The Positive Negative SEO Strategy

Apr 1st
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There’s a case study on Moz on how to get your site back following a link penalty. An SEO working on a clients site describes what happened when their client got hit with a link penalty. Even though the link penalty didn't appear to be their fault, it still took months to get their rankings back.

Some sites aren't that lucky. Some sites don’t get their rankings back at all.

The penalty was due to a false-positive. A dubious site links out to a number of credible sites in order to help disguise their true link target. The client site was one of the credible sites, mistaken by Google for a bad actor. Just goes to show how easily credible sites can get hit by negative SEO, and variations thereof.

There’s a tactic in there, of course.

Take Out Your Competitors

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Simply build a dubious link site, point some rogue links at sites positioned above yours and wait for Google’s algorithm to do the rest. If you want to get a bit tricky, link out to other legitimate sites, too. Like Wikipedia. Google, even. This will likely confuse the algorithm for a sufficient length of time, giving your tactic time to work.

Those competitors who get hit, and who are smart enough to work out what’s going on, may report your link site, but, hey, there are plenty more link sites where that came from. Roll another one out, and repeat. So long as your link site can’t be connected with you - different PC, different IP address, etc - then what have you got to lose? Nothing much. What have your competitors got to lose? Rank, a lot of time, effort, and the very real risk they won’t get back into Google’s good books. And that’s assuming they work out why they lost rankings.

I’m not advocating this tactic, of course. But we all know it’s out there. It is being used. And the real-world example above shows how easy it is to do. One day, it might be used against you, or your clients.

Grossly unfair, but what can you do about it?

Defensive Traffic Strategy

Pleading to Google is not much of a strategy. Apart from anything else, it’s an acknowledgement that the power is not in your hands, but in the hands of an unregulated arbiter who likely views you as a bit of an annoyance. It’s no wonder SEO has become so neurotic.

It used to be the case that competitors could not take you out pointing unwanted links at you. No longer. So even more control has been taken away from the webmaster.

The way to manage this risk is the same way risk is managed in finance. Risk can be reduced using diversification. You could invest all your money in one company, or you could split it between multiple companies, banks, bonds and other investment classes. If you’re invested in one company, and they go belly up, you lose everything. If you invest in multiple companies and investment classes, then you’re not as affected if one company gets taken out. In other words, don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

It’s the same with web traffic.

1. Multiple Traffic Streams

If you only run one site, try to ensure your traffic is balanced. Some traffic from organic search, some from PPC, some from other sites, some from advertisements, some from offline advertising, some from email lists, some from social media, and so on. If you get taken out in organic search, it won’t kill you. Alternative traffic streams buy you time to get your rankings back.

2. Multiple Pages And Sites

A “web site” is a construct. Is it a construct applicable to a web that mostly orients around individual pages? If you think in terms of pages, as opposed to a site, then it opens up more opportunities for diversification.

Pages can, of course, be located anywhere, not just on your site. These may take the form of well written, evergreen, articles published on other popular sites. Take a look at the top sites in closely related niches and see if there are any opportunities to publish your content on them. Not only does this make your link graph look good, so long as it’s not overt, you’ll also have achieve more diversity.

Consider Barnacle SEO.

Will creatively defines the concept of barnacle SEO as follows:
Attaching oneself to a large fixed object and waiting for the customers to float by in the current.
Directly applied to local search, this means optimizing your profiles or business pages on a well-trusted, high-ranking directory and working to promote those profiles instead of — or in tandem with — your own website.“

You could also build multiple sites. Why have just one site when you can have five? Sure, there’s more overhead, and it won’t be appropriate in all cases, but again, the multiple site strategy is making a comeback due to Google escalating the risk of having only one site. This strategy also helps get your eggs into multiple baskets.

3. Prepare For the Worst

If you've got most of your traffic coming from organic search, then you’re taking a high risk approach. You should manage that risk down with diversification strategies first. Part of the strategy for dealing with negative SEO is not to make yourself so vulnerable to it in the first place.

If you do get hit, have a plan ready to go to limit the time you’re out of the game. The cynical might suggest you have a name big enough to make Google look bad if they don’t show you.

Lyrics site Rap Genius says that it is no longer penalized within Google after taking action to correct “unnatural links” that it helped create. The site was hit with a penalty for 10 days, which meant people seeking it by name couldn’t find it.

For everyone else, here’s a pretty thorough guide about how to get back in.

Have your “plead with Google” gambit ready to go at a moments notice. The lead time to get back into Google can be long, so the sooner you get onto it, the better. Of course, this is really the last course of action. It’s preferable not make yourself that vulnerable in the first place.

By diversifying.

Handling Objections From SEO Clients

Mar 18th
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If the current war on SEOs by Google wasn’t bad enough if you own the site you work on, then it is doubly so for the SEO working for a client. When the SEO doesn’t have sufficient control over the strategy and technology, it can be difficult to get and maintain rankings.

In this post, we'll take a look at the challenges and common objections the SEO faces when working on a client site, particularly a client who is engaging an SEO for the first time. The SEO will need to fit in with developers, designers and managers who may not understand the role of SEOs. Here are common objections you can expect, and some ideas on how to counter them.

1. Forget About SEO

The objection is that SEO gets in the way. It’s too hard.

It’s true. SEO is complicated. It can often compromise design and site architecture. To managers and other web technicians, SEO can look like a dark art. Or possibly a con. There are no fixed rules as there are in, say, coding, and results are unpredictable.

So why spend time and money on SEO?

One appropriate response is “because your competitors are”

Building a website is the equivalent of taking the starting line in a race. Some site owners think that’s all they need do. However, the real race starts after the site is built. Every other competitor has a web site, and they’re already off and running in terms of site awareness. Without SEO, visitors may find a site, but if the site owner is not using the SEO channel, and their competitors are, then their competitors have an advantage in terms of reach.

2. Can’t SEOs Do Their Thing After The Site Is Built?

SEO’s can do their thing after the site is built, but it’s more difficult. As a result, it’s likely to be more expensive. Baking SEO into the mix when it is conceived and built is an easier route.

Just as copywriters require space to display their copy, SEO's require room to manoeuvre. They’ll likely contribute to information architecture, copy, copy markup and internal linking structures. So start talking about SEO as early as possible, and particularly during information architecture.

There are three key areas where SEO needs to integrate with design. One, the requirement that text is machine readable. Search engines "think" mostly in terms of words, so topics and copy need to relate to search terms visitors may use.

Secondly, linking architecture and information hierarchies. If pages are buried deep in the site, but deemed important in terms of search, they will likely be elevated in the hierarchy to a position closer to the home page.

Thirdly, crawl-ability. A search engine sends out a spider, which grabs the source code of your website, and dumps it back in the search engines database. The spider skips from page to page, following links. If a page doesn't have a crawlable link pointing to it, it will be invisible to search engines. There are various means of making a site easy to crawl, but one straightforward way is to use a site map, linked to from each page on the site. The SEO may also want to ensure the site navigation is crawlable.

3. We Don’t Want The SEO To Interfere With Code

SEO’s do need to tweak code, however the mark-up is largely inconsequential.

SEO's need to specify title tags and some meta tags. These tags need to be unique for each page on the site, as each page is a possible entry page. A search visitor will not necessarily arrive at the home page first.

The title tag appears in search results as a clickable link, so serves a valuable marketing function. When search visitors consider which link on a search results page to click, the title tag and snippet will influence their decision. The title tag should, therefore, closely match the content of each page.

The second aspect concerns URL's. Ideally, a URL should contain descriptive words, as opposed to numbers and random letters. For example, acme.com/widgets/red-widgets.htm is good, whilst acme.com/w/12345678&tnr.php, less so.

The more often the keyword appears, the more likely it will be bolded on a search results page, and is therefore more likely to attract a click. It's also easier for the search engine to determine meaning if a URL is descriptive as opposed to cryptic.

4. I’ve Got An SEO PlugIn. That’s All I Need

SEO Plugins cover the on-site basics. But ranking well involves more than covering the basics.

In order to rank well, a page needs to have links from external sites. The higher quality those sites, the more chances your pages have of ranking well. The SEO will look to identify linking possibilities, and point these links to various internal pages on the site.

It can be difficult, near impossible, to get high quality links to brochure-style advertising pages. Links tend to be directed at pages that have unique value.

So, the type and quality of content has more to do with SEO than the way that content is marked up by a generic plugin. The content must attract links and generate engagement. The visitor needs to see a title on a search result, click through, not click back, and, preferably take some action on that page. That action may be a click deeper into the site, a bookmark, a tweet, or some other measurable form of response.

Content that lends itself to this type of interaction includes blog posts, news feeds, and content intended for social network engagement. In this way, SEO-friendly content can be functionally separated from other types of content. Not every page needs to be SEO’d, so SEO can be sectioned off, if necessary.

5. The SEO Is Just Another Technician

If your aim, or your clients aim, is to attract as much targeted traffic as possible then SEO integration must be taken just as seriously as design, development, copy and other media. SEO is more than a technical exercise, it’s a strategic marketing exercise, much like Public Relations.

SEO considerations may influence your choice of CMS. It may influence your strategic approach in terms of what type of information you publish. It may change the way you engage visitors. Whilst SEO can be bolted-on afterwards, this is a costly and less-effective way of doing SEO, much like re-designing a site is costly and less effective than getting it right in the planning stage.

6. Why Have Our Ranking Disappeared?

The reality of any marketing endeavour is that it will have a shelf-life. Sometimes, that shelf life is short. Other times, it can run for years.

SEO is vulnerable to the changes made by search engines. These changes aren’t advertised in advance, nor are they easily pinned down even after they have occurred. This is why SEO is strategic, just as Public Relations is strategic. The Public Relations campaign you were using a few years ago may not be the same one you use now, and the same goes for SEO.

The core of SEO hasn’t changed much. If you produce content visitors find relevant, and that content is linked to, and people engage with that content, then it has a good chance of doing well in search engines. However, the search engines constantly tweak their settings, and when they do, a lot of previous work - especially if that work was at the margins of the algorithms - can come undone.

So, ranking should never be taken for granted. The value the SEO brings is that they are across underlying changes in the way the search engines work and can adapt your strategy, and site, to the new changes.

Remember, whatever problems you may have with the search engines, the same goes for your competitors. They may have dropped rankings, too. Or they may do so soon. The SEO will try to figure out why the new top ranking sites are ranked well, then adapt your site and strategy so that it matches those criteria.

7. Why Don’t We Just Use PPC Instead?

PPC has many advantages. The biggest advantage is that you can get top positioning, and immediate traffic, almost instantly. The downside is, of course, you pay per click. Whilst this might be affordable today, keep in mind that the search engine has a business objective that demands they reward the top bidders who are most relevant. Their auction model forces prices higher and higher, and only those sites with deep pockets will remain in the game. If you don’t have deep pockets, or want to be beholden to the PPC channel, a long term SEO strategy works well in tandem.

SEO and PPC complement one another, and lulls and challenges in one channel can be made up for by the other. Also, you can feed the keyword data from PPC to SEO to gain a deeper understanding of search visitor behaviour.

8. Does SEO Provide Value For Money?

This is the reason for undertaking any marketing strategy.

An SEO should be able to demonstrate value. One way is to measure the visits from search engines before the SEO strategy starts, and see if these increase significantly post implementation. The value of each search click changes depending on your business case, but can be approximated using the PPC bid prices. Keep in mind the visits from an SEO campaign may be maintained, and increased, over considerable time, thus driving down their cost relative to PPC and other channels.

Keep Visitors Coming Back

Mar 11th
posted in

Facebook. A mobile phone. Email. How often do you check them? Many of us have developed habits around these services.

The triggers that help create these habits can be baked in to the design of websites. The obvious benefit of doing so is that if you create habits in your users, then you’re less reliant on new search visitors for traffic.

How To Build Habit Forming Products

I recently read a book called “Hooked: How To Build Habit Forming Products” by Nir Eyal. Eyal is an entrepreneur who has built and sold two start ups, including a platform to place advertising within online social games. He also writes for Forbes, TechCrunch,and Psychology Today about the intersection of psychology, technology, and business. This latest book is about how technology shapes behaviour.

If usability is about engineering a site to make things easier, then forming habits is engineering user behaviour so they keep coming back. Forming habits in the user base is a marketers dream, yet a lot of search marketing theory is built around targeting the new visitor. As competition rises on the web, traffic becomes more valuable, and the price rises.

Clicks are likely more profitable the less you have to pay for them. If visitors keep returning because the visitor has formed a habit, then that’s a much more lucrative proposition than having to continually find new visitors. Facebook is a habit. Email is a habit. Google is a habit. Amazon is a habit. We keep returning for that fix.

What techniques can we use to help build habits?

Techniques

The book is well worth a read if you’re interested in the psychology of repeat engagement. There’s a lot of familiar topics presented in the book, with cross-over into other marketing territory such as e-mail and social media marketing, but I found it useful to think of engagement in terms of habit formation. Here’s a taste of what Eyal has discovered about habit forming services.

1. Have A Trigger

A trigger is something that grabs your attention and forces you to react to it. A trigger might be a photo of you that appears on a friends Facebook Feed. It might be the ping of an email. It might be someone reacting to a comment that you made on a forum and receive notification. These triggers help condition a user to take an action.

2. Inspire Action

Action is taken when a user anticipates a reward. An example might be clicking on a link for a free copy of a book. There are two conditions needed for a reward to work. It must be easy and there must be a strong motivation. The investment required - the click and attention - is typically a lower “cost” than the reward - the book. On social sites, like Facebook, the reward of the “like” click is the presumption of a social reward.

3. Variable Reward

The reward in response to the action must be variable. Something different should happen as the result of taking an action. The author gives the example of a slot machine. The reward might occur as the result of an action, or it might not. A slot machine would be boring if you got the exact same result each time you pulled the handle and spun the dials. The fact the slot machine only pays out sometimes is what keeps people coming back. All sports and games work on the basis of variable reward.

An online equivalent is Twitter or Facebook feeds. We keep looking at them because they keep changing. Somedays, there isn’t much of interest. Sometimes there is. Looking at that river of news going past can be an addictive habit, in part, because the reward changes.

4. Investment

The user must invest some time and do some work. Each time they invest some time and work, they add something that improves the service. They may add friends in Facebook. They add follows in Twitter. They build up reputation in forums. By adding to it, the service becomes more valuable both to the owner of the service, but also to the user. The bigger and deeper the network grows, the more valuable it becomes. If all your friends are on it, it’s valuable. This builds ever more triggers, makes actions easier and likely more frequent, and the reward more exciting.

The circle is complete. A habit is formed.

Applying Habit Theory To Websites

Habits create unprompted user engagement. The value is pretty obvious. There’s likely a higher lifetime value per customer than a one-off visit, or on-going visits we have to pay per click. We can spend less time acquiring new customers and more time growing the value to those we already have. If we create an easy mechanism by which that occurs, and spreads, then we’re not as vulnerable to search engines.

If this all sounds very function and product oriented, well, it is. So how does this apply to a published website? A product website that aims for a one off sale?

Think In Terms Of Habit Formation

For one off sales, there aren't opportunities for habit formation in the same way as there might be for, say, Facebook.

Someone who sells big, one-off purchases may not see much point in having customers check in every day. However, when we think in terms of users habits, we’d likely better understand why we need to be on Facebook in the first place, or why email marketing is still valuable. If the user is there, that’s where we need to be, too. We need to align ourselves with users existing habits.

Developers often give away free apps, but bill for continued use. Once the user gets in the habit, of doing something, price becomes less of an issue. Price is much more of an issue before they form a habit because they wonder if they will get value. AngryBirds, WhatsApp, et al created a habit first, then cashed in once it was established.

A call-to-action is a trigger. If we think about how calls-to-action in social media and mobile applications, they tend to be big, bold and explicit. If users are in the habit of clicking big, bold buttons in other media, then try testing these such buttons against your current calls-to-action on web pages. Look to mimic habits and routines your visitors might use in other applications.

Habits can be a defensive strategy. It’s hard for a user to leave a company around which they've formed a habit. On the surface, there is a low switching cost between Google and, say, Bing, but how many people really do switch? Google has locked-in users habit by layering on services such as Gmail, or just the simple act of having people used to its interfaces. The habit of users increases their switching cost.

There’s a great line in the book:

Many innovations fail because consumers irrationally overvalue the old while companies irrationally overvalue the new” - John Gourville

Changing user habits is very difficult. Even Google couldn't do it with Google Video vs the established YouTube. If you’re thinking of getting into an established market, think about how you’re going to break existing habits. A few new features probably isn't enough. If breaking established habits seems too difficult, you may decide to pick an entirely new niche and try to get users forming a habit around your offering before other early movers show up.

Eyal also discusses emotional triggers. He uses the example of Instagram where users form a habit for emotional reasons, namely the fear of missing out. The fear of missing out is a more passive, internal trigger.

Make It Easy For The User To Take Action

After the trigger comes action. Usability is all about making it easy for the user to take action. Are you putting unnecessary sign-up stages in the way of a user taking action? Does the user really need to sign up before they take action? If you must have a sign up, how about making that process easier by letting people sign in with Facebook logins, or other shared services, where appropriate? Any barrier to action may lessen the chance of a user forming a habit.

Evan Williams, Blogger & Twitter:

Take a human desire, preferably one that has been around for a really long time...identify that desire, then take out steps

The technologies and sites that go big tend to mirror something people already do and have done for a long time. They just make the process easier and more efficient. Email is easier than writing and posting a letter. Creating a blog is easier than seeking a publishing deal or landing a journalism job at a newspaper. Sharing photos with Facebook is easier than doing so offline.

Apple worked on similar principles:

The most obvious thing is that Jobs wanted his products to be simple above all else. But Jobs realized early on that for them to be simple and easy to use, they had to be based on things that people already understood. (Design geeks have since given this idea a clunky name: so-called skeuomorphic user interfaces.) What was true of the first Macintosh graphical interface is true of the iPhone and iPad--the range of physical metaphors, and, eventually, the physical gestures that control them, map directly with what we already do in the real world. That’s the true key to creating an intuitive interface, and Jobs realized it before computers could really even render the real world with much fidelity at all.[An example of "imputing" Apples values on the smallest decisions: Jobs spent hours honing the window borders of the first Macintosh GUI. When his designers complained, he pointed out that users would look at those details for hours, so they had to be good.

Reducing things to the essentials fosters engagement by making an action easier to take. If in doubt, take steps out, and see what happens.

Vary The Reward

Look for ways to reward the user when they take action. Forums use social rewards, such as reputation and status titles. Facebook has “Like” Buttons. Inherent is this reward system is the thrill of pursuit. When a visitor purchases from you, or signs up for a newsletter, do you make the visitor feel like they've “won”?

Placing feeds on your site are another example of variable reward. The feed content is unpredictable, but that very unpredictability may be enough to keep people coming back. Same goes for blog posts. Compare this with a static brochure site where the “reward” will always be the same.

Can you break a process down into steps where the user is rewarded for taking each little step towards a goal? The reward should match the desires of the visitor. Perhaps the reward is monetary, perhaps it’s social. Gamification is becoming big business and it’s based around the idea of varying reward, action and triggers in order to foster engagement.

Gamification has also been used as a tool for customer engagement, and for encouraging desirable website usage behaviour. Additionally, gamification is readily applicable to increasing engagement on sites built on social network services. For example, in August 2010, one site, DevHub, announced that they have increased the number of users who completed their online tasks from 10% to 80% after adding gamification elements. On the programming question-and-answer site Stack Overflow users receive points and/or badges for performing a variety of actions, including spreading links to questions and answers via Facebook and Twitter. A large number of different badges are available, and when a user's reputation points exceed various thresholds, he or she gains additional privileges, including at the higher end, the privilege of helping to moderate the site

Summary

This is “checking” behaviour. We check for something new. We get a variable reward for checking something new. If we help create this behaviour in our visitors, we get higher engagement signals, and we’re less reliant on new visitors from search engines.

Checking habits may change in the near future as more and more informational "rewards" are added to smartphones. The paper argues that novel informational rewards can lead to habitual behaviors if they are very quickly accessible. In a field experiment, when the phone's contact book application was augmented with real-time information about contacts' whereabouts and doings, users started regularly checking the application. The researchers also observed that habit-formation for one application may increase habit-formation for related applications.

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Optimizing Against Competitors

Feb 11th
posted in

You’ve got to feel a little sorry for anyone new to the search marketing field.

On one side, they’ve got to deal with the cryptic black box that is Google. Often inconsistent, always vague, and can be unfair in their dealings with webmasters. On the other side, webmasters must operate in competitive landscapes that often favour incumbent sites, especially if those incumbents are household names.

Sadly, much of the low hanging search fruit is gone. However, there are a number of approaches to optimization that don’t involve link placement and keyword targeting.

Competitive Advantage

Like any highly active and lucrative market sector, the web business can be challenging, but complaining about the nature of the environment will do little good. The only real option is to grab some boxing gloves, jump in the ring and compete.

In the last post, we talked about measurement. We need to make sure we’re measuring the right things in order to win. This post is about measuring our competitors to see if we enjoy a competitive advantage. If not, we need to rethink our approach.

Underlying Advantages

One of the problems with counting links, and other popular SEO metrics, is that they can be reductive. High link counts and pumped-up Google juice do not guarantee success, more traffic, or business success. For example, we might determine our competitor has X links from sites A, B and C, so we should do likewise. If we do likewise, plus a little more, then we win.

But often we don’t.

We often don’t win because there are multiple factors in play. Our competitor’s site might rank for reasons that are difficult to determine, and even more difficult to emulate. They may have brand, engagement metrics or historical advantages. But most challenging of all, they could have some underlying competitive advantage that no amount of link building or ranking for keyword X by a new site will counter. They may just have a better offer.

Winning The Search War Against Your Competitors

There’s an old joke about a two guys out walking in the African Savannah. They come across a hungry lion. The lion eyes them up, then charges them. One man turns and runs. The other man yells at him “you fool, you can’t outrun a lion!” The other man yells back “that’s true, but I don’t have to outrun the lion. I only have to outrun you!”

Once we figure out what Google wants, we then need to outrun other sites in our niche in order to win. Those sites have to deal with Google’s whims, just like we do.

Typically, webmasters will reverse engineer competitor sites, using web metrics as scores to target and beat. Who is linking to this page? How old are the links? What are their most popular keywords? Where are they getting traffic from? That’s part of the puzzle. However, we also need to evaluate non-technical factors that may be underpinning their business.

Competitive Analysis

Competitive intelligence is an ongoing, systematic analysis of our competitors.

The goal of a competitor analysis is to develop a profile of the nature of strategy changes each competitor might make, each competitor's possible response to the range of likely strategic moves other firms could make, and each competitor's likely reaction to industry changes and environmental shifts that might take place. Competitive intelligence should have a single-minded objective -- to develop the strategies and tactics necessary to transfer market share profitably and consistently from specific competitors to the company. We should look at the sites positioned around and above us and analyse what they do in terms of business.

Do they understand the target market a little better than we do? Are their goals different from ours? If so, how are they different, and why? How are they pricing their products and services? How do their services differ from our own? In other words, do they know something we don’t?

We can optimize for competitive advantage. It's about identifying what market your competitors capture, and where that market is heading in the future. Once you've figured that out, you might be able to discover opportunities your competitors have missed.

How To Undertake Competitive Analysis

It would be great if we could call up our competitors and ask them exactly what they're doing, how they’re doing it, and where they are heading - and they’d tell us. But we all know that's not going to happen.

So we have to dig. We don't want to do too much digging, as it is time consuming, expensive and, truth be told, somewhat tedious. Thankfully, a lot of the answers we need are sitting right in front of us and readily available.

To undertake a competitive analysis, try asking these questions:

  • What is the nature of competition?
  • Where does the competitor compete?
  • Who does the competitor compete against?
  • How does the competitor compete?

1. The Nature Of The Competition

The little guy used to prosper in search just by being clever. If you knew the tricks, and the big companies didn’t - and typically, they didn’t - you could beat them easily. This is now harder to do. These days, traditional power structures play a greater role in search results, so it is often the case that big brands can dominate SERPs by virtue of their offline market position. Their market position is creating the signals Google tends to look for, such as regular major press mentions, resulting links and direct search volume, often with little direct SEO effort on the part of the brand.

So, if you’re the little guy coming up against big, entrenched competition, that’s going to be a hard road.

We saw what happened with Adwords, and now the same thing is happening in the main search results. Those with the deepest pockets could run Adwords campaigns that appear to make absolutely no fiscal sense, either because they’re getting their revenue from elsewhere to subsidise the Adwords spend, or, as is often the case, they’re prepared to wage a defensive war of attrition to prevent new competitors entering or dominating their space.

I think these long-term trends are mostly due to increasing competition. As more and more companies bid on Adwords for a finite number of clicks, it inevitably drives up the cost of clicks (simple supply and demand). It also doesn’t help that a lot of Adwords users are not actively managing their campaigns or measuring their ROI, and are consequently bidding at unprofitably high levels. Google also does its best to drive up CPC values in various ways (suggesting ridiculously high default bids, goading you to bid more to get on page 1, not showing your ad at all if you bid too low – even if no other ads appear etc).

Of course, this is just my data for one product in one small market. But the law of shitty clickthrus predicts that all advertising mediums become less and less profitable over time. So I would be surprised if it isn’t a general trend

In the main search results, a large companies position will be influenced by spend they make elsewhere. Big PR media campaigns, and the resulting press, links, and mentions in other channels, all result in a big data footprint of attention and interest that Google is unlikely to miss.

However, the little guy still has one advantage that the big businesses seldom have. The little guy is like the speedboat compared to an ocean liner. They may be small, they may be easily swamped in a storm, but they can change direction very quickly. The ocean liner takes a long time to turn around.

The little guy can change direction and get into new markets quickly - “pivot” in Silicon Valley parlance. The little guy can twist new markets slightly and invent entire new markets, whilst the bigger business tend to sail pre-set courses along known routes. This is how the once nimble Google trounced their search competitors. They didn’t take the competitors head on, they took a different tack (focused on the user, not advertisers), made strategic alignments (Yahoo), a few twists and turns (Overture) , and eventually worked themselves in the center of the search market. Had they just built another Yahoo, they wouldn’t have got very far.

If you’re a small business or new to a market, then it’s not a great idea to take on a big, entrenched business directly. Rather, look for ways you can outmanoeuvre them. Are there changes in the market they aren’t responding to? Are the markets about to change due to innovations coming over the horizon that you can spot, but they can’t? Look for areas of abrupt change. The little guy is typically well placed to take advantage of rapid change in markets. And new, fast developing markets.

Choose your market space carefully.

So, how do you become the next Picasso? The same way you build a powerful brand. Create a new category you can be first in.
...
The best way to become a world-famous artist is to create paintings that are recognized as a new category of art. - Al Ries

2. Where Does The Competitor Compete?

For example, are they limited to a certain geography? Culture? Language? Do they have an offline presence?

You could take their business model to a geographic location they don’t serve. Is there something that succeeds in the US, but has yet to reach Australia? Or Europe? Are your competitors targeting nationally, when you could target locally?

3. Who Do You Compete Against?

Make a list of the top ten competitors in a niche. Compare and contrast their approaches and offerings. Compare their use of language and their relative place in the market. Who is entrenched? Who is up-and-coming?

The up-and-coming sites are interesting. If they’re new, but making headway, it pays to ask why that’s happening. Is it just because they’re getting more links, or is it because they’re doing something new that the market likes? Bit of both?

I think the most interesting opportunities in search are found by watching the sites that aren't doing much in the way of SEO, but they are rising fast. If they’re not playing hard at “rigging the search vote” in their favour, then their positioning is likely due to genuine interest out in the market.

4. How Does The Competitor Compete

What are the specifics of the products and services they are offering. Lower prices? High service levels? Do they provide information that can't be obtained elsewhere? Do they have longevity? Money, staff and resources? Are they building brand? What are they doing besides search?

What prevents you doing likewise?

5. Are They More Engaging?

Google talk about engagement a lot, and we saw engagement metrics become important after updates Penquin/Panda.

Panda is really the public face of a much deeper switch towards user engagement. While the Panda score is sitewide the engagement "penalty" or weighting effect on also occurs at the individual page. The pages or content areas that were hurt less by Panda seem to be the ones that were not also being hurt by the engagement issue.

Engagement is a measure of how interesting visitors find a site. Do people search for your competitors by name, do they click through rather than back to the SERPs, and do they talk about that site to others?

The click-back, or lack-thereof, is a hard one to spot if you don’t have access to a websites data. Take a look at your competitors usability. Is it easy to navigate? It is obvious where visitors need to click? Are they easy to order from? Is their offer clear? Do they have fast site response times? Of course, we view these things as fundamental, however many sites still overlook the basics. If you can optimize in these areas, do so. If your competitors ranking above you have good engagement design and content, then you need to do it, too.

One baseline to look at is branded search volumes. If people are specifically & repeatedly looking for something that typically means they are satisfied with it.

Matt Cutts has recently mentioned that incumbent sites may not enjoy the previous “aged” advantages they’ve had in the past.

This may well be the next big Google shift. It makes sense that Google would reward sites that have higher user utility scores, all other factors being equal. Older sites may have built up a lot of links and positive SEO signals over time, but if their information is outdated and their site cumbersome, the site will likely have low utility. Given the rise of social media, which is all about immediacy and relevance (high utility as perceived by the user), Google would be foolish to reward incumbency at the expense of utility. It’s an area we’re watching closely as it may swing back some advantage to the smaller, nimble players.

6. Do They Have A Good Defensive Position?

Is it hard to enter their market? Competitors may have a lot of revenue to throw around, and a considerable historical advantages. Taking on the likes of Trip Advisor would be difficult and expensive, no matter how good the SEO.

If they have a strong defensible position, and you have limited resources, trying creating your own, unique space. For example, in SEO, you could compete with other SEOs for clients (crowded), or your could become a local trainer who trains existing SEOs inhouse (less crowded). You could move from selling widgets to hiring out widgets to people. You could repackage your widgets with other widgets to create a new product. An example might be selling individual kitchen utensils, but packaged together, they become a picnic kit.

Look for ways to create slightly different markets that you can make your own.

7. What’s In Their Marketing?

What does their advertising look like? Scanning competitor's ads can reveal much about what that competitor believes about marketing and their target market.

Are they changing their message? Offering new products? Rebranding? Positioning differently? This is not absolute, of course, but it could offer up some valuable clues. There’s even a Society of Competitive Intelligence Professionals devoted to this very task.

Big Topic

Whilst competitive analysis is huge topic, the value of even a basic competitive analysis can be considerable.

By doing so, we can adjust our own offering to compete better, or decide that competing directly is not a great idea, and that we would be better off entering a closely-related market, instead . We may create a whole new niche and have no competition. At least, not for a while. We might make a list of all the things we need to do to match and overtake a fast rising new challenger who isn’t doing much in the way of SEO.

There's much more to search competition that algo watching, keywords and links. And many ways to compete and optimize.

Measure For Business Benefit

Jan 28th
posted in

Matt Cutts is just toying with SEO’s these days.

Going by some comments, many SEOs still miss the big picture. Google is not in the business of enabling SEOs. So he may as well have a little fun - Matt has “called it” on guest posting.

Okay, I’m calling it: if you’re using guest blogging as a way to gain links in 2014, you should probably stop. Why? Because over time it’s become a more and more spammy practice, and if you’re doing a lot of guest blogging then you’re hanging out with really bad company.

The hen-house erupted.

The hens should know better by now. If a guest post is good for the audience and site, then do it. If it’s being done for no other reason than to boost rank in Google, then that’s a sign a publishing strategy is weak, high risk, and vulnerable to Google's whims. Change the publishing strategy.

Measuring What Is Important

Although far from perfect, Google is geared towards recognizing utility. If Google doesn’t recognize utility, then Google will become weaker and someone else will take their place. Only a few people remember Alta Vista. They didn’t provide much in the way of utility, and Google ate their lunch.

Which brings me onto the importance of measurement.

It’s important we measure the right things. If people get upset because guest posting is called out, are they upset because they are counting the number of inbound links as if that were the only benefit? Why are they counting inbound links? To get a ranking boost? So, why are some people getting upset? They know Google doesn’t like marketing practices that serve no other purpose than to boost rank. Or are people concerned Google might confuse a post of genuine utility with link spam?

A publishing strategy based on nothing more than Google rankings is not a publishing strategy, it’s a tactic. Given the changes Google has made recently, it’s not a good tactic, because if they can isolate and eliminate SEO tactics, they will. Those who guest post on other sites, and offer guest post placement in order to provide utility, should continue to do so. They are unlikely to eliminate genuine utility, regardless of links, and at worst, they'll likely ignore the site it appears on.

Interesting

To prosper, we need to be more interesting that the next guy. We need to focus on delivering “interestingness”.

The buzzword term is “visitor engagement”, but that really means “be interesting”. If we provide interesting material, people will read it, and if we provide it on a regular basis, they might come back, or remember our brand name, and then search on that brand name, and then they might link to it, and that this activity combined helps us rank. Ranking is a side effect of being genuinely interesting.

This is not to say measuring links, or page views, are unimportant. But they can be an oversimplification when taken in isolation.

Demand Media's eHow focused on pageviews rather than engagement. Which is a big part of the reason why the guys who sold them eHow were able to beat them with wikiHow.

Success depends on achieving the underlying business goal. Perhaps high page views are not important if a site is targeting a very specific audience. Perhaps rankings aren't all that important if most of the audience is on social media or repeat business. Sometimes, focusing on the wrong metrics leads to the wrong marketing tactics.

What else can we measure? Some common stuff....

  • Page views
  • Subscriptions
  • Comments
  • Quality of comments
  • Syndication
  • Time on site
  • Videos watched
  • Unique visitors
  • Traffic sent to partner sites
  • Bookmarking activity
  • Search engine exposure
  • Brand searches
  • Offline mentions
  • Online mentions
  • Customer satisfaction
  • Conversion rates
  • Number of inquiries
  • Relationships
  • Sales
  • Reduced costs

The choice of what we measure depends on what we’re trying to achieve. The SEO may say they are trying to achieve a high rank, but why? To get more traffic, perhaps. Why do we want more traffic? In the hope more people will buy our widget.

So, if buying more widgets is the goal, then perhaps more energy needs to be placed into converting the traffic we already have, as opposed to spending the same energy getting more? Perhaps more time needs to be spent on conversion optimization. Perhaps more time needs to be spent refining the offer. Or listening to customers. Hearing their objections. Writing Q&A that addresses those objections. Guest posting somewhere else and addressing industry wide objections. Thinking up products to sell to previous customers. Making them aware of changes via an email list. Optimizing the interest factor of your site to make it more interesting than your competitors, then treat the rankings as a bonus. Link building starts with "being interesting".

When it comes to the guest post, if you’re only doing it to get a link, then you’re almost certainly selling yourself short. A guest post should serve a number of functions, such as building awareness, increasing reach, building brand, and be based on serving your underlying marketing objective. Pick where you post carefully. Deliver real value. If you do guest post, always try and extract way more benefit than just the link.

There was a time when people could put low-quality posts on low-quality sites and enjoy a benefit. But that practice is really just selling a serious web business short.

How Do We Know If We're Interesting?

There are a couple of different types of measurement marketers use. One is an emotional response, where the visitor becomes “positively interested”. This is measured by recall studies, association techniques, customers surveys and questionnaires. However, the type of response on-line marketers focus on, which is somewhat easier to measure, is behavioural interest. When people are really interested, they do something in response.

So, to measure the effectiveness of a guest posting, we might look for increased name or brand searches. More linkedin views. We might look at how many people travel down the links. We look at what they do when they land on the site, and - the most important bit - whether they do whatever that thing is that translates to the bottom line. Was it subscribing? Commenting? Downloading a white paper? Watching a video? Getting in contact? Tweeting? Bookmarking? What was that thing you wanted them to do in order to serve your bottom line?

Measurement should be flexible and will be geared towards achieving business goals. SEOs may worry that if they don’t show rankings and links, then the customer will be dissatisfied. I’d wager the customer will be a lot more dissatisfied if they do get a lot of links and a rankings boost, yet no improvement in the bottom line. We could liken this to companies that have a lot of meetings. There is an air of busyness, but are they achieving anything worthwhile? Maybe. Maybe not. We should be careful not to mistake frenzy for productivity.

Measuring links, like measuring the number of meetings, is reductive. So is measuring engagement just by looking at clicks. The picture needs to be broad and strategic. So, if guest posts help you build your business, measured by business metrics, keep doing them. Don’t worry about what Google may or may not do, because it’s beyond your control, regardless.

Control what you can. Control the quality of information you provide.

SEO 2014

Jan 11th
posted in

We’re at the start of 2014.

SEO is finished.

Well, what we had come to know as the practical execution of “whitehat SEO” is finished. Google has defined it out of existence. Research keyword. Write page targeting keyword. Place links with that keyword in the link. Google cares not for this approach.

SEO, as a concept, is now an integral part of digital marketing. To do SEO in 2014 - Google-compliant, whitehat SEO - digital marketers must seamlessly integrate search strategy into other aspects of digital marketing. It’s a more complicated business than traditional SEO, but offers a more varied and interesting challenge, too.

Here are a few things to think about for 2014.

1. Focus On Brand

Big brands not only get a free pass, they can get extra promotion. By being banned. Take a look at Rap Genius. Aggressive link-building strategy leads to de-indexing. A big mea culpa follows and what happens? Not only do they get reinstated, they’ve earned themselves a wave of legitimate links.

Now that’s genius.

Google would look deficient if they didn’t show that site as visitors would expect to find it - enough people know the brand. To not show a site that has brand awareness would make Google look bad.

Expedia's link profile was similarly outed for appearing to be at odds with Google's published standards. Could a no-name site pass a hand inspection if they use aggressive linking? Unlikely.

What this shows is that if you have a brand important enough so that Google would look deficient by excluding it, then you will have advantages that no-name sites don’t enjoy. You will more likely pass manual inspections, and you’re probably more likely to get penalties lifted.

What is a brand?

In terms of search, it’s a site that visitors can use a brand search to find. Just how much search volume you require is open to debate, but you don’t need to be a big brand like Apple, or Trip Advisor or Microsoft. Rap Genius aren't. Ask “would Google look deficient if this site didn’t show up” and you can usually tell that by looking for evidence of search volume on a sites name.

In advertising, brands have been used to secure a unique identity. That identity is associated with a product or service by the customer. Search used to be about matching a keyword term. But as keyword areas become saturated, and Google returns fewer purely keyword-focused pages anyway, developing a unique identity is a good way forward.

If you haven’t already, put some work into developing a cohesive, unique brand. If you have a brand, then think about generating more awareness. This may mean higher spends on brand-related advertising than you’ve allocated in previous years. The success metric is an increase in brand searches i.e. the name of the site.

2. Be Everywhere

The idea of a stand-alone site is becoming redundant. In 2014, you need to be everywhere your potential visitors reside. If your potential visitors are spending all day in Facebook, or YouTube, that’s where you need to be, too. It’s less about them coming to you, which is the traditional search metaphor, and a lot more about you going to them.

You draw visitors back to your site, of course, but look at every platform and other site as a potential extension of your own site. Pages or content you place on those platforms are yet another front door to your site, and can be found in Google searches. If you’re not where your potential visitors are, you can be sure your competitors will be, especially if they’re investing in social media strategies.

A reminder to see all channels as potential places to be found.

Mix in cross-channel marketing with remarketing and consumers get the perception that your brand is bigger. Google ran the following display ad before they broadly enabled retargeting ads. Retargeting only further increases that lift in brand searches.

3. Advertise Everywhere

Are you finding it difficult to get top ten in some areas? Consider advertising with AdWords and on the sites that already hold those positions. Do some brand advertising on them to raise awareness and generate some brand searches. An advert placed on a site that offers a complementary good or service might be cheaper than going to the expense and effort needed to rank. It might also help insulate you from Google’s whims.

The same goes for guest posts and content placement, although obviously you need to be a little careful as Google can take a dim view of it. The safest way is to make sure the content you place is unique, valuable and has utility in it’s own right. Ask yourself if the content would be equally at home on your own site if you were to host it for someone else. If so, it’s likely okay.

4. Valuable Content

Google does an okay job of identifying good content. It could do better. They’ve lost their way a bit in terms of encouraging production of good content. It’s getting harder and harder to make the numbers work in order to cover the production cost.

However, it remains Google’s mission to provide the user with answers the visitor deems relevant and useful. The utility of Google relies on it. Any strategy that is aligned with providing genuine visitor utility will align with Google’s long term goals.

Review your content creation strategies. Content that is of low utility is unlikely to prosper. While it’s still a good idea to use keyword research as a guide to content creation, it’s a better idea to focus on topic areas and creating engagement through high utility. What utility is the user expecting from your chosen topic area? If it’s rap lyrics for song X, then only the rap lyrics for song X will do. If it is plans for a garden, then only plans for a garden will do. See being “relevant” as “providing utility”, not keyword matching.

Go back to the basic principles of classifying the search term as either Navigational, Informational, or Transactional. If the keyword is one of those types, make sure the content offers the utility expected of that type. Be careful when dealing with informational queries that Google could use in it’s Knowledge Graph. If your pages deal with established facts that anyone else can state, then you have no differentiation, and that type of information is more likely to end up as part of Google’s Knowledge Graph. Instead, go deep on information queries. Expand the information. Associate it with other information. Incorporate opinion.

BTW, Bill has some interesting reading on the methods by which Google might be identifying different types of queries.

Methods, systems, and apparatus, including computer program products, for identifying navigational resources for queries. In an aspect, a candidate query in a query sequence is selected, and a revised query subsequent to the candidate query in the query sequence is selected. If a quality score for the revised query is greater than a quality score threshold and a navigation score for the revised query is greater than a navigation score threshold, then a navigational resource for the revised query is identified and associated with the candidate query. The association specifies the navigational resource as being relevant to the candidate query in a search operation.

5. Solve Real Problems

This is a follow-on from “ensuring you provide content with utility”. Go beyond keyword and topical relevance. Ask “what problem is the user is trying to solve”? Is it an entertainment problem? A “How To” problem? What would their ideal solution look like? What would a great solution look like?

There is no shortcut to determining what a user finds most useful. You must understand the user. This understanding can be gleaned from interviews, questionnaires, third party research, chat sessions, and monitoring discussion forums and social channels. Forget about the keyword for the time being. Get inside a visitors head. What is their problem? Write a page addressing that problem by providing a solution.

6. Maximise Engagement

Google are watching for the click-back to the SERP results, an action characteristic of a visitor who clicked through to a site and didn’t deem what they found to be relevant to the search query in terms of utility. Relevance in terms of subject match is now a given.

Big blocks of dense text, even if relevant, can be off-putting. Add images and videos to pages that have low engagement and see if this fixes the problem. Where appropriate, make sure the user takes an action of some kind. Encourage the user to click deeper into the site following an obvious, well placed link. Perhaps they watch a video. Answer a question. Click a button. Anything that isn’t an immediate click back.

If you’ve focused on utility, and genuinely solving a users problem, as opposed to just matching a keyword, then your engagement metrics should be better than the guy who is still just chasing keywords and only matching in terms of relevance to a keyword term.

7. Think Like A PPCer

Treat every click like you were paying for it directly. Once that visitor has arrived, what is the one thing you want them to do next? Is it obvious what they have to do next? Always think about how to engage that visitor once they land. Get them to take an action, where possible.

8.Think Like A Conversion Optimizer

Conversion optimization tries to reduce the bounce-rate by re-crafting the page to ensure it meets the users needs. They do this by split testing different designs, phrases, copy and other elements on the page.

It’s pretty difficult to test these things in SEO, but it’s good to keep this process in mind. What pages of your site are working well and which pages aren’t? Is it anything to do with different designs or element placement? What happens if you change things around? What do the three top ranking sites in your niche look like? If their link patterns are similar to yours, what is it about those sites that might lead to higher engagement and relevancy scores?

9. Rock Solid Strategic Marketing Advantage

SEO is really hard to do on generic me-too sites. It’s hard to get links. It’s hard to get anyone to talk about them. People don’t share them with their friends. These sites don’t generate brand searches. The SEO option for these sites is typically what Google would describe as blackhat, namely link buying.

Look for a marketing angle. Find a story to tell. Find something unique and remarkable about the offering. If a site doesn’t have a clearly-articulated point of differentiation, then the harder it is to get value from organic search if your aim is to do so whilst staying within the guidelines.

10. Links

There’s a reason Google hammers links. It’s because they work. Else, surely Google wouldn’t make a big deal about them.

Links count. It doesn’t matter if they are no-follow, scripted, within social networks, or wherever, they are still paths down which people travel. It comes back to a clear point of differentiation, genuine utility and a coherent brand. It’s a lot easier, and safer, to link build when you’ve got all the other bases covered first.

Beware Of SEO Truthiness

Dec 13th
posted in

When SEO started, many people routinely used black-box testing to try any figure out what pages the search engines rewarded.

Black box testing is terminology used in IT. It’s a style of testing that doesn’t assume knowledge of the internal workings of a machine or computer program. Rather, you can only test how the system responds to inputs.

So, for many years, SEO was about trying things out and watching how the search engine responded. If rankings went up, SEOs assumed correlation meant causation, so they did a lot more of whatever it was they thought was responsible for the boost. If the trick was repeatable, they could draw some firmer conclusions about causation, at least until the search engine introduced some new algorithmic code and sent everyone back to their black-box testing again.

Well, it sent some people back to testing. Some SEO’s don’t do much, if any, testing of their own, and so rely on the strategies articulated by other people. As a result, the SEO echo chamber can be a pretty misleading place as “truthiness” - and a lot of false information - gets repeated far and wide, until it’s considered gospel. One example of truthiness is that paid placement will hurt you. Well, it may do, but not having it may hurt you more, because it all really…..depends.

Another problem is that SEO testing can seldom be conclusive, because you can’t be sure of the state of the thing you’re testing. The thing you're testing may not be constant. For example, you throw up some more links, and your rankings rise, but the rise could be due to other factors, such as a new engagement algorithm that Google implemented in the middle of your testing, you just didn’t know about it.

It used to be a lot easier to conduct this testing. Updates were periodic. Up until that point, you could reasonably assume the algorithms were static, so cause and effect were more obvious than they are today. Danny Sullivan gave a good overview of search history at Moz earlier in the year:

That history shows why SEO testing is getting harder. There are a lot more variables to isolate that there used to be. The search engines have also been clever. A good way to thwart SEO black box testing is to keep moving the target. Continuously roll out code changes and don’t tell people you’re doing it. Or send people on a wild goose chase by arm-waving about a subtle code change made over here, when the real change has been made over there.

That’s the state of play in 2013.

However….(Ranting Time :)

Some SEO punditry is bordering on the ridiculous!

I’m not going to link to one particular article I’ve seen recently, as, ironically, that would mean rewarding them for spreading FUD. Also, calling out people isn't really the point. Suffice to say, the advice was about specifics, such as how many links you can “safely” get from one type of site, that sort of thing....

The problem comes when we can easily find evidence to the contrary. In this case, a quick look through the SERPs and you'll find evidence of top ranking sites that have more than X links from Site Type Y, so this suggests….what? Perhaps these sites are being “unsafe”, whatever that means. A lot of SEO punditry is well meaning, and often a rewording of Google's official recommendations, but can lead people up the garden path if evidence in the wild suggests otherwise.

If one term defined SEO in 2013, it is surely “link paranoia”.

What's Happening In The Wild

When it comes to what actually works, there are few hard and fast rules regarding links. Look at the backlink profiles for top ranked sites across various categories and you’ll see one thing that is constant....

Nothing is constant.

Some sites have links coming from obviously automated campaigns, and it seemingly doesn’t affect their rankings. Other sites have credible link patterns, and rank nowhere. What counts? What doesn’t? What other factors are in play? We can only really get a better picture by asking questions.

Google allegedly took out a few major link networks over the weekend. Anglo Rank came in for special mention from Matt Cutts.

So, why are Google making a point of taking out link networks if link networks don’t work? Well, it’s because link networks work. How do we know? Look at the back link profiles in any SERP area where there is a lot of money to be made, and the area isn’t overly corporate i.e. not dominated by major brands, and it won’t be long before you spot aggressive link networks, and few "legitimate" links, in the backlink profiles.

Sure, you wouldn't want aggressive link networks pointing at brand sites, as there are better approaches brand sites can take when it comes to digital marketing, but such evidence makes a mockery of the tips some people are freely handing out. Are such tips the result of conjecture, repeating Google's recommendations, or actual testing in the wild? Either the link networks work, or they don’t work but don’t affect rankings, or these sites shouldn't be ranking.

There’s a good reason some of those tips are free, I guess.

Risk Management

Really, it’s a question of risk.

Could these sites get hit eventually? Maybe. However, those using a “disposable domain” approach will do anything that works as far as linking goes, as their main risk is not being ranked. Being penalised is an occupational hazard, not game-over. These sites will continue so long as Google's algorithmic treatment rewards them with higher ranking.

If your domain is crucial to your brand, then you might choose to stay away from SEO entirely, depending on how you define “SEO”. A lot of digital marketing isn’t really SEO in the traditional sense i.e. optimizing hard against an algorithm in order to gain higher rankings, a lot of digital marketing is based on optimization for people, treating SEO as a side benefit. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, and it’s a great approach for many sites, and something we advocate. Most sites end up somewhere along that continuum, but no matter where you are on that scale, there’s always a marketing risk to be managed, with perhaps "non-performance" being a risk that is often glossed over.

So, if there's a take-away, it's this: check out what actually happens in the wild, and then evaluate your risk before emulating it. When pundits suggest a rule, check to see if you can spot times it appears to work, and perhaps more interestingly, when it doesn't. It's in those areas of personal inquiry and testing where gems of SEO insight are found.

SEO has always been a mix of art and science. You can test, but only so far. The art part is dealing with the unknown past the testing point. Performing that art well is to know how to pick truthiness from reality.

And that takes experience.

But mainly a little fact checking :)

Value Based SEO Strategy

Dec 1st
posted in

One approach to search marketing is to treat the search traffic as a side-effect of a digital marketing strategy. I’m sure Google would love SEOs to think this way, although possibly not when it comes to PPC! Even if you’re taking a more direct, rankings-driven approach, the engagement and relevancy scores that come from delivering what the customer values should serve you well, too.

In this article, we’ll look at a content strategy based on value based marketing. Many of these concepts may be familiar, but bundled together, they provide an alternative search provider model to one based on technical quick fixes and rank. If you want to broaden the value of your SEO offering beyond that first click, and get a few ideas on talking about value, then this post is for you.

In any case, the days of being able to rank well without providing value beyond the click are numbered. Search is becoming more about providing meaning to visitors and less about providing keyword relevance to search engines.

What Is Value Based Marketing?

Value based marketing is customer, as opposed to search engine, centric. In Values Based Marketing For Bottom Line Success, the authors focus on five areas:

  • Discover and quantify your customers' wants and needs
  • Commit to the most important things that will impact your customers
  • Create customer value that is meaningful and understandable
  • Assess how you did at creating true customer value
  • Improve your value package to keep your customers coming back

Customers compare your offer against those of competitors, and divide the benefits by the cost to arrive at value. Marketing determines and communicates that value.

This is the step beyond keyword matching. When we use keyword matching, we’re trying to determine intent. We’re doing a little demographic breakdown. This next step is to find out what the customer values. If we give the customer what they value, they’re more likely to engage and less likely to click back.

What Does The Customer Value?

A key question of marketing is “which customers does this business serve”? Seems like an obvious question, but it can be difficult to answer. Does a gym serve people who want to get fit? Yes, but then all gyms do that, so how would they be differentiated?

Obviously, a gym serves people who live in a certain area. So, if our gym is in Manhattan, our customer becomes “someone who wants to get fit in Manhattan”. Perhaps our gym is upmarket and expensive. So, our customer becomes “people who want to get fit in Manhattan and be pampered and are prepared to pay more for it”. And so on, and so on. They’re really questions and statements about the value proposition as perceived by the customer, and then delivered by the business.

So, value based marketing is about delivering value to a customer. This syncs with Google’s proclaimed goal in search, which is to put users first by delivering results they deem to have value, and not just pages that match a keyword term. Keywords need to be seen in a wider context, and that context is pretty difficult to establish if you’re standing outside the search engine looking in, so thinking in terms of concepts related to the value proposition might be a good way to go.

Value Based SEO Strategy

The common SEO approach, for many years, has started with keywords. It should start with customers and the business.

The first question is “who is the target market” and then ask what they value.

Relate what they value to the business. What is the value proposition of the business? Is it aligned? What would make a customer value this business offering over those of competitors? It might be price. It might be convenience. It’s probably a mix of various things, but be sure to nail down the specific value propositions.

Then think of some customer questions around these value propositions. What would be the likely customer objections to buying this product? What would be points that need clarifying? How does this offer differ from other similar offers? What is better about this product or service? What are the perceived problems in this industry? What are the perceived problems with this product or service? What is difficult or confusing about it? What could go wrong with it? What risks are involved? What aspects have turned off previous customers? What complaints did they make?

Make a list of such questions. These are your article topics.

You can glean this information by either interviewing customers or the business owner. Each of these questions, and accompanying answer, becomes an article topic on your site, although not necessarily in Q&A format. The idea is to create a list of topics as a basis for articles that address specific points, and objections, relating to the value proposition.

For example, buying SEO services is a risk. Customers want to know if the money they spend is going to give them a return. So, a valuable article might be a case study on how the company provided return on spend in the past, and the process by which it will achieve similar results in future. Another example might be a buyer concerned about the reliability of a make of car. A page dedicated to reliability comparisons, and another page outlining the customer care after-sale plan would provide value. Note how these articles aren’t keyword driven, but value driven.

Ever come across a FAQ that isn’t really a FAQ? Dreamed-up questions? They’re frustrating, and of little value if the information doesn’t directly relate to the value we seek. Information should be relevant and specific so when people land on the site, there’s more chance they will perceive value, at least in terms of addressing the questions already on their mind.

Compare this approach with generic copy around a keyword term. A page talking about “SEO” in response to the keyword term “SEO“might closely match a keyword term, so that’s a relevance match, but unless it’s tied into providing a customer the value they seek, it’s probably not of much use. Finding relevance matches is no longer a problem for users. Finding value matches often is. Even if you’re keyword focused, added these articles provides you semantic variation that may capture keyword searches that aren't appearing in keyword tools.

Keyword relevance was a strategy devised at a time when information was less readily available and search engines weren't as powerful. Finding something relevant was more hit and miss that it is today. These days, there’s likely thousands, if not millions, of pages that will meet relevance criteria in terms of keyword matching, so the next step is to meet value criteria. Providing value is less likely to earn a click back and more likely to create engagement than mere on-topic matching.

The Value Chain

Deliver value. Once people perceive value, then we have to deliver it. Marketing, and SEO in particular, used to be about getting people over the threshold. Today, businesses have to work harder to differentiate themselves and a sound way of doing this is to deliver on promises made.

So the value is in the experience. Why do we return to Amazon? It’s likely due to the end-to-end experience in terms of delivering value. Any online e-commerce store can deliver relevance. Where competition is fierce, Google is selective.

In the long term, delivering value should drive down the cost of marketing as the site is more likely to enjoy repeat custom. As Google pushes more and more results beneath the fold, the cost of acquisition is increasing, so we need to treat each click like gold.

Monitor value. Does the firm keep delivering value? To the same level? Because people talk. They talk on Twitter and Facebook and the rest. We want them talking in a good way, but even if they talk in a negative way, it can still useful. Their complaints can be used as topics for articles. They can be used to monitor value, refine the offer and correct problems as they arise. Those social signals, whilst not a guaranteed ranking boost, are still signals. We need to adopt strategies whereby we listen to all the signals, so to better understand our customers, in order to provide more value, and hopefully enjoy a search traffic boost as a welcome side-effect, so long as Google is also trying to determine what users value. .

Not sounding like SEO? Well, it’s not optimizing for search engines, but for people. If Google is to provide value, then it needs to ensure results provide not just relevant, but offer genuine value to end users. Do Google do this? In many cases, not yet, but all their rhetoric and technical changes suggest that providing value is at the ideological heart of what they do. So the search results will most likely, in time, reflect the value people seek, and not just relevance.

In technical terms, this provides some interesting further reading:

Today, signals such as keyword co-occurrence, user behavior, and previous searches do in fact inform context around search queries, which impact the SERP landscape. Note I didn’t say the signals “impact rankings,” even though rank changes can, in some cases, be involved. That’s because there’s a difference. Google can make a change to the SERP landscape to impact 90 percent of queries and not actually cause any noticeable impact on rankings.

The way to get the context right, and get positive user behaviour signals, and align with their previous searches, is to first understand what people value.

Historical Revisionism

Nov 1st
posted in

A stopped clock is right two times a day.

There’s some amusing historical revisionism going on in SEO punditry world right now, which got me thinking about the history of SEO. I’d like to talk about some common themes of this historical revision, which goes along the lines of “what I predicted all those years ago came true - what a visionary I am! ." No naming names, as I don't meant this to be anything personal - as the same theme has popped up in a number of places - just making some observations :)

See if you agree….

Divided We Fall

The SEO world has never been united. There are no industry standards and qualifications like you’d find in the professions, such as being a doctor, or lawyer or a builder. If you say you’re an SEO, then you’re an SEO.

Part of the reason for the lack of industry standard is that the search engines never came to the party. Sure, they talked at conferences, and still do. They offered webmasters helpful guidelines. They participated in search engine discussion forums. But this was mainly to do with risk management. Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.

In all these years, you won’t find one example of a representative from a major search engine saying “Hey, let’s all get together and form an SEO standard. It will help promote and legitimize the industry!”.

No, it has always been decrees from on high. “Don’t do this, don’t do that, and here are some things we’d like you to do”. Webmasters don’t get a say in it. They either do what the search engines say, or they go against them, but make no mistake, there was never any partnership, and the search engines didn’t seek one.

This didn’t stop some SEOs seeing it as a form of quasi-partnership, however.

Hey Partner

Some SEOs chose to align themselves with search engines and do their bidding. If the search engine reps said “do this”, they did it. If the search engines said “don’t do this”, they’d wrap themselves up in convoluted rhetorical knots pretending not to do it. This still goes on, of course.

In the early 2000’s, it turned, curiously, into a question of morality. There was “Ethical SEO”, although quite what it had to do with ethics remains unclear. Really, it was another way of saying “someone who follows the SEO guidelines”, presuming that whatever the search engines decree must be ethical, objectively good and have nothing to do self-interest. It’s strange how people kid themselves, sometimes.

What was even funnier was the search engine guidelines were kept deliberately vague and open to interpretation, which, of course, led to a lot of heated debate. Some people were “good” and some people were “bad”, even though the distinction was never clear. Sometimes it came down to where on the page someone puts a link. Or how many times someone repeats a keyword. And in what color.

It got funnier still when the search engines moved the goal posts, as they are prone to do. What was previously good - using ten keywords per page - suddenly became the height of evil, but using three was “good” and so all the arguments about who was good and who wasn’t could start afresh. It was the pot calling the kettle black, and I’m sure the search engines delighted in having the enemy warring amongst themselves over such trivial concerns. As far as the search engines were concerned, none of them were desirable, unless they became paying customers, or led paying customers to their door. Then there was all that curious Google+ business.

It's hard to keep up, sometimes.

Playing By The Rules

There’s nothing wrong with playing by the rules. It would have been nice to think there was a partnership, and so long as you followed the guidelines, high rankings would naturally follow, the bad actors would be relegated, and everyone would be happy.

But this has always been a fiction. A distortion of the environment SEOs were actually operating in.

Jason Calacanis, never one to miss an opportunity for controversy, fired some heat seekers at Google during his WebmasterWorld keynote address recently…..

Calacanis proceeded to describe Cutts and Google in terms like, “liar,” “evil,” and “a bad partner.” He cautioned the PubCon audience to not trust Google, and said they cooperate with partners until they learn the business and find a way to pick off the profits for themselves. The rant lasted a good five minutes….

He accused Google of doing many of the things SEOs are familiar with, like making abrupt algorithm changes without warning. They don’t consult, they just do it, and if people’s businesses get trashed as a result, then that’s just too bad. Now, if that’s a sting for someone who is already reasonably wealthy and successful like Calacanis, just imagine what it feels like for the much smaller web players who are just trying to make a living.

The search business is not a pleasant environment where all players have an input, and then standards, terms and play are generally agreed upon. It’s war. It’s characterized by a massive imbalance of power and wealth, and one party will use it to crush those who it determines stands in its way.

Of course, the ever pleasant Matt Cutts informs us it’s all about the users, and that’s a fair enough spin of the matter, too. There was, and is, a lot of junk in the SERPs, and Mahalo was not a partner of Google, so any expectation they’d have a say in what Google does is unfounded.

The take-away is that Google will set rules that work for Google, and if they happen to work for the webmaster community too, well that’s good, but only a fool would rely on it. Google care about their bottom line and their projects, not ours. If someone goes out of business due to Google’s behaviour, then so be it. Personally, I think the big technology companies do have a responsibility beyond themselves to society, because the amount of power they are now centralising means they’re not just any old company anymore, but great vortexes that can distort entire markets. For more on this idea, and where it’s all going, check out my review of “Who Owns The Future” by Jaron Lanier.

So, if you see SEO as a matter of playing by their rules, then fine, but keep in mind "those who can give you everything can also take everything away". Those rules weren't designed for your benefit.

Opportunity Cost

There was a massive opportunity cost by following so called ethical SEO during the 2000s.

For a long time, it was relatively easily to get high rankings by being grey. And if you got torched, you probably had many other sites with different link patterns good to go. This was against the webmaster guidelines, but given marketing could be characterized as war, one does not let the enemy define ones tactics. Some SEOs made millions doing it. Meanwhile, a lot of content-driven sites disappeared. That was, perhaps, my own "a stopped clock is right two times a day" moment. It's not like I'm going to point you to all the stuff I've been wrong about, now is it :)

These days, a lot of SEO is about content and how that content is marketed, but more specifically it’s about the stature of the site on which that content appears. That’s the bit some pundits tend to gloss over. You can have great content, but that’s no guarantee of anything. You will likely remain invisible. However, put that exact same content on a Fortune 500 site, and that content will likely prosper. Ah, the rich get richer.

So, we can say SEO is about content, but that’s only half the picture. If you’re a small player, the content needs to appear in the right place, be very tightly targeted to your audiences needs so they don’t click back, and it should be pushed through various media channels.

Content, even from many of these "ethical SEOs", used to be created for search engines in the hope of netting as many visitors as possible. These days, it’s probably a better strategy to get inside the audience's heads and target it to their specific needs, as opposed to a keyword, then get that content out to wherever your audience happens to be. Unless, of course, you’re Fortune 500 or otherwise well connected, in which case you can just publish whatever you like and it will probably do well.

Fair? Not really, but no one ever said this game was fair.

Whatever Next?

Do I know what’s going to happen next? In ten years time? Nope. I could make a few guesses, and like many other pundits, some guesses will prove right, and some will be wrong, but that’s the nature of the future. It will soon make fools of us all.

Having said that, will you take a punt and tell us what you think will be the future of SEO? Does it have one? What will look like? If you’re right, then you can point back here in a few years time and say “Look, I told you so!”.

If you’re wrong, well, there’s always historical revisionism :)

Optimizing The SEO Model

Oct 29th
posted in

SEO has always been focused on acquisition.

The marketing strategy, based on high rankings against keyword terms, is about gaining a steady flow of new visitors. If a site ranks better than competing sites, this steady stream of new visitors will advantage the top sites to the disadvantage of those sites beneath it.

The selling point of SEO is a strong one. The client gets a constant flow of new visitors and enjoys competitive advantage, just so long as they maintain rank.

A close partner of SEO is PPC. Like SEO, PPC delivers a stream of new visitors, and if you bid well, and have relevant advertisements, then you enjoy a competitive advantage. Unlike PPC, SEO does not cost per click, or, to be more accurate, it should cost a lot less per click once the SEOs fees are taken into account, so SEO has enjoyed a stronger selling point. Also, the organic search results typically have a higher level of trust from search engine users.

91% prefer using natural search results when looking to buy a product or service online".[Source: Tamar Search Attitudes Report, Tamar, July 2010]

Rain On The Parade

Either by coincidence or design, Google’s algorithm shifts have made SEO less of a sure proposition.

If you rank well, the upside is still there, but because the result is less certain than it used to be, and the work more involved than ever, the risk, and costs in general, have increased. The more risky SEO becomes in terms of getting results, the more Adwords looks attractive, as at least results are assured, so long as spend is sufficient.

Adwords is a brilliant system. For Google. It’s also a brilliant system for those advertisers who can find a niche that doesn’t suffer high levels of competition. The trouble is competition levels are typically high.

Because competition is high, and Adwords is an auction model, bid prices must rise. As bid prices rise, only those companies that can achieve ROI at high costs per click will be left bidding. The higher their ROI, the higher the bid prices can conceivably go. Their competitors, if they are to keep up, will do likewise.

So, the PPC advertiser focused on customer acquisition as a means of growing the company will be passing more and more of their profits to Google in the form of higher and higher click prices. If a company wants to grow by customer acquisition, via the search channel, then they’ll face higher and higher costs. It can be difficult to maintain ROI via PCC over time, which is why SEO is appealing. It’s little wonder Google has their guns pointed at SEO.

A fundamental problem with Adwords, and SEO in general, is that basing marketing success around customer acquisition alone is a poor long term strategy.

More on that point soon….

White-Hat SEO Is Dead

It’s surprising a term such as “white hat SEO” was ever taken seriously.

Any attempt to game a search engine’s algorithm, as far as the search engine is concerned, is going to be frowned upon by the search engine. What is gaming if it’s not reverse engineering the search engines ranking criteria and looking to gain a higher rank than a site would otherwise merit? Acquiring links, writing keyword-focused articles, for the purpose of gaining a higher rank in a search engine is an attempt at rank manipulation. The only thing that varies is the degree.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as far as marketers are concerned.

The search marketing industry line has been that so long as you avoided “bad behaviour”, your site stood a high chance of ranking well. Ask people for links. Find keywords with traffic. Publish pages focused on those topics. There used to more certainty of outcome.

If the outcome is not assured, then so long as a site is crawlable, why would you need an SEO? You just need to publish and see where Google ranks you. Unless the SEO is manipulating rank, then where is the value proposition over and above simply publishing crawlable content? Really, SEO is a polite way of saying “gaming the system”.

Those who let themselves be defined by Google can now be seen scrambling to redefine themselves. “Inbound marketers” is one term being used a lot. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, although you’d be hard pressed to call it Search Engine Optimization. It’s PR. It’s marketing. It’s content production. The side effect of such activity might be a high ranking in the search engines (wink, wink). It’s like Fight Club. The first rule of Fight Club is…...

A few years back, we predicted that the last SEOs standing would be blackhat, and that’s turned out to be true. The term SEO has been successfully co-opted and marginalized. You can still successfully game the system with disposable domains, by aggressively targeting keywords, and buying lot of links and/or building link networks, but there’s no way that’s compliant with Google’s definitions of acceptable use. It would be very difficult to sell that to a client without full disclosure. Even with full disclosure, I’m sure it’s a hard sell.

But I digress….

Optimization In The New Environment

The blackhats will continue on as usual. They never took direction from search engines, anyway.

Many SEOs are looking to blend a number of initiatives together to take the emphasis off search. Some call it inbound. In practice, it blends marketing, content production and PR. It's a lot less about algo hacking.

For it to work well, and to get great results in search, the SEO model needs to be turned on its head. It’s still about getting people to a site, but because the cost of getting people to a site has increased, every visitor must count. For this channel to maintain value, then more focus will go on what happens after the click.

If the offer is not right, and the path to that offer isn’t right, then it’s like having people turn up for a concert when the band hasn’t rehearsed. At the point the audience turns up, they must deliver what the audience wants, or the audience isn’t coming back. The bands popularity will quickly fade.

This didn’t really matter too much in the past when it was relatively cheap to position in the SERPs. If you received a lot of slightly off-topic traffic, big deal, it’s not like it cost anything. Or much. These days, because it’s growing ever more costly to position, we’re increasingly challenged by the “growth by acquisition” problem.

Consider optimizing in two areas, if you haven’t already.

1. Offer Optimization

We know that if searchers don’t find what they what, they click back. The click back presents two problems. One, you just wasted time and money getting that visitor to your site. Secondly, it’s likely that Google is measuring click-backs in order to help determine relevancy.

How do you know if your offer is relevant to users?

The time-tested way is to examine a couple of the 4ps. Product, price, position, and place. Place doesn’t matter so much, as we’re talking about the internet, although if you’ve got some local-centric product or service, then it’s a good idea to focus on it. Promotion is what SEOs do. They get people over the threshold.

However, two areas worth paying attention to are product and price. In order to optimize product, we need to ask some fundamental questions:

  • Does the customer want this product or service?
  • What needs does it satisfy? Is this obvious within a few seconds of viewing the page?
  • What features does it have to meet these needs? Are these explained?
  • Are there any features you've missed out? Have you explained all the features that meet the need?
  • Are you including costly features that the customer won't actually use?
  • How and where will the customer use it?
  • What does it look like? How will customers experience it?
  • What size(s), color(s) should it be?
  • What is it to be called?
  • How is it branded?
  • How is it differentiated versus your competitors?
  • What is the most it can cost to provide, and still be sold sufficiently profitably?

SEOs are only going to have so much control over these aspects, especially if they’re working for a client. However, it still pays to ask these questions, regardless. If the client can’t answer them, then you may be dealing with a client who has no strategic advantage over competitors. They are likely running a me-too site. Such sites are difficult to position from scratch.

Even older sites that were at one point highly differentiated have slid into an unprofitable me too status as large sites like Amazon & eBay offer a catalog which grows deeper by the day.

Unless you're pretty aggressive, taking on me-too sites will make your life difficult in terms of SEO, so thinking about strategic advantage can be a good way to screen clients. If they have no underlying business advantage, ask yourself if you really want to be doing SEO for these people?

In terms of price:

  • What is the value of the product or service to the buyer?
  • Are there established price points for products or services in this area?
  • Is the customer price sensitive? Will a small decrease in price gain you extra market share? Or will a small increase be indiscernible, and so gain you extra profit margin?
  • What discounts should be offered to trade customers, or to other specific segments of your market?
  • How will your price compare with your competitors?

Again, even if you have little or no control over these aspects, then it still pays to ask the questions. You're looking for underlying business advantage that you can leverage.

Once we’ve optimized the offer, we then look at conversion.

2. Conversion Optimization

There’s the obvious conversion most search marketers know about. People arrive at a landing page. Some people buy what’s on offer, and some leave. So, total conversions/number of views x 100 equals the conversion rate.

However, when it comes to SEO, it’s not just about the conversion rate of a landing page. Unlike PPC, you don’t have precise control over the entry page. So, optimizing for conversion is about looking at every single page on which people enter your site, and optimizing each page as if it were an entry point.

What do you want people to do when they land on your page?

Have a desired action in mind for every page. It might be a sign-up. It might be to encourage a bookmark. It might be to buy something. It might be to tweet. Whatever it is, we need to make the terms of engagement, for the visitor, clear for each page - with a big, yellow highlight on the term “engagement”! Remember, Google are likely looking at bounce-back rates. So, there is a conversion rate for every single page on your site, and they’re likely all different.

Think about the shopping cart process. Is a buyer, particularly a mobile buyer, going to wade through multiple forms? Or could the sale be made in as few clicks as possible? Would integrating Paypal or Amazon payments lift your conversion rates? What’s your site speed like? The faster, the better, obviously. A lot of conversion is about streamlining things - from processes, to navigation to site speed.

At this point, a lot of people will be wondering how to measure and quantify all this. How to track track conversion funnels across a big site. It’s true, it’s difficult. It many cases, it’s pretty much impossible to get adequate sample sizes.

However, that’s not a good reason to avoid conversion optimization. You can measure it in broad terms, and get more incremental as time goes on. A change across pages, a change in paths, can lead to small changes on those pages and paths, even changes that are difficult to spot, but there is sufficient evidence that companies who employ conversion optimization can enjoy significant gains, especially if they haven't focused on these areas in the past.

While you could quantify every step of the way, and some companies certainly do, there’s probably a lot of easy wins that can be gained merely by following these two general concepts - optimizing the offer and then optimizing (streamlining) the pages and paths that lead to that offer. If something is obscure, make it obvious. If you want the visitor to do something, make sure the desired action is writ-large. If something is slow, make it faster.

Do it across every offer, page and path in your site and watch the results.

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