as an admission of guilt? Matt gives examples of "bad" webmaster behavior, which comes across a bit like “webmasters confessing their sins!”. Is this the equivalent of putting up your hand and saying “yep, I bought links that even I think are dodgy!”? May as well paint a target on your back.

Some webmasters have been victims of negative SEO. Some webmasters have had scrapers and autogen sites that steal their content, and then link back. There are legitimate reasons to disavow links. Hopefully, Google makes an effort to make such a distinction.

One wonders why Google simply don't discount the links they already deem to be “bad”? Why the need for the webmaster to jump through hoops? The webmaster is still left to guess which links are “bad”, of course.

Not only is it difficult working out the links that may be a problem, it can be difficult getting a view of the entire link graph. There are various third party tools, including Google’s own Webmaster Central, but they aren’t exhaustive.

Matt mentioned that the link notification emails will provide examples of problem links, however this list won't be exhaustive. He also mentioned that you should pay attention to the more recent links, presumably because if you haven't received notification up until now, then older links weren't the problem. The issue with that assumption is that links that were once good can over time become bad:

  • That donation where you helped a good cause & were later mortified that "online casino" and "discount cheap viagra" followed your course for purely altruistic reasons.
  • That clever comment on a well-linked PR7 page that is looking to cure erectile dysfunction 20 different ways in the comments.
  • Links from sources that were considered fine years ago & were later repositioned as spam (article banks anyone?)
  • Links from sites that were fine, but a number of other webmasters disavowed, turning a site that originally passed the sniff test into one that earns a second review revealing a sour stench.

This could all get rather painful if webmasters start taking out links they perceive to be a problem, but aren’t. I imagine a few feet will get blasted off in the process.

Webmasters Asked, Google Gaveth

Webmasters have been demanding such a tool since the un-natural notifications started appearing. There is no question that removing established links can be as hard, if not harder, than getting the links in the first place. Generally speaking, the cheaper the link was to get the higher the cost of removal (relative to the original purchase price). If you are renting text link ads for $50 a month you can get them removed simply by not paying. But if you did a bulk submission to 5,000 high PR SEO friendly directories...best of luck with that!

It is time consuming. Firstly, there’s the overhead in working out which links to remove, as Google doesn’t specify them. Once a webmaster has made a list of the links she thinks might be a problem, she then needs to go through the tedious task of contacting each sites and requesting that a link be taken down.

Even with the best will in the world, this is an overhead for the linking site, too. A legitimate site may wish to verify the identity of the person requesting the delink, as the delink request could come from a malicious competitor. Once identity has been established, the site owner must go to the trouble of making the change on their site.

This is not a big deal if a site owner only receives one request, but what if they receive multiple requests per day? It may not be unreasonable for a site owner to charge for the time taken to make the change, as such a change incurs a time cost. If the webmaster who has incurred a penalty has to remove many links, from multiple sites, then such costs could quickly mount. Taken to the (il)logical extremes, this link removal stuff is a big business. Not only are there a number of link removal services on the market, but one of our members was actually sued for linking to a site (when the person who was suing them paid to place the link!)

What’s In It For Google?

Webmasters now face the prisoner's dilemma and are doing Google’s job for them.

It’s hard to imagine this data not finding it’s way to the manual reviewers. If there are multiple instances of webmasters reporting paid links from a certain site, then Google have more than enough justification to take it out. This would be a cunning way around the “how do we know if a link is paid?” problem.

Webmasters will likely incorporate bad link checking into their daily activities. Monitoring inbound links wasn’t something you had to watch in the past, as links were good, and those that weren’t, didn’t matter, as they didn’t affect ranking anyway. Now, webmasters may feel compelled to avoid an unnatural links warning by meticulously monitoring their inbound links and reporting anything that looks odd. Google haven’t been clear on whether they would take such action as a result - Matt suggests they just reclassify the link & see it as a strong suggestion to treat it like the link has a nofollow attribute - but no doubt there will be clarification as the tool beds in. Google has long used a tiered index structure & enough complaints might lower the tier of a page or site, cause it's ability to pass trust to be blocked, or cause the site to be directly penalized.

This is also a way of reaffirming “the law”, as Google sees it. In many instances, it is no fault of the webmaster that rogue sites link up, yet the webmaster will feel compelled to jump through Google’s hoops. Google sets the rules of the game. If you want to play, then you play by their rules, and recognize their authority. Matt Cutts suggested:

we recommend that you contact the sites that link to you and try to get links taken off the public web first. You’re also helping to protect your site’s image, since people will no longer find spammy links and jump to conclusions about your website or business.

Left unsaid in the above is most people don't have access to aggregate link data while they surf the web, most modern systems of justice are based on the presumption of innocence rather than guilt, and most rational people don't presume that a site that is linked to is somehow shady simply for being linked to.

If the KKK links to Matt's blog tomorrow that doesn't imply anything about Matt. And when Google gets featured in an InfoWars article it doesn't mean that Google desires that link or coverage. Many sketchy sites link to Adobe (for their flash player) or sites like Disney & Google for people who are not old enough to view them or such. Those links do not indicate anything negative about the sites being linked into. However, as stated above, search is Google's monopoly to do with as they please.

On the positive side, if Google really do want sites to conform to certain patterns, and will reward them for doing so by letting them out of jail, then this is yet another way to clean up the SERPs. They get the webmaster on side and that webmaster doing link classification work for them for free.

Who, Not What

For a decade search was driven largely by meritocracy. What you did was far more important than who you were. It was much less corrupt than the physical world. But as Google chases brand ad Dollars, that view of the search landscape is no longer relevant.

Large companies can likely safely ignore much of the fear-first approach to search regulation. And when things blow up they can cast off blame on a rogue anonymous contractor of sorts. Whereas smaller webmasters walk on egg shells.

When the government wanted to regulate copyright issues Google claimed it would be too expensive and kill innovation at small start ups. Google then drafted their own copyright policy from which they themselves are exempt. And now small businesses not only need to bear that cost but also need to police their link profiles, even as competitors can use Fivver, ScrapeBox, splog link networks & various other sources to drip a constant stream of low cost sludge in their direction.

Now more than ever, status is important.

Gotchas

No doubt you’ve thought of a few. A couple thoughts - not that we advocate them, but realize they will happen:

  • Intentionally build spam links to yourself & then disavow them (in order to make your profile look larger than it is & to ensure that competitor who follows everything you do - but lacks access to your disavow data - walks into a penalty).
  • Find sites that link to competitors and leave loads of comments for the competitor on them, hoping that the competitor blocks the domain as a whole.
  • Find sites that link to competitors & buy links from them into a variety of other websites & then disavow from multiple accounts.
  • Get a competitor some link warnings & watch them push to get some of their own clean "unauthorized" links removed.
  • The webmaster who parts on poor terms burning the bridge behind them, or leaving a backdoor so that they may do so at anytime.

If a malicious webmaster wanted to get a target site in the bad books, they could post obvious comment spam - pointing at their site, and other sites. If this activity doesn’t result in an unnatural linking notification, then all good. It’s a test of how Google values that domain. If it does result in an unnatural link notification, the webmaster could then disavow links from that site. Other webmasters will likely do the same. Result: the target site may get taken out.

To avoid this sort of hit, pay close attention to your comment moderation.

Please add your own to the comments! :) Gotchas, that is, not rogue links.

Further opinions @ searchengineland and seoroundtable.

The Death of SEO [Infographic]

Over the weekend Google did an update which continues their trend of diminishing the value of domain names in an SEO strategy as they "pump up the brand."

In light of that, we thought it would be a good time to get out in front of the tired "Death of SEO" meme that is sure to appear once again in the coming weeks. ;)

The font size is somewhat small in the below image, but if you click through to the archived page you can see it in it's full glorious size.

The Death of SEO.

Want to syndicate this infographic? Embed code is here. We also created a PDF version.

3 Reasons Google Won’t Offer Car Insurance Comparisons in the US Anytime Soon

The following is a guest column written by Rory Joyce from CoverHound.

Last week Google Advisor made its long-awaited debut in the car insurance vertical -- in the UK. Given Google’s 2011 acquisition of BeatThatQuote.com, a UK comparison site, for 37.7 million pounds ($61.5 million US), it comes as little surprise that the company chose to enter the UK ahead of other markets. While some might suspect Google’s foray into the UK market is merely a trial balloon, and that an entrance into the US market is inevitable, I certainly wouldn’t hold my breath.

Here are three reasons Google will not be offering an insurance comparison product anytime soon in the US market:

1) High Opportunity Cost

Finance and insurance is the number one revenue - generating advertising vertical for Google, totaling $4 billion in 2011. While some of that $4 billion is made up of products like health insurance, life insurance and credit cards, the largest segment within the vertical is undoubtedly car insurance. The top 3 advertisers in the vertical as a whole are US carriers -- State Farm, Progressive and Geico -- spending a combined sum of $110 million in 2011.

The keyword landscape for the car insurance vertical is relatively dense. A vast majority of searches occur across 10-20 generic terms (ie - “car insurance,” “auto insurance,” “cheap auto insurance,” “auto insurance quotes,” etc). This is an important point because it helps explain the relatively high market CPC of car insurance keywords versus other verticals. All of the major advertisers are in the auction for a large majority of searches, resulting in higher prices. The top spot for head term searches can reach CPCs well over $40. The overall average revenue/click for Google is probably somewhere around $30. Having run run similar experiments with carrier click listing ads using SEM traffic, I can confidently assume that the click velocity (clicks per clicker) is around 1.5. So the average revenue per searcher who clicks is probably somewhere around $45 for Google.

Now, let’s speculate on Google’s potential revenues from advertisers in a comparison environment. Carriers’ marketing allowable is approximately $250 per new policy. When structuring pay-for-performance pricing deep in the funnel (or on a sold-policy basis), carriers are unlikely to stray from those fundamentals. In a fluid marketplace higher in the funnel (i.e.  Adwords PPC), they very often are managing to a marginal cost per policy that far exceeds even $500 (see $40 CPCs). While it may seem like irrational behavior, there are two reasons they are able to get away with this:

a) They are managing to an overall average cost per policy, meaning all direct response marketing channels benefit from “free,” or unattributable sales. With mega-brands like Geico, this can be a huge factor.

b) There are pressures to meet sales goals at all costs. Google presents the highest intent of any marketing channel available to insurance marketers. If marketers need to move the needle in a hurry, this is where they spend.

Regardless of how Google actually structures the pricing, the conversion point will be much more efficient for the consumer since they will be armed with rates and thus there will be less conversion velocity for Google. The net-net here is a much more efficient marketplace, and one where Google can expect average revenue to be about $250 per sold policy.

How does this match up against the $45 unit revenue they would significantly cannibalize? The most optimized and competitive carriers can convert as high as 10% of clicks into sales. Since Google would be presenting multiple policies we can expect that in a fully optimized state, they may see 50% higher conversion and thus 15% of clicks into sales. Here is a summary of the math:

With the Advisor product, in an optimized state, Google will make about $37.50 ($250 x .15) per clicker. Each cannibalized lead will thus cost Google $7.50 of unit revenue ($45 - $37.50). Given the dearth of compelling comparison options in insurance (that can afford AdWords), consumers would definitely be intrigued and so one can assume the penetration/cannibalization would be significant.

Of course there are other impacts to consider: How would this affect competition and average revenue for non-cannibalized clicks? Will responders to Advisor be incremental and therefore have zero opportunity cost?

2) Advisor Has Poor Traction in Other Verticals

Over the past couple of years, Google has rolled out its Advisor product in several verticals including: personal banking, mortgage, and flight search.

We know that at least mortgage didn’t work out very well. Rolled out in early 2011, it was not even a year before Google apparently shut the service down in January of 2012.

I personally don’t have a good grasp on the Mortgage vertical so I had a chat with a high-ranking executive at a leading mortgage site, an active AdWords advertiser. In talking to him it became clear that there were actually quite a bit of similarities between mortgage and insurance as it relates to Google including:

  1. Both industries are highly regulated in the US, at the state level.
  2. Both verticals are competitive and lucrative. CPCs in mortgage can exceed $40.
  3. Like insurance, Google tested Advisor in the UK market first.

Hoping he could serve as my crystal ball for insurance, I asked, “So why did Advisor for Mortgage fail?” His response was, “The chief issue was that the opportunity cost was unsustainably high. Google needed to be as or more efficient than direct marketers who had been doing this for years. They underestimated this learning curve and ultimately couldn’t sustain the lost revenue as a result of click cannibalization.”

Google better be sure it has a good understanding of the US insurance market before entering, or else history will repeat itself, which brings me to my next point...

3) They Don’t Yet Have Expertise

Let’s quickly review some key differences between the UK and US insurance markets:

  1. Approximately 80% of car insurance is purchased through comparison sites in the UK vs under 5% in the US.
  2. There is one very business-friendly pricing regulatory body in the UK versus state-level, sometimes aggressive, regulation in the US.
  3. The UK is an efficient market for consumers, the US is not. This means margins are tighter for UK advertisers, as evidenced by the fact that CPCs in the UK are about a third of what they are in the US.

As you can see, these markets are completely different animals. Despite the seemingly low barriers for entry in the UK, Google still felt compelled to acquire BeatThatQuote to better understand the market. Yet, it still took them a year and a half post acquisition before they launched Advisor.

I spoke with an executive at a top-tier UK insurance comparison site earlier this week about Google’s entry. He mentioned that Google wanted to acquire a UK entity primarily for its general knowledge of the market, technology, and infrastructure (API integrations). He said, “Given [Google’s] objectives, it didn’t make sense for them to acquire a top tier site (ie - gocompare, comparethemarket, moneysupermarket, confused) so they acquired BeatThatQuote, which was unknown to most consumers but had the infrastructure in place for Google to test the market effectively.”

It’s very unlikely BeatThatQuote will be of much use for the US market. Google will need to build its product from the ground up. Beyond accruing the knowledge of a very complex, and nuanced market, they will need to acquire or build out the infrastructure. In the US there are no public rate APIs for insurance carriers; very few insurance comparison sites actually publish instant, accurate, real-time rates. Google will need to understand and navigate its way to the rates (though it’s not impossible). It will take some time to get carriers comfortable and then of course build out the technology. Insurance carriers, like most financial service companies, can be painfully slow.

Conclusion

I do believe Google will do something with insurance at some point in the US. Of the various challenges the company currently faces, I believe the high opportunity cost is the toughest to overcome. However, the market will shift. As true insurance comparison options continue to mature, consumers will be searching exclusively for comparison sites (see travel), and carriers will no longer be able to effectively compete at the scale they are now -- driving down the market for CPCs and thus lowering the opportunity cost.

This opportunity cost is much lower however for other search engines where average car insurance CPC’s are lower. If I am Microsoft or Yahoo, I am seriously considering using my valuable real estate to promote something worthwhile in insurance. There is currently a big void for consumers as it relates to shopping for insurance. A rival search engine can instantly differentiate themselves from Google overnight in one of the biggest verticals. This may be one of their best opportunities to regain some market share.

Comparing Backlink Data Providers

Since Ayima launched in 2007, we've been crawling the web and building our own independent backlink data. Starting off with just a few servers running in our Directory of Technology's bedroom cupboard, we now have over 130 high-spec servers hosted across 2 in-house server rooms and 1 datacenter, using a similar storage platform as Yahoo's former index.

Crawling the entire web still isn't easy (or cheap) though, which is why very few data providers exist even today. Each provider makes compromises (even Google does in some ways), in order to keep their data as accurate and useful as possible for their users. The compromises differ between providers though, some go for sheer index size whilst others aim for freshness and accuracy. Which is best for you?

This article explores the differences between SEOMoz's Mozscape, MajesticSEO's Fresh Index, Ahref's link data and our own humble index. This analysis has been attempted before at Stone Temple and SEOGadget, but our Tech Team has used Ayima's crawling technology to validate the data even further.

We need a website to analyze first of all, something that we can't accidentally "out". Search Engine Land is the first that came to mind, very unlikely to have many spam links or paid link activity.

So let's start off with the easy bit - who has the biggest result set for SEL?

The chart above shows MajesticSEO as the clear winner, followed by a very respectable result for Ahrefs. Does size matter though? Certainly not at this stage, as we only really care about links which actually exist. The SEOGadget post tried to clean the results using a basic desktop crawler, to see which results returned a "200" (OK) HTTP Status Code. Here's what we get back after checking for live linking pages:

Ouch! So MajesticSEO's "Fresh" index has the distinct smell of decay, whilst Mozscape and Ayima V2 show the freshest data (by percentage). Ahrefs has a sizeable decay like MajesticSEO, but still shows the most links overall in terms of live linking pages. Now the problem with stopping at this level, is that it's much more likely that a link disappears from a page, than the page itself disappearing. Think about short-term event sponsors, 404 pages that return a 200, blog posts falling off the homepage, spam comments being moderated etc. So our "Tenacious Tim" got his crawler out, to check which links actually exist on the live pages:

Less decay this time, but at least we're now dealing with accurate data. We can also see that Ayima V2 has a live link accuracy of 82.37%, Mozscape comes in at 79.61%, Ahrefs at 72.88% and MajesticSEO is just 53.73% accurate. From Ayima's post-crawl analysis, our techies concluded that MajesticSEO's crawler was counting URLs (references) and not actual HTML links in a page. So simply mentioning http://www.example.com/ somewhere on a web page, was counting as an actual link. Their results also included URL references in JavaScript files, which won't offer any SEO value. That doesn't mean that MajesticSEO is completely useless though, I'd personally use it more for "mention" detection outside of the social sphere. You can then find potential link targets who mention you somewhere, but do not properly link to your site.

Ahrefs wins the live links contest, finding 84,496 more live links than MajesticSEO and 513,733 more live links than SEOmoz's Mozscape! I still wouldn't use Ahrefs for comparing competitors or estimating the link authority needed to compete in a sector though. Not all links are created equal, with Ahrefs showing both the rank-improving links and the crappy spam. I would definitely use Ahrefs as my main data source for "Link Cleanup" tasks, giving me a good balance of accuracy and crawl depth. Mozscape and Ayima V2 filter out the bad pages and unnecessarily deep sites by design, in order to improve their data accuracy and showing the links that count. But when you need to know where the bad PageRank zero/null links are, Ahrefs wins the game.

So we've covered the best data for "mentions", the best data for "link cleanup", now how about the best for competitor comparison and market analysis? The chart below shows an even more granular filter, removing dead links, filtering by unique Class C IP blocks and removing anything below a PageRank 1. By using Google's PageRank data, we can filter the links from pages that hold no value or that have been penalized in the past. Whilst some link data providers do offer their own alternative to PageRank scores (most likely based on the original Google patent), these cannot tell whether Google has hit a site for selling links or for other naughty tactics.

Whilst Ahrefs and MajesticSEO hit the top spots, the amount of processing power needed to clean their data to the point of being useful, makes them untenable for most people. I would therefore personally only use Ayima V2 or Mozscape for comparing websites and analyzing market potential. Ayima V2 isn't available to the public quite yet, so let's give this win to Mozscape.

So in summary

  • Ahrefs - Use for link cleanup
  • MajesticSEO - Use for mentions monitoring
  • Mozscape - Use for accurate competitor/market analysis

Juicy Data Giveaway

One of the best parts of having your own index, is being able to create cool custom reports. For example, here's how the big SEO websites compare against each other:

"Index Rank" is a ranking based on who has the most value-passing Unique Class C IP links across our entire index. The league table is quite similar to HitWise's list of the top traffic websites, but we're looking at the top link authorities.

Want to do something cool with the data? Here's an Excel spreadsheet with the Top 10,000 websites in our index, sorted by authority: Top 10,000 Authority Websites.


Rob Kerry is the co-founder of Ayima, a global SEO Consultancy started in 2007 by the former in-house team of an online gaming company. Ayima now employs over 100 people on 3 continents and Rob has recently founded the new Ayima Labs division as Director of R&D.

Consultant to Agency - What I Learned From the Jump

I've been in the online marketing space since 1998. Somewhere around the year 2000, I stumbled into affiliate marketing. I played in very competitive spaces via SEO from the get go - and ranked. In 2007, in order to scale my affiliate marketing efforts, I co-founded MFE Interactive, a website publishing company, and built out several affiliate brands.

I'd always done consulting here and there throughout the years, but never on a regular basis. To be honest, I liked (and still do like) the affiliate (on your own schedule and no one to answer to but your bank account) lifestyle.

In 2009 I made my first foray into running a consulting company. I quickly found out that there was a lot to making the jump from consultant to agency - a lot of which I hadn't thought about, hadn't properly positioned myself for and I decided to sell my shares less than two years after venturing into that realm.

After 18 months of what my friends like to call "semi-retirement" and living very comfortably off the passive income I'd spent nearly a decade developing, I decided once again to start an agency and officially launched PushFire in May of 2012 and we're already a team of 13 and growing.

But this time I knew a bit more about what I was getting into and as a result, had positioned myself better for the task. I figured I'd share with you what I've learned about making the jump from occasional consultant to agency over the last three years in hopes that maybe someone else can be better prepared for "the jump" if and when they decide to take it.

Deciding Whether to Go Solo or with a Partner

I personally know what I'm good at and what I'm not. I couldn't see launching an agency - at least one you want to experience quick growth - without having a partner (unless you want to invest the salary to have someone handle a "partner" position as a paid employee). There is simply too much for one person to do for them to do it all alone - and fast.

My personal weakness lies in operations. I don't like being chained to the office every day and travel too much promoting the agency to be the person managing operations. My personal strength lies in business development, growth and strategy. My weaknesses make me a horrible COO. My strengths make me a good CEO. I've found that the absolute key to creating a successful partnership lies in making sure that your partner has strengths where you DON'T. In PushFire, my partner Sean and I compliment each other very well. I'm a veteran with SEO and link building. He's great with PPC management (something completely foreign to me). I'm good at business development and client strategy. He actually enjoys (and is good at) managing the staff and clients. That makes him a fantastic COO.

Before you rush to launch an agency solo, ask yourself if you can really handle every aspect of running said agency (or are willing to hire to fill the gaps). If not, ask yourself who you know that would be a great COMPLIMENT to your skill set. And then make sure you vet that they actually have the skills you think they do and that you can work as a team without wanting to kill each other and being "locked" into a company from a public perspective. Work quietly together for a few months and see how it goes (that is what Sean and I did for about 3 months). And if all goes well, make it official.

Business Formation and Operating Agreement

Once you decided to make it official you need to form your business. I actually own part of an incorporation service (an accounting firm owns the other half) so I got my advice on what KIND of company to form from my partners in that site since I didn't know all the intricacies of owning a business in Texas (where I'd recently moved). If you're not sure of what kind of company will work best for you (Incorporation, Limited Liability Company, S Corporation, etc) be sure to consult with an accountant or attorney to figure it out. It's a pain to change after the fact.

If you are forming your business with a partner, it is absolutely imperative that you have an Operating Agreement from day one. IMPERATIVE. The Operating Agreement defines your ownership (if it's not a corporation which issues shares), your roles and your responsibilities. Be sure to include what happens should a partner want to leave, should you want a partner to leave, should a partner die, should a partner get divorced - EVERY POSSIBLE THING THAT COULD GO WRONG SHOULD HAVE AN AGREED UPON SOLUTION IN THE OPERATING AGREEMENT AS SOON AS YOU BECOME AN OFFICIAL COMPANY.

I don't care if your partner is your parent, sibling, friend - you need an Operating Agreement and you need one from day one. Sean and I are married and we STILL have an Operating Agreement that details out every possible scenario and what happens in the event of it. And if there is one area where you stretch the budget and pay a lawyer (and NOT use some free template online) it is for the Operating Agreement if you enter into a partnership.

The Business Paperwork

Next up you'll need to file all that awesome paperwork with the IRS, state and in some cases even your county. Getting an EIN, getting a sales tax number, and getting local operating licenses (or even finding out if they're required). And if you're hiring employees, then you'll need to file paperwork to pay unemployment taxes, etc. I personally hired a local accountant to ensure we didn't miss anything in regards to these. I'd rather pay a modest hourly fee now than much more expensive government penalties later.

Business Insurance

If you plan to have an office and employees (which is likely because you decided to no longer be a sole consultant), then you're going to want to get insurance. The basics would be General Liability and Property Insurance and Workers' Compensation Insurance.

Additionally, because what we do for a living as online marketers is not an exact science, you'll likely want to look into getting Errors and Omissions (E&O) insurance too.

The GLP and Workers' Comp insurance was fairly easy to find and get setup. E&O was another story. Most insurance agencies I spoke with didn't handle "digital marketing firms" and it took me a long time to find a recommendation to a company that not only provided E&O for people who do what we do, but also was willing to include copyright infringement into the policy (say for an employee using a picture or content they don't have permission to use, unbeknown to you). I finally was referred to TechInsurance and was able to get all three insurance policies via them.

For the record, I was not compensated in any way for mentioning them - I just had a REALLY hard time finding an E&O provider and they had all the coverage I needed and at what I thought was a fair price. Cost for the policies will vary on a multitude of factors, including your personal experience at what we do, if you've ever been sued, etc.

Also know that if you plan to take on Fortune companies as clients, this insurance - and proof of having it - will be a standard requirement and they usually request that your GLP and E&O insurance covers you in the 1-2 million dollar range.

The Legalities

As an agency, you're going to need contracts if you weren't using them as a consultant. And you're going to want them to be drawn up by (or at least overlooked and approved by) an ACTUAL LAWYER.

We had a Master Services Agreement (MSA) drawn up as well as a Statement of Work (SOW) for each service type we provide (which at the moment is SEO, Link Building and Promotion and PPC).

We also had a Mutual Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) created. Additionally, if you plan to use contractors or employees, you'll need contracts drawn up for each (one for employees and one for contractors). While some clients require you to use THEIR contracts (they like to keep any legal disputes in their home territory) many clients will not have these types of contracts and you will need to provide them.

For the record, I don't "hold" clients into contracts. If a client wants to stop using our services they can do so at any time. We have a 30 day notice "out" clause (for either side) in our standard MSA. But we still have contracts that clearly state what we've been hired to do and what our (and the client's) responsibilities are. Even if you don't have clients signing "one year deals" etc, you still should have contracts. Cover Your Ass - it's a statement to live by as a business owner.

Finding Office Space

Since you're opening an agency, that means you plan to have employees - otherwise you'd remain a consultant. Office space is a tricky issue for a brand new company. You often don't need a lot of space in the beginning, but if your company does well and finds itself quickly expanding, you could find yourself outgrowing your initial space soon.

I'd recommend you'd do your best to find office space (at least initially) with a short term lease (which for office space is usually 1-2 years). Also, since most of your business - at least in the beginning - will be over the Internet, you shouldn't kill your budget trying to rent a Madison Avenue worthy space in the beginning (whether you should do it at ANY time is up to you).

We took a 1 year lease in an industrial building with a killer Chicago loft like interior and a great kitchen. From the outside, it looks like a trucking company (because we're next to one). But it's got a great look and feel on the inside and 90% of our clients will never come to our office anyway. The one year lease was key because we were way too small for the space when we took it and will be way to big for the space when our 1 year lease is up.

Additionally, don't stress too much over location. I talk with a lot of folks that ask us when we'll be moving from the small town we're in (Katy, TX) to the "big city" ten minutes away (which is Houston, TX). Sean and I just discussed this the other day and I don't know that we'll ever make that "move" so to speak. It is much easier to get local press coverage and be a "top" employer in a smaller town. And again, most of our clients will never come to our office anyway. I take my cue from Marty Weintraub, who, rather than ditch Minnesota for the more "tech" scene states as a newly minted Inc 500 company, instead chose to become a pillar business there.

Contractors Vs. Employees

I was very adamant from the day we launched that we were going the in-house, local employee route. It is tempting to work with long distance contractors - especially when you know they're talented but would never move. As a consultant, I utilized long distance contractors for years (and all of our long term contractors are "grandfathered in" to this new decision).

But if you plan to grow an agency, it's my opinion that you need people in-house to effectively do it. Especially when it comes to management positions. It's simply much easier to call a company meeting with in-house staff then to arrange a Skype call between 13 people. It's much easier to develop positive relationships and company camaraderie as well.

What to Know about Hiring and Having Employees

Hiring is a task you pretty much only learn via experience. You have to make sure you find people who will fit in with the company culture you want to build - so you'll need to put some thought into what that is before you start posting "help wanted" ads.

To attract great employees we've learned two things. The first is not to skimp on paying for a job posting, especially if you live in a smaller town. We post our ads on Monster.com and haven't been disappointed in the quality of applicants we've received by doing so. Prior attempts using more local services were a waste of time, especially when looking for people with online marketing and/or technical skills - they're all looking online.

Secondly, you need to offer benefits if you want to be competitive with the other companies around you. A great company culture and an exciting position usually don't make up for a lack of health benefits in the United States. We looked to our banking service to get us recommendations for small business health insurance.

They introduced us to Digital Insurance who got us a great quote for health insurance for our growing team (again, I'm only mentioning them because we found them to be awesome and extremely helpful). When looking at health insurance keep in mind that - at least here in Texas - you need 75% participation in your plan and need to pay a minimum of 50% towards the health insurance premiums of all your covered employees.

To give us an edge over competing employers, we decided to get a higher quality plan with a low co-pay and lower deductible and contribute more than the required 50%. Make sure that you consider your health insurance costs for your employees when deciding on salaries. Even if you don't have health insurance for the first few hires, when you DO implement, you'll have to contribute for everyone, regardless of if their salary took it into account.

Additionally, once you're past having one or two employees, you're likely going to need an HR manual. Our accountant was able to get us a standard HR Manual we were able to edit to fit our specific needs - and once again, have a lawyer look over the final product.

We also work hard to keep the team motivated. From team building events with prizes (our latest was laser tag, our next outing is bowling) to performance incentives (this month, we're giving away the New iPad as a performance bonus), you'll need to ensure your team is emotionally satisfied in addition to being financially satisfied to keep retention high. We appreciate our team and their dedication to the company and do our best to show them that.

Creating Internal Processes and Tools

Hiring employees means you're going to need to train them. In the beginning, you'll likely do this by doing it verbally, but when you get to the point that you're hiring frequently, you'll want internal training documents for your new team members to read first and for you to answer questions about later. And different jobs will likely require different processes and training documentation. We've been creating this as we go. But we've found that a lack of written documentation can cause confusion and frustration. So the sooner you can get everything on pen and paper, the better.

Additionally, at some point you're going to find yourself doing a lot of repeated basic processes that could be better handled by legitimate automation. We just hired our first developer for PushFire to begin building internal tools to not only make our team's job easier, but to make it less mundane as well. Be sure to keep an eye when hiring on if you're hiring because of a genuine need or because your current team is wasting time doing things they don't need to do. When the latter occurs, I'd look into hiring a developer to fill those productivity gaps with automation. We're already seeing the benefits of making our team's life easier.

In the meantime - don't try and reinvent the wheel. There are tons of great tools out there that can make your team more productive. From Raven Tools to Ontolo to HighRise to tons of other services - there is likely someone, somewhere with a tool to make your specific team's job easier. Seek them out. Then hire someone to build what ISN'T available as you grow.

The Books

My opinion? Never do the books yourself. EVER. Because saving yourself a few hundred to a few thousand in accounting fees could cost you BIG BUCKS down the road. We use FreshBooks for our invoicing and have an accountant who then downloads the FreshBooks data into Quickbooks.

I find FreshBooks easier (though I used Quickbooks until recently) and she prefers Quickbooks. Our accountant provides us with a Profit and Loss (P&L) statement every month and keeps track of our invoicing and cash flow. This allows us to ask her any information we need to know financially while keeping our eyes focused on the business growth and day to day operations. For now, we outsource accounting, but we know that at some point we will need to take it in house as we grow.

We also utilize the payroll services at our bank (Wells Fargo) because it's easy and they pay all the required taxes for us. Our accountant still runs our payroll, but through their service. Additionally, most payroll companies offer you a guarantee that if you're ever hit for them improperly accounting for taxes, that's on them and not you. To me, it's worth the (what I consider) small fee to utilize the payroll services.

I'm Still Learning

I'm by no means the definitive source on making the move from an individual consultant to an agency. I can't offer advice on financing or funding because we've bootstrapped ourselves the whole way. But I hope the above let's you know some of what to prepare for and what you'll need, at the very minimum, to launch a successful consulting agency.

Lastly, DREAM BIG. DO GOOD WORK. BE A GOOD PERSON, PARTNER, BOSS, CLIENT AND SERVICE PROVIDER.

P.S. If you live in, near or are willing to relocate to Houston? We're hiring. ;-)

The Social Media Ponzi Bubble Implodes

The Next Google?

Facebook had their first tranche of insider lock ups expire yesterday & the stock ended off over 5%. Anyone who has ever invested for a significant period of time knows what the following graphic looks like: the collapse of a bubble.

What has caused such a poor performance for Facebook?

For starters, this couldn't have helped:

If they committed to spending big bucks with Facebook, how could they be assured a return on their investment?

Mr. Zuckerberg's response, according to one of the attendees: "That's a great question and we should probably have an answer to that, shouldn't we?"

Also harming Facebook...

The Real Next Google

Users do not want social in search, but even if they did Google can turn it on with a flick of a switch.

If you want to invest in "the next Google" at a valuation above $100 billion then the best way to do so is to buy Google.

I won't claim that Google's growth there has also passed through to online publishers. It many cases it has not, as Google has begun dominating their own results & pushing competitors below the fold.

SEO is Harder than Ever

Breaking into search with a new site is harder than ever. That is reflected in the static nature of the ecommerce market and just how many ill informed opinions there are about Google's various updates.

Unless you are already well trusted or are willing to hack websites, brute force SEO is getting much harder. Even getting a boatload of exposure like the following graph shows may have zero impact on Google rankings.

Other important trends are:

This does not mean that the opportunity of SEO has disappeared, rather that strategy becomes far more important as the market grows more challenging.

Public Relations

Social media is sold as being revolutionary, but its impact is generally more marginal. What matters is funding the baseline message that then gets syndicated across networks.

Due to the Filter Bubble (& format concision) most people won't question the depths of where they are wrong or dig deep into the background of a story, but rather syndicate the payola headline & biased research that PR professionals wanted them to see.

Out-of-context facts only need to sound good in 140 characters.

Reputation Management

Occasionally a company can be so idiotic that their Progressive(ly) incompetent behavior creates a categorical example of failing their customers. But that sort of failure only matters if it gets shared frequently on blogs & media sites off the social media platforms.

I haven't heard of anyone spending big money to try to have a Tweet rank lower, but people spend significantly trying to drive down bad search results.

Most Tweets are largely forgotten after a few days. A bad search result can create a progressive self-reinforcing problem that lives on as long as a brand does.

Social Media Platforms Begin Lockdown

It isn't just Facebook that has had problems. A number of the other social stocks have tanked.

The problem with social media is that it's performance hasn't been particularly stellar thusfar & they have only just begun to start screwing over people playing on their platforms. A big part of what caused Zynga to miss so badly on their last quarterly result was:

"Facebook made changes to their platform that favored new game discovery," he said. As a result, Zynga users "did not remain engaged and did not come back as often."

That change is in addition to gutting companies that specialized in optimizing Facebook pages & other companies which worked closely with Facebook. Further, Facebook's edgerank limits how many of your subscribers see your own message. They want you to pay once to build a following & then pay again to access the audience of followers you already built.

It is not just Facebook that is locking down their ecosystem. Twitter is headed down the same path: "I sure as hell wouldn’t build a business on Twitter, and I don’t think I’ll even build any nontrivial features on it anymore."

Many mobile start ups are also suffering from the same "saturated ecosystem" problem.

More Social Media Sites Launch

The economic recovery has been uneven & while the above platforms are imploding it hasn't stopped some of the founders from creating more platforms that will also compete for attention.

Why Social Media Isn't as Exciting As Claimed

All Users Are Not Created Equal

There is a difference between targeted search traffic & the stuff that people sell as "unlimited traffic for $6."

Social media can drive some conversions with coupons, but it can also make people (who would have converted anyway) expect coupons and discounts to purchase. Part of the problem with attributing anything to social media is so much of it can be attributed to activity bias. Anyone who follows you & similar business & so on is going to be more likely to convert in those areas. That they at some point in time were on a large social network doesn't mean that the social network added any value to the sequence or caused a conversion.

Even if you know exactly how influential people are it still wouldn't mean that you would be able to influence them (generally the more popular someone is the less receptive they are to pitches). And generally speaking traffic on your site is worth more than traffic from social media sites, as it is already more targeted. This is why traffic exchange systems suck...those atop the pyramid suck most the real value out of it while those lower in the system give away their visitors for scraps.

The #1 rule of online traffic is that relevancy is more important than volume.

False Sense of Closeness & Empathy (Cuts Both Ways)

Online petitions have a low cost (go nowhere & click a mouse), so even in large numbers they usually don't mean much. Whereas people who go through barriers to entries & jump over hurdles are far more committed to a goal.

With sites like Twitter there can be a wow factor in that there is a false sense of closeness, but in reality many celebrities pay others to tweet for them and sell tweets.

And every bit as fake as the "celebrity who really cares about you" there are also the enraged non-customers who try to leverage social media to level the playing field. But in most cases those were never going to be good relationships anyhow. For most people the best solution is to ignore them.

Hits Can Be Somewhat Unpredictable

In addition to the fickle here today, gone tomorrow nature of social media, the results are typically quite unpredictable. What is even more challenging is that you can optimize for relevancy or virality, but to try to guarantee one you usually have to sacrifice signifcantly on the other. That means that either you can get links & audience, or you can create some conversions, but it is quite hard to do both.

Further, popularity on such networks tends to fade quickly (unless you keep going back to the well). But at any point in time even newer networks can decide to change how they feature you & cut out whoever they want to, and the more often you keep going back to the same network the more beholden you become to it. Invariably all these social networks that start off as being somewhat open close down & control the ecosystem to boost monetization as growth slows.

Signal Creation vs Amplification

It is easy to point to success like Double Fine & Ouya as proof of the power of some of these networks, but some of that success is due to past success. Anyone who loved playing Psychonauts would love to invest in helping to create another release.

P&G can lay off some of their marketing department because their brands already have such a strong share of voice across all mediums.

And Louis CK can sell a million Dollars worth of his own downloads and a hundred thousand tickets fast because he is already well liked.

Mainstream media writers can offer tips on how to have a dead cat bounce on Twitter. That isn't so hard for the mainstream media to do given how much they dominate Twitter trends & the top shared stories on Facebook. However if you don't have an organic audience channel & a built in cumulative advantage then likely either your story will go nowhere, or even if you share something great what will end up happening is someone else with more distribution will rewrite your story and displace you as the lead source.

Social media can have value as a signal amplification tool, but if you do not already have a separate audience base (via email, RSS, or some other similar channels) then time spent on social would likely be better spent building up some of those other channels first. If you are not building off an organic audience channel then social media promotions will typically fall flat.

Dominate a Small Pond

I don't think I would have done well with SEO if I spent most of my time on the largest sites when I was new to the industry. What helped me along was joining the great crew on SearchGuild who taught me a lot in a short period of time. On smaller sites we can become a bigger fish in a small pond.

The fatal attraction with large sites is that the audience is large, but it is largely inaccessible. The largest sites are the most appealing to the least interesting people. Or, put another way, we are most alike where we are the most vulgar & the most unique where we are the most refined. This is why even when we are on the large sites we typically pay far more attention to what our friends say or do than the ads on those platforms that take thousands of impressions to generate a single click.

There is nothing wrong with spending some time on social sites for fun, but if it becomes the bulk of your publishing time & effort you are probably contributing far more than you get back. Especially when you consider that a lot of the deep insights & continuations of stories that once happened on blogs has fell by the wayside for quick temporary Tweets that disappear into nothingness. Many companies have mistakenly abandoned blogging & will have to experience the pain of starting over when some of these networks go away to appreciate the depth of the error.

Why Marketers Promote Social Media

Addiction to "the New"

If you promote things that are new that buys further coverage because you are seen as being innovative.

Twitter allowed spam & had few people employed fight it. Why? More "users" equates to a higher growth rate, which equates to a higher market valuation on subsiquent investment rounds. Twitter stated that in 2009, 11% of their tweets were spam.

During a social media ponzi bubble a whitepaper about Twitter of Facebook has sizzle because it allows you to leach off the story of that broader platform. And so long as those companies are raising money or trying to go public they want to show the maximum growth possible, so they are unlikely to crack down on forms of marketing manipulation that help growth their platform size and valuation. After they are public though & growth has slowed their approach toward controlling their platform will become much more adversarial.

Google has been public for nearly a decade now & if you speak in the language of SEO that is a term that has already been well defined through the dominant market player.

A Desire to be Seen as a Broader Service

If you are only seen as being about "SEO" then anytime Google forces drastic changes onto the market you are seen as being of limited value & thus at great risk of being washed away. This is even more risky if you are leveraging up and trying to raise funding. But if you claim to be more generalist it allows the frog to turn into a prince, as you have more "growth" opportunities in the near future.

Give it a Different Name

A lot of people try to slag off SEO for self-promotion & then say "don't do spam like the SEOs, instead do x."

And if you read off the list of items that are represented in the "x" invariably it reads like an SEO checklist.

So why do people try to redefine SEO? A number of reasons:

  • if they can create a new term that they "own" then anyone who shares it is building the value of their company
  • they can use polarizing marketing to capture attention & then differentiate themselves from what they actually do by claiming to be doing something else
  • some of the most egregious SEO spammers (eg: Jason Calacanis) never could have got away with running their projects as they were without first distancing themselves from the SEO market

The MLM Factor

In most MLM schemes step 1 is often "follow us" with step 2 being "spread our message" (or, feed us your young, get your friends to hate you, sell your soul, etc.)

This same factor is baked into social media services. Rather than going directly to money though it uses attention as an intermediary.

I am not saying that asking people to follow you is necessarily bad, but if you tell people that social media will change the world and that they should follow you for tips then of course that is a great way to get a bunch of desperate, ignorant & shameless newbs to syndicate your spin. If those people are re-defining old school SEO techniques using a new vernacular they are both the customer (buying into the re-marketing of old concepts) and the product (evangelist spreading false gospel & generating social proof of value).

The above message is never stated in the various "correlation analysis" charts that aim to prove the value of social media to SEO.

Given how easy it is to manipulate social media, even if they are not doing well it is easy for someone like Ellory Bennette to sell the image of success.

Noise vs Signal

There are loads of ways to create a core baseline social "signal" on the cheap. Newt Gingrich was called out for having some fake Twitter followers. There are boatloads of services & tools out there targeting all the social networks & free hosts: Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, YouTube, Blogspot, Wordpress, Tumblr, StumbleUpon, Reddit, Digg, Pligg, and even Pinterest.

Given how Newt got "called out" for having fake followers, I wouldn't be surprised to see some marketers buying fake followers for other convenient targets to create a story to sell.

Selling a Bag of Smoke

While composing this, a spam email hit my inbox stating the following:

It's a fact: more people find out about your business on Facebook or Twitter than on search engines. Making these sites work maybe tricky for you, but it s business as usual for us. Let us improve your visibility and enhance your image. It s part of our complete Internet Marketing package. We ll be more than your friends --- we ll be your partners."

Social metrics are easily gamed. If you just want numbers not only are they sold by the social networks as ad units, but they can be had in bulk on sites like Fiverr.

Probably the best comment I have ever read about the "bag of smoke" concept was from Will Spencer:

SEO's like to sell social signals as ranking factors because social media marketing is an easy product to deliver while collecting good profit margins.

The fact that it doesn't work... doesn't seem to bother those people.

The "good guys" in the SEO business aren't the people who parrot Google's lies to a wider audience; the "good guys" in the SEO business are the guys who make their clients money.

Ignorance of Relevancy

Search engines may put out research about social networks like Twitter, but would Google count Twitter as a primary relevancy signal without owning Twitter? Color me skeptical.

Even more laughable than SEOs selling social media as the key to SEO is their open ignorance of the political nature of various relevancy signals.

  • Does Facebook sell likes? Yes. Why would Google want to subsidize a competing ad network? It isn't hard to notice Google's dislike for Facebook through their very public black PR campaigns.
  • The same sort of "why would I subsidize a competitor" issue is also in place with Twitter. They sell retweets & follows, so why would Google want to subsidize that?
  • Google counts YouTube ad views as organic views, but they own it & they only rolled out universal search *after* they acquired YouTube.

In summary...

Google Copyright Transparency Report

Google timed a nice Friday evening release to update of their policy toward copyright infringement.

Starting next week, we will begin taking into account a new signal in our rankings: the number of valid copyright removal notices we receive for any given site. Sites with high numbers of removal notices may appear lower in our results.

Wow. Sounds like trouble. Surely that means that YouTube's rankings are about to get torched.

Oh, nope. One quick exemption for the video king:

This data presents information specified in requests we received from copyright owners through our web form to remove search results that link to allegedly infringing content. It is a partial historical record that includes more than 95% of the volume of copyright removal requests that we have received for Search since July 2011. It does not include:

  • requests submitted by means other than our web form, such as fax or written letter
  • requests for products other than Google Search (e.g, requests directed at YouTube or Blogger)
  • requests sent to Google Search for content appearing in other Google products (e.g., requests for Search, but specifying YouTube or Blogger URLs).

Google does not state where the thresholds will be set & grants blanket immunity for themselves, yet they (illegitimately) emphasize that they are being transparent.

Only copyright holders know if something is authorized, and only courts can decide if a copyright has been infringed; Google cannot determine whether a particular webpage does or does not violate copyright law. So while this new signal will influence the ranking of some search results, we won’t be removing any pages from search results unless we receive a valid copyright removal notice from the rights owner. And we’ll continue to provide "counter-notice" tools so that those who believe their content has been wrongly removed can get it reinstated. We’ll also continue to be transparent about copyright removals.

YouTube vs Sites Cleaner Than YouTube

Courts have ruled that embedding a YouTube video is not copyright infringement. The EFF has mentioned that embedding a video is simply a link.

And yet, a UK student faces up to 10 years in jail in the US for founding a crowdsourced site which links to sites that allow you to watch TV online.

Kim DotCom suffered a militant raid on his house & had his assets frozen for running MegaUpload, which was a tiny spec of dirt compared to the size of YouTube.

On the copyright front YouTube was rotten from the start:

  • "In a July 19, 2005 e-mail to YouTube co-founders Chad Hurley and Jawed Karim, YouTube co-founder Steve Chen wrote: 'jawed, please stop putting stolen videos on the site. We’re going to have a tough time defending the fact that we’re not liable for the copyrighted material on the site because we didn’t put it up when one of the co-founders is blatantly stealing content from other sites and trying to get everyone to see it.'"
  • "Chen twice wrote that 80 percent of user traffic depended on pirated videos. He opposed removing infringing videos on the ground that 'if you remove the potential copyright infringements... site traffic and virality will drop to maybe 20 percent of what it is.' Karim proposed they 'just remove the obviously copyright infringing stuff.' But Chen again insisted that even if they removed only such obviously infringing clips, site traffic would drop at least 80 percent. ('if [we] remove all that content[,] we go from 100,000 views a day down to about 20,000 views or maybe even lower')."
  • "In response to YouTube co-founder Chad Hurley’s August 9, 2005 e-mail, YouTube co-founder Steve Chen stated: 'but we should just keep that stuff on the site. I really don’t see what will happen. what? someone from cnn sees it? he happens to be someone with power? he happens to want to take it down right away. he get in touch with cnn legal. 2 weeks later, we get a cease & desist letter. we take the video down.'"
  • "A true smoking gun is a memorandum personally distributed by founder Karim to YouTube’s entire board of directors at a March 22, 2006 board meeting. Its words are pointed, powerful, and unambiguous. Karim told the YouTube board point-blank:
    'As of today episodes and clips of the following well-known shows can still be found: Family Guy, South Park, MTV Cribs, Daily Show, Reno 911, Dave Chapelle. This content is an easy target for critics who claim that copyrighted content is entirely responsible for YouTube’s popularity. Although YouTube is not legally required to monitor content (as we have explained in the press) and complies with DMCA takedown requests, we would benefit from preemptively removing content that is blatantly illegal and likely to attract criticism.'"
  • "A month later, [YouTube manager Maryrose] Dunton told another senior YouTube employee in an instant message that 'the truth of the matter is probably 75-80 percent of our views come from copyrighted material.' She agreed with the other employee that YouTube has some 'good original content' but 'it’s just such a small percentage.'"
  • "In a September 1, 2005 email to YouTube co-founder Steve Chen and all YouTube employees, YouTube co-founder Jawed Karim stated, 'well, we SHOULD take down any: 1) movies 2) TV shows. we should KEEP: 1) news clips 2) comedy clips (Conan, Leno, etc) 3) music videos. In the future, I’d also reject these last three but not yet.'"

Broader Copyright Questions

There still are a lot of murky questions in Google's "transparency."

  • If a person embeds an image from Imgur, ImageShack, TinyPic, PhotoBucket or elsewhere & the page that has a hotlink gets a DMCA how does that count?
  • If a brand is large enough does it take many DMCAs to get hit?
  • Is there any analysis of the underlying business model of the site? What happens to document storage sites like DocStoc & Scribd, or even image sites like Pinterest?
  • What happens to sites that link at penalized sites too frequently?
  • What happens to ad networks that frequently fund such copyright violations?

HUGE Impact on the Web

Has anyone registered DMCASEO.com & DMCA-SEO.com yet? ;)

In terms of impact on the web for publishers, this change is every bit as big as Florida, Panda & Penguin. It may not seem so at first (as it will take time for market participants to consider the uses) but this is a huge deal. Consider some of the following scenarios...

  • You try to create something like YouTube for another form of content (Pinterest?) and it gets hit as spam for following Google's lead.
  • You offer a free blogging platform that competes with Blogspot, but it gets hit as spam for following Google's lead.
  • You decide to create a project like Google's book scanning project & you get hit as spam for following Google's lead.
  • You run an ad network & start growing quickly. As you grow some sketchier publishers enter your ad network. Like Google AdSense, a large portion of your ad network is filled with sites that have copyright violations on them. Suddenly working with your ad network gets people hit as spam because your business model is too similar to Google's.
  • You create a new social network & are struggling to compete with Google's preferential ranking & hard coded placements of their own network. You make your network more open to encourage growth & you get hit as spam.
  • If You are Amazon or eBay you can afford premium featured content to pull up your other listings. But if you can't afford their cost structure & hire freelance writers or work with outsourced workers to create some of your content & they use some copyright work without you knowing. But does Amazon now have to vigilantly review their reviews for plagiarism?
  • A competitor licenses some of their content as Creative Commons for years & doesn't mind wide use of it. Then you use it & one day they see you as a competitive threat and remove their Creative Commons license & bulk DMCA you. Or you have a lifetime syndication deal with a company, they later change the policy & claim that your documents are forged.
  • Getty images presumes you didn't license an image that you did & files a DMCA. At some point there is no purpose in targeting the webmaster or host...just go direct to Google knowing that you can create the equivalent of a "patent trolling" styled business model where you create a business model where it is cheaper for people to pay to have the issue resolved the quick way before they lodge a formal complaint. Some organizations might even have a subscription service set up where you pre-pay for immunity.
  • A former employee who wrote content for you claims you used it without permission. Or that same former employee used pirated images & longish quotes from other sources that they didn't disclose to you that they now highlight via DMCA.
  • You license data from a source & they do a mid-contract change leveraging the small print & have a bot lined up to send 40,000 DMCAs against you if you do not agree to the higher pricepoint.
  • Google is considering making an investment in your site & you want too much money. As an edge case near the threshold of this copyright limit you know you have immunity if you join the borg, but lack it if you don't work with them.
  • Big media players that play in the gray area will be fine, but smaller sites that try a similar model will be sunk by DMCAs and/or legal fees.
  • Your leading competitor realizes that your blog publishes comments by default with editorial review (and that even later has lax review) and then they file DMCA reports against you. Or they could just grab chunks of content from Google's leaderboard of complainers and post them into your web forum, knowing that those companies will file a DMCA report against you.
  • A site has some content public & some behind a paywall. With a page partially indexed, how does Google respond to DMCA requests when the alleged infraction is behind a registration wall or paywall?
  • A competitor (inspired by Google no doubt) hires off shore "contractors" to copy your site & then file DMCA reports against you in bulk. How long until people start uploading their own content to file their own DMCAs against certain sites with user generated content?
  • Even if your site is 100% legal, a combination of ignorance & crowd-driven vigilante justice can still take you down.
  • Any site that offers interactive features & has user generated content is at risk of being labeled as spam unless they have tight editorial control over user generated content. And at the same time, Google can enter vertical after vertical with scrape & displace garbage knowing that they don't have those editorial costs due to their self-granted blanket immunity.
  • If you do not register your sites with Google & counter claims (even bogus ones) then you are seen as being a spammer. And if you register with Google then when they don't like something one site does they can hit other sites all at the same time. No point going to the host or registrar, go direct to Google & start building up negative karma.

Why did Google feel the need to grant themselves blanket immunity from the policy?

That question was largely missing among the fanboi blogs & journalists who were encouraged by Google's "transparency."

24 Karat Pyrite On Sale for Only $100 an Ounce

If YouTube is going to win big, then that's a great place to invest, right?

Maybe not.

Some venture capitalists are investing in YouTube channels, but that is a fool's game.

  • Google is also investing in select channels (like Machinima). It is quite hard to outperform Google in returns while investing into a platform that they control & thus have better data on than you ever could.
  • As YouTube's dominance increases (and it will now that competing platforms with a similar business model will be smeared as spam), you can count on them offering premium partners crappier revenue share deals in years to come. They will offer nice deals to Warner Bros. & such, but the independent smaller players will get cut out of the ecosystem in much the same way as they did in Google's organic search results.
  • Google, prince of transparency (for everyone but Google), requires that premium publishers *not* disclose the terms of their deals: "The Partner Program forbids participants to reveal specifics about their ad-share revenue. Rates can vary depending on the size and demographics of the partner’s audience and an array of other metrics."

Note that I don't claim YouTube is a bad host for your own content, but that I am skeptical in applying the VC model to it with a belief that you can out-invest Google on their own site; particularly when they own the dominant platform, control the non-public revenue share rates, invest in competing channels & can offer free promotion + higher rates to anyone they invest into in order to dominate the category.

And the issue isn't just video either. The same dynamic can apply to just about any other infrastructural layer. For instance, Google could buy out a torrent site (say like uTorrent) and have that site gain immediately immunity for being part of the borg, while other sites that compete now absorb both greater editorial filtering costs & greater risks that destroy their ROI.

As Google continues to lock down search, you can expect more smart publishers to hedge investments in search and YouTube with investments in proprietary non-search applications that Google can't take away.

The Devil is in the Details

"We are optimistic that Google’s actions will help steer consumers to the myriad legitimate ways for them to access movies and TV shows online, and away from the rogue cyberlockers, peer-to-peer sites, and other outlaw enterprises that steal the hard work of creators across the globe. We will be watching this development closely — the devil is always in the details — and look forward to Google taking further steps to ensure that its services favor legitimate businesses and creators, not thieves." - Michael O’Leary, Senior Executive Vice President for Global Policy and External Affairs of the Motion Picture Association of America, Inc.

The concerned with Google pitching themselves as the preeminent authority on copyright is they have consistently played both sides of the fence.

When Google was competing against YouTube, this was how they viewed copyright internally.

Business Objectives Drive "Relevancy" Signals

Google is a big player in business online and off. They can sell private data exclusively & their online profits are so huge that they are now buying auto loan bonds.

Now that Google wants to sell premium content they (sort of) respect copyright (& are willing to hold the rest of the web to a higher standard than themselves to create this impression).

I have long believed that relevancy signals were often politically driven & that internal business development goals often lead or create various signals. Certainly that was obvious when Google+ was hardcoded in the search results. It was equally true when Knol outranked the original content sources. Google frequently pretends to be (belligerently) unaware of externalities, but when the issues impact their own business they gain an elevated sense of importance.

And these business objectives not only influence the relevancy algorithms, but also the editorial guidelines.

And even while Google is rolling out this "copyright violators are spammers" algorithm (which they are exempt from) they still chug on with their ebook offering:

They posted several of my 41 books up as free downloads (some were missing a few pages at most a single chapter) It took several e-mails from me pointing out that they were infringing copyright before they took them down. During the time my books were free on Google my sales of e-books fell dramatically. " - K C Watkins

When Google started scanning books an internal document stated: “[we want web searchers interested in book content to come to Google not Amazon” ... or, as put another way, in that same document, “[e]verything else is secondary … but make money.”

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